The acclaimed Belgian writer on his new European history book, its appropriation by the country’s far right, and how his research into erotic literature led to him becoming a husband and father
In his native country, Belgium, Bart Van Loo has become something of a literary star. In his latest book, The Burgundians, he harnesses the history of the late middle ages and the origin story of the Low Countries into what has become an unlikely publishing sensation.
Three hundred thousand copies have been sold, a podcast of it has been listened to by millions, and it has sparked cultural debate, with the leader of the country’s far-right party (Vlaams Belang) Tom Van Grieken, citing the book as a testament to the glory of Flanders’ past.
For Van Loo, this was a cheeky appropriation and he rails at “people drawing a flag on my book”.
“Politicians want to say, ‘our history, our country, our values’. But, they never say, ‘well, this is where we come from’. This is a book that’s not politically coloured, but history will always be marshalled for political purposes. I don’t believe in a pure Flemish identity.”
And there are other reasons why this entertaining, accessible book about a fairly knotty period in history (he stopped writing it a number of times because it was “so complicated”) has touched such a nerve.
Firstly it blends intellectual heft – you could say it’s broadly about the amorphous nature of European identity – and popular drama. It plays out like a few seasons of Game of Thrones and there are, Van Loo observes, “battles, banquets, adultery and endless geopolitical drama”.
He challenges the broadly understood starting point in the national history of the region, which began with the division of the Northern from the Southern Netherlands in 1585.
“There was a perception of unity up to that point,” Van Loo says.
“The various regions that eventually became Belgium and the Netherlands had belonged either to France or to the Holy Roman Empire, but then the dukes [of Burgundy] enter the picture and the Low Countries were a Burgundian invention.”
Despite its relative brevity – the Duchy itself lasted little more than a century – its legacy would be some of the most important artists of the period, including Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Claes Sluter, men whose careers would have been unthinkable without the Burgundians.
It was also one of the foundation stones for European commerce – monetary union was brought about and an inn run by one family (Van der Buerse) in the city of Bruges gave its name to the stock markets of France and Belgium (the Bourse), Italy (Borsa) and the Netherlands (Beurs).
There are contemporary parallels. Philip the Good, whose image graces the cover of the book, learned a lesson that seems apposite in the era of Brexit.
“He learned that all your countries can go into one big bag, but that doesn’t automatically create a sense of unity. Do you know anybody who says in the first place that he or she is European? I don’t think so. In our country there’s a lot of discussion [about the particulars of identity] and I think Ireland is quite complicated too.”
The sheer scope of the book makes it hard to condense into sound bites. The host of a Belgian TV show recently told him, “I have tried to interview you several times, and it’s impossible”.
But that exchange also ended with the host allowing Van Loo to talk uninterrupted for 11 minutes. And persevering is worth it: he’s an engaging and charismatic presence, with an infectious passion for history.
The genesis of the book, he explains, is interwoven with his life. His wife is a Frenchwoman, indeed a Burgundian, and as far back as childhood he had an abiding interest in history.
The son of a gardener and a housewife, he grew up in a town called Bouwel, east of Antwerp, with one younger sister. At 12 years old, an age when most boys are more preoccupied with sports results, he collected remembrance cards from the 19th century and visited local archives to write a family history.
It was also in these salad days that he first became enamoured of French culture, the result of a French teacher who spoke of the art, literature and food of the country as a “kind of treasure trove”.
Van Loo studied Romance philology at the University of Antwerp and became a schoolteacher, where he learned in practice that people best understand history in terms of stories.
He wrote book reviews for Belgian newspapers but found criticism, as a career, was not for him. He instead wrote a trilogy of books about French culture. For the first, Paris Return: Literary Travel Guide to France, he travelled in the footsteps of the likes of Zola and Balzac.
The third, O Vermilion Fissure! Sex, Eroticism and Literature was published in 2010 and during the research he read thousands of pages of French erotic literature – some of it good (Madame Bovary contains the most erotic writing of all, he says), some funny and most of it “banal”, but it somehow nudged him toward life as a husband and father.
He tells this story with great relish: he travelled from France, where he was a writer in residence, to his home in Antwerp, but when he arrived at the door, with a gigantic trunk full of erotic literature in tow, he realised he had forgotten his keys. So he decided to stay at a little hotel, right by his place, which had always intrigued him.
The room rate, he was told at the front desk, was €69 a night – “which could have been my first clue,” he says, “but I didn’t understand. I asked them, ‘is there breakfast in the morning?” and the woman said ‘no, we do not serve breakfast’.”
He went to his room, opened the door and noticed for the first time that “there were mirrors all over the place – that was my second clue”.
Unperturbed, he opened his trunk and sat down to read the Marquis de Sade.
“And then, I suddenly became aware that all around me people were having sex. I could hear it. I could hear the people coming. And in that moment I thought to myself, ‘I am a living anachronism’.”
He wasn’t tempted to avail of the facilities, he says: “It was the type of place where you had to bring someone. You could go there with your mistress or someone you just met for one evening. In French you would call it a hôtel de passe.”
There were no actual joys of the flesh that night, but by way of compensation “the French gods very kindly sent me a woman of flesh and blood”.
Shortly thereafter he met his wife, Coraline, through his writer-in-residence programme. They went for ice cream and hit it off. Fittingly, their first kiss took place on the border between France and Belgium. “It was, as I see it, a match made in heaven. She understands my life, my reading.”
Coraline became pregnant at 39, while Van Loo was 41.
“I was preparing myself mentally to not become a father because it was so difficult to have a baby,” he explains. “It was also not my wife’s dream to have a baby and I did not know it was my dream yet. We were old, too old. She was almost 40, my wife. So, it was not easy, it was complicated.”
Adding to the complication, the obstetrician told Bart and Coraline the baby would be born on the very September day in 2014 when he had to submit the manuscript of his new book on Napoleon.
“And so instead of being happy I was very panicked. But it was exciting – my wife was growing, and growing. My book was growing, and growing.”
His daughter delayed her advent until after the manuscript was delivered.
“She was even so intelligent already, my daughter, to wait even a week longer. And then it was great because I had handed over my book.”
He describes the change that fatherhood brought about: “I was a branch and now I am a tree. I know now that I have to stay alive because I have to be there for her. I did not know that I needed to become a father but I think that if I had not become one I might have mourned. A life without kids would have been possible but difficult.”
It was Clémence’s ability to speak Flemish, French and Dutch and her ability, aged just three, to spontaneously identify Philip the Good that inspired him to continue with The Burgundians, even as the daunting research threatened to bog him down.
And the payoff has been worth it. He was told it “would not make good television” but now such an adaptation is being discussed, and its author is delighted it's being made available in English as well as other European languages.
“It’s such an important part of the history of Europe. It’s bigger, even, than the history of the Low Countries. It’s about our shared past.”
And that, more than anything, makes it a worthwhile and satisfying read.
‘The Burgundians’ by Bart Van Loo is published by Head of Zeus, €30, and out now