Interview with Bob Van Laerhoven, winner of the 2007 Knack Hercule Poirot Prize, for his mystery novel, Baudelaire’s Revenge
By: Anna Faktorovich
Bob Van Laerhoven: Flemish author of more than 30 books, available in three languages: Dutch, French, and English. Currently published in The Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and France. Winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for the best crime novel of the year 2007 with De Wraak van Baudelaire (Baudelaire’s Revenge).
Baudelaire’s Revenge: It is 1870, and Paris is in turmoil. As the social and political turbulence of the Franco-Prussian War roils the city, workers starve to death while aristocrats seek refuge in orgies and seances. The Parisians are trapped like rats in their beautiful city but a series of gruesome murders captures their fascination and distracts them from the realities of war. The killer leaves lines from the recently deceased Charles Baudelaire’s controversial anthology Les Fleurs du Mal on each corpse, written in the poet’s exact handwriting. Commissioner Lefevre, a lover of poetry and a veteran of the Algerian war, is on the case, and his investigation is a thrilling, intoxicating journey into the sinister side of human nature, bringing to mind the brooding and tense atmosphere of Patrick Susskind’s Perfume. Did Baudelaire rise from the grave? Did he truly die in the first place? The plot dramatically appears to extend as far as the court of the Emperor Napoleon III. A vivid, intelligent, and intense historical crime novel that offers up some shocking revelations about sexual mores in 19th century France, this superb mystery illuminates the shadow life of one of the greatest names in poetry.
Faktorovich: On your blog, http://www.bobvanlaerhoven.be/en, you mention a GoodReads review you got that said you wrote in a classical style, but that the sexual content was filthy. You discuss in your posted reply that Baudelaire, the poet who is featured in the title of the book, was a sexual pervert and that, as a writer of a novel which portrays Baudelaire, you had to be true to sexual realities. Can you talk a bit more about the role sex plays in classical literature (Lolita), modern TV dramas (Oz), and modern award-winning mystery and romance novels like your own, Baudelaire’s Revenge? If sex sells and if it wins awards, should criticism of obscenity be disregarded as archaic?
Laerhoven: First of all, criticism of obscenity is not archaic, it is a precious cultural reflex of mankind that hopefully will stay with us and I applaud it. But what precisely is obscenity? Many people narrow the definition down to sex. Too narrow, in my view. Obscenity is the misuse of power in every situation imaginable. Sexual obscenity is the unfair mixture of sex and power – an obscene person being someone who has the means to force sex upon another – by employing physical strength, money, or any other control resource – and indulges in that situation. But if two consenting – and hopefully loving – partners act sexually in a manner which others view as depraved, I don’t see the obscenity per se. It’s possible I wouldn’t like it, but I would not rally against it and brand it as “obscene.”
Second, I think literature gives us the tools to explore, in a work of imagination – the imagination literature always has been used as a comment on reality – the causes of human behavior, be it obscenity or something else. That is a difficult and often misunderstood mission. In order to be able to write some of the scenes in Baudelaire’s Revenge, I had to overcome my own fear, social restraints and even revulsion. In the novel, I’d set out to show the roots of The Flowers Of Evil and it took all the writing courage I had to attain that goal. Sometimes people tend to forget Baudelaire’s Revenge is a historical novel about a tragic poet who, at the end of his life, suffered from delusions (sexual and others) as a result of the syphilis – the AIDS of the 19th century – he had contracted. When someone reads Baudelaire’s Revenge, she or he should know, or understand, that the mores of 19th-century’s France were different from modern day ethics. Readers of this interview who want to learn more about that subject may read my blog text “The sexual urges of the doomed poet”: http://www.bobvanlaerhoven.be/en – text: 7.08.2014
Third. Sex sells, but what kind of sex and why? The hypocritical “soft hardcore” sex of the appallingly badly written Fifty Shades of Grey or the deceptive “aesthetic cloak” Nabokov draped around his pedophilic protagonist Humbert Humbert and his 12-year-old stepdaughter Lolita, who allegedly had “seduced” him one morning? Two sexually charged bestsellers, worlds apart. It’s the purpose of the sexual content that defines a novel. Nabokov himself suffered a lot from the harsh reactions his novel Lolita generated in 1955 and stated many times in interviews that Lolita contained a “highly moral affair.” Sadly enough, his point of view got more or less lost in the explosive rise of the mass media at that time, and as a result, Lolita had a negative result on popular culture, seemingly whitewashing the eroticizing of young girls. I wouldn’t be pleased if Baudelaire’s Revenge would suffer the same fate, therefore I tirelessly try to explain what the novel is about. For instance: there is a delusional scene of incest – without Charles Baudelaire and his “presumed” daughter knowing of each other’s blood tie – this is in Baudelaire’s Revenge, which is written down by a woman in the last throes of syphilis, which produces hallucinations. As a reader, you don’t know if the scene is real or imagined by this tragically sick and distorted woman. Moreover, in the end, in spite of the circumstances, it is not even a sexual scene, but a sad evocation of powerless debauchery, an intense and squirm-inducing rendering of the ultimate perdition of an artist who so desperately wanted to satisfy his insatiable ego that every moral value in himself crumbled…
Faktorovich: You’ve posted an audio of your reading of the first few pages of your novel on SoundCloud, advertising it as a unique reading by an author with a heavy Belgium or Dutch accent. You deliver on this with a beautiful accent that sounds like a mixture of the French and the Spanish accents. Can you explain how the Belgium/ Dutch accent differs from the French one? Are there political tensions in Belgium regarding the use of “standard” French?
Laerhoven: Aha, blush blush, thank you for the – in my eyes, largely unmerited – compliment on my reading! May I humbly point out that Dutch and French are very different languages, and not just “accents”? Moreover, my mother tongue is not Dutch, but Flemish, which is not entirely the same as Dutch, although Flemish and Holland people understand each other well. For being such a small country, Belgium is very complicated. Flanders, the northern part where I live, is populated by Flemish people. In Wallonia, the southern part, people speak French. In France, this Walloon French isn’t considered as “standard” French, but it is understood, just like Flemish is understood by the Dutch people and vice versa. There are a lot of political tensions in Belgium, but not regarding the use of “standard French”. Walloons and Flemings are, at least for the moment, not exactly living in harmony. I deplore that fact. Living in a country harboring two different languages and cultures should be enriching, not dividing. Two novels of mine, Baudelaire’s Revenge and Alejandro’s Lie have been translated into French and are being widely read in Wallonia, the French speaking parts of Canada and France. As a result, my French has greatly improved in the last years and I like that interaction between cultures. We Flemish, while living on the crossroads between “northern” and “southern” cultures – that’s the reason for my “mixture of French and Spanish accents” – have the opportunity to absorb the best of both worlds… So, let’s do that and learn from each other… It should be the same in the US: all the cultural wealth that is to be gained by interacting with Blacks, Hispanics, and the vast array of home countries from which white people emigrated during the emergence of the United States, should be treasured. Sadly enough, not everyone over here and over there in your country are of the same opinion…
Faktorovich: Also, are audio and video versions of novels more important for today’s audiences than they have been in decades past, and are they more important in making a sale to an American audience, as opposed to a Belgium one.
Laerhoven: The hardcover version of Baudelaire’s Revenge being published in April of this year and the paperback version slanted for the beginning of 2015, I don’t as yet know if audio or video versions are more important in the US. In Belgium, audio versions of novels are primarily produced for visually limited people. However, a more broad interest for audio versions is slowly growing. I guess, in the States, the situation will be more or less the same, although I noticed already that e-books are much more important in your market than in Europe.
Faktorovich: On ShelfPleasure, you answered a question regarding your favorite reading spot with the following picture and by saying: “A bit of an untraditional reading spot, but then untraditional is my middle name!” Do you seriously enjoy reading while you’re sitting on a stationary horse backwards? What if it starts moving? Can you read sitting on a horse backwards, while it’s galloping? You mention in an interview that you have three horses of your own that you use for working out. Do you plan on sticking to this exercise across the coming decades? Is this a habit you’ve had since you were little, or recently picked up?
Laerhoven: Ah, with this question you touch a great reservoir of love for horses in my heart. And yet, strangely enough, it’s only about four years since I connected with these noble creatures, from whom mankind can learn a lot if one doesn’t consider them as “motorcycles on four feet” but spends at least three hours a day in their company, as I do. Their wisdom, entirely different from the ramblings of our brains, unfolds itself only when they love and trust you. As a result of being with them, I have become a lacto-vegetarian. They don’t eat meat. They don’t wage wars. You should see how our “matriarch,” our beloved Bruja, keeps the peace in the herd (in the mean time, we have four horses) – firmly and gently at the same time. I hope to be around my horses until my dying breath. I also pray that no one of our herd dies before me, and that’s the truth. I would be devastated if something happened to them.
The picture on ShelfPleasure was meant as a wink at the “usual” reading places of authors: the sofa or in bed. Of course, I won’t try to read on a galloping horse, seated backwards nor forwards. But my lovely Archimeda, the Arabian purebred in the picture, found the experience of posing very amusing, just like me…
Faktorovich: You’ve posted an interesting book trailer on YouTube for this book, mixing black and white abstract videos of yourself looking into the camera, of shadows wandering cobbled streets, and of archival documents. I guess you’re doing the read-over for the clip, how else did you contribute to making it, or did Pegasus handle most of it? I’m curious how you did it technically as I’ve made a trailer for my own forthcoming novel, and I’d like to add some of the techniques you use to the next trailer I’ll do.
Laerhoven: Actually, it’s Brian Doyle, my esteemed translator who just has finished the English translation of Return to Hiroshima, one of my other novels, who did the voice-over. I find his rather Scottish accent very alluring…The only thing I had to do was to gaze sternly in the camera for a few seconds and that was already stressful enough 🙂 . Luckily, for the rest of the Pegasus-clip, I didn’t have to contribute anything except writing the text for the voice-over. But I’m flattered on behalf of Pegasus Books that you liked the trailer. I’m sorry that I can’t divulge anything about the technical details. I’m a complete layman in that department… I don’t even know where the different video-images came from or how precisely it was produced…
Faktorovich: In an interview with “Reality Redefined” you’ve said that you’re trying to cure yourself of your glum view of humanity that you developed from working as a journalist in war zones. Why try to cure yourself of this view? Why not embrace it as a view that honestly perceives modern humanities, as Hobbes and other philosophers and authors saw it in centuries that have gone by? Is this in part because of the stigma against “depression” in modern society, where dissatisfaction with the sins of humanity is viewed as a mental illness? What do you think about publishers that demand happy endings to novels to avoid depressing readers?
Laerhoven: Maybe I’ve been misunderstood or my grasp of English wasn’t accurate enough to express the nuances I’m feeling. I don’t want to cure myself of my glum view of humanity. But, getting older, I don’t want to suffer from that view as much as I did in the past. I definitely don’t put a stigma on “depression,” on the contrary: those who are the most intelligent and sensitive in this harsh society of ours tend to suffer first from depression. However, depression is a state of mind that not only tortures you mentally but also threatens to suck away your creativity and productivity. I know a lot of depressed people who just walk endless circles in their own mind. So, I want a “distance” between my view on humanity and myself. For myself, I want to be vibrant, creative, and goal-orientated. What is the alternative? To surrender to depression? Not my style. I know that Baudelaire’s Revenge is catalogued mainly as a very dark and somber novel. But it had to be lurid and provocative because it was my goal to explore the deep and even hidden recesses of the human mind. I don’t want the author and the man to be exactly the same person. Mere dissatisfaction with the sins of humanity is indeed not a mental illness. But it is a one-dimensional state of mind, and I would like to be a multi-dimensional thinker… It’s not a cure I’m after, but a broader view….
About the last part of your question. Every reader who is a mature personality knows that happy endings are a construction. There are happy endings in life, but they are temporary. I’m not against happy endings in literature but often I’ve seen them forced upon a good story which belittled its quality for me. I know the public wants them, but I’m stubborn enough to follow my own path.
Faktorovich: In the same interview you said that you’ve “evolved” from writing generic mysteries into writing cross-genre literary mysteries. What are some of the elements that distinguish your new literary mysteries from the generic mysteries you used to write? Are these linguistic, structural, or research-based elements? Do they have to do with the quantity of reflections on philosophy, art and other matters that are not simply the retelling of action and dialogue?
Laerhoven: The characterization of the personages is of course one element, but the biggest and most important for me is style, style, style, when comparing genre with literature. I love (and envy 🙂 ) great literary stylists: Malcolm Lowry, Flaubert, André Baillon, Curzio Malaparte, Kafka, Irene Némirovsky, Josep Pla, and so on. I think style is the largest distinction, followed by structural, research-based elements and the quantity of reflections. I only wrote and published a series of 5 “true” detective-novels with a half-breed Flemish/South-African commissioner and a Flemish female inspector in Brussels in the leading role. Even these “genre thrillers” had a different flair – or so the reviewers over here judged – partly because of the style and of the countries those novels were set in: always in a part of Flanders, but simultaneously also in South-Africa, The Republic of Congo, Algeria, Burma, Israel, and other places I’ve visited myself. The rest of my oeuvre can be catalogued as literature or cross-genre. Over here, in the Low Lands (The Netherlands and Belgium), I’ve always been regarded as “special,” even “exotic.” In the beginning, I asked myself if this was a compliment. Now I assume it is one… 🙂
Faktorovich: The murder in your novel leaves lines from Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, or The Flowers of Evil, written in what looks like the author’s handwriting. Baudelaire and his publisher were prosecuted for this work for breaking public decency laws, similar to Oscar Wilde’s trial, though the charge is less sever here and Baudelaire was only fined. The four lines you repeat in the opening pages of the book that are found on the first victim are from a poem in this collection called, “The Two Good Sisters.” Why didn’t you choose instead one of the six poems that were banned by censors from appearing in this collection, for example the, “The Vampire’s Metamorphoses”? What made you choose the particular lines you used?
Laerhoven: The answer to this one is simple: in the time-slot of Baudelaire’s Revenge, although a very good choice, the example you use – “The Vampire’s Metamorphoses” – wasn’t known to the broad public, except for a few who had been able to read it before censorship moved in. So I tried to be historically correct. Moreover, I wanted “Debauchery and Death are pleasant twins…” to feature in the chosen lines of the poem, because of the nature of the murder that had just happened in the brothel when commissioner Lefèvre barges in…
Faktorovich: You begin Chapter 2 with a description of paintings by Bouguereau in a vestibule. Is it a risk in the modern book market to stop to look at “artsy” details like fine art when readers might expect a death scene or a horrifying incident at the beginning of each chapter of a pop mystery? Do you think that literature is written to stop to ponder about paintings and the tragedies of existence, as opposed to simply to rush with heightened tension towards the next chapter?
Laerhoven: Very interesting question. It is not as much a description of this, at that time, famous painter, Bouguereau, but, in the words of the novel, “a fleeting yet disapproving glance.” There are only a few sentences about the topic. You have been very observant to note them and to wonder why they have been used in that situation. Humans are intricate creatures. They may find themselves in situations reeking of danger, but the mind, that vast universe of thoughts and undercurrents of sensations, impulses and the like, never stops. In my view, literature can grasp and highlight these fleeting thought processes that are like the small, silvery fish you sometimes see in a flash in a pond and then are gone again, like specters underwater. I think literature is the only art that is able to render as exhaustively as humanly possible the endless links of thoughts, emotions and impulses going through our brains. And I find those processes truly mesmerizing. Your example is just one of the many I’ve tried to render in Baudelaire’s Revenge, which according to the Historical Novel Society, “can be read as a mystery but also as a philosophical treatise.”
Faktorovich: Can you share a segment from this novel that you think best represents your literary mystery style, and that you are especially proud of?
Laerhoven: The very first sentence could be an example: “Life and death had taught Commissioner Lefèvre to love poetry and wenches, and in spite of his fifty-three years, he still wasn’t certain which of the two he admired the most.”
But, as a whole, I think that the excerpts from Simone Bourbier’s diary, wherein she exposes her tormented and very possibly insane soul, represent some of my best writing.
Faktorovich: In Chapter 51 you write, “When all was said and done, immortality in the world of letters was such a foolish notion, enough to make a person raise his eyebrows in surprise at so much empty vanity and shrug his shoulders. But Lefèvre remained fascinated nonetheless by people with artistic talent.” Do you feel the same way as Lefèvre about those with ambitions towards literary greatness? Are classics something far in our past, and will we see fewer and fewer classics in the back window as we speed ahead further into modernity?
Laerhoven: Charles Baudelaire was obsessed by literary greatness. He groveled and crawled for the great literati of his time to accept him as one of them. To no avail. His poetry became famous only after his death. He tried to make up for this lack of recognition by his contemporaries via excessive and decadent behavior and dandy-like snobbism. I take pity on him as a man, but as an artist he was a genius. Commissioner Lefèvre, just like me, descended from rather low-class people, and has sufficient “common sense” to see through the vanity of artists, but at the same time he is aesthetically sensitive enough to be fascinated by those who have talent. I think that mostly reflects my own stand in this.
Ah, the classics, a tender subject… I’ve just read the excellent novel The Human Stain wherein Philip Roth, through the character of the black schoolteacher Ernestine Coleman, laments the foolishness of not studying the classics: “Reading the classics is too difficult, therefore it’s the classics that are to blame.” Earlier in this interview, I mentioned the concept of the “one-dimensional.” It will be one of the great challenges of this over-speeding time not to create “one-dimensional” people who think: if I can’t learn it, there is something wrong with it.
Faktorovich: Would you like to comment on anything else connected with this book, upcoming projects, or the writing craft? Thanks for participating in this interview!
Laerhoven: Thanks for having me, it was an engaging conversation. End of September, I’ll submit a second translated novel to Pegasus Books. I think that Return to Hiroshima, set in the nineties in Hiroshima, is, in the genre of the cross-over, one of my best novels. As is becoming my trademark, Return to Hiroshima can be read on multiple levels and paints a hopefully fascinating portrait of the Japanese spirit of “bushido”, the way of the warrior… For those who want to learn more about the book, the reviews in Holland and Belgium have been translated in English on this link: http://www.bobvanlaerhoven.be/en/page/82/terug-naar-hiroshima-return-to-Hiroshima
Return to Hiroshima was among 5 nominees for the Hercule Poirot Prize in 2010, but, having already won the Prize in 2007 with Baudelaire’s Revenge, I knew that this time it wouldn’t happen: no-one has won the Prize twice.