Belgian Literature - Encyclopedia


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"BELGIAN LITERATURE It cannot be said that any very extraordinary new talent either in prose or in poetry revealed itself in Belgian French literature between 1910 and 1921.

The fame of Maurice Maeterlinck and Emile Verhaeren remained world-wide. Maeterlinck's play L'Oiseau Bleu (1911) was first performed at Moscow, then in London (translated as The Blue Bird), and later in Paris and New York. The writer's poetic imagination and serene philosophy contributed to make his play intensely popular. A continuation under the title of The Betrothal was produced in London in 1921.

During the war Maeterlinck published, in 1916, a volume of articles he had written in various newspapers and lectures he had delivered in England, France and Italy, under the title of Les Debris de la Guerre. He also wrote L'Hote Inconnu (1917), Le Miracle de St. Antoine (1919), Les Sentiers dans la Montagne (1919) and Le Bourgmestre de Stilemonde (1920), a play dealing with the horrors of the German invasion in Belgium.

Emile Verhaeren's tragedy Helene de Sparte was first published in German, translated by Stephan Zweig, then in Russian, and appeared in French in 1912, when it was performed in Paris. Verhaeren's forcible and rather rugged style is perhaps not absolutely suited to the subject he treats. His poems, however, Les Rythmes Souverains (1910), Les Villes ¢ Pignons (1910), Les Fleurs du Soir (1910, Les Plaines (1911) and Les Bles Mouvants (1912), are as intense in feeling and vitality as his earlier work. Verhaeren's accidental death (he was crushed by a train in Rouen station Nov. 26 1916) was a great loss to Belgian literature. La Belgique Sanglante (1915), Parmi les Cendres (1916), Villes Meurtries de Belgique (1916), Les Ailes Rouges de la Guerre (1916) have been read and admired all the world over for their ardent patriotism and their righteous indignation as well as for their felicity of expression. These war poems will live wherever the French language is spoken.

In Les Libertins d'Anvers, Legende et Histoire des Loistes, Georges Eekhoud has told the story of the heretic sects in Antwerp in the 16th century. In this book Eekhoud, according to his custom, exalts his native city in her vices as well as in her virtues. Other books written by Eekhoud are Les Peintres Animaliers Belges (191 I), and L'Imposteur magnanime, Perkin Warbeck (1914).

A tragedy in four acts by Camille Lemonnier, Edenie, set to music by Leon du Bois, was performed in Antwerp in 1912 with great success. The poem, written in blank verse, has all the charm of Lemonnier's vivid imagination and forcible style. Lemonnier died in 1913. His last book, Au Cc ur frais de la Foret, was published in 1914.

Albert Giraud's La Frise Empourpree (1912) is a collection of poems, in which their author remains faithful to the Parnassian tradition. In 1919 Giraud published a volume of poems, Le Laurier, written in Brussels during the war, and in 1920 Eros et Psyche. Ivan Gilkin published in 1911 poems called La Nuit, the first. of three volumes, of which the others were to be called L' Aube and La Lumiere, and in 1920 a play in blank verse, Le Roi Cophetua. Gregoire Le Roy, in his collection of poems called Le Rouet et la Besace, illustrated by himself, deals with the sufferings of the poor. La Couronne des Soirs (1911), Contes d'apres Minuit (1913) and Joe Trimborn (1913) are collections of short stories.

Jean Dominique (pseudonym of Mlle. Marie Closset), whose volume of poems, Le Puits d'Azur, was published in 1912, is undoubtedly one of the most gifted of contemporary women writers. Mlle. Closset is a teacher and lives in Brussels. Another original and interesting woman writer, Neel Doff, has published fours de Famine et Detresse (1911) and Contes Farouches (1913) .

A considerable number of books and poems dealing with and inspired by the war were published by Belgian writers in England and France during the war, as well as in Belgium itself after the refugees and soldiers returned home. During the German occupation Belgians had necessarily been debarred from publishing works inspired by their patriotic feelings. Besides Verhaeren's war poems, Emile Cammaerts' Belgian Poems (1915) may be mentioned.

Professor Pirenne's Souvenirs de Captivite en Allemagne (1920) are a notable contribution to Belgian war literature in prose. An interesting book which consists of a series of essays on the war and the German occupation, L'CEil sur les Ostrogoths, by Ernest Verlant, director of Fine Arts, may live as a record of the impressions of a subtle mind and a cultivated personality.

A monthly review Le Flambeau, published clandestinely in Brussels during the German occupation, by Oscar Grojean, Henri Gregoire and Anatole Muhlstein, a young Pole, and which continues to appear, edited by Grojean and Gregoire, is without doubt the most interesting literary and political review in Belgium. Amongst contemporary writers and poets in Belgium may be mentioned: Fernand Severin (La Solitude Heureuse, 1901); Max Elskamp (Sous les Tentes de l'Exode, 1921; Les Commentaires et l'Ideographie du jeu de Loto dans les Flandres, 1914); Georges Raemaekers (Les Saisons Mystiques, 1910); t'Serstevens (Un A postolat); Blanche Rousseau (Le Rabaga, 1912; Lisette et sa Pantoufle, 1913); Glesener (Chronique d'un petit Pays, 1913).

In 1920 Crommelynck's play Le Cocu Magnifique created a sensation in Paris where it had a long run at the Theatre de l'Ouvre. In Brussels it obtained more or less of a " succes de scandale." It deals with a case of pathological jealousy. Crommelynck's other plays are Le Sculpteur de Masques (1908) and Les Amants Puerils (1921). Other Belgian plays include Kaatje and Malgre Ceux qui tombent, by Paul Spaak; Les Stapes, Les Liens and Les Semailles (1919) by Gustave van Zype, and Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans by Fonson and Wicheler, a picture of the life of the lower middle class in Brussels.

In Flemish literature there has been marked activity. Stijn Streuvels, a nephew of Guido Gezelle, and by profession a baker at Avelghem, a village in Flanders, has made a considerable reputation both in Belgium and in Holland. His descriptions of rural life are both poetic and realistic, and he has been compared to Tolstoi, whose psychological subtleties and epic amplitude Streuvels however does not possess. His style is of rare perfection, and this remark applies to the whole of the modern Flemish school of writers. Streuvels's work, Het Glorieryke Licht (The Glorious Light), was written in 1913. In 1914 he published Dorpslucht and in 1920 Genoveva van Brabant, a historical novel.

Cyriel Buysse may be called the Flemish Maupassant. He is a realist. His works, which deal with the life of the people both in towns and in the country and, to a lesser degree, with that of the middle classes, form a complete picture of Flemish life. Buysse is passionate, robust, full of revolt and of pity, very human. His De Vroolyke Thocht (The Joyous Expedition), Stemmingen (Impressions), and in collaboration with Virginie Loveling, a popular woman author, Levensleer (Education through Life) appeared between 1910 and 1912. In 1915 Buysse published Zomerleven (Life in the Summer), a sort of diary, and in 1921 Zooals Het Was (As It Was). Maurice Sabbe's De Nood der Bariseeles (The Plight of the Bariseeles), In 't Gedrang (1915, a book about the war), and 't Pastorke van Schaerdycke (1919, The Little Pastor of Schaerdycke) and E. Vermeulen's Herwording (Renaissance), which deals with the life of the peasants in West Flanders, may also be mentioned.

Rene de Clercq and Karel van de Woestyne are the most typical Flemish poets of the present generation. Rene de Clercq proceeds directly from the inspiration of Guido Gezelle (183089). His poems are essentially popular, vigorous, full of life and good spirits, although through these one feels his tenderness, his pity for the misery of the Flemish peasants. He has published a volume of Gedichten (Poems). Karel van de Woestyne has a more complex personality. His poems are very varied in feeling, sometimes simple and direct, at other times complicated, full of metaphors. His sphere is that of the soul, and for him things are real in so far only as they partake of the spiritual life. It is necessary to add that there are contrasts in Van de Woestyne's nature which he does not always dominate, and which give a certain want of harmony to his works. A volume containing prose essays on Flemish painters and writers is Kunst en Leven in Vlaanderen (Art and Life in Flanders). A volume of poems is De Gulden Schaden (The Golden Shadow). In 1918 Van de Woestyne wrote a book in poetic prose, mystic and difficult, called De Bestendige Aanwezigheid (The Eternal Presence), and in 1920 a volume of poems De Modderen Man (of which the nearest translation is The Man of Clay), the first volume of a trilogy. A new Belgian Flemish writer of outstanding importance is Felix Timmermans who, before he became celebrated in Belgium and Holland, sold sweets in a little shop in his native town of Lierre. Pallieter (1916) is epoch-making in contemporary Belgian literature. It is as forceful as Rabelais and yet tender and poetic, with a pantheistic feeling for nature: the ecstasy of a human being who incorporates himself with woods and streams, flowers and beasts, and who revels in every form of life. One may say that this book takes an important place in European literature. It had already reached 12 editions in 1921, and a French translation was then about to appear. Another book of Timmermans, Het Kindeken Jesus in Vlaanderen (1918, The Christ Child in Flanders), is a most poetical transplantation of the story of the childhood of Christ. This has already been done in Belgian French literature by Eugene Demolder. But whereas Demolder's book is full of literary devices Timmermans's comes as it were from the heart of the people. Another Flemish prose writer is Herman Teirlinck: De nieuwe Uylenspiegel (1920, The New Eulenspiegel), a fantasy; and amongst the best-known recent poets Auguste van Cauwelaert, Frits Francken and Daan Boens may be mentioned. Cyriel Verschaeve has written a dramatic poem Judas, and Eug. Schmidt a play Het Kindermummer (a turn performed by a child at a music-hall).

(L. VA.)

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