The Low Countries. Jaargang 1

auteur: [tijdschrift] The Low Countries

bron: The Low Countries. Jaargang 1. Stichting Ons Erfdeel, Rekkem 1993-1994



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Willem Elsschot
Villa des Roses

The inclusion in the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics series of the novel Villa des Roses by the Flemish author Willem Elsschot (1882-1960) is an important event. The more so, as this is an inexpensive series; price was after all the main problem when Elsschot was first launched in English in the splendid series Bibliotheca Neerlandica, the twelfth volume of which, published in 1965, contained the novels Soft Soap (Lijmen, 1924) The Leg (Het been, 1938) and Will-o'-the Wisp (Het dwaallicht, 1946). This publication failed to reach a wide readership, though it did serve as an eye-opener for receptive critics. It made possible a proper discussion of Elsschot, for example in Martin Seymour-Smith's Guide to Modern World Literature (1973), in which he was described as ‘an unsensational, sophisticated, parodic, tender realist of genius’ (p. 374).

His inclusion in the Penguin series will considerably raise the profile of this author, who is representative of both Flanders and the Netherlands. Villa des Roses, his first novel, was written in 1910 in Rotterdam, where the Fleming Elsschot was working at the time. When the book appeared in 1913 it did so through a Dutch

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publisher, as did the rest of Elsschot's compact oeuvre. He received support from Dutch critics when the majority of Flemings were not ready for his work, which was not idyllic enough for their taste. Not only was his work not appreciated in Flanders, it was also boycotted with the aid of the large resources available to the Catholic library and school network in the interwar period. And the antipathy continued even after the War; right up to the 1960s Villa des Roses, which was unjustly labelled ‘cynical’ because it contains a description of an abortion, reached young readers only in homeopathic doses in school books. Luckily, this also gave Elsschot the aura of ‘the forbidden’, so that his work was often read clandestinely with heightened enjoyment...

Daringly modern as the subject-matter of Villa des Roses was in Flemish eyes, this tragi-comic ‘novel of manners’ was completely traditional in style and structure, showing no links with the modernist movement. 1913 was also the year, for example, in which Alcools (Apollinaire), Sons and Lovers (D.H. Lawrence) and Die Ermordung einer Butterblume (Döblin) all appeared, as well as being the year in which Le Sacre du Printemps was created. Even at the time of Elsschot's spell in Paris in 1907, which inspired him to write Villa des Roses, Gertrude Stein had been experimenting with language in the same city for four years, and the first cubist painting, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, had just been completed. Elsschot, however, apparently had no time for this avant-garde movement. He continued the realist tradition: his portrayal of the ups and downs of daily life in a small Paris boarding house displays the solidity of specification in which, according to Henry James, Balzac excelled, adding perhaps just a touch of parody.

And yet an individual voice does come through, even in the English translation. It is a voice with a


laconic overtone and an emotional, melancholy undertone, a voice which still retains its direct appeal. More ambitious works from 1913, such as Thomas Mann's Der Tod in Venedig, sometimes display more purple passages that have faded considerably. Naturally, some things are also lacking in Elsschot's work, such as the great vision of such giants as Lawrence and Mann. But Elsschot cherished no titanic ambitions, and what he undertook came close to perfection in its own right.

In addition to producing a splendid translation, Paul Vincent also provides the reader with a comprehensive introduction, with only two minor flaws. First, the term ‘naturalistic’ cannot be applied easily to Elsschot's realism, because of the deterministic tendency which the former implies, particularly in terms of heredity. Second the confusion in the use of ‘Dutch’, ‘Flemish’, etc.; but this is unavoidable as long as the Dutch Language Union fails to provide a clear lead by taking systematic action with regard to lexicons which spread misunderstanding in millions of copies. Anyone reading Collins Dictionary, for example, may well think that when speaking of ‘Dutch readers’ (p. 1.), Vincent is referring only to ‘the citizens of the Netherlands’, whereas the term in fact also includes the Flemings.

Vincent nicely differentiates between Elsschot, who aimed at a regional clarity, and champions of the Flemish variant of the Dutch language such as Felix Timmermans (p. 6); it is unfortunate that on the rear cover, Elsschot is situated in ‘the Netherlands’ (though this may have more to do with the publisher than with the editor). Elsschot's ‘Flemishness’, however, is no less authentic than that of Timmermans, even though he used dialect only in speech and was not a Catholic.

Elsschot's robust Flemishness is apparent, for example, in a poem written, in defiance of attitudes at the time, to honour the old radical leader August Borms, a cripple, who was executed in 1946. Here, although Elsschot hated the far right, he was against taking the life of someone who had trodden the wrong path more out of foolishness than calculation and whose folly had therefore not made him rich, while economic collaborators were spared. In the same way that he was now kicking Belgian shins, he had reacted against Dutch opportunism as early as 1934 in a poem about Marinus van der Lubbe, the Dutchman executed as an accomplice in the burning of the Reichstag: in order to avoid harming trade with the Nazis, this underdog was treated as expendable. In it, Elsschot furiously called for Russian revenge on the Nazis, but this did not prevent the intellectual establishment from rejecting him as untouchable for a while in 1947. Fortunately, Vincent does not suppress this fact. In 1992 right and left once again exchanged polemics over the origins of the Borms poem, demonstrating yet again that the effects of the War were greater and longer-lasting in Flanders than in the Netherlands.

The attempt by the left to whitewash Elsschot in the context of a scramble for political correctness is superfluous; as a man of emotion he had a right to his fury, quite apart from his left-wing standpoint, and it is quite

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possible that he was not manipulated at that time by right-wing intriguers. It is rather perverse, however, that the poem should now be misused again and again by rabble-rousers whose understanding of Elsschot's work is totally inadequate, since otherwise they would realise how intensely this master of understatement would despise their delusions of grandeur and their hollow rhetoric. And above all, he would hate their xenophobia, a theme which he treated with such unrivalled subtlety in Will-o'-the Wisp, his last and best book. ‘Here Elsschot, in a novel of wide application, achieves a tenuous, sad sense of human brotherhood, of broken dreams, of sweetness.’ (Seymour-Smith, p. 375).

Is it a pipe dream to wish for the slender masterpiece Will-o'-the Wisp a place in a handbook used by millions, such as the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces? Van Gogh's selfportrait adorns the second volume, which is dedicated to the modern period, yet the book's 2,165 pages contain not a single reference to Dutch literature.


joris duytschaever

Translated by Julian Ross.

Willem Elsschot, Villa des Roses (Translated with an introduction and notes by Paul Vincent). Penguin Books, London, 1992; 140 pp.