Maurice Gilliams was probably the most introverted of Flemish writers and his work is some of the most exquisite to be found in Dutch. This judgement is not based on aesthetics but on the subtlety and seriousness of his approach; he was an uncommonly conscientious writer



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Maurice Gilliams, Elias, or the Struggle with the Nightingales, Trans. by André Lefevere, Green Integer, 2016.


Born in 1900 in Antwerp, Belgium, Maurice Gilliams came to be recognized over the century as one of the great Flemish writers. His Elias -- published in 1936 as the first part of a trilogy which includes Winter in Antwerp (1953) and A Wedding at Elsinore (1982) -- is now read in most schools in Belgium and many classrooms in Holland.
Elias, which reads as well as a separate novel as it does within the trilogy, is the story of the young Elias, who, sent to live within a large, mysterious house of aunts and uncles, grows up, less under the tutelage of the adults than that of the older cousin, Aloysius. While this is in many ways a traditional story of childhood, in Gilliams' hands the tale becomes transformed into a world of dark and foreboding adults who hover over in supposed love, while the children discover love within themselves.
In upcoming seasons, Sun & Moon Press will publish the other two volumes of Gilliams' great trilogy.




When Maurice Gilliams won the Grand Prize for Letters in 1980, many a newspaper journalist was at a loss: as far as the press was concerned Gilliams had always been ‘the Great Unknown’ of Dutch-language literature. But in the literary world itself Gilliams’s work was considered not only an inside tip but also a milestone in the development of the novelist’s art. In 1936 Gilliams’s Elias of het gevecht met de nachtegalen had ushered in a new, strongly suggestive way of writing and a novelistic structure based on the sonata. The critics called the book a ‘melting pot of genres’: Gilliams’s prose is close to poetry and driven by what he himself called ‘an essayistic motivation’.
In Gilliams’s work description has been supplanted by analysis and that analysis extends to the process of remembering, sensory perception and writing itself.
And all the while, Elias can be read as an account of the months a twelve-year-old boy spends on a country estate with his parents, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces. For the eponymous hero the house in which they are gathered, called ‘the chateau’ throughout Gilliams’s book, is similar to the aquarium in which his eccentric Aunt Henriette has imprisoned an ant colony: a closer examination of that little world reveals a universe in which each and everyone is after each others’ blood. At the same time, however, this house also seems like a bastion against the destruction and alienation of personal identity. In a series of fascinating scenes Gilliams evokes the vulnerable position of a boy growing up amongst older people in a world shaped by lost dreams, nostalgia and the fear of life. Elias perceives that world ‘in the lucidity of a dream’. In regard to Elias, Gilliams once said: ‘The atmosphere on that estate was really like that. I try to convey precisely what I experienced.’ That precision is what makes Elias such a masterpiece.
In the past the novel has often been compared to both Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge and Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Nowadays one might be more inclined to think of Danilo Kiš’s Rani Yadi. Gilliams has been a major influence for a number of Dutch and Flemish authors-amongst them Charlotte Mutsaers and Leo Pleysier-but his work remains unique in Dutch literature. His diaries, which were published in his lifetime, also reveal that Gilliams (1900-1982) was one of the first writers in Flanders or the Netherlands to obsessively address the question ‘what is writing?’ - www.letterenfonds.nl/en/book/95/elias-or-the-struggle-with-the-nightingales


Gilliams’s work deserves a place on the literary Olympus. Not only because every single line sparkles and shines, but also because of the coherent structure of his work. - Frank Ligtvoet             


Gilliams was probably the most introverted of Flemish writers and his work is some of the most exquisite to be found in Dutch. This judgement is not based on aesthetics but on the subtlety and seriousness of his approach; he was an uncommonly conscientious writer. - Het Vaderland


First translation into English of a lyrical, mysterious coming-of-age story: the initial volume (originally published in 1936) of a celebrated Flemish writer's autobiographical trilogy. (The succeeding volumes are scheduled to come out over the next few seasons.) Gilliams (190082), who was also a highly acclaimed poet, re- creates with an artful, sensuous immediacy the experiences and emotions of his sentient narrator-protagonist, 12-year-old Elias-- an only child whose parents take him to live on a family estate that also houses a bewildering array of variously troubled relatives. The boy is enlisted in family theatricals memorializing beloved other sons and daughters--and finds that though he may tag along with and learn from good-natured Uncle Augustin, he might better keep a respectful distance from humorless, high-strung Aunt Zenobia and embittered martinet Aunt Theodora. Meanwhile, he's fascinated by mercurial Aunt Henrietta, whose unstable temperament seems to forecast a madness Elias associates with adulthood. He finds only partial escape from such madness in highly charged relationships with adventurous neighborhood girl Hermione and older cousin Aloysius, a moody free spirit whose unhappy collision with family discipline gives Elias another foretaste of his own future. Little else happens. A storm uproots a tree. A dog sickens and must be put out of its misery. Elias's dreamy solipsism is frequently interrupted by rudely physical real sensations (a foot stepping on his fingers, a form entering his bedroom silently to pile extra blankets around his feet). His confident assertion that ``all things obey my imagination'' is thus challenged by the repeated intrusions of an exterior other world. The boy's unpredictable vacillations in and out of the life around him give an oddly surrealistic flow and feel to the fragmentary portrayal of his extended familya portrayal that we receive through the prism of his vision. Some will find little more here than an overextended, somewhat enervated prose poem. Others will eagerly await more revelations of Elias's intriguingly divided nature. - Kirkus Reviews


First off, I am somewhat puzzled by the lack of interest in this book. On LibraryThing, I seem to have the only English translation, that being the one issued by Sun and Moon Press in 1995. Its representation in the original Dutch isn’t overwhelming either: there are 42 copies noted, and with an average rating of two and a half stars (it fares better on Amazon). Now, the back of my copy indicates that this semi-autobiographical novel, the first of a trilogy, is widely read in Belgium and Holland, and yet I find it somewhat strange that Sun and Moon describes the book as a “children’s classic”. Unless your child has the uncheerful aspect of a diminutive Ingmar Bergman, I just can’t see this as a beloved children’s book.
Elias is a coming of age story, a short episodic novel about the life and impressions of a twelve year old boy living on a country estate with his mother (his father is, curiously, absent for most of the book) and a variety of aunts, uncles, and cousins. His strongest attachment is to a cousin four years his senior, a self-willed young man named Aloysius, who neglects his studies, and pushes back against the stifling and hypocritical adults of the household. He and Elias sleep in the same bed, and share their sense of isolation, making small paper boats which they set loose in a small brook on the estate. In a pivotal moment early in the book, following a creepy family party in which some of the children are made to act out the roles of two recently dead children, Aloysius leads Elias to a clearing in the woods, where they meet two young girls and spend the night engaged in dancing, singing, and other mysterious rites, wherein Elias feels “searching lips come and burst into blossom on (his) hammering temples.”
After this nights revelry, Aloysius fades into the background of the story for a while, eventually returning to boarding school, where his failure to engage with his studies will have consequences. Elias focuses on the behaviors of his older relatives, particularly his aunts, the strict pedagogue Theodora; Zenobia, who fights with and frets over the free willed Uncle Augustin; and Henrietta, with the long blonde hair, addicted to pills, who is going mad and to whom Elias has an awakening erotic attraction. There is an ancient Grandmother, wheeled from room to room, and other children who are largely silent and unseen. Elias’ only other intimate is his cousin Hermione, “very nervous, thin, transparently pale, and given to sudden crazy ideas.” How Edward Gorey missed out on illustrating this book, I can't imagine.
The narrative is made up of young Elias’ impressions of the people and events around him. He sits with his Grandmother and muses on the fact that what she sees through her dimmed eyes, and her memories of the estate, are so very different from his own. He muses on her inevitable death (death, too, is a preoccupation of the book: in one episode, he follows Aloysius through the night to stand outside the window of a villager as his family and neighbors sing his wake, with Aloysius singing along silently for the soul of the stranger) and the doings of his crazy Aunt Henrietta. He is troubled by her, not least erotically. He goes to his room, but cannot sleep:
This is what the speechless stone walls of the room are teaching me tonight. They, too, die to nothing behind the outer shine of what they hide in their denseness. You can bruise them with hammer-blows, stick wallpaper on them at whim, soil them with ink spots in childlike revulsion. They will keep their secret, even if you were to destroy them stone by stone. With almost microscopically small letters I write on them: Lucifer’s regal name. I cannot immediately express in words what I mean by it; it does not matter anyway. I go to sleep, at peace again. I sin of my own free will, fully conscious of what I am doing, to placate the monsters of my imagination.
Aloysius’ obstinate refusal to apply himself at school (and at home, under Theodora’s punishingly sadistic gaze) means he will be shipped off to join the navy. In turn, a trunk materializes, and Elias’s mother demurely packs it under the harsh eyes of Theodora. As they get the carriage ready to transport Elias to the school about which Aloysius has told him such horror stories, later recanted - “it won’t be bad for you” - it is decided that it is an opportune time for Theodora to shoot the estate’s ailing old dog. Aloysius tears apart his rosary, tossing the little wooden beads into the brook and letting the cross be buried in the sand: later Elias searches for it in vain. He finds the swampy basin where the paper boats have come to their end, without ever having reached the sea. As he rides off in the carriage, Elias has the heartwrenching realization of the universal adolescent: “I have to choke back my anger until I feel sick; I cannot understand the need for this - why does it have to be so sad, and so unjust?”
Maurice Gilliams made his mark as a poet, and there is a real lyricism in this book. It forms the first portion of a trilogy, although it doesn’t appear that Sun and Moon was able to complete publication of the additional volumes. It would be a precocious child who found satisfaction in the bitter and fatalistic page of this “children’s classic”, (although it rivals The Catcher in the Rye in its portrayal of the hypocrisy of the adult world) and while the narrative flows rather languorously, with minimal dialogue, I found this to be an affecting and engaging, if dark, coming of age story.
www.mauricegilliams.nl/

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