Jaap Goedegebuure

Between the Individual and Society

19 September 1997

Dutch is a language spoken not only by some twenty-five million people living in the Netherlands and Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) but also in Surinam and on the islands of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. Authors who write in Dutch can therefore communicate with readers in a variety of different countries. Books cross borders drawn by history, just as history has left its mark on literature. Colonisation and decolonisation have profoundly influenced many of the novels that appeared since Multatuli’s landmark Max Havelaar (1860). The Northern Netherlands broke away from Spain during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) while Spain retained control of the south. The Southern Netherlands had a decisive impact on the respective cultures of modern Holland and Belgium. Protestantism determined the culture of the north to a large extent, Catholicism that of the south.

Protestant Legacy

The Protestant legacy is still evident in Dutch literature, the contemplative character of which has a moralistic tinge. This is easily explained: in the sixteenth century the Reformation, which permeated Dutch intellectual life, emphasised individual responsibility to God and society. The Northern Netherlands’ most distinguished writers-the humanist Erasmus, the baroque poet Vondel, the free-thinker Multatuli, and the nihilist sceptic Ter Braak - were all moralists. Even when they resorted to irony or satire to make their point, they were always either allies or rivals of priests and preachers.

Even in the late twentieth century, now that Dutch society has been thoroughly secularized, the contemplative element remains. Almost all contemporary authors integrate the situations, events and characters they depict into a form that resembles a parable: reality is not only described or transformed into art, it also serves to illustrate a particular vision of life or society. This is especially characteristic of those writers who have drawn their material from World War II.

Good and evil

For the peace-loving Netherlands, which had not experienced war since the days of the French Revolution, the five years of German occupation were traumatic. The severity of the shock is reflected by postwar Dutch literature. All major writers reacted to it. In Pastorale 1943 (1948) and Bevrijdingsfeest (Celebration of Liberation Day, 1949) S. Vestdijk (1898-1971) exposed the myth of the resistance. Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995), regarded by many as Holland’s most important writer, unmasked and demystified the war to a much greater degree. His controversial novel De tranen der acacia’s (The Tears of the Acacias, 1949) creates the impression that the resistance was a sham. The novella Het behouden huis (The House of Refuge, 1952) shows how arbitrary the distinction was between heroes and villains: to save his skin, the hero alternately claims to be a Nazi or a Communist partisan. In De donkere kamer van Damokles (The Dark Room of Damocles, 1958) Hermans takes this confusion to an extreme: the main character, who was a despised weakling before the war, distinguishes himself during the German occupation by performing heroic deeds for the Dutch resistance, but is ultimately branded a traitor after liberation. These masquerades show how expendable ethical and moral categories can be in a struggle of interests.

Whereas Hermans preaches the morality of cynicism in his work, Harry Mulisch’s literary career has brought him to a categorical imperative as regards good and evil. Although his novella Tussen hamer en aambeeld (‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’, 1952) still has an affinity with Het behouden huis by Willem Frederik Hermans, particularly with respect to the existential symbolism of a borderline case (their mutual themes are reminiscent of Sartre and Camus), Mulisch makes an implicit judgement in Het stenen bruidsbed (The Stone Bridal Bed, 1959): aggressors are always contemptible, even when they are bombing German cities under orders from the Allied High Command. Mulisch’s novel De aanslag (The Assault, 1982) relates the issue of good and evil in the context of the war to the dilemma of means and ends: can a resistance fighter justifiably resort to violence even at the expense of innocent civilians? Mulisch’s ongoing preoccupation with such questions is evident in his acclaimed masterpiece De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven, 1992), a fantastic and often picaresque story in which God Himself ordains that the Stone Tablets be returned to heaven; after all, humanity no longer obeys the Ten Commandments.


A very specific aspect of this preoccupation with the Second World War concerns the persecution of the Jews. Over one hundred thousand Dutch Jews perished in the German death camps, amongst them the fifteen-year-old Anne Frank. During the months she spent hidden in a canal house in Amsterdam she kept a diary that was to become the most translated and most carefully read book yet to emerge from the Dutch language area. Another literary witness who attained international recognition posthumously was Etty Hillesum. Although her diaries are much more introspective, indirectly they illustrate wartime conditions no less incisively than books with more action. Besides these diaries, there are also narratives covering the same ground: Marga Minco’s collection of short stories Het bittere kruid (Bitter Herbs, 1957) and her novella De val (The Fall, 1983), Jacob Presser’s novella De nacht der Girondijnen (The Night of the Girondists, 1958), Gerard Reve’s chronicle De ondergang van de familie Boslowits (The Decline and Fall of the Boslowits Family) and Jona Oberski’s short novel Kinderjaren (Childhood, 1980).

The Shoah casts its shadow over postwar history to such a degree that the problems of the so-called ‘second generation’ are still widely discussed today. This second generation has its own spokesmen and women. In Mendel’s erfenis (Mendel’s Inheritance, 1990), Marcel Möring portrays a young man who feels crushed by the burden of the past. In Leon de Winter’s first books about the war, fact and fiction, reality and illusion constantly change places. La Place de la Bastille (1981) is a good example of the conflict, as in novels such as Hoffmann’s honger (Hoffmann’s Hunger, 1991) and De ruimte van Sokolov (Sokolov’s Universe, 1994). But even in this later work the problems of the second generation are still central. Arnon Grunberg, the most interesting newcomer of recent years, has written Blauwe maandagen (Blue Mondays, 1994) and Figuranten (Silent Extras, 1997), two hilarious, heart-rending novels in which young people of Jewish origin take up the gauntlet against boredom. Although it is never stated, their lives are obviously determined by their parents’ wartime experience.


Collaboration plays an equally important role in the monumental novel Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium, 1983) by the Fleming Hugo Claus. Like Vestdijk’s Pastorale 1943, this book concentrates on the tragicomic and grotesque aspects of the war. The protagonist, Louis Seynaeve - a thinly disguised portrait of the young author - experiences the German occupation as a holiday from life. When the rose-coloured glasses begin to fade and our hero returns to reality, he is more of a disappointed child than a critical adult: ‘When the German cohorts goose-stepped down Leie Street and onto the Market Square, Louis had difficulty in recapturing his first excitement, that mixture of dread and delight which had filled him when they, all the same age, all with the same bronzed faces (boys, really, not much older than he was), had marched into the town of Walle (…). The attack and invasion of Belgium lay behind them. With no enemy facing them now, their fierce, feline ready-to-pounce ardour had seeped away. He felt vaguely deceived by these ordinary creatures in field grey, as if, in those shimmering May days full of shots and screams, they had made a false entrance in an operetta, drum majors with death’s-heads on their caps.’

Strikingly, World War II and its repercussions have had far more impact on Dutch than on Flemish literature. Nothing like De donkere kamer van Damokles or De aanslag has been written in the Dutch language area. Besides Het verdriet van België and De verwondering (Amazement, 1962), another novel by Hugo Claus that deals with collaboration, we should also mention Louis Paul Boon’s Mijn kleine oorlog (My Little War, 1947) and Monika van Paemel’s De vermaledijde vaders (The Cursed Fathers, 1985). Whereas Boon examines the struggle of ordinary soldiers and civilians to survive, including the unavoidable moral lapses, Van Paemel paints a sweeping panorama of the twentieth century and the two world wars it has brought to Flanders. More than anything else, the gruesome events that took place in the village of Vinkt, whose entire population was murdered by the Germans in May 1940, determine the book’s vision of war: it has always been an exclusively male affair.

East Indies

Of course the ravages of World War II also affected the Dutch East Indies, the Southeast Asian archipelago that was exploited by the Dutch East India Company in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and later annexed by the motherland. Following the Japanese invasion, the Dutch men and women who worked on the islands in administration, commerce, education and other areas between 1942 and 1945 were confined to concentration camps or subjected to forced labour. Many of them did not survive the ordeal. Their fate has been chronicled by Rudy Kousbroek and Jeroen Brouwers, who take opposing views of the Japanese terror. Whereas Kousbroek attributes the trauma of the Dutch in the East Indies to the loss of their hegemony, Brouwers emphasises the neglect of their experience in Holland itself.

Towards the end of the Japanese occupation nationalists led by the future president Sukarno declared the independence of the new state of Indonesia. Hella S. Haasse’s popular Oeroeg (1948) was published soon after the war. The novella treats the conflict between Europeans and Asians in the form of a story about two childhood friends who find themselves on opposite sides in the war of independence. Haasse addressed another colonial theme in her documentary novel Heren van de thee (The Tea Merchants, 1992) which is set in the final de cades of the nineteenth century when white supremacy was virtually unchallenged. Like Haasse, Kousbroek and Brouwers, F. Springer was born in the former Dutch East Indies. He has written extensively about the consequences of decolonisation. Half a century after the independence the theme is still vital, as evidenced by the commercial success of the growing list of literary works on the subject. For example, Nathan Sid (1983) and Indische Duinen (1994; published in English as My Father’s War, Heinemann, 2004) by Adriaan van Dis have been reprinted numerous times.

Haasse en Nooteboom

Hella Haasse is one of Dutch literature’s most prolific exponents of the historical novel, a genre that was explored successfully before the war by authors such as Louis Couperus and S. Vestdijk. She initially opted for a traditional approach, as in her debut novel Het woud der verwachting (In a Dark Wood Wandering, 1949), a biographical romance about Charles d’Orléans, the princely French poet who was imprisoned in England during the Hundred Years’ War. In her more recent work Haasse has become increasingly concerned with the perception of history and operates on the assumption that every reconstruction of the past is subjective. Her most recent historical novels reject the conventional distinction between fiction and history in keeping with postmodernist Dutch literature of the past twenty years, especially affiliated with the literary journal De Revisor. Yet it cannot be said that writers such as Nicolaas Matsier, Frans Kellendonk and Doeschka Meijsing, who all belong to the postwar generation, followed Haasse’s lead. Rather they drew their inspiration primarily from the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov and Witold Gombrowicz.

The same applies to Cees Nooteboom, whose De ridder is gestorven (The Knight Has Died, 1963) was over a decade ahead of its time. In the novel, imagination functions less as a narrative tool than as an obstacle, obscuring the narrator’s view of reality. The narrator goes in search of an escape from the dilemma inherent to the novelistic form: ‘either my life is real or what I write is real.’ This preoccupation with narrative versus reality would recur in Nooteboom’s later works, such as Rituelen (Rituals, 1980), Een lied van schijn en wezen (A Song of Truth and Semblance, 1981) and In Nederland (In the Dutch Mountains, 1983). Nooteboom is not only a novelist of international stature but also a distinguished poet. He belongs to the so-called hermetic mannerist school within modernism, whose members include T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Saint-John Perse and, in the Dutch-speaking world the poets of the 50s Movement, namely Lucebert, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Remco Campert and Hugo Claus.


As for the relationship between literature and philosophy, for various reasons they are closer now than ever before. First of all, a generation of writers has emerged who studied philosophy. They share a need for reflection that was once satisfied by Christianity, Humanism or socialism. Now that these have been rejected, there is no intellectual framework in which to operate. Philosophical literature can be seen as an alternative to faith and ideology. After all, the work of Jacques Derrida, Peter Sloterdijk and Robert Pirsig has shown that the international cultural climate is favourable to the symbiosis of literature and philosophy.

This symbiosis is strikingly illustrated by the work of Connie Palmen. At first glance her debut novel De wetten (The Laws, 1991) recounts a voyage of spiritual discovery. Through relationships with seven different men a philosophy student tries to learn the rules that govern human behaviour. Before long she surpasses each of her mentors, save the last, an artist. Is this an indication that academic philosophy is superior to literature in the end? Her second novel, De vriendschap (The Friendship, 1995), confronts life’s great issues as well. The narrator’s memories of an intimate friend give rise to reflections on the tension between fate and free will.

A light form of philosophy distinguishes the work of Martin Bril and Dirk van Weelden. In the dozens of short pieces that make up ABC Arbeidsvitaminen (ABC Work Vitamins, 1987) they paint a kaleidoscopic picture of the multi-faceted cultural life of Amsterdam, the symbol of postmodernist Dutch society. In novels like Tegenwoordigheid van geest (Presence of Mind, 1989), Mobil home (Mobile Home, 1992) and Oase (Oasis, 1994) Van Weelden goes a step further by expanding contemporary reality with the imagination. Present and past are interwoven with real and imaginary countries to create a utopia that only exists on paper. At times Van Weelden calls to mind the novelist Gerrit Krol, who can describe a computer as though it were human and can turn mathematics into compelling prose, as in his novel De man achter het raam (The Man Behind the Window, 1982).

Boon, Van der Heijden and Moor

A master of the philosophical novel is A.F.Th. van der Heijden, who has been working since the early 1980s on a cycle of novels entitled De tandeloze tijd (Toothless Times), a late twentieth-century version of Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. But instead of an aristocrat in search of things past, Van der Heijden’s protagonist is a working-class hero addicted to heroin and nostalgic for his happy childhood. Above all it is the style that clarifies the author’s goal: rich in metaphor, the long sentences evoke a world free of structures of time and space. In novels such as De sandwich (Sandwiched, 1986), Het leven uit een dag (Life in One Day, 1988) and Asbestemming (Destination of Ashes, 1994) Van der Heijden strives to exorcise transience, mortality and death by means of a requiem or a fairy tale.

Van der Heijden’s mastery of genre and style is impressive. Margriet de Moor displays the same flexibility in her first novel, Eerst grijs dan wit dan blauw (First Grey, than White, than Blue, 1991), which takes a tragic look at human relationships. By contrast the tone of her second, De virtuoos (The Virtuoso, 1993), which revolves around an impossible love between an aristocrat and a castrato, is more frivolous, as befits the eighteenth-century setting. Hertog van Egypte (Duke of Egypt, 1996) combines the theme of a marriage between a farmer’s daughter and a gypsy with stories based on oral tradition.

Van der Heijden’s cycle De tandeloze tijd is characteristic of postwar Dutch literature in more ways than one. From the perspective of a single individual in one spot on the globe, an entire period is portrayed. Besides Gabriel García Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude and Günter Grass in The Tin Drum this technique was also employed by the Flemish author Louis Paul Boon. The novelistic diptych De Kapellekensbaan (Chapel Road, 1953) and Zomer te Ter-Muren (Summer at Ter-Muren, 1956) tells the story of a girl by the name of Ondineke while at the same time presenting Boon’s vision of the rise and fall of Socialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Boon’s approach and his handling of subjects has profoundly influenced modern Flemish literature. Authors such as Paul de Wispelaere, Walter van den Broeck, Monika van Paemel, Leo Pleysier and Pol Hoste have all written detailed novels, rooted in a village, town or region, as a microcosm of Western European history of the past two or three centuries. Walter van den Broeck’s Brief aan Boudewijn (Letter to Baudouin, 1980) and Monika van Paemel’s De vermaledijde vaders focus on the Belgian state, using a technique inspired by Boon to describe its history through the biography of the main character. The same holds true of Hugo Claus’s Het verdriet van België. Although the subject of the book is nothing less than fascism, the action is confined to the Flemish town of Walle, which closely resembles Claus’s native Courtrai.


It sometimes seems as though the younger generation of Dutch au thors is less concerned with the larger issues of society and politics than Hermans and Mulisch were at first. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the 1970s, the literary magazine De Revisor displayed a conspicuously non-normative aesthetic tendency, but now, though few authors would admit it, morality has made a comeback. This is hardly surprising, given the fluctuations of the past century between the affirmation of autonomous, non-normative art and that of art that takes sides. The heyday of engaged art in the 1960s was followed by a sceptical reaction that led to the notion of literature as a sort of sophisticated parlour game. The time may now again be ripe for social commitment.

Of course the situation is not as simple as this implies. Literature is not as subject to the whims of fashion as the length of skirts or the width of lapels. Indeed the political and social developments of recent years - the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Gulf War, the dislocation of entire populations have inspired a new seriousness in literature. Remarkably, writers, including those that have just been surveyed, no longer recoil when questioned about their intentions. When Mulisch was asked if De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven) didn’t end on a moralistic note, he was quick to reply, ‘There’s nothing wrong with morality, is there?’

Another example of moral commitment is Monika van Paemel’s De eerste steen (The First Stone, 1991), a novel about the problems of losers, the dispossessed and migrants from a global perspective. It is no coincidence that the book is largely set in Jerusalem, many of whose residents are displaced, uprooted or victimised.

However important the message, literature is ultimately a question of style. But at the same time our pluralistic society is no longer interested in pat answers. It insists on visions that arouse curiosity and stimulate creativity. Dutch literature more than satisfies this demand.

Dutch is a language spoken not only by some twenty-five million people living in the Netherlands and Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) but also in Surinam and on the islands of Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. Authors who write in Dutch can therefore communicate with readers in a variety of different countries.