I’ll admit straight up that I’d never heard of Dimitri Verhulst. I’ll also admit that I don’t like to be caught unawares, so I launched into a quick bout of panicked internet research before I cracked open the spine on this one. It turns out that Verhulst is quite the Belgian literary star. He’s won prizes in both Belgium and the Netherlands for his writing – he’s a poet and a short story writer as well as a novelist – and he’s been praised for his unparalleled use of language and his sardonic wit. I was rubbing my hands in glee; this would be a great new find. Well, I can’t say I was impressed – in fact, I was disappointed and irritated.
Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill is a short book; at 145 pages, it’s a novella rather than a novel, and with brief and anecdotal chapters, it’s no more than a lazy afternoon’s read. It’s ostensibly about a widow, the eponymous Madame, a music teacher whose husband has died, and who stays on in their isolated mountain home for twenty lonely years. She passes the time tending to stray dogs and waiting for her cello to be ready – an instrument she’s having made from the wood of the tree from which her terminally-ill husband hung himself. Meanwhile, the village at the foot of the hill is also dying; with barely any women born in each new generation, the surviving men wait for the beautiful Madame Verona to return to society and choose a new lover. When she finally does descend, though, it is only to die; she waits with equanimity in the freezing snow for her final reunion with her beloved husband. Much of the novella focusses not on Madame Verona herself, but on the village below, the eccentricities of its inhabitants, and the decay of rural communities in an increasingly urban time.
It’s a flimsy construct. Madame Verona’s marriage and grief are lightly sketched, and the plot is lacking in tension – we know that her descent from the hill will result in her death, and so the reader isn’t led to hold out any hope for her future or for that of her admirers in the village below. Without any real conflict, then, Verhulst tries to engage his readers’ attention with a series of anecdotes about village life to give Madame Verona’s existence some social context. As a shot at local colour, though, it’s a failure; we hear about the men’s trips to brothels in the city, the difficulties of accessing ATM machines, and the time they elected a cow as Mayor, but it’s not a sympathetic portrayal – the reader isn’t left in any doubt as to why Madame Verona chooses to remain aloof from these people. Neither is it particularly funny; the villagers are one-dimensional caricatures of local ‘types’, people with no emotional depth who couldn’t exist in any other environment. The men are almost single-minded in their obsession with the eventual seduction of the inaccessible widow, and the women are utilitarian figures of fun, whether we’re hearing about Dr Lunette, the unattractive vet-slash-doctor, or Lucy, the sole female of her entire generation, waiting in the bushes to service the desperate villagers ‘with benevolence’. Madame Verona herself, the alleged core of the tale, is a distant and cold figure – her grief is almost dull because we have no sense of her daily life; she waits, Penelope-like, for her cello to be ready, and though we are told how her love and her loss have shaped her life and the lives of others, it’s hard to believe it.
I didn’t find any wit or empathy here, but rather, a series of flat and stereotypical cut-outs, whom I was glad to leave behind. Verhulst doesn’t paint women well, but his men are equally lacking in distinction; wasting their lives away with table-football and trips to the whore-house, they all blend together in a forgettable whole. I don’t think Verhulst meant for his cast to be so unsympathetic and ludicrous, but the mocking tone of the nameless narrator sets up a distance between the reader and the characters that is never fully bridged. Part of the problem, I think, is with the language, which is clumsy and imprecise, and doesn’t read like the work of a poet. Perhaps it’s the fault of the translation, but that seems an easy excuse and rather unfair on the translator, David Colmer. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that I’ve got a decent approximation of Verhulst’s original prose, but if that’s the case, then I’m not sure how he’s been acclaimed as ‘unparalleled’, when we’re presented with descriptions like ‘there must have been something about her, even when she was very young, that made dogs feel safe around her.’ Something about her? Later, ‘she cannot bear the playfulness of making love with garments left on here and there.’ Here and there? This reads like a sloppy first draft to me. We’ve also got pompous and oddly unsuitable words thrown in – ‘nymphaeum’ for brothel, for instance, doesn’t sound like the something Verhulst’s villagers would be comfortable dropping into casual conversation.
Any Cop?: I think this novella seeks to balance on a narrow ledge between the bleak despair of a doomed society, and a warm comedy of characters and manners, but it achieves neither. Would I recommend it? Unfortunately, no, but if you want to try for yourself, well, at least it’s brief.