What is the best-known book set in Belgium?

See note on methodology

This is one of the tough cases where Goodreads and LibraryThing between them deliver a consistent ranking of books tagged “Belgium” by their users, but there is good reason to challenge the Belgianness of, well, most of the leaders. To start with, two classics – one published in 2004, one in 1847-8 – which both feature lengthy and memorable passages set in Belgium (in 1931 and 1815 respectively), but these are far from being the majority of the book:

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Next up is an 1853 novel set in the fictional capital of a fictional kingdom (French-speaking, but with its own local language too). It’s pretty obvious, even without knowing the author’s personal history, that the kingdom is Belgium and the capital is Brussels. However, I feel a slight reluctance to list this as a book properly set in Belgium, since the correct name of the country is never used. It is:

Villette, by Charlotte Brontë

Next is a Pulitzer-winning non-fiction book published in 1962 and covering events of just over a century ago. The scope is all over Europe, but again some of the most memorable passages are set in Belgium – not just in Belgium, but in the university city near which I live. It is:

The Guns of August / August 1914, by Barbara Tuchman

Next is a 2003 novel by an English writer, set in the fifteenth century. Around half of it is set in Brussels, which is certainly now in Belgium; but a very large chunk is set in Paris, where the artwork referred to in the title is commissioned and where it is to be found today. One might raise the Iliad problem also, in that the setting long predates the current name of the country. The novel is:

The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier

Next is the book most frequently tagged “Belgium” by both Goodreads and LibraryThing readers. A non-fiction work published in 1998, it is certainly very much concerned with Belgium and has a brutally effective portrayal of the Belgian ruler identified in the book’s title. However, it is really concerned with events on another continent, managed though they were from Belgium. It is:

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, by Adam Hoschschild

And now we run into real problems of definition, and also the LT and GR rankings are well out of step. The next book which is clearly set in Belgium for all but the first few chapters is by the same author as the 1853 book; written earlier, it was published only in 1857, two years after her death. It is:

The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë

It is jockeying for position with the best-known book by a Belgian writer, a 1999 novel which unfortunately for our purposes is mainly set in Japan:

Fear and Trembling / Stupeur et tremblements, by Amélie Nothomb

The top fiction book by a Belgian writer which is actually set in Belgium, as far as I can see, is a 1943 graphic novel – not the author’s best-known work, in that there are more popular volumes in the series set elsewhere in the world, but it is the top-ranked one set on home base. It is:

The Secret of the Unicorn / Le Secret de la Licorne, by Hergé

One other book that does very well in tagging, but much less well in ownership, is a 1983 autobiographical novel about life before, during and after the second world war: 

The Sorrow of Belgium / Het Verdriet van België, by Hugo Claus

I’ve left out a number of other contenders with really minimal Belgian content here. I guess I will choose the 1853 romance as the best answer to the question, but it’s not terribly satisfactory. 

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