L’école belge de l’étrange
So this fall, much to the merriment of French friends, I’ll be on a Fulbright to Belgium. Why Belgium? they are apt to snicker. Though little known on a world stage, a national literature of astonishing coherence and vitality arose in 20th century Francophone Belgium, its chief feature the use of fantastical elements. It is known as l’école belge de l’étrange. Call it what you will: fabulism, weird tales, fantastique; to this day, its full originality remains unassessed and underappreciated. Our idea of literature in America is now being redefined not only by an influx of translated works, but from within, by the blurring of genre boundaries; Belgian fabulism seems ideally situated to address both these tendencies. I am preceded in the field by NEA and Fulbright fellow Kim Connell, whose 1998 anthology The Belgian School of the Bizarre was a pioneering work and, incredibly, the first collection of Belgian fiction to appear in English since 1895. (Only his untimely death at 44 prevented him from bringing more works to light.) My own introduction to this tradition lay in reading the stories of the venerable master Michel de Ghelderode and the rising star Bernard Quiriny (for those interested, there’s an interview and story over at Subtropics.)
What drives an entire national literature to fabulism? The fantastic is arguably an attempt as much to reflect the absurdity of Belgian daily life as to flee it. Riven by linguistic disputes, Belgium features a singularly byzantine bureaucracy where every Walloon official has a Flemish-speaking double. Centuries of successive occupation have, like so many footprints, further muddled an already muddy identity, yet also allowed many cities, such as Bruges and Ghent, to escape the ravages of war and retain their haunted medieval look. Indeed, Catholic medievalism was arguably never dispelled by French Enlightenment rationalism from the rural lowlands of Wallonia, whose misty climate predisposes its citizens to a shut-in dreaminess. The same devils that stalked the villages in Charles De Coster’s fables from the 1860s birth of Belgian literature taunt Jean Muno’s neurotic 1970s suburbanites. But folklore is only half of what makes Belgian fabulism unique. It is also influenced by Surrealism and Symbolism—and what would these be without Belgians Magritte, Delvaux, and Mariën? In fact, Belgian’s tradition of hallucinatory art ties the medieval (Bosch and Brueghel) to the modern, by way of an Expressionist macabre (Ensor, Spilliaert). Belgian fabulism displays a similarly compelling, deeply personal vision of the unsettling and uncanny.
I was seduced by the sinister gentility of Belgian fabulism—a fastidious, almost fussy, always funny insistence on seemliness coupled with a sense of mischief and sometimes dread. Unlike the wilder French, Belgian fabulists prefer to undermine the daily and domestic furtively, favoring a painstaking realism that makes fantastical elements all the more riveting and upsetting. Fittingly, the founding figure of Belgian literature was the folkloric prankster Thyl Ulenspiegel, hero of De Coster’s Quixotic epic, itself a willful attempt to synthesize national identity as recently as 1867. Half French, half Flemish (with a touch of Dutch and German), burdened with a divided and embattled sense of self, Belgium responded to issues of identity with fancy and whimsy. Quite literally the land next door, it decided to subvert its surface of innocuous propriety. With unassuming wit, it devised a national literature of dreams. Belgian fabulism is a land invented in response to the need to invent a country.
Part of the obscurity of Belgian fiction lies in the fact that Wallonia, where a print run of 6000 means a bestseller to a public of four million, is a land of small presses. This unique publishing situation might fruitfully exchange experiences with our own, as small presses lead the way in America with translations, works on a vital avant-garde, and fiction challenging traditional boundaries between “genre” and “literature.”
American fiction has recently revived the fantastic as a form of expression, with movements like The New Weird and New Wave Fabulism finding both literary and genre readership. Artists often turn to the fantastic or horrific to express the sheer strangeness of being alive in times, like our own, of doubt and change. Belgium’s plucky trickster spirit lives on in audacious hoaxes like the faux Flemish “secession” of 2006, and a 2009 installation on Governors Island simulating a “lost town” of Belgian immigrant snow globe makers. Young director Fabrice du Welz has won acclaim for his nouveau Euro-horror films. An impish underdog of a nation that delights in not being what it seems, Belgium is more artistically alive and relevant than ever. Isn’t it time literature joined the mix? A contemporary conversation—lively, rich, engaging, with the potential for mutual influence and transformation—awaits only translation to inaugurate it.