Three weeks before his sudden death on December 23, 2021, Flemish poet, essayist and columnist Bernard Dewulf, 61, submitted the manuscript of what would turn out to be his last book to his publisher. seasons form together with Small days (2009) and late days (2016) a triptych of miniatures full of stylistically refined observations of everyday life.
Small days was, to the astonishment of the prize recipient, awarded with the Libris Literature Prize 2010. The jury praised the author’s courage in choosing ‘the most, most common, which is at the same time the most precious’, his own children’s upbringing, as a subject. ‘Their little fluctuations’, wrote Dewulf, ‘shock their development; they relax under my eyes.’
Dewulf was much admired during his lifetime. But after the price for Small days lashed out at some critics. ‘A language that must pass for poetic’, despised NRC Handelsblad. ‘Unacceptable creepiness and vanity,’ wrote de Volkskrant. I can understand that reaction, but I don’t feel it. Many of Dewulf’s observations are recognizable and moving. Happiness and affection ooze from it – and then sentimentality and superficiality lurk.
Yet Dewulf has not succumbed to these dangers. He was too clever, sharp and ironic for that, and he possessed too much self-mockery and reflection. He could look damn good – and catch his eye in sensuous phrases and clear language. He looked with wonder and very precisely at art, at paintings, at sculptures, at women, at his wife, at his children. But also to the sea or how the hazy autumn light invaded his garden.
I think it was Schopenhauer who claimed that those books are the best that are about nothing. Isn’t it actually the most beautiful and the most difficult thing to write about nothing? Then only style can save the author. Perhaps Bernhard Dewulf was at his best when he had no subject.
At the same time, the bundles of miniatures – or really ‘bundle’ is not a good word, which assumes that he has simply swept his stories together – are put together much more brilliantly than one would say. These are compositions where an associative and melodic jump from one observation or thought to another. The recognisability, the autobiographical, could be deceptive. If you look closely, you can see that many of his impressions have appeared to his inner eye. They come from the imagination.
IN seasons have happiness and affection, and that process was underway late days already in full swing and giving way to melancholy. But the way in which Dewulf shows himself vulnerable has remained. ‘You are an open wound’, an American friend tells him. “Don’t go around like that anymore.”
He no longer does that now.
Time goes. Mouse. The author’s house is getting emptier and emptier, his children are grown up. He talks sympathetically to his friends about ‘the old days’. A mirror is held up to him. He looks at the portrait of his beloved mother, who died young, on his desk. He listens to the silence. He watches his nights. His knuckles crack.
Yet, chronically melancholic, he refuses to call himself ill. ‘I almost consider myself the healthiest person I know. And I like other healthy people, that is, they shine new spring light on their days and they split. For a moment we no longer know where we exist, in the deadly light of day. Because we are made of nuclear fuel.’
Death is never more than a sentence away. ‘I don’t lie awake from death, but from the next day’, he concludes in his winter. seasons. It is tragic to realize that there is no next day for Bernard Dewulf, but in his work he and death are always present, like the light or the news or drizzle. “I know he’s there. Just like me. We’re there together. If I wasn’t there, he wouldn’t be there either. We were born at the same time. He’s the same age as me, but no age.”
Bernard Dewulf: Seasons. AtlasContact; 240 pages; €21.99.