A collection of philosophical travel stories by a prominent Flemish writer and poet
This new collection by Flemish writer and poet Stefan Hertmans is called Steden: simple but forceful. The title betrays both the passion with which the writer tries to uncover the meaning behind the face of each city he visits, as well as the intellectual power that lies at the heart of these stories. A constant aid in Hertmans’s travels to such cities as Dresden, Vienna and Trieste is world literature.
In Vienna he walks in Kafka’s footsteps, in Trieste he encounters Svevo, Joyce and Winckelmann, in the reconstructed centre of Dresden he meets the hero of one of Harry Mulisch’s novels. The author of a substantial oeuvre, Hertmans is upholding the Renaissance tradition of the Grand Tour. For all his erudition and cultural perceptiveness, Hertmans still concludes that the primary formative factor in his cities has been the lives of their citizens. ‘We must never forget that the concept of a city is deeply humanitarian. It is where the most advanced form of human communication is to be found.’
The result is a beautiful balance between intellectual understanding and personal impressions. Hertmans either regrets his loneliness in those distant cities or else he meets a woman and falls in love and at such moments the body of his lover becomes the embodiment of the city. Hertmans has an eye and ear for detail. The writer’s travels end in his hometown: Ghent. Even there Hertmans goes on observing. ‘Home is where the world becomes invisible,’ he writes. It is only by studying old photos of Ghent that he discovers what years of familiarity have blinded him to. As the writer approaches the end of his journey the cities melt together and reflect one another in his mind. His great strength is his ability to keep his eyes open despite this and surprise himself by the realisation: ‘Travelling often turns out to be a process of finding what you weren’t looking for.’