Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Poor Belgium! - Brontë, Baudelaire bash Belgium

I don't spend much of my imaginative or literary life in Belgium. But lately I've been spending time with two vicious Belgium-bashers. Oddest thing.

Charles Baudelaire lived in Belgium from April 1864 to July 1866, hating every minute of it, apparently. He had gone to deliver a series of paying lectures, and stayed for complicated reasons involving debt, illness, publishing, his mother, and contrariness. From a letter to the painter Manet, 27 May, 1864, just after arrival in Belgium:

"The Belgians are fools, liars, and thieves... Here deceit is the rule and brings no dishonor... Don't ever believe what people say about the good nature of the Belgians. Ruse, defiance, false affability, crudeness, treachery - now all of that you can believe."

Some more abuse: "the stupidest race on earth (at least I presume there's none stupider)" (13 Oct 1864). "You know there's no Belgian cuisine and that these people don't know how to cook eggs or grill meat... The sight of a Belgian woman gives me a vague desire to faint." (3 Feb 1865)

Almost as soon as he arrives, Baudelaire begins working on a book attacking Belgium, Pauvre Belgique!, or A Ridiculous Capital, or Belgium en déshabillé. It will be "a means of trying out my claws" in which "I'll patiently explain all the reasons for my disgust with mankind." Never finished. Such a shame.

The other Belgium-hater is Charlotte Brontë, or at least her narrator Lucy Snowe. The Villette (Little Town) in Villette turns out to be Brussels, capital of Labassecoure (Poultry-yard). The inhabitants, including her students, regardless of social standing, are mostly fat peasants. It's not just Rubens and his fat women. See the parenthetical dig at her students in Chapter 9, for example, about "their (usually large) ears." Plus they spy, they're narrow in spirit, and, worst of all, they're Catholic.

Perhaps this is not really Belgium. Perhaps in the world of Villette, there is no Belgium, or it has a very similar neighbor named Poultry-yard. But I've become convinced that the mean names are not just Charlotte Brontë's joke. They're also Lucy's - it's merciless Lucy who identifies the Duke of Turkey (the Duc de Dindonneau) and calls professors who torment her Drywood and Deadrock. She's just like that.

Here, by the way is the Brussels Brontë Group Blog, where there are no hard feelings. That's the spirit.

This is what they call a transition - I'm going to spend the next two days with Baudelaire. Which is a shame, since I'm enjoying Villette so much. Plenty more Villette here.

All Baudelaire quotations from Selected Letters of Charles Baudelaire: The Conquest of Solitude, ed. Rosemary Lloyd, University of Chicago Press, 1986.


  1. How timely--yesterday was the 179th anniversary of the creation of Belgium. Which I'm sure you knew...

  2. No, I had not known that. Happy birthday, Belgium.

    By the way, if anyone wants to defend the honor of Belgium from these malignant scribblers, please do.

    Book recommendations are an excellent defense. Hugo Claus looks promising.

  3. Part of my novel-in-progress is in Belgium, but only has one villanous character for the whole country. Maybe I should up the ante ; )

  4. Dr. Evil is Belgian. And in the Hitchhiker's Guide novels, I believe that the most obscene word in the universe is "Belgium".

    So, yes, more Belgian villains, definitely.

  5. die geneigte LeserinJuly 22, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    Lucy brilliantly reveals the truth that there is no such thing as Belgium! It is a phantasm, no more alive than the ghost in the attic. Look at any history of this so-called nation and you'll find the most improbably patchwork of nonsense, without the merest effort at historical plausibility (from Wikipiedia:"in the 11th and 12th centuries, the territory more or less corresponding to the present Belgium was divided into mostly independent feudal states: County of Flanders, Marquisate of Namur, Duchy of Brabant, County of Hainaut, Duchy of Limburg, Luxemburg, Bishopric of Liège." Hilarious! Piffle!)

    Baudelaire was never in any physical place called Belgium any more than he was actually in India. He calls "Belgium" the hell that is anywhere outside of Paris.

    And now the myth is perpetuated for more nefarious purposes. EU officials visit a vast shopping center in the Netherlands, are stuffed with chocolates, and go home claiming to have spent enormous sums in a city named after a tiny cabbage. Not even remotely convincing.

  6. I've got it! Lucy Snow's secret is that she's Jewish!

  7. Ah, yes. That's the family secret Lucy wants to keep hidden.

    And so, therefore, is M. Paul ("he was of strain neither French nor Labassecourien," Ch. 29), who is a Sephardic Jew, and by consequence a converso. Is he M. Paul of M. Saul?

    What a fine crackpot theory.

  8. "die geneigte Leserin"
    You may be a gentle reader...
    But what the heck are you talking about...
    Brussels & Belgium as a whole belonging to... The Netherlands!?!?
    Give me a break.
    It's precisely Belgium's plurality that makes its history really complex but also really interesting to learn about...
    Oh... Maybe it was humor...
    As funny as Baudelaire's hysterical pamphlet...
    Poor B!
    No, B doesn't stand for Belgium...

  9. That's a joke, son. Ah say, that's a joke. A funny.

    You don't find the way she sneaked in the Brussel sprout funny? Maybe the Brussel sprout is not funny in Belgium. In the, U.S., it's hilarious.

    "Piffle," "nefarious," "Not even remotely convincing" - these are signals that the rhetorical tone is not serious, but mock serious.

    Your middle sentence - "It's precisely Belgium's" etc. - comes across as entirely sincere. Perhaps I'm misreading it. I don't know how to read those ellipses.

    Regardless, thanks for defending the honor of pauvre Belgique.

  10. it doesn't hurt hearing this from amaricans.
    have you ever been in belgium ?!
    i'm not saying it's great but at least not all
    of the people are fat and stupid .
    have you ever seen that video on youtube about amaricans beeing stupid, you should !!
    no Fidel Castro is not a singer
    no the religian of israel is not israelic
    no mississipi, new york and calafornia aren't countries.
    for all i know theyr's only been 2 world wars .
    star wars is not based on a true story .
    no, there's only one Eifeltower in Paris .
    and i can keep going but i don't want to hurt your feelings any more .
    you people really think the world can't live without amarica , geuss what !! we can infact we would be better of. the only thing amaricans think about is money, oil and themselves .
    of course not all amaricans are stupid and selfish and fat and ignorant and ...
    and by the way you've just been fucked over by a fifteen year old !! LOL
    greatings from Europe ( and no that's not a country !!)

  11. Thanks for your outstanding, well-argued defense of Belgium! Chew on that, Charlotte Brontë!

  12. ...I have been frequenting belgium for a very long time (and a belgian for 35 years) first having set foot there in 1969 ...I am still getting used to the place and the people ...not an easy task, but some niceties come of it...