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What I saw and heard in Belgium
"Most Americans," the head of Het beschrijf asked me over dinner, "don't even know that Belgium is a country and Brussels is a city, do they?" He thought he was exaggerating for effect. He was not.
Belgium has quite specific meaning for me, though: my first vacation with my future wife, in a marriage based largely on travel, was to Bruges, where we spent our honeymoon three years later, and Belgium itself is an odd marriage-but no odder than any other-between Dutch, French, and German, the three languages I know and the three countries where I have lived abroad. Belgium lies south of the north and north of the south, even if the German writer I met there said it feels "west." And I came to Belgium to write a marriage novel based on Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding: itself a new beginning, for oil painting, Italian techniques brought north and domesticated like the merchant from Lucca, Giovanni Arnolfini, who lived in Bruges at what is now Hotel Lucca before marrying a rich local.
But in traveling to Belgium I found Europe as an undifferentiated literary whole, where everyone seemed to be a "freie Schriftsteller" (an independent, self-supporting "free writer") of the kind that there's not much room for in the U.S. The economics and the values are different. One co-resident in Belgium told me she gave 80 to 100 paid appearances a year at bookstores, cultural congresses, universities, international translation summits, and so on; in the U.S., this is work you are expected to do for free as an academic, or for free publicity as an author (at least in the sub-superstar echelons I know well). There are far more residency opportunities in Europe, and bookstore events that pay, and languages to have one's books translated into, and infrastructures for bringing writers from one European country to one of the others that's always nearby. Vollezele, of course, is a special sort of residency, housed not in an official building but in one very generous artist's own house, with her dogs playing outside, running right past the window, and her sculptures on the grounds and her apartments upstairs and dinners with the household four nights a week. I am still amazed at our host's kindness and openness of spirit in offering us her home. But even this fact seemed more natural, more familiar, to the other Europeans-it felt strange for me, as a my-home-is-my-castle American, to stay in someone else house, or at least I projected familiarity onto all the other, European, non-American writers there. (I am only the second U.S. resident, I think; there have been a few from Canada or Mexico, none from east Asia or Africa or Australia as far as I know. As the head of Het beschrijf told me, his contacts are predominantly with other European organizations. The ones, no doubt, that know the difference between Belgium and Brussels.)
I was finishing two other projects during my stay. A new translation and selection from Rilke, with which I received valuable, pan-European help from a German poet and translator who was my co-resident for three weeks, Ulrike Draesner. And making a one-volume selection from Henry David Thoreau's Journal, to the accompaniment of snow and then gently slanting yellow morning sunlight on the meadow outside, bunny rabbits and field mice, birdsong (which comes up often in Rilke too) and lichen and moss on the trunks of the trees, rubbing off on my coat like the Belgian mud on my boots that I tracked to the south of France for Valentine's Day and to Austria for my next residency. Rilke's meditation looking out onto a northern morning meadow, "Vitali Awoke," could have been written at Vollezele, or for that matter in Concord, Massachusetts, during the cold winter of exactly 150 years ago or one of Thoreau's warm springs.
Which is not to say Vollezele wasn't also, deeply, uniquely Belgian. Everyone told me this was "Breughel country" and it was, especially in late January and early February, when not only the bare willow and poplar branches and rolling hills but even the black silhouettes of the birds hurtling by tipped onto their sides to show their profiles looked exactly like the master's paintings (which I later saw in person at the Art History Museum in-Vienna). "It looks just like Breughel!" I said, just like everyone else; unoriginal but true. I also read Louis Paul Boon's Summer in Termuren near the start of my stay, in a new English translation on the shelf at Villa Hellebosch: the Great Belgian Novel, it seems to me now. In the talk I participated in at Passa Porta bookstore near the end of my stay, I was asked, again, to discuss American clichés or stereotypes of Belgium, but stereotypes are an interesting thing, not always slanted as negatively as the word implies. Isn't an engraving, like Breughel's of the four seasons (seen this time in Brussels), the same technology as a stereotype, more or less? Sometimes another person's view of a place can be "imprinted" or "impressed" upon you, and sometimes it may even be the truth, or at least an artistic truth. To say that, for instance, Matisse is a great artist means no more and no less than that after you look at a lot of Matisses you step into the world and everything out there looks like a Matisse too. What I saw and heard in Belgium were the stereotypes designed by two master printers: Breughel and Boon: dark fingers of winter in pollarded willows and the rough peasant life going on beneath them, Boon's long muddy streets and the houses thrown up by a rising middle-class and the aspiring statuary and the parks in Aalst, Boon's Termuren, and "every piece of worked land, every boggy meadow in flanders and in the aalst region, is bordered by a line of pollarded willows," he writes (p. 290 in the English); "in these wintry days chapel road is wet and cold and foggy" (p. 292), just like Vollezele's.
And so what did I write here, to start a marriage book in a country that had twice already started off my marriage?
Beginnings are always stranger, more unexpected and at the same time less new, than you think they will be. The monograph with archival research on the Arnolfinis was delayed from its original publication date last year, and I found myself writing about my own new marriage more than the Arnolfinis'. I finally got a pre-publication copy during my stay, and it turns out that Giovanni Arnolfini married not the daughter of a rich Bruges merchant but an Italian, someone brought from back home. My fantasized marriage of north and south was actually between two people from the same hometown, which only took place somewhere else. They might as well have stayed home, met and married there. Except that then there would not have been art to commemorate it, in the form of van Eyck's masterpiece.
In Vollezele I learned again that everything you say is true, but of yourself. It's just that if you stay at home, you never say it.
Damion SEARLS, Spring 2007
22.01.07 > 5.03.07