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 (Incidentally, this confession may go some way toward explaining why Simenon left Belgium for good when he was eighteen, spent all his life in a restless self-exile, successively establishing thirty-two different homes in various countries—and by his own modest reckoning, felt compelled to copulate with nearly ten thousand female strangers.)
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.
In the end, however, through grueling efforts the parents achieved a modest measure of success, and the family came to enjoy the standard happiness of middle-class suburban America, in full conformity with the idyllic image provided by popular picture magazines:
In the spring the green’s cherry trees blossomed; in summer the whole town was verdant; in the autumn everything was fragrant with the smell of burning leaves; in winter it all lay under a fleecy white blanket. It seems scarcely credible now. In photographs as well as memory, Summit in the early 1960s looks like an archetype in a Life feature, like the native habitat of Dick and Jane. To emigrate to the United States and wind up in such a place was like hitting some kind of jackpot.
But the cost for entering such a dream-haven was relentless vigilance and fierce self-suppression:
My parents were shy about their castoffs, and were sensitive about people seeing the inside of our home. They were uneasy about their used car, about their difficulties with the language, about the fact that my father worked in a factory when the fathers of most of my playmates and schoolmates worked in offices. They did not socialize with other parents, nor with very many Americans beyond a few strays and some immigrants from other lands. They were discreet, circumspect, diffident to a fault, helpful to neighbors—my father was always doing chores for the elderly. Had either of them ever committed a murder, the neighbors would have characterized them on the TV news as “nice, quiet people who kept to themselves.”
The aching need to reestablish links with the native land, to experience again the company of compatriots, remained constant:
There weren’t a lot of Belgians around, of course, and such French people as one encountered tended, it was said, to be unapproachably snotty. My mother kept an ear cocked everywhere, in supermarkets, on trains, in the city, poised to pick up those drawled French vowels, those aspirate h’s that were the Walloon signature. Now and then, at long intervals, they found a candidate, maybe a student or an au pair; some of those have remained their friends. In the early sixties, though, the pursuit of other Belgians was more than a casual interest. It was a lifeline. It was like finding other humans in the jungle.
Their humble achievement had to be paid for, at a tremendous price:
My parents lost friends, lost family ties and patterns of mutual assistance, lost rituals and habits and favorite foods, lost any link to an ongoing social milieu, lost a good part of the sense they had of themselves. We lost a house, several towns, various landscapes. We lost documents and pictures and heirlooms, as well as most of our breakable belongings, smashed in the nine packing cases that we took with us to America. We lost connection to a thing larger than ourselves, and as a family failed to make any significant new connection in exchange, so that we were left aground on a sandbar barely big enough for our feet. I lost friends and relatives and stories and familiar comforts and a sense of continuity between home and outside and any sense that I was normal. I lost half a language through want of use and eventually, in my late teens, even lost French as the language of my internal monologue. And I lost a whole network of routes through life that I had just barely glimpsed.
The emigrants’ homesickness can in the end become overwhelming. But ultimately, theirs is a move of no return: you cannot go home again—for home is nowhere:
My parents, after much agonizing and debate, had taken the step of which they had so long dreamed. Upon my father’s retirement from the Ethylene Corporation of Murray Hill, New Jersey, they had sold their house and car and pared their remaining belongings down to what could fit into the exact same nine packing cases that had transported their household across the ocean in 1959.
They returned to Belgium,
but in the two years since their move in ’87 they had been calling me and writing letters and even coming over, taking a room in Summit at what used to be called the The Hotel Suburban, a place they had long thought of as being beyond their means if not above their station, alternately pleading with me to pay them a visit…and further agonizing about moving back to America yet again. Belgium was not making them happy. People were distant, called them “les Américains” behind their backs, would probably still call them that if they remained for thirty years….
Sante looks at his parents with great tenderness; he admires their courage and stoicism; he smiles at their naiveté—but his smile hides much love. His portrait of his mother offers some of the finest pages in the book:
She drew from her childhood a love of nature, a fear of catastrophe, a yearning for the cozy interdependency of the extended family, and an absolute submission to the laws of the Church. Those four constants have stayed with her all her life: she has, in other words, taken her village with her to an America she still experiences as utterly foreign after thirty-five years. In the sad and harsh first few years abroad, her sole consolation was watching the squirrels, because although they differed from the Belgian variety they were nevertheless creatures of a woodland she could imagine as running continuously from here to there….
Catastrophe was in her blood, probably from whatever inherited memory of failed crops and sudden frosts and famine and epidemic, and its hold on her was reinforced by war and job loss and deaths and the constant threat of destitution. She is fascinated by disaster, has made a study of it…. Any phone call from her will begin with an often impressive recital of cardiac cases and suspected tumorous growths and children born with dire conditions, not to mention sudden deaths…. This is not a matter of sadism, but it is not without prurience, and above all it constitutes the only kind of information she has ever really believed: bad news. In the family there is safety, but that is not news until it falls apart.
…The relative fluidity of American life unanchors her. She addresses the majority of her contemporaries as Mr. or Mrs. this or that, and when they eventually beg her to call them Madge or Don, she concedes with difficulty and reluctance. Wherever she has cause to refer to a friend or colleague of mine who is superior in age to me, she says “la dame” or “le monsieur,” even if she has met them. If I happen to mention an upcoming meeting, even a casual event, she instructs me: “Fais-toi bien propre,” make yourself clean, because people will judge you on the shine of your shoes and the sharpness of your creases. I imagine that my life is a mystery to her, until she surprises me with her insight into some aspect I’d thought she hadn’t noticed….
She is desperate for order, and in the chaos of her life only the Church has ever given her any…. Doubt is a temptation to which my mother has never succumbed.
But doubt has afflicted her continually concerning every other part of life. She sometimes moves as if afraid that the floor will open under her, does not seem to know from one day to the next whether everything solid will crumble—this between bright flashes of canniness, so that I am often left wondering to what degree her meekness and hesitation constitute a pose. She is in the water, staring incredulous at the shipwreck, clutching her few constants as she would a spar—or else she is in the clutches of the secret police, protesting that she is harmless and knows nothing, hiding within herself. She once collected pictures of the royal family in a scrapbook, dreamed of playing the piano and speaking Italian and riding horseback. She taught me how to eat an orange, an apple, a banana with a knife and fork should I someday allow her vague dream to be fulfilled vicariously—to consort with des gens comme il faut…. Growing up in a meager farmland and then on a sooty factory block, she imagined various gilded or sordid futures for herself, extremes of fortune reconciled by immutable laws. She never figured that she would grow old in a lawless world kept in motion by dice.
For Sante himself, the move to America produced a bewildering fragmentation of his consciousness. “I subtracted nothing but merely added.” In contrast with the gloomy memories of his early provincial childhood, America at first offered a deceptive glitter:
America in those days was trying to achieve a gleaming, diamond-hard, aerodynamic surface. You weren’t supposed to notice the past that stood all around you in any three-story brick downtown, but concentrate instead on the stylized neon and the harsh lights reflected off the hoods of long, low, wide automobiles…. Diesel fuel and suntan lotion and hairspray and asphalt softening in the sun made up an acrid, poison-sweet perfume along the roads and in the parking lots…. We were on the road and it was mercilessly hot. I was carsick and thirsty and wanted fun, more of it all the time, and I got fooled again and again by those strings of multicolored pennants along the highways, always thinking a carnival lay ahead but it was always a used-car lot.
In his adolescence, he instinctively resisted his American surroundings:
It never occurred to me to change my name or adapt its pronunciation or stop using French; I would never become one of them. I would never pledge allegiance to the flag—or any flag, for that matter—and I would never eat soft white bread or drink Budweiser or watch the Super Bowl or refer to my parents as Mom and Dad or refer to or even think of Americans as “we.” This defiance was impelled in part by rage at the country that made me feel like a pariah—jumbled up indiscriminately with issues of taste and belief or the lack thereof—but also by a vestigial pride. And yet along the way a fundamental loss took place, something that the dream transformed into a treasure. Certainly the theme of loss is constant for exiles….
And yet he had little incentive to idealize a Belgium he hardly knew; not only was it the bleak “Carpathian” hole of his early memories, but now in his adolescent rebellion, the image of Belgium became associated with parental constraints:
None of [my rebellious adolescent] activities distinguished me from my contemporaries, and I would likely have engaged in them no matter where I lived, but my mother was convinced that Belgian children did not do such things, her view of Belgium becoming more idealized with every year she spent away from it. My view of Belgium became correspondingly more hostile, because it represented authority and also because I was certain its taint was what made me timid and awkward and unpopular and unattractive and solitary.
At the beginning of his superbly grotesque play Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry inscribed a memorable stage indication: “The action takes place in Poland, i.e., nowhere.” Instead of “Poland,” he should have written “Belgium”—as Sante would certainly agree. Sante recalls an incident of his school days:
A substitute teacher, who presided over my American fourth-grade class for a day, upon hearing that I was Belgian informed the students that my country was divided: half Communist and half Free. I often wonder whether Belgium is any more substantial to its own citizens.
It would have been difficult indeed for the young expatriate to experience any strong sense of national identity: “To have been born Belgian is to have been cast, as if by the zodiac, under the sign of ambivalence.”
But what is Belgium then?
It is a country where you can turn a corner in a town and find yourself without preamble in a planted field, where you enter a forest only to find that the trees have been planted in straight lines, where a substantial farm can measure all of a dozen acres, where the towns have no outskirts but mostly just slide into one another, but where you are nearly everywhere within walking distance of a cow. It is a country slightly larger than Maryland that incorporates three language groups and three political regions, which do not share the same sets of boundaries. It is a country of fewer than ten million inhabitants that can boast of some seventy-three cabinet ministers…. It is an accidental country, a nation by default, a haphazard assemblage of dissonant and sometimes warring elements. Its hallmarks are ambivalence, invisibility, secretiveness, self-doubt, passivity, irony, and derision.
If Belgium as a national entity may present a sort of Ubu-like nothingness, to experience it at the regional level—the province of a province—is to undergo the eerie intensity of a compression chamber:
The Belgium of my youth certainly had a vacuum-sealed quality about it. Material deprivation aside, its relation to the modern world was ambiguous at best. On the one hand, it could hardly be said to lie outside history; it had, after all, recently undergone five years of rampaging, furious, deadly history. On the other, Belgium—especially, it seemed to me, the southeastern portion of the country, the provinces of Liège and Luxembourg that contained nearly all my family—was determinedly monochrome. Although this rump brushed the borders of four other countries, it only held one tribe. However much the surnames might apparently vary, French or Flemish or Walloon or German or Dutch or Luxembourgeois, the people themselves were visibly of a single stock. They followed one religion—in my mother’s pious family it was said that there were two sects: Catholics and people who had had a fight with a priest. They were monolingual…. People generally stayed put. Rare were the ambitious youths who made it as far as Brussels; going to Paris for more than a once-in-a-lifetime holiday was unheard of, except maybe among the rich, but we didn’t know any of those. In the country, people remained in their native villages unless they were driven out by misfortune.
Sante was born “in a world of guarded optimism, of meagerness and caution, of modest ambitions and dark nondescript clothing.” But what underlay these cramped conditions was, deep down, an immemorial experience of pain. (A French humorist once observed: “A Belgian is a sort of Swiss, who would have known suffering.”) Returning briefly to Belgium at the age of eight, on the death of his grandmother, Sante has a glimpse of this dark reality as he watches his peasant grandfather and his two great-uncles:
During and after the ordeal Joseph and Achille spent a great deal of their time at our house. The three brothers would sit in our kitchen, silently smoking their pipes, from midday into evening, not turning on lights as night fell and deepened. I was scared of them, of their hardness and taciturnity, of their deep-set eyes and thin aquiline beaks…. I knew without knowing that these men had lived in a world more elemental than any I would be likely to experience, a world of privation and struggle and failure and bloody chance and consequent fatalism. They never laughed, and spoke in proverbs, harsh ones that predicted a bad end to all enterprises. Through them I came to endow the countryside with unspoken horror, as if they had been full of tales of squalor, disease, accident, famine, and death….
The ambivalence of a child who grows up between two cultures finds its most acute expression in his experience of language. What does it mean later on for the adult to have all his most intense and intimate emotional memories in a language that is immature and arrested, whereas he lives and pursues a literary career in another one? On this psychology of bilingualism, Sante has written a chapter which I find particularly affecting. To quote any extract from these subtle and tightly woven twenty-five pages would ruin the delicate complexity of an analysis that deserves to be read in full.
Sante had reached adulthood and was leading an independent life when his parents, now retired, returned to live their old age in Belgium. They kept pressing him to come and visit them—and he kept putting off their invitation. The fact was:
I was afraid of my parents and afraid of Belgium, and the combination of the two was more than I could bear to contemplate. I was an accredited adult by then, with …even a profession of sorts. Nevertheless, my separate identity, which of course I had built with my own two hands from twigs and straw over a couple of decades, still seemed so tenuous that I had to guard it against the slightest stirring of breeze. “Belgium”…had been something both more and less than a country. Didn’t my mother, when I misbehaved, wield the threat of sending me back there to boarding school…? Wasn’t I, for that matter, constantly shown how all my torts derived directly from living in America; how Belgian children were obedient, well-mannered, and clean; how if only we’d stayed there I would have been a model schoolboy and the perfect son? Instead I was a chronic liar, a thief, a sullen and willful and defiant child, who constantly incurred bad grades…and who probably didn’t even go to church anymore despite what he claimed….
I was a little one-boy guerrilla army waging war against my upbringing…. Belgium played the role of ultimate authority, a monstrous shadow perhaps wearing a cassock that loomed behind my parents in every fight I had with them. And I had no allies, no brothers or sisters, no other relatives around, no friends who could have begun to understand my particular predicament. My parents were isolated, very much so, but at least they had each other, and they had that phantom country to turn to, which grew more mythic and embracing with every year they were away from it. I moved around in American life with more ease than they did, but I wasn’t a part of it. My upbringing had taken care of that, and whatever bits it had left unattended were armor-plated by my pride. I was unassimilable in two cultures, waging a solo war on both fronts, but whereas I could negotiate and dodge America, passing through it undercover, Belgium apparently had my number, my mug shot, and my prints.
Finally, at age thirty-five, Sante revisited Belgium. The description of the journey to his native town—a recitation of actual sights and sounds interwoven with memories during a long train ride across the entire country—reminds me of Chesterton’s definition of poetry: poetry is first and foremost an inventory of the visible world, the lifeline that links us to reality (and thus Chesterton considered that the most essential of all poems was, in Robinson Crusoe, simply the list of things which Robinson salvaged from the wreck of his ship).
Then, with his new harvest, Sante returned to America and wrote his book. He concludes:
I live in moderate comfort in the present, on a permanent resident visa, while I hold a passport issued by the authority of the past. This situation presents some minor difficulties, nothing grave, mind you, just a few privileges denied me….
The past is a notional construct, a hypothesis, a poem. I hold on to its passport because it was issued at my birth, without any possibility of my assenting or not. It’s not so much a document as it is a brand or a scar. I don’t really endorse the past, mind you, and I don’t intend to go back and settle there. My actual relation to the past is ironic, if anything, even if the irony is poisoned with sentiment…. I certainly feel more affection for it from a distance. And only from within the past can I appreciate the present, which is all things considered a dispiriting place to live…. I am not alone because every one of us is an alien. That makes us all compatriots.
An irrelevant postscript: I only have two quarrels with Sante—the momentous importance of which I shall leave to my readers’ appreciation.
- In a passing remark Sante expresses ironical contempt for constitutional monarchy, finding that such a system always presents “a Ruritanian quality…. The kingdoms and principalities and grand-duchies that persist in the present era—Britain not excepted—are inevitably tarred with comical irrelevance in the eyes of the world.” Yet are “People’s Democracies” and banana republics really to be preferred to Ruritanian monarchies?
In an ideal world, there is no doubt that the republic is the best conceivable system. The problem, however, is that in order to function properly, a republic needs republicans. The demands which a republic puts upon its citizens far exceeds what can be realistically expected from average human beings—for it requires that they be endowed with informed and active minds, with a strong sense of social responsibility and high civic ethics.
Arthur Koestler had a point when he noted that “the desire to go into politics is usually indicative of some sort of personality disorder, and thus it is precisely those who want power most that should be kept furthest from it.” How can one effectively prevent such dangerous lunatics from becoming heads of state? By having kings. Short of obliging everybody to occupy the highest public office (which would be the more democratic formula but is unfortunately not practical), the next best solution is to put anybody in that position, i.e., to have a king—for the king is anybody. He sits on the throne not because he is more talented, or more strong, or more clever, or more holy, or more rich; he needs not have any particular superiorities or ambitions—he needs only to have been born. And as a bonus, occasionally he may even prove to be also a wise and good person (such a possibility cannot be excluded); and if he is not, constitutional safeguards generally ensure that his shortcomings—even his vices—can never cause significant harm.
- Sante confesses that he dislikes the taste of chicons (endive)—Belgium’s national vegetable. I am shocked. Had he said that he hated Brussels sprouts, I could have sympathized with him. But chicons au gratin, wrapped in ham, with cheese and sauce blanche? (I must pass on to him my wife’s recipe.)
March 26, 1998
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. ↩
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. ↩
Roger Stéphane, Portrait-souvenir de Georges Simenon (Paris: Quai Voltaire, 1989), pp. 16-17. ↩
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.) ↩
Letter to Nancy Mitford, October 23, 1954, in The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, Mark Amory, editor (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1981). ↩