Essay

Onno Blom

God's Fingerprint

15 augustus 2003

‘If you’re lucky, you sometimes come across an intellectual who knows where The Netherlands are when you’re abroad,’ wrote Gerrit Komrij in the late eighties of the previous century. ‘Roughly, at least. Somewhere near Denmark. It’s incredibly difficult to explain to such a person that The Netherlands have their own language, for instance.

Their own language? Yes, their own, independent, private language. Probably something like German then? No, no, not Deutch, Dutch - an individual expression of an individual emotion.’ The Netherlands, no more than a stamp on the world map, still suffer from the obscurity that affects most small countries. And being unknown, as the Dutch saying goes, makes you unloved. Rightly so? Of course not. Although Dutch culture is known for its capacity to whip itself and although there is a rich tradition of writers who tend to condemn their home country, it is slowly dawning on people that Dutch literature, even when compared to the literatures of close-by Germany, France and Britain, really has a lot to offer.

During the closing days of the previous century, Dutch literature bloomed. For a small country, The Netherlands has an extensive network of bookshops and a remarkably large number of both readers and writers. Research done a few years ago shows that at least one million out of the sixteen million inhabitants of The Netherlands likes to write. Of course, the quantity of these ‘writers’ doesn’t say anything about the quality they produce, but it does say something about the wide-spread love of literature and the intensity of the experience.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Dutch literary life is very active. There are tens of literary magazines in which new writers present their work and attack or defend each other. Each self-respecting newspaper or magazine has a weekly book section with interviews with writers and critical reviews. In some sense, these newspapers have become part of literature themselves by publishing criticism from writers - Komrij’s scorching critiques in Vrij Nederland in the early seventies set the staid world of criticism alight. Many newspapers have also given writers space as columnists, as has been the case for years with Battus (one of the pseudonyms of Hugo Brandt Corstius), Remco Campert and Martin Bril.

The vitality of Dutch literature is also evident from the large number of publishers. Apart from large publishing houses with long literary traditions like De Bezige Bij, J.M. Meulenhoff and Querido, there are plenty of small publishers - often run by a single editor - which offer ‘their’ writers the small-scaledness and personal attention they desire. Most publishers and newspapers are based in the Amsterdam canal area, the historic centre of Amsterdam which, due to its labyrinth-like structure, A.F.Th. van der Heijden called ‘God’s own fingerprint’. He did so in his masterful cycle of novels De tandeloze tijd (‘The Toothless Time’, 1983-1996).

A Country of Ministers

Just as the canal area of Amsterdam has expanded since the Middle Ages, and has been formed by history, so too has Dutch literature. The creation of the Seven United Netherlands, a small state neighboured by enemies in the South and East and by the sea in the North and West, formed the basis of the most distinctive characteristics of Dutch literature. Since the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule and the determined struggle for freedom of religion - the ‘Reformation’ which made Protestantism the dominant faith - Dutch literature has been characterised by individualism and a strong sense of morality.

Perhaps the people of the Low Countries were characterised by these traits before the Reformation, no matter how strong the influence of Protestant iconoclasm on Dutch art and literature. The icon of independent ‘Dutch’ writers (The Netherlands didn’t exist yet as a state) is Desiderius Erasmus, who with his satirical Lof der Zotheid (1511) (In Praise of Folly) penned an ode to the foolishness of people in authority and the clergy.

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War Menno ter Braak and Eduard du Perron, two friends and editors of the famous literary magazine Forum, were the cultural and political conscience of our ‘country of ministers’. Ter Braak and Du Perron considered ‘the man’, the author’s personality, more important than ‘the form’. It was not for nothing that one of Ter Braak’s most important books was titled Politicus zonder partij (Politician without Party, 1932). Both writers died during the first days of the German occupation. Du Perron died of a heart-attack after Hitler’s troops had landed and Ter Braak committed suicide for fear of being picked up by the German security troops (SD) because of his anti-fascist writing.

The Second World War caused the biggest shock in modern Dutch history. It was the first great war since the French Revolution when The Netherlands was also involved and many died under the bloodthirsty regime of the occupying force. ‘The War’ (the definite article says it all) still functions as a moral landmark in current debates. After the German occupation of The Netherlands, which lasted from 1940 to 1945, it was the writers who managed to bring the moralistic perception of the War - in which there seemed to have been only ‘good’ and ‘evil’ - into some perspective. Among them there wasn’t just the established writer Simon Vestdijk, a ‘wizard’ who wrote more than fifty novels, but also three young writers, who would radically change the face of Dutch prose. They are also known as ‘The Great Three’: W.F. Hermans, Gerard Reve and Harry Mulisch.

In De tranen der acacia’s (The Tears of the Acacias, 1949) and De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Dark Room of Damocles, 1958), Hermans completely demolished the image of a courageous people and the heroic role of the Resistance. He described the War as an opaque, sadistic universe in which people reacted pragmatically and irrationally and in which ‘the truth’ often could not be found. In his disturbing, yet beautiful, novel De donkere kamer van Damocles, set during the War, the protagonist, Osewoudt, receives secret assignments from the mysterious Dorbeck, who looks exactly like him. At the end of the novel, crucial questions remain unanswered. Did Dorbeck exist? Was Osewoudt a hero or a collaborator? These are still topics of discussion.

After the publication of his autobiographical debut, De avonden (The Evenings, 1947) Gerard Reve became ‘world-famous in North and South Holland,’ or so he claimed. The book caused shock waves amongst the critics, because the life of Frits Egters, observed during the last ten days of 1946, painted a clear picture of post-war desolation. Reve’s debut still has a magical ring to it, but is mostly read now because of its irresistible humour, which critics at the time had a hard time to grasp. In De avonden Reve paints a crystal-clear and ironic picture of his friends, his parents and the sad period in which they lived. ‘It was seen, it hasn’t gone unnoticed,’ is the famous last line of this book.

Another thing that did not go unnoticed was the literary arrival of Harry Mulisch. In 1952, his debut Archibald Strohalm (Archibald Straw) won the Reina Prinsen Geerligs Prize, while his literary breakthrough was in 1958, when he published Het stenen bruidsbed (The Stone Bridal Bed). This novel tells the story of an American war criminal (according to Mulisch a contradiction in terms), who returns to the centre of Dresden, which he bombed during the war. The Second World War is a recurrent theme in Mulisch’ work, which has everything to do with his personal background. The son of an Austrian who was a collaborator during the war, his mother was Jewish. This extreme contradiction prompted his provocative statement, ‘I am the Second World War.’

For many other writers, too, their personal background has made the War the central theme of their work. This is particularly true for G.L. Durlacher, who as a Jewish boy survived the concentration camps, and Marga Minco, whose parents were deported and gassed in Auschwitz. In Het bittere kruid (1957) (Bitter Herbs), Minco tells her story in a very precise, almost detached style, thus increasing its impact.

Nowadays there are also numerous writers who, having Jewish parents, have been traumatised by the War. An example of a writer in whose initially dark, but suddenly reader-friendly and supply written work the War plays a recurring role is Leon de Winter. Then there are the clear, sharply written novels of Carl Friedman. Her debut is Tralievader (1990) (Nightfather). Another author in whose work the War features between the lines is Arnon Grunberg, although that doesn’t explain the mystery of this brilliant young writer’s work. In Blauwe maandagen (1991) (Blue Mondays) and Figuranten (1997) (Silent Extras), but also in the novels which Grunberg published under the pseudonym of Marek van der Jagt, he combines deep, sometimes chilling tragedy with a relaxed, humorous, and repetitive style reminiscent of that of Geard Reve.

Pearls in the Crown

There is another theme which has been of great influence on modern Dutch literature and which is deeply rooted in Dutch history. From the moment the ships of the Dutch East-India Company (VOC) travelled the Seven Seas, they did not return with just gold, silver and spices but also with stories. Dutch writing began to feature exotic locations, particularly because Dutch traders left for long periods of time to the colonies, including Surinam, Curaçao and the Dutch East-Indies which, because of its culture and natural beauty, was considered the pearl in the Dutch crown. The key nineteenth-century novel portraying the Dutch perception of ‘our Indies’ is Max Havelaar (1860). The author, Multatuli (literally: ‘I suffered greatly,’ a pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker) wrote, in a variety of genres, a razor-sharp indictment of the situation in the former Dutch East-Indies, as well as justifying his own existence in the East-Indies. Douwes Dekker worked as a magistrate in Lebak but left after a serious argument.

Multatuli was the literary hero of E. du Perron, who was born of rich parents in the Dutch East-Indies, but had to leave the Indonesian Archipelago. His fist-thick Het land van herkomst (‘Country of Origin’, 1935) leaves a strong impression of a character whose life left him with a split personality.

The motif of the split personality recurs in the novels of Hella S. Haasse, ‘the grand old lady’ of Dutch literature, whose work is deemed to be of the same quality as that of ‘The Great Three’. Haasse was born in Weltevreden, an area of Batavia (modern Jakarta), in 1918 and moved to The Netherlands just before the onset of the Second World War. She spent much of her childhood on Java and still considers her impressions of it as the most important source of her inspiration. As with Multatuli and Du Perron, her love of the country, its nature and culture fills her with melancholy, yet her work is not dominated by it. Both Oeroeg (1948) - her short debut about the friendship between an Indonesian and a white, Western boy - and Sleuteloog (Eye of the Key, 2002), have a distinctly engaging undertone. Their main characters realise that in the end, they don’t belong anywhere.

Realising you are an outsider can also be seen, for instance, in Helga Ruebsamen’s beautiful yet harrowing novel Het lied en de waarheid (‘The Song and the Truth’, 1997) about a Jewish girl who, paradoxically, returns with her family to Europe just before the Second World War because her desperate father wants to help his family. The theme is also seen in the work of F. Springer, the pseudonym of Carel Jan Schneider, who also grew up in the Dutch East-Indies, and was repatriated by ship after the war. By the late nineteen-fifties Springer had become a diplomat. He left The Netherlands and travelled the world. Evidence of his ‘life in suitcases’ can be found in his beautiful, unpretentious body of work.

Another author whose work is strongly influenced by the sense of being trapped between two cultures is Adriaan van Dis, son of a Dutch mother and a lieutenant of the Royal Dutch East-Indies Army (KNIL) His novel Indische Duinen (1990) (My Father’s War: A Novel) opens with a classic arrival scene. The sisters of the little boy who is the main character press their noses against the porthole of the ship taking them from the Dutch East-Indies to the Netherlands. In the rest of the novel, ‘Indië’ as the Dutch East-Indies are called in Dutch, has a magical ring. ‘Nathan had never been there, but he was made there. Indië was everywhere in the house.’

To some writers, Indië meant the horror of the Japanese camps there, which the Japanese created to lock up the white rulers. The theme plays a crucial role in the work of both Rudy Kousbroek - who had close ties with the experimental poets’ group De Vijftigers (people of the fifties, such as Lucebert, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Hugo Claus and Remco Campert) - and Jeroen Brouwers, but in an opposite way. During the eighties, decades after Indonesia became independent, the two of them fought a painful polemic about the use of the Indonesian war trauma in the imagination. In Het Oostindisch kampsyndroom (‘The East-Indies Camp Syndrome’, 1992) Kousbroek proved to be a defendant of the historic truth, while Brouwers’ novels Het verzonkene (‘The Submerged’, 1979), Bezonken rood (1981) (Sunken Red) and De zondvloed (The Deluge, 1986) are a tragic ode to the imagination. Judging from how well his latest novel, Geheime kamers (Secret Rooms, 2000) was received, Brouwers, now sixty, is still one of the most important Dutch writers.

The splintering influence of a past in another country of origin is also at the basis of the work of writers who emigrated or fled to The Netherlands, and the growing group of writers who grew up in an immigrant family.

Kader Abdolah fled Iran in 1988, taught himself the language by reading Jip en Janneke (Jim and Jennifer) by Annie M.G. Schmidt, the most famous and best-loved author of children’s books in The Netherlands. In his novels De reis van de lege flessen (The Journey of the Empty Bottles, 1997) and Spijkerschrift (2000) (Cuneiform), set alternately in Iran and a residential area in the town of Zwolle, Abdolah clearly and movingly juxtaposes two worlds.

Hafid Bouazza and Abdelkader Benali are both sons of Moroccan guest workers, who came to The Netherlands in the nineteen seventies. They grew up with Dutch, but lived in a ‘foreign’ culture at home. Both young writers are well respected, not just as eloquent representatives of a generally poor and problematic part of the population, but particularly because of their amazing stylistic qualities. Bouazza’s artistry is mostly influenced by late nineteenth, early twentieth century Dutch literature, while Benali’s novels Bruiloft aan zee (Wedding by the Sea, 1996) and De langverwachte (The Long-Awaited, 2002) provide cheerful, colourful fireworks exploding above modern society.

A Narcissistic Conspiracy

Modern Dutch prose, and not just the prose inspired by social themes, crackles with the tension between fact and fiction. During the seventies, Dutch literature appeared to be dominated by realism. For instance, the work of Jan Wolkers and Maarten ‘t Hart, who have both struggled with their strict, Protestant upbringing. Both write in a straightforward manner, but their styles are completely different. While Maarten ‘t Hart’s is heavily influenced by Christianity and is austere, Wolkers lets his pen dance, producing titillating novels like Terug naar Oegstgeest (Back to Oegstgeest, 1965) and Turks fruit (Turkish Delight, 1969).

Even greater emphasis on the ‘ordinary’ and ironic is seen in the work of story tellers like Mensje van Keulen and Heere Heeresma, who published titles like Allemaal tranen (All Tears, 1972) and Zwaarmoedige verhalen voor bij de centrale verwarming (Melancholy Stories for the Central Heating, 1973). Their anecdotal work invoked the anger of Jeroen Brouwers who, in the iconoclastic De Nieuwe Revisor, called their work ‘Boys’ and Girls’ Literature’. Brouwers sighed, ‘Come again, Beauty. Come again, Cleanliness.’ However, Dutch literature is still heavily influenced by realism. Dutch readers are very keen on the autobiographical, partly, perhaps, due to the strong presence of writers in literary sections and television programmes.

Best-selling author Connie Palmen met the demand with I.M. (1998), an obituary for the well-known Dutch journalist Ischa Meijer, who was the love of her life. Literary critics ripped it to pieces, but sales soared. Palmen herself has always claimed there is a deeper meaning to her work. Both her debut, De wetten (The Laws, 1990), and her second novel, De vriendschap (‘The Friendship’, 1995) are characterised by a philosophical approach and a great deal of reflection.

Another much talked-about writer who doesn’t shy away from the autobiographical is J.J. Voskuil, whose work is suffused by the individualistic thinking of Ter Braak and Du Perron. After his debut in the sixties, the voluminous novel Bij nader inzien (‘On Second Thoughts’, 1963), Voskuil began writing Het Bureau. This novel, which he started in the mid-nineties, consists of seven parts and is 5500 pages long. In it, Voskuil examines the behaviour of the employees of a scientific institution, and describes it in an abrasive, most detailed way. To the author, Het Bureau was therapeutic, to the readers, it was a soap opera. People talked about its characters as if they were on television and looked forward to the publication of each new part of ‘the greatest novel in the world’.

A natural counterpart to the reigning realism was a number of authors who, in the seventies, often published in the literary magazine De Revisor. Frans Kellendonk, Doeschka Meijsing and Oek de Jong concentrated on the form of their writing and chose modernist writers like Joyce, Borges and Nabokov as their source of inspiration.

The Revisor authors were sometimes described as ‘academic’ because they went to university, which is reflected in their work. However, their writing was far from though, dry or difficult to read. Kellendonk’s most important novel, Mystiek lichaam (Mystical Body, 1986), is characterised by an astonishing symbolic richness.

Much later, during the late nineties, it was again a number of Revisor authors who attacked the ‘flat realism’. Allard Schröder and P.F. Thomése saw a ‘narcissistic conspiracy’ in literature, were weary of the Voskuils and Palmens and argued passionately in favour of the primacy of the imagination.

Of course, in recent decades it hasn’t just been Revisor writers who have looked at form and were inspired by contemporary philosophers and important modernist writers. Marcel Möring’s work, for instance, is greatly influenced by Kafka and Beckett. In his novels Het grote verlangen (‘The Great Desire’, 1992) and In Babylon (1997), Möring happily takes on big events from history and lets his stories meander.

Another such author is Geerten Meijsing, who began his literary career using the pseudonym Joyce & Co. and tried everything which a young, reckless writer needs to try. Meanwhile, however, he wrote a series of successful, exuberantly written novels, plus one learned philosophical masterpiece, De ongeschreven leer (The Unwritten Doctrines, 1995).

Cees Nooteboom wrote philosophical novels with the emphasis on form before De Revisor even existed. To Nooteboom, a contemporary and good friend of Harry Mulisch’, writing is a type of thinking. His books - including his many travel books - contain many references to literature and mythology, are often entirely self-contained, and deal with the relationship between reality and the imagination, as is apparent, for instance, from the title of one of his novella’s, Het lied van schijn en wezen (A Song of Reality and Semblance, 1995) a reference to the nineteenth-century writer and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden. Despite the complex character of his work, however, Nooteboom’s latest novels Rituelen (Rituals, 1980), Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story, 1991) and Allerzielen (All Souls, 1998) have been popular at home and abroad. In Germany the author is even more famous than in his native country.

Yet, it was no coincidence that De Revisor introduced the writer who would turn out to be the greatest stylistic talent of modern Dutch literature. The magazine was approached by one Albert Egberts, who in a letter introduced Patrizio Canaponi, a ‘Dutch-Italian’ writer. Neither turned out to exist. Canaponi was a pseudonym for A.F.Th. van der Heijden and Albert Egberts was the protagonist of De tandeloze tijd (The Toothless Time), a seven-part saga portraying seventies and eighties Amsterdam.

Van der Heijden did not limit himself to a chronicle but allowed Egberts to ‘live broadly’, thus enriching reality with the imagination. To Van der Heijden ‘living broadly’ also means ‘writing broadly’. In the spring of 2003 he published the first novel of his Homo Duplex, a new, nine-part series in which he uses his enormous, baroque stylistic force to move Oedipus to modern times.

The Discovery of Heaven

It may be clear that modern Dutch literature is kaleidoscopic in nature - lively, colourful and varied. Old themes return in a modern setting, polemics flare and die down, and experimental books exist side by side with classically constructed novels. On the one side of the spectrum there are writers like Charlotte Mutsaers, Gerrit Krol and Willem Brakman (who wrote his fiftieth novel in 2003), who love to lead their readers into labyrinths and let form and content test the relationship between literature and reality. Their original and individual work is intended to enchant and surprise.

On the other side, there is the reviving ‘old-fashioned’ historical novel. Allard Schröder, for instance, wrote De hydrograaf (‘The Hydrographer’, 2002), a beautiful historical novel about a sea journey that takes place at the beginning of the last century. And Margriet de Moor, too, has written historical novels - although her work is not characterised by it. During the eighties and nineties she wrote an impressive series of ‘modern’ novels which are both lyrical and artistic in style. Her richest and most acclaimed book to date is Eerst grijs, dan wit, dan blauw (1991) (First Grey, Then White, Then Blue) The current success of the historical novel is mostly due to Thomas Rosenboom, who in Gewassen vlees (Washed Flesh, 1994) and Publieke werken (Public Works, 1999), wrote two voluminous, stylistically perfect and masterfully composed novels describing the unavoidable downfall of eighteenth and nineteenth-century characters respectively. Rosenboom recently added De nieuwe man (The New Man, 2003), an oppressive, yet hilarious novel set in the nineteen tens and twenties of the previous century.

The kaleidoscopic nature of literature also means that young writers publish side by side with older, more established ones. Shortly before Gewassen vlees Hella S. Haasse, who is eighty-five, wrote the historic novel Heren van de thee (The Tea Merchants, 1993), of which more than 300,000 copies have been sold. Modern Dutch literature does not only feature young and talented writers like Oscar van den Boogaard and Manon Uphoff but is also still influenced by ‘The Great Three’. W.F. Hermans’ adage ‘not a sparrow is allowed to fall off the roof without there being any point in it,’ is an ideal to many writers, including Thomas Rosenboom. Although Hermans died in 1995, his novels Nooit meer slapen (Sleep No More, 1966) - the story of a deadly, inescapable journey to the North - and the roman à clef Onder professoren (Amonst Professors, 1975) are still being reprinted.

It seems that because of his health Gerard Reve is no longer able to write, but the huge impression he made with romantic/decadent novels like Moeder en zoon (Mother and Son, 1980) and Het boek van violet en dood (The Book of Violet and Death, 1996), as well as his all-revealing letter books, remains. ‘I have to write,’ Reve stated in his Brief uit schrijversland (‘Letter from the Land of Writers’, in Op weg naar het einde, On My Way to the End, 1963), ‘because it is the only activity I find meaningful, not because it serves anyone or anything, but because it’s my work and my destiny to put my thoughts on paper.’ Of all writers of the older generation it is Reve’s style which is most imitated.

Harry Mulisch strove to be immortal, and he seems to have succeeded. The protagonist of his latest novel, Siegfried (2001), his alter ego Rudolf Herter, still deems himself ‘the best writer of The Netherlands’. Even after Mulisch published De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven) - it came out in 1992, the year in which he turned sixty-five - the dazzling, ‘complete novel’ which American critics compared to Dante, Homer and Milton, he did not stop writing. In interviews Mulisch has said that he is now looking forward to discovering what is beyond heaven.

The future will tell what he and his Dutch colleagues will discover in the century ahead.

Dutch literature has much to offer, even when compared to the literatures from close-by Germany, France and Britain. Onno Blom charts the developments over the last five years.