Maud Casey


Maud Casey woont in Washington, D.C. Ze is professor in de Engelse taal- en letterkunde en doceert Creatief Schrijven aan de Universiteit van Maryland. Ze publiceerde twee romans, The Shape of Things to Come en Genealogy, en de verhalenbundel Drastic. Casey ontving verschillende internationale beurzen, onder andere van de Fundacion Valparaiso en de Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers.

Tijdens haar residentieverblijf in Villa Hellebosch zal ze aan haar roman The Man Who Walked Away werken en in de voetsporen treden van haar hoofdpersonage. Albert Dadas, een 19de-eeuwse psychiatrische patiënt, leed aan dromomania, oftewel een onbeheersbare drang om te reizen, die hem o.a. langs verschillende Belgische steden leidde .



Walking in Flanders

When I arrived at Villa Hellebosch, I had already spent so much time thinking about the character in my novel that I had started to feel like him.  For five years, I had been imagining this man inspired by the subject of a French psychiatric case study from 1886, a man named, unbelievably, Albert Dadas.  Dadas was a kind of early Dada-ist, walking in a semi-trance state all over Europe, sometimes seventy kilometers in a day, suddenly waking up in some other place entirely-Leipzig, say, or Constantinople (his farthest walk).  One fine day I discovered myself, he would say, I found myself, I woke up, not knowing how I got there.  Bemused, baffled, always as though he were telling someone else's delightful story. 

As it happens, Dadas discovered himself, not knowing how he got there, all over Belgium-in Ghent and Antwerp and Brussels.  Waking up to discover myself, not quite knowing how I got there, in the Pajottenland seemed exactly right.  The first morning I looked out the window, expecting Dadas to walk out of the March mist.  My favorite weather, I would discover, is mist.

Travel, from travail, bodily or mental labor or toil of a painful, oppressive nature.  From the Old French travail, suffering or trouble. Travel, from the Latin word for a three-pronged stake used as an instrument of torture.  In German, travel means "tearing free." Dadas was never more at home than when he was leaving, and he was always leaving.  When he walked he was, as he often said, astonished.

And so, in order to feel this man and myself more keenly, I walked.

I walked through Ghent and Antwerp and Brussels.  But mostly I walked through the beautiful Flemish countryside.  I didn't want to stray too far from the villa, which had quickly come to feel like home-the miraculous, towering birch trees, the pheasants strutting across the corn fields, the gauzy morning light and the silky evening light.  The landscape was so overwhelmingly beautiful I sometimes felt as though the only way to take it in enough would be to eat it.  I only nibbled on some grass, I assure you.  Mostly, I walked. 

One fine day, I discovered myself, not knowing how I got there, having a long conversation with a talkative donkey; another fine day, I discovered myself having a long conversation with a less talkative, rotund sheep; another fine day altogether, I discovered myself walking through a field so thick with mud my shoe was sucked right off.

Like Dadas, I met other travellers.  One fine day, for example, my fellow resident and I set out for a walk together.  He had a map.  A map, perhaps, for someone who was driving.  In the spaces between the huge trucks blowing by us on the highway, I told him about my walking man and he told me about his novel in which an older, blind Estonian man living in Australia is convinced he is actually back in Estonia.  By the time we got to Denderwindeke, we were friends.  Surfing the willful innocence that guides you when you are not in your own country, we walked into an unlikely bar, like the beginning of a joke:  an American and an Estonian walk into a bar in Denderwindeke.  We discovered ourselves, not knowing how we got there, faced with three very drunk men, one of them the bartender.  My new friend asked for a beer in English.  The bartender looked quizzically at the drunkest man steadying himself against the bar.  Then he asked-or so it seemed-did we speak any other language?  French, for example?  I stepped right up, eager to help, and began to speak my very rusty French.  The drunkest man looked at me with disdain, puffing on his cigarette.  "Mais qu'elle parle bien le francoise."  My new friend began to speak Estonian, baffling the bartender into submission, and he gave us our beers but the drunkest man continued to speak very loudly in French for my benefit.  Elle m'emmerde.  We drank quickly and hit the highway, chagrined but laughing, already turning it into a story.  Only my first week in Flanders, and already I'd tripped over the language border.

Another fine day, I discovered myself, not knowing how I got there, walking down a lovely cobblestone road that wound its way through several farms.  Like Dadas, I was often lost so I'm afraid I can't tell you where I was exactly, only that it was another eerily misty day and I was taking pictures of trees and sheep.  Suddenly, a man standing outside his house began to speak to me in rapid Dutch. 

"I'm afraid I only speak English," I said apologetically. 

"Then what are you doing here?" he said in English.

I was still puzzling over this existential question when he asked another. "Are you a spy?"

"Well," I began.  I mean, wasn't I?  "I'm a writer," I said. 

"You were taking pictures of strange things-trees and sheep. I thought you were a spy."

"Um," I said.

"You're American."  And with that, he began to tell me his life story.  He'd lived in Waterbury, Connecticut for six months, working as a soccer coach.  Then, six years ago, he returned to live in this house, the home of his great-grandparents, his grandparents, and now his parents.  His life story included several other digressions and at this point I was walking again and he had hopped on his bicycle to pedal beside me.  He was, he explained, unemployed.  He had been since his return from the U.S.

"The economy's tough," I offered. 

"No," he said.  "I have a problem with authority."


"And the government is hacking my email."


"And my Facebook page."

"Uh-huh."  I began to snap more pictures of trees and sheep.

"You know where I live," he said cheerfully, riding off.  "Stop by." 

Another fine day soon after, I discovered myself, not knowing how I got there-I swear, I don't know!-walking by the man's house with my new friend, my fellow resident.

The man whose email was being hacked by the government was, of course, outside fixing his bike.  "Are you stalking me?" 

"Not exactly," I said.  I gestured to my friend.  "We are writers."  This had become, apparently, my explanation for any odd behavior.

He paused and considered.  "Perhaps I could translate your books?" 

"We have to finish them first!" I said, aspiring for jaunty.  "Take care."

The month at the villa had begun with snow but now spring was here and with it, lambs!  Those not very talkative sheep who I thought were just enormously fat?  Pregnant!  I didn't have my camera so I asked my friend to take a picture of the lambs in the field across from the man's house.

"You should ask permission before you take pictures of people's sheep," the man shouted.  His dog trotted over.  "I'll set my dog on you!"  The dog wagged its tail and licked my hand.

Things had gotten strange.  The man shouted after us to leave his sheep alone as my friend and I continued down the road.  We resolved to return by a different route.  Still, I felt for this man who one fine day discovered himself having trouble navigating the world.  Who among us hasn't?  Here I was, after all, an American who had recently discovered herself in a mesmerizing Flemish landscape dreaming about a Frenchman dead for over a century, a man who trashed his life in order to walk and walk and walk in search of what exactly?  A fugitive, ephemeral more

Did Dadas ever walk out of the mist to greet me?  Gentle reader, he did.  I finished the book.  And then, as he had done all of his life, he walked away.

Villa Hellebosch
27.02.12 > 26.03.12

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