Dimitri Verhulst is a Belgian writer who writes in Flemish. He has written poetry, short stories, and novels. His novella Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill – Mevrouw Verona daalt de heuvel af was first published in Belgium in 2006. The translation is from 2009. In the book it says it was translated from the Dutch but that is inaccurate as he writes Flemish. The two languages are similar but not interchangeable.
Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill is a love story, or, to be more precise, a story about a love that goes on long after the beloved has died.
Mme Verona and her composer husband Monsieur Potter moved to a small village in Belgium. Their house is high up on a hill far away from other people, surrounded by a vast forest. Sadly, Mme Verona’s husband gets very ill and dies. Most reviews go into more details about his death, but I will refrain from that as it is a major spoiler.
Mme Verona is very beautiful and since there are almost only men in the village, they all hope she might come down and possibly choose a new mate. But she never does. She continues her life pretty much as if her husband were still alive. Of course, she misses him. But he is everywhere.
When she looked out the window at the valley, she looked with him. That was partly why she never urged visitors to stay for dinner, preferring the intimacy of the idea and feeling of dining alone with her husband. Just the two of them, and a bottle that proceeded towards its original emptiness half as fast as before.
Monsieur Potter knew he was dying and, as a last act of love, he cut down enough trees to assure his wife had enough firewood until she would eventually die as well.
In memory of her husband Madame has a tree cut down. She wants a cello made from its wood. The man who cuts down the tree, isn’t the one who will make the instrument as it takes twenty years for the wood to be ready for use.
At the beginning of the book, Mme Verona and her dog get ready to go down to the village. She knows that it will be the last time she goes there. Before she leaves, she muses that if she was asked at the gates of heaven what her one striking characteristic was, she would say that dogs always sought out her company. Just like they always sought out her husband’s company. That’s why they always had dogs or were followed by dogs. If it had been possible, they would have adopted every stray they encountered.
I liked the beginning of the novella very much. The writing is very distinct, very unusual. A mix between sarcasm, wit, empathy, and even lyricism. I expected a story about Mme Verona, but after the initial pages, the story moves away from her and we are introduced to the village and its eccentric inhabitants. We’re told funny anecdotes like the one where a cow becomes mayor for one year or those involving the vet who is also the GP for the village. As amusing as this was, I had to finish the book to fully understand its structure. It’s one of those circular stories that end where they start and only become a whole once you’ve finished it.
I’ll leave you with a few quotes that illustrate Verhulst’s style and humour.
But even when he wasn’t working, Monsieur Potter enjoyed being here, seeing the aureoles force their way down through the foliage and listening to the rustling wind, either alone or with Madame Verona, and sliding downhill with her on a sled, the winters telling him that lovers were children, trying to reach back into the past to seize the time they hadn’t spent together. Wanting to have shared their entire lives with each other, because love refused to settle for less.
About the dog looking forward to a walk:
The prospect of finally being able to empty his shrunken bladder on posts, letterboxes and car wheels elicited his most charming bark and would have him ramming his mistress’s legs with joy except that he realised she was too old for that kind of doggery, and that it would most likely lead to his having the implantation of a plastic hip on his conscience.
Madame Verona is a charming story of love that survives death. It’s ideal for those readers who like sophisticated, quirky writing and long, complex sentences.