Belgium Literature Part 2

In Belgium, intellectuality had developed singularly in the period of prosperity that followed the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. More and more large masses approached the world of culture, and were more open to the action of the great currents of the modern spirit. Now, the average teaching leaving only a low place to the Flemish language, and the university teaching being entirely in French, literature also developed predominantly in French. It is noteworthy that most of the writers of the Jeune Belgique they were Flemish of French education. Flemish literature had come out especially from the people, in any case it had always remained very close to the people, living more spontaneously than as a true artistic manifestation. In a higher world it had to give way to French literature.

But an inverse phenomenon was to occur about fifteen years later. The Flemish movement had developed; legislative measures gave greater importance to the study of Flemish in middle schools, and Flemish writers who came out of the educated classes became more numerous. Thus a revival similar to that of the Jeune Belgique took place, which had as its main organ the magazine Van Nu en Straks (Things of today and yesterday) founded by Augusto Vermeylen in 1893, and a new flowering of poetry was born. By a lucky coincidence, old Guido Gezelle too, as if he too had been “touched by these scents of spring”, came out of his silence, and composed his best poems; and while the French writers of the generation that followed that of the Jeune Belgique (we cite, for example, the storytellers Maurice des Ombiaux, born in 1868, Louis Delattre, born in 1870 and Edmond Glesener, born in 1874), no one was able to match the stardom that their predecessors had achieved, a large group of Flemish authors Little by little he was forming, among whom not a few, widely known both in Holland and in Flanders, are in all respects worthy of standing alongside the French writers of the previous generation. Among the major names, we can remember those of prose writers: Cyriel Buysse (born in 1859), Stijn Streuvels (1871), Maurice Sabbe (1873), Fernand Toussaint (1875), Herman Teirlinck (1879), Lode Baekelmans (1879), Ernest Claes (1885), Felix Timmermans (1886); and those of the poets: Prosper van Langendonk (1862-1920), Alfred Hegenscheidt (1866), Karel van de Woestyne (1878),

At the present time, production is quite abundant both in the French and in the Flemish fields; but we are not yet at a sufficient distance to judge recent writers, nor, in a quick sketch such as this, can we take into account wits not yet fully formed.

It now remains for us to establish what is properly Belgian in the two literatures.

First of all it is evident that for certain general characteristics the spirit of Flemish literature differs markedly from that of Dutch literature. From the end of the century. XVI, the two fractions of the Dutch group followed different developments, due to different civilizations. Holland has enjoyed a very high culture, which has never suffered a solution of continuity: and its literature has the aspect that a bourgeois aristocracy could have given it: it is more impregnated with intellectuality, more disciplined, more cultured; her “intimate realism” brings her closer to the Dutch genre painting of the century. XVII. Flemish literature, on the other hand, has more popular roots, a less reflected realism, more abandon and exuberance, the grand gesture in the manner of Rubens, the instinct of color that sings, more muscles and more blood. However, even when Flemish literature, in the course of its evolution, has reached a higher spiritual content, it has always remained faithful to the simple and spontaneous health that comes from the people; and what, in short, constitutes the originality of Gezelle, Streuvels and Timmermans is the fact that they have been able to associate so much refined art with such a natural rhythm. It should be added that Flemish literature has been more constantly and more deeply influenced by French literature, and that, in general, the Flemish phrase is less complicated, less heavily engraved than the Dutch phrase.

As for Belgian literature in French, we have already said that many of the writers were Flemish. The characters which we have now indicated as being proper to Flemish literature are also found at every step in their works; and this is a tone which often gives them a special place in French literature. Van Hasselt had already tried to compose with a metric based, as in the Germanic languages, more on the accent than on the number of syllables, and the procedure was subsequently illustrated by Verhaeren better than by any other. Charles De Coster’s work is so Flemish that the author deliberately used an archaic language to find the ingenuity and the picturesque color with which he wanted to approach the Flemish imagination. Lemonnier’s French, and even more Verhaeren’s, with its dynamic movement, its violent accentuation, its truculence, its patches of color, it is quite a different thing from the French of French novelists and poets. So Max Elskamphe has developed his own, almost childish language, which seems to be an adaptation of the Flemish folk song.

Even when the language is purely French, the spiritual attitude is not always. There is no need here to insist on local storytellers, who paint the aspects and customs of their city or village: it is not so much the national subject that counts, but the particular way of seeing and feeling. However, the regional inspiration is sometimes evident, as in the Walloon narrators of Hainaut (eg Des Ombiaux and Delattre), whose sweet, spiritual and light bonhomie reflects a characteristic of the spirit of those peoples, or in the Walloon poets of Liège (eg Albert Mockel), whose fluid musicality, with imprecise contours, is perhaps influenced by some Germanic influence.

So too many others, who have written in French or Flemish, generally present, to varying degrees, characteristics of undoubted kinship. And it is precisely the characteristics that we indicated earlier as Flemish: the taste for color (think of the strong tradition of Flemish painting), the sensual attachment to the materiality of life, combined in a wonderful way with the sense of mystery that is guessed behind this materiality. Although they are dissimilar to each other, this trait is also common to Verhaeren, Van de Woestyne, Gezelle, Maeterlinck (the latter three fed by the mysticism of Ruysbroek). Some of Van de Woestyne’s poems have exactly the same luster of saturated tones and the same thrill of infinity that characterizes certain of Verhaeren’s poems, how some of Demolder’s tales proceed from the same vision that some of Timmermans’ narratives; and Baekelmans is often very close to Eeckhoud.

The spiritual affinities of these writers therefore sufficiently authorize us to speak of a Belgian literature. However, if one looks at reality in all its nuances, one must avoid the danger of giving this Belgian literature a too narrowly delimited national character, which it does not yet possess.

Belgium Literature 2