Discovering Louis Paul Boon

Context N°22

One of Dalkey Archive’s key writers, Flemish author Louis Paul Boon (1912–1979), has suffered a near-complete critical neglect in English. The translation of Annie van den Oever’s witty, partisan Life Itself: Louis Paul Boon as Innovator of the Novel, excerpted below, represents a first step in remedying this neglect. Dalkey Archive Press will be publishing the first English translation of Boon’s My Little War in Fall of 2009.

Thus! 1 (doubt)

Principled skepticism—the principle of doubting everything as a matter of principle—is a principle that Boon’s readers will recognize by now as a thoroughly twentieth-century philosophical viewpoint. This position has been cited so often in recent decades that it risks sounding like a postmodern platitude. Nevertheless, the conviction that no single conviction (including this one!) deserves to be believed without question was at one time radical. There is little reason to think that Boon arrived at this position out of fashionable or frivolous considerations, especially since—so soon after the war—this principle ran completely counter to the post-war pressure of restoration and everything else that reconstruction demanded, as well as counter to the political principles and agenda of Boon’s communist and socialist friends. Right after the war, subversion was not a principle that kept the wolf from the door. It certainly lacked any frivolous aspects that made “principled doubt” popular among his later, postmodern readers, who grew up amidst the cushioned comfort of prosperity. Boon’s doubt is of a Nietzschean, nihilistic kind. Nietzsche wrote about his will to doubt in The Gay Science and it is clear that “gay” does not mean “light hearted” here, and the doubt being advocated is—oh irony!—absolute and radical.1

The conviction that undermines all others is Believe Nothing! Doubt everything is the sole imperative that is elevated for a moment above the general doubt. It is likely that, in the century when convictions lost their raison d’être, the vacillating narrator “Boontje” emerged out of Nietzsche’s philosophical imperative as a “doubter without a viewpoint.” On closer inspection, it is also likely that as a character (inasmuch as he should be understood in these terms), “Boontje” is not akin to his creator Louis Paul Boon, but to several literary kinsfolk in the unworldly world of the grotesque. After all, grotesque literature is full of Boontje-like characters: remarkably characterless and unworldly types, dupes, schlemiels, humble little figures, without Fallhöhe or a hero’s dramatic fall, who typically possess some awareness of their own lack of grandeur. Rather than his creator Louis Paul Boon, “Boontje” more closely resembles Plume, a dupe like no other, in Henri Michaux’s Un certain Plume (1930). He also bears a slight resemblance to Gogol’s vulnerable, pathetic civil servant, who consists of little more than a humble post and an overcoat to boost his status, and who, once he loses his coat, feels naked and dehumanized in this bureaucratic and status-conscious world, a fact familiar enough to Gogol’s readers to be both poignant and funny at the same time. He even slightly resembles Gregor Samsa, that poor and so much younger employee in Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915), who—as his mother assures the chief clerk—is really a very conscientious boy who sits at home every evening after work virtuously doing his fretwork. All these helpless characters threaten to succumb to “form,” as Witold Gombrowicz, the Polish writer of grotesque prose, wrote. His own Ferdydurke, from the eponymous novel, is also “immature” and “unformed,” without convictions or firm principles. This makes these characters the playthings of “modern” society and its unfathomable and disempowering systems. They threaten at any moment to become the aimless, spineless victims of a bizarre, villainous, political, bureaucratic, or private regime, to which such types, for no apparent reason, are always at risk of being subjected. Defenseless, they fall victim to the rigid, convinced, and vigorous types, their polar opposites in grotesque literature. Boontje, Plume, Gregor—all are maladjusted strangers in the world-of-today in which they try to stay afloat. They come across as “strange” when viewed within psychological conceptual frameworks that are in fact alien to this type and to the literature in which they feature.2

Boon was very familiar with the grotesque literary tradition. He read the grotesque stories and novellas of Paul van Ostaijen at an early date. “Where is the literary history that gives proper attention to Van Ostaijen’s Bende van de stronk?” enquired Boon on October 26, 1945, in De roode vaan. He was also quick to read and appreciate Kafka’s grotesque prose.3 He was familiar with the translations of Kafka’s work, made by no less a person than Paul van Ostaijen, a great admirer of Kafka’s and the very first person in the world to translate his work. Boon was friendly with Gaston Burssens immediately after the war and recognized the special power of his grotesque Fabula rasa (1945) as an “objective diary.” Later Boon also became acquainted with Gust Gils, who wrote ultra-short grotesques, published in various anthologies of “paraprose.”4 And of course Boon read Gogol, something he did as passionately as Richard Minne, his friend and writer at the editorial office of Vooruit.5

Boon saw himself as a link in a chain. He borrowed the figure of Boontje, in whom his comrades were so keen to see Boon himself, from the grotesque prose tradition, which had until then primarily consisted of novellas and short to very short stories. Boon, however, placed this grotesque narrative figure at the heart of his large novels (My Little War, Chapel Road, etc.). The slightly grotesque “Boontje” and his pseudo-primitive narrative style were born at roughly the same time. They did not arise, as is assumed, out of Boon’s character or his knowledge of his own weaknesses but from two entirely different sources. I would like to propose that they were a hybrid of two traditions, one philosophical (Nietzschean) and the other literary (grotesque). Boon’s pseudo-primitive awkward speech with which he “broke open” the conventional novel originated from these two sources. It is therefore essential that we do not underestimate the complexity of Boon’s very successful attempt at novel innovation. His “breaking open” of the closed structure of the novel and his rewriting into illegal books concerns more than just a few tricks and gimmicks surrounding the traditional novel in the Western European tradition; it also relates to the underlying view of the author as a sovereign subject. Boon abandoned the notion that he was an “autonomous” writer (such as Tolstoy or Flaubert) in full command of language and his own thoughts, separate from his context and time. From now on, let us not think of “Boon” alias “Boontje” as that little, doubting, rather uncertain and unworldly writer from Aalst, everybody’s friend, who could not resist telling us about the minutiae of his life. Instead, because it is so much more productive for a proper understanding of the development of the novel and of this particular novelist, let us think in terms of Louis Paul Boon, the great novel innovator who one morning awoke uneasily from the catastrophic nightmare of the war, cast aside his aspirations as a Great Writer, and created the powerless and pitiful figure of “Boontje,” a grotesque little figure in the tradition of Kafka.

 

Thus! 2 (Boon and Nietzsche)

We cannot say with absolute certainty at what stage in his life Boon discovered the work of Nietzsche, which books he read, and in what sequence. What we do know, however, is that until recently Boon’s son Jo kept two of Nietzsche’s works in his father’s old bookcase: the Dutch translation of Nietzsche’s best-known work, Thus Spake Zarathustra (with a signature dating from 1950) and The Antichrist (with a signature from 1973).6 There are other indications to suggest that Boon must have read Nietzsche in the first years of the war, probably even devouring his work, to use the word Boon puts in the mouth of a character in Abel Gholaerts.7 Here too Boon mentions the two books that sat for a long time in his bookcase—the Antichrist and Thus Spake Zarathustra, which is regarded as Nietzsche’s principal work.8

Viewed in the light of Gogol’s grotesque narrative technique, Boon’s “illegal” style includes the use of primitive forms of oral narration, which—thanks to their fundamental dialogic pattern—break open the traditionally monologic novel. The new dialogic style is better suited than the monologic (or didactic) to a writer who doubts on principle. After all, it does not behoove a cheerful writer to arrive at firm conclusions. “Boontje” moves in a world of purely questionable conclusions. He does not complete trains of thought, stories, or books, but time and again defers the definitive ending. He does not present his thinking in terms of unshakeable conclusions (which is more appropriate for a teacher) but as a thought process. His mode of thinking is presented to readers as a world in which everything is constantly in gestation. The style is one of reasoning, reconsidering, deliberating, self-correcting, specifying, as if the narrator is thinking aloud and, as he reasons, is continuously, constantly speaking directly to his readers. Boon uses the figure of Boontje to do this. Nietzsche also elected on many occasions not to speak directly to the readers of his philosophical work, but to interpose a narrator (Zarathustra) between them and himself, the author. In all respects, this figure runs counter to the conventions of philosophical and persuasive texts, in which the authors themselves generally hold forth. It is precisely the figure of Zarathustra who liberates Nietzsche from the stylistic, rhetorical, and didactic frameworks that confine conventional philosophical arguments.

Nietzsche entrusts the thought-process-in-progress to the figure of Zarathustra, just as Boon does with “Boontje.” What these two authors conferred on the figures that they created is first and foremost their thinking and writing in statu nascendi and secondly their personal, autobiographical bits of information; this is what constitutes the special “extra” that these writers have of necessity given to their work since they have said farewell, on principle, to disembodied, suprahistorical thinking.

Like Boontje, Zarathustra’s primary role is to present the thoughts-in-progress as such. (He is therefore not a traditional narrator, whose chief function is to present a closed history or closed narrative world.) The fact that a world-in-progress is being presented means that this figure (and hence its creator, the author) has cast aside all pretense of a sovereign overview of the world. The narrator does not direct his stream of thoughts with self-assurance; instead, he allows himself to be swept along on the waves of his evolving thoughts, never disguising the fact that this thinking is forever unfinished. This particular quality of the novel and how it develops is continuously being discussed in the novel itself, thereby demonstrating that not only does thinking have its own dynamic, but the writing process as well, one with a life of its own since the dynamics of writing and thinking seldom coincide completely. The formerly sovereign writer delivers himself up on principle to all of these forces. This means abandoning, no matter how, the writer’s traditional rhetorical position, which is to be in control of the ultimate meaning of the text and the effect it has on readers—in fact, the very thing that the author traditionally invests in the writing process. Giving up one’s traditional position and dismissing familiar literary devices is no small sacrifice for an author. Boon relinquishes the authority traditionally vested in him as a writer: he abandons any pretense of being in full control of the writing process and any notion that he can fully control the effect that his writing has on his readers. He takes off the mantle of a great writer and continues as a powerless, miserable, pitiful, and ridiculous creature, the plaything of powerful and capricious forces beyond his control (which is terrifying but also funny!).

This innovation is a radical breach of the strictly monologic frameworks governing the historical form of didactic or philosophical writing and the traditional novel. Through the masterly creation of a narrator who speaks directly to the reader, Boon—like Nietzsche—steps outside the conventional frameworks of written culture. In the most literal sense of the word, this is a narrator who does not write but speaks and, in so doing, naturally dispenses with the restrictions of a monologic written culture. Thus! Zarathustra speaks. And so does Boontje.

Also sprach Zarathustra, the title of Nietzsche’s best-known work in Belgium and the Netherlands, means something like: therefore or as a consequence (that is, the consequence of declaring God to be dead: therefore from now on everything should be called into question on principle); so that is why Zarathustra spoke—since God has been pronounced dead, it is the imperative of those who do not believe, or no longer believe, to call into question the existence not only of God but of the entire ancient edifice of a culture so deeply rooted in the conviction that a god exists. Let this edifice be destroyed so that it may be built anew. “Those who demolish are also building something,” as Boon wrote, probably in imitation of Nietzsche.9 The logical corollary of the death of God is the death of the almighty author as sovereign creator (a figure closely modeled after all on the image of the divine creator himself). This in turn has as its logical corollary the deconstruction of the old way of thinking and of the bourgeois novel’s obsolete form.

It is likely that Boon’s artistic, literary “demolition program” as a writer, his attempt at Abbau or demolition, was mobilized against post-war reconstruction, because in Belgium as well everything was threatening to go back to how it was before.10 It is also likely that the force of Nietzsche’s imperative had urged itself upon Boon at an earlier date, during the war years, after he had been a prisoner of war, the years in which he had to liberate himself from everything: the German occupation, Belgian collaborators, the power of the Belgian Catholics, coercion from his comrades and the Communist Party of Belgium (KPB), the poverty of having to divide one herring into thirds for the midday meal, the limitations of the novel that My Little War had confronted him with, the obstinacy of newspaper editors (and typesetters) and their incomprehension in the face of his unorthodox work, and the prejudice of the critics.

It is more than likely that under these circumstances, in the war years, Nietzsche’s imperative of Believe nothing and doubt everything! acquired greater urgency for Boon, even becoming a call to subversion, a call to resist all forms of occupation, power, and oppression, to resist all other imperatives, including those of the novel. Rebelling against the novel, Boon created an anti-novel. Renouncing all solemnity and stateliness as a writer, he became “Boontje”; in the words of Paul van Ostaijen, he became radically “unserious.” According to Marc Reynebeau, the Flemish critic and essayist, this term “can be understood as a less pathetic equivalent of ‘dissident’ or ‘subversive.’ ”11 It seems to me that the pressure of the war and of Nietzsche’s imperative (Doubt everything!) gave birth to the unserious “Boontje,” who in turn gave birth to many of Boon’s illegal
“resistance novels.” Central to these novels is the figure of the always cheerful “Boontje,” with his peculiar, unserious style of narration using “you.”

Of course, thus also means just like this or in this way. In other words, this is how Zarathustra spoke. There is a sublime, biblical echo (Thus spake Jesus . . . ) as well as an everyday, colloquial one—the provocative, highly unbiblical exclamation okay! or so okay! which means something like: Is God dead? Okay! All right, so what next! What else is new! If God is dead, then writers too are no longer sovereign or all-powerful. So from now on, they can speak off the record, unseriously! They can make the radical transition from solemn writing to joking around marvelously. They talk us into things, they think aloud, they start over again if need be, they correct themselves. They no longer sound balanced, sensible, superior, but employ a language full of exclamations, a language that is exuberant, whimsical, strange, ludicrous, primitive, and poetic. They make room for the marginal, trivial, eccentric, frenetic, or repressed. With their pseudo-primitive style, they are diametrically opposed to the “conservative, literary language of books.” For this reason, Eichenbaum and Vinogradov were of the view that these writers belonged neither to the primitive narrative tradition, which of course they tapped into liberally, nor to the great tradition of realism, but were instead great innovators of written culture and of literature.

What makes Boon’s work new is his use of archaic and primitive krompraat, or awkward speech. While his language may appear simple at first glance, appearances are deceptive. The oxymoron sophisticatedly primitive best describes the language he uses. Boon fashioned popular, colloquial language into one that is in essence a perfect construction, a consummate literary creation, an “esthetic superstructure of linguistic constructions” (as the Russian linguist Vinogradov described Gogol’s style).All in all, Boon’s lucid krompraat formed the foundation of the masterly stylistic system that paved the way for a new kind of open novel like Chapel Road. With his stylistic superstructure (Überbau), Boon brought about the Abbau, or demolition in the Nietzschean sense, of firstly the sovereign narrator, and secondly the thematically organized, closed narrative world, undermining as he did so the two pillars on which the traditional novel rests. At the heart of his open novels stands “Boontje,” with his open, deliberative interrogative style. Boon’s use of the “you” form, already frequently discussed, is particularly sophisticated and for a variety of reasons is extraordinarily felicitous, in particular because he was able, through these pronouns (ge, gij, gijzelf), to tap into the unprecedented potential of primitive oral narration and intimate dialogue. Thanks to this happy device, a simple little question like “and you, you then?” immediately raises the question of whether Boontje is thinking or speaking, whether he is talking to himself (and about himself), or to us (and about us), or to his characters (and about them). With Boon, the pronoun “you” is sometimes simply a form of address, but it is often also deceptively self-reflective. Of the many peculiarities of this new literary, narrative style, the most remarkable is that its deliberative, interrogative nature blurs and eliminates in Boon’s work the conventional large gap between three (in fact four) critically distinct, literary viewpoints—of (writer), narrator, character, and reader.

 

Notes

1 Nietzsche, Friedrich. Werken in drei Bänden: band 2: Also Sprach Zarathustra und andere Schriften (Keulen: Könemann, 1994), 17.

2 See grotesque stories by Franz Kafka, Paul van Ostaijen, F. Harmsen van Beek, Gust Gils, Gaston Burssens, F. Bordewijk, Til Brugman, and others.

3 Boon, Het literatuur—en kunstkritische werk IV. Vooruit. Boon criticizes the translation of Kafka’s Das Schloss in Vooruit on April 6, 1957, showing great insight into Kafka’s prose style.

4 Vlierden, B.F. Van. Van In’t Wonderjaer tot De Verwondering (Antwerp: De Nederland-sche Boekhan-del, 1974), 187–188. The Flemish literary magazine Tijd en Mens (1949–1955) soon would play a crucial role in the relations between the authors mentioned. Here as well as in his own newspaper columns Boon shows an early interest in the avant-garde movement and in grotesque stories by Kafka, Van Ostaijen, Burssens, and others.

5 Van Berlaer-Hellemans, 211.

6 I would like to thank Boon’s son Jo Boon and his wife Lucienne for the information they gave about Boon’s reading habits and his library.

7 Boon, Louis Paul. Abel Gholaerts (Amsterdam: Athenaeum Polak & Van Gennep, 2001), 186–187.

8 An early translation in Dutch of Also sprach Zarathustra was already available in 1905: L.S.A.M. Romer, Aldus sprak Zarathoestra: een boek voor allen en niemand (Amsterdam: Van Looy, 1905). The famous Dutch poet H. Marsman made a new translation in 1941. Nietzsche was highly popular among writers at this point. Information on Boon’s personal library and his preferences is available in the special issue on Boon by Maatstaf (1980).

9 Demolishing / building [afbreken / opbouwen] is a set of terms which Boon introduced in his writing in an early phase. See the title of one of his columns in the weekly Parool “Ook de afbreker bouwt op,” which he started December 22, 1946, and continued till December 21, 1947. Several of these columns found their way to Chapel Road.

10 Humbeeck, Kris and Bart Vanegeren. Louis Paul Boon, een schilder ontspoord (Aalst/Antwerp: Stadsbestuur Aalst/L.P. Boon Documentation Centre, 1993). See also Humbeeck, Kris and Bart Vanegeren. “Een onfatsoenlijk boek.” In De Kapellekensbaan, of de 1ste illegale roman van Boontje, (Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 1994), 381–402.

11 Reynebeau, Marc, “Eerste prijs in alle vakken van de kunst. Beelden uit het leven van Paul van Ostaijen.” In: De stem der Loreley. Over Paul van Ostaijen, ed. Geert Buelens & Eric Spinoy (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1996), p. 22–38.

Translation by Annette Visser

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