Benelux

Tagged: International

The Benelux consists of three nations: the Netherlands (Holland), Belgium and Luxembourg. The Dutch language is spoken in the Netherlands and in the northern part of Belgium, called Flanders. The French-speaking southern and eastern part of Belgium is called Wallonia. In the field of literature Flanders and the Netherlands are one domain, and the same can be said for Wallonia and France. Flemish (from Flanders) and Walloon (from Wallonia) authors are mostly published, respectively, in the Netherlands (Amsterdam) and in France (Paris), for reasons of prestige and because of the small number of Flemish and Walloon publishers.

Dutch and Flemish sf took shape in the 1960s, when several publishers began series of translated sf, Fandom was organized and some Dutch and Flemish authors began to write sf novels. Before the 1960s there were isolated works, original or translated, but no real tradition of sf. Even during those periods when the fantastic was flowering everywhere in Western literature (as in the Romantic era, and around the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries), the quantity of Dutch and Flemish sf was very small and all of it has been almost totally forgotten, even by the most comprehensive histories of Dutch and Flemish sf.

The sf boom begun in the 1960s did not last very long. In the 1980s the market declined to the figures of the early 1960s. In the late 1970s, for instance, the established sf publishers together published almost 100 books a year (mostly translations); in the early 1990s this had declined to some 25 books. Most publishers discontinued their sf lines, and by 1992 only two – Meulenhoff and Luitingh – were really active on the sf market. So one can say that the old situation has been restored: sf (and fantasy and horror) as genres consist of only isolated works scattered over the whole literary field.

During the early stage of the Romantic era, when the influence of the Enlightenment was still very strong, several writers produced, mostly in the form of Imaginary Voyages, descriptions of a future Holland. This genre of utopian literature continued during the nineteenth century. In the 1890s the Dutch publisher Elsevier produced a famous complete edition in 65 volumes of the work of Jules Verne, which was widely sold but apparently had no real influence on Dutch literature (except the juvenile market).

In the first half of the twentieth century only a few original sf works appeared, and only one of them is still in print, being considered a masterpiece of Dutch literature: Blokken ["Blocks"] (1931) by F Bordewijk (1884-1965). This short novel is set in a Near-Future Russia that has at the same time Communist and Fascist characteristics. In part it is a pure description of the State and its Ruling Council, in part a story about an unsuccessful revolt. A group of dissidents is mercilessly slaughtered, but at the end it is suggested that the upheavals will continue until the State is destroyed. It is a warning not so much against Communism or Fascism as against every sort of totalitarian government. Bordewijk also wrote a few sf short stories, most of which are to be found in his collection Vertellingen van generzijds ["Tales from the Other Side"] (coll 1951). Not included in this collection is the remarkable "Einde der mensheid" ["End of Mankind"] (1959), a fictional essay in the manner of Jorge Luis Borges about a universe that consists of layers of "positiva, neutra, and negativa" in an endless continuation. Mankind is but an unimportant phenomenon in one of the uncountable layers, and will eventually disappear, leaving no trace at all.

A writer of short fantasies and some sf stories was "Belcampo" (pseudonym of H P Schönfeld Wichers [1902-1990]), whose clever and witty tales are still popular. Of his sf stories the best are the Robot tale "Voorland" ["Foreland"] (1935) and "Het verhaal van Oosterhuis" ["The Tale of Oosterhuis"] (1946), a curious blend of imaginary voyage, Utopia, Dystopia and Lost World.

In the 1960s and 1970s some Mainstream novelists wrote one or two sf novels. Het reservaat (1964; trans as The Reservation 1978) by the Fleming Ward Ruyslinck (1929-    ) is a bitter Dystopian novel about a near-future Belgium where all dissidents are put away in reservations disguised as psychiatric clinics. The Belgian government is depicted as right-wing and as corrupted by the political Imperialism of the USA. However, the reservations are more reminiscent of repression in the former USSR. As with Bordewijk's novella, the novel is essentially an attack on repressive societies of all kinds.

Hugo Raes (1929-2013), also from Flanders, wrote two imaginary voyages with sf elements, De lotgevallen ["The Events"] (1968) and Reizigers in de anti-tijd ["Voyagers in Anti-Time"] (1971). His De verwoesting van Hyperion ["The Destruction of Hyperion"] (1978) is straightforward sf, a Post-Holocaust novel about the nearly immortal descendants of mankind and their fight with evolved rats. Raes wrote some fine sf short stories, most of which are collected in Bankroet van een charmeur ["Bankruptcy of a Charmer"] (coll 1967).

De toekomst van gisteren ["The Future of Yesterday"] (1972) by the Dutchman Harry Mulisch is not a novel but a book-length essay in which the author explains that he has not in fact written a projected novel of that title. Had he done so, that novel would have presented an Alternate History in which the Germans had won World War Two (see also Hitler Wins). Within that alternate world the protagonist is writing a novel about a world alternate to his, in which the Germans lost the war. So far the concept shows a remarkable resemblance to Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), but – unlike Dick's – the second novel had to be fully reproduced within the text of the first. What interested Mulisch was the difference between the real world in which the Germans lost World War Two and a world in which, although the same thing has happened, the present is as imagined by a writer who has grown up in a Fascist world state. In his essay Mulisch demonstrates that the combination of alternate-world novel and novel-within-a-novel is rendered theoretically impossible by narrative restrictions. The book should be obligatory reading for alternate-world authors.

Other relevant modern Dutch authors include Rein Blijstra (1901-1975), whose ten humorous stories about all kinds of sf Clichés are collected as Het planetarium van Otze Otzinga ["The Orrery of Otze Otzinga"] (coll 1962). The novelist and playwright Manuel van Loggem (1916-1998) has written interesting Fantasy with slight sf leanings; his best collection is Het liefdeleven der Priargen ["The Love Life of the Priargs"] (coll 1968). The novelist and computer expert Gerrit Krol (1934-    ) wrote De man achter het raam ["The Man behind the Window"] (1982), the rather difficult story of Adam, a thinking Computer, who contemplates the problem of what a human being really is. When he has developed into a full human being, he undergoes the fate of all mankind and dies. It is not so much sf as a novel of ideas, or even a study (disguised as fiction) of problems of identity and consciousness.

In the late 1950s and especially in the 1970s, some authors came to the fore who can be considered true sf writers. The Dutch physicist Dionijs Burger wrote Bolland (1957; trans as Sphereland 1965), a continuation and expansion of Edwin A Abbott's famous Flatland (1884). As Abbott tried to demonstrate four-dimensional geometry by means of a story about two-dimensional creatures in Flatland, Burger tries to explain Einstein's theories about curved space and the expanding universe. His story takes place two generations after the events described by Abbott; the narrator is a grandson of Abbott's A Square. Abbott's book may be of higher literary quality, but Burger's is more inventive and humorous. The book has become a minor classic in the sf world.

Sam of de Pluterdag (1968; trans as Where Were You Last Pluterday? 1973), by the Flemish author Paul van Herck, is a funny satirical novel about a society in which the higher social levels have access to an additional eighth day of the week, the "Pluterday". In 1972 it won the first Europa Award.

The two most prolific sf writers are the Dutchman Felix Thijssen (1933-    ) and the Fleming Eddy Bertin (1944-    ). Thijssen, originally a writer of adventure fiction for the juvenile market, started to write sf in 1971 when the first volume of the so-called Mark Stevens cycle appeared. This is a run-of-the-mill Space-Opera series, whose first volumes seemed aimed at young adults, but which gradually became more mature. The series ended with a good eighth volume, De poorten van het paradijs ["The Gates of Paradise"] (1974). Later Thijssen wrote several rather more serious novels, the best of which is Emmarg (1976), a sad story about a pregnant female Alien abandoned on Earth. Eddy Bertin has some reputation in the English-speaking world, thanks to his own translations of several of his stories. The Membrane Universe series can be called his best work; it is collected in three volumes: Eenzame bloedvogel ["Lonely Blood-Bird"] (coll 1976), De sluimerende stranden van de geest ["The Slumbering Beaches of the Mind"] (1981) and Het blinde doofstomme beest op de kale berg ["The Blind Deaf-Mute Beast on the Bare Mountain"] (1983). The stories are interspersed with lyrics, fake documents, comments, timetables and so on. Together, they form a future History from 1970 to 3666 CE. Bertin is an active fan who has been editing his own Fanzine, SF Gids ["SF Guide"] since 1973, and an ardent bibliographer. In addition to sf, he has written numerous horror stories, which are perhaps the better part of his opus.

A remarkable Dutch debut was De eersten van Rissan ["The First of Rissan"] (1980) by Wim Gijsen (1933-1990), a lost-colony novel about the descendants of mankind on the planet Rissan. In the sequel, De koningen van weleer ["The Kings of Old"] (1981), it is discovered that the mysterious First of Rissan are the descendants of the kings of Atlantis. Both novels hold their own with the better US novels of this type. His later novels are all young-adult fantasy.

The most noteworthy forum for original sf stories in the Dutch language may have been the Vlaamsche Filmkens ["Flemish Movies"] sequence of booklets written for a young-adult audience; more than 2000 volumes have been produced in the series, which began in 1930 and continues. Of this total perhaps 200 have been sf, and many more have been fantasies. The author involved most centrally was John Flanders, pseudonym of Raymundus Joannes de Kremer (1887-1964), who also wrote as Jean Ray; other contributors included Eddy C Bertin, Dries Nieuwland, Paul van Herck and John Vermeulen.

The same can be said about Walloon sf as about its Dutch/Flemish counterpart: only in the 1970s has there been a (small) sf boom; before and after it, sf consisted of only some individual works by writers whose output was primarily non-sf. The most prolific early author was J-H Rosny âiné, most of whose work was reprinted in France in the 1970s. He is best known for his prehistoric romances; sf proper is but a small part of his output. In 1973 his sf stories were collected as Récits de science-fiction ["SF Narratives"] (coll 1973); included is his famous novella about aliens, Les Xipéhuz (in L'Immolation ["The Sacrifice"] coll 1887; 1888; trans as "The Shapes" in One Hundred Years of Science Fiction, anth 1968, ed Damon Knight), his first published work. Other authors from before World War Two are François Léonard with Le triomphe de l'homme ["The Triumph of Man"] (1911), a Verne-like novel in which Earth is accidentally propelled from the solar system and drifts away into the Universe until its final destruction; Henri-Jacques Proumen with Le sceptre est volé aux hommes ["The Sceptre is Stolen from the People"] (1930), about a race of Mutants who enslave the population of a Pacific island; and the poet Marcel Thiry (1897-1977), who wrote the alternate-world novel Echec au temps ["Set-Back in Time"] (written 1938; 1945), in which Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo.

Only one author from the 1950s and 1960s could be considered an sf writer: Jacques Sternberg (1923-2006). He is influenced by prewar Surrealism and postwar Absurdism. His best novel is perhaps La sortie est au fond de l'espace ["The Exit is at the Bottom of Space"] (1956): the last remaining humans leave a bacteria-infested Earth only to discover that deep space is even more dangerous and that mankind has no real meaning in the universe. A good story collection, available in English, is Futurs sans avenir (coll 1971; cut trans as Future without Future 1974).

In the 1970s a small group of young sf writers (Vincent Goffart, Paul Hanost and Yves Varende, among others) formed around the paperback publisher Marabout, and for a while it looked as if a sort of sf tradition might be beginning. However, after the collapse of Marabout, the only sf publisher in Wallonia, most authors moved to other fields of writing.

Virtually nothing is known about sf in tiny Luxembourg, the third country which forms the Benelux – except that it was the homeland of Hugo Gernsback, who in a sense started it all. [JAD]

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