What to Talk About

What to talk about this evening? Talk, too, in a land that we recognise, bear with, rarely forget. That land with its farcical genesis, its damp climate, its dubious stories about its past, its people, grasping till their last collapse among the cauliflowers, They continue to multiply in a paradise of their inventing, greedy for…

To their Downfall, Eyes Wide Shut

About the Novels of Thomas Rosenboom The report by the panel of judges for one of the Netherlands’ literary prizes referred to Thomas Rosenboom as a ‘young writer’. An extraordinary description. It is certainly the case that the media have long had an appetite for ‘cool’ young writers. But Rosenboom was born in 1956. Leaving…

We Are a Hospitable People

Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, John, Joanna and Nigel, chers compatriotes, mesdames, messieurs, we are a hospitable people. This is written in blood in the books that tell of our past. We are a hospitable people. We are a helpful people. The man in the house on the hill leaps out of bed at the…

Robbed by a Cheque

In January 1991, Willy Claes, the Belgian Minister of Economic Affairs, approved ‘cheque charges’: users would from then on have to pay for writing out a cheque. In his weekly column in Humo, a Flemish weekly (which invariably ended with the mantra ‘Do it!’), the writer took up arms against the banks. It was the…

Two Extracts

Extract from Everything Must Go In the meantime trucks were speeding past Tony, loudly honking their horns, flashing their headlights and throwing up a curtain of water, which the Transit had to drive through as if it were a waterfall. Just let my windscreen wiper keep working, thought Tony anxiously. The other one had given…

Tom Lanoye, Literary Multinational

Story-writer, novelist, playwright, translator, columnist, pamphleteer and performer, Tom Lanoye (1958-) is a versatile and much talked-about author. During the course of his twenty-year career, he has become an authority in various literary disciplines, but he has also shown himself to be a shrewd commentator on social matters that extend far beyond the realms of literature.…

Three Poems and Two Extracts

Matador That death like a man dressed in red trickles Down the curve of the hill, until it comes to a stop round your feet as naturally as a mirror relaxing around your feet before shattering. (Inside-out man who draws me to him and buttons me up like a golden jacket; from the heavens roses…

In the Belly of the Boa

The Work of Peter Verhelst Until recently Peter Verhelst (1962-) was one of Flemish literature’s best-kept secrets. True, his disturbing poetry and novels had been much praised by critics and a select band of readers; but he seemed too difficult for the public at large. But although the level of difficulty is no whit reduced,…

Albatross

That travel, those trips of yours the last few years, All of them alibis of a seasoned albatross To fly yourself to sleep henceforth, all of them Flights of fancy in seventh heaven, all of them Pretexts for not landing ever, anywhere any more On your feet, never again waddling from your desk To your…

On Visas and Borders

1938 My mother and I always used to walk for an hour before lunch; now we just walk, so at least we get some fresh air. My mother says it’s almost as healthy as eating. Every day we go down the rue Neuve to the Grand-Place, because my father liked it so much. And it…

Hunt

Flat on its back its long and spoon-shaped ears, huddled along the furrow lay the hare, and I, as I came closer to it, pretended, thus failing in my task as beater, it had not been seen, not its eyes bulging with fear, blank as if it saw not me, not the wide freedom behind…

Riposte to Death

Esther Jansma’s Poetry Mourning. Cherishing the dead. Examining, delaying, outwitting, toying with, and renaming death, in order finally to let go of it again. This is the essence of Esther Jansma’s work. Esther Jansma, born in 1958 in Amsterdam, made her debut in 1988 with Voice under my Bed (Stem onder mijn bed), an impressive…

Archeology

If we really have to dress ourselves, against the cold for instance, or in the name of this or that, in the remnants of some past or other, stories and aids to memory that tell nothing except that we were there in the time that was here before this today if we can sustain ourselves…

Extract from ‘Child of Another Time’

Dutch had become the language I was growing up with, the language in which I was learning to express myself precisely and with subtlety. My Dutch kept pace with my development, grew along with my need to put feelings and ideas into words and to comprehend them. I spoke the kind of Dutch that was…

The Arrival and Observations of an Exile

1852 Brussels, 8 January Unusual manners. The Flemish middle-class has something of the uncomplicated, crude bourgeoisie of the past. Rabelais would have laughed at their sayings. Instead of It never rains but it pours, here they say It never rains but it pees. The most popular monument in Brussels is a small boy ‘peeing’; another…

Song for the Dead

Upsy-daisy, there we go, from hobby-horse to hearse across the cobbles. It drizzled when grandmother was buried. In September her daughter scrubs the grave though no one drops by. My knees are wrecked, she reflects. So many wasted years. Give me a jab if I get Alzheimer’s. Or: poor bonne-maman was scared the rabbits in…

A Poem

On the comforting certainty I found People are mired in uncertainty, the face of a god has bleached the time white, now I come to comfort them with songs of what never changes and in nothing falls short. I can be encouragement to the fearful, the clear voice always reasonable and calm, because my heart…

‘Auntie Yet’ and Humanity

The Internationalism of Henriette Roland Holst Henriette Roland Holst-van der Schalk (1869-1952), poetess, writer and socialist, is one of the most revered women in the history of the Netherlands. Her contemporaries hailed her as ‘our greatest poet’ and saw her as a prophetess; the proclaimer of a beautiful, pure and righteous future. The historian Johan…

First Steps 

He ran into the street without a glance and I, becoming like him more and more, thought he could make it to the door. But he turns round and away, cars racing along the prom. Now he’s almost there I’ll never get to him in time. Just as my father, all his life, could dream…

Drawing 

in the end we want to see the same thing every time: a house between the trees like the one children never tire of drawing: a door, a window, a slate roof and in the window a family and of course we mustn’t forget the chimney with smoke curling up from it in the empty…