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Louis Paul Boon (15 March 1912, in Aalst – 10 May 1979, in Erembodegem) was a Flemish novelist and competes only with Hugo Claus (1929-2008) for the title of most important twentieth-century Flemish writer in the Dutch language. He forsook the literary Dutch of the Netherlands for regional Belgian Dutch words and expressions with which he colored his writing in a Faulknerian way.
He was born Lodewijk Paul Aalbrecht Boon in Aalst, Belgium to a working-class family. When he was very young Boon witnessed the shooting of a prisoner by a German soldier, otherwise the First World War, which ended when Boon was only six years old, left little traces in his writings. Boon left school at age 16 to work for his father as a carriage painter. During evenings and weekends he studied art at the Aalsterse Academie voor Schone Kunsten but soon had to abandon his studies due to lack of funds. As a literary author Boon was not an early bloomer. During the 1930s he tried time and again to write something worthwhile, but in vain. Yet as the 1940s took off, he matured and wrote his first published works in a row, including a novel based upon the life of Vincent van Gogh, Abel Gholarts (1944, not available in translation).
At the onset of World War II Boon was a soldier in a division stationed near the village of Veldwezelt, in order to defend the Albert Canal. However, he was captured as a prisoner of war on the first day and eventually sent home, after a few weeks in a prisoner camp. His experiences during the War and mostly the Occupation are the subject of Boon's fourth book, My Little War (1947, translation 2010 by Paul Vincent, Dalkey Archive Press), now widely regarded as a major masterpiece of Dutch literature of World War II. With this title Boon emerged for the first time as an important innovator of the novel. Rather than containing one story, "My Little War" contains over thirty loosely interrelated chapters, each containing a story that can be read as an independent piece. Most stories describe the difficult circumstances of life during the Occupation, such as finding food and fuel to warm the house, some deal with the deteriorating sexual mores, and some treat more direct war experiences such as bombings. Yet the overarching structure, though well hidden, makes for a coherent whole as well. The stories are interspersed with numerous raw fragments about equally raw incidents during the Occupation as the short stories: rape, theft, treason, humiliation. Boon admitted that the work of John Dos Passos provided the inspiration for this literary device. In this book, the term 'enemy' by no means signifies Germans exclusively, even though one story tells of the extermination of a Jewish girl and another of a camp prisoner's experiences. People are just as likely, if not more, to be robbed of food, money, or even their spouse's fidelity by their neighbours as they are by the Germans.
Boon discovered he had a talent for writing and found work as a journalist for De Rode Vaan (1945–1946), Front (1946–1947) and De Vlaamse Gids (1948). Later he contributed to the newspaper Vooruit with which he established himself as a freelancer. In subsequent years, Boon divided his energies between a constant stream of novels and journalistic pieces for Het Parool, De Zweep, Zondagspost. and other newspapers and magazines.
In 1953 he published the work that now stands as his greatest masterpiece, Chapel Road (De Kapellekensbaan, translated by Adrienne Dixon), which he began to write as early as 1943. Its dazzling construction combines several narrative threads, including an almost postmodern one where the writer and his friends discuss how the story should develop further. Another one is an extensive reworking of the most classic medieval work in the Dutch language, the twelfth-century story of Reynard the fox.
In 1969, he stopped writing (except for his "Boontjes" columns) and devoted himself to painting in his home in Erembodegem. Boon died in his home in 1979 at the age of 67.
Boon's literary legacy is a versatile, ranging from journalistic pieces on Belgian politics and society to erotic novelas. In historical novels such as De Bende van Jan de Lichte, De zoon van Jan de Lichte, De Zwarte Hand, and Daens, he depicted the oppression of the working class in 19th century Flanders; in his controversial Geuzenboek, he wrote about the Spanish domination of the Low Countries in the 16th century. Nearly all of Boon's work was infused by his profound commitment to socialism; in experimental, modernistic works such as Vergeten straat, Boon projected an ideal society but at the same time shared his doubts as to whether human nature could achieve utopia.
Boon was thought to have been shortlisted for a Nobel Prize in Literature in the late 1970s, and even received an invitation to appear at the Swedish Embassy, probably to be told that the Prize had been awarded to him. The day before the appointment he died at his writing table of a heart attack. Very little of his writing has been translated into English, but De Kapellekensbaan and Zomer in Ter-Muren are both available in English translation from Dalkey Archive Press as Chapel Road and Summer in Termuren, and Paul Vincent's translation of Mijn kleine oorlog (as My Little War) was published by Dalkey in 2009.
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