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The Archaeological Me

The Factory of Facts

by Luc Sante
Pantheon, 303 pp., $24.00

How could a writer write about this world, if it was the only world
he knew?
—V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World

The greatest African poet in the French language, Léopold Sédar Senghor, coined half a century ago the concept of négritude. This neologism (built on nègre—“nigger”) deftly reversed an infamous racist label, and redeemed it by vesting it with a new meaning of ethnic and cultural pride. Following this illustrious example, a grim Belgian wit, in the spirit of self-derision which is characteristic of his compatriots, invented the sarcastic notion of “Belgitude.”

Belgitude is a burden no less heavy for being invisible to a majority of its sufferers; perhaps, in order to plumb its full depth, a Belgian needs first to become an alien. Belgitude is something he will then discover on returning home after a long absence—he will experience it as the crushing weight that will make him hang his head in gloom and despondency under the cold, dark rain of the native sky, as he is suddenly assailed by all the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of the native land—a land racked with endemic tribal warfare, a land where merriment, even at its most aggressively boisterous, penetrates the bystander with sorrow—a land which chose for its emblematic totems (as Baudelaire already noted1 ) the figures of a pissing scamp and of a vomiting drunk….

But this land does not produce many aliens: a Belgian emigrant seems to be a contradiction in terms. In this respect, Georges Simenon, the most famous Belgian writer of our century,2 told an anecdote from his childhood, which has value as an archetype. One evening, Simenon’s father was invited by a friend who had just bought a new car to join the latter on a short drive to a neighboring town, some twelve miles away. “Our mother,” Simenon recalled, “made me and my brother kneel down for the entire duration of our father’s little jaunt, and pray to God that no catastrophe befall him on the way. It was as if he had left for the moon.”^3

The purpose of these preliminary observations is essentially to dispel any suspicions that, if I was drawn to Luc Sante’s book, it must have been because we happen to share a same Belgian origin. Contrary to appearances, Belgium is not the topic of his book, even though one chapter (which, to my mind, is superfluous4 ) may create such a misleading impression. Actually, The Factory of Facts is as much “a book about Belgium” as—let us say—Naipaul’s memorable prose poems (conventionally called “novels”) are “about” his native Trinidad, or his adopted Wiltshire.

Evelyn Waugh, analyzing with clinical detachment the sterility that was progressively freezing his pen, confessed to a friend: “Nothing that happens to one after the age of forty makes any impression.”5 This desolate observation explains why creative writers, once they have entered the arid wastes of middle age, must perforce turn themselves into archeologists of their own past. Sante’s title defines exactly the nature of his enterprise:

Like it or not, each of us is made, less by blood or genes than by a process that is largely accidental, the impact of things seen and heard and smelled and tasted and endured in those few years before our clay hardens…. Every human being is an archeological site. What passes for roots is actually a matter of sediment, of accretion, of chance and juxtaposition…. The damnedest bits of fugitive trivia may show up years later, recombined and inexplicable, prominent in the baggage of the adult self. The archeological detective who can trace their passage in detail does not exist and never will. I don’t claim any special ability in my own case, but I do possess a circumstantial advantage. Emigration, like a natural upheaval, sheared my foundation when the ground was soft, laying open expanses of strata…. I can’t in any way be conclusive about what made me. All I can do is to reconstruct the site, and imagine the factory at work.

Luc Sante was born in Belgium in 1954. With stoic industriousness, his parents were slowly working their way out of a semi-proletarian condition, into the modest coziness of the provincial petite bourgeoisie. Had they succeeded in their obstinate, antlike ascent, they would probably never have left their native land except, perhaps, once or twice, for a brief week of holiday abroad, in some chartered bus with two dozen fellow townspeople. Instead, their humble dream was crushed in the early Sixties by unemployment and a local economic crisis. Out of desperation, they finally made the inconceivable jump (to this very day, it still amazes their only child): they emigrated to America. This daring move, after several setbacks, eventually met with relative success—a success achieved at great emotional cost—but it was rewarded with one unforeseen result (obvious to the readers of this book): they reared a poet. The chemistry of Sante’s development is analyzed in a narrative that is ironic and tender, humorous and heartbreaking, lucid and subtle—and utterly free from pose and from sentimentality.

The entire journey started in another world—in another age:

I spent my early years in factory towns and their adjacent suburbs, amid bricks and soot and smokestacks and cobbled roads. We took streetcars for short trips and trains for long ones. We bought food fresh for every meal, not because we were gourmets but because we lacked a refrigerator (less perishable substances were kept in the root cellar). My mother got up every morning in the chill and made a fire in the parlor stove. Running water came in one temperature: frigid. We communicated by mail and got our news chiefly from newspapers (we were sufficiently modern, though, in that we owned a radio roughly the size of a filing cabinet). My early classrooms featured potbellied stoves and double desks with inkwells, into which we dipped our nibs. We boys wore short pants until the ceremony of communion solennelle, at age twelve. And so on. But this wasn’t any undiscovered pocket of the Carpathians, it was postwar western Europe, where “postwar” was a season that stretched for nearly twenty years.

For Sante’s parents, emigrating was an act of cautious madness. They compensated for their gamble with crazy prudence. Poor emigrants’ luggage fulfill a quasi-talismanic function—and in this case, it was prepared on a majestic scale:

My father built nine large crates from wood that was scrap but solid, and into them went the twelve-piece cream-colored Occupied-Germany dinner set, the twelve-piece silver service, the colorfully patterned woolen blankets, the Val-St. Lambert crystal ashtray with matching teardrop-shaped butt-grinder, the cut-glass cigarette box, the dolls in national costume that my mother had collected on their honeymoon in Switzerland and northern Italy, the pair of hand-painted Chinese-export plates with their wire wall hangers, the crucifix with its silver cross tips mounted on scarlet satin in an oval frame, the several pewter dishes embossed with obscure crests, the brown-and-yellow Luxembourgeois coffee service, the good glasses including the crystal wine goblets, the artificially aged parchment scroll bearing a translation of Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (“…you shall be a man, my son”),…the gilt-framed wedding portrait and the carved-frame portrait of my father’s father and innumerable portraits of me at various key ages, the lace pillow-cases and tablecloths and table runners and antimacassars, the bespoke suits and formal dresses, the hand-knit sweaters and socks, several dozen stuffed animals….

My parents assembled the foundation of a quiet middle-class life item after item, year after year, with no decision made hastily, no impulse unsupported—and then they suddenly threw themselves into the wild unknown. It can only have been that the alternatives were worse…. The best they could do was to equip themselves for the alien shore as fully as they could. Those nine crates were a turtle’s house: wherever my parents were, they would erect a Belgium around themselves. For Luc, the crossing from Europe to America was naturally “a lark, on a grand scale, with no consequences.” For his parents, however, the experience must have been very different: “They were adults, which meant that for them any excitement came wrapped in a cold damp towel of anxiety.” Whereas the child enjoyed unconcernedly the endless discoveries which the New World offered him, his parents, who “had suddenly been handed an entirely new life, without benefit of operating instructions,” struggled for bare survival. The only job the father could get at first was that of a grounds maintenance assistant, mowing lawns and trimming hedges at an industrial plant—which paid $1.37 per hour. Meanwhile, “the nine packing cases finally arrived; they had been roughly handled, and many of their contents, including nearly all the crystal stemware, had been smashed.”

In a closely knit family, a child soon senses with devastating acuity the anxiety that inhabits his parents. Sante’s memories of following his father in his fruitless search for work across bleak industrial landscapes have an oppressive and haunting quality—a Hopper painting transposed into the color of a nightmare:

Those journeys to the Gothic, smogbound city of Newark produced a lasting twilight horror that I can feel to this day amid the bright chrome and plastic fittings of New Jersey Transit trains when they make their stop at Broad Street on their way to Summit. I hear the conductor’s cry of “Nyuuurk!” as the carriage crosses the Passaic River toward the array of hulking, midsized grey office buildings curving off to the left along its bank, and my first solid impression of America returns: venetian blinds, cheap suits, pen-and-pencil sets, ersatz-pine paneling, thick plastic eyeglass frames, lacquered beehive hairdos, refinery-equipment calendars, dented green filing cabinets, dented brown wastepaper baskets, names printed in gold on frosted-glass doors, cracked linoleum floors, sweating elevator operators in undersized uniforms, luncheonettes, cigar stores, loading docks, pawn shops, bars with names like Alibi and Escapade and tiny rectangular windows, delivery entrances lit by bare bulbs, glittering pavements made of concrete mixed with ground glass, men selling neckties and windup toys out of briefcases mounted on legs, men selling tabloids from stacks weighed down with bricks, blind men selling pencils, men with jackhammers tearing up asphalt, the sound of jackhammers and sirens and car horns and car radios, the smell of hot asphalt and exhaust and grease and smoke from smelters and refineries and the rotten-egg smell of sulphur.

Pôves pitits mimbes du Diu (Poor little limbs of God; Walloon idiom), I find myself thinking, as if I were the father of my parents, watching them trudge around that wasteland, tear-streaked and footsore and increasingly without hope. The search was never-ending, America an endless web of streets, all of which came to dead ends. Everyone gave my father cheap advice: In order to get a job, you already need to have a job; In America, it is not what you know but who you know; You can’t afford to be modest; Honesty isn’t worth balls. It was the era of the Organization Man, of upward mobility, of three-martini lunches and sordid motel philandering and car crashes and fatal heart attacks at forty. New Jersey, between the hills of Summit and the Hudson River, was an industrial dead zone wherein lay our destiny. My parents’ new friend Marie-Louise Lenihan put herself out to drive us all over in search of job prospects and European groceries, all through those end-of-the-world salt-marsh factory sites and entire towns built from junk fifty years earlier for immigrants to live in.

All I have to do even now is hear names like Linden, Carteret, Perth Amboy, and my stomach starts to heave as if I were sticking in July sun to the Naugahyde backseat of a ‘52 Chevrolet with played-out shocks. My parents had packed their crystal and their silver, tweed suits and English shoes, only to end up, most probably, in a rear apartment over a liquor store in some burg like Elizabeth or Rahway or Roselle Park, nothing but sad coughing cars with mismatched doors and buzzing power-plants and two-story asphalt-sided hovels, under a permanently pea-green sky. It was Jemeppe-sur-Meuse all over again, but in a foreign tongue and with no family and no countryside anywhere around.

  1. 1

    But, in all fairness, it should be taken into account that, when Baudelaire wrote his “Belgian Amenities,” his magnificent mind was already half-eaten away by syphilis.

  2. 2

    This title cannot belong to Marguerite Yourcenar, as Luc Sante mistakenly assumes. Though Yourcenar was born in Brussels and carried an old Belgian name (de Craeyencour), she was a French citizen from birth.

  3. 4

    Chapter Ten presents a potted history of Belgian culture and literature in which most of the views are accurate, but they are also rather bland and conventional: the sort of survey you can find in a literate tourist guide. These pages distract from the emotional intensity that has been sustaining the author in the exploration of his past—his editors should have suggested some cuts. (There are further traces of editorial negligence: nearly half of the French words and phrases contain misspellings, a famous Latin quotation is faulty, etc. In any other book, one would ignore such blemishes, but in so exquisitely crafted a work, they irritate.)

  4. 5

    Letter to Nancy Mitford, October 23, 1954, in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, Mark Amory, editor (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1981).

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