The Belgian writers of the interwar years

Björn-Olav Dozo has published a work (1) devoted to the socio-literary profile and to the relational capital of Belgian francophone writers of the years between the two World Wars. To understand who they are, he starts from a detailed quantitative study to subsequently widen his field of vision to a relational approach and integrate it into Bourdieu’s theory of fields.

The sociology of literature is a relatively recent discipline. In its modern version it goes back to the foundational work of Pierre Bourdieu and Jacques Dubois over the course of the 1970s. In its widest sense it is thus not a matter of an internal criticism of a work or of a purely external illumination of what leads a social actor to write or to publish and the means s/he will use to achieve his/her ends. In its ideal expression the sociology of literature tries to erase the border which might exist between the external and internal analysis of a work, transformed by a will to understand the mechanisms which lead to the literary production of a certain epoch or of a particular genre.

COVER-ecrivainWhilst the work ‘Mesures de l’écrivain. Profil socio-littéraire et capital relationnel dans l'entre-deux-guerres en Belgique francophone,’ (Measurements of a Writer: a Socio-literary and Relational Capital Profile of the Interwar Period in Francophone Belgium) is indeed written by Björn-Olav Dozo, a F.R.S-F.N.R.S postdoctoral researcher at the ULg, it is inscribed in a logic of collective research and in a synergy of diverse research studies in sociology and literature carried out at the ULg and the ULB, under the impulse of CIEL (Interuniversity Literary Studies Collective) and COnTEXTES. It is the fruit of a development of his thesis, defended in 2007. Published in 2011 by the University of Liège Press, it offers a new perspective which could inspire numerous research studies in the domain. 

Its goal was to draw up the profile or the profiles of the Belgian francophone writers of the interwar years, by placing them in a context of their belonging to a relational network more or less established, more or less influential on production. The academic approach thus remains external to the text. The great innovation in comparison with previous research is that it systematises several statistical techniques to intersect the variables and the profiles and to try, in a serial logic, to bring out the founding lines of the relational life of the epoch’s writers.

This long study thus sheds considerable light on shadow zones and allows a more extended qualitative reading. Another interesting initiative is the trend towards the exhaustiveness of its corpus. There is no question of this work predefining a sample of authors. With the aid of the CIEL database and thanks to the colossal work of part-time student workers in making a census of the writers of the period, within the restrictions of the more or less complete biographical data of the actors studied, the researcher has been able to strive towards a quasi global, quasi exhaustive study of his subject. ‘What I have tried to demonstrate,’ he explains, ‘is that the relational fabric, the networks in which the author is inserted in everyday life for tasks which are not writing itself but which despite everything play their part in literary life, are determining for a writer’s literary production, but also for the construction of his or her symbolic capital. I first of all thus wanted to manage to objectivise what others had already presented intuitively. But certain observations went further, and I wasn’t expecting that at the start.’

In effect, without for all that claiming a revolution in academic research methodology, and neither setting up an incommensurable shrine to the data which enable a quantitative study of a subject to be revealed, Björn-Olav Dozo manages to demolish certain commonplaces in the history and sociology of literature. A spicy example is that of the writer Michel de Ghelderode. History has established him as a misunderstood genius, excluded from the circles, the salons and the journals because of his vertiginous talent and his Parisian success. It is true that the author lived in exclusion from Belgian society at the beginning of the second half of the twentieth century and this a priori permits this interpretation. On the other hand the serial quantitative study of Belgian authors and their frequenting the social spaces of the interwar years illustrates that he participated in this logic, that he was integrated in the networks and that he benefited from them for his career. His exclusion from the Belgian circuit in the immediate postwar period can in fact be explained by the programmes the author made for Radio-Brussels during the Occupation, which earned him his dismissal from the Schaerbeek local authority.

(1) DOZO, Björn-Olav, Mesures de l’écrivain. Profil socio-littéraire et capital relationnel dans l’entre-deux-guerres en Belgique francophone, Presses Universitaires de Liège, Coll. Situations, 2011.

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