Every year, the VUB’s Centre for Literary and Intermedial Crossings (CLIC) organises a study day on campus to showcase its research to students and colleagues. This year the focus was on Brussels, and how the city has been imagined in fiction, street poetry, music videos and other genres in different language areas and artistic currents from the 18th century to the present. The full-day event was also an opportunity to discuss the development of an English-language sequel to the book Brussel Schrijven/Écrire Bruxelles (ed D. Acke & E. Bekers, VUB Press 2016). The day included presentations and discussions on Brussels in literature from wide-ranging perspectives, addressing various formal and thematic elements.

Patrick McGuinness: “Belgian writing is part of a balanced diet of literature”

One of the highlights of the day was the keynote lecture by Patrick McGuinness, Writer in Residence at CLIC, and from the University of Oxford, who only a few days before received a prestigious Espiègle Literary Prize from the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles [ed. Espiègle du rayonnement des lettres belges (Prix Leo Beeckman)]. The recently renamed Espiègles awards were set up by the Belgian government in 1924 and are handed out to Belgian authors of various genres, including budding authors, general literature, youth literature, comic books, and writers in regional language. This year, nine authors were presented with an ‘Espiègle’; Patrick McGuinness received one for his contribution to the international profile of Belgian literature. The VUB International Relations Office sat down with him for a brief chat.

VUB International Relations Office (IRMO): How do you feel about winning the prize for ‘Contribution to Belgian literature’? Do you see yourself as a Belgian author?

Patrick McGuinness (PM):My mother is Belgian, and I grew up in Bouillon, so I think I can safely say that although I’m only half Belgian, I am 100% delighted with this award. It was fabulous to receive it. And yes, I do see myself as a Belgian writer. My partner and family are Welsh and Welsh-speaking, so I am multilingual, multicultural. I think of the phrase by Émile Verhaeren, “tout chez nous est en contraste”, and this to me is what makes Belgium Belgium.”

IRMO: What brought you to VUB, to be CLIC’s keynote speaker and what will you focus on?

PM: “Michael Rosenfeld [ed. postdoctoral researcher in French literature at VUB] invited me. We met just over 2 years ago at a conference and hit it off, so when this year’s CLIC day looked at urban writing, Michael thought of me and invited me as the keynote speaker. My focus will not be the usual ‘oh Baudelaire was here, and this is what he thought of Brussels’. I want to focus on Brussels in the good and bad sense. I want to examine why it has often been left out of the canon of cities, so I want to look at it as a modernist city and talk about two poets in particular whom I know. I want to look at the place Brussels has in literature, art and culture.”

IRMO: How do you see Brussels and its identity?

PM: “Belgium is often packaged as a Flemish terroir, focussing on cities such as Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges. The representation of Flemish people is strong in literature. Even French-speaking writers like Maeterlinck or Rodenbach used it to perpetuate this image of Flanders, but Brussels got left out. It resulted in the negative view of Brussels conveyed by visiting French authors like Baudelaire. What you’ll notice across Brussels are all the plaques that indicate the people who ‘passed through’, or briefly stayed here in so-called exile. It gives Brussels that feel of a ‘through-ness’ kind of place, akin to the network of train stations that exist often underground in the city. It’s a city that has changed in outlook but also in character, and now has become very international. A pity in a way, because that quintessential ‘Brussels-ness’ is maybe disappearing.”

IRMO: You are Writer in Residence at VUB, so a workshop and guest lecture are on the cards. Tell us more?

PM: “Yes, I’m giving a creative writing workshop for PhDs, and then a guest lecture, indeed. The creative writing workshop was set up by CLIC’s PhD students themselves, and I’ll be asking them to do an exercise, namely write poems, prose, etc. based on Edward Hopper’s paintings. My guest lecture will look at the city, poets like Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Auden. Professor Bekers said it would be part of the courses ‘Literatuur, Samenleving en de Stad’ and ‘Literature, Society and the City’ for the 2nd year Bachelor’s students from the Dutch and the English-taught programmes ‘Taal-en Letterkunde’ and ‘Linguistics and Literary Studies’, so some 60 students in all.”

IRMO: You won the award from the Wallonia-Brussels Federation for your academic work as well as your own writing. What does your research at the University of Oxford look at?

PM: “I teach comparative literature courses at graduate level for small groups of students, but I also do lectures for larger groups on 20th and 19th Century French and English poetry and fiction, and of course I teach Belgian literature as well, including works on Brussels, and not just in French, but also for instance Paul Van Ostaijen’s work. I love incorporating Belgian writings; I see it as part of a balanced diet of literature.”

>>More on Patrick’s work can be found on his website.

CLIC Research Group

The Centre for Literary and Intermedial Crossings, which organises the annual CLIC day, was recently reorganised by integrating an additional focus on literary translation and narrative journalism. After a rigorous application process, CLIC was fortunate enough to be admitted into the category of ‘large research groups’ that VUB has selected to become financially more robust and institutionally more independent, enabling it to expand its research activities and project applications.

CLIC’s focus is on medial, generic and spatial transfers and entanglements across a wide range of discourses, modalities and methodologies. The researchers look at a wide range of topics: intra-, inter-, and transmedial phenomena, hybridisation, cross-cultural exchange, contact zones, cross-border movements, intercultural communications, multilingualism, transnationality, cultural imagery, topographies, etc. Interdisciplinarity is key for the group, which looks across literatures, cultures, languages, genres and media, hence the word ‘crossings’ as the last ‘c’ in CLIC. And the research is done along three pillars: media, genre and space.

  • With media the focus is on how literature, theatre, and performance interact in intermedial ways, by incorporating one medium into the other (e.g. the use of images in poetry or videos in theatre performance). CLIC hosts the Émile Lorand Chair in Intermediality and each year an internationally renowned expert joins forces with the CLIC team for a semester of research activities.
  • Genre, or the classification of literature and other artistic media based on stylistic and structural features, depends on the socio-cultural, but also the political and economic contexts. As this directly influences the work of artists and translators, the manifold forms and functions of generic change are particularly relevant to CLIC researchers specialised in literature, literary translation and narrative journalism alike.
  • Space centres on the fictional topographies and theatrical scenographies that artists imagine, with a special interest in the increasingly multicultural, transnational, and plurilingual cityscapes of (post)modernism and in the multidirectional crossings in postcolonial contact zones.

CLIC’s research is also represented in the Journal for Literary and Intermedial Crossings (JLIC), which is edited by CLIC members and internationally peer-reviewed. JLIC aims to offer an open access publication platform to researchers from various fields engaging with the study of hybrid literary, cultural and/or intermedial phenomena.

The annual CLIC days always focus on one of the pillars. The 2023 edition focused on ‘space’ by looking at Brussels. CLIC members and their international colleagues presented Brussels in a variety of genres and media, from Francophone and Anglophone African novels, over Laurence Sterne’s 18th century sentimental imagination, to the contemporary music videos of Stromae and Angèle. Brussels was addressed in various guises, appearing as Europe’s political capital in Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt, as a concatenation of railway catacombs in the poetical imagination of Patrick McGuinness, and as a literal and figurative urban canvas for street poet Timotéo Sergoï. These and other creative explorations of Brussels will undoubtedly result in another fascinating CLIC book on Brussels in literature. The upcoming CLIC research days will have the following topics:

  • 2024, ‘Multilingualism and translation in new world literatures’
  • 2025, ‘Literary journalism’
  • 2026, ‘The politics of intermedial connectivity’.

>>Keep an eye on the CLIC website for the latest events, ongoing activities and publications of the Centre for Literary and Intermedial Crossings.