Looking for the Other Self

The Work of Kristien Hemmerechts

In a relatively short time Kristien Hemmerechts (1955-) has become one of the most prominent of her generation of authors, a large group who are innovative in different fields. In the second half of the eighties, that group brought a long period of impasse and hesitancy in Flemish literature to an end. In 1990 Kristien Hemmerechts received the three-yearly State Prize for prose, the official literary recognition bestowed by the Flemish Community, for her novel Broad Hips (Brede heupen, 1989). She was one of the youngest authors ever to have been awarded that prize. Every new novel or collection of short stories she publishes, without exception, remains on the list of best-selling books for weeks, and she often appears in the media, as author, literary critic, or spokeswoman for the emancipation of women on both the social and the personal level. When she was studying English she found that her teachers did not pay much attention to the great contribution made by women authors to literature written in that language all over the world. She is trying to remedy this in the course on the short story she teaches at the Catholic University in Brussels. In a short biographical note for a brochure put together by her publisher she writes: ‘I know it was important for me to be intensively engaged with texts written by women. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a specifically feminine style. I do know, though, that the writings of women often inspire me more than those of men, and that reading their work helped me find my own voice.’

Hemmerechts was born in Grimbergen, a small town on the edge of Brussels, and studied in Brussels, Leuven, Amsterdam and Cambridge where Malcolm Bradbury, the novelist and academic, encouraged her to write. Her first three stories, written in English, appeared in the series First Fiction, published by Faber and Faber. They were later translated into Dutch. In 1986 she was awarded her Ph.D. with a dissertation on the work of the British writer Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and other novels.

The influence of her intensive study of literature written in English, and especially of the short story in which she excels, is obvious in her first novel, A Pillar of Salt (Een zuil van zout, 1987). In that novel a young woman, Anna, returns to her parents’ house from Amsterdam after her father’s death.

Her father has left newspaper clippings lying around all over the house. Anna tries to sort them because she wants to write a paper about them to try to reconstruct the image of a period. Anna is pregnant with the child of an American globetrotter, but she rejects a well-organised family life of the kind her sister has made for herself. Although such a life offers more certainties, it fails to offer greater satisfaction and it ends up in the type of life led by her grandmother, who spends her days in an old people’s home, blind and listless. During one of her visits to her grandmother Anna, who occasionally takes a bath in the home, unexpectedly gives birth. The baby is still-born. Afterwards the grandmother appears to have turned into stone.

Even though gripping events take place in this story, there are no emotional peaks. This makes the subtle game with symbols all the more obvious. There is the cycle of being born and dying that is rounded off in the home, but also immediately broken off — there is no vision of any future. There are also the different shapes in which water appears in this story: drinking water, rain water, bath water, amniotic fluid … water that gives solace, purification, life. There is finally, most obviously, the quest, without success, for the method that made her father put the newspaper clippings in what were obviously carefully selected places. This quest might bring an order of its own into Anna’s life, provide it with the sense she is now forced to find. She suspects the solution is in her father’s study, but she does not dare enter it, for fear she might discover that, to quote Shakespeare, there really was no ‘method’ in his ‘madness’ after all, and that he died at his wits’ end, unable to fathom the meaning of life, unable to view it as a coherent whole.

The central theme in Kristien Hemmerechts’ work is that of the relationship between people, between parents and children, brothers and sisters, spouses and lovers. Not infrequently these people remain at a distance from each other, and that distance is not easily bridged, in spite of various forms of intimacy. Parents are often expected to be able to answer the crucial questions of life which plague their grown-up children. In the very moving story ‘Back’ (‘Terug’) from the collection Long Ago (Lang geleden, 1994), a daughter spends a week with her parents — and without her partner — at their holiday home in the South of France. The daughter measures the relationship between her parents against that of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle — she happens to be reading a biography of the latter. She also compares her mother to Nora and to herself: two older women who have found certain answers, she thinks, as opposed to a third who still finds herself in the stage of complete confusion. The father has also ordered his life around fixed principles and rituals (‘On the way to the beach he picks up litter and carries it with him till he finds a litter bin, even if it is really filthy litter’). For the parents the roads have been mapped, the riverbeds eroded, and what they managed to get out of life turns out to be rather modest. When the daughter looks across the chasm between herself and her parents she becomes melancholic.

Structurally Kristien Hemmerechts often confronts extremes with each other in this way: life and death, hope and failure, with a turning-point that is just as often situated off-screen, outside the boundaries of the actual story. It is impossible to fathom the mechanism, the process that brings about that turning-point. What goes wrong between hope and failure, between a sense of enterprise and final resignation, remains opaque. The writer investigates reality by registering it, but she keeps a certain modest distance from the unknowable, the unfathomable of what drives people and defines their lives.

The father figure is among the most obviously recurrent characters. Sometimes he is dead or absent, which causes a sense of something missing, a lack of direction, and vague nostalgia in the children as they are growing up. In Broad Hips Laura, the secretary, never knew her father because he died in an accident. As a result she allows surrogate fathers to define her life for her. She had worked in London for a month and met a man there who treated her as his daughter. She allows her boss to shape her into what he thinks is a modern woman as if he were another Pygmalion, selecting hairdoes, make-up, lingerie, expensive dresses, high heels for her. He regularly takes her to a blindingly white hotel room after a dietetically responsible meal and has distant sex with her. He later complains that she remains so indifferent to him.

In most cases, however, fathers refuse to play their parts: the father of Laura’s little daughter, for instance, leaves her just before the birth. Women suffer more from life in Hemmerechts’s stories, everyday life weighs more heavily on them than on men, hence the use of ‘broad hips’ as a symbol. But even though they are vulnerable and uncertain, they also appear to be able to fight back. In their striking resignation they are able to cope with a life that is not very inspiring.

Another very incisively drawn character is that of the protagonist’s sister who is in an institution. When Laura’s sister Elza, who is two years older than the protagonist, is admitted to a psychiatric institution, family life with her mother and two brothers is put under severe strain. Elza has always been prettier and more successful than Laura, but in her youth she always came to Laura for protection against her fears. In another story, ‘Little Child and Orange, Orange and Little Child’, (‘Kindje en Appelsientje, Appelsientje en Kindje’), from Long Ago, Kristien Hemmerechts evokes youth and the symbiotic relationship between two sisters, one of whom is very fickle and domineering. They have such a symbiotic relationship that one of them, now a young woman, identifies with her sister when she visits her in the institution to which she has been admitted after pathological behaviour. As if inspired by telepathy, she feels there is something wrong in the institution and she does, indeed, stumble on a dehumanising scene. Then she thinks, about herself: ‘This room is her whole life. This is her life and if she ever doubted it she knows it now: this is it and she has to accept it, she has to embrace it. All the rest is smoke and mirrors.’ This character most strongly embodies the protagonist’s fear of loss of control and degeneration in the face of life, the unfathomable, and personal emotional instability.

Hemmerechts’s most recent novel, Many Women, a Man Now and Then (Veel vrouwen, af en toe een man, 1995), also features two sisters. In this case the author adopts the point of view of the more unstable of both sisters. The life of this character is compared to the lives of women of two generations ago. Once again this is a novel which examines the concepts of identity and personality; it deals with the impotence of women — in different times and under changing circumstances — to free themselves of emotional inhibitions and obstacles, and to be happy in an unrestricted way.

In the novel White Sand (Wit zand, 1993) the characters move around in a general atmosphere of growing loss of control, dismay and despair. Paul and Elisabeth, mature lovers, spend a weekend in a hotel on the coast in Northern France. When it’s over, Elisabeth goes back home. She idealises her father and she is always preoccupied with herself. As a result, her children feel emotionally abandoned. Paul, who has no children, gets involved with murky social situations in and around the hotel: the owner’s handicapped child, who dies in an accident after falling down the basement stairs, or a single mother in the neighbourhood. The characters are weighed down by the emotional burden of their past: they always appear to be looking for something to hold on to, for a kind of constancy in their lives. The underlying tone of the characters’ hopeless expectations in a disjointed world gives the novel a sombre timbre indeed.

The greatest thematic constant in Kristien Hemmerechts’s prose is the unquenchable longing her characters have for security and for the fulfilment of their emotional desires. The fact that this longing for fulfilment is never actually ‘fulfilled’, causes a constant gnawing sense of lack in their lives, a lack of satisfaction that makes them wander around disquieted and disoriented and sometimes causes illogical and inexplicable behaviour. This sense of lack is most obviously symbolised in Victor’s two missing fingers in the novel Without Boundaries (Zonder grenzen, 1991). Victor wanted to become a doctor, but he had to break off his training as the result of a stupid accident. The metaphor is further clarified in a key passage in which Victor goes out to buy gloves. Because the novel’s chronology is scattered, the passage only occurs toward the end of the book and in that passage the author gives a cynical twist to the whole story of attempts to compensate for what is lacking, of missed opportunities and emotional misunderstandings.

Yet Victor is not the main character in this novel; the three women who surround him are. Two of these women are his wife Petra and his daughter Emilia who are looking for a new meaning for their lives in travel and work abroad after the divorce and subsequent disintegration of the family. The third woman is Hannah Prat, a seedy revolutionary who exerts a peculiar attraction on the bourgeois Victor. She moves around in a secret world full of signs, rituals, and dreams, in caves, holes, corridors, and slums in the city, a kind of underworld that is a symbol for the uncontrolled, the unfathomable, and the unreasonable in man, the dark side of the personality, at once fascinating and a little frightening. Through his relationship with her, Victor makes contact, in a strange way, with a part of his personality he has never been able to define before. She opens a door for him to a world whose existence he had only suspected, to a non-defined longing that was never satisfied in successive previous relationships with women, in short: to his other self. Using this character, Kristien Hemmerechts clarifies the motivations driving many protagonists in her work.

Kristien Hemmerechts’s prose has a strongly Anglo-Saxon character. That is no accident: through deep study she has taken over the sober, realistic, and at the same time psychologically revealing style of, say, Jean Rhys and Katherine Mansfield. Her emotionless style, full of suggestions and understatements, does indeed strike the reader, as does the special attention she devotes to plot, character, and the structuring of narrative elements. This creates the impression that her characters have no emotional ups and downs, that they submit to their lives with a certain sense of resignation, and that they do not have a grip on the world around them.

But one can also recognise methodological features of Virginia Woolf’s work in that of Kristien Hemmerechts, although those features are much less obvious. They surface in the treatment of chronology and consciousness. Thematically Kristien Hemmerechts’s work is reminiscent of the female awareness in the work of Margaret Drabble, and of the undirected investigation of the psychology of mainly solipsistic characters in the novels of Iris Murdoch. There is also a degree of affinity with authors like Jenny Diski and Alan Hollinghurst. But Kristien Hemmerechts reworks all these real or imagined influences into a literature that is outspokenly of our time, a time without moral bearings, a time of uncertainty, superficiality, splintering and seediness, which causes great emotional lack of fulfilment. Against this background she puts people into poignant psychological situations, surrounded by questions about their identity, about the content of their life and its meaning, seized by a vague fear of advancing time and death, and longing for the fulfilment of their lives that are full of contingencies and short-lived, indifferently conducted relationships. They look at life with a great lack of understanding and a great sense of wonder; they find it hard to emerge from the confusion in which it appears to them, and they only do so with limited success. In their lack of control and their failure to view life as a coherent whole, they testify to a very ‘postmodern’ powerless sense of life. The representation of their wry sense of uneasiness in a world full of disjointed dimensions leads to a reading experience that is at the same time fascinating and profoundly disquieting.

By Jos Borre
Translated by Andre Lefevere

First published in The Low Countries, 1995