Flanders is guest of honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. What inspires writers and poets between the clouds and the North Sea?
The beach in Oostende is drowning in rain. A man in a blue suit, yellow shirt, tie and hat sits on the lifeguards’ stand. Seagulls swoop around him. It’s cold.
Below him, a bare-chested lifeguard yells rule-book text into the wind, ordering him down immediately because what he’s doing is not allowed. He tugs at the man’s trouser leg, radios for back-up and blocks the photographer’s lens with a life preserver.
This scene is the natural start to our story because Flanders is at once grotesque and gray, real and surreal. And because the man on the stand is the cartoonist Herr Seele, the king of Surrealism.
Hours before, he received us in his studio, a one-time movie theater with dusty pianos on the ground floor. Herr Seele is a piano tuner by trade, but a master of the art of living and an artist by choice. In 1981, he gave Cowboy Henk, a blond giant of a man sporting an Elvis quiff, to the Flemish, and the cartoon still appears in Humo magazine today.
Ask anyone on the coast and you’ll get an enthusiastic nod. Everyone here grew up with Henk, the uncle, brother, father of the Flemish.
Was that his creator’s intention? Sitting in front of a self-portrait in oils, Herr Seele grins. “I grew up with Tintin, but we hated those comics. They were so boring! Henk is, if you like, anti-comic, punk.” Tough words for Belgium, the land of the comic. But it gradually dawns on us that Flanders is not Belgium – just a small part of it.
In October, Flanders joins the Netherlands as guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The two countries share a border and a language, so it makes sense.
Flanders, in the north of Belgium, (population, 6.4 million) has an eternal problem: its unresolved issues with Wallonia in the south. Linguistically, politically and culturally, the two are very much at odds. The Walloons parley in French, and there’s lots of speculation about the country breaking apart.
And so identity – what the two sides have in common and what divides them – is all-important along the Flemish coast, which feels as though it begins just beyond Bruges.
Herr Seele knows his countrypeople’s quirks. He walks across to the Brasserie du Parc, the majestic Kursaal to his left. Oostende was once the stomping ground of the royal set, and the king would stroll past the Venetian Galleries as far as the racecourse. Today, it’s mostly tourists from the interior. The promenade has been concreted over with high-rise buildings. Herr Seele loves the fall season, when the streets are empty because the vacationers have left. “It’s better for art,” he says over a beer.
Cowboy Henk was born in this café. Herr Seele would note down his ideas and Kamagurka, his partner, would add the gags. They called it “turbosurrealism” – countless pages in an hour!
A new editor at Humo magazine tried to drop the cartoon. Circulation slowed. Irate readers wrote in. A few weeks later, the editor was gone and Henk was back. “Daft idea of his,” says Herr Seele.
The Flemish are fond of their bumbling hero. While Tintin and Snowy always come out on top, Henk makes an idiot of himself. Always the loser, he takes some punishment but gets back on his feet – he’s too violent, too honest, too strong.
In one story, Henk finds a fish in the river. He hauls it on land and tries to resuscitate it, mouth-to-mouth. The fish dies and Henk moves off dejectedly. That’s the kind of Flemish humor Herr Seele loves. “We need someone to talk about taboos. Henk does.”
He wants to go down to the beach for a photo in the lifeguard stand. You have to apply to the city for a permit, the lifeguard yells. Henk would have punched him. Herr Seele stomps away.
New day, same weather. The sky is a thick, dramatic gray resembling ash mixed with slate. Seeing beauty here is hard work. Els Moors, Flemish poet from Poperinge, agrees. But it’s still inspiring, isn’t it?
She’s sitting on the Kusttram – last row, best view. The streetcar serves 67 kilometers of Flemish coastline. Here’s a nice superlative: Europe’s shortest coast has the longest tramway in the world. The trip from De Panne in the south to Knokke in the north takes two hours and 23 minutes.
Outside, Flanders swishes by. Wartime bunkers in the dunes, the Atlantic Wall, rusty cannons. Mobile homes stretch away to the horizon near Westende. The high-rise canyons of Nieuwpoort. The North Sea. Men in gumboots scouring its shore with metal detectors in search of jewelry.
Inspiring? Moors leans forward: “When I write a poem, I make room for it in my head. I can do that best here.” Moors often writes about the sea. She observes it with camera precision – and then questions, varies, squeezes all she can out of what she sees. The result: truths that earn her critical acclaim.
Identity is an all-important theme for poets and writers in Flanders
Moors points out the window; an ex of hers lived here, and, oh yes, another ex’s grandfather once tied his boat up here, and here … She laughs. For her, the coast is peopled with men. Moors is demanding, direct and amusing, just like her poems.
“I sometimes wonder do I need to bare my all in poetry? Then I think about it and say, yes, I do!” She used to write verses in the attic because she was so ashamed. No longer! If people don’t understand them, she doesn’t change the way she writes, she just writes for those who do. “I used to have trouble with Flemish, felt the language was too stark for poetry,” she says.
Today, she sees it as a challenge to wring music from a language without melody. In her view, the Flemish people’s complexes stem from their language, from being a minority in their own country – in both number and native tongue. You could also construe her poetry as liberating, emancipatory. Read it and discover how wonderful Flemish can be! Listen to what the language is capable of!
A lighthouse emerges from a veil of fog near Middelkerke. It’s up for demolition. Moors shakes her head. What a funny, chunky building. An obese lighthouse; it suits the landscape. It would also suit one of Moors’ poems.
I would love to ride further, but my next appointment is looming, so it’s time to turn around. Wytske Versteeg is waiting halfway back, in Bredene, in the dunes. Versteeg is from the Netherlands, where she is regarded as the best writer of her generation – she was born in 1983.
It is only fitting that we should meet her on the beach since her most successful novel, Boy, is set on a beach. Boy, an adopted African boy, dies a mysterious death and his mother sets out to find out who is to blame. It’s a tale of revenge, anger and grief, magnificently dissected by Versteeg.
She used to write for the theater, but doesn’t anymore. “I gave that up because I’m a control freak. In books, I have sole control over the story. When I wrote for the stage, I had to hand it over to other people and watch what happened to it,” she says.
We always expect the creators of formidable stories to be formidable themselves. So we were quite surprised to meet this shy woman tripping barefoot through the spray and to watch her, an hour later, stroll wide-eyed through De Haan, another spa town, but different, with well-preserved, half-timbered buildings.
Beautifully turned out, De Haan calls Disneyland to mind. Oriel windows and towers everywhere, and in the middle of it all, a pensive Versteeg. What a beautiful contrast.
Does she like Flanders? “In Belgium, the Dutch have a reputation for being loud and arrogant. Here in Flanders, I can see some truth in that.” She says this very quietly.
Oostende: our fourth and last meeting. Erik Lindner, poet, born in The Hague in 1968. His rhymes have a certain weight in the Netherlands, but to find them, he travels to – you guessed it – Flanders. He was here in May, stayed two weeks and wrote a sea epic.
Now, in early August, Lindner is back on the ferry crossing the harbor from Visserskaai to the breakwater. He wants to show me where the poem “Undertow” came from. “Writing about the sea isn’t a concept. It’s inside me and happens quite naturally,” he explains, standing between backpacks and functional jackets.
In May, he was the only passenger, stood at the stern and took inspiration from the maelstrom created by the ship’s propeller. Lindner scribbles something in a notebook. He looks like he has fallen out of time, a tall man in a gray suit who needs nothing but a pen, light and wind to sustain him.
Gulls screech as the clouds part, just as they did when Lindner wrote: “The sun paints a room in the sky / Clouds hang in front of, beneath and all around it.” Poetry should flow like waves, that was his idea. The first verse floods in, a second rolls outs. It works.
Why Flanders, Dutchman Erik Lindner? “The eye gets lazy in its usual surroundings, the mind misses things. I come here for new observations,” he explains. Lindner looks at the water, the dock, at Fort Napoleon. The coast of Flanders, inspiring in its beauty, its ugliness, its absurdity – but a good place to finish.
Flanders’ coastal tram line