Welcome to the world of books from Belgium which is the next country in the View from Here series in which we look at literature from around the globe. We’re going to be in the expert hands of An, who turns to Twitter when she’s hungry for some bookish chat.
Let’s meet An
I’m born and raised in Belgium, to be particular near Antwerp which is in the Flemish part of the country. I love living in Belgium for many reasons, not in the least for the multitude of languages and cultures to which we are exposed daily. I have always enjoyed studying languages — I was obsessed with learning French in my teenage years — and I still enjoy reading books in various languages. I don’t blog about books but I am a big Twitter fan. It’s great to be able to engage with bookish people from all over the world. It’s a wonderful addition to my reading life. You can find me at https://twitter.com/An1081
Q. Those of us who are natives of Belgium might find it difficult to think of authors from Belgium. We might go inst antly to Herge or Georges Simenon but would struggle otherwise. Who are some authors we could be missing out on?
You could be missing out on a lot, because many Belgian authors are not translated in English. Luckily a few of the best ones are.One of my favourites is Dimitri Verhulst, a young Flemish writer whose stories make me both wince in embarrassed recognition and laugh out loud. From the French speaking side of the country we have Amélie Nothomb, who has huge success in France and whose books are widely translated. I particularly like her autobiographical books set in Japan (where she lived in her childhood) and her earlier work. And then of course there is Hugo Claus – probably the closest Belgium ever came to the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Q. As you say, Belgium has a rich multilingual tradition and very different cultures between the Flemish part and the French part. How much does that influence the kinds of novels written? Are they distinctive in how authors write and what they write about?
Very different cultures indeed. The French speaking part, Wallonia, is entirely axed towards France; French tv shows, French musicians, French authors… This is in no way the case in Flanders, we are much more focused on the English speaking world. Dutch authors are also quite popular here. Herman Koch, Peter Buwalda, all the Dutch thriller writers such as Suzanne Vermeer, Simone van der Vlugt,… So culturally, I don’t feel Flanders and Wallonia have much in common.
That being said, I do think the themes authors write about are quite universal and I don’t see that much difference between Flanders and Wallonia there.
Q. What books are currently getting a lot of buzz right now? What are your friends reading?
Whenever Herman Brusselmans has a new book out, there’s a lot of media attention. So that’s the case right now. Another book that I’ve seen everywhere is Dutch author Herman Koch’s newest novel. A lot of the books on the market are translations. Right now I see a lot of John Green, John Williams, Santa Montefiore, Siri Hustvedt,… Scandinavian crime writers are also hugely popular. Jo Nesbø, Camilla Läckberg, Håkan Nesser, Liza Marklund…
I’ve recently started reading the shortlist for the “Bronze Owl”, a prize for budding authors. I was very impressed with Carmien Michels for example. I like this kind of prize, which puts the spotlight on new talent. They deserve a bit of buzz.
Most of the action happens when the big literary awards are announced. There are quite a few of them and usually it’s a joint list for Dutch and Flemish writers. Tommy Wieringa, Joost De Vries, Stefan Hertmans, Jamal Ouariachi are names that keep popping up. Those lists always lack women! Annoying. Let me just mention Saskia De Coster here, a Flemish writer whose book Wij en ik (Us and I) got a lot of attention when it came out. Oh, and then there was the rage about Kristien Hemmerechts’s new book that touched upon the Dutroux case, a child abuse case of the 1990’s that still stirs emotions.
In non-fiction it’s all about cooking and knitting.
My friends are not very bookish – all the more reason why I love Twitter so much, it allows me to talk about books! Harry Potter is still popular. Dan Brown also pops up in conversations about reading. Sophie Kinsella. Patricia Cornwell,… My best friend is a big fan of Janet Evanovich.
Q. Which authors would you consider to be in the classical canon — the kind that you had to read at school?
Hugo Claus for sure. Louis Paul Boon. Willem Elschot. Guido Gezelle. Paul Van Ostaijen. Stijn Streuvels. And my favourite Belgian poet, Alice Nahon. I can’t say I have read a lot of Belgian classics though. Maybe I should consider that as a reading project. I’m sure there are a lot of gems out there I haven’t discovered yet.
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