Philosopher blurs the lines between fiction and reality in debut novel
Peter de Graeve’s first venture into the world of fiction is an intriguing introduction to Western philosophy
Out of the ivory tower
Although de Graeve has written many philosophical pieces, De Afvalligen is his first endeavour into the world of fiction. “The origins of literature can be found in philosophy,” he explains. “I’m fascinated by the philosophy of Ancient Greece, something I draw on in this novel by referring to Heraclitus.”
Many pre-Socratic philosophers, he continues, blurred the lines between literature and philosophy. “Plato too wrote in a very literary style – his text Symposium could be considered one of the first Western novels, complete with a plot and characters, and mixing elements of fiction and reality. Other philosophers like Thomas More, Erasmus, Sartre and Camus also wrote fiction.”
After his studies in Ghent, de Graeve worked at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Turin, with noted fellow philosophers Sarah Kofman and Gianni Vattimo. He believes philosophy isn’t just an academic subject but a field vital to mankind, one that should thrive and evolve, not just be written about. With De Afvalligen, he’s taken the approach to heart.
“Philosophy is a way to think creatively about the world and mankind,” he says. “Nowadays, we end up focusing on the banality of everyday life without looking at the richness of the past. By combining the two, we could end up with a multitude of answers.”
Tools of the trade
His first novel took some time to develop. “I had written many versions,” he says. “The idea of writing something on the border of fiction and reality was always there, but I wasn’t sure if it would be an essay, non-fiction or a novel with elements of philosophy.”
He waited until the very end. “When I got together with my publisher in the final stage, we decided to turn it into a novel,” he says. “If you succeed, you can pull the readers into the world of the main character.” And he did, while also managing to provide his readers with an overview of some of the most important Western philosophers.
Philosophy is a way to think creatively about the world and mankind
The main character in De Afvalligen is a philosopher examining the correlation between Rousseau, whose works are more autobiographical, and Kant, who explores the universe in its entirety. Despite his research and findings, his work isn’t considered academic enough by his dean, who disagrees with his idea that philosophy should step out of academia and become part of everyday life.
The narrator is in many ways the spitting image of de Graeve, who invented him as a playful tease towards his readers. “Nietzsche is the perfect example of combining fiction and autobiographical facts,” he says. “In philosophy, however, the author’s life is used to mirror life in its broadest sense. In fiction and in philosophy, the lines are blurred and it is up to you to make your own personal truth.”
In the footsteps of giants
The story is rich in these elements. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who frequently appears in the novel, used to describe philosophy with autobiographical texts. The main character also spends a lot of the time talking to Plato, with some of the dialogues taken directly from the Greek philosopher’s work.
“The narrator uses Plato as a character, in just the same way that Plato used his teacher Socrates,” de Graeve says. The result is that long-gone philosophers become vibrant characters in their own right, adding a lively and contemporary twist to an otherwise dense subject matter.
Sophie’s World, a 1991 novel by Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder, attempted to make the world of philosophy accessible to a general audience by providing a clever overview of the entire history of philosophy.
De Graeve, in turn, tries to lift philosophical fiction to the next level by focusing on the very act of philosophising, causing you to question what is real and what is not. De Afvalligen is a rich, multi-layered and erudite novel. The plot may be somewhat diluted, but it’s compensated by the intriguing introduction to Western philosophy.
De Afvalligen (★★★☆) is published in Dutch by Polis
Photo: Koen Broos
More new books this month
Het Brussel syndroom (The Brussels Syndrome) • Marc Buelens and Raf Vermeiren (Houtekiet)
Former professor Marc Buelens has published his first thriller with the help of his brother-in-law Raf Vermeiren, a political advisor turned author. A famous European journalist, a British negotiator and the new European president are forced to work together when six EU commissioners are kidnapped. All the players have hidden agendas, especially when the kidnappers prove to be master manipulators. Far-fetched and poorly written at best. ★☆☆☆
Achter onze schermen (Behind our Screens) • Thomas Smolders (Polis)
Blogger Thomas Smolders, who has written for numerous newspapers, has turned his love for social media into his profession. While politicians claim that we’ll be replaced by robots one day, there are still people who barely know how to use a computer. Smolders explores the discrepancies in the digital age and the potential fate of a world that’s evolving in opposite directions. His stories and findings about our digital future and those who will inhabit it are refreshing, thought-provoking and enlightening. ★★★☆
Tante Teefje • Ruth Verstraeten and Eva Mouton (Davidsfonds)
Ruth Verstraeten, an arts and crafts teacher, and Eva Mouton, an illustrator best known for her weekly column in De Standaard, joined forces for their first children’s book. Tante Teefje tells the story of Klaas and his horrible aunt. The aunt seems perfectly nice until she’s all alone with her nephew, at which point she turns into a spiteful old woman. An engaging protagonist, Klaas is able to strike back (with a little help from his aunt’s beloved pills), making this unusual story an original and visually stunning children’s book. ★★☆☆
Happening • Johan Swinnen (Vrijdag)
Academic, photographer and art critic Johan Swinnen has written a novel about the attack on the Innovation department store in Brussels on 22 May 1967. Three bombs cause a massive fire in which 13-year-old Hervé loses his parents. He soon crosses paths with Delphine, a member of the Brussels commune Ché, and the encounter changes his life forever. Happening is an interesting historical novel about a group of Belgian youths who protest against the Vietnam War using radical means. ★★☆☆