Small Beer readers big and little, new and old! I am writing you from rainbound Brussels, which is blustery and trying to decide, despite the waning daylight hours, between a last wet burst of fall and bitter winter. I’d girded myself for a gray year, so days of sudden sunshine both delight and alarm me, for almanacs inform us that annually, Brussels only has a hundred sunny days. In other words, were each sunny day a gold piece, we’d have a finite purse, and every time it’s nice out, I feel a pang, as though some quick-fingered pilferer has slipped a coin out and flung it blithely into the air.
Weather aside, living in this schizoid country is lovely. I came for the weird—specifically, to study the rich tradition of Belgian weird tales—and I’m getting it. Mysteries abound, from the mundane to the confounding. What to ferret out next? I find myself in a garden of forking paths and unearthly pleasures. How odd is it that every major Belgian writer uses at least one if not multiple pen names which are often open secrets in the tiny literary community? Why did mystery writer Georges Simenon, known mainly for creating Inspector Maigret, expressly forbid that his only work of science fiction, a late novelette about creatures of the London mist, ever be reprinted or included in a collection?
The national attachment to the fantastic is formally known as L’École belge de l’étrange, which has been translated over the years as the Belgian School of the Strange, the Bizarre, or the Weird. Although my understanding of it keeps growing and changing, I now think the Belgian fantastic is best thought of less as a school or a movement than a national literary pastime. Although the entire oeuvres of some Belgian writers fall squarely in the field, authors of all genres from all backgrounds—academia, poetry, criticism, crime, mainstream realism, surrealism—seem to recognize it as a tradition and feel compelled to pay it homage with at least one book (often a short story collection) if not several. It’s like a stage you have to go through to really be considered a Belgian writer. Because of the durability, if not the dominance, of the fantastic as a mode of expression, writer and critic Jean-Baptiste Baronian has compared it to the midcentury efflorescence of Argentine fabulists (Borges, Bioy Casares, Ocampo, Cortázar). As he remarks, “Few national literatures in the 20th century have produced in such a short span of time such a pantheon of first rate writers in such a specific and, on the whole, marginal genre.”
Over the next few posts I’d like to share a few authors and finds with you.