Although the little kingdom of Belgium is young, it has already produced an extensive library of classic works by writers who all worked and lived inside its borders. While the Belgian literature in the first decades after independence was mostly written in French, there was a gradual counter-reaction of Flemish writers who started writing only in Dutch. Below you will find a selection of 10 significant writers who all contributed to the cultural heritage of Belgian literature.
Known in Flanders as ‘the man who taught his people to read,’ Hendrik Conscience was the first major writer in Belgium who decided to write in the Dutch language. He is best known for his historical novel De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (The Lion of Flanders) published in 1838, a romanticized account of the Battle of the Golden Spurs of 1302 during the Medieval Franco-Flemish War.
Charles De Coster was a Belgian author who wrote in the French language. After 10 years of work, his book The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak was published in 1867. Widely considered as the first masterpiece in the history of Belgian literature, it tells the story of a Flemish rascal, Thyl Ulenspiegel, who fights against the Spanish oppression during the Eighty Years’ War for Dutch Independence. The novel was mostly neglected by the Belgian bourgeoisie at the time of publication, but became famous in the rest of the world and was translated into all European languages. The book has been compared to Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha.
The Catholic priest and writer Guido Gezelle is one of the most renowned poets in the history of Dutch literature. His timeless work shows his deep love for God and nature. As a linguist, Gezelle attempted to develop a more independent Flemish language in his poetry. The Dutch he used was influenced by West Flemish, the local dialect spoken in the part of Flanders he lived. In one of his most famous poems, Het Schrijverke (The writer), he is amazed by the gracious behavior and life of the water bee.
Emile Verhaeren, one of the leading representatives of the school of Symbolism, was a Belgian novelist, poet and playwright who wrote in the French language. In 1883, his first collection of poems Les Flamandes was published. In it, he describes in a provocative naturalistic way his country and the Flemish people. He also wrote a social trilogy: Les campagnes hallucinées (1893), Les villes tantacutaires (1895) and Les Aubes (1898) which deals with the decline of traditional life in the countryside. One of his admirers was Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig who translated his books into German and even wrote a biography about him in 1910. Verhaeren’s oeuvre is world famous and has been translated into 28 languages.
Although born in a prosperous Flemish family and destined to take over his father’s chicory factory, Buysse started writing under the encouragement of his aunt Virginie Loveling at the age of 26. He felt a profound sympathy for the common man in the street and realistically portrayed their lives in numerous novels and plays. This way, he became a Flemish naturalist writer and playwright in the tradition of the French novelist Émile Zola. He is best known for his play The van Paemel Family (1902) which criticized the deep gap between the social classes and the inhuman poverty of the Flemish farmers. Buysse was also a travel enthusiast. He owned a car at an early stage and made many trips through France with his friends, the painter Emile Claus and writer Maurice Maeterlinck. These travels he vividly described in the travelogues De vroolijke tocht (1911), Per auto (1913) and De laatste ronde (1923).
Playwright, essayist and poet Maurice Maeterlinck is known as the only Belgian who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911 for his multidisciplinary work as a playwright, novelist and poet. In 1889 his stage debut La Princesse Maleine was hailed by Octave Mirbeau in the French newspaper Le Figaro. It boosted Maeterlinck’s international reputation and during his lifetime he was a very famous and best-selling author who wrote in the style of the school of Symbolism.
Belgian novelist Stijn Streuvels (the pen name of Frank Lateur) was a baker who looked up to his uncle, the famous poet Guido Gezelle. Like Émile Zola and the Russian novelist Tolstoy, he wrote numerous naturalist novels that dealt with the rural life and social conditions of farmers in the impoverished Flemish countryside. He is best known for his novel De Vlaschaard (1907) and De teleurgang van de waterhoek (1927). His novel Langs de wegen (The long road) (1902) was the book he loved himself the most. Streuvels is praised for his grim recognition of reality without moralizing commentary. In 1962 he received the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (Dutch Literature Prize) for his entire life work.
Georges Simenon is acknowledged worldwide for the creation of the French police detective Maigret. The famous Parisian detective started his fictional career in 1931 in the novel Pietr-le-Letton (The Strange Case of Peter the Lett) to only retire in 1972 after he solved cases in some 75 novels and 28 short stories. Simenon did not only write detective stories but wrote an astonishing collection of around 500 novels and short stories in a career that spanned 70 years .
Considered as one of the most famous 20th century Flemish writers, Louis Paul Boon is best known for his masterpiece De Kapellekensbaan (Chapel Road). Published in 1953, the book tells the story of the childhood of Ondine who desperately wants to escape the Flemish industrial town of Aalst during the 19th Century. Simultaneously, it is the story of the writer Louis Paul Boon who is busy at present writing the novel Chapel Road. Boon’s work is very much influenced by socialist thinking, as is the case in Vergeten Straat (Forgotten street) (1946). In this book he describes how the residents of a street in Brussels are being cut off from the outside world by the railway construction of the Brussels North-South connection. Having no alternative, they create their own small anarchistic community.
Dutch literature from Belgium is unimaginable without the contribution from writer Hugo Claus. In his work, he mingles reappearing themes that carry the mother’s love, feelings of hate towards the absent father, Catholic guilt and Flanders during and after World War II. In 1983 he published his classic bildungsroman Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium). In this book, he describes his youth in the form of Claus’ alter ego Louis Seynaeve in a small village during World War II. In search of an answer why the Belgian bourgeoisie collaborated with the German occupiers, he introduces the reader into a family chronicle full of autobiographical facts about the socio-political reality in Belgium at the time.