Paul Willems was born on April 4, 1912, the son of revered Belgian poet Marie Gevers. He spent his childhood on the family estate, Missembourg, located in Edegem, near the seaside city Antwerp. The old country house had been bought by Willems’s grandfather, a disciple of Rousseau, as a retreat from modern civilization. It was said to be haunted by the ghost of a famous highwayman, forever searching for his lost treasure.
Young Paul did not attend school until the age of twelve. His maternal grandmother gave him lessons in French and Latin in the mornings, and in the afternoons he was sent out into the gardens to learn from the greatest teacher: nature. The estate’s gardener, who claimed to be a wizard, also taught the child respect for the tools of one’s trade. Willems’s novels and plays reflect his childhood love for nature, especially water: lakes, ponds, the sea, and the ever-present Belgian rain. A fatalistic pessimist who rejected religious orthodoxy, Willems nonetheless meditated with both irony and mystical delight on the nameless beauty of the ephemeral.
Willems received his law degree from the Free University of Brussels in 1936 and practiced maritime law in Antwerp from 1937 to 1940. In addition to pursuing an active writing career, Willems entered the Palais des Beaux Arts de Bruxelles in 1946, where he served as director general (1947-1984). He continued to reside at Missembourg, however, with his wife, Elza, and commuted...
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