Most of the following books should be readily available in the UK, US and Canada. Where titles are published by different publishers in the UK and US, we've given both, separated by an oblique slash (UK/US); where only one publisher is given, this covers both the UK and US unless specifically stated. Out-of-print tiles are marked "o/p".
History and politics
Neal Ascherson The King Incorporated (Granta). You'd never guess from Brussels' Musée de la Dynastie, but King Léopold II was responsible for one of the cruellest of colonial regimes, a savage system of repression and exploitation that devastated the Belgian Congo. Ascherson details it all.
J. C. H. Blom (ed.) History of the Low Countries (Berghahn Books). Belgian history books are thin on the ground, so this incisive, well-balanced volume is very welcome. A series of historians weigh in with their specialties to build a comprehensive picture of the region from the Celts and Romans through to the 1980s. Highly recommended, though hardly sun-lounge reading.
Paul van Buitenen Blowing the Whistle (Politico's Publishing, UK). All your worst fears about the EU confirmed. Buitenen was an assistant auditor in the EU's Financial Control Directorate in Brussels and this book, published in 1998, exposed the fraud and corruption. Needless to say, the EU was far from grateful for his revelations and forced him to resign, but even so the scandal stories became so widespread that the entire Commission was obliged to resign en bloc. Since then, there have been earnest declarations that things would be much better.
Martin Conway Collaboration in Belgium (Yale UP). Detailed analysis of wartime collaboration and the development of Fascism in Belgium in the 1930s and 1940s. Authoritative and well-written, but something of a special interest text.
Pieter Geyl The Revolt of The Netherlands 1555-1609 (Littlefield Adams, US). Geyl presents a concise account of the Netherlands during its formative years, chronicling the uprising against the Spanish and the formation of the United Provinces. Without doubt the definitive book on the period.
Christopher Hibbert Waterloo (Wordsworth, UK). Hibbert is one of Britain's leading historians, an astute commentator who writes in a fluent, easily accessible style. This book is divided into three parts. The first examines Napoleon's rise to power, the second looks at Wellington and his allies, the third deals with the battle. Hibbert is also responsible for editing The Wheatley Diary (Windrush), the journal and sketchbook of a young English officer, who fought his way across Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.
Adam Hochschild King Leopold's Ghost (Macmillan/Houghton Mifflin). Harrowing and detailed account - a little on the long side - of King Leopold's savage colonial regime in the Congo. Particularly good on Roger Casement, the one-time British consul to the Congo, who publicised the cruelty and helped bring it to an end. Hochschild's last chapter - "The Great Forgetting" - is a stern criticism of the Belgians for their failure to acknowledge their dreadful colonial history.
B. H. Liddell Hart (ed.) The Letters of Private Wheeler (Windrush/Interlink Pub). A veteran of World War I, Liddell Hart writes with panache and clarity, editing up the letters penned by the eponymous private as he fought Napoleon and the French across a fair slice of Europe. Wheeler fought at Waterloo, but the section on the battle is surprisingly brief. As a whole, the letters are a delight, a witty insight into the living conditions and attitudes of Wellington's infantry.
Geoffrey Parker The Dutch Revolt (Penguin, UK). Compelling account of the struggle between the Netherlands and Spain. Probably the best work of its kind. Also The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road 1567-1659 (Cambridge UP), a fascinating insight into the Habsburg army which occupied "Belgium" for well over a hundred years - how it functioned, was fed and moved from Spain to the Low Countries along the so-called Spanish Road.
Geoffrey Wootten Waterloo 1815 (Osprey). About one third of the length of Hibbert's Waterloo , this 96-page book focuses on the battle, providing a clear, thorough and interesting account.
Art and architecture
Kristin Lohse Belkin Rubens (Phaidon Press). Too long for its own good, this book details Rubens' spectacularlysuccessful career both as artist and diplomat. Belkin is particularly thorough in her discussions of technique and the workings of his workshop. Extensive reference is made to Rubens' letters. Excellent illustrations.
Robin Blake Anthony van Dyck (Ivan R Dee). Whether or not van Dyck justifies 448 pages is a moot point, but he did have an interesting life and certainly thumped out a fair few paintings. This volume explores every artistic nook and cranny.
David Dernie Victor Horta (John Wiley & Sons). Perhaps surprisingly, this is the only book in print dedicated to that pioneer of Art Nouveau, Victor Horta. It's a competent effort too, describing his milieu and lingering on his architectural legacy, but it does cost an arm and a leg.
R. H. Fuchs Dutch Painting (Thames & Hudson). Thoughtful and well-researched title which tracks through the history of its subject from the fifteenth century onwards. Highly recommended.
R. H. Fuchs et al Flemish and Dutch Painting (from Van Gogh, Ensor, Magritte and Mondrian to Contemporary) (Rizzoli, US). Excellent, lucid account giving an overview of the development of Flemish and Dutch painting.
Suzi Gablik Magritte (Thames & Hudson). Suzi Gablik lived in Magritte's house for six months in the 1960s and this personal contact informs the text, which is lucid and thoughtful. Most of the illustrations are, however, black and white. At 208 pages, much longer than the Hammacher version.
Walter S. Gibson Bosch (Thames & Hudson). Everything you wanted to know about Bosch, his paintings and his late fifteenth-century milieu. Superbly illustrated. Also, try the beautifully illustrated Bruegel (Thames & Hudson), which takes a detailed look at the artist with nine well-argued chapters investigating the components of Pieter Bruegel the Elder's art.
A M Hammacher René Magritte (Thames & Hudson/Harry N Abrams). Thames & Hudson produce some of the finest art books in the world and this is an excellent sample, beautifully illustrated and featuring a detailed examination of Magritte's life, times and artistic output. One of the "Masters of Art" series. Very competitively priced too. First printed 1986; 128 pages.
Craig Harbison Jan van Eyck: the Play of Realism (Reaktion Books). Not much is known about van Eyck, but Harbison has done his best to root out every detail. The text is accompanied by illustrations of all of Eyck's major paintings.
Hergé The Calculus Affair (Mammoth/Little Brown); The Making of Tintin: Cigars of the Pharaoh & the Blue Lotus (Methuen UK, Little Brown US). Tintin comic strips come in and out of print at a rapid rate and there is a wide selection of audio cassettes too. The two anthologies listed here are as good a place as any to start.
Benoit Peeters Tintin and the World of Hergé: an Illustrated History (Methuen/Joy St Books). Examines the life and career of Hergé, particularly the development of Tintin, and the influences on his work. No less than 300 illustrations.
Philippe Roberts-Jones Brussels: Fin de Siecle (Benedikt Taschen Verlag, UK). Specialist text describing - and illustrating - the fizz of architectural and artistic endeavour that swept Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century. Art Nouveau and Symbolism are the two leading protagonists.
Peter Weiermair Eros & Death: Belgian Symbolism (Oehrli/Art Books). Great title and an original book exploring the nature of Belgian symbolism with reference to drawings, prints, paintings and sculptures. Artists featured include James Ensor and Felician Rops.
Christopher White Peter Paul Rubens: Man and Artist (o/p). A beautifully illustrated introduction to both Rubens' work and social milieu.
Travel and specialist guides
Charlotte and Emily Brontë (ed. Sue Lonoff) The Belgian Essays (Yale UP). The Brontë sisters left their native Yorkshire for the first time in 1842 to make a trip to Brussels. Charlotte returned to Brussels the following year. This handsome volume reproduces the twenty-eight essays they penned (in French) during their journey and provides the English translation opposite. It makes a delightful read with particular highlights being "The Butterfly", "The Caterpillar" and "The Death of Napoleon".
S. A. Delta (ed.) Guide Delta Bruxelles 2001 . Over five hundred pages of detailed and perceptive hotel and restaurant reviews - ideal if you're moving to Brussels. Only in French; available at leading bookshops in Brussels.
Ernest Gilliat-Smith The Story of Brussels (Periodicals Services, US). Quirky, good-humoured account of Brussels written in 1906. In the UK, pick it up at the library or a second-hand bookshop.
Michael Jackson The Great Beers of Belgium (Prion/Running Press). Belgium produces the best beers in the world. Michael Jackson is one of the best beer writers in the world. The result is cheeky, palatable and sinewy with just a hint of fruitiness.
Luc Sante The Factory of Facts (Granta/Vintage). Born in Belgium but raised in the US, Sante returned to his native land for an extended visit in 1989 - at the age of 35. His book is primarily a personal reflection, but he also uses this as a base for a thoughtful exploration of Belgium and the Belgians - from their art to their food and beyond. Highly recommended.
Marianne Thys Belgian Cinema (Ludion). This authoritative volume has reviews of every Belgian film ever made. Published in 1999, it's 992 pages long.
San van de Veire Belgian Fashion Design (Ludion, UK). The staggering success of Flemish fashion designers is chronicled in this well-illustrated book. The centre of the action is Antwerp, but Brussels also gets a look-in.
Tim Webb Good Beer Guide to Belgium, Holland & Luxembourg (CAMRA Books/Storey). Detailed and enthusiastic guide to the best bars, beers and breweries. A good read, and extremely well informed to boot. Undoubtedly, the best book on its subject on the market.
Mark Bles A Child at War (Warner/Mercury House). This powerful book describes the tribulations of Hortense Daman, a Belgian girl who joined the Resistance at the tender age of fifteen. Betrayed to the Gestapo, Daman was sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she was used in medical experiments, but remarkably she survived. This is her story, though the book would have benefited from some editorial pruning.
Hugo Claus The Sorrow of Belgium (Penguin, US). Born in Bruges in 1929, Claus is generally regarded as Belgium's foremost Flemish-language novelist, and this is generally regarded as his best novel. It charts the growing maturity of a young boy living in Flanders under the Nazi occupation. Claus' style is somewhat dense to say the least, but the book comes to grips with the guilt, bigotry and mistrust of the period, and caused a minor uproar when it was first published in the early 1980s. His Swordfish (Dufour) is a story of an isolated village rife with ethnic and religious tensions. The effects of this prove too much for a boy in his spiral down to madness. Also Desire (Penguin, UK), the strange and disconcerting tale of two drinking buddies, who, on an impulse, abandon small-town Belgium for Las Vegas, where both of them start to unravel.
Amelie Nothomb Loving Sabotage (New Directions). English-language translations of modern Belgian writers (in both French and Dutch) are a rarity, but Nothomb, one of Belgium's most popular writers, has made the linguistic leap. This particular novel deals with the daughter of a diplomat stationed in Peking in the 1970s, a rites-of-passage story with a Maoist backdrop. The Stranger Next Door (Henry Holt), perhaps Nothomb's most successful translated work, deals with weird and disconcerting happenings in the Belgian countryside, while Fear and Trembling (St Martins, US) is a sharply observed tale of the shoddy treatment meted out to a young Western businesswoman in a big corporation in Tokyo.
Jean Ray Malpertuis (Atlas, UK). This spine-chilling Gothic novel was written by a Belgian in 1943. It's set in Belgium, too, where the suffocating Catholicism of the Inquisition provides a perfect backcloth.
Georges Rodenbach Bruges la Morte (Atlas). First published in 1892, this slim and subtly evocative novel is all about love and obsession - or rather a highly stylised, decadent view of it. It's credited with starting the craze for visiting Bruges, the "dead city" where the action unfolds.
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