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'We will be surrounded by fiction.' Jeroen Olyslaegers on his new novella, the illusion of possession and modern escapism

They are quite the characters, the main characters in the books of Jeroen Olyslaegers (55). Smiling, he talks about Wilfried Wils, the protagonist of his bestseller Will from 2016, who just wouldn't stop talking to his creator. 'He kept commenting. I had never before experienced a book staying alive like that. When the book was awarded the 2016 Ultima for Literature, an important Flemish culture prize, I was asked if I would write a letter to a deceased writer for the promotional video. I suggested writing a letter to my main character, which seemed more appropriate. In it I asked him, allez, shut up now. After that, it was over.'

But quiet is anything but in the Belgian author's head. For meanwhile, that place has been occupied by Amandine, the protagonist of his next novel, titled The wonders in delusion, and a major character in his just-published novella William and my lust. Olyslaegers calls this novella a hyphen, as it were, between his previous novel Wild woman and The wonders in delusion. Which is not to say it is just a snack, because William and my lust is an intriguing, evocative and floridly written novella, which stands perfectly well on its own as a story.

Sixteenth-century Antwerp

Like Wild woman the story is set in sixteenth-century Antwerp, where book printer Willem Silvius collaborated with the well-known master printer Christoffel Plantijn. During the 1566 iconoclasm, Silvius was imprisoned because he was suspected of collaborating with Protestants. In prison, Silvius wrote letters to his wife. In 1885, these letters come into the hands of serial writer Hippolyte van Damme, who steals them from an antiquarian. Hippolyte thinks he has gold in his hands for his serial, but soon the possession after the theft weighs like lead on his shoulders. The confession of the theft to his mistress Amandine and his silence about it to his wife Catherine split his life in two. What is theft, what is (sexual) possession, how addictive is possession, what differences exist in it between man and woman - these are some of the themes in this captivating story, which bridges not only two great novels, but also the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Jeroen Olyslaegers: 'My next novel is about male hysteria.' ©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

You said: William and my lust is the hyphen between Wild woman and your next novel. How about that exactly?

'This story stems from that previous novel, and introduces Amandine, the main character in my next novel. Wild woman took place in sixteenth-century Antwerp, a period of great prosperity in trade as well as in the artistic and cultural fields. That situation only returned in the nineteenth century, but without the artistic boom. Belgium buys back the Scheldt's supply from the Netherlands in the nineteenth century, and then a time of great prosperity and flowering in trade breaks out in Antwerp.

Amandine comes from a banking family, which then naturally does good business. We are then also in the midst of the colonial period, with the exploitation of Congo. Power is then in the hands of francophone Belgians, i.e. people who spoke French. All these aspects make, I think, the second half of the nineteenth century in Belgian history very interesting. The novel will be called The wonders in delusion, where "delusion" stands for far-flung materialism and "miracles" for the irrational, magic, séances and witchcraft, the paranormal. For that, too, gets a renaissance in the nineteenth century. As Louis Couperus did with his Eline Vere wrote about female hysteria, this novel is about male hysteria. For that, I'm going to use all the clichés of the time: the femme fatale, someone being hypnotised, a séance, someone trying an opium pipe for the first time.' Olyslaegers laughs: 'And of course lots of brothels.'

But then how did this novella present itself as a 'hyphen'?

'With The wonders in delusion was the first time I had heard a female protagonist. But Hippolyte van Damme forced himself on me, he felt he also had something to say. A male who stepped in and wanted to claim another quick starring role for himself.'

And you thought: I'll give it to him then.

'Yes, I felt he was entitled to that. I had already written a few scenes of my novel, and some of them take place in a brothel. There I saw this Hippolyte van Damme ordering a coupe de champagne and I thought: maybe an interesting guy after all.'

'When I start a novel, I always ask stupid questions.' ©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Do you think it is important to teach your compatriots something about Belgian history?

'Sometimes. But I'm also just a charlatan, so I'm not going to attribute that morality to myself. There are just such fantastic stories that haven't been told yet, that nobody is doing anything with. So there lies an opportunity for me there. When I start a novel, I always ask silly questions. At The miracles and the delusion was the initial question: when did Belgians know about the atrocities taking place in Congo because of rubber mining? Through research, I found out that this was the case as early as April 1900. When I tell that to anyone, everyone responds: how can that be? Then I ask myself: if you know what atrocities are taking place there, what does that do to your conscience? How do you deal with that? Guilt is a theme that is also very interesting in our current times. Many people, especially those from progressive circles, feel guilty about all sorts of things, for example being white. They carry the lead cloak of the history of exploitation on their shoulders.'

Apocalyptic thinking

What fascinates you most about the late nineteenth century, the fin du siècle?

'Allez, time after time when I do research on that period, I see that there was apocalyptic thinking even then. We now think that our presence on this planet has become problematic, but that is something people have thought very often: now the end of times is near. Even then, there was unease in the higher circles about the level of consumption. Even then, there were problems with identity and gender.'

So what can we learn from this?

'That history and a society are circular. Time and again we face the same problems. Whether we can learn anything from that, I don't know, but perhaps it offers some comfort. At least it does to me. Our current situation is not so exceptional; it was the same a century ago.'

Jeroen Olyslaegers: 'We are consumed by our own escapism' ©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Has your own thinking about our place on earth changed?

'I think so, I have become more relatable. When I Will was writing, my protagonist Wilfried Wils invented the word "normalcy": the human tendency or need to live as normal a life as possible, even in abnormal times. There is a funny and a tragic side to that. We now live in times when nothing is really normal anymore; just think for a few seconds about the state of the world. I'm starting to find more and more peace in that, living from day to day. I have certainly found comfort in knowing that even back in the 16th century there were a lot of people who were absolutely convinced that the Last Judgement, coming face to face with God, would take place in 1582, with a date and all. Cartographer Gerardus Mercator, for example, was one such person. Especially in apocalyptic times, we put even more energy into this normalcy. We are going to experience more escapism than ever. HBO, Netflix and Amazon Prima are putting billions into producing series. We will be surrounded by fiction.'

You are into Buddhism and meditation. How do you view this phenomenon from that perspective?

'Everywhere in public spaces in the city, you see that people are mentally closed off and no longer look at what surrounds them. Everyone walks with earpieces in. What I perceive in this, above all, is the need to have absolute control over what happens in your head. We are absorbed by what we have chosen ourselves: my playlist, my Spotify, my Instagram feed. My, my, my. It is escapism in our own private world. Meditation actually teaches you that control is an illusion. So that's what I think about especially when I see people shut themselves off from the world like this: that's going to be a rough awakening.

We live in apocalyptic times, in the sense of revealing. Revealing is important in my work. In William and my lust Hippolyte van Damme also comes to some ruthless insights. Like the illusion of possession. In fact, he becomes a prisoner of his possession of the stolen letters.'

'We live in apocalyptic times, in the sense of revelatory,' said writer Jeroen Olyslaegers. ©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

Olyslaegers takes a sip of his blonde beer and looks ahead thoughtfully for a moment. 'By the way, I hope it is clear to readers that Amandine is not how she is portrayed by Hippolyte van Damme. For him, his mistress is a mystery and she shows herself to be ruthless and cruel at the end. The larger novel will revolve more around her sense of life.

I now have in mind a scene in which she looks at her child, who can just sit upright on the carpet. She realises that carrying and giving birth to this child was really her only task: to provide an heir. Her female heart then says: I have to survive all this, this male-dominated world in which she herself is no more than an ornament. She has to be beautiful, get pregnant, be a devoted mother and entertain others - everything she does to serve her husband. So what happens to someone born with an independent spirit? There have been such women in all centuries, but we hear little about them because the majority of them have disappeared in history.'

For example, being dismissed as hysterical and then locked up.

'Yes. Some people had the idea that there is a witch in every woman, struggling to get out. This patriarchal repressive society in which so-called witches are exterminated comes back in the nineteenth century and affects the image of women. On the one hand, she is considered satanic and therefore very wrong but also very alluring, on the other hand, the so-called white witch is made into a statue as if she were the sole survivor of a pagan culture. Both are clichés, which I am going to unleash on Amandine, and then see what happens. I see the book as a tribute to my mother. She was a real feminist, but not in an indoctrinating way. I always greatly admired her for the quiet firmness with which that she put her feminist views across and believed that men are natural partners in that. She did not laugh at a man who said he was a feminist.'

'With me, the -movement cut into it a lot; I started thinking differently about a lot of things.' ©Marc Brester/A Quattro Mani

You have not written from a female perspective before. In fact, why not?

'I was not yet mature enough, not yet mature. With me, the -movement had a big impact; I started thinking differently about many things as I became more aware of the differences between a male and female perspective. Certainly in the nineteenth century, women had no voice. Take literature: we have Madame Bovary, Eline Vere and Anna Karenina. All three books are about a troubled woman, are written by a man and end tragically. That does paint a very specific picture of women, and then they are also the books that define the art of romance.

I want to write scenes where Amandine has fantasies in which she gives her husband a thrashing. She lives in a time that is wrong for her, suffers from boredom a lot. But what exactly is going to happen I don't know yet.'

Amandine will tell you that herself?

'Yes, I think so. Sometimes I sit in the garden and hear her voice very clearly, then she tells me a whole paragraph and all I have to do is write it down.'

Jeroen Olyslaegers, William and my lust (112 p.), De Bezige Bij, € 18.99

About Jeroen Olyslaegers

Flemish author Jeroen Olyslaegers (1967) is a novelist and playwright. He made his debut in 1994 with the novel Navel. In addition to articles and reviews for media such as Humo, The Flemish Guide and Measure Among other things, he wrote Fierce heights, restless souls, a play based on the works of Emily Brontë. After the novels We (2009) and Profit (2012), he broke through to the general public with the novel Will(2016). The book won numerous awards, including the Fintro Literature Prize and the F. Bordewijk Prize. This was followed by the historical novel Wild woman (2020). The novella will be published at the end of October William and my lust, a preview of the new novel Olyslaegers is working on.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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