Due to Belgium’s language relationship, the country has two major independent literatures; a French-speaking and a Dutch-speaking. In addition, Belgium has a smaller German-language literature that has emerged in the German-speaking minority in Eastern Belgium.
This article is about Belgium’s literature in French. To read about Belgium’s literature in Dutch and German, see Belgium’s literature.
The Middle Ages
The French-language literature in Belgium is of very old date. The small story of verse Cantilène de sainte Eulalie ( c. 880, “The Show on Saint Eulalia”), is probably from the Belgian province of Hainaut, (Hanegauwen). It is considered the oldest poem written in French). The account of verses about Aucassin et Nicolette, written late in the 1100s or early 13th century, is a famous poem probably from the same province. It is considered a parody of other medieval literature, including the poems about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The most important part of medieval literature in Belgium consists of historical works written by the chronicle authors associated with the Duke of Burgundy. These include Jean Froissart (1333–1404), Georges Chastellain (1404–1475), Olivier de la Marche (1425–1502), and Philippe de Commynes (1447–1511). Several of these authors also wrote lyric in accordance with the ideals of “Les grands rhétoriqueurs” (see shipowners ). The last representative of this tradition is Jean Lemaire de Belges (1473 – 1525). His work points to the Pléiade poems in France.
From the 16th century to 1830
From the Renaissance until the formation of the state in 1830, relatively little French-language literature was written in Belgium. Among the oldest authors was Philippe de Marnix de Sainte-Aldegonde (c. 1540–1598), who was both an important advocate of Calvinism and a satirist in the tradition of Rabelais. He wrote in Latin, but also in French. In the 1600s, the principles of French classicism exerted influence on the environment around L’Académie de Flémalle.
In the 18th century, Prince Charles-Joseph de Ligne (1735-1814) represented the ideals of the Enlightenment. He wrote comedy and essayistic works and was in his time one of the most famous European freethinkers. The composer André Grétry (1741-1813) also had significance as a writer. He wrote both musical theoretical works and memories in the style of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The years after independence
The period immediately after 1830, when Belgium became an independent state, was characterized by relatively insignificant poets who mimicked the authors of the French romance one. But from the 1860s, rich and original French-language literature began to emerge. The important figures of this period were mostly Flemish people who wrote in French. The first is Charles De Coster (1827-1879) with his comic prose epic about the naughty skater Thyl Ulenspiegel. De Coster’s account is based on old Flemish stories about a rebellious figure from the time around the Black Death. But with him the story is added to a later period, and many of the most grotesque details have been taken away. At De Coster, Ulenspiegel is primarily a rebel who fights for Flemish independence and against Catholic intolerance and hypocrisy.
La jeune Belgique – from naturalism to symbolism
At the end of the 19th century, the journal La Jeune Belgique (published between 1881 and 1898) gained great importance. The environment around it was a gathering place for writers with different ideals: some were inspired by naturalism, others were influenced by the French Parnassians and by the innovative French poet Charles Baudelaire. Common to them was that they despised the prosperous bourgeoisie that had become an important group in Belgium, for at that time the country was characterized by strong industrial development. Their sympathies went to the proletariat and to the outcasts, but they still did not want literature to have a direct social involvement. They therefore defended the ideal of “art for the sake of art”, l ‘art pour l’art, and rejected the bourgeoisie’s claim that literature should be’ useful ‘. Several of these authors also eventually became representatives of symbolism.
Among Belgian writers who were close to naturalism, one can mention Camille Lemonnnier (1844–1913). Later he became a representative of the literary currents that followed naturalism. In particular, he is associated with the decadent literature in Belgium. Léopold Courouble (1861-1937) wrote ironically about petty citizens from Brussels; about their manner and their dialect. He was also an irreconcilable opponent of the Catholic Church and of all religion whatsoever.
Other figures representing the transition between naturalism and symbolism were Max Waller (1860–1889), who became best known as a critic, as well as Georges Rodenbach (1855–1898) and Georges Eekhoud (1854–1927). Rodenbach is particularly remembered for the mood novel about the city of Bruges, Bruges-la-Morte (1892 “The Dead Bruges”). This is a book that has inspired poets, visual artists and composers from several countries to this day. Eekhoud was both an aesthetic and a political radical.
Symbolism, an important period in Belgian literature
The ideals of symbolism had a strong influence on French-speaking Belgian literature. This is true of lyricists such as Charles van Lerberghe (1861-1907) and Max Elskamp (1862-1931). However, the most famous poet of this generation is the Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), who at the beginning of the 20th century gained fame for his peculiar dramas. Maeterlinck eventually became known as an essayist. But in his essays he was more concerned with the outside world than what the symbolists had been, and his popular science books on insects and flowers were loved by many, but were also criticized from a professional point of view. A similar development is also seen in another of the great Belgian poets of this time, the lyricist Émile Verhaeren (1855–1916). Through these two forms, French-speaking Belgian poetry soon gained a central place in Europe’s literary life.
A figure from this time that seems ambiguous and difficult to place is Jean de Bosschere (1878–1953). He was both a poet and visual artist and created erotic graphics in a style reminiscent of English artist Aubrey Beardsley. As a poet he was attracted to the macabre, but at the same time he was an admirer of the French poet Paul Claudel and of other writers with a Catholic basis.
World War I and the interwar period
In the first part of the 20th century, the Belgian novelists who wrote in French were often oriented towards realism: this applies, for example, to Charles Plisnier (1896–1952), Franz Hellens (1881–1972) and Georges Simenon (1903–1989). The latter is particularly famous as a crime writer; he is often regarded as the most read of all Franco-Belgian writers. Among the playwrights, Michel de Ghelderode (1898–1962) became known for his strong expressionist theater. Other playwrights from this generation are Herman Closson (1901–1982) and Fernand Crommelynck(1886 to 1970). Max Deauville (1881-1966) also wrote plays, but is primarily known for his memories of life as a military doctor during the First World War.
Surrealism strongly influenced Belgian lyricism in the interwar period. The surrealists in Belgium were known to be more ironic than the French. They were also less marked by belonging to a poetry school that followed certain literary dogmas. Some were politically leftist, others had a seeking attitude and were inspired by various literary directions. Among the Belgian surrealists are Marcel Thiry (1897–1977), who wrote both lyric and prose, as well as Louis Scutenaire (1905–1987). The versatile Henri Michaux (1899-1984) was also important as a visual artist.
Georges Mogin (1898–1990), with the pseudonym Norway, became very popular with his tribute to life and happiness. Maurice Carême (1899–1978) wrote poems in a related, but more restrained style. He is especially known for his lyrics to children. Also Christian Dotremont (1922-1979) was a poet and artist. He was a late but important representative of surrealism in Belgium and was also associated with the innovative group of poets and artists who called themselves COBRA.
Several of the authors mentioned above also marked the literature after the Second World War. Some of the writers who made their breakthrough after 1945 were active far up in the century. Among these are the playwrights Félicien Marceau (1913–2012) and Georges Sion (1913–2001). Jean Mogin (1921–1986) held central positions in Belgian broadcasting. He is best known as a playwright, but made his mark in several literary genres.
Suzanne Lilar (1901–1992) was probably the most important female playwright of this period. She is also known for essays, including literature and issues of cohabitation, as well as interesting memories.
Among the novelists of this period are Henri Bauchau (1913–2012) who was concerned with psychoanalysis, as well as Charles Bertin (1919–2002), who worked in many genres. Gaston Compère (1924–2008), who was also a literary scientist and composer, wrote wonderful novels that tell of his strong sense of death. But the Belgian novel at this time is particularly marked by female writers: A central figure is Marguerite Yourcenar (1903–1987), who lived long periods in the United States. She has written in many genres, and especially her historical novels have gained recognition from critics and popularity with readers. Yourcenar was the first woman to be elected to the French Academy, and she has often been regarded as a representative of French literature.
Béatrix Beck (1914–2008) lived in France from the 1950s. Dominique Rolin (1913–2012) also lived for long periods in France. Both had great authorship and were members of the juries for prestigious literary awards. Françoise Mallet-Joris (1930–2016), who was the daughter of Suzanne Lilar, also had an extensive writing where the main emphasis is on novels. She achieved a large readership both in and outside Belgium.
Among the French-speaking Belgian lyricists who made their mark in the first years after World War II, mention is made of André Miguel (1920–2008) and Jean Tordeur (1920–2010). Miguel has also written books in other genres, including plays and radio plays for radio. Tordeur is known as a critic and essayist. He stood for a Catholic stance, but had an open attitude to poetry based on other values. Likewise, Jean Mogin and Charles Bertin made their mark as lyricists.
There are also many women among Belgian lyricists from this period. Several of them are born in other countries, but for various reasons they have chosen to live and work in Belgium. Lucienne Desnoues (1921–2004) and Anne-Marie Kegels (1912–1994) both came from France. Jeanine Moulin (1912–1998) was born in Brussels, but her parents were Polish Jews. Andrée Sodenkamp (1906–2004) debuted as late as 1950, but her collection of poems, marked by the joy of being around, made her one of the most widely read Belgian lyricists of the second half of the 20th century. Janine Couvreur (1934–1958) also wrote some poems during her very short life that have given her an important place in Belgian literature.
The latest literature – the theater
The most famous playwright from French-speaking Belgium in the years just before the turn of the millennium is probably René Kalisky (1936-1981). He was of Polish – Jewish origin. Kalisky dealt with the conflicts of the time in a provocative form that also tells of a will to the metaphysical quest. Jacques de Decker (born 1945) is a very versatile author who has published in all three languages used in Belgium, but his most important books are written in French. He has written a number of plays, but is best known for his translations and adaptations of drama in many languages - from Shakespeare and Brecht to Woody Allen. Among his books is a monographabout Henrik Ibsen and translations of A Doll’s House and Returners to French. Many of Pascal Vrebos’s plays (born 1952) are filled with absurd comics. Like de Decker, he is also very versatile. He has also published novels and been active both as a university teacher and as a journalist.
The latest literature
The novelists from the time just before the turn of the millennium are concerned with both formal experimentation and critical contemporary analysis. Many of the novelists also find a strong life and nature worship. Conrad Detrez (1937–1985) was a leftist politician, depicting, among other things, gay love. Hubert Juin (1926–1987) also wrote novels and lyric, but is especially known as a critic and literary scholar.
Pierre Mertens (born 1939) has written novels in which fiction and depictions of reality unite in surprising ways. Marcel Moreau (born 1933) has received strong impetus from philosophy and views poetry as a means of overcoming life’s meaninglessness. Jean Muno (1924–1988), who became especially famous after his death, wrote satires on the Belgian petty bourgeoisie. Jean-Pierre Otte (born 1949) is fascinated by ancient myths of creation and the vital forces of nature. François Weyergans (1941–2019) was known for his self-environment and playful expression.
Among the novelists who characterized literature at the end of the twentieth century are Francis Dannemark (born 1955) who unites imagination and realism. Jean-Claude Pirotte (1939–2014) was a recognized lawyer, but had to give up his career when he was convicted of a crime he had not committed. When he was later acquitted, he began as a writer, and several of his novels gained great recognition.
Eugène Savitzkaya (born 1955) has written novels characterized by sharp realism and attention to detail. With him, children are often at the center of history. Caroline Lamarche (born 1955) has paid attention to her depictions of violence and abuse in close human relationships. Jean-Philippe Toussaint (born 1957) has evolved from a humorist and minimalist to an increasingly nuanced depicter of interpersonal conflicts. Amélie Nothomb (born 1966) works with great systematics to carry out an original literary project. Both Toussaint and Nothomb have been translated into Norwegian and have gained many readers in Norway.
Other youngest-generation writers include the humorist Pascal Samain (born 1958), the sensitive ironic Eva Kavian (born 1967), as well as Thomas Gunzig (born 1970) and Nicolas Ancion (born 1971) who both represent a black and absurd humor.
The latest Belgian lyric is dominated by women. Claire-Anne Magnès (born 1937) got her breakthrough as a poet after she retired. She has also been a translator, especially of Hungarian literature. Franςoise Lison-Leroy (born 1951) has written literature in many genres, but is best known for poetry in which she expresses her life experience as a woman. Despite his short life and his reluctant manner of expression, Mimy Kinet (1948–1996) is regarded as a leading figure among Belgian lyricists of recent decades.
Among male Belgian lyricists of this period, it is natural to mention Guy Goffette (born 1947). His form of expression is simple and direct, and he has often been compared to the French poet Paul Verlaine, of whom he has written several books. Goffette is also known for his short prose.
An international literature
In the period during and after the turn of the millennium, literary life in most countries has become increasingly international. Many writers live and work in countries other than where they were born, and more and more people are changing nationality during their careers. This is not least evident in a country like Belgium. Antoine Berenboom (born 1947) is of Jewish origin and has a background from Russia and Ukraine. Armel Job (born 1948) also has a Jewish family. He has dealt with topics from his people’s history in the 20th century, but also portrayed the encounter of Muslims with Western European values.
Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt (born 1960), one of the most widely read French-language writers of his generation, was born in France, but has now taken Belgian citizenship. Hubert Antoine (born 1971) was born in Belgium, but now lives in Mexico. Mimy Kinet translated Greek lyric in collaboration with Greek authors. One of these, Aki Roukas, has moved to Belgium and is now writing in French.
French-speaking Belgian literature research
A number of leading French-speaking literary scholars and critics of the latter part of the twentieth century are Belgian: Examples include Jacques Dubois (born 1933), Jean-Marie Klinkenberg (born 1944) and Nicolas Ruwet (1932-2001). They continue the line from Georges Poulet (1902–1991) and Maurice Piron (1914–1986), who were central figures in 20th-century French-language literature research. These researchers have worked with both language and literature, and many of them will primarily regard them as language theorists. Ruwet was also important as a music theorist. Several of them have been keenly concerned with the relationship between literature and social issues, and not least have been interested in the language and culture of various French-speaking areas outside France.French-speaking parts of Canada. Also an innovative but controversial critic such as Paul de Man (1919–1983), who mostly worked in the United States, was born in Belgium.
Many of the youngest French-speaking Belgian writers and critics are concerned about the particular political and cultural situation created by the contradiction between languages and languages in Belgium. Some emphasize what thus becomes peculiar to Belgian language and culture, ie what some call “la belgitude”. Others emphasize the community that exists between French-language literature from different countries, and that this literature forms an important part of today’s world literature.