While we are on the subject of how to stay sane while rehabbing and regaining the full flexion, extension and strength in one’s right knee, I should point out that I have had an unequalled opportunity to sink and swim in Belgian writing.
The theme to be explored, elucidated, exhausted and ultimately wrung dry in our Literature Club this year is “Literature of Our Ancestors”. As with more or less every theme we devise, this one can be interpreted in multiple ways. It can be the literature written by a particular ancestor. It can be the literature written by fellow countrymen of your ancestors. It may be whatever literature your ancestors chose to read. But which ancestors? Your parents may have been reading Ladies’ Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, John Updike and John Cheever; while your great-great-great grandparents back in the swamps of Wallonia were reading Balzac by gaslight; while your other great-great-great grandparents on the Norman coast were reading ships’ manifests and not much else. You just hope they were reading at all.
I could complicate the matter endlessly, but this year I will not. Or not entirely. Because no one else has Belgian ancestors (how odd that I feel confident this is the case) I have decided to present a program on Belgian writers, or a Belgian writer.
The first Belgian writer I considered was Maurice Maeterlinck. But several years ago, when our theme was Science and Literature, I presented a program that included Maeterlinck’s classic Life of the Bee. So forget Maurice, even if he and his lover, Georgette LeBlanc, did live for several years in a ruined abbey (Abbey of St Wandrille in Normandy) so vast that they went from room to room on roller skates.
Then I happened to hear of Emile Verhauren (1855-1916). I had never in my life heard of Emile Verhauren, but according to Stefan Zweig, who knew a lot, Verhauren was supremely important, the Francophone equivalent of Walt Whitman, and a founder of the school of Symbolist poetry. Arthur Symons wrote that Verhauren’s poetry “is made directly out of the complaining voices of the nerves.” He also wrote of Verhauren, that “there is something lacerating, and the same time bewildering, which conveys to one the sense of all that is most solitary, picturesque, and poignant in the transformation of an intensely active and keen-sighted reason into a thing of conflicting visionary moods.” Could this be fated? Many years ago, when our theme was Latin American Literature, my subject was Ruben Dario (1867-1916), who created the Spanish Modernismo movement, akin to Symbolism.
But I happened to have dinner soon thereafter with Annabelle, Marc and Maude, all genuine Belgians. Neither Annabelle or Marc (no slouches) had ever heard of Verhauren; Maude said she had read him in school and that he was very boring.
The next writer I considered presenting was Georges Simenon. The creator of Inspector Maigret, Simenon wrote at least 500 books and at some time in the 1960’s he was the most translated writer in the world. Yet for all that, nowadays he doesn’t even consistently make the list of Top Ten Most Famous Belgians.
Simenon wrote all the time, and he wrote a lot. He also had a lot of sex. In 1977, Simenon told Fellini that, according to his calculations, since the age of 13 and a half [I like the distinction of the half] he had sex with 10,000 women. If my math is correct, that is 61 years, or 22,265 days. So, he could have had sex with a different woman every other day, religiously, for 61 years. All while being married, serially, to two women and having two or three long-term and devoted extra-marital relationships.
Another interesting fact about Simenon is that his very first novel, Au Pont des Arches (never translated into English) was partially set in an apothecary specializing in laxatives for pigeons.
If you, like me, cannot fathom why a pigeon would need a laxative, or how a pigeon would express the need for a laxative, you will perhaps understand why I will not be presenting a program on Georges Simenon to Literature Club this year.
STAY TUNED FOR THE BELGIAN WRITER ACTUALLY CHOSEN…