Latest Review: "My Little War" by Louis Paul Boon
Jacob M. Appel is a physician in New York City and the author of more than two hundred published short stories. His prose has been short-listed for the Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and the O. Henry Award on multiple occasions. Jacob’s paternal
grandfather, Leo Appel, came to the United States as a refugee from Antwerp, Belgium, in 1938, and Jacob remains deeply engaged in Dutch and Flemish culture. Click here for more information.
Dalkey’s published a few Louis Paul Boon books, including Chapel Road (which is AMAZING) and Summer in Termuren (more amazing). He’s tragically overlooked by American readers, which really sucks, since these two books are on par with pretty much all other mammoth classics of twentieth-century literature. (This sounds hyperbolic, BUT IT’S NOT.)
Here’s the opening of Jacob’s review of My Little War:
The period between Flemish author Louis Paul Boon’s birth in 1912 and the publication of his post-modern masterpiece Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War) in 1947 saw Belgium ravaged by some of the worst wartime carnage that the European continent had experienced in centuries. Even as Hitler’s advancing wehrmacht sent 25% of the Belgian population fleeing over the French border, memories remained fresh of the brutal German occupation of 1914—including its defining atrocity, the sacking of Leuven, during which the city’s library of 300,000 medieval books was burned and the entire populace expelled. So to post-war Flemish readers, Boon’s peculiarly brilliant novel appeared in the wake of two large wars, challenging a literary orthodoxy that tried to make sense of these conflagrations.
Mijn kleine oorlog is decidedly not an anti-war novel—at least, not in the sense of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa or Rolland’s Clérambault, the sort of predecessors to which Boon is likely referring to when he writes to question the archetypal “great writer” who rises up to present the world with “his Book About the Great War—with capital letters.” Instead, the volume might be described as an anti-anti-war novel . . . if it even is a novel at all. A better description yet might be an anti-anti-war sketchbook. For what Boon has done in thirty-three brief vignettes is collect snippets of overheard conversations, press reports, unsubstantiated rumors and “personal” experiences to generate a montage of the highly subjective experience of one ordinary laborer-turned-POW-turned-writer during the Second World War. Yet even the volume’s subjectively is overtly orchestrated; this is not Virginia Woolf or James Joyce trying to capture the subtle workings of the human mind, but rather an author reminding the reader that he is feigning to do so. In one noteworthy example, after referring to multiple characters as “what’s-his-name” and “what’s-her-name,” Boon suddenly pretends to have recalled one of their names: “What’s her name came too,” he writes. “What was her name again the one who was hit in the head with something the other day and died, who used to get so furious and denounce us as pro-German when we said the war would last five years . . . it was Mrs. Lammens!” Of course, the reader recognizes that Boon has not achieved this recollection in the moment. Rather, Boon uses this device to mock his modernist forebears and to remind the reader of his own pretenses.
Click here to read the complete essay.