Leopold Andreas van Ostaijen is the seventh and last son of emigrate Dutchman Hendrik Pieter van Ostaijen, professional plumber, and the Flemish Maria Antoinetta Berben-Engelen. After no luck in three upper schools, he goes to the Royal Athenaeum in Antwerp. There he participates in the association of Antwerp Athenaeum students, the Vlaamsche Bond. At 18, he leaves school, without a diploma, and a few months later finds a small job as a clerk at the Antwerp City Hall.
At the outbreak of World War I, the Van Ostaijen family flees to Holland for a short time. Once back, the writing clerk joins (again) in the fray of the cultural and social life where he meets painters and other writers.
As a journalist, Van Ostaijen worked with such papers as Carolus, Vlaamsche Gazet, Het Tooneel, De Antwerpse Courant, Ons Land and De Goedendag. Although he originally was moderate in expression, there are quickly radical Flemish-leaning views to be seen in his journalistic pieces. During the wartime years, he becomes radical at the political level.
In April 1916, Music-Hall, his first volume of poetry appears, with confessional poetry, but also with new, lively poems that know how to capture modern life. The volume enjoys great success, and after Music-Hall, he is seen as the most modern Flemish poet.
Two years later, not long after the armistice, Het sienjaal appears. The volume contains humanitarian-expressionistic poetry, partially written under the influence of the work by young German expressionist poets. The Flemish Movement also continues to play a major part in Van Ostaijen’s poetry. Not long afterwards, Van Ostaijen heads off to Berlin with his girlfriend Emma Clément: he has to serve out a sentence for catcalling Cardinal Mercier during a procession in Antwerp in 1917. Moreover, he had collaborated with activist publications and in 1918 he was a candidate to become second in command of the Flemish state police.
Berlin becomes a trial for Van Ostaijen; at the same time he is highly productive in writing. On the personal level, he endures a crisis. The activists have lost the fight. The German November revolution fails almost literally outside his window. His relationship falls apart and the poverty and self-imposed exile do not make life any easier.
He processes the wartime years and his personal crisis into poetry that is different in tone and form than his earlier poems. Between 1919 and 1921, Bezette Stad and the unpublished manuscript De Feesten van Angst en Pijn come about practically simultaneously. Nihilism, typography and Dada, the modern urban living, the war, advertising slogans, films, Christianity, higher and lower arts all receive a place in this poetry.
Van Ostaijen also writes grotesque pieces in Berlin. The screenplay of De bankroet jazz and essays and critiques are published in the newspaper Ruimte, among others.
In 1921, Van Ostaijen returns to Flanders. He announces himself to the authorities, receives amnesty, but does not get out of his delayed duty of service. He participates for a year or so in the Belgian occupying army in Germany, in Issum, and again undergoes a serious crisis. For two years he scarcely writes anything.
In 1923, Van Ostaijen returns home. One year later be becomes a seller in the bookstore Iris and begins to publish poems that he shall later assemble into a volume under the name Het eerste boek van Schmoll. In 1925, he moves to Brussels in order to manage an art store there. He gives a few lectures on painting and lyric and becomes acquainted with Gaston Burssens and Eddy du Perron. He writes sonorous and whimsical poems that he places under the rubric ‘pure lyric’. When tuberculosis of the lung lays him low, he suffers a collapse. In 1927, he stays a while in Viersel in the Kempen until there is a place in a certain sanatorium Le Vallon in Miavoye-Anthée. During his stay there he remains literarily productive. He continues to collaborate with Vlaamsche Arbeid and along with Burssens and Du Perron he forms the publication Avontuur that only exists for a short while as well, coinciding with the death of Van Ostaijen on 18 March 1928.
Presently, Van Ostaijen lies in the honorary patch of the Antwerp Schoonselhof, by way of and underneath the monument made by Oscar Jespers, which depicts an angel that is laying its ear upon the grave of the poet in order to listen.
Source: Paul van Ostaijengenootschap (www.paulvanostaijen.be)