The sizeable body of works by Maurice Gilliams (1900-1982) includes both prose and poetry. The son of an Antwerp printer, he spent most of his youth surrounded by older family members on a country estate in the vicinity of Antwerp, which later inspired him as a setting for his novels. Although Gilliams is familiar with the naturalism of his time, he demonstrates a greater affinity with romantic and symbolic authors, such as Rilke, Rimbaud and Baudelaire. The solitude cult, in particular, with fixed themes such as the dream, imagination and the inner experience (through art) is prominent in his work. Gilliams wrote from a largely autobiographical viewpoint too.
When Gilliams won the triennial Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren in 1980, many a newspaper journalist was at a loss: as far as the press was concerned Gilliams had always been ‘the Great Unknown’ of Flemish literature. But in the literary world itself, his work was considered not only an inside tip but also a milestone in the development of the novelist’s art. In 1936, Gilliams’s 'Elias or the Struggle with the Nightingales' had ushered in a new, strongly-evocative way of writing and a novelistic structure based on the sonata. The critics called the book a ‘melting pot of genres’: Gilliams’s prose is close to poetry and driven by what he himself called ‘an essayistic motivation’. In his work, description has been supplanted by analysis and that analysis extends to the process of remembering, sensory perception and writing itself. His diaries, which were published in his lifetime, also reveal that he was one of the first writers in Flanders to obsessively address the question ‘what is writing?’
The strong link with poetry stems from the beginning of Gilliams’s writing career, when he published small volumes of poetry which later appeared in the anthology ‘Columbus’ Past’. As a poet, he combines an introverted and oversensitive individualism with a pure writing style, traditional and sober, far from any experiment.
Photo © Paule Pia