I read quite a few European books in translation but its not often I come across a book from Belgium (only two feature on this blog so far). Late last year I made a visit to Bruges and realised that that beautiful city of canals and filigreed stonework was hardly characteristic of a country that contained the huge working port of Antwerp and the Euro-capital of Brussels. In The Misfortunates, Dimitri Verhulst has given us an image of a working-class suburb (the fictional “Arsendegem”) of an un-named town where drunkenness and low-level violence predominate.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Dimitri Verhulst was came from a broken home “and spent his childhood in foster homes and institutes”. The publicity for the book says that it is semi-autobiographical – a book where the author has taken his life as a starting point and then embellished the bare bones of his life to make it more entertaining and readable. The reader never knows where reality ends and fiction begins but as the boy in The Misfortunates is called “Dimmy” there is obviously enough reality in the book that the author can say, “This was my life”.
The Angel Maker is one of the few (only?) books I have read by a Belgian author, which is probably more to do with a lack of interest on the part of publishers in Flemish/English translations than any lack of talent in the Belgian publishing scene. Certainly, Stefan Brijs has produced a complex and engaging novel, which deservedly won the Golden Owl from the Royal Academy for Dutch Language and Literature in 2006. Hester Velmans has translated the book in a flowing style leaving no sense of “translation” in the finished work.
The book seems to be marketed by its publishers as thriller, but it is far much than that. The story concerns a doctor who returns to the small village of Wolfheim after many years, with three identical children in the back-seat of his car, all with a hare-lip. Dr Victor Hoppe lives a secluded life and keeps his children away from public view. The villagers view him with suspicion but he soon wins their trust by performing some notable cures.
It is almost impossible to review this book without spoiling it for other readers, for the doctor has a complex background as a medical researcher and the children are not what they seem. The author slowly reveals the doctor’s past, from childhood on through medical training and into genetic research. The themes are many, but all wholly topical, from advanced fertility treatment through to the character traits accompanying Aspergers Syndrome.
Forever Nude is the story of French painter and print-maker Pierre Bonnard’s lifelong relationship with a young farm girl, Marthe de MÃ©ligny, his muse and inspiration over many years.
Bonnard encountered Marthe when she was 16 years old and attempting to cross the Boulevard Haussman. Marthe, who had just arrived in Paris from her father’s pig-farm was about to get mown down by a tram, when Bonnard gallantly rescued her, hurrying her across to the other side of the road and beginning what turned out to be a 49 year relationship, only ending with Marthe’s death in 1942.
Marthe was actually named Maria Boursin Bonnard but on arriving in Paris adopted a more aristocratic name for herself, only revealing this to Bonnard 32 years later when they married. Marthe sat for Bonnard countless times, being for Bonnard a wholly satisfying model, as reflected in his many paintings of her. But Bonnard did not like her to “sit” as such, but preferred to capture Marthe as she went about her daily life by his side, often dressed, sewing, writing a letter, or more often nude and bathing or reclining on a bed.
Forever Nude is a strange little book, only 135 pages long and many of the pages only half-filled due to the very short chapters into which it is divided. It is not a conventional biography as such, but more a poetic reflection on Bonnard’s relationship to his art and to his wife.