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Verhaeghen wins Flemish prize for novel ‘Omega minor’
Verhaeghen wins Flemish prize for novel ‘Omega minor’March 01, 2006Roxanna Carpenterrocarpen@syr.edu
George Santayana’s theory that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it is an idea that could haunt a psychologist whose work centers on memory, cognition and aging.
Paul Verhaeghen, teacher, researcher, author and cognitive psychologist, flirts with this theme in his book “Omega minor,” which recently won the Flemish government’s triennial literary award, Cultuurprijs voor Proza 2005.
An associate professor of psychology in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, Verhaeghen is a specialist in aspects of memory and aging and admits to being “a little about literature,” too.
“Omega minor,” described by Verhaeghen as historical fiction, is a story about human nature, the rise of fascism and the horrors of war, published originally in Dutch by Meulenhoff/Manteau in 2004. Well-received in Europe, it remained on bestseller lists for 12 weeks. The novel was short-listed for the Flemish award for the year’s best literary work in Dutch, the 2005 Golden Owl. It also won the F. Bordewijk prize in 2005, an annual Dutch award for narrative prose given by the Jan Campert Foundation in The Hague, accompanied by the sum of 5,000 euros.
The book’s translation to English, with publication by Dalkey Archive Press, is expected in 2007. Publication in German by Eichborn Press is due out mid-2006.
American novelist Richard Powers, after reading “Omega minor,” says in a 2005 interview for “Knack,” a Belgian weekly publication, “It is an amazing book ?. Much contemporary American literature does not dare raise its head. It is domesticated. Verhaeghen, on the other hand, takes on the whole 20th century in a single novel.”
Set in early 1995, the 612-page novel touches on the Manhattan Project, Hitler, Heisenberg and the Holocaust, bouncing between 1995 and 1935, Auschwitz and Los Alamos, Potsdam and Berlin. Approaching the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the story is about the madness and cruelty of the 20th century and asks whether the war really is over.
As Verhaeghen puts it, “What if the violence of the new state is the same as the violence of the vanquished Reich?”
In Ludo Stynen’s review of the novel in “World Literature Today,” he describes “Omega minor” as a sea of stories, plots and subplots yielding a panoramic view of the 20th century.
In the words of the jury that selected “Omega minor” as the best Flemish book of the past three years, the novel testifies to how “fiction can tear the mask off the lies of the non-fiction world.”
For Cultuurprijzen, the Flemish culture awards, the jury agreed that Verhaeghen tackles the big themes of the 20th century with powerful, groundbreaking stories, citing “Omega minor” as a “powerful novel that connects to international literary developments.”
A native of Belgium, Verhaeghen received a Ph.D. in 1994 from the University of Leuven, near Brussels. Now living in Syracuse, he’s been teaching at SU since 1997. Verhaeghen’s research is very much about memory — focusing on research of how memory works, and when it doesn’t. His research examines basic aspects of cognitive aging, such as what happens to older persons’ working memory and long-term memory as they age. At SU, he’s affiliated with the Center for Health and Behavior and the Research on Cognition in Adulthood and Late Life (ReCALL) Lab. Verhaeghen teaches courses in cognitive psychology, cognitive aging and the psychology of creativity.
Verhaeghen has been writing for many years, not just for scholarly publications, although his scholarly work is much published. His research is presented at conferences and appears in such journals as Psychology and Aging and Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. Verhaeghen’s work has been highlighted in the APA Monitor on Psychology, a professional publication of the American Psychological Association, as well as consumer-oriented popular magazines such as Psychology Today and Allure.
Before “Omega minor,” Verhaeghen co-wrote “De Venusbergvariaties” (Manteau, 1998) with Isabelle Rossaert. It’s a book of letters and short stories written in Dutch. Verhaeghen’s first book, “Lichtenberg” (Manteau, 1996), also in Dutch, won the 1998 Flemish Debut Prize, with an award worth about $8,000.
For Verhaeghen, it’s always been a natural step from the detailed observation to the prose. About “Omega minor” he says: “Writing this book did take an enormous amount of preparation.” Verhaeghen worked to assure the historical detail in the novel would be as correct as possible. A class in Yiddish fiction gave him the right tone for some of the narrative. Taking a class in relativity and cosmology helped him understand some of the work done on dark matter. He even went so far as to climb the steps of the Nepali temple in Benares, India, timing himself for accuracy.
Verhaeghen also spent short stints in Germany, a preparation of sorts for writing the novel. He found himself “haunted by the ghosts of both cities” where he lived.
Three months in 1995 as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Potsdam, where “the idea for the book germinated,” and a half-year stay in Berlin in 2001 as a visiting scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development allowed Verhaeghen to put himself through the paces of the places and soak in the history, “to live in a still-impoverished East Germany, to walk among Friedrich’s palaces that still bore the pockmarks of 50-year bullets.” He notes, “All Europeans have a sense of what the Second World War was, of course, but for me to be so directly confronted with its aftermath made the theme suddenly inescapable.”
Noting this influence after the fact of the writing, Verhaeghen says: “I had the distinct feeling that Germany, in a sense, still very much carried the burden of the past ? at the same time a strange sense of denial and of moral superiority was also tangible. As a psychologist interacting mostly with other psychologists, this felt odd and out of place — humans are human, after all.” Verhaeghen found the dissonance of the two mindsets remarkable.
Two other cultural aspects of Verhaeghen’s ocean-spanning bridge between Europe and the United States also impact his work. He says living in the United States as a Western European “puts me on an interesting cusp as a writer,” and his observations on the recent American political scene make him “very aware of how people’s minds can be shaped by propaganda and by firm convictions that have no basis in reality.”
Verhaeghen says, “After setting up the circumstances, the real writing becomes almost like method acting: empathy, entering the reservoir of your own memory and your own feelings.” For him, the main question is, “How do people mesh the personal with the historical?”
Verhaeghen was at the Brussels cultural center, the Flagey, Feb. 6, to receive the award for “Omega minor.” He accepted the accolades but declined the monetary prize — 12,500 euros — in protest against the war in Iraq and specifically the practice of torture. Verhaeghen is arranging to donate the money to the American Civil Liberties Union, as he did with the monies associated with the F. Bordewijk prize and the Golden Owl nomination.