Meet the Circle: Robert Grandcourt

The members of the Brussels Writers’ Circle are a varied bunch. Prose writers, poets, playwrights, memoirists, screenwriters and bringers of silly bits and pieces, we sweep in from all different occupations and locations every week to share our scrawlings with one another.

In ‘Meet the Circle’, we introduce you to some of our members, hopefully providing an insight into who we are, what we do, and what we think about Greco-Roman wrestling. Well, maybe not that last bit.

This week we will hear from the inimitable Robert Grandcourt. By way of introduction, Robert says: “Growing up on the island of Praslin in the Seychelles, my mind took me on wonderful journeys beyond the horizon. Ever since, I have wandered from one country to another and from one continent to the next, each time aiming for the highest peak. Having settled down in Belgium and the Seychelles, my wandering mind is now navigating through a sea of words towards a novel world.”

Robert Grandcourt… navigating a sea of words

When did you join the group?

In 2002.

What were your first impressions of the group?

Besides meeting in a dilapidated place, the BWG as it was then known consisted of two incompatible factions: a serious and ambitious one and an amateur one. The latter faction moved into our present and more pleasant location to create what we now call the Brussels Writers Circle.

What are you currently working on?

An historical novel set in my country, the Seychelles, which started as a family history and turned into a never-ending saga. I have so much fun with my characters that I’m reluctant to let them go.

Who are your biggest literary influences? How have they influenced you?

Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Amin Maalouf and Chinua Achebe.

As a pioneer of historical fiction, Dumas, the prolific French writer of slave origin, democratised literature with his unique style of story telling. His descriptions and metaphors are so powerful. Images such as that of Edmond Dantes (The Count of Monte Cristo) bringing the fully-clothed Pharaon into port with the ensign at half mast lingers in one’s mind for life.

Dickens, like his French contemporary Dumas, was sensitive to the injustices of his time. How can a creative person be indifferent to the metaphor of children, in Hard Times, as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge? “Teach these girls and boys nothing but facts… Plant nothing else and root out everything else.”

Although not as prolific, because of his early death and involvement in the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell was to the 20th Century what Dickens was to the previous one. He challenged the established order and warned us of the consequences of the abuse of power facilitated by modern technology. Today, Orwellian eyes are watching us; newspeak such as collateral damage, terrorist, neutralise, downsize, rendition… have entered the English language without us batting an eyelid.

When the Lebanese writer Maalouf takes one on a journey in time and space, be it from 16th Century Andalusia to Rome via the Sahara Dessert (Leon the African) or to 11th Century Samargand, one feels having been there with Omar Khayyam.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a milestone in literature as it is the first novel to give an African perspective of Colonialism written by someone who has been colonised. He has encouraged me to write about what I know best: my country of birth and its history.

Do you have a memorable moment from the BWC that you could share?

Sometimes when the BWC meets, I wonder whether the most interesting characters are not ourselves. On a sad note, I often think of one our members, who wrote so well about her eventful life and lost her fight against cancer before she could make the changes to her book requested by her agent to have it published.

What do you get out of the group?

After working for rigid organisations, I like belonging to a creative group where rules and obligations are minimal. Most of all, I enjoy the creativity, diversity, joviality and the constant support of other members.

BWC Recommends – Sabine Sur

BWC Recommends is a segment asking our members to talk about their favourite literary meals. Those paragraphs that are so rich they take a while to digest, that packet of word crisps you put in the cupboard but keep going back for until the whole thing is empty, that comforting poetry soup you heat up when you’re not feeling well. What is it about these novels, plays or poems that makes them so delicious?

This time we’re talking with BWC member Sabine Sur, a knitter, translator and writer based in Belgium. She knits narratives, writes from one culture into another and translates patterns into garments. She is also French and writes in French and English, just because it’s fun.

Writer, translator and knitter, Sabine Sur

What are your five favourite books (or poems or plays)?

Just five? Oh, ok.

  • Colette, The Tendrils of the Vine
  • T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
  • Terry Pratchett, The Discworld Series, especially Monstrous Regiment
  • Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Avalon Series, especially Ancestors of Avalon

Choosing one book (or poem or play) from the list above, tell us what you found tastiest about it. 

The Waste Land was required reading in college, and although for many classmates it was an acquired taste, or something they could never get their head around, I instantly loved it. What I found tastiest about it was how one world blurred into another, how much he could evoke – images, sounds, feelings – in those snippets of verse. The resolution, with its reference to Hinduism, stayed with me: “What have we given?/My friend, blood shaking my heart/The awful daring of a moment’s surrender/Which an age of prudence can never retract/By this, and this only, we have existed”

Who is your favourite writer? Why do you like him/her? 

Colette is my favourite writer, and has always been since I stole my cousin’s copy of Claudine at School at age eleven. Her sense of rhythm and her choice of words is impeccable. She also has this mixture of lyricism and humour that’s quite compelling, and even when she deals with serious subjects (like the two World Wars) it never feels heavy-handed. She was at her best in short texts and those are the ones I read over and over again.

Eddie Murphy once said, “Anything you have to acquire a taste for was not meant to be eaten.” Have you ever forced yourself to read something because you were told it was ‘good for you’? If yes, what did you learn from this experience? If no, tell us about a book that you hated. 

There was this book that purported to be a testimony from a Chinese eunuch who had lived in the 19th century and served at the imperial palace. It had been written by a journalist who supposedly acted as a ghostwriter for a eunuch (based on the backcover blurb). I bought it, thinking it would be a good way to discover a bit more about Chinese culture. The novel was naff and featured obvious made-up, sensationalist scenes (the eunuch spying on his master at a bordello, and so on), including an unbelievable love story where the eunuch is reunited his girlfriend, whom she thought had died, in a lost village thirty years after their last encounter, by total coincidence. The translator and the publisher had written a preface, which I read afterwards, explaining that they had cut whole pages of sentimental monologues that “were visibly added by the journalist” and that it was a “somehow embellished account of a eunuch’s life” from “several real-life accounts”.

I just gave the thing away to charity. What a waste of paper. It taught me two things: 1) don’t lie, 2) have high stakes in your stories, by all means, but don’t go for gratuitous, implausible sensationalism. It’s cheap and boring.