To be Belgian is as complex as good Burgundy wines. The soil, sun, vines and grapes might be the same but the wine is never the same.’
To be Belgian is a challenge and to write about ‘Belgian’ culture is doubly so. When a Belgian moves beyond the borders of his country he can be Belgian; but when he has been born and lives there; this becomes a far more complex issue. There are two fundamental ways of splitting Belgium. Administratively there is Flanders on the one hand and Wallonia-Brussels capital on the other, each of these regions having its own ministries. However, linguistically there is the Flemish-speaking community, the French-speaking community and the relatively small German-speaking community. And while Walloon is not an ‘official’ language it does have a literary tradition. The situation in the arts is complicated, for over the years – though less so nowadays – there has been a great deal of cross-fertilisation. The arts are far more polarised these days although many of the great Francophone writers and artists, as their names suggest, had their roots in Flanders. I recently heard Belgium referred to on Radio 4 as ‘a backwater of Europe’. I have never regarded it as such and trust that no one who really knows the country would do so either. For it is more than a country that produces chocolates, beer, lace, chips and mayonnaise, Eurocrats and unpopular Euro-directives; and given birth to Tintin, Maigret and Hercule Poirot. On a geographical, ethnic, linguistic and cultural level Belgium is at the crossroads where northern Europe meets and merges with southern Europe to produce a rich and diverse culture. To give an in-depth picture of the cultural life of the whole of this ‘tardis-like’ country, in what is an introduction to whet the reader’s appetite, is a task I am not qualified to do, my area of particular interest being the literature of the Walloon region. Because of these limitations therefore, rather than any aesthetic or political bias in the polemics of national identity, what follows is a glimpse of what is reflected on one side of this double-sided mirror.
To live in Belgium is to be defined by the language you speak and therefore by that linguistic culture. To even begin to understand where Belgian culture, particularly literature is coming from today, it is essential that this be put into its historical context. Belgium is an artificial country, an area – initially attached to Holland after the defeat of Napoleon – that is a patchwork stitched together into a nation state in 1830 after Catholic Flanders and a handful of liberal principalities revolted against Protestant Dutch rule. At the time, whether from north or south, all spoke French, and one government administered all. By 1919 the Flemish had become a political force in their own right, their language was officially recognised and their cultural identity well established. By the beginning of the seventies a ‘linguistic, cultural and political curtain’ had fallen across Belgium with the establishment of separate ministries to serve the two communities. Nowadays it is very much a two-nation state, reflecting two different cultures with Brussels in the delicate situation of being on Flemish soil although 85% of the inhabitants speak French.
Whilst it could be said that the English-speaking world is divided by the language its various parts speak, the French-speaking world is united by its language. Pick up any anthology or encyclopædia of French writers and you are unlikely to be informed as to where in the Francophone world they are from. ‘French’ literature is French literature wherever its cultural inspiration might have come. Moreover, one cannot speak of ‘Belgian’ literature – since the literary output can come in French, Flemish, German and even Walloon. Furthermore an author who writes in French does not culturally-speaking necessarily come from the French speaking community of that country. This was very much the case in the past when many owed their cultural heritage to the nation’s other linguistic regions and it is these writers who have given Belgium’s Francophone literature its individual essence, its intrinsic Belgianness, that otherness that makes it different from the literature of France. Whilst Belgians writing in French have seldom claimed a national literary identity, the number of French language writers nurtured north of the French border over the last 100 or so years is impressive, it has even been claimed that fifty percent of France’s writers are Belgian in origin.
Broadly speaking all the literary and aesthetic movements that swept through Europe influenced Belgian literature. The first major European movement to see Belgian writers playing a crucial role was Symbolism. The writers were Flemish, mostly from Ghent: Rodenbach, Van Lerberghe, Max Elskamp, Verhaeren and Maeterlinck (the only Belgian to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1911) and all wrote in French, for at the time this was the language of the bourgeoisie, for as Elskamp said:
I bitterly regret not knowing Flemish. It would have come in very useful since Belgian does not exist! – In other words, I can’t go on working, as I’m no longer sure of knowing a language! – How good it would be to come from a country one could call one’s own –from Belgium even if it existed.
(Extract from: Belgium – The Face Behind the Mask, Visiting Arts Number 40, summer issue, 1999)