Hermann Wallmann

There Is No Such Thing as Dutch Literature

18 March 1997

When it comes to thematic art exhibitions, consistency of content is more important than the quality of the pictures and objects displayed. The same applies to a national literature when it is taken as the theme of a festival, a series of readings, or the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Why should I be interested in Dutch literature just because it happens to come from Belgium or the Netherlands? A writer wants to find his own answers, which has nothing to do with arrogance but everything with discipline and technique. He doesn’t represent a country, let alone a government, but rather his own particular qualities.

For the moment, therefore, I shall stick to the proposition that there is no such thing as Dutch literature. In other words, for me Dutch literature originated when literature from the Netherlands and Belgium came about. I never embraced this literature, it literally fell into my lap. More precisely, I happened to eavesdrop on the conversation that, as Umberto Eco put it, books are constantly engaged in, even when our backs are turned. Thus I would never have stumbled upon Menuet (Minuet) by the great Flemish author Louis Paul Boon, who died shortly after being marketed as a potential Nobel prize candidate, if the blurb on the back of the German edition hadn’t reminded me of Nabokov’s Lolita.

Conversely, this year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Westphalian poet Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Had it not been for Margriet de Moor I would never have realised that the term ‘women’s literature’ is an attempt to narrow the scope of literature written by women: a Dutch woman has created her own precursor in German literature! Similarly, it was only after reading the novel Een vlucht regenwulpen (A Flight of Curlews, 1978) by Maarten ‘t Hart that I discovered the power and relevance of one of Germany’s greatest autobiographies, namely Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser, first published in 1785.

But the experience I had with the immortal Multatuli is perhaps paramount. On the occasion of the 1993 Frankfurt Book Fair, when the Schwerpunkt or Focal Theme was Dutch and Flemish literature - proving that such events do have their benefits - a small German publisher brought out a revised edition of Max Havelaar. The book was first published in Germany by an anarchist who taught himself Dutch while a political prisoner in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison so he could translate Multatuli. The novel describes a Javanese village that ‘had just been overcome by the Dutch army and was thus in flames.’ This particular thus, which at the time caused a fierce war of pens, is deleted in the revised edition. In other words, the importance of such details often becomes apparent only when a work is translated. A less dramatic example can be found in the German translation of the poems of Gerrit Kouwenaar. Here the Dutch word terwijl is translated as obsolete German derweil - which reminded me as a German reader that my own language is still in transition.

But let’s get back to the subject. An unbiased reader might wonder what literature in Dutch has that German literature doesn’t. The question is formulated incorrectly if we’re talking about content, since books don’t have nationalities. By the same token, concepts such as ‘metropole’ or ‘periphery’ should not be used as value judgments. At a time when Schiller’s distinction between naive and sentimental poetry has lost its validity, if only because contemporary authors have access to world literature, we may be left with only one criterion: How do the authors digest the work of their colleagues? In this regard, German writers have been negligent in a way comparable to German film and television industry: every thing is dubbed, even movies and programmes in English, a lang uage that is taught in German grammar schools.

Polyglot versatility

Writers of minor languages are far more likely to read books in foreign languages than speakers of major languages who sit back and wait for a translation, thus falling prey to the whims of poorly read publishers or readers whose literary diet is limited. If I’m not mistaken the success of Harry Mulisch, A.F.Th. van der Heijden, Charlotte Mutsaers, Hugo Claus, Monika van Paemel or Tom Lanoye can be attributed in part to their familiarity with world literature and to their polyglot versatility.

Harry Mulisch can be placed in the tradition of Thomas Mann and seems to be one of the few Dutch authors not bothered by the role of ‘diplomat’. But unlike Thomas Mann he makes little effort to sublimate personal experience in his fiction. His life is his material - why should he polish or conceal anything? Had it not been for his openness he could not have presumed to write such an epic as De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven) after Thomas Mann.

At first glance Cees Nooteboom, a devotee of empty landscapes, exotic port cities and labyrinthine portrait galleries, might seem to be one of the most cosmopolitan Dutch authors. Perhaps his mater ial would be fascinating even without the care lavished on its presentation. Nooteboom satisfies both those readers who are interested in Spain (De omweg naar Santiago (Roads to Santiago), 1992) and those who are only open to authors of the same caliber as Jorge Luis Borges or Vladimir Nabokov.

A.F.Th. van der Heijden could have written a committed novel about postwar Holland, but instead he wrote a sensualist novel. One doesn’t have to be a critic to realise that his description of a street battle is reminiscent of Marcel Proust. On a European level Van der Heijden’s tetralogy De tandeloze tijd (Toothless Times) can be compared to Uwe Johnson’s Jahrestage (Anniversaries) or Lars Gustafsson’s Sprickorna i muren (Cracks in the Wall). Charlotte Mutsaers knows so much about painting that she approaches the diversity of the world in the form of a novel; of course she has read her Daniil Charms and Jules Renard. Happily, one of her essays contributed to the rediscovery of the classic Flemish writer Maurice Gilliams (1900-1982). Hugo Claus lives in a Europe of ethnic cleansing but instead of writing a politically correct novel about the former Yugoslavia he focuses on his own backyard, and takes an unblinking look at the corrupt art world in his novel Belladonna (1994). Monika van Paemel shows that feminism can be the means, rather than the end, of great prose. Tom Lanoye has emerged from pop culture but can portray the insignificant lives of insignificant people with impressionistic intimacy.

Two authors show how easily disciplines can be combined even though they are often separated at their own expense. Both of the novels by Anna Enquist betray her psychoanalytical interests. They were inspired by opera, especially Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Connie Palmen wrote De vriendschap (The Friendship), a genuine women’s novel about how a writer finally manages to blur the distinction between letters and essays. Perhaps, more than anyone else, Leon de Winter and Adriaan van Dis embody the lightness that abolishes the Germanic disparity between entertainment and serious literature. The former employs melodrama to depict and overcome Dutch/Jewish traumas, the latter brings his breezy children’s-book aesthetic to bear on his multicultural themes.

An assurance of great literature

Four years after the Frankfurt Book Fair brought Dutch and Flemish literature to the attention of the reading public, the groundwork has now been laid for those authors who are not quite at the forefront of the international scene. Once a guarantee of outstanding vegetables, the Dutch label is now an assurance of great literature. Authors such as Marcel Möring (Het grote verlangen (The Great Longing), 1992), who writes on a par with J.D. Salinger, and the clever young Arnon Grunberg with his hit novel Blauwe maandagen (Blue Mondays, 1994) are attracting attention.

More importantly, interest is growing in the literary roots of all these writers. With his accounts of turn-of-the-century Berlin, J. van Oudshoorn (1876-1951) anticipated Harry Mulisch’s notes from Germany. J.J. Slauerhoff (1898-1936) was one of the first great travel writers in Dutch, to whom Nooteboom is deeply indebted. De donkere kamer van Damokles (The Darkroom of Damocles) by Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) is crucial to every novel that deals with the fateful German-Dutch relationship. It is rooted in the conviction that this relationship needs to be deciphered if we are to understand the present.

The Netherlands is already home to a miniature version of what one day should and will be realised: an integration of heterogeneous cultures that is relaxed and yet open to conflict. Although this may not be one of literature’s greatest concerns, there can be no harm in writers finding out a little bit more about their audience. Writers are not politicians, their commitment is egotistical. They don’t want to write for television addicts but for those who are willing and able to take advantage of the freedom offered them by books.

There is a certain self-evident quality about Dutch painting of the Golden Age that raises the details of everyday life to the level of art. When Dutch authors espouse this same self-evidence they manage to achieve the tolerance we’re still looking for, that is, pragmatism without illusions rather than naive idealism. Tolerance that is practised, not preached; sensual and sovereign, down-to-earth and anarchistic. From the constraints of their small country Dutch and Flemish authors have explored the world; writing in a minor language area, they have developed the professionalism to stand up to major languages. In this respect it’s a good thing that Dutch literature exists, since there’s no such thing as Dutch literature.

About the author

Hermann Wallmann studied German and education. He is presently working as a teacher in Munster, besides editing the literary journal Schreibheft and writing criticism for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Frankfurter Rundschau, and the Basler Zeitung. He is also the artistic director of the Munster journal Lyrikertreffen.

One of Germany’s leading critics, Hermann Wallmann, discovered Dutch and Flemish literature before the crucial 1993 Schwerpunkt at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Since then, he has seen many Dutch-language authors break through to the German market. What’s the secret of their success? How is Dutch literature seen from abroad? And, is there really such a thing as Dutch literature?