Wednesday, 10 August 2011

grand madness


So I finally went to Brussels. As you may or may not remember, I have never been there, haven't had the time and energy to visit even though my best friend lives there now. In the end, all it took was a night spent on a train. There were only two things I wanted to see: Kevin and the Palace of Justice. We walked closer and closer to the huge building and I got more and more excited.
Here's why: W.G. Sebald has written a particularly memorable paragraph about it in his novel "Austerlitz", and Sebald is one of my favourite writers. For some reason, I found exactly this passage online. It's a long one, but it made such an impression on me that I still remember how I felt when I first read it. It sounded unreal, like something he had made up, one of those things Sebald keeps doing in his books where you can't be sure about fact and fiction. And yet, when I saw the building and walked around in it, it all seemed true.

"It was several months after this meeting in Liege that I came upon Austerlitz, again entirely by chance, on the old Gallows Hill in Brussels, on the steps of the Palace of Justice which, as he immediately told me, is the largest accumulation of stone blocks anywhere in Europe. The building of this singular architectural monstrosity, on which Austerlitz was planning to write a study at the time, began in the 1880s at the urging of the bourgeoisie of Brussels, over-hastily and before the details of the grandiose scheme submitted by a certain Joseph Poelaert had been properly worked out, as a result of which, said Austerlitz, this huge pile of over seven hundred thousand cubic meters contains corridors and stairways leading nowhere, and doorless rooms and halls where no one would ever set foot, empty spaces surrounded by walls and representing the innermost secret of all sanctioned authority.

Austerlitz went on to tell me that he himself, looking for a labyrinth used in the initiation ceremonies of the Freemasons, which he had heard was in either the basement or the attic story of the palace, had wandered for hours through this mountain range of stone, through forests of columns, past colossal statues, upstairs and downstairs, and no one ever asked him what he wanted. During these wanderings, feeling tired or wishing to get his bearings from the sky, he had stopped at one of the windows set deep in the walls to look out over the leaden gray roofs of the palace, crammed together like pack ice, and down into ravines and shaft-like interior courtyards never penetrated by any ray of light. He had gone on and on down the corridors, said Austerlitz, sometimes turning left and then right again, then walling straight ahead and passing through many tall doorways, and once or twice he had climbed flights of creaking wooden stairs which gave the impression of being temporary structures, branching off from the main corridors here and there and leading half a story up or down, only to end in dark cul-desacs with roll-top cupboards, lecterns, writing desks, office chairs, and other items of furniture stacked up at the end of them, as if someone had been obliged to hold out there in a state of siege. He had even heard, said Austerlitz, of people who, over the years, had managed to start up a small business in one or other of the empty rooms and remote corridors of that great warren: a tobacconist's, a bookie's, a bar, and it was rumored, Austerlitz added, that a man called Achterbos had once turned a gentlemen's lavatory down in the basement into a public convenience for, among others, passersby in the street, installing himself at the entrance with a small table and a plate to take the money, and that later, when he engaged an assistant who was handy with a comb and a pair of scissors, it was a barber's shop for a while."
(via here)

And here's a random bit of information from Kevin's guide book: "While the labyrinthine Palais de Justice is undoubtably grand, it is not easy to secure. Indeed in several high-profile cases criminals have managed to abscond from its precincts." Great.


  1. i read austerlitz, too, and whenever i go anywhere, i always think about that battered knapsack he always keeps swinging around. maybe it's because of that that i love backpacks so much

  2. fantastic. austerlitz is one of my favorite books.
    and that building looks as insane as it sounds!

  3. People who have read Austerlitz = awesome.