‘Adjustment, no matter how comfortable it appears to be, is never freedom.’ David Reisman said that in The Lonely Crowd, a work of academic/pop sociology, published in the US in the late Forties; much read and remarked on at the time, and now forgotten. I looked it up the other day when I was due to say something at the South Bank Centre in connection with the Cities on the Move exhibition at the Hayward. Reisman divided social behaviour into three categories: ‘anomic’, ‘adjusted’ and ‘autonomous’. ‘Anomie’ is bad – everyone knows that – and something that has long been associated with urban life. But who could be sure, as David Reisman was, that an ‘autonomous’ citizen, no matter how uncomfortable, was better off than one who had taken the trouble to adjust – unless they’d told themselves that adjustment was un-American, the sort of feebleness Charlton Heston might despise? And if you could choose one or other way of being which would you go for? And where would you live?
I had been asked, specifically, to say something about cities I’d lived in and those questions are ones that I find troubling. I was born, not long before the Second World War, in the United States, where until the age of nine I lived in a succession of different towns and states, of which New York was the last, the place from which I left the country for good. I didn’t know at the time that we weren’t going back; and it was only later that it occurred to me that I’d spent the rest of my childhood in some sort of exile.
We were moving – it was now the late Forties – to Europe. More particularly, we moved to Brussels: a dark, rainy, unfriendly, unseductive, unappealing, charmless city. At the time I wouldn’t have been able to say any of that. For one thing, I wouldn’t have been allowed to: Brussels was where we had to be and if I didn’t like it, it was because, my mother said, I was unwilling to make the effort. David Reisman perhaps would have been pleased with me. I found it all very difficult. Again, we moved often. Not that it mattered: I don’t remember knowing the neighbours or playing with the children next-door or downstairs, as everyone did in the States. There was a tennis club to which families like mine belonged but very few places where one could detach oneself from one’s family. I missed the comic books (missed them all the more for not having been allowed to read them), the roller-skating rink in Central Park, the Lexington Avenue drug stores, the Hershey bars and Hamburger Heaven: all important markers of a New York child’s place in the world and signifiers, too, of a world in which there was much to desire. Belgian children ate the same serious chocolate as their mothers and fathers ate and didn’t have places of their own to go to: they stayed close to their parents and wherever they went walked behind them like the Duke of Edinburgh behind the Queen.
Vol. 21 No. 16 · 19 August 1999
Like Mary-Kay Wilmers (LRB, 29 July), who was obliged to move to Brussels, I, too, had to move to ‘a dark, rainy, unfriendly, unseductive, unappealing, charmless city’. The city was Antwerp, and the city my family left was Brussels. Brussels had been for me – this was the late Fifties – a childhood paradise. There were no Hershey bars or Hamburger Heaven, but – much better – the mimosa sold on the city streets in winter mixed with the perfume of roasted chestnuts; and there were streets in my neighbourhood where one could play all day long. In Antwerp (as Wilmers said of Brussels), ‘I don’t remember knowing the neighbours or playing with the children next door or downstairs.’
Brussels seems to be the city Anglo-Americans love to hate. I have lived in Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich, Amsterdam and now live in Nijmegen (where no one would have wanted to grow up in the Fifties). On returning recently to Antwerp, I realised that my feelings of hatred towards it had to do with pre-adolescent gloom. At that time any city, apart from Brussels, would have been unbearable. Would Wilmers have been happier in Paris? I doubt it. There were no Hershey bars in Paris either, no Hamburger Heaven. And even more attention would have been paid to food than in Brussels. Not loving Brussels is a cliché, as easy as saying that we ‘are in love with Paris’.
Wilmers writes that none of the ‘three Belgian writers known outside Belgium’ was concerned with his own country. Well, let’s see. Simenon wrote a lot about Belgium – much of his memoirs concern his childhood in Liège – though it’s true he didn’t write about Brussels; Maeterlinck’s symbolism cannot be understood without his Flemish background; Tintin is rightly considered the essence of ‘Belgitude’. And it’s not true that ‘only one’ English novelist wrote about Brussels. Thackeray’s sketches of the city in Vanity Fair – he calls it ‘one of the gayest and most brilliant little capitals in Europe’ – have a joie de vivre. Wilmers quotes Byron on the Duchess of Richmond’s ball: ‘who could guess … upon night so sweet such awful morn could rise.’ Perhaps it would have been more apt to quote from Vanity Fair, where the snobbish Mrs O’Dowd declares ‘that the Hôtel de Ville was not near so large or handsome as her father’s mansion of Glenmalony.’
Eric de Kuyper
Mary-Kay Wilmers overlooks one literary reminiscence of Brussels which adds a visionary quality to the ‘dreariness’ she associates with the city. W.H. Auden spent most of December 1938 there, writing a handful of poems that encapsulate his disabused state of mind at the fag-end of a low dishonest decade. In ‘Brussels in Winter’, ‘Wandering the cold streets tangled like an old string,/Coming on fountains silent in the frost’, Auden evokes a city which eludes the stranger, where only ‘the homeless and the really humbled/Seem to be sure exactly where they are.’ In the poem’s desolate conclusion, ‘fifty francs will earn the stranger right/To warm the heartless city in his arms.’ The city’s greatest cultural asset, the Breughel collection in the Musée des Beaux Arts, in Auden’s poem of that name merely confirms his disenchantment with a world insensible to suffering and morality. Another poem from his stay, ‘Rimbaud’, entertains for the first time the idea of running away permanently from Europe’s clever hopes and empty promises. The indifference of the city towards human unsuccess led Auden to fantasise, like Rimbaud, Marlow and Lord Jim, some complete break with Europe, only to acknowledge, in ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Macao’, those sketches of a Conradian Eastern world also written in Brussels, that such faraway places are merely unreal, comic-opera reinstatements of the European illusion.
Nottingham Trent University
Mary-Kay Wilmers’s Diary is rather unfair. But her remarks do illustrate an observation which Fanny Burney attributed to one of the characters in Cecilia: ‘Travelling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building here after seeing Italy.’ The young Wilmers’s ‘Italy’ was New York. I first went to Brussels on a school visit in 1946 with only the experience of war-weary London. I found a magical city full of neon lights, wonderful restaurants and tins of fruit. The sun in that city was always shining.
Vol. 21 No. 18 · 16 September 1999
‘I can hardly imagine anyone,’ Lady Georgia observed, ‘setting out deliberately for Brussels’ (Ronald Firbank, Vainglory).
Freshwater, Isle of Wight
As an Englishman who has lived in or near Brussels for some twenty-five years, I was touched by Eric de Kuyper's modesty (Letters, 19 August). In talking about Brussels and Belgian writers he never once alluded to the fact that he is, at least in Flemish-speaking Belgium, held in high regard as a writer himself. His books about his childhood in Brussels, Antwerp and on the Belgian coast are wonderful evocations of times past and, in my view, are required reading for those who want to understand the evolution of Belgium as a country and Brussels as a city.
Vol. 21 No. 19 · 30 September 1999
Arguably the best known Belgian author over the last few decades has been Hugo Claus. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize (whether deservedly so is a different matter) and is the author of a book called The Sorrow of Belgium. The title belies Mary-Kay Wilmers's statement that Belgian authors are not interested in their country (LRB, 29 July). I wouldn't read it as an endorsement of Wilmers's feelings about Brussels, but rather as an indication that Belgian authors dabble in questions of cultural identity quite a bit.
Hilde De Weerdt