LOUIS PAUL BOON

Posted: April 9, 2016 in Chat
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I’m always coming in on things half way through.

First time I read The Lord of the Rings my local library only had The Twin Towers at the time. I started there (strangely, the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring read rather flat after that). But there have been many examples of this.

Take this one: the first of Louis Paul Boon’s major books is CHAPEL ROAD. I started with SUMMER IN TERMUREN, the follow-up. And, strangely, despite all the voices saying, No, Chapel Road is the best! I prefer Summer in Termuren.

His other books in translation are: My Little War, Dalkey Archive, 2010; Minuet, a 1979 translation, difficult to get hold of.

 

lpb2Louis Paul Boon.
Famous Belgian writer? Tipped for Nobel Prize for Chapel Road?
Yes, everyone has heard of Hugo Claus, George Simenon, Maurice Maeterlinck, of Felix Timmermans, even Camille Lemmonier, Margueritte Yourcenar.

Born in Aalst, near Brussels, 1912- 1979.
Maybe you don’t know of him because he is usually classed as a Flemish writer. Is that it?
The curse of categories.
His two major novels are written in Flemish, with his local, regional dialect. His online interview has, he warns the interviewer, Flemish, and with the regional words , phrasings, accents.

This makes translation, let’s say, difficult rather than impossible. The Dalkey Archive publishes both books in excellent translations.

What is it about Louis Paul Boon?
He’s a modernist. That dates him now. But modernism is still so refreshing to read. He looked to the American pioneers (John Dos Passos in particular)- he wrote regular newspaper columns exploring among other topics the new thinking, new ideas, new writing.
Chapel Road opens with several of the main inhabitants of this tiny town of the two mills, meeting up with the writer Boon/Boontje and discussing how a book might be written at that time.We have not only the setting of the intellectual and cultural environment of the book, but of the establishment of characters, their relations, backgrounds, and vested interests in the book. We also have discussion of fiction theory, cultural theory, writing theory – and also the rejection of most of this for the sake of ‘the book’.

The publication date was 1953. Time in the novels can be anything but linear. The books are anything but linear: they moves in segments, interspersing with Ondine’s story.
Boon was a member of the community of the growing town so was naturally a character in the book. The discussions among characters about the progress of the book, among general and particular reflections on life in the little town, in the country, the nation, carry on throughout the books.
The main character is little Ondine, along with her poor brother Valeer. This is the anchor. In Summer in Termuren it becomes Ondine and Oscar/Oscarke, the sculptor she married.

The two mills are owned by one a Catholic family, the other a Protestant. Behind the scenes of this obvious cultural, historical  fissure and dichotomy, the sons of the mill owners are best of friends. They are moneyed, spoilt and can get away with anything.
And Ondine wants in.
We have all felt at some time in our growing up we don’t belong with this family we are in. This is what horror stories and mysteries feed from. ‘What if I really belong to…?’ And what if you take it too far in your desperate struggle to climb out of the unremitting poverty the political and social world concretes you into?

Against this background we see the birth and growth of the socialist ideal; and its death, as war reconfigured class and privilege. Then its rebirth after the war. Which war? Both wars are here, cutting off the new green shoots each time. If you look for jeopardy to spur the action in the novel, look to history and its vicious trampling of hopes.

Boon interweaves with the movement of Chapel Road the story of Reynard the Fox,  which was set in the same vicinity.
Reynard’s is a hard tale, it has its own cruelty and amorality: the cruelty is difficult at times; it is not the cruelty of a child, nor the beast, but a knowing cruelty.

How about the cruelty of the mill owners? One takes all his mill-workers to church on the town’s saint’s day. Ah, but then they have to work into the night to make up the time. He employs child labour below the legal age. Ah, but, he says when an inspector comes across one, They are so keen to work here they sneak out of school.
Why is he believed? Why is the government minister who molests young girls (the ‘pepperpot’) believed when he protests innocence?
Because of wealth, position.

Then there are characters who traverse this yawning gap between the haves and the never-will-haves, people like the painter Tippetotje. She lives later with her Baron in Brussels, but cannot get the town of two mills out of her system.

 

lpb3There is another tantalising cover to Summer in Termuren that is almost identical to the one above. Almost, because the other cover contains a human figure to the left of the pole.

One classic, superb, episode for me is in Summer in Termuren. Boontje was returning by train from giving a reading of his work-in-progress to a local group. A fellow traveller was a scientist who has just been reading his paper. They conversed, the train jerked. And Boontje’s papers scattered everywhere. The following segments of the book has his main characters all swapped around, acting and speaking as each other. That takes a big risk in establishing characters. But it works.

So… what happened about the rumoured Nobel Prize?
It is rumoured the judges heard the rumour of his ‘other’ interests. There still are copious and carefully catalogued books in boxes he collected over the years in his home museum… of naked women.

It spills into his books a little: the growing up of Ondine; but especially Oscarke’s interest in the daughter of the monumental mason he worked for in Brussels. What happened to her? He went back after the war; she had married a German Officer.

When you mean to depict all life, you cannot pick and choose.
Take the socialist councillor, full of hope and striving and struggle for a better future – and later, of drink, when he found his party had dipped into party funds for their own benefit.

What was it Boon said? Something like, ‘I believe in socialism; I just don’t think people are capable of it.’

Louis Paul Boon, 1912 – 1979

lpboon1

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