from the Introduction:
The Flaxfield (De Vlaschaard) is the most important novel written by the Flemish author Stijn Streuvels (the pen name of Frank Lateur), who lived from 1871 to 1969. Streuvels’ extraordinarily long life and prolific writings assured him a leading place in the Flemish cultural revival that had begun in the 1890s under the inspired hand of his uncle, the poet Guido Gezelle (1830–99). The Flemish movement itself paralleled similar but better-known language-defined renascences, such as those in Ireland and Provence. Streuvels’ novel of 1907 can surely be called a forgotten classic of world literature, even as its author has become largely forgotten beyond the limits of the Low Countries. This, however, was not always the case.…He began writing in the late 1890s, contributing to the Flemish nationalist periodical Van Nu en Straks. After the success of his first book, Lenteleven, a collection of short stories, he devoted himself entirely to literary efforts, publishing during the next four decades at least one book a year.…His national and international fame reached its peak in the period between the two world wars, when his work was translated into French, German, Italian, and Russian, among other languages. Rosa Luxemburg counted The Flaxfield as one of her favorite novels.
The Flaxfield is built around the rhythm of the seasons, which in turn dictate the sowing, growing, flowering, and harvesting of the flax that is reflected in the novel’s four narrative divisions. The action—more a symphonic, at times discordant unfolding—follows the course of the agricultural year in rural Flanders and the murderous rivalry that emerges between the aging farmer Vermeulen, desperately hanging on to his patria potestas, and his ever more assertive son, Louis, as they contend over the cultivation of their most profitable and prestigious crop. Threaded through the narrative is Louis’ growing sexual awareness and his attachment to the girl Schellebelle, one of the maids resident at the farm.
The Flaxfield is more than just a novel about the conflict of generations and erotic awakening or an allegorical meditation on the eternal theme of growth and decay—Streuvels was far too keen an observer of the common people and the land around him for that. In the most palpable sense, The Flaxfield is an amazingly accurate record of life in rural Flanders at the turn of the century, replete with folktales and folksongs now all but lost.
Streuvels’ almost photographic observation; his rendering of regional speech; his detailed charting of Vermeulen’s and Louis’ emotions; his explosive lyricism, which lends mythopoeic resonance to uneventful lives in an obscure corner of a then relatively backward country—this is the mix of ingredients that makes The Flaxfield the wonderfully unique novel that it is.
André Lefevere and Peter Glassgold
And so it seemed that something had gone into eclipse around her when Louis went away. But no sooner did the group realize that they were alone than the laughter and shouting rose up louder along the whole line, one woman striking up the first flax song in a wavering voice that sounded like a lament over the field:
A young knight would awandering go…
The new girls listened with close attention, in fear of losing a single word of the tale, which they took as a true happening. The long-winded story unfolded over an endless series of stanzas, punctuated by an ever-recurring dirgelike refrain. The knight, in quest of love and finding it nowhere, went roaming in the fields, and there a maiden was working amid “the early flax.” He was enchanted at once by the fresh, lovely girl and was so delighted with her beauty that he promised her riches, gold, and money for her favors. He implored her: Let him just rest beside her in the early flax for one short hour. To which the girl, arch and scornful, would say “nay” and “nay” again after each new promise and appeal.
Schellebelle saw the girl sitting there as plainly as if it were she herself, and she knew as well the gentleman who came asking for her.
O gallant knight so fair and fine
The courtly knight promised her in succession: a gown of rich satin, a comb of reddish gold, slippers of pure crystal….
But cool and roguish came the reply:
You tempt me not, O noble sir,
The song went on, telling of ever-renewed advances and harsher rebuffs, until the knight left off at last in sorrow, and with his farewell a stern moral was thrown at his back, to ring in his ears for a long time to come:
Beware, you maidens, young men of grief
Schellebelle was enchanted, pleasure and excitement shining in her eyes. How good to sit here and listen! Who was going to sing another one? It was not long before a piercing voice rose up at the other end of the line, and a woman sang something of the same kind but heartier and more robust in tempo. The seducer did not fare any better, the maiden he spoke to cracking right back at him:
O my good baron, you fret so in vain.
It continued the whole morning, everyone singing her song—those of the women as old as the hills, while the girls sang newly learned lyrics of wooing and love. There were rhymed stories of murder, misfortune, or cruel happenings that had taken place in the vicinity, and other, mischievous things in a light tripping measure, burlesques and amorous ballads.
The days passed, and still no maybranch was placed amid Vermeulen’s flax.
Buyers and agents came and offered money, but the farmer, always used to having the best crop and the highest price, had to make them clear off again and again. He remained obstinate….Even at the last moment, he still would not admit being wrong and kept blindly claiming his flax was worth more than any other. He did so to save face with Barbele and Louis, acting as if he were right and had done well to locate the flaxfield on the heights. But for all that bluff, no deal was made.
“I’d still be more reasonable,” his wife insisted. “You even know yourself you are asking too much.”
But the farmer flared up, repeating the changeless apothegm he habitually used to brush off any line of reasoning: “What do you know about it? I’m the farmer, I sell the crops. You mind the butter and milk.”
Louis stood by, leaning his shoulder against the chimney piece and grinning foolishly, like a big clod who couldn’t care less if the flax was sold or not. He watched his father’s senseless behavior and kept quiet. “Sold or not,” he thought, “it’ll have to be harvested anyhow, and that’s the main thing.” He felt, in fact, inclined to give in to his father’s stubbornness.
“We can keep in the loft for a year,” he mused, “and take it to the Lys ourselves, and swingle it at home in the winter.” And with his next word he asked, carelessly and without any design, simply because there was an opportunity:
“When can we start, Father?”
“It can stand some more sun for sure,” Vermeulen claimed. “If it only could get a good rain, it’d still grow another span…”
“If the rain just doesn’t spoil it, Father.”
The farmer replied with a surly growl. A jerk of his shoulders, and that was the end of it. Louis found it intolerable that his mouth clamped shut again, like an oven door, and that you had to put up with it until the mouth opened again of its own accord. Elsewhere the harvesters were working without delay; they had been gathering and setting up the hedgerows so long and so diligently that whole lots lay shorn and bare, ready for the harvest home celebration. In some places, it was already long past. The poor flax had been hackled in the fields and sat in the retting pits, or having already been hauled out, lay drying in the meadows. The stench of the retting hung in the air, like a plague affecting the whole region.