New editions published by writer who brought rural Flanders to life

Summary

With a re-issue and a new tome, publisher Lannoo is celebrating the life of Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels, who, during his almost 100 years, wrote work after work in praise of the everyday people of West Flanders

No day without a line

When Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels was born, photography was a novelty. Just a few weeks before his death, almost a century later, astronauts had reached the moon. And times had changed, too, in West Flanders, where Streuvels spent his entire life.

Born in 1871 as Frank Lateur, son of a tailor and a seamstress, Streuvels (pictured) was raised in a family where boys became either a craftsman or a priest. Streuvels did neither – at least not literally.

Like many of his contemporaries, he quit school early to learn a trade. As a teenager, he worked as an apprentice in several bakeries and seemed well on his way to a career making bread and pastries. None too happy about this prospect, Streuvels was also an avid reader and became a self-taught professional writer.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t poet (and priest) Guido Gezelle, his mother’s older brother, who encouraged him to pursue his literary ambitions. His explorations into literature were mainly a private matter, away from the stringent rules and expectations of his devout Catholic family.

With greedy eyes, Streuvels acquainted himself with the great novelists of his time. The Russian realists Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky left a big impression. As a would-be writer trying to establish a voice, Streuvels also took a position in the debates concerning French author Emile Zola and naturalist literature.

The concept of naturalism affects the reception of Streuvels’ own works up to this very day. Early on, the terms “realist” or “naturalist” often equalled impious, immoral and therefore reproachable literature.

Turning the page

While still working as a baker, Streuvels practised his art translating exemplary texts and crafting his own short stories. In literary magazines, he alternately used his birth name and various pen names, but finally settled on Stijn Streuvels.

He came into contact with the writers around the innovative periodical Van nu en straks (Of Now and Later), much to the dismay of his mother and uncle Guido, even though these trendsetters embraced Gezelle’s poetry.

Streuvels’ literary network grew well beyond West Flanders, and in 1899 he made his book-length debut with the short-story collection Lenteleven (Spring Life). Local Catholic critics panned it.

In a letter to one of his friends at Van nu en straks, Streuvels wrote of the “scandalous outrage” that had met the baker’s debut: “West Flemish critics start their reviews by saying I’d better check my bread doesn’t burn.”

I was impressed with the way he addressed people’s mental state when they are alone with their thoughts

- Nancy Baele

But Lenteleven confirmed to Streuvels that he might be able to live off writing. Until 1905 he combined both jobs, but, after more than a decade at the baker’s oven, he became a full-time writer. Not coincidentally, that same year Streuvels got married and moved into his own home, the Lijsternest (“Lark’s nest”) in the village of Ingooigem, where he would live until his death.

At 34, Streuvels turned a page. He had already become a well-known writer (with a well-known bushy moustache), but now literature would be his sole business. Year after year, he published new work, while also translating Tolstoy and others, and administering the literary estate of his uncle Guido.

In his work room hung the motto Nulla dies sine linea (“No day without a line”), which still encourages diligent work on the task at hand.

1905 was also the year of his first major award, the State Prize for Literature, for his work over the previous five years. In 1910, when the next State Prize was awarded, Streuvels would be triumphant again, this time due to his still most famous novel, De vlaschaard (The Flax Field).

De vlaschaard deals with a generational conflict between a young farmer and his authoritarian father, who refuses to transfer power. Change is nearly impossible in Streuvels’ universe, as man has but a feeble voice when Nature roars.

Circles of life

With his tributes to the rural Flemish landscape, Streuvels became the epitome of regional literature, while also surpassing its largely pejorative connotations through his lively descriptions and fatalistic reflections. His stories always portrayed countryside labourers whose lives abided by the circular motion of the agricultural seasons.

In the novella Het leven en de dood in den ast (When the Wheel Turns its Circle), Streuvels explicitly presented the dreams and reflections of three workers in an oast house during their night shift as a literary construction – not only because of the theatrical setting, but also because of his linguistic prowess. He repeatedly strung together successions of vernacular near-synonyms that were far from common, even at the time of publication in 1926.

My first impression was the enormous vitality of these people’s lives, and of the story’s powerful atmosphere

- Nancy Baele

Last year, the Royal Academy of Dutch Linguistics and Literature and the Flemish Literary Fund included the novella in their revamped literary canon. And now there’s a new, annotated edition in Dutch and the tribute book Ast, with contributions from contemporary writers such as Koen Peeters and photographer Filip Claus.

In recent years, Het leven en de dood in den ast has been translated into Spanish, Afrikaans, French and English under the guidance of editor Omer Vandeputte.

“There is no English equivalent that I am aware of for Streuvels’ writing, told from the perspective of those who are not well-educated or comfortably off and which celebrates the sense of being alive in the moment,” says Canadian art critic Nancy Baele, part of the team that translated the novella into English. “I was impressed with the way he addressed people’s mental state when they are alone with their thoughts, reflecting on the history of their lives and their place in the world.”

Stylist and innovator

Even though it’s up for discussion to what extent Streuvels actually gave his ever-silent characters a voice in his fatalistic stories, the novella has a haunting quality. “My first impression after reading Het leven en de dood in den ast was the enormous vitality of these people’s lives, and of the story’s powerful atmosphere,” says Baele. “I had the impression I was witnessing a morality play, with man as a fated creature, caught between the desire to satisfy his physical appetites and the longing to give eternal meaning to his life.”

Translations have been few and far between since Streuvels’ death in 1969, certainly in comparison with his previous presence in Germany. His ties with German publishers date back to early in his career but took a dubious turn in the Second World War, when Streuvels’ work was incorporated in National Socialistic propaganda.

He also agreed to have De vlaschaard adapted into a German film in 1943. It was, according to Joseph Goebbels, “the first to prove that the rural milieu could be represented artistically in film”.

After the war, accusations of collaboration were dismissed, but, to this day, historians, scholars and critics argue about Streuvels’ attitude towards National Socialism. His continuing, and justified, canonisation and celebration tend to avoid that debate in favour of rehabilitating Streuvels as a remarkable stylist and an innovator of Flemish prose.

Het leven en de dood in den ast and Ast are published in Dutch by Lannoo

Selected bibliography

Lenteleven (1899): Streuvels’ book-length debut developed from the short story “Lente” (Spring). Also the first of his work to be translated into English, as The Path of Life.

Langs de wegen (1902): Streuvels’ first novel and allegedly his favourite, about a hard-working stableman who endures various misfortunes. Translated into English as Old Jan in 1936 and The Long Road in 1976.

De vlaschaard (1907): The story of a generational conflict between an old farmer and his son, translated as The Flax Field. Streuvels most enduring work.

Het leven en de dood in den ast (1926): During the night-shift in a hop kiln, three men reflect on their existence. Translated into English as When the Wheel Turns its Circle.

De teleurgang van de Waterhoek (The Downfall of Waterhoek, 1927): Villagers oppose the building of a bridge and the modernisation that comes with it. The amorous storyline provided the Flemish screen adaptation Mira (1971), with one of the most illustrious female roles in Dutch-language film history.

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