Prizes and awards come with weight and responsibilities. I believe they should only be accepted in full recognition of this. I can’t say I have always had this opinion, but it has matured over the years.
When I was 19, I received a prize named after Marguerite Bervoets. She was a member of the Belgian Resistance in the Second World War. She died decapitated by hatchet for a cause she felt just (and of course History weighed on her side, but I understand that sometimes we embrace causes that History dismisses).
For a long time that is all I knew about Marguerite. There was nothing much to be found about her life online. But often I thought of her, her courage, and the role she played in my life (more on that below).
This year on Armistice Day, I decided to learn more. On that day, the passing of Leonard Cohen, one of the greatest lyricists of the twentieth century, was announced. I indulged in a little bit (OK – a lot) of melancholy music listening. One of Cohen’s song is The Partisan, which is a French Resistance song, translated into English by Hy Zaret. Cohen’s version is particularly moving because it combines the French and the English versions, and because the French is sung by Cohen and a female singer (whose name I do not know). In the French verses, the person who offers shelter to the partisans, and is killed as a result, is a woman – in the English it is a man. The gender changes remind us that the Resistance involved both men and women. Bravery is gender blind.
As I listened to The Partisan, I remembered Marguerite Bervoets, and did some more research on her life. She studied at my alma mater, the Free University of Brussels (ULB). She started a PhD on a Belgian symbolist poet, André Fontainas. She spent a year in Cambridge, where she learnt English. While studying for her PhD, she became a French teacher in Tournai. All this was interrupted by the war. Marguerite joined the Resistance. She was captured in August 1942, and was soon deported to the Nazi prison of Wolfenbüttel. She was decapitated on the 7th of August 1944.
Marguerite was a poet. Some poems from her Chromatisme collection can be found online. I judged them rather harshly at first: the alexandrins are rather clunky; the similes laboured; the language over-complicated. Then I realised Marguerite had written those poems when she was 16! I cannot write formal French verse – who am I to judge? Here is my laboured, clunky translation of Marguerite’s ‘nocturne romantique‘ into English free verse:
Tonight, the moon dreams in heaven, indolently
And on the lake, polished like a troubling mirror,
The night star, wan and curious, descends
And drags the dullness of her mournful eye.
A wind, fragrant with the scent of carnations,
Caresses my tresses with a quivering hand,
And its brushing breath, like a fluttering wing,
Softly closes my eyes with a discreet finger.
An exhilarating murmur fills my empty room,
An invisible zephyr has brushed the curtains,
made the tepid air vibrate in concentric rings,
Then, in my heart, descends a languid stupor.
When she was older, Marguerite abandoned French formal verse in favour of free verse. Unfortunately, I could not find any of her more mature poems, but I felt that a celebration of the moon was in order in a week that witnessed the Supermoon.
Marguerite is a relatively well-known figure of the Belgian Resistance. Her name survives as that of a Secondary School in Mons and as that of a ULB prize (that to which I referred at the beginning of the post). Several monuments in her honour exist. She has no doubt inspired many to be brave in their everyday lives.
She also deeply influenced my life in a coincidental way. After the award ceremony in which I received the eponymous prize, I suddenly became ill. Shivering, I sat an exam. I did very badly. I was not used to doing very badly at exams. That hurt. Eventually, it also meant that I was unable to do a PhD in my alma mater – I was not deemed good enough. I found a different path, an excellent one. That ‘failure’ also helped me to become a better teacher: one who understands that people have their bad days, that an excellent student can badly mess up a piece of assessment, that academic talent does not define people.
And of course, more directly, being awarded a Marguerite Bervoets prize made me conscious of the value of resistance – with a small ‘r’. The value of standing for a cause. The value of questioning received ideas. The value of being brave when I feel nothing but. I may not always be a worthy recipient of the Marguerite Bervoets prize, but I try – and I will continue to do so.
If you wish to learn more about Marguerite Bervoets, you can read her biography here (in French).
PS: an early version of this post was released by mistake (I was writing on my phone and must have clicked something by mistake). My apologies.