Life is short: story collection offers surrealism and humour
Annelies Verbeke has released her third collection of short stories, with protagonists including a clairvoyant baby and an author who turns into a bear
Verbeke, 41, enjoys reading short stories herself. “I love their intensity,” she says. “There’s no background information about the characters; you immediately become part of someone’s life. And by writing them in the short term, you add a certain emotional fervour that could get lost in a novel.”
The 15 stories in Halleluja revolve around one theme: the beginning and the end. “Using a central theme in a collection gives you the opportunity to look at that theme from different perspectives,” she explains.
In a novel, “you have to stay true to one idea or to one voice for a long time, which is rather exhausting. Short stories are also the perfect way to experiment with form and content.”
The first story, “Huilbaby” (Cry Baby), is the perfect example. As it’s told from the point of view of an infant, “it isn’t a voice I could have maintained for an entire novel”.
With Halleluja, Verbeke has created an array of situations and characters who long for some form of catharsis: a baby who can see into the future, a couple who go back to basics and live like cave people, a woman who wakes up in someone else’s life, an architect who believes the end of the world is nigh.
Verbeke (pictured) chose the title because it can be used in so many contexts. Despite its occasional dark tone, the collection sports much fantasy and a sense of humour; Verbeke walks the fine line between reality and the surreal with aplomb.
By making stories just a tad surreal or adding metaphors, it becomes easier to talk about certain subjects
The characters, in any case, are people of flesh and bone with recognisable emotions – loss, fear, despair – even if the setting and circumstances might be out of the ordinary. “You shouldn’t add surrealism just to be a bit different,” Verbeke says. “It has to be there for a reason.”
Sometimes, she believes, it actually makes things clearer. “In my whole oeuvre there’s this deeper, darker layer shining through our daily lives. Literature is the perfect way to make it tangible. In Halleluja I may have made it a little more surreal than usual, but by making stories just a tad surreal or adding metaphors, it becomes easier to talk about certain subjects.”
In “De Beer” (The Bear), a female author wakes up as a male bear. Verbeke: “It’s a way to talk about a particular sadness within this character without having to be too literal.”
The character in “De Beer” is called de auteur (the author) and is Verbeke’s alter-ego. She first made her appearance in a story for Flemish-Dutch cultural organisation DeBuren as part of a series called Citybooks, in which Verbeke wrote about her home town of Ghent.
“I wrote about my daily life in the city from the viewpoint of de auteur, which also became quite surreal,” she says. “By creating de auteur, I could talk about myself as if I were a character and make myself do things I wouldn’t or couldn’t normally do. I liked that character so much, I decided it should come back in other publications.”
The mood of “De Beer” conveys her own state of mind at the time. For a while she was very tired and sad, she says, “and after I wrote that story, it was over. Making yourself into a character can be quite cathartic”.
Halleluja is a dark but often funny collection that shines a light on life’s hidden depths, despite its heightened sense of reality. Verbeke has created strong characters that are real and relatable, in an original, diverse and wildly entertaining reading experience that should be slowly savoured.
Halleluja (★★★★) is published in Dutch by De Geus
Photo: Alex Salinas
More new books this month
Pertinenties van Polly Dewit (Pertinences of Polly Dewit) • Gerda Dendooven (Polis)
Polly Dewit had a column in De Morgen for years, becoming famous for her candid take on the daily life of modern women. Her funny, occasionally acid, critique gave her confident essays an air of illumination. Whether she was talking about mothers, husbands or lovers, her pieces were best described as scientific voyeurism. Here, illustrator Gerda Dendooven has compiled a collection of her best musings. ★★★☆
Billie & Seb • Ivo Victoria (Lebowski)
Flemish author and journalist Ivo Victoria tells the tale of 17-year-old Seb, whose soulmate, Billie, is in a coma. Banned from visiting her, Seb shuts himself up in his room, away from the cruel world. When he receives an air gun for Christmas, he loses himself in battles with his friends at a deserted farmyard. Slowly but surely he loses touch with reality as his inner and outer world collide. A haunting, surreal observation of friendship. ★★☆☆
Audrey & Anne • Jolien Janzig (De Geus)
During the autumn of 1957, Otto Frank visits up-and-coming movie star Audrey Hepburn at her Swiss chalet. He wants her to play the part of his daughter, Anne, in a movie about her life. Audrey and Anne were both born in the same year, though they led very different lives. Both came into contact with fascism, but the outcomes couldn’t have been more different. Novelist Jolien Janzing’s take on this story is fresh, alluring and powerful. ★★★☆
Een paar is twee (A Pair is Two) • Toon van Mierlo (Vrijdag)
2010 was a year of crisis. Not just in Europe and in Belgium, where a government couldn’t be formed, but also in the lives of Stef and Danny, brothers-in-law whose marriages are about to be tested by infidelity. They each decide to resolve things in their own ways, but in 2010, nobody gets off scot-free. Toon van Mierlo’s second novel is an interesting take on how we deal with setbacks and deception. ★★★☆