High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

‘Treurwil’ by Rik Van Puymbroeck: Striking Passages From A Melancholy Life
© Stephan Vanfleteren
© Stephan Vanfleteren © Stephan Vanfleteren
review First Book

‘Treurwil’ by Rik Van Puymbroeck: Striking Passages From A Melancholy Life

Flemish journalist Rik Van Puymbroeck has previously been honoured as a master storyteller by the Foundation for Narrative Journalism three times. That storytelling talent has now found its way into a literary debut: Treurwil (Weeping Will).

A small disclaimer may be appropriate here. I met Rik Van Puymbroeck personally in the spring of 1998. The newspapers we both worked for had just merged, and the then editor-in-chief had thought it a good idea to entrust the management of the merged sports editorial staff to two youngsters. Myself in my late twenties, Rik in his early thirties.

While I had very little experience in sports journalism, Rik was already an esteemed cycling reporter. With an eye for detail, compassion for those who didn’t win and finely nuanced penmanship that not only showed the heroism of cycling life, but also its darker aspects. On both editorial boards, there were plenty of badmouthing reporters from the ‘other side’, but Rik’s talent rose above all that petty nonsense, no one questioned his abilities.

In personal interactions, Rik was fairly quiet, verging on distance. As if he was saving his words for the stories he was writing. Perhaps he was already partly writing them in his head in all those moments when he sat staring dreamily into space. What Rik said mattered, but he did not say much, nor did he reveal much about himself. I don’t remember a single raised voice; Rik’s timbre was calm, and warm.

At that time I thought that he had listened a little too much to The Smiths or The Triffids, as I had, a somewhat melancholic young man with a penchant for beauty and a preference for just the right word. At the end of that summer, he lost his brother, who was a few years older, which amplified the silence.

A quarter of a century later I learn there was more to it than romantic melancholy; an earlier tragedy behind it. At seventeen, Rik’s best friend had died in his arms after an accident with his new moped. It was the day he was born, he notes in the opening sentence of Treurwil, and a day he will never forget. Only much later did he realise that it had been a profound, traumatic event that would mark the rest of his life.

He does not say it in so many words, but perhaps the writer in him was also born on that heinous last day in October. The man who tries to heal in thoughts and words what cannot be healed. Time heals all wounds, the saying goes, and in the event of a loss we wish people strength, we advise them to remember the beautiful moments and cherish them. We never wish for anyone to embrace their legitimate sorrow, to dwell with their loss.

'Treurwil' shows in masterful language that it is fine to grieve, without sinking into overly dark gloom

And that is precisely the subject of his novel, Treurwil: permitting grief and loss. In short stories that often refer back to each other, Van Puymbroeck tries to allow the pain and create space to grieve fully. Not out of some misanthropy or other dejection, but as a form of consolation, almost a gift. At the same time, he describes the feelings of a man who can never again walk carefree through life after such a tragedy, a doubting man. This becomes painfully apparent when he talks about his daughters. There is a lot to read between the lines in this book, but fatherly love, and the worries it engenders, are indisputable.

Treurwil is not a novel in the traditional sense; it contains hardly any tension, barely even a story to recount. Van Puymbroeck explores his own grief through personal memories, which are sometimes difficult to retrieve, and by revisiting an old notebook, but films, music, cemeteries and other (urban) landscapes, novels and poems are also discussed. These are passages from a somewhat melancholy life, a struggling existence, which really does have its beautiful moments. For he draws comfort from beauty, it is beauty that allows him to mourn. And grieving can – must – be a part of life.

At the same time, he interweaves the death of his young friend with that of his slightly older brother Tom, who died in a car accident, and that of his mother. Unlike the others, his mother had been ill for some time, so her death was not unexpected. Yet she is given a prominent place in the book, if only because Van Puymbroeck realises after her death that he did not know her enough. And he contemplates the relationship with his father, a soul as closed as himself. “I come from a line of silent men,” Van Puymbroeck notes, which reflects his relationship with his father, but equally his own inclination for silence. It is no coincidence that a house in an almost deserted hamlet in Auvergne also plays an important role in this book. Books as well as a weeping willow he has planted sustain life there.

In all those memories, descriptions and wanderings through his grief-filled head, Van Puymbroeck manages to avoid sentimentality. He does not aim for tears, on the contrary. Treurwil shows that it is fine to grieve, without sinking into overly dark gloom. All this is done in a masterful language, not lavish, at times even sparing, but whose beauty has a comforting effect. Van Puymbroeck notes how he deleted a lot in the writing process, like a farmer mows his field until only stubble remains. Stubble as punctuation. “Dashes, commas, colons and question marks. I like to use them. They provide stillness.” To dwell on the things that really matter. Such as love, and the other side of that coin, grief.

Rik Van Puymbroeck, Treurwil, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2023, 208 pages

Excerpt of ‘Treurwil’, translated by Elisabeth Salverda

The first light of spring falls on the wall of the room where I sit to write. In the morning, when the sun shines a little brighter, it traces the outline of the still leafless birch trees in the garden on the kitchen cupboard. In bed I had seen the sun already, a beam of light above the radiator in my bedroom. In the living room, that same light makes a journey along the walls. First the sun shines on the thermostat, before slowly edging on. The light moves just over the sideboard, containing photo books, with its record player on top, the cover of the record still on it – today and since awhile Coltrane – a few favourite books on the lid of the record player, then on past some photos, a lamp, a miniature Renault 4, more books, a work by the photographer Katrien De Blauwer, over the television. I know that the light shifts across and disappears. Every morning I struggle to see it leave. I can’t take leave of anything.

‘The only letters I would like to write are letters to my dead,’ Elias Canetti noted, but what would I write? For a long time, I wondered what I would have wanted to say if I had known that a friend and a brother were going to die. If the farewell had announced itself. You deceive yourself with that question. Their death had come abruptly, after the shock and the usual obligations – tears, funeral – you are given time to contemplate that question. To seek words, organise thoughts, rake together memories, apologies, thanks, final offerings. But death is unique. Unexpected does not compare to long, lingering, slow death. Canetti would be willing to do nothing but write letters to his dead.

What if I could have written those letters before the end? In the last weeks before Erik died, I mulled over this. He could or would not see death coming. The video does not provide an answer and in all the texts and messages I kept, the word doesn’t occur. He sometimes felt unwell, was very tired, almost apologised for it.

We saw each other one last time. His hair was in a quiff, he wore glasses, it became an evening of talking about a lot, but not about that. About how he felt, not about what he thought, not about how he saw the future, not about what remained to be said. My one act of goodbye was one that he did not sense: I asked his wife to take a few pictures.

I almost wrote ‘to still take a few more pictures’ and in ‘still’, that small word, is the fatalism. Five simple letters that could have given me away that night. Still. An adverb with side effects, but no medication, on the contrary, ‘still’ is the toxic cocktail that could have taken away his last hope. He thought of ‘still’ only in its other sense: let us still dream, still make many plans.

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