As Amsterdam celebrates diversity in ten days of Pride, with more than 150 events, Dutch readers can also rejoice in Queer, a new anthology of stories and poems by several generations of Dutch and Flemish authors. Some, like Gerbrand Bakker, Adriaan van Dis, Saskia de Coster, Tom Lanoye and Gerard Reve (1923-2006), have already enjoyed success abroad, but for foreign publishers looking for a good read somewhere over the rainbow, there’s still a lot of great literature to discover. Let’s have a quick look at the Dutch fiction.
In her Introduction to Queer, Xandra Schutte (editor-in-chief of the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer) concludes that ‘recent works show homosexuality as above all unremarkable. There may be descriptions of powerful desire, as in Wat alleen wij horen (What We Alone Hear) by Saskia de Coster, when two women go straight to the bedroom and together form one body, a ‘many-legged creature full of craving that can’t wait any longer’. Relationships may end, as in Weg (Gone) by Minke Douwesz or Over de liefde (About Love) by Doeschka Meijsing. Boys may awaken sexually for the first time, as in Boven is het stil (The Twin) by Gerbrand Bakker or Kartonnen dozen (Cardboard Boxes) by Tom Lanoye. Two women may start a family together. None of this is any longer presented as scandalous or shocking. See for example the laconic opening line of We zullen niet te pletter slaan (We Won’t Smash to Pieces) by Nina Polak: ‘Their mother left their mother on the day the new kitchen arrived.’
This conclusion undoubtedly also applies to the work of Hanna Bervoets and Lieke Marsman, millennials like the aforementioned Nina Polak, as are Naomi Rebekka Boekwijt, Marieke Rijneveld and Hannah van Wieringen. Fiction by all six of them has been selected for Queer. Young male writers are notably lacking. They are around, but don’t always write fiction. There is Moroccan-Dutch Tofik Dibi (b. 1980), for instance, a well-known former politician, who came out in 2015 with his book Djinn, and Middle-East correspondent, columnist and novelist Mounir Samuel (b. 1989) who also writes about gender and identity, as well as the very sweet autobiographical graphic novels of Floor de Goede (b. 1980).
Three millenials: Bervoets, Marsman, Wortel
Hanna Bervoets (b. 1984) has mastered the art of investigating ideas and telling a good story at the same time. She already has an impressive series of novels to her name, many of which have won literary prizes. Her most recent novel, Fuzzie, raises questions about intimacy by introducing a little furry ball as a main character (‘May I say that you’re beautiful?’), while Efter is set in a future where love is considered a psychiatric condition, treatable with medication. Her fifth novel, Ivanov, which won her the prestigious BNG Literature Prize in 2016, centres around the true story of Russian biologist Ilja Ivanov, who attempted to create a hybrid species of animal by injecting human sperm into female apes, and the parallel story of Felix, who travels to New York in 1994 to study journalism and to embrace gay life, despite his terror of the AIDS epidemic. There he meets a professor called Helena who is researching Ivanov’s story, in the hope that it will lead to a cure for AIDS. These threads are woven together in a novel that explores ethical issues while also raising questions about what it means to be human and who sets the standard.
A brand new debut novel Het tegenovergestelde van een mens (The Opposite of a Human) by poet and philosopher Lieke Marsman (b. 1990) presents an intriguing amalgam of fiction and essay writing, in which climate change, identity and the inability to engage with life form the core. Twenty-nine-year-old Ida has no job, sees Naomi Klein as her hero and falls at first sight for Robin, a PhD student of literature. Ida sees herself as having grown up ‘without any idea, not even a religion […] Since then, every ideology I come upon resembles the weather: a huge influence on my daily activities today, but different tomorrow.’
Maartje Wortel (b. 1982) has a ‘fondness for fragility and failure’. In the long short story ‘The Writer II’ in her fourth book Er moet iets gebeuren (Something Has to Happen) a relationship is about to end. And in the dazzling jewel that is Goudvissen en beton (Goldfish and Concrete), a novella recently published in English and Spanish, she manages to evoke almost as beautifully as Jeannette Winterson, although in a style entirely her own, the feeling of being in love, of daring and falling. Wild, energetic, mischievous, the reviewers wrote.
Though Schutte’s conclusion may apply to the latest generations, almost all the great LGBT classics won their place in Dutch literature amid a great deal of commotion or outrage. This is certainly true of the beautiful and openly erotic Pijpelijntjes (1904) by Jacob Israël de Haan (said to be just as ‘untranslatable’ as Nescio and Reve, both of whose work has recently appeared in translation) in which he describes the ‘friendship’ between Joop and Sam, who live together and continually move from one room to another. In passing, De Haan describes how well Joop knows his way around the secretive Amsterdam world in which boys can be bought for sex. It is true, too, of Eenzaam avontuur (Lonely Adventure, 1948) by Anna Blaman, which involves both adultery and lesbian feelings without any act being described explicitly, yet which led to a scandalous tribunal, a show trial in the guise of a literary event. Commotion and outrage were hardly in short supply at the time of an actual court case, the famous ‘donkey suit’, concerning Nader tot u (Nearer to Thee) by Gerard Reve, inimitable in his ability to sharpen language into an instrument of seduction, solace and mercy, and his magnificent politically-incorrect sense of humour. And they were characteristic of reactions to the recently rediscovered novel De thuiswacht (The Tree and the Vine) by Dola de Jong, set in the Amsterdam of the Second World War, which was rejected by publishers for years and appeared only in 1954. The same even holds true of the relatively recent Mystiek lichaam (Mystical Body, 1986) by the independent thinker Frans Kellendonk.
Andreas Burnier (1931-2002)
Controversy likewise surrounds Andreas Burnier. The recent biography by Elisabeth Lockhorn has boosted interest in her prose. All her life she was a displaced person. As a Jewish child, going into hiding during the war and staying at sixteen different addresses in the space of three years, Christian families she had never met before. As a girl who knew from an early age that she was a boy trapped in the wrong body. As a married, homosexual mother. As a criminologist who favoured a strictly scientific approach at a time when ‘the social environment’ was blamed for everything. As a feminist who refused to hate men or to accept a lack of ambition as a virtue. As a writer with an ironic streak that was taken too literally by many critics. As a lonely fighter against the legalization of euthanasia, just when everyone in the Netherlands seemed to be in favour. As a spiritual ‘seeker’ and a blasphemer in the intellectual church of Reason, who eventually opted for the home she had never known: Judaism. Both her debut novel Een tevreden lach (A Contented Smile, 1965) and the later Het jongensuur (Boys’ Hour, 1969) are told from the point of view of the same first-person protagonist, Simone, who is not comfortable in her girl’s body. Het jongensuur is set entirely set in the war years, in hiding. In Een tevreden lach Simone, a student, goes into a bar dressed as a man and is immediately recognized as a woman. Both books are ‘eversellers’, they have not been out of print since they were first published in the sixties; in the 1990s both novels were translated into German.
Gerrit Komrij (1944-2012)
Another classic well worth considering is Verwoest Arcadië (Arcadia Demolished) by novelist, poet, anthologist, translator, polemical playwright and critic Gerrit Komrij. Originally written in 1977, age 33, as a feuilleton for the weekly Vrij Nederland,this autobiography or coming-of-age novel reads as the reconstruction of a life with books and boys. Yet at the same time it mocks the cliché of the memoir, the confessional novel or the ego-document. ‘Jacob couldn’t attract attention “by simply being who he was”, because then he’d have nothing that attracted attention. […] You existed only if you played at being someone else, or played at what you could be. […] He picked books from of the long shelves of the bookshops in town, then quickly stuffed them into his inside pocket or under his coat. He picked boys from the natural environment, which is to say: from the street. Both cost nothing and both were a matter of the exterior alone. […] His collection became a pointless pile of rubbish. And yet, slowly, very hesitantly, something took shape in the mountain of bric-à-brac, something slowly rose up out of that bouillabaisse of sprats and putative codfish, an elegant typed page, the outline of a beautiful face. It pointed to a renewed ability to choose. In short he discovered a new exterior – that of literature.’
Doeschka Meijsing (1947-2012)
An absolute lesbian favourite, finally, with both readers and critics, is Over de liefde (About Love) by Doeschka Meijsing. The departure of her third great love after twelve years together has left Philippa, Pip to those close to her, in a state of all-consuming rage. She is unable to do anything, and the fact that Jula is now with a man only further fuels her fury – and her sorrow, from which she defends herself by looking at herself ironically, almost cynically.In a detached, often witty style, Meijsing portrays a woman in her early fifties bouncing back, resuming her life, strengthened both physically and psychologically. The novel won her the AKO Literature Prize in 2008 and has been reprinted many times since.
More LGBT lists:
- Queer, editor Nienke van Leverink and introduction by Xandra Schutte, Atlas Contact publishers (Dutch website) & Table of Contents of this anthology (pdf)
- literary website Tzum’s selection of 150 alltime best gay books and 150 alltime best lesbian books
- Savannah Bay Bookstore, Utrecht
- Athenaeum Bookstore, Amsterdam
- IHLIA LGBT Heritage
Stories to start reading:
More information on authors mentioned:
- Gerbrand Bakker: biography and books, works in translation and short story in recent German translation in Das Mag. The Best Of
- Hanna Bervoets: biography and books
- Anna Blaman (1905-1960): publisher Meulenhoff (dutch) and works in translation
- Andreas Burnier (1931-2002): Boys’ Hour and works in translation
- Naomi Rebekka Boekwijt: publisher De Arbeiderspers (dutch)
- Saskia de Coster: biography and books, works in translation and short story in recent German translation in Das Mag. The Best Of
- Tofik Dibi: publisher Prometheus (dutch)
- Adriaan van Dis: biography and books and works in translation
- Minke Douwesz: publisher Van Oorschot (dutch) and short story in translation
- Floor de Goede: biography and books
- Jacob Israël de Haan (1881-1924): works in translation and short story in Amsterdam Tales, Oxford University Press, 2017.
- Dola de Jong (1911-2003): biography and books and works in translation
- Frans Kellendonk (1951-1990): works in translation and short story in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, ed. Joost Zwagerman, 2016.
- Gerrit Komrij (1944-2012): biography and books, IM, works in translation and poetry resp. short story in recent German translation in die horen resp. Amsterdam
- Tom Lanoye: biography and books and works in translation
- Lieke Marsman: biography and books, poetry in translation and poetry in German translation in die horen
- Doeschka Meijsing (1947-2012): biography and books, IM and works in translation
- Nina Polak: publisher Prometheus (dutch)
- Gerard Reve (1923-2006): biography and books, works in translation and short story in recent German translation in Amsterdam
- Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: publisher Atlas Contact (dutch)
- Mounir Samuel: website (english) and publishers Jurgen Maas and De Geus (both dutch)
- Hannah van Wieringen: publisher De Harmonie and website (both dutch) and poetry in German translation in die horen
- Maartje Wortel: biography and books, novella in translation and short stories in German translation in die horen, Wär mein Klavier doch ein Pferd, Das Mag. The Best Of and Amsterdam.