Belgian writer Annelies Verbeke combines in her new collection of short stories Hallelujah cleverly combines seriousness and absurdism. The collection once again makes clear why the Belgian writer has sometimes been called the 'diva of the short story'. Like all her work, the new collection contains Hallelujah in addition to a more serious touch, numerous funny, absurdist and sometimes even surreal situations and remarkable characters - in Verbeke's universe, for example, a crybaby is not just a crybaby, but a baby who cries because he knows about all the suffering the future is going to bring.
Annelies Verbeke (b. 1976), who with her debut novel Sleep! thundered into literature in 2003 -the book became an international bestseller and was awarded the Debut Prize-, built up an idiosyncratic body of work over the past 14 years, comprising drama, screenplays, short story collections, novels and novellas. After the success of her novel Thirty days, with which Verbeke won the F. Bordewijk Prize, the NRC Book Prize and the Opzij Literature Prize last year, she now lets her talent on the short track run wild again. The end result: a varied and handsome collection of intriguing, sometimes abrasive or alienating and often witty stories.
Unlike many other short story collections, yours usually have an overarching theme. Do you think of that in advance or do you only see what the common thread is later?
''The trigger for a story can be anything; a newspaper article, an image. But indeed, I always emphatically want to make a collection with an overarching theme. Even when I write a commissioned story, I already have in mind the collection that will come. My previous collection, Assumptions, could actually be called a novel in stories, as each story features at least one character from one of the other stories. Subsequently, the assumptions the reader might have about the characters do not always turn out to be correct. At Hallelujah I envisaged a book with 'beginning and end' as the overarching theme.'
Why exactly that theme?
''I think it has to do with turning 40 last year. I dwell more on the loss you experience during your life, on the inevitable end that is going to come one day. There also seems to be an apocalyptic atmosphere in the world, a feeling that we can no longer assume a certain democratic values. That too contributed to choosing this theme. Last year we had attacks in Belgium, and that did not create a nice atmosphere in the country. I myself, especially since the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States - something I really did not think possible - have felt a constant fear. And recently a new low was reached in Belgium, when Flanders' largest party seemed to want to abolish the rule of law. These are not pretty developments, and it also all seems to come in such quick succession, this demolition - because surely you can't call it anything other than that. That apocalyptic atmosphere also hangs a bit over the collection.''
Yet as a reader, you don't get a depressing feeling from it.
''There is always humour creeping into my work, because that is my tone, and my way of looking at the world. An ending also often heralds a new beginning, so besides 'ending', there is also 'beginning' in the collection. But when I reread it myself, I did notice that there is more ending in it than beginning.''
How do you compose a bundle?
''I always aim for 15 stories. I like that number, it allows enough different perspectives. The eighth story is the heart of the collection, in this case 'The Bear', my most personal story. Besides the story before it and the one after it, which I see as an introduction and response, all the other stories mirror around that heart. By this I mean, for instance, that the story about a couple longing for prehistory mirrors the story in which a woman is in rural New York with her boss and he announces the end of the world to his employees. Not only in terms of time and setting, but both are also about love, and its less pleasant sides.
For me, writing is an examination of the world around me, and self-examination. In Hallelujah I go back to where I came from, exploring my own beginnings, my roots. The penultimate story, 'Emeritus', for instance, is about my father, who rose from a working-class background without support and made his mind up - but even that kind of victory comes to an end. And the last story is a kind of portrait of the oldest living person in my family.''
'The bear' is the most personal story, you said. The main character is an author who turns into a bear.
''I have previously written several stories from 'the author's point of view' and also in Thirty days pops up that character, the author. Now I wanted to write a story about the author, who is in a sombre phase.
The story is about the fact that sometimes I want to stop writing and get out of that literary world. At the same time, I know I can't. So on the one hand it is my liberation to be able to write and on the other hand it is my trap. When I had written this story, it did resolve something. In doing so, I put something away from me, I think. The author turns into a bear, but maybe that's a phase and he won't stay a bear. Maybe things will work out. In this story, 'she' is also no longer an author in the end. In one story, I was able to quit for a while, which gave me relief.' '
Why do you sometimes want to quit writing?
''Mostly because of the whole business around it. All those peripheral activities, such as performing in libraries, which have pretty much filled the past 14 years of my life. But the writing itself also constantly necessitates tremendous awareness, and sometimes I would like to let that go. Sometimes I would like to become a hairdresser or a masseuse. I am actually more and more possessed by that thought. So apparently, at the same time, I have to write something about that in order to let go. Because writing itself is at the same time the most liberating thing there is, so I can't let go of that either, I think. It is a profession full of contradictions, because it is also a privileged life.''
You have occasionally said that a book is often about the phase you are in at the time yourself, and that it is closed once the book is finished. Do you feel the same way now?
''I hope so, but on the political front there is so much happening that then pushes up that apocalyptic atmosphere, that I don't really know. To my mind, even since the book is finished, there is more end in the air. The trick is to find a way to rise above that.''
The collection of stories Hallelujah by Annelies Verbeke was published by De Geus, €19.99