The failed ban on René Seghers
Jacques Brel Life and love 1929 - 1978
and other forbidden biographies!
Writing a Dutch language book on Jacques Brel is not an easy task. If Brel maintained a love-hate relationship with Flanders and its language, his heirs thus far have expressed plain hatred regarding the Dutch language. In addition to that, Brel's widow Miche regards the word BREL as her private possession. She even claims the moral right to decide how he should be remembered. With this in mind it is hardly surprising that there isn't a single Flemish biography on the greatest artist that Flanders produced in the 20th century (while there are about one hundred biographies of Brel in the French language).
Yes, Flanders has The Passion and the Pain by Johan Anthierens, but his memories of a private holiday in Hiva Oa together with a fine selection of newspaper clippings and a well written essay about a possible Marieke that Brel knew as a child are hardly a biography. The press was not impressed with it either, especially since Anthierens had always intimated he was working on the ultimate Brel biography and the fact that he had postponed the publication of his book for years and years had heightened the expectations. In the end his book was nothing more then a hastily conceived scrapbook, aiming to be on the market at the the upcoming ten-year anniversary of Brel's death.
Why did Anthierens fail to live up to the expectations? Did the Brels oppose him, preventing him from writing anything better? It remains an unanswered question, as Anthierens isn't among us anymore. Therefore it seems appropriate to focus on the question of whether Brels wife and children have much to hide? Surprisingly the answer is no, as Olivier Todd's invaluable official French language biography gives a fair view of Brel's private life in Bruxelles. In fact, Miche Brel can't be praised enough for giving Todd full access to her memories and the archives of the Brel Foundation. Naturally Todd had to leave out some things too, such as the real names of Brel's lovers, but that is a small price to pay for the clear picture of Brel's wrecked family life. Perhaps Todd's lengthy biography is the main reason for Anthierens' disappointing book, as his ego clearly would not allow him to produce a Dutch language remake of Todd's work.
But if there was a good, authorized book by Todd, then why has the Brel Foundation never cared to publish a Dutch translation for the Flemish/ Dutch market? This state of affairs is all the more strange given that the Todd book was even translated into German. The answer becomes obvious, when one notices that the Brel Foundation didn't even bother to translate the interesting Bruxelles expo from 2004 into Dutch, beyond a few plain paper copies that had to be handed from one visitor to another. Furthermore, some videos shown at the expo actually contained subtitles, but these stopped after a very few frames! This clearly expresses their disgust for the Bruxellian law that all public affairs must be bilingual.
Another question: why Todd? Well, the Brels, who are not themselves professional writers, had to rely on some confidents among outsiders – after all, their aim is to publish & sell all sorts of Brel-related books and memorabilia. Thus France Brel cooperated with Andre Sallée on a discography with anecdotes. Then came Todd, whose revealing but unbalanced biography has meanwhile been outclassed by Marc Robine's lengthy biography. In addition to the aforementioned titles, a number of excellent books on more specific aspects of Brel's life have been published in cooperation with The Brel Foundation, most notably Brel in Bruxelles and Le droit de rêver | The right to Dream - again all in French. Besides Anthierens' Flemish book, the only two real Dutch language biographies are from independent Dutch authors: the compact but highly interesting Jacques Brel by Mohammed El-Fers, who concentrates on Brel in Holland, and this authors' Jacques Brel | Life and Love 1929-1978
The Brel vendetta
Mohammed El-Fers' biography has been shaped through several editions that have met with fierce opposition of Brel's heirs. Miche Brel threatened the initial publisher with a lawsuit and the edition was taken back, then delayed etc. With later editions similar problems occurred. El-Fers was not the only victim of Bruxelles' vendetta, as all non-French language Brel biographers can readily testify. One of them is Alan Clayson, whose English language biography was also delayed after Miche Brel threatened his publisher with a lawsuit. After that, the 2003 Drouot-Richelieu auction of numerous Brel memorabilia was cancelled after legal rights claims by the Brels. Fortunately for collectors, the lavishly illustrated glossy catalogue had already been printed and distributed. Today it is an invaluable collectors item with unique handwritten songs in facsimile etc. Altogether, the image of a vendetta against all outsiders of the Brel sect arises, while the moral grounds on which all these publications have been obstructed are as 'understandable' as McCarthy's crusade against lefties in the fifties – even simple fans with websites received letters with threats or conditions from the Brel Foundation! Rather strange for a 'non-profit' organization that aims to keep Brel's memory alive. A close look at who is behind this vendetta reveals some interesting facts: officially, the Foundation is run by France Brel, but I always received letters signed by Miche personally, who seems to 'reign' from behind her daughter's back - so much for the peace and understanding philosophy of the France Cordée scoutlike Christian movement that Jacques and Miche supported as teenagers.
Fortunately I had been forwarned when I went into negotiations with my publisher Tirion. I demanded from the very beginning that they would stand tall once Miche initiated her inevitable crusade. It didn't take long for the first threats to arrive, and Tirion handled it in an exemplary way. I will not go into details here, but some things I gladly reveal as encouragement for future authors and publishers: after Madame Brel had threatened us with legal measures, claiming that the word BREL was her personal possession, forbidding us to publish a Dutch language biography without her consent, she suddenly changed her mind when – 6 months later – she realized we were prepared and ready to challenge her word on this issue. Suddenly, there was no more talk about legal measures against the publication of the book. Instead, she simply demanded a percentage of the revenues! Naturally, we rejected this shameless 'business-proposal'. I was determined to write an unconditional biography that would tell the whole story of Brel in the way I thought best. The very last thing I wanted was to buy Madame Brel's consent.
So much for Brel's heirs, although they were right to go to court when someone published Brel's integral songtexts on-line, which was a clear infringement of their legal copyright.
René Seghers: Jacques Brel | Life and Love 1929 - 1978
"We don't need another book on Brel", was Miche Brel's reply to my initial request for an interview. My answer was easy enough, as there was no competition whatsoever on the Dutch (or any non-French language) market for a book that focussed on all aspects of Brel's life in chronological order. In addition to that, I planned to publish the most complete discography and filmography of Brel to date. Additionally, we published a timetable with events from his life as well as general events that occurred during his life. Perhaps it is irrelevant or trivial to know when Einstein invented the relativity theory, when it comes to understanding Brel, but it certainly is important to know that the anticonception pill was invented in 1952, which was the key foundation of the sexual revolution which began in the sixties and the seventies, of which Brel was a notable exponent. It is equally interesting to see in a timeline how his songs preceded trends in non-French pop music: Brel had a profound impact on the young David Bowie! Frank Sinatra adored him, there are pictures of Brel with The Beatles and so on. The chronological concept of the book also applies to the photographs. These are inserted on the pages where they apply, constituting a sort of picture biography from his earliest childhood up until the end – and beyond, as there is a lengthy chapter on what happened with his body after he died, as well as what happened with his demos and his grave. In this epilogue, I am indebted to Brel's last partner Maddly Bamy, who lived together with him in the last seven years of his life.
Perhaps the question of who is right or wrong doesn't apply here: the Brel Foundation and Maddly have both produced invaluable books on Brel, books that are best read closely together. Yet Maddly's books deserve special attention here, because few people outside France have ever bothered to investigate her side of the story and yet there simply is no other close witness to his final years. To me, it is unthinkable to omit Maddly's story (France Brel once labelled her Jacques' part-time nurse). When I finally met Maddly in Paris, she proved to be completely different from the obsessed witch that Bruxelles' always presents to journalists when asked about Brel's last mistress. Instead, she proved to be a typical child of The Love Generation: friendly, spiritual, open minded and not in the least determined to convince me of her own point of view. She simply told me her story and said I could do with it what I wanted. No proofreading, no trials, no tricks, as she didn't believe in that kind of control.
Perhaps I learned a lesson from Maddly there, as any writer who faces journalists himself soon becomes aware of the manipulative mechanisms of publicity. In the end the world controls you rather than the other way around, no matter how hard you try to shape it.
Fortunately, my book was received well. And even if that had not been the case, I would have been content for the simple reason that I gave my very best in writing it, just as I did in creating this website.