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Unit information: Francophone Belgian Culture: From Symbolism to bande dessinée in 2020/21

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Unit name Francophone Belgian Culture: From Symbolism to bande dessinée
Unit code FREN20064
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Paul Earlie
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of French
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Despite being a relatively young country, Belgium’s cultural traditions run deep, nourished by a complex linguistic evolution in which French and Flemish, German and Walloon coexist in a not- always-harmonious way. For many years, francophone Belgian writers such as Henri Michaux and Georges Simenon were simply assimilated to the cultural patrie of France and even today Belgian writers find themselves faced with a Hobson’s choice of addressing themselves to a population of 4 million French-speakers at home or looking to Paris with its powerhouse maisons d’édition. In spite of these tensions, however, Belgian authors such as Marguerite Yourcenar and Amélie Nothomb are among the most widely read in the French-speaking world today.

The problematic nature of Belgian cultural identity makes it an ideal case for understanding the (de)construction of a ‘national’ literary canon, one paradoxically preoccupied with questions of mobility, border-crossing, and encounters with the other. In keeping with Belgium’s taste for ‘minor’ genres, this course will consider a range of literary modes which have come to define Belgium’s richly colourful literary and cultural tradition. We will explore Rodenbach’s symbolist masterpiece, Bruges-la-morte, the first novel to intersperse text and photography, in addition to the perennially popular romans policiers of Simenon. We will also look at the explosion in popularity of bande dessinée writers such as Hergé (the creator of Tintin) before turning to more contemporary figures such as the bestselling novelist Amélie Nothomb and the feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

In reflecting on the formal innovation of these texts as well as on their relationship to larger historical and sociological contexts, from colonialism to communitarianism, this unit will critically investigate clichés of cultural sterility in a country Baudelaire once called le bâton merdeux de l’Europe.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit, students will have demonstrated

  1. a detailed understanding (appropriate to level I) of the evolution of francophone Belgian literature and culture from the end of the nineteenth century to the present;
  2. an awareness of the respective merits and limitations of the different critical approaches (formalist, historicist, postcolonial, etc.);
  3. an ability to analyse the rhetorical structures of a range of cultural forms and genres appropriate to level I;
  4. an ability to relate the texts studied to their appropriate historical, political, sociological and cultural contexts;

Teaching details

Teaching will be delivered through a combination of synchronous sessions and asynchronous activities, including seminars, lectures, and collaborative as well as self-directed learning opportunities supported by tutor consultation.

Assessment Details

1 x individual oral presentation with transcript (25%), testing ILO 3.

1 x 2500-word essay (75%), testing ILOs 1, 2 and 4.

Reading and References

Aubert, Nathalie, Pierre-Philippe Fraiture, and Patrick McGuinness, eds, From Art Nouveau to Surrealism: Belgian Modernity in the Making (Oxford: Legenda, 2007)

Bainbrigge, Susan, Culture and Identity in Belgian Francophone Writing: Dialgue, Diversity and Displacement (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008).

Denis, Benoît andKlinkenberg, Jean-Marie, La littérature belge: Précis d'histoire sociale (Brussels : Espace Nord, 2014).

Mallinson, Vernon, Modern Belgian Literature 1830-1960 (London: Heinemann, 1966)