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The Path of Life   By: (1871-1969)

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Translated From The West Flemish By



In introducing this new writer to the English speaking public, I may be permitted to give a few particulars of himself and his life. Stijn Streuvels is accepted not only in Belgium, but also in Holland as the most distinguished Low Dutch author of our time: his vogue, in fact, is even greater in the North Netherlands than in the southern kingdom. And I will go further and say that I know no greater living writer of imaginative prose in any land or any language. His medium is the West Flemish dialect, which is spoken by perhaps a million people inhabiting the stretch of country that forms the province of West Flanders and is comprised within the irregular triangle outlined by the North Sea on the west, the French frontier of Flanders on the south and a line drawn at one third of the distance between Bruges and Ghent on the east. In addition to Bruges and Ostend, this province of West Flanders includes such towns as Poperinghe, Ypres and Courtrai; and so subtly subdivided is the West Flemish dialect that there are words which a man of Bruges will use to a man of Poperinghe and not be understood.

It is one of the most interesting dialects known to me, containing numbers of mighty mediaeval words which survive in daily use; and it is one of the richest: rich especially and this is not usual in dialects in words expressive of human characteristics and of physical sensations.

Thus there is a word to describe a man who is not so much a poor wretch, un misérable , as what Tom Hood loved to call "a hapless wight:" one who is poor and wretched and outcast and out of work, not through any fault of his own, through idleness or fecklessness, but through sheer ill luck. There is a word to describe what we feel when we hear the tearing of silk or the ripping of calico, a word expressing that sense of angry irritation which gives a man a gnawing in the muscles of the arms, a word that tells what we really feel in our hair when we pretend that it "stands on end." It is a sturdy, manly dialect, moreover, spoken by a fine, upstanding race of "chaps," "fellows," "mates," "wives," and "women persons," for your Fleming rarely talks of "men" or "women." It is also a very beautiful dialect, having many words that possess a charm all their own. Thus monkelen , the West Flemish for the verb "to smile," is prettier and has an archer sound than its Dutch equivalent, glimlachen . And it is a dialect of sufficient importance to boast a special dictionary ( Westvlaamsch Idiotikon , by the Rev. L. L. De Bo: Bruges, 1873) of 1,488 small quarto pages, set in double column.

In translating Streuvels' sketches, I have given a close rendering: to use a homely phrase, their flavour is very near the knuckle; and I have been anxious to lose no more of it than must inevitably be lost through the mere act of translation. I hope that I may be forgiven for one or two phrases, which, though not existing, so far as I am aware, in any country or district where the English tongue is spoken, are not entirely foreign to the genius of that tongue. Here and there, but only where necessary, I have added an explanatory foot note.

For those interested in such matters, I may say that Stijn Streuvels' real name is Frank Lateur. He is a nephew of Guido Gezelle, the poet priest, whose statue graces the public square at Courtrai, unless indeed by this time those shining apostles of civilization, the Germans, have destroyed it. Until ten years ago, when he began to come into his own, he lived at Avelghem, in the south east corner of West Flanders, hard by Courtrai and the River Lys, and there baked bread for the peasant fellows and peasant wives. For you must know that this foremost writer of the Netherlands was once a baker and stood daily at sunrise, bare chested, before his glowing oven, drawing bread for the folk of his village... Continue reading book >>

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