Flemish Master of the Small Canvas

In Praise of Willem Elsschot Willem Elsschot’s (1882-1960) eleven novellas, with their irony, sardonic humour and stylistic sophistication, are as vibrant today as when they were written. Five works have so far been translated into English. In 1963 the great trio of stories, Soft Soap, The Leg and Will ‘o the Wisp appeared in one…

Prometheus Unbound

Essays as an Orphic Counterforce The Dutch – or rather Hollanders, Frisians and Zeelanders – are coastal dwellers, and traditionally their eyes were focused more on the sea than on dry land. As long ago as the early and high Middle Ages, long before the rise of the Hanseatic towns in the East of the…

How Free Is Dutch-Language Poetry?

The word is free. Like Gezelle’s swift it soars through the immeasurable space of the mind, lifted up or blown along by cool or sultry winds from distant parts, by ‘Luft von anderem Planeten’, as Stefan George has it. Nothing and no one can thwart its vitality and urge to freedom, however much social institutions,…

The Time of God

The time of God, the final judgement day when the world tumbles to annihilation, the approaching downfall of all creation scorched to a cinder by the sun’s last ray is now at hand. The time-honoured procession of the seasons and the fixed company of the constellations will steadily be dislodged from their usual progression. Then,…

Mud Flat I

Where the waters converge and the dry land appears perhaps in the clay there’ll be a last trace of his fingers. Not land and not water, also: no man’s water and no man’s land. A field or a sea of round, wet lobes – as if someone at a stroke had sliced off the top…

Winter Landscape

In vain I raise eyes that are closed to see; I find the landscape now enclosing me that before the dawn loomed cold in my mind’s eye: a man’s last bike-ride into fenland snow in search of silence like an embryo, breath-clouds condensed around his mouth as he went by. Winter, resembling Dutch School scenery.…

The Last Ferry

A clock strikes on the other side. It’s late. No need to count, you know the chimes by heart. The years go by, you think, just as well without. This far there was a road. Then the road ran out: the Dordtse Kil, the Rhine, the Nile, the Lethe. The setting is dissolved in waiting…

Anti-Freezeland

In Holland when winter is all about and we shiver in hibernation, Friesland, we find, has a huge population of freaks who in wintertime really freak out. Taut, tanned, dumb faces no longer pout, but suddenly show more relaxation while their macho chops with animation produce what is a smile, no doubt. Impenetrable conversation spreads…

St Johan

once under floodlights when I saw footballers weaving a goal moving like elves across the grass, I knew it was from here the saviour would appear. and lo: Johan Cruyff the dancer the faun the eagle of the valleys but when we came for his sermon on the mount he talked about paying taxes.  …

Bacon

For beginners there are still gently swaying lanterns, walks holding hands. But advanced students are required to go beyond that one love that one sometimes finds; asphalt melts under your feet, panting, you just make your parents’ end. And then you automatically become a know-all in the face of beauty, because beauty does exist. I…

To the Death

We didn’t pity those who died. A solemn train, the parting pain: it left us cold. We were young and scorned the clamour of flowers and dressed-up sparrows, we walked away and lived our time to death. The pleasures, not the pining, and the world a mattress. And in between all the kisses a quiet…

Poem

At that instant stasis settles with Swiss precision among your small hours of masturbation and other delights, for the rock’s song weaves stones in the mouth of those who come, splitting beauty and unexpectedly dispersing, like bales of linen, the future and so off we went into the mist tapping our teeth in wordless unknowing,…

It’s only a five-minute walk from poverty to wealth

An Extract from Frans Pointl’s The Rich Have Awkward Sizes A critic once wrote that Frans Pointl’s short stories are populated with people like himself: ‘they hover between the social and the antisocial’. The Amsterdam Soup Kitchen, grimy coffee tables, his ‘dingy, dead-end street’, the comforting companionship of ‘ex-stray cats’, Pointl’s Jewish mother and a…

The Everyday is Good

The Novels of Koen Peeters Conversaties met K. (Conversations with K., 1988), the first novel of Koen Peeters (1959), sports a stamp from the Belgian Congo on its cover. Almost a quarter of a century later the Leuven author published Duizend heuvels (A Thousand Hills, 2012), his great novel about the small neighbouring country of…

Extract from ‘The First Stone’

On one of their trips relations between them had become very strained. Hagar had been reluctant to come in the first place and refused to go anywhere off the beaten track. May felt as if she had been put in quarantine and suspected that there was another, modern world out there behind the Biblical facade.…

An Intractable Cathedral of Language

The Poetry of Kees Ouwens The first poem in the collection Dream (Droom, 1988) by the recently-deceased Dutch poet Kees Ouwens (1947-2004) opens by speaking of a journey, a journey into the past. ‘A good twenty years we had to travel back in time.’ The reference is to the beginning of his career as a…

The Tale Won’t Be Ended

The Poetry of J.H. Leopold One of the earliest publications by the poet Jan Hendrik Leopold (1865-1925), the Scherzo sequence of 1894, contains a poem that at first sight appears a model of simplicity – by Leopold’s standards at least. Leopold has the reputation of being a difficult, not to say obscure poet; which is why…

Adriaen Coorte

Painter of asparagus and raspberries, he’s added lemons too and gooseberries in tangible magnificence. He sets them down, depicts their shape. A rigid order they communicate, stubbornness that helps the viewer share durable pretence. Things edible and perishable as men are, have for a brief space been wilfully set apart and raised above nature’s breathlessness.…

Ghent-Wevelgem

If I could start again, I’d do things just as I did: not for a few quid, but for that new racing strip. That gleams and hugs your buttocks and those of your team mates in the peloton. I’d like to train till I die, trailing the other guy a fraction, I’d always bring up…

Six Extracts 

Penance every day My grandmother: ‘Oh, Anneke, could you bring some fish too … Three or so herrings for frying.’ My mother: ‘But mother, it’s not Friday, is it?’ My grandmother: ‘It’s an ember day.’ Me: ‘Mummy, what’s an ember day?.’ My mother: ‘It’s when the Church says you have to do penance.’ Me: ‘And…

The Face and Voice of Flanders

Six Family Novels by Erik Vlaminck Maurice (de) Vlaminck was a Fauviste painter who at one time caused a sensation in pre-1914 Paris. August Vlaminck was one of the first Belgian photographers, having begun his career in the nineteenth century as court painter to King Leopold II. And now we have the writer Erik Vlaminck…