Interview with Louis Paul Boon

Context N°20

by Joos Florquin

JOOS FLORQUIN: Louis Paul Boon, which language are we going to speak?

LOUIS PAUL BOON: We’ll do it the way I’m used to: you speak Standard Educated Dutch, and I’ll speak “Aalster” Educated Dutch, and sometimes just plain Aalst dialect. It’s a very peculiar dialect, by the way; we still speak in the old spelling. Instead of “de mensen wensen niet beter,” [people don’t know any better] we say: “de menschen wenschen niet beter”—clearly pronouncing the archaic sch.

JF: You don’t care for Standard Dutch?

LPB: No, because I think they exaggerate. And by “they,” I mean “you.” I love dialects: I enjoy hearing a man from Brussels speak, I love the broad Ghent, the West Flanders, the Limburger dialect. A lot will get lost if we start speaking one standardized language. I believe that the beauty of our language stems from the people: the language flows from the heart and mind and all that makes up our life. If people have to stick to a set and regulated language, their most spiritual thoughts and observations will be lost. The common man or woman will come up with hundreds of things that, if you heard them, you’d say, “Damn, that’s well said—he or she really hit the nail on the head with that one.” But after they watch Here We Speak Dutch, they don’t dare to speak that way anymore. The common people and the vernacular can adapt, can find new and characteristic expressions for anything. Take for instance those automats where you have to insert a coin. . . a vending machine, that’s it: yes, people have come up with all kinds of wonderful, witty, and cutting phrases because of that. If somebody doesn’t really get something, they say, “The penny hasn’t dropped yet!” or “His coin is stuck in the slot!” Now, if we start telling people that this word should really be so-and-so and that word should be such-and-such, then we are only helping our language to deteriorate. . . So yes, I object to the word “educated” in the S.E.D. I would call it “Standard Dutch.”

JF: Why do you call yourself “Boontje” from time to time?

LPB: Because people have always called me “Boontje.” I think I also consider Boontje to be a pseudonym. Louis Paul Boon wrote major novels. Boontje does all the work on the side, writes articles for the newspapers and magazines. That work was mine, but not Louis Paul Boon’s, who works in the tradition of Stijn Streuvels!

JF: Do Louis Paul Boon and Boontje always agree?

LPB: Yes, usually, but Louis Paul is a guy who loses his temper, who’s bitter, who writes books that attack society. Boontje on the other hand is more of a quiet bourgeois who takes everything with a grain of salt. A human being is all extremes, isn’t it? You can wear a mask, trying to always be the same, but that’s lying, cheating, ’cause today you might be in a good mood, but tomorrow you’ll be in a bad mood. So yes, see: sometimes I’m Louis Paul, and sometimes I’m Boontje, but there’s a certain overlap between the two.

JF: You won your very first literary prize for De voorstad groeit [The Suburbs Grow].

LPB: Yes, the first Leo J. Krijn Prize. That was in 1942, during the war. I was still working on that novel when my wife showed me a newspaper saying that a new literary prize was going to be awarded. I was reluctant. I hesitated to submit my work in progress, but my wife grabbed my papers and said: “Then I’ll submit it.” I said: “No, wait a minute, the book isn’t finished yet!” But there was nothing I could do. After the last finished sentence I added: “et cetera et cetera.” My wife wrapped everything together in brown paper, tied a string around it, sent it off, and then back came this Leo J. Krijn Prize.

JF: Which—unusually competent—jury awarded you the prize?

LPB: Maurice Roelants and Raymond Herreman were both on the jury, but above all it was Willem Elsschot, and actually it was only because of his involvement that I finally consented to having the manuscript submitted in the first place, because I loved Willem Elsschot’s work a lot. He was, by the way, one of the few Flemish authors I knew about in those days. I had read his poems, like “Het Huwelijk” [“The Marriage”] and so forth—they pleased me tremendously. I always liked his poetry more than his prose. I actually told him that, and the three or four times that we met, to my regret and my joy, we argued every time. He was a peculiar guy, a weirdo, but he probably thought the same about me. We’ve written each other many letters. . . .

Yes, Elsschot was an old man, who had his own opinions about everything, and I was a little punk who also had his own opinion about everything, and that’s why we always argued. Whenever I wrote something new, I would send it to Elsschot and then he would give me back his comments. And to my great surprise, Elsschot sent his manuscripts to me as well, and then I had to give my opinion. So I received the manuscript of Het dwaallicht [Will o’ the Wisp], the last thing he wrote. It’s about three Indonesian guys who are in Antwerp searching for an image from a dream, for Maria. At the end of the manuscript they just rang a doorbell somewhere, and Maria opened the door and let them in. So I wrote to Elsschot that I thought it was unfortunate that those guys found Maria: the piece is called Will o’ the Wisp, I wrote, and it would be a lot better if they never found her at all. And on top of that I noticed all these little marks in the margins of the manuscript. When I was reading the text, I noticed that those marks were always next to weak or awkward sentences, and so I let Elsschot know that whoever had marked those passages had indeed marked the parts that needed the most work. But then Elsschot wrote a nasty letter back to say that a friend of his had read the manuscript, and that she had actually marked the passages she liked the best! But it was characteristic of Elsschot that, despite his reaction, when Will o’ the Wisp was finally published, the three Indonesians did not find Maria after all. But Elsschot never said anything about it: he didn’t want to admit that he’d made the change because of a conversation with me.

JF: So the ending of Elsschot’s Will o’ the Wisp is also Louis Paul Boon’s. But still—he gave you the Leo J. Krijn Prize.

LPB: That’s true. He himself tells about it in the introduction he wrote for Mijn kleine oorlog [My Little War]. He says that he’d been reading until three in the morning and that his wife yelled: when are you going to come to bed? Soon, he told her—I’m almost finished with this book. And immediately he called Manteau [the publisher awarding the prize] to say: you should give the prize to this novel…

Angèle Manteau has always supported me a lot. The firm did relatively well during the war because people didn’t go to the movies or to the theater for fear of bombs. People read a lot more back then: you’ll see that war is always good for something. Mrs. Manteau wrote me to say that I could easily write professionally and that she would pay me a monthly wage of 2,000 franks. I basically lived on that monthly wage the entire war. And I’ve always been very grateful to Mrs. Manteau for that, despite everything that happened later, under difficult circumstances. Unfortunately for her, my books didn’t sell well in Flanders, so to her regret she had to say: I like your books, and I publish them, but I don’t sell them. And then the Dutch came. Reinold Kuyper, director of De Arbeiderspers, was a great admirer of Richard Minne. He asked Minne whether he had any more poems that he could publish. Minne responded: you shouldn’t ask me that, I don’t write anything anymore. But go to those younger guys. This is how Kuyper came to me to ask whether I had anything for him. I said: Here, look, De kapellekensbaan [Chapel Road]. And so that was published in the Netherlands.

JF: I could never figure out what you did between 1950 and 1954.

LPB: I did nothing but write, from five or six in the morning till two or three at night. I worked my fingers to the bone. Then Chapel Road was finished, and Zomer te Ter-Muren [Summer in Termuren]. It was the bitterest period of my life because at the same time I had to make ends meet. So I chopped the books into pieces, wrote some comments to preface each section, and then published them in magazines like Front, or in Vooruit.

JF: Do you read a lot?

LPB: I used to read a whole lot, but I just can’t read anymore. It started when I began writing seriously myself. When I began reading a novel and I didn’t like it, I would throw it away. But if it was a really good book, then I thought: damn, this person can write better than me, and then closed the book anyway and went off to write myself. If I read anything at all, then it’s history or a biography, something that’s really happened. I can’t bear someone else’s imagination.

JF: Where did you get the techniques you employ in The Suburbs Grow?

LPB: I actually felt like I was destined to become a painter, initially, but I also wanted to write. Everything I’d written earlier was solemn and elevated, which was the usual tone of official Flemish literature. When I wrote school essays as a child, I had to stuff them with lots of adjectives and adverbs. Like Streuvels did. And then I read Céline, Journey to the End of the Night, and that was a revelation. I discovered a master who said “et puis ci et puis la.” That was the common man speaking and I thought, damn—that’s it. This is how you should write, you shouldn’t think when you’re writing a sentence. . . You should write what wells up from your heart, whatever comes to mind. And at the same time I read Dos Passos, that American who recently died and who nobody seems to know about yet—lucky for me, since now nobody knows that I stole so much from him. He wrote 42nd Street and Manhattan Transfer. . . So it was from them that I learned the technique I used—in my own way—for The Suburbs Grow, Chapel Road, and Minuet. The way Céline says it and Dos Passos presents it. I might be making it sound like intentional mimicry, but it happened quite unconsciously. In any case, those people influenced me, and it’s because of them that I came to write The Suburbs Grow.

JF: Were you conscious of developing an individual style? Lissens talks about your “blitz technique,” which doesn’t sound like a bad characterization to me.

LPB: My technique differs from book to book. I wrote Minuet in three weeks, a chapter a week. It was a belch. Chapel Road took me ten years, but there’s an argument to it, a degree of reasoning. Niets gaat ten onder [Nothing Will Be Submerged] is way too reasoned and therefore it turned into a bad book. Het nieuwe onkruid [The New Weed] also relies too much on intellect and so it’s not a good book either. What is style? Grow like a tree and sing like a bird. You know, somebody writes something, makes something, but it gets beyond his reach. I make something and then afterwards people ask me how did you do this, or how did you do that? I absolutely don’t know. It grows spontaneously, it’s something that works inside you. It’s as if—and this may sound strange for someone like me, who established the local chapter of the Communist Party at the age of seventeen—but it’s as if the Holy Spirit is at work in your head.

JF: Has somebody been a particular influence on you in terms of, let’s say, your rather rough and coarse language?

LPB: No, that language is actually my language, the language that I’ve always used and that I—or so I hope—will always use. . . I write down the words that I’ve heard and those words are my tools: I use them without thinking about it. . . The language that Gerard Walschap uses is the language of a doctor or a reverend who just visits the common man, who’s looking for contact with him, who condescends to speak his language. He speaks their dialect to create a more personable atmosphere. I could be totally wrong about Walschap, but this is my impression. My language is exactly the opposite of that: my language is the language of the people. I’m just someone from the lower classes, I used to be a house painter, I was an ordinary guy from a working-class neighborhood, and I write the language that I learned from my mother. I love that language and I will keep on writing that way. I wouldn’t renounce it for love or money.

JF: Along with Chapel Road, we should also mention Summer in Termuren. I’m always tempted to say “Tervuren” [a municipality in Flanders].

LPB: I can imagine. Are you from Tervuren?

JF: No, but nearby it—the peculiar thing is, though, that I actually picture the story being set in Tervuren when I read it.

LPB: It’s not the least bit important, because it might as well be set in New York or Boston or London or Paris or Prague or Moscow.

JF: But is there a real-life Termuren?

LPB: Yes, it’s here in Erbodegem. Somewhere there’s a sign that says Termuren Avenue. It’s a neighborhood where you’ll find the chapel that’s the focal point of Chapel Road. Ondine sits in front of the church, reading, but then, when she needs money, she breaks open the collection box and goes into town to buy something nice for herself. . . and so on. Ondine is the picture of a human being like me, or perhaps like you, someone who’s reading quietly like a good person at one moment, but could murder someone an hour later. We’re all human after all, with all our virtues and faults.

JF: According to a note in Summer in Termuren, you worked eleven years on Chapel Road, from 1942 till 1953. Why so long? Was it a difficult process?

LPB: No, but very painstaking. Every time I finished a chapter about Ondineke, I read it to my friends and discussed it with them. It actually happened the way it’s described in Chapel Road. I did it that way because I wanted to be very certain of what I was making.

JF: Summer in Termuren was recently published in an expurgated version. As you’ve said, 104-and-a-half pages were deleted. Why did you do that? Did you give in to the tastes of your audience, or did you do it because you’d changed your mind about the book?

LPB: First, let me say that the novel initially appeared in pieces; fragments were published in magazines, weeklies, and even newspapers. They contained commentary on topical subjects, and when the book appeared, they were all still relevant to the current events of the day. Now that so many years have passed, I find that many of those sections have become out-dated, and those are the ones I took out. It wasn’t a purge of any kind. From Chapel Road I excised the parts in which I attacked the policy of the Belgians in the Congo. By the time a new edition came out, the Congo had become independent and the Belgians had nothing to do with it anymore. Those sections weren’t relevant anymore, and that’s why I dropped them. Otherwise I could write about Vietnam and China and about everything happening today, and it would become a two-thousand page book. I just removed all the things that have nothing to do with us anymore, that aren’t relevant to what I want to say. What should remain are the pages about which I can say: this will still be important tomorrow, this will still be important in ten or twenty years.

JF: In his novel Max Havelaar, Multatuli also objected against colonial policy, though in that case it was the Dutch. Do you think the importance of that book has diminished, then?

LPB: Multatuli is Multatuli and I am just Boontje. I admire Multatuli a lot, he’s very important and his Max Havelaar is a book that will live forever in Dutch literature. And yes, when Chapel Road appeared—it was printed in Amsterdam, and was being read mostly by Dutch readers, something like 80% Dutch and 20% Flemish—everyone compared me to Multatuli. . . or else they said I was “the new Multatuli.” I felt ashamed at the time, because I thought: well, now I have to stand next to Multatuli on that pedestal, me, Boontje, and then Multatuli will look at me and say: what a. . . well, I can’t say that word here.

To be honest I never intended to become the new Multatuli. Because I objected to this and that, they made a comparison to Multatuli. But I acknowledge that Multatuli is a lot more important than me, and I really wouldn’t like to stand next to him on that pedestal.

JF: It isn’t only the Dutch who compare you to Multatuli. I can quote a Fleming, Bert Decorte, who wrote about you in his Contemporary Encyclopedia of World Literature: “A unique figure in contemporary Dutch literature, because he is passionate and because of his creative power. The only person who can be compared to him is Multatuli.”

LPB: What’s left to say about that?

JF: I’d say: I’m deeply honored.

LPB: I’m very flattered. I thank Bert Decorte and pity Multatuli!

JF: The death of Marilyn Monroe has affected you quite a bit.

LPB: I’ve always loved Marilyn Monroe. I thought she was one of those typical creatures that exist everywhere in our society. People exploit women in our society, they turn the women into objects, into something that can be used as an advertisement. You’ll see girls in these ads who recommend pantyhose or bras, cigarettes or soda—I’d say Coca-Cola but I might get sued. What the Women’s Libbers do might be foolish, but au fond they’re right. The woman in our society has become an object and Marilyn Monroe resisted that, all on her own. And she did it in America, where the dollar is God. Marilyn has made very nice witticisms, and they weren’t aphorisms made up by her managers, she came up with them herself. When she married Arthur Miller she said: I’ve become the Venus of Miller!

She spoke one of her last great aphorisms when she was doing her final movie. She had to be in the studio at eight or nine, and she was half an hour or an hour late. Those Americans, for whom time is money, got angry and said that this couldn’t go on. Then Marilyn said: look, I’m not the 8:10 express, I’m Marilyn Monroe. They kicked her out anyway and four days later she committed suicide because she couldn’t live in a society where a human being has to be the 8:10 express. And that’s why I admire her, because I can’t live in a society where the 8.10 express is so important either.

JF: Do you enjoy reading poetry?

LPB: I do. I actually love all forms of art except the theater. . . I read plays but I can’t watch them performed: you have to sit there for far too long without a cigarette or a beer or some exercise. I don’t like classical music either: Beethoven and Mozart are too artificial. But I love jazz and. . . Gregorian chant.

JF: People say that you like Minuet the most of all your books.

LPB: Everybody says that Chapel Road and Minuet are my best books. So I believe it too. . . When Chapel Road was released in Amsterdam, Dutch newspapers had full-page headlines saying: “The most beautiful and/or saddest book of our time.” Or “The book of the year!” Then Herman Teirlinck asked me: when are you finally going to write a book that matters? No one is sacred in his own country. I’m not resentful about that, I accept it, I understand that people are that way. In Belgium literature means writing neatly and carefully, with rhymes and nicely formulated sentences.

JF: Isn’t the era of “neat writing” over by now?

LPB: Those days are over, and that’s why they now broadcast At Louis Paul Boon’s. That wouldn’t have happened ten or twenty years ago! In those days they would have said: that guy who can’t write very well!

JF: Okay, so what does your infamous “feminatheek” contain?

LPB: It contains the collection of photographs of nude women that’s also in the possession of [my character] E.H. Ramadhoe in De paradijsvogel [The Bird of Paradise]. I cut such pictures out wherever I find them and stick them to paper. This collection enables my personal seismograph to chart today’s world in the best, most accurate way possible. I have four collections now just about women’s gowns, about the development of the gown; how it’s shrunk and shrunk. Our society always seems to enjoy more nudity. Of course, you can also make social, economic, and financial observations by looking at fashion. I always intended to write a book about that. But all these things just lay there, and now it doesn’t interest me anymore.

JF: What is it that you’ve always wanted to achieve?

LPB: I’ve always wanted everything and everything. I wanted to be some kind of Atlas, that guy who stands there with that big ball on his shoulders. . . My work is out there with all its faults, with all its flaws, and yes, with all the virtues that people are now starting to discover. Other than that I have no means of improving the world. I’m not a doctor, not a pharmacist, and not a reverend—certainly not a miracle worker or a prophet. I’m just a little seismograph. And if later on they say: yes, he has indeed captured his era on the page, then I will be perfectly happy, perfectly satisfied with that.

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