‘A Living Idea in Time’

The Work of Maurice Gilliams

When asked in an interview: ‘You are a poet, a writer of prose, and an essayist, which one are you the most or which one would you rather be, or which one are you really?’ Maurice Gilliams (1900-1982) replied with a quote from a study he himself had written on the work of the Flemish symbolist poet Karel van de Woestijne: ‘I do not wish to make a distinction, nor would I be able to, between his totally artistic and his totally human content – even though the poet may, in his outward appearance and behaviour, not awaken the same illusion in us that is awakened by his work.

Indeed, for both Maurice Gilliams and Karel van de Woestijne the essays, the poetry and the prose constitute one whole that cannot be cut up into different parts. Gilliams’ collected works, of which a four-volume first edition was published as early as 1954-1959, appeared under a title that spanned everything: Vita Brevis. This collective title is an abbreviation of a statement by the Roman writer and philosopher Seneca: ‘vita brevis, ars longa’ or: ‘life is short, art is long’. The title also indicates that Gilliams belongs to those artists for whom art not only means more than everything else, but also conquers time precisely because it is invested with this kind of absolute value.

Maurice Gilliams rarely gave interviews. He was a rather withdrawn person, shy of the literary limelight, and even rather wary of popularity. He never belonged to any group or school. As a poet he was, typically, characterised as ‘the great loner.’ He was and is not known to the public at large, but he was highly valued by the few who took the trouble to enter more deeply into his work. Official recognition was extended to him especially during the last years of his life, culminating in the award of the ‘major’ Prize for Dutch Literature in 1980, which is given every three years alternately to a Dutch and a Flemish writer. This prize is the highest literary award in the Dutch language-area.

Yet Gilliams never reached a large audience. His work, with its roots in European Modernism, is considered too ‘difficult’ for that: too hermetic, too experimental. Gilliams himself was convinced that the work of art can only be hermetic and that being an artist is, in essence, a tragic pursuit. In this he is a true heir of the Romantic and Symbolist traditions.

Gilliams loved what is closed, what stands on its own. In this, too, he is a child of his own time. The Modernist principle that lies at the root of Rilke’s ‘Dinggedichte’, which are very close to Gilliams’ work, and that is also inherent in T.S. Eliot’s ideas on depersonalisation and on the poem as an ‘objective correlative’ of the poet’s emotions, characterises Gilliams’ aesthetics as well. Yet this strongly objectifying tendency can be combined, in Gilliams’ case, with an equally strong autobiographical strand: the whole of his work is a process of self-analysis, long, always repeated, and selfpunishing. Romantic, (post)Symbolist and Modernist, even Classicist elements unite in it to a remarkable amalgam.

Gilliams’ poetry is closed, technically very refined, musical, and very expressive. Its apparently very simple form, characterised by a clear and very precise diction, masks, on further inspection, an emotional world and an imagery that are both very complex, ambiguous and polyvalent, as is also the case in the work of the Dutch poet Martinus Nijhoff. On first reading, one discovers a ‘resistive’ element in Gilliams’ poetry, an element definitely introduced by design, not by chance. Gilliams loved what he called ‘fireproof’ poetry, ‘which hurts the reader just like he, the poet, was hurt by it as he wrote it’. Gilliams kept revising his poetry, he kept polishing it and did not easily part with it for publication. This indicates a form of perfectionism and, at the same time, an attitude of refusal toward the outside world that is linked to a fundamental characteristic of both Gilliams’ being and his art: the turning inward that is a consequence of the need to seize one’s own identity, but also to break out of it, to step into that outside world. ‘The object of my art is not to create beauty,’ Gilliams wrote in one of his diaries, ‘I want to obtain visibility for myself; in spite of the intimate humiliations that target me, I want, by writing, to become a living idea in time, to surpass myself and to regain something in doing so.

Gilliams published his earliest collections of poetry himself (he was a printer’s son), in very small editions of twenty-five to fifty copies, and destroyed them all almost at once. Only a few of these poems survived in the first volume of selected poetry, The Past of Columbus (Het verleden van Columbus, 1933). These poems were also subjected to a very strict selection process by the time Poems 1919-1958 (Gedichten 1919-1958) was published in 1964 and 1965. Eventually Gilliams only kept a selection of 67 poems from all his poetry for inclusion into his collected works. Some of these are among the most gripping and penetrating poems of modern Dutch-language poetry.

Gilliams’ poetry can be said to be limited in its thematic range: themes from his early poetry return in his last poems and are also closely linked with the themes of his narrative prose and his essays. Gilliams’ thematic range is fundamentally characterised by melancholy; it expresses loneliness and alienation, but also an attempt to go beyond his own isolation. ‘I refine poetry from existential sadness’ is one of his characteristic statements on poetics.

His earliest poetry is mainly a quest for his own ego, which he tries to find by conjuring up the youth he lost. There is a certain split in the young poet, a being drawn ‘between here and elsewhere’, as in the title of a study on Nijhoff published in Gilliams’ diary The Art of the Fugue (De kunst van de fuga, 1955).

In the last collections, Ten Poems (Tien gedichten, 1950) and Wellsprings of Sleeplessness (Bronnen der slapeloosheid, in Vita Brevis IV, 1959), that are considered the absolute high point of his work, the fundamental opposition between the self and the outside world still occupies a central position, as does the need for communication, but the tone is less elegiac and less confessional; it conveys less pathos and it is cooler, more suggestive, more condensed. One of these high points is ‘Autumn Dialogue’ (‘Tweespraak in de herfst’, from Ten Poems), which Gilliams himself also considered one of his best poems. He pointed out that the dialogue, the communication, is more of an interior monologue in which the first two lines of every stanza offer a subjective view of a subjective experience, whereas that subjective experience is ‘silenced’ in lines 3 and 4 into an image of the nature that surrounds the speaker.

In both the early and the late poetry that nature is predominantly inhospitable and untended, but not unattractive to the observing lyrical I whose orientation is strongly visual. Nature is a means of evasion, also for Gilliams the prose writer, a way to conquer or break out of loneliness. This explains why the landscape or the spatial elements do not have negative connotations, whereas the temporal elements do: evening or night, Autumn or Winter, snow and cold are motifs that can be connected with decay, downfall, and death. ‘Winter in Schilde’ (‘Winter te Schilde’) and ‘Autumn’ (‘Herfst’), two poems from the so-called transitional period (in Ten Poems) are typical examples. They conjure up a chilly and desolate atmosphere, with a reference to the poet’s first marriage to Gregoria (in Schilde), that was experienced as a failure. ‘Autumn’ is dominated by a total absence of hope or light. It is a poem that expresses failure and disappointment in the poet’s emotional life, but does so by means of nature. That failure and that disappointment grow all the more oppressive because of the poem’s strongly assertive diction. In the last poems, though, two positive values have come to stand against loneliness and decay: one is youth, childhood, what is not lost is ‘what can be remembered in children’s eyes’; the other is woman, the figure of Maria that stands next to the figure of the I. The woman does not abrogate the loneliness of the I, but shares his fate. Yet a new motif is linked to this, that of childlessness, expressed in its most tragic dimensions, painfully clear in its simple, oppressive diction in ‘The wolf in Winter in the old bed with her’ (‘Wolf en wolvin in ‘t winters ledikant’, in Wellsprings of Sleeplessness).

Gilliams’ prose is very close to his poetry in content. It can be situated in an international context. His novel Elias, or The Struggle with the Nightingales (Elias of het gevecht met de nachtegalen, 1936 – published in English translation in 1995) is most often linked with Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910); yet there is also an unmistakable link with Alain Fournier’s Le grand Meaulnes (1914) and with Niels Lyhne (1880) by the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen. Gilliams wrote penetrating analyses of the latter two works in poetic prose in his diary The Man in Front of the Window (De man voor het venster, 1943). Even though Gilliams’ prose is written in a poetic and analytical-introspective style, its most remarkable feature is its unique motivic structure.

Elias, or The Struggle with the Nightingales was published in 1936 in a first version, and immediately recognised as a masterpiece. To this day the novel is considered the precursor of the modern experimental prose that would only fully develop in Flanders between 1945 and 1965 with Louis Paul Boon and Johan Daisne, Ivo Michiels and Hugo Claus. In this so-called autonomous writing Gilliams practised three decades avant la lettre, the author abandons the need to reproduce a recognisable, generally current representation of the world in favour of creating a new world that stands on its own, a ‘world in words.’ At the same time Elias is an attempt at autobiographical prose, the prose of remembrance, an attempt to describe not outward reality but inner sensations. As such the novel also finds itself in a tradition of experimental prose that goes back to Mallarmé’s Divagations and that was explored in Flanders by Karel van de Woestijne (Deviations – Afwijkingen, 1910) and Paul van Ostaijen (‘Between Fire and Water’ – ‘Tussen vuur en water’). In this tradition writing is an exploration of the I, a search for knowledge of the self, preferably by means of the past, as in Proust’s masterpiece A la recherche du temps perdu. Present and past run together in the time dimension that is conjured up; what is described is the time of intuition, time as lived from the inside, Henri Bergson’s ‘durée’.

Elias evokes the world of a twelve-year-old boy during the year he spends on his family’s country estate. The speaker is Elias himself, who expresses his emotions in the first person and in the present tense. A key to the interpretation of this prose was already presented in the introduction to the first edition: ‘these are more melodic modulations than stories in any real sense; they have an imperceptible beginning and almost no end.’ In his diary The Man in Front of the Window Gilliams offered a further explanation on the format of Elias: he wrote the novel in the form of a sonata. Elias is an experiment, carried out consistently, in extreme musicalisation of form. As in a classical sonata two themes are introduced in the various, ostensibly loosely connected fragments of prose. The themes alternate, they interrupt each other, play through each other, penetrate each other. In so doing they express Gilliams’ fundamental thematics: introspection, linked to the space that is close to the country seat, is opposed to the need for communication, the quest to break out of loneliness. That quest is linked to the garden, the space that is farther away from the country seat, and Elias’ cousin Aloysius, with whom he breaks away in adventurous forays.

Gilliams published various other prose fragments, all fragments of his autobiography. The extensive novel Gregoria, which was left unfinished, was published posthumously. In that novel Gilliams analyses the atmosphere of his youthful first love and of his first marriage with a precision that is painful to the point of torture. Like Elias, Gregoria is also a depiction of the milieu and the time of the old, frenchified high bourgeoisie in fin de siècle Flanders. Gilliams repeated the unique experiment with prose fragments composed according to a musical principle one more time, namely in Winter in Antwerp (Winter te Antwerpen, 1953), a novel which again consists of sketches constructed around the character of Elias, who is now a grown man and an artist. This novel attracted less attention than Elias, but it exhibits a composition that is even more refined and worked through, which also means more confusing at first sight. New elements are introduced in Winter in Antwerp, such as the figure of the father (as opposed to Elias, in which the world of the mother occupied a central position), Elias’ own illness and his development as an artist. The motif of a female figure is also introduced here, as it is in the later poetry. This female figure builds a ‘bridge’ to the outer world, as does writing. The binary basic thematics of Winter in Antwerp again display the structuring principle of the sonata, but the book can also be read as a fugue-like structure.

This last statement is corroborated if one also includes the essays and the diaries in the discussion, as one should with an artist like Gilliams, whose work exhibits such an obvious interconnection. This reflective prose occupies an important position in Vita Brevis, and not just because of its actual volume: it also reveals Gilliams as an astute theoretician in the fields of literature, music, and the arts.

The reflective prose consists of two diaries, which were published separately: The Man in Front of the Window and The Art of the Fugue, and three essays, among them An Introduction to the Idea Henri de Braekeleer (Inleiding tot de Idee Henri de Braekeleer, 1941) and Rubens and his Two Women (Rubens en zijn beide vrouwen, 1947). Gilliams’ literary essay, A Visit to the Princely Grave (Een bezoek aan het prinsengraf, 1952), is remarkable and illustrative of his technique. The essay is still considered one of the best ever written about the Flemish avant-garde artist Paul van Ostaijen. In Vita Brevis the reflective pieces seem to make up a collection of apparently unconnected fragments and statements, but on further inspection they appear to constitute a consciously structured whole. The diaries are not just loose notes; rather, they have been carefully composed, like the creative prose, around the two basic themes that alternate or reciprocate like ‘melodic modulations.’ The titles are also revealing. The title of the first diary is inspired by a painting of the Antwerp painter Henri de Braekeleer that allows us to recognise the I figure from the lyrical poetry, looking, observing, strongly visual in orientation. The title of the second diary refers to Bach.

As a critic Gilliams is above all a personalist. He opted for subjective criticism, consciously and explicitly, and looked for the person, the human being behind the work and that human being’s struggle with artistic creation. The writer who is the central character of Winter in Antwerp keeps looking for the ‘only right expression for the only right experience’. Similarly, the critic is permeated by the knowledge that the artist and the work of art will never abandon their secret.

The fundamental tenet of this criticism might be described as a confession of powerlessness. The poet, the writer of prose, the critic keeps looking for the essential, the core, what Gilliams the critic called ‘the Idea,’ while realising he will never find it. In the search for that idea recognition, the confrontation that is also identification, is the moving force. As with all great essayists, the portraits of artists Gilliams created are also self-portraits to a great extent. They are absolutely vital for whoever wants to grasp the ‘Idea Maurice Gilliams,’ poet and writer of prose.

By Anne Marie Musschoot
Translated by André Lefevere

First published in The Low Countries, 1996

Further Reading

Gilliams, Maurice, Vita Brevis. Verzameld Werk. Amsterdam, 1984.
Jong, Martien J.G. de, Maurice Gilliams. Een essay. Amsterdam, 1984.
Loo, Firmijn Vander, Proeve van bibliografie van en over de dichter Maurice Gilliams. Deurne-Antwerpen, 1976.