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Of all the famous roads we know in Flanders, from the Oude Kwaremont and Koppenberg to the more obscure cobbled streets like Haaghoek or Steenbeekdries, there is always the Kapelmuur at Geraardsbergen to celebrate; but there’s no De Kapellekensbaan on anyone’s list of famous Flemish byways—cobbled or otherwise.
“De Kapellekensbaan” (translated as “Chapel Road”) was for a long time the only novel by Flemish writer Louis Paul Boon to be translated into English; it’s considered by many to be the pinnacle of modern Belgian literature. While Hugo Claus is undeniably the best-known, and most prolific modern author from Belgium, Boon’s “Chapel Road” may be the country’s most important postwar novel.
Boon was born in 1912 in the town of Aalst, near Brussels, and the hometown of modern cycling phenom Remco Evenepoel. Boon grew up in a working-class home. His father painted houses and his mother ran a small hardware store. Boon’s early talent as an artist saw him studying at a local fine arts school before his father became ill and the son had to turn in his oils for house and automobile paint to help the family manage financially.
Boon married in 1936 and, after a child was born, he worked in a brewery to keep his young family afloat while getting some of his freelance writings published. In World War II, Boon was deployed in the May 1940 Battle of Belgium at the Albert Canal, fighting and being taken prisoner by the Nazis. Boon was captured on the first day of fighting—though he was freed within the year and returned home to a grim and occupied Aalst.
Boon’s writings were unremarkable at first, exploring themes of industrialization and the plight of the working class. While he showed some of his later panache with oddball characters and unconventional narratives, his early work did not indicate the kind of genius he would develop.
Boon’s masterpiece, “Chapel Road,” is an outlier in many ways. The narrative lines that he allows for include the story’s main character, a young girl named Ondine, growing up in the roughhewn, industrial streets of Aalst. Ondine’s coming of age is interspersed with Boon’s riffing on the medieval allegories involving Reynard the Fox and a sort of post-modern experimentation, in which Boon and a group of his raucous and eccentric friends discuss how he should write the story of Ondine within the chapters of the book itself. It is a combination of his influence by writers like Joyce, Céline and Dos Passos; his journalistic background; and his visual arts background. He thus turned the typical novel approach into an amalgam of stories, including an infusion of article clippings and a liberal use of sentence structure with little capitalization.
Boon’s departure from the typical approach to a bound novel made “Chapel Road” a curiosity in some ways, but ultimately the timeless nature and depth of humanity within his storytelling elevates this novel to masterpiece status. His connection to the “common folk” of Flanders, his roots in Aalst and his ability to communicate the timeless notion of the human condition reflect a parallel allegory of the rise and fall of socialism in Flanders.
Boon wrote in Flemish, which may have obscured his brilliance, and as a result he is little known outside of Belgium. An enigmatic man, he became a regular of prime-time Belgian television and the 1960s Belgian quiz show “It’s just a word,” for which Boon and other Belgian writers crafted puns and word games. His television appearances fueled his fame among the Flemish.
Boon’s name was often mentioned in Nobel Prize for Literature conversation, and there is some speculation that he was extended an invitation to the Swedish embassy in the late ’70s, but he never received the prize and he died of a heart attack at his writing desk at age 67.