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

Philosopher Peter de Graeve is aiming to convey the necessity of philosophy in an age where doubt prevails. His debut novel, De Afvalligen (The Apostles), is about a man treading the fine line between fact and fiction, while trying to find answers in these difficult times.

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

- Peter de Graeve

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

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