Maybe stood Elias or the fight with the nightingales (1936) still on your reading list, or Winter in Antwerp (1953)? Besides a handful of poetry collections, Maurice Gilliams has not written much prose, but that small oeuvre did earn him the Prize of Dutch Letters. In addition, this Antwerp resident had a very colorful life. This is how you learn A courtyard with grassa new anthology of his work by Leen Huet, but above all also Reflected in a water glass. Annette Portegies worked on this biography for twenty years. Working as a publisher at Querido in Amsterdam, the Dutch spent longer periods in Antwerp to sort through Gilliams’ immense archive in the Letterenhuis. “I never thought it would take me so long to get to the bottom of this writer,” says the biographer. “Until I realized how much effort Gilliams had put in himself to understand who he was.”
Reflected in a water glass starts in the symbolic year 1938 for Gilliams. His debut novel Elias has just been out two years, he has only just tied the knot, but nevertheless fights in the Stuivenberg hospital against a knot of depression and thoughts of death. While his nurse bathes him, he may tell her about the drama of his marriage that went unconsummated or about his mother’s death. He may have thought it too early to confide in her about the abuse he experienced as a child at the boarding school in Turnhout and the struggle with his identity. Sometimes he was in love with a woman, occasionally with a man.
This nurse, Maria de Raeymaekers, would continue to care for Gilliams for the rest of her life. First as a tenant in his parental home, and after almost forty years finally as his wife. Because it was only in 1976 that Gilliams could legally divorce Gabrielle Baelemans, his first wife. Mary always remained faithful by his side. Even when it was whispered in the 1950s that Gilliams had an illegitimate child, and even when he fell in love with the woman who brought him his insulin syringes in his eighties.
Another nurse, Gilliams apparently had it for caring types. “For a long time, the women in his life seemed like a surrogate for his mother,” says Portegies. “As an only child, Maurice was very attached to her. Because of his failing health, she often kept him near her, even when she went out to do good works for the Church. That strict Catholic upbringing made Gilliams struggle with his feelings for men. Homosexuality and bisexuality were not accepted by Rome and were almost unmentionable in his day. It may be easier for many young people today to broach such topics, although there is of course still a lot to gain.”
With this Portegies also indicates how current Gilliams still is. His prose is often said to be autobiographical, but that is too simplistic, in the opinion of the biographer. “I found out pretty quickly that Gilliams didn’t match who he described himself to be. In Elias, which looks back on Gilliams’ childhood, the main character lives in a castle. In interviews, the writer also made it seem that he grew up on an estate, while in reality Maurice was the son of a printer on the Ossenmarkt in Antwerp. Maurice experienced the adventures that young Elias and his cousin have on a castle domain as a little boy on Sint-Anneke. Like so many Antwerp residents, his parents had a piece of land with a chalet. When there was a break-in and the Gilliams moved to a country house in Edegem, Maurice was impressed by the chic accommodations there. Out of the castle Elias probably goes back to the Elsdonck castle that has since disappeared.”
However, Gilliams often situated his work in Antwerp. Then why did he like to hide reality so much? “Due to the prevailing taboos, much remained unsaid in the 1930s. Out of shame for sudden revelations, Gilliams wrote out the answers himself in interviews, and he also adapted the questions if necessary. That he was officially married, but at the same time cohabiting with another woman, Maurice, for example, kept secret for a long time. In his mind he was so unconventional that he did things that were not common at the time, he was not so unconventional to talk about it openly.”
Released posthumously Gregoria Gilliams would hardly publish anything after 1950, although he did get his first real job as a librarian at the KMSKA around his fifties and without a diploma. For the last twenty years of his life, the writer lived in an apartment in the Lange Gasthuisstraat. Close to the Sint-Elisabethgasthuis, where he would die in 1982. Since 1997, behind the chapel of the former guest house, his statue has been placed, which Vita Brevis, the foundation that manages Gilliams’ estate, ordered from the sculptor Rik Poot. But since the five-star Botanic Sanctuary Antwerp hotel reserved that part of the garden of the Elzenveld for hotel guests at the beginning of this year, the site in question has barely been accessible. Only with a hotel pass the gate swings open to it. In the meantime, the Vita Brevis foundation is in talks with the city of Antwerp to find out whether the statue can be placed elsewhere.
“Hopefully the statue can stay in the vicinity of the Botanic Garden,” says Portegies. “That place has been so important to Gilliams and his oeuvre. As a child, Maurice regularly went for walks. As speaks from his collection of short stories Exercise trip in a vacuum, ‘den Botaniek’ probably took him back to the magic of childhood. Apart from that, Gilliams’ statue, like that of Van Ostaijen or Elsschot, deserves a place in the city where everyone can see it. Maurice is a son of Antwerp, and not of a fancy hotel.”
Reflected in a water glass. Maurice Gilliams 1900-1982Annette Portegies, Athenaeum, 440 pA courtyard with grassLeen Huet, Athenaeum, 224 p