Bottoms Up in Belgium: Seeking the High Points of the Low Land
by Alec Le Sueur.
I was sure I’d like this book. As a native’s husband the author is immersed in Belgian life and will certainly be generous with insight into the inner workings of the local family, in all the aspects not evident to mere visitors, to outsiders. There’ll be stories, there’ll be some lore narrated by older generations, and the younger folks will do something unreasonable and interesting in contrast to the elder’s hardcore conservatism. And the author will be right in the middle – in the middle of Europe, between generations, not so English anymore and a bit Belgian himself already.
It started exactly this way.
Here is a chapter about a quaint cockerel singing contest, the narrator is amused but not quivering with desire to entice chortles from the readers. Then he goes with his Belgian relatives to see a Formula One race, and the trip begins with mildly funny fumblings – just like dozens of similar trips in the books of that genre. It’s nice, it’s goofy, it’s endearing. Maybe just a little bit boring – but a hint of boredom is the price you pay for accepting the author’s restraint.
The restraint I mean is an opposite to a writers’ obsession with putting a cute blob of fun on every page of a narrative. Ideally – as many blobs as a page will bear.
A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle is full of these. A tax inspector comes to the author’s household. Routine, right? Prosaic? Nothing to report? No, it will not do. Mayle draws a picture – the guy is extravagantly attired in flamingly yellow super-narrow pants, his coiffure drips briolin, he is blatantly gay. Good, now we have the blob.
Bill Bryson rides a train, there are only two other passengers in a carriage besides him. Why mention that time between point A and point B in his travel at all? But wasting an opportunity for a cute tweet can become a very bad habit for an author whose readers like to smirk and smile. And one of the guys in the carriage becomes The Most Ugly Man In The World. There is an adventure per every hour. Yawns are verboten, Bill will not let you down.
So some boredom was OK (well, kind of) as long as the narrative is immediate and personal and free of these obsessive-compulsive inclusions of cheery drek.
But then something happened, and Alec veered from the initial track into the tacky realm of Google and YouTube research. Probably the Belgian part of the family was not feeling happy about providing comedy for this book, even if handled with care and respect — and apprehension.
It goes downhill from there.
The ensuing chapters are blindingly, horribly boring, reading them is like some not very painful but acutely unpleasant self-mutilation. I totally understand the reviewers who gave up. I’m entirely sympathetic to the guy who couldn’t continue after the chapter number 5. Chapter number 5 is about Eurovision, and it’s probably the worst in the book (though the competition between charters is serious).
Why digging up all this schlock? It’s not even trivia any more, it’s less than, all that stuff shouldn’t have found even a tiniest space on a page ever again. The refrain of “look it up at the YouTube” is becoming nagging. Why look it up if you are telling us the song is idiotic – and not amusingly but in a very numbing way? You bore us stiff and want us to be bored even more?
As a way of amusement all the tricks that seemed to be below the author’s standard invade the book. ‘In fact it’s not Leopold I who I am after, but his progeny, the imaginatively named Leopold II’… Hah-ha! Did you get the joke? The son of Leopold I is called Leopold II IMAGINATIVELY.
Humor is about talent, invention, paradox. Begging-for-a-smirk droppings like that are pathetic. There is a very German word fremdschämen, it means feeling ashamed for something somebody else has done or is doing. Reading this book I had it often.
At the end of every chapter there is an inner dialogue, Alec deliberates will the recently described phenomen make the list of interesting things or not. Reasoning is weak, mostly he is blubbering, it looks silly and fremdschämen is here again. It looks like he is trying to distance himself from the things he describes – Look, I know it’s boring, right, but that has nothing to do with my narrative skills and style, it’s all very dreary as it is. Beyond redemption. Telling all this is my burden I bear with a cute and stoic smile. —
Alec La Sueur mentions Good Beer Guide Belgium so many times (only YouTube’s name is revoked more often) that one book begins to look like a tie-in to the other. Beer is supposed to be a special topic for La Sueur – the book starts with his resolution to explore the world of Belgian brews till no beer is left untasted. The second half of my e-book is a list of Belgian beers Alec suggests we try. Was that copy-pasted from some Zythos web page? Half of the book?
There is also a story of Westvleteren 12’s hype, scarcity and – ultimately – greatness, you learn – for the NNth time that every Belgian brew is supposed to be served in it’s special glass, there is a special bonus – Alec’s impressions of some famous beers.
He is making a disclaimer: he’s not a beer expert.
Why publish a review of Deus Brut des Flanders with idiotic “unnaturally foamy – like someone has squirted Fairy Liquid into the bottom of each glass when you weren’t looking”, “is someone approaches you with a bottle that looks like Dom Perignon – better hope that it is Dom Perignon. Score 4/10”?
Jupiler is not great – but drinkable? Yes it is…
If his taste in beer is so unsophisticated, the palate is undeveloped, reading of beer books obviously zero to minimal – why publish that stuff? The printed word is no longer sacred, OK, but still it’s not some blog where Alec can enjoy being foolish as much as he’d like with only a couple passers by watching?