by Eric Dickens
A little to the west of Brussels lies the Flemish town of Aalst—known for its beer, its carnival, and, strangely enough, for the country’s most important postmodern novelist avant la letter: sometime painter, pornographer, and newspaper columnist Louis Paul Boon (pronounced “Bone”). To date, only one of Boon’s longer novels has been translated into English: Chapel Road—perhaps the single most important novel written in Dutch during the twentieth century—first brought out in a translation by Adrienne Dixon in 1972, and reissued in 2003 by Dalkey Archive Press. This year, however, Dalkey Archive will continue the work of redressing the long-standing neglect of one of Europe’s major cultural figures with the publication of the first English translation of Boon’s tour de force, Summer in Termuren.
Very little is known about Boon outside of Flanders, largely because he wrote his novels in Dutch—or, more accurately, Flemish—a language spoken by relatively few people. In brief, he was born in 1912 into an unremarkable family, pitched somewhere between the working class and the petit bourgeoisie. His father was a painter—a house painter—and his mother ran a little shop selling paint, lamp oil, and other sundries. At school Boon showed a definite talent for the fine arts, and even spent a short time at the local art academy between 1926 and 1928. Unfortunately, his father soon fell ill, and Boon was obliged to return home to lend a hand with that other, more profitable kind of painting.
Although Boon became interested in politics in the early 1930s, he remained the eternal observer and never quite put his heart into it. At first he was drawn to a left-wing version of the Flemish nationalist movement, striving at the time to establish the legitimacy of a culture based on the Dutch language, while its right-wing counterpart was already progressing towards an overt fascism. Yet, his involvement was limited: Boon was still searching for an intellectual anchor.
Then came his marriage to Jeanneke De Wolf. In 1939, she gave birth to their son, Jo. By this time, Boon had started publishing stories, but he still had to work in the local brewery to make ends meet. Within a few years, the Second World War arrived, and Boon was mobilized. He fought at the Albert Canal, and was taken prisoner by the Nazis and held captive in Germany for several months in 1940. Luckily for Boon, he was released that same year. He returned home to his artistic dreams—but also to the daily grind of supporting his family.
Boon’s first novels—written immediately before and after the war—were formally conventional, despite the inclusion of some techniques taken from film (a lifelong enthusiasm for Boon) and a few colorful characters (transvestites and doomed artists) who seemed quite out of place in the miserabilist mode he’d chosen for his fiction. These early works concerned the plight of workers in Flanders, detailing their lives in the expanding industrial town of Aalst, where they either struggled to make ends meet or else went into permanent debt trying to buy homes in the new, modern housing estates. These novels gave no hint of the stylistic brilliance to come: Boon had a genuine social conscience, but beyond that seemed strictly run-of-the-mill.
By the mid-1940s, however, he was reviewing many works of world literature for the left-wing press—works by such authors as Céline, Joyce, Caldwell, and Dos Passos—and under their influence, he became frustrated with straightforward, neatly chronological narrative. He started to experiment. Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War, 1947), describes World War II from the point of view of the kleine man, the man on the street, and is set during the liberation of Belgium by the Allies a couple of years earlier. This short novel contains the seeds of Boon’s new aesthetic: in it, he introduces passages set entirely in italics, containing newspaper articles, manifestos, and other found materials—even including fragments of conversations overheard on his daily commute from Aalst to Brussels, where he was now working as a reporter for the socialist newspaper De roode vaan (The Red Banner). He also began giving every chapter a bold, “journalistic” headline,
as Dos Passos had before him.
Chapel Road (De Kapellekensbaan)—the work that initiated the great project of Boon’s life, and that, once published, signaled his emergence as a writer and innovator easily the match of his foreign models—was begun at about this time. The book was written, scrapped, and rewritten several times; and in his articles for the left-wing press, Boon was already creating a mythology around his work-in-progress—inventing a cast of argumentative characters and alter egos who commented on Chapel Road’s evolution in his weekly columns, and eventually worked their way into the novel itself. It was finished in the summer of 1949, but took until 1953 to appear in print. It was rejected by Boon’s Belgian publisher because of the seeming chaos of the manuscript, and finally had to debut in the Netherlands.
Boon had originally planned on writing an epic, traditionally structured novel about the life of a girl growing up in the “grimy streets” of Aalst: about her hopes and fears, her adventures and tribulations. In short, he began by writing about the class struggle again. But now, aware of the innovations of his contemporaries, he was convinced of the limitations of the realist novel, and balked at imposing a neat beginning, middle, and end on a narrative that might not lend itself to linear storytelling. Chapel Road disregarded all the conventions that Boon’s early work had adhered to, blossoming into a book whose playfulness, irony, parody, intertextuality, schizophrenia, and outright gleeful anarchy were clearly ahead of their time, anticipating the postmodern novel by decades, and causing one Dutch critic call Boon “a Flemish Rabelais.” Boon even wanted the book published using an array of different fonts and colors, and intended initially to include actual photographic reproductions of the clippings and documents he wanted to quote—anticipating W. G. Sebald, among others. Unfortunately, the publishing companies of the day couldn’t—or wouldn’t—cope with Boon’s demands, forcing the author to accept a more conventional layout. Still, his typography remains happily idiosyncratic: among other fillips, Boon managed to talk them into letting him dispense with capital letters for proper nouns, using them only at the beginning of sentences.
The original story about the young girl named Ondine was chopped into sections, with slices from the life of the author inserted in between. Interwoven into these competing fragments is a modernization of the medieval story of Reynard the Fox, as written by one of the squabbling characters who badger Boon about his book as it progresses. Of these three constituent parts, Ondine’s is the most straightforward and powerful: it reads like a mixture between a romantic novel and a piece of socially committed reportage, despite being laced with much melodrama, slapstick, and outright cruelty. As the blurb says on the cover of the Dalkey Archive edition, “Boon’s people not only breathe, but like Céline’s they urinate, defecate, blow their noses in their palms, and make love, or what passes for it, in ditches.”
Ondine is an ordinary girl living at the end of the nineteenth century in a miserable slum in Termuren, a fictional town modeled on Aalst. Her world is dominated by two huge textile mills, one producing thread, the other blankets; one is run by Catholics, the other by liberals. But the bosses of each are close friends, who share a capacity for drinking and a penchant for whoring.
Ondine has a strange family. Her mother Zulma “must be crazy.” Her father, Vapeur, who fixes wooden furniture for a living, has withdrawn into his workshop to work on what he calls a perpetuum mobile, even sleeping next to the device when he’s drunk. Her younger brother Valeer is hydrocephalic and missing a finger as the result of an accident. And Ondine herself is far from an attractive character: she gets through life by a combination of cheating, stealing, manipulation, and self-delusion.
Throughout her life, she entertains childish hopes of one day becoming a “somebody”—and doesn’t intend to let anyone get in her way.
In the “real life” sections of Chapel Road, Boon records the conversations and criticisms of his friends as they continue to interrupt and comment on the ongoing work, endlessly squabbling over how Boon should proceed with the story of Ondine. They hash over the book’s strengths as well as its shortcomings, and they gossip about current events. We meet Johan Janssens, a journalist and poet, and the one who’s writing about Reynard; we meet Tolfpoets, the self-appointed comic relief, who constantly cracks cheap jokes; we meet the formal and academic Music Master, the bureaucratic “Msieu” Colson of the Ministry, Professor Spothuysen, and Boon himself—here called “Boontje,” using the “-tje” diminutive so common in Dutch. Though nominally the narrator of Chapel Road, Boon often addresses himself in second person as he writes, so that the reader is put in the strange position of being the author of the novel while in the process of reading it.
With this novel, Boon brought modernist innovation to his countrymen, almost by force. An acknowledged classic in its native language, Chapel Road not only imported the techniques of Boon’s contemporaries, but improved on them.
Three years later, after Chapel Road was finally published, Summer in Termuren was released. It contains many of the same elements and characters as its predecessor, but Ondine is now a young woman married to “pitiful Oskarke,” a man who was far from her first choice. As she bears child after child, and her dreams remain unfulfilled, the world around her changes so significantly that it threatens, in the process, to become the nearly unrecognizable “present day” of Boon and his compatriots—still arguing over the composition of Ondine’s story, and trying to eke out the occasional moment of happiness in their own lives. The “reality” of these real life sections, already undermined by the presence of the author in his own book, is further compromised when Johan Janssens begins writing his own, competing column about life in Termuren—leading to all of Boon’s familiar friends being summarily rechristened, and then complaining about their new names!
Summer in Termuren, though it continues the story of Chapel Road, aims for a more comprehensive take on modern life: it expands on the themes of the first book, and is both more frenetic and more melancholy in tone than its predecessor. It contains numerous retellings of stories “ripped from the headlines” of the day, as well as a serial chronicling of the exploits of the gang of Jan de Lichte—an eighteenth-century bandit chief and Flemish Robin Hood, who stood up to the authorities of the time and paid for it with his life. As Boon says on its first page, Termuren is
another ocean, a chaos and then some, I’m really sorry—but it’s not so much a novel of socialism anymore, it’s more the novel of the individual in a world of barbarians: this book is dedicated to you, this book was written for you and no one else—you, the individual, in this world of barbarians . . . (Trans. Paul Vincent)
But this dedication is further complicated by Boon’s admission, later in the novel, that
at one moment the little individual is a poor little chap, a boon, and then the next he’s an entire people, Yes, at one moment my enemy . . . belongs to a world of barbarians advancing towards me and wanting to trample over me as if I were a rat—and the next [my enemy] is himself the rat, and is being chased by myself and all the other barbarians. This book is hesitant and doubting and uncertain . . . because people who are sure of themselves, who are men of action, who know who their friends are and what their ultimate aim is—who, sure of themselves, attain their ultimate goal—they are the barbarians. (Trans. Paul Vincent)
Boon, the eternal observer, even sympathizes with his most vicious villains, and each receives a moment—at least a moment—of dignity.One year before Termuren appeared, Boon published a short novel entitled Minuet, which until now was his only work besides Chapel Road to have appeared in English. The plot transports us back to Boon’s time at the Zeeberg brewery in Aalst in the 1930s, and is about a love triangle that springs up between a man who works in the refrigeration cellars of the brewery, his young maid, and his frigid wife. The story is told in three chapter-long paragraphs, which cover the lower three-quarters of the page, all telling the same story, but from three different points of view. Along the top of each page, however, newspaper headlines—uniformly violent or horrific—run in all caps, like the bulletins that crawl across the bottom of the television screen.
The 1950s were the most intense decade of Boon’s literary life, and in 1958, Boon published the book that’s said to be his most “difficult”: De Paradijsvogel: Relaas van een amorele tijd (The Bird of Paradise: A Tale of Amoral Times). Like Chapel Road and Termuren, it utilizes a “split screen” approach to narrative. One story concerns a strange prehistoric religious cult in which, for instance, children are left out in the snow to die when the tribe can no longer feed them. The other story is about the life of a platinum-blonde movie star named Beauty Kitt (loosely based on Marilyn Monroe), who comes, like so many of Boon’s heroines, from the “grimy” back streets of a small town. Boon was illustrating his own version of the Tarot deck at the time, as well as reading Madame Blavatsky, and this might explain the strange incursion of pagan religions onto the glamorous world of movies and starlets that had always preoccupied Boon. He’d even speculated on a number of occasions that he ought to have become a film director himself, though the nearest he ever got to making movies was a small, Chaplinesque role in a Belgian film called The Bomb.
Between the ’50s and Boon’s death in 1979, his authorial focus narrowed to two main interests: politics and sex. While maintaining his socialist-anarchist commitment to the underdog, Boon became more and more interested in the production of erotic literature. He began collecting photographs of naked or barely dressed women in 1954, and had, by the time of his death, nearly 24,000 pictures of this kind, all of them meticulously classified in various thematic series. In his writing too, he began to display a penchant for teenage girls, and as time went by, this interest—which was by no means kept a secret from his readers—began to dominate his work. It’s not unlikely that his predilections in this arena cost him the Nobel Prize, for which he’d been nominated many years in a row.
Late in life, Boon returned to painting, held many exhibitions, appeared on television as a commentator, and even turned up on quiz shows. He published a kind of literary cookbook on Flemish cuisine and a number of “documentary” historical novels about Belgium, though these later works were never quite as inventive or gripping as Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren. As of now, Boon, undoubtedly one of the true giants of twentieth-century Belgian literature, has been eclipsed in English translation by his contemporaries Harry Mulisch (The Discovery of Heaven, The Assault) and Hugo Claus (The Sorrows of Belgium), both of whom Boon knew fairly well. It is to be hoped that Dalkey Archive’s publication of Summer in Termuren, and the availability of Boon’s great epic in its entirety, will introduce new American and British readers to this multi-faceted author and artist, and that he will then take his rightful place at the top of the pleiad of Flemish literature.
Selected Works by Louis Paul Boon in Translation:
Minuet. Trans. Adrienne Dixon. Persea Books, 1979. Out of Print.
Chapel Road. Trans. Adrienne Dixon. Dalkey Archive Press, 2003. $14.95.
Summer in Termuren. Trans. Paul Vincent. Dalkey Archive Press, 2006. $14.95.
My Little War. Trans. Paul Vincent. Dalkey Archive Press, 2010. $12.95.
Selected Untranslated Works:
De voorstad groeit [The Suburbs Grow], 1942. Out of Print.
Mijn kleine oorlog [My Little War], 1946. Out of Print.
De bende van Jan de Lichte [The Gang of Jan de Lichte], 1957. Out of Print.
De paradijsvogel [The Bird of Paradise], 1958. Out of Print.
Blauwbaardje in Wonderland [Bluebeard in Wonderland], 1962. Out of Print.
Mieke Maaike’s obscene jeugd [Mieke Maaike’s Obscene Youth], 1972. Out of Print.
Het geuzenboek [Book of Beggars], 1979. Out of Print.
Eros en de eenzame man [Eros and the Solitary Man]. De Arbeiderspers, 1980.
Fenomenale Feminateek [Phenomenal Library of Women], 2004. Out of Print.