Elias or the Struggle with the Nightingales
Lost dreams, nostalgia and the fear of life
When Maurice Gilliams won the Grand Prize for Letters in 1980, many a newspaper journalist was at a loss: as far as the press was concerned Gilliams had always been ‘the Great Unknown’ of Dutch-language literature. But in the literary world itself Gilliams’s work was considered not only an inside tip but also a milestone in the development of the novelist’s art. In 1936 Gilliams’s Elias of het gevecht met de nachtegalen had ushered in a new, strongly suggestive way of writing and a novelistic structure based on the sonata. The critics called the book a ‘melting pot of genres’: Gilliams’s prose is close to poetry and driven by what he himself called ‘an essayistic motivation’.
In Gilliams’s work description has been supplanted by analysis and that analysis extends to the process of remembering, sensory perception and writing itself.
And all the while, Elias can be read as an account of the months a twelve-year-old boy spends on a country estate with his parents, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces. For the eponymous hero the house in which they are gathered, called ‘the chateau’ throughout Gilliams’s book, is similar to the aquarium in which his eccentric Aunt Henriette has imprisoned an ant colony: a closer examination of that little world reveals a universe in which each and everyone is after each others’ blood. At the same time, however, this house also seems like a bastion against the destruction and alienation of personal identity. In a series of fascinating scenes Gilliams evokes the vulnerable position of a boy growing up amongst older people in a world shaped by lost dreams, nostalgia and the fear of life. Elias perceives that world ‘in the lucidity of a dream’. In regard to Elias, Gilliams once said: ‘The atmosphere on that estate was really like that. I try to convey precisely what I experienced.’ That precision is what makes Elias such a masterpiece.
In the past the novel has often been compared to both Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge and Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Nowadays one might be more inclined to think of Danilo Kiš’s Rani Yadi. Gilliams has been a major influence for a number of Dutch and Flemish authors-amongst them Charlotte Mutsaers and Leo Pleysier-but his work remains unique in Dutch literature. His diaries, which were published in his lifetime, also reveal that Gilliams (1900-1982) was one of the first writers in Flanders or the Netherlands to obsessively address the question ‘what is writing?’