Reading the World: Belgium

My Reading the World series brings us to the lovely country Belgium.  I first visited whilst still rather a small child, for the purposes of visiting Centre Parcs, and have been back many times since.  Despite this, whilst scouring my shelves, I realised that I haven’t actually read much fiction or non-fiction set there.  Despite this, I have four books to recommend to you, and will happily take any of your recommendations to the library catalogue with me!

1. Marcel by Erwin Mortier 9781782270188
‘The debut novel by the great Flemish writer Erwin Mortier, Marcel vividly describes the history of a family in a Flemish village, bowed by the weight of history. Written from the point of view of a ten-year-old boy, Marcel is a striking debut novel describing the vivid history of a family in a Flemish village. The mysterious death of Marcel, the family favourite, has always haunted the young boy. With the help of his schoolteacher, he starts to discover the secrets of Marcel’s ‘black’ past. The story of his death on the Eastern Front, fighting with the SS for the sake of Flanders, and the shame this brought upon his family gradually become clear. Erwin Mortier unravels this shameful family tale in wonderfully sensitive and evocative manner.’

2. The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb
‘From France’s ‘literary lioness’ (Elle), The Book of Proper Names is the story of the hapless orphan girl, Plectrude. Raised by her aunt, and unaware of the dark secret behind her past, she is a troubled but dreamy child who is both blessed and cursed by her intoxicating eyes. Discovered to have enormous gifts as a dancer, she is accepted at Paris’s most prestigious ballet school where she devotes herself to artistic perfection, until her body can take no more. In a brilliantly succinct story of haunted adolescence and lost mothers, Nothomb propels the narrative forward until Plectrude is forced to take command of her own fate.’

97803072682113. The Professor by Charlotte Bronte
The Professor is Charlotte Brontes first novel, in which she audaciously inhabits the voice and consciousness of a man, William Crimsworth. Like Jane Eyre he is parentless; like Lucy Snowe in Villette he leaves the certainties of England to forge a life in Brussels. But as a man, William has freedom of action, and as a writer Bronte is correspondingly liberated, exploring the relationship between power and sexual desire. William’s first person narration reveals his attraction to the dominating directress of the girls’ school where he teaches, played out in the school’s ‘secret garden’. Balanced against this is his more temperate relationship with one of his pupils, Frances Henri, in which mastery and submission interplay. The Professor was published only after Charlotte Bronte’s death; today it gives us a fascinating insight into the first stirrings of her supreme creative imagination.’

4. Villette by Charlotte Bronte
‘Based on Charlotte Bronte’s personal experience as a teacher in Brussels, Villette is a moving tale of repressed feelings and subjection to cruel circumstance and position, borne with heroic fortitude. Rising above the frustrations of confinement within a rigid social order, it is also the story of a woman’s right to love and be loved.’

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‘Marcel’ by Erwin Mortier ****

Marcel is acclaimed Dutch author Erwin Mortier’s debut work.  First published in Holland in 2001, and the recipient of several literary prizes, the coming-of-age novella has now been translated into English for the first time by Ina Rilke.

The narrator of Marcel is a ten-year-old boy who appears as a spectral, almost two-dimensional figure throughout, despite his place within the story.  He is always on the periphery, always watching those around him.  The Marcel of the novel’s title is his grandmother’s youngest brother; the young narrator takes it upon himself to discover what happened to him, his death deemed, as it was, ‘mysterious’.

Many of the scenes within the novella feature, either wholly or in part, the narrator’s grandmother; he refers to her throughout as ‘the grandmother’, as though she is nothing to do with him.  This further reinforces the notion that he is a detached observer.  He is referred to, quite a way through the book, as ‘a dreamer’, and as such he has a fresh and rather peculiar manner of viewing the world: ‘her toes lay like a row of bosoms in a black leather corset’, he tells us.  His first person perspective is both odd and rather beguiling; of a trip to a grey churchyard at the beginning of the story, for example, he says: ‘I was taken there once a year by the grandmother…  It was less than five turnings between the garden gate and the place where her dead lay sleeping’.  It feels as though nothing phases him, and he is simultaneously troubled by and comfortable within his often bleak surroundings.

From the very beginning, I was struck by the way in which Mortier sets scenes.  The personification which he weaves in works fabulously: ‘Behind the hedge of a spire of roof tiles slumped between two gables’, ‘the fluorescent green face [of the alarm clock] glowed spectrally in the dark’, a coffee service ‘shivers’ and heels ‘beat a nervous tattoo’ on the floor.  It is fair to say, however, that the writing which Mortier presents is not consistent throughout.  A lot of the conversations which go on seem a little bland, but the more descriptive sentences are clearly at odd with this: ‘When boredom crept over me the floor would reveal its secret geography, complete with all the tiny ridges and ravines where the soapy water collected into miniature lakes’.

Mortier is very perceptive of his characters; of a schoolteacher who is rather adored by the narrator, he writes: ‘She was a giant honey bird, large and feathered, a hummingbird-turned-woman.  As she tasted the cake a high-pitched sound rose up from the underhang of her chin’.  Whilst it could be called a little flat at first glance, the scenes and characters within Marcel do become more vivid as it progresses, and the dark family secrets which simmer to the surface are worth picking the novella up for alone.

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