What is Belgium? This question has no easy answer.
Belgium is a politically complex country, home to differing linguistic communities living side by side. It is a country with a rich artistic tradition, from the Flemish Primitives, by way of Magritte’s surrealism, to Hergé’s ligne clair. A country in which two world wars left their marks, both in its flat countryside and in its literature – marks that are still visible to this very day. It is also a country where many enjoy a Burgundian lifestyle.
Lots of authors have been inspired by the remarkable country that is Belgium. By Brussels, a city that serves as the capital of both Belgium and the EU. By the vanishing rural lifestyle. By our recent and not so recent history. This selection of books will give you a unique glimpse into our country.
16 incisive observations by a stylistically strong writer who holds his readers’ attention with a great sense of timing and narrative skill
A declaration of love to the Belgian in the street, wonder at his pastimes, an ode to his beautiful, but archaic turns of phrase. And also: a deliberately fragmented narrative about a Belgian childhood, a chronicling of the things that pass.All this Verhulst describes, ponders and pokes fun at in his unique and inimitable style: fluent and smooth, incisive and ironic, as well as over-the-top and hilarious, but never without compassion.
Robijn fits his touching miniatures into a larger, meaningful story without his characters becoming puppets. He is a born storyteller. *****
'The City and Time' consists of nine stories in chronological order, all of which take place in Brussels. Robijn’s characters all have difficulty getting by in life, but succeed by throwing themselves blindly into their regular activities. Until something – often love – turns up and turns everything upside down.
Rough-and-tumble versions you have never heard before
In ’Dirty Skin’ anthropologist Marita de Sterck has collected forty Flemish folktales, uncensored and as close as possible to the oral tradition. Sometimes farcical and often grotesque, they are jam-packed with violence, lust, jealousy and the black arts.
Max Herder is getting married to Isabelle Fabry. A Dutchman marrying a Fleming. By expanding Max and Isabelle’s tale into a social story, Reugebrink has, above all, written a subtle, intelligent account of modern Flanders.
El Azzouzi describes a group of young people who call themselves ‘Drarrie’ and populate the fringes of society. What begins as an entertaining picaresque novel slowly turns into a chilling story of radicalisation when one of the boys decides to become a martyr…
One of the landmark European novels of the post-war era
This Bildungsroman is also a social document about political and social misfortune in Flanders before, during, and after World War II. The novel has continued to be a bestseller for many years and has been translated into numerous languages.
An ‘ode to life’ written after a moral and physical crisis, ‘Pallieter’ was warmly received as an antidote to the misery of World War I in occupied Belgium. ‘Pallieter’ is a portrait of Flemish rural life in which there is never a cheerless moment.
In ‘The Belgian Labyrinth’ Van Istendael guides his readers through the history of Belgium, from the hunting parties of Emperor Charlemagne through Spanish, Austrian, French and Dutch rule to the creation of the Kingdom of Belgium in 1830.
She succeeds in making the first king of the Belgians a man of flesh and blood.
Based on Leopold’s private letters, Gita Deneckere paints a portrait of a melancholy ruler who managed like no other to weave together the personal and the political. Through his eyes she examines the history of Europe in a period of change.
A magnificent style – scholarly but vivid and punchy
James Ensor (1860–1949) was everything in one: cocky and solitary, baron and bohemian, a misunderstood bourgeois, a peintre maudit who surveyed the world from his ivory tower in Ostend and sought refuge in the salons of Brussels. Min peels away the mask of the mythmaker to create a wonderful portrait of this enigmatic and multi-faceted painter.
Huet’s writing is quite simply superb: elegant, colourful, lively, with great feeling for detail, witty and never condescending.
Kees 't Hart
Of all the art of the Flemish School, the work of Pieter Bruegel (1525?-1569) seems most typical of the Low Countries. His familiar and much loved paintings turned him into a folkloric icon, even if that does not entirely square with his life story. Leen Huet has written the first proper biography of the sixteenth-century master.
An effervescent portrait of the artistically and politically foaming city Brussels was between 1850 and 1914.
Refugees and adventurers, thinkers and doers, finders and inventors washed ashore in this elegant city where life was good - ask Baudelaire, Marx, Rodin, Ensor, Multatuli and all those others, read it in the writings of Teirlinck or Van de Woestijne.
The Hedwige Polder, the most famous stretch of reclaimed land in the Belgian lowlands, is to be flooded again no matter what. It has become symbolic of old farmland forced to make way for new nature reserves.
Majestic. A book like this is written once a decade at most.
Dagblad van het Noorden
1943. In rich and vivid language, Els Beerten maps out the hopes, dreams and desires of four friends, deftly capturing the blurring of the boundaries between good and evil, black and white. A moving and subtle portrayal of the darkest pages of our history. All of the characters follow their instincts and act in good faith. But what happens when the course you have chosen turns out to be the wrong one?
A small village behind the front, during World War I. While soldiers struggle to fight, life behind the front goes on. At the inn, where soldiers come to catch their breath, lives a blind girl. One day, she finds someone sitting on her bench: a black soldier, with the ‘scent of roasted nuts’.
A richly documented novel written in a sensual style
Papinette, a curious servant girl in sixteenth-century Antwerp, has no father but many mothers, because all the other servants boss her around. Kristien Dieltiens interweaves the moving, yet disturbing story of Papinette with the history of Antwerp and the rich artistic tradition that has developed in this Flemish city.
This is theatre that derives its reason from social maladies while at the same time providing something for the actors to get stuck in and viewing pleasure for the audience.
The police investigation into the Nijvel gang has become a major debacle in Belgian legal history. In the early eighties, a number of savage raids were carried out on supermarkets, with the perpetrators using brute force and shooting several accidental passers-by in cold blood. Thirty years on, the investigation has reached a dead end. Michael Bijnens, known for his research-based plays, spoke to investigators involved in the case and wrote a fascinating piece of theatre.
The polder village of Doel, situated in the shadow of a nuclear reactor near the port of Antwerp, has been a pawn in the power games of successive politicians since the 1960s. Jeroen Janssen became fascinated by those who stayed behind and by their stories. ‘Doel’ is an impressive account of a personal journey of discovery in a village whose fate has long been uncertain.