The Flemish landscape looks verdant, the white-fenced houses in the distance appearing for a moment, then staying behind, their image becoming blurred as drops of rain begin to beat on the window. It’s Friday, early evening, and I’m on the train from Brussels to Bruges to attend an event at the Bruges Literary Festival, Brutaal. Organized by Kaap Creative Compass and the city of Bruges, the newborn festival has hosted events with more than fifty writers from Belgium and abroad. It’s a ten-day festival and tonight is the night of the seven deadly sins. The following authors: Tim Parks, Bart Moeyaert, Eimear McBride, Hamar Peeters, Mira Petcu, Alicja Gescinska and Aleksandr Skorobogatov will each read a new story depicting a character falling in sin.
At the train station I have to run to the bus stop and find shelter, squeeze myself into the crowd. It’s pouring now. After a few minutes bus 12 arrives and I get on, stumble to my seat as the bus moves forward. Most of us are wet. I ask for some directions and the lady sitting next to me is so friendly. Her clothes are soaked, her hair’s sticking to her face, yet she wants to get off the bus with me and make sure I find my way. I thank her, reassure her it’s not necessary, then get off at the Markt, the main square.
Under the portico at Historium, I wait for a while and gaze at the monument in the middle of the square, the beautiful red facades of the old buildings, the flags on their poles. I see a student, then another one riding their bicycles on the cobblestone street. Delijn buses trundle, splashing water onto the sidewalks. The clouds begin to drift away and the rain becomes a drizzle, then stops.
The first writer I meet is Bart Moeyaert. A native of Bruges, he’s delighted to be here tonight. “For me it’s like going back to my childhood and teenage years,” he says. “I left when I was twenty one. So many fond memories come back to me when I’m here. I have the feeling of being that young boy again.”
He’s wearing a thin, mauve pullover and grey trousers. Behind his tortoiseshell glasses, he looks at me, pauses a moment before answering each question. Many of my Belgian friends like him, his down-to-earth personality, and I can see why. On our way to this room, back-stage engineers have told him how much they like his work and he’s stopped to shake their hands, thank them and chat with them.
When he was younger, he went to Brussels to study and lived there for three years.
“I wanted to see the world,” he says. “I lived near Gare du Midi and there were all these neon lights everywhere. To me that was the door to the big wide world.”
We laugh. Now he lives in Antwerp but he enjoys thinking back to those days. He recounts he used to go to the Falstaff café near La Bourse and write in his journal. “People sitting next to me would peer over my shoulder and ask what I was writing about. They were curious and friendly. I really liked that.”
We only have a few more minutes and I ask him how he feels about this evening. “It’s an honor to be here and be part of this festival on its first year,” he says. “I hope there will be many more.”
Tim Parks was born in Manchester but has lived in Italy for more than twenty years. We’re seated at the table in the foyer of Bruge’s Stadsschouwburg, a beautiful 1869 theater building in the center of town. I ask him how he feels about the story he was commissioned to write for tonight.
“I usually don’t like to write on commission,” he says. “There’s something that doesn’t feel organic about it. But then I thought, Maybe I can find an angle, a topic that fits with an idea that I have in mind. And that’s why I chose Envy.”
Under the dimmed light of the room, he brings his glass of beer to his lips, smiles over it.
“A man goes to a Buddhist meditation retreat with his wife. They both want to heal after she’s cheated on him but at the retreat he experiences all these strange feelings inside him, especially when he sees other women. I knew I had something there. Don’t you think?”
When asked if he writes a lot of short stories he says these days he spends his time teaching translation at the University of Milan and writing essays for the New York Review of Books.
“The next one will be about George Elliot,” he says. “The next months that’s what I’m going to be reading and writing about.”
We talk about the writers he’s fond of and he mentions Natalia Ginzburg, Italo Calvino, Roberto Calasso, W.G. Sebald. I mention that I’ve listened to his reading of Peter Stamm’s story, Sweet Dreams, for the New Yorker Podcast, and he seems pleased. Stamm is one author he reveres, among other things for his creativity.
“Creativity is not about creating a new, fancy form. Creativity is about creating something that can make the reader feel an experience. If the reader is able to feel first-hand the world of the author, that’s an amazing achievement. And that’s what Stamm does.”
I shake Mr. Parks hand, thank him for his time and wish him a safe trip back to Italy.