"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 20, 2014

Best Crime Writers (1): Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon (1903-1986) has been dubbed "the most famous Belgian," which is probably true as far as literature is concerned (although many people think he was French, as that was the language he used). He also has been called "superhuman" - for he crammed into one lifetime what others would have taken a couple of existences. Besides writing more than 500 novels at the pace of 60 to 80 pages a day, he was addicted to smoking (he had a collection of 300 pipes, which he chain-smoked, exactly like Maigret in the novels), drinking, sex and travel, and still managed to live to the ripe old age of 86.

[Simenon in 1963 - Photo Wikipedia]

Georges Simenon spent his youth and formative years in Lieges, in the French-speaking part of Belgium, where he was born in 1903 as the son of an accountant. In 1918 Simenon left school without graduating, and after some trial and error with several jobs, the next year he became a journalist with a local paper. He started living as a bohemian and explored the seamier sides of life. He also started publishing fiction under several pseudonyms - his first novel appeared in 1921.

In 1922, Simenon moved to Paris where he lived from his pen, writing pulp novels and stories, as well as numerous articles. This went on for about ten years, but the big change started in 1930 when he was in the Dutch city of Delfzijl. Simenon owned a boat and was at that time trekking along the canals of northern-France, Belgium and Holland. While he sat imbibing the indeed very inspiring Dutch jenever (schnapps), he suddenly came up with the idea for the Maigret novels - reason why Delfzijl now has a statue dedicated to Maigret (see photo below).

[Maigret statue in Delfzijl by Dutch sculptor Pieter d'Hondt - Photo Wikipedia]

Maigret, of course, is the pipe-smoking, Paris-based inspector of police who is the central character in Simenon's crime novels. Simenon immediately started writing at a tremendous pace - in 1931 eleven Maigret novels would see the light of day (starting with Pietr le Letton), followed by another six in 1932 and one in 1933 and 1934 each. These first 19 Maigret books were published by Fayard and were immensely successful, making Simenon rich and enabling him to stop with his pulp novels. After the first 19, Simenon took a break from Maigret and then wrote six more during the war years (1942 to 1944). Next, from 1947 on, he settled in a stable rhythm, writing between one and three Maigret books a year until 1972. In total, Simenon wrote 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories.

But Simenon had higher ambitions - he also wanted to be serious writer, so in the 1930s he started writing what he called his "romans durs." These "hard novels" were not detective stories but darkly realistic psychological novels, books in which he displayed a sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Some famous titles are: Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Pedigree, The Strangers in the House, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, and Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. Simenon wrote in total 110 "romans durs." While the Maigret novels were written for money, in the "romans durs" Simenon tried to show the range of his talent.

Simenon writes in a very concise style, without literary flourishes or unnecessary descriptions. His revisions consisted only of cutting away, of taking out every unnecessary word or sentence. The early novels still have the abruptness and sudden shifts characteristic of the pulp novel; later, Simenon's style would become more polished, but one still finds traces of the haste in which Simenon wrote: he would finish a novel in just one week, a chapter a day, then put it aside for a week, and review it only once via the above-mentioned "cutting method."

After 1972, Simenon stopped writing novels, but concentrated on his memoirs, which appeared in 1981 as Memoires intimes. Simenon traveled a lot - he also moved house about 33 times - and after the war he spent about ten years in North America. Back in Europe, he lived in Southern France, before finally settling down in a large house in Lausanne (Switzerland).

Simenon's novels were translated into more than 50 languages and sold more than 550 million copies. The Maigret novels were immediately filmed - La Nuit du Carrefour was filmed in 1932 by Jean Renoir - and since then 80 other novels were adapted for the screen. Maigret has been many times adapted for television as well, both in France and elsewhere (even in Japan, with the action transposed to Tokyo!). And Maigret remains popular - Penguin Books has just started the project to publish new translations of all 75 novels, more or less in the order in which they originally appeared.

Paris-based Inspector Maigret ranks with Holmes and Poirot in the pantheon of immortal fictional detectives. Maigret's crime-solving method was unique: to try to imagine what the life of the victim was like, how his or her relations with other people were, and so finally to enter the mind of the criminal. Simenon's interest lay almost entirely in the reasons for the crime rather than in the solving of it - his novels are typical "whydunits" rather than "whodunits."

The human interest in Simenon's novels reminds me of that other great French author, Guy de Maupassant; Simenon has also been compared to Chekhov. He himself said that he was in the first place inspired by Balzac, and indeed, his long series of "romans durs" can be seen as a modern "comedie humaine."

What are the best Maigrets? (I will look at the "romans durs" in a future post.) It is difficult to select absolute peaks, for all books by Simenon have a rather stable level and there are no real ups or downs, so it comes down to personal preference (and what one has read).
  • I like the first 19 Maigrets for the atmosphere of France in the 1930s. My favorite at present is Night at the Crossroads (La Nuit du Carrefour), for the character of the "femme fatale," Else, who plays a weird psychological game with Maigret. The setting is a lonely crossroads outside Paris, with only a garage and two houses, where the inhabitants are constantly spying on each other. Also interesting is that almost all suspects are guilty. The Charter of the Providence (Le Charretier de la Providence) is set completely along a certain stretch of a French canal from Épernay to Vitry-le-François (both in the Marne département). We have the wonderful atmosphere of those living in their barges on the water and find Maigret in a local cafe soaking up the atmosphere and inhaling the distinctive odor of stables, harnesses, tar and oil (the stables and harnesses are for the horses who in the 1930s still pulled the motor-less barges). And all the time, the rain is pouring down... A third one is The Late Monsieur Gallet (M. Gallet, décédé), about a commercial traveler who has been found shot in his hotel room and who is not at all the man his family thinks he is. He has a meager face with thin lips and also Maigret dislikes him at first, until he discovers that M Gallet has been doing good behind everybody's back. Really unpleasant is the status-conscious, bourgeois wife of M Gallet - and Gallet has in fact died on behalf of her... 
  • As regards the later Maigrets, I have several favorites among those written in the 1940s and 1950s, for example My Friend Maigret (Mon Ami Maigret, 1949) which has a sunny and indolent Mediterranean setting, on the small island of Porquerolles, where an ex-criminal has been killed after claiming that Maigret was his friend. Maigret is in the company of M Pyke of Scotland Yard who has been sent to observe his methods - but the problem is that Maigret has no method, he works by intuition... Another good one is Maigret and the Dead Girl (Maigret et la jeune morte, 1954), set in Parisian nightlife with its picturesque characters. This novel is a good example of Maigret's characteristic ability of putting himself into the skin of the victim or perpetrator: investigation by empathy, rather than by logical deduction. Because Maigret has gotten to know the murdered girl, Louise, he knows that certain behavior ascribed to her by persons he interviews doesn't fit her character - and so these people must be lying...
  • A good later Maigret novel is Maigret's Boyhood Friend (L'Ami d'enfance de Maigret, 1970). An old schoolmate, Florentin, who used to be the class clown and a habitual liar, comes to Maigret's office and tells him that Josephine, the woman he has been living with, has been shot. She has four other lovers who all visited her on different, fixed days. Interesting portrait of a loser (as we often find in Simenon's work), a man who has failed in life because he tries to trick his way out of everything. 
  • And of course there are many other memorable Maigrets, such as The Yellow Dog (Le chien jaune, 1931), The Bar on the Seine (La Guinguette a deux sous, 1932), The Madman of Bergerac (Le fou de Bergerac, 1932), The Hotel Majestic (Les Caves du Majestic, 1942), Maigret in Court (Maigret aux assises, 1960), Maigret and the Ghost (Maigret et le fantome, 1964), etc. etc.
Extensive Maigret website

April 16, 2014

'The Roses of Heliogabalus' by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The Roses of Heliogabalus was painted in 1888 by the Dutch painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema, (1836 – 1912), who was educated in Belgium and worked most of his life in England. The large canvas (132x213 cm) was originally exhibited at the Royal Academy and is now in a private collection.

We see an extravagant dinner party hosted by Heliogabalus, a teenage emperor who ruled the Roman Empire for a few years in the early 3rd century - at the back of the painting, the emperor is lying down in a golden frock, with six guests at his table and a flute player standing behind him. In front we see a number of other guests, who are being showered with rose petals while they sit or lie down on benches. The cascade of petals is so large that it seems the guests are smothered by them. To the right, an elderly man with a beard looks surprised at the whole scene, with a few petals in his hair.

Thanks to the mass of flower petals, the painting looks fresh, colorful and even joyful - but what does it really mean?

[Lawrence Alma-Tadema]
  • First Heliogabalus. His name is more properly Elagabalus and he was Roman emperor from 218 to 222. Elagabalus was put on the throne in 218 after the assassination of the previous emperor, Caracalla, whose grandson he was. He was barely fourteen years old. His short reign would be marred by religious controversy - Elagabalus was born in Syria and had served as hereditary priest of the Emesan sun deity El-Gabal. He brought this cult (in the form of a phallic-shaped meteorite) with him to Rome and even placed El-Gabal above the traditional Roman deity Jupiter. Conservative Romans were forced to participate in the new rites. In this way, Elagabalus made many enemies in the shortest time possible, and was finally hacked to pieces by his own Praetorian Guards. In subsequent history, he is also depicted as a cruel pervert, a small Nero so to speak. How much of that is reliable remains to be seen: it seems the standard historical treatment of failed emperors. Among the outrages ascribed to Elagabalus in the 4th century Augustan History are his "marriage" to a Vestal virgin, dressing as a woman and playing the "mistress" to his own charioteer, as well as prostituting himself in his own palace: "He set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice soliciting passers-by." He is also described as a bisexual who used cosmetics and "offered vast sums of money to any physician who could equip him with female genitalia." Unbelievably expensive meals and parties were of course also part and parcel of his reputed debauchery. Many modern writers, starting with Edward Gibbon, have copied these rather biased allegations and call him "a debauched psychic," "the most cruel and infamous wretch that ever disgraced humanity and polluted a throne." But any fourteen-year old who is given unlimited power would become a small monster... 
  • The cruel incident on which the present painting is based, is also mentioned in the Augustan History: "In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once buried his parasites in violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top." So that is what the painting shows us: murder by roses - the real flower power! Tons of rose petals must have been necessary to execute this feat on his unsuspecting audience.
  • Next we turn to the maker of this "decadent" painting, (Sir) Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912). He was born as "Lourens Alma Tadema" in Dronrijp, a tiny village in the province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands. He studied painting at the Royal Academy in Antwerp, and first became assistant to one of his professors (Jan de Taeye), who taught history and historical costume and who strongly encouraged historical accuracy in painting - indeed something for which Alma-Tadema would become known. Next he worked in the studio of the well-known painter Henri Leys, where he produced his first major work: The Education of the Children of Clovis (1861), a painting on a historical (Merovingian) subject. In all, Alma-Tadema would work for ten years in Belgium, finally setting up himself as an independent classical-subject painter. He added Egyptian themes to the European ones, and discovered his real subject when he visited Florence, Rome and Pompeii in Italy on his honeymoon: classical antiquity. In 1870 Alma-Tadema moved to London, where he would stay the rest of his life, also obtaining British denizenship. His second wife was the English painter Laura Epps. Alma-Tadema became friends with most of the Pre-Raphaelite painters, under whose influence his palette became brighter. He developed into a Victorian institution, a classical-subject painter, who was famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire, with languorous figures set in fabulous marbled interiors or against a backdrop of the dazzling blue Mediterranean. Alma-Tadema was eminently successful and could demand the highest prices for his work. He found a ready market among the wealthy English middle classes for paintings recreating scenes of domestic life in imperial Rome. It was only after his death in 1912 that his depictions of Classical antiquity fell into disrepute, swamped away by the flood of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and the other Isms of the Twentieth Century. But a reevaluation has taken place in the last decades and Alma-Tadema is now again recognized as the important 19th century painter he was - at auctions, his work is in high demand (and fetches high prices, up to $35 million).
  • As mentioned above, Lawrence Alma-Tadema strove for historical accuracy in his paintings. His was the age that great archaeological finds were made - one only has to visit the British Museum to see some of the most important ones - and interest in Classical Antiquity ran high. Alma-Tadema extensively researched the costumes, architecture and material culture of antiquity to get every detail right. Every building featured in his canvases could have been built using Roman tools and methods; Alma-Tadema's visualization of the past was based on careful study and exactitude. Interestingly, his paintings were used as source material by Hollywood directors in famous films as Intolerance (1916), Ben Hur (1926), Cleopatra (1934) and, most notably, Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments (1956).
  • Also in other ways Alma-Tadema was a meticulous perfectionist. In the case of the present painting, for example, he wanted each rose petal to be as perfectly realistic as possible - but as he was working on the painting in the winter of 1887-88, there were no fresh roses in England, so he had rose petals shipped to him from the Riviera to have fresh examples. He painted each petal with painstaking skill and patience. Besides that, in the present painting the depiction of the banqueting hall is based on a description by Gibbon, and the statue of Bacchus in the background can be found in the Vatican Museum. 
  • Alma-Tadema was also famous as a "painter of marble." In Belgium, his teacher Leys had been critical of the treatment of marble in The Education of the Children of Clovis, which he compared to "cheese." Alma-Tadema took this criticism seriously, and he so much improved his technique that he became the world's foremost painter of marble and granite. See the pillars in the present painting.
  • In 1898, the Dutch novelist Louis Couperus (see my post on his novel The Hidden Force) visited the studio of Alma-Tadema in London, in his palatial house at 44 Grove End Road, St John's Wood. The house seems to have been full of marble, as well, and of the studio it was said that it "conjured up visions of all the luxury, the ivory, apes and peacocks of the Roman civilization with which his art was largely preoccupied." Also Couperus was very much interested in the subject of Heliogabalus and in 1905 would publish a large novel about him, called The Mountain of Light. Couperus discards all tales about Heliogabalus's cruelty and instead describes him as a religious innovator - Couperus seems to have regarded Heliogabalus' sun cult as a sort of proto-Theosophism. Couperus wrote many novels about classical antiquity, a period he loved for its lack of "original sin."
[Silver Favourites (1903), now in the Manchester Art Gallery,
depicts a woman feeding fishes in a "marblescape."
The painting is a great example of Alma-Tadema's treatment of marble,
here against the dazzlingly blue backdrop of the Mediterranean]

April 6, 2014

George Breitner: Girl in a White Kimono (Dutch Painting)

George Hendrik Breitner (1857 – 1923) painted Girl in a White Kimono in 1894. The painting is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Inspired by ukiyoe prints, in 1894 Breitner made at least twelve paintings of a girl in kimono. On different paintings, the girl has different poses and the kimono also varies. The paintings are considered highlights of Dutch Japonisme.

On this painting, we see the girl reclining on a couch with her arms behind her head to better show off the long sleeves (probably belonging to a maiko, an apprentice geisha) of her silvery-white kimono. She wears a red under-dress and the kimono has been tied with an orange sash instead of the in Japan usual obi. Behind the couch on which she reclines, we see a Japanese screen.

  • George Hendrik Breitner (1857 – 1923) was born in Rotterdam and studied at the Art Academy of The Hague. He was initially associated with landscape artist Willem Maris and in 1881-82 worked at the Panorama Mesdag in The Hague. In 1882, he met Vincent van Gogh, and sketched together in the poorer areas of The Hague. Breitner is considered as a representative of the Movement of 1880, a group of writers and painters who did away with the moralistic Biedermeier culture that had kept Holland in its stranglehold for much of the 19th century, and replaced it by fierce Romanticism, Naturalism and later also Impressionism. In 1886, Breitner moved to Amsterdam where he became an Amsterdam Impressionist and disassociated himself from the Hague School. He became a people's painter known for his dynamic street scenes. Breitner also painted nudes in a raw and naturalistic style. Around the turn of the century, Breitner was regarded as the most famous painter of the Netherlands. Unfortunately, his fame never crossed the borders of the country - foreign interest was geared more towards the picturesqueness of the Hague School. Breitner introduced social realism in the Netherlands and often painted grey and rainy streets. In Dutch, we even have the expression "Breitner weather..."
  • In 1892, Breitner attended an important exhibition of Japanese prints in The Hague and this inspired him to acquire some prints, as well as kimonos and decorative screens, and try his hand at "Japonisme" (like Van Gogh did in the same period). Breitner's "Girl in Kimono" paintings contrast sharply with his usual impressionistic views of Amsterdam.
  • The innovative Breitner, by the way, was one of the first artists to use the medium of photography as a tool - several of his paintings, including those in the "Girl in Kimono" series, were based on photos he took with his then revolutionary hand-held camera (introduced by Kodak in 1888).
  • The girl with the dreamy look in her eyes is Geesje Kwak, a sixteen-year old working class girl who was one of Breitner's models. Geesje Kwak (1877-1899) was born in Zaandam and moved in 1893 to Amsterdam with her sister Anna to enter the young lady's profession of milliner. The sisters also soon came in contact with Breitner, who then had his studio at the pretty Lauriergracht in Amsterdam, and both worked as his models. This came to an end when Geesje emigrated to South-Africa with her elder sister Niesje. She died in 1899 in Pretoria at the young age of 22 due to tuberculosis. Geesje was properly paid as a model - there still exist notebooks about how long she posed and what she earned for it. Her contact with Breitner was purely businesslike.

[Geesje Kwak, photographed by Breitner. Photo Wikipedia.nl]

  • Breitner's "Girl in Kimono" paintings are decorative and intimate at the same time. Breitner seems not to have been interested in Japanese culture in itself (in contrast to Van Gogh), but rather in the colorful possibilities of painting a model wearing a kimono. Like his nudes, Breitner's kimono paintings were blasted by critics for their presumed "indecent poses."
  • Breitner's Girl in Red Kimono was sold in 2003 at Christie's for €582,450 to a private collector. 
[Girl in Red Kimono - Photo Wikimedia]

April 4, 2014

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch

Just as in the case of the six years older Hermans, a frequent theme in Mulisch' work is the Second World War. The war was even present in his DNA, so to speak, for his father, an emigre to the Netherlands from Austria-Hungary, collaborated with the Germans during the war (for which he later spent three years in prison), while his mother was Jewish. But it was thanks to his father's collaboration that Mulisch and his mother escaped transportation to a concentration camp - his maternal grandmother died in a gas chamber.

We find the war in his first great novel, The Stone Bridal Bed (Het Stenen Bruidsbed, 1958), in which an American dentist visits the ruined city of Dresden in then East Germany, thirteen years after he himself took part in bombing raids. He has a brief affair with a German woman and her conquest is described in Homeric terms, as an attack on the city. Other war narratives are just as famous: about the Eichmann trial in Criminal Case 40/61 (1962), about the German occupation in The Assault (De aanslag, 1985) - a political thriller that explored collaboration and indifference and that catapulted Mulisch to general fame - and about Hitler's fictive son in Siegfried (2003).

[Harry Mulisch - Photo Wikipedia]

After producing several novels and short story collections in the fifties, Mulisch mainly wrote essays in the 1960s, a period during which he was also actively engaged in leftist politics - he was a prominent defender of the Cuban revolution. In the 1970s he mainly wrote poetry and experimental work, but in the 1980s and 1990s he returned to the novel with a vengeance. In fact, he wrote his greatest work late in life - he completed The Discovery of Heaven, his magnum opus, when he was 65, but also wrote The Assault, Last Call, and Siegfried in these years (to name only the best ones).

The Discovery of Heaven has 65 chapters and can be called a summing up of Mulisch' life, as we find again the themes of war but also political action - one of the events described in the book is a visit to revolutionary Cuba. But Mulisch was also a philosopher - he wrote a philosophical study, The Composition of the World, and The Discovery of Heaven not only bulges with metaphysical speculation, it also masterfully intersperses mathematics, astronomy, biology, linguistics, numerology and philosophy. In the novel, one of the main characters, Max Delius, is Mulisch' alter ego, but with Mulisch' biography taken to extremes: Delius' father has been sentenced to death as a Nazi collaborator after the war, his Jewish mother has been sent to the extermination camps. Max will pay a visit to Auswitz and later, as a radio astronomer, he will be transferred to work at the Synthese Radio Telescope in Westerbork - a scientific complex built on the site of camp Westerbork, where Dutch Jews were gathered before their fatal train journey to Poland. 

The novel starts and ends with a mythological "frame" which also appears between the four parts. It is a discussion between two angels and partly based on the Faust-legend. As mankind has discovered both the secrets of life (DNA) and death (Auschwitz), God ("the Chief") wants to end his covenant with mankind and have the tablets he once gave to Moses returned to him. But Heaven is certainly not almighty in this novel and it is only with great difficulty that the angels are able to manipulate events on earth in such a way that two men and a woman meet and a child is conceived who is to become the person who will find the Tablets and return them to Heaven. In The Discovery of Heaven, Christianity is treated on the same level as Greek or Roman mythology in Western culture: nice to play with in literature or painting, but without any greater truth.

[Westerbork Synthese Radio Telescope, 
where Max Delius works - Photo Wikipedia]

The two men who figure in the novel are Max Delius and Onno Quist, and they are very different personalities. Max is an astronomer, an extrovert and a womanizer, and Onno is a linguist, a heavy and silent man who later becomes a politician like many others in his patrician family. When they meet each other in 1967 they immediately become close friends. In fact, Max is Mulisch' alter ego, and Onno is modeled on Mulisch' friend, the chess master Jan Hein Donner (1927-1988), who like the Onno in the novel came from a family of well-known protestant politicians (his nephew was until recently a cabinet minister).The two personalities are also symbolic: Max stands for the ratio, for science, the discovery of heaven by modern man via astronomy and other sciences. Ironically, he is killed by a meteorite just after he believes he has observed the space-time singularity. Onno is his opposite: as a linguist (he has deciphered the ancient Etruskan language and speaks about every language of the world) and as a politician he is a man of the word, and so also of mythology. Together with his son Quinten, Onno finally discovers the Tablets in Rome and so the myth behind the present novel.

[Jan Hein Donner]

The first part of the novel is the most beautiful one, describing the meeting and interaction of the two friends. They also meet the cellist Ada, who first becomes the girlfriend of Max - his first somewhat longer relationship, as he only used to consume love via one-night stands - but after a misunderstanding between the two, she next becomes the wife of Onno. But when the three of them visit Cuba for a musical festival, Max makes once more love to Ada on a Cuban beach, and that same night she sleeps with Onno, so when she gets pregnant, it is unclear whose child she is carrying.

In Part Two disaster strikes. Ada never sees that child herself, for fate intervenes in the form of a traffic accident that causes her to slip into a permanent coma. The child, Quinten, is born safely, however, and is taken care of by Max and the mother of Ada (with whom omnivore Max has a rather weird relationship). They live in an apartment in an old castle, not far from Westerbork where Max is working for the radio telescope, and that is where Part Three is situated. This section describes the education of Quinten, a precocious and unnaturally beautiful youth, who learns many interesting things from the other inhabitants of the flats that have been created in the old castle. One is an architect, who shows him pictures of old buildings, such as the Lateran Palace in Rome, which Quiten also has seen in a dream; another is a lock maker; a third one is a printer.

In this part also Onno's political ambitions are foiled - about to become Minister of Defense, his visit to Cuba serves as a spanner in the wheels of his career. In the same period, his girl friend is murdered by a vagrant, and disgusted with Holland, he leaves on a trip with the intention of becoming a recluse and never returning, without telling anyone where he goes. Later, Max, who in a moment of lucidity (or wine induced hallucinations?) believes he has discovered the basic principle of the universe, is killed by a meteor falling from the heavens, before he can share his discovery with the world.

[Staircase in the Lateran Palace, Rome, leading to the Sancta Sanctorum,
where Quinten finds the Tablets - Photo Wikipedia]

In Part Four, Quinten has come of age and decides to start traveling and both look for his father and the strange building he has seen in his dreams. Logically, he goes to Italy, first Venice, then Rome, where he is spotted by his father, who now looks like a tramp. But they team up for the finale of the quest for which Quinten has been celestially destined. This leads to a surprising solution that is perhaps a bit too much Raiders of the Lost Ark - although also Eco's Foucault's Pendulum comes to mind - (they find the Tablets in the Lateran palace in Rome), but that also has a beautiful denouement in Jerusalem - not the physical tablets, but the text written on them are reclaimed by the angels, and Quinten is transfigured together with the text which falls apart in its constituting signs. "In the beginning was the Word," and that word has now been take back by God, but at the same time we are left with the words of Harry Mulisch in our hands, in the form of this superb mythology.

[Moses and Aaron with the Tablets of the Law - Wikipedia]

This philosophical novel is a masterly synthesis of idea and story, making complex concepts not only comprehensible but also dramatizing them, immersing the reader in a fast-paced narrative peopled with vivid characters. Nowhere does the story lose its grip on the reader, also thanks to Mulisch' sense of humor. And like Rituals by Cees Nooteboom, Mulisch also paints a moving picture of life in the Netherlands, especially in the late 1960s (in the first part of the novel).

March 31, 2014

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

Rituals is a beautiful lyrical novel, full of the intertextuality of postmodernism, of symbols and metaphors, and composed like a delicate clockwork. Nooteboom does not write straight realistic prose, his novels are always imbued with philosophy and mythology. Rituals is concerned with the problem of time as both a linear and a cyclical movement.

On the surface, Rituals is the story of Inni Wintrop, amateur-art dealer and observer of life, the alter ego of Nooteboom, and his meeting with father and son Anton and Philip Taads. Inni is introduced in a short section placed in 1963; then we get his meeting with the older Taads in 1953, followed by his coming across the younger Taads in 1973.

[Cees Nooteboom - Wikipedia]

Rituals starts in the 1960s in Amsterdam, in a world of total freedom, caused by the absence of God, which is symbolized in the novel by the death or absence of fathers. Inni has lost his father to a German bomb during the war.

The thirty-year old Inni Wintrop (the first name is short for Inigo (Jones), after the famous 17th c. English architect), who leads a comfortable but rather chaotic and aimless life, looses Zita, his girlfriend from Namibia. Although he is very much in love with Zita, he cannot keep his hands off other women. Zita leaves him after he comes home covered in the silver paint that came off the hair of a bar girl during impulsive lovemaking. Inni gets drunk and even tries suicide, but of course - being unstructured in everything he does - he bungles it.

The next part is set in 1953, when Inni is in his early twenties. We meet Arnold Taads, a man whose whole life is rigidly determined by the clock. He makes a fetish of schedules, so that life repeats exactly the same pattern each day. He is an atheist - he talks about existentialist philosophy to Inni - but in the absence of a god, he has constructed a life ruled by time. Each unit of time and the task assigned to it becomes something absolute. This makes Arnold a recluse because his laws do not allow the uncertainties of others. He spends a large part of the year in a cottage high in the Swiss Alps, where he finally meets a death he has foretold himself.

[Ritual of the Catholic Mass - Wikipedia]

In this section of the novel, Arnold also visits his aunt, who lives in the southern, Catholic part of the Netherlands. He attends the ritual of a mass but also discovers the ritual of love through the housemaid, Petra, the sexy rock on which he builds his church of love. Part of their lovemaking mimics the performance of the mass.

In the third section, it is 1973 and Inni is in early middle age, wiser, but still as interested as ever in new experiences for which he roams the streets of Amsterdam. By chance, one day he meets a man who proves to be Philip, the son of Arnold Taads and an Indonesian mother. Philip is a recluse like his father, but in contrast to modern philosophy, he is in the grip of Eastern philosophy, such as Zen and Daoism. He is also fascinated by the tea ceremony and visits an oriental antiques shop to buy an expensive tea bowl of Raku ware. He has also read Kawabata's novel Thousand Cranes in which the tea ceremony plays a large role. In the end, he will perform a tea ceremony using the Raku bowl - and soon after that, commit suicide. Just like his father, he has filled his life with strict rituals and a monasterial style of life.

For many people, the chaos and abundance of freedom resulting from the absence of God, are difficult to cope with, so they flee into other forms of absolutism - which may lead to death. Inni survives, because as a skeptic he leads an unstructured life.

[Raku ware tea bowl - Wikipedia]

But even as a skeptic Inni has his rituals - we may call these perhaps "positive rituals" as being devoid of absolutism, they lead to life rather than death. For Inni Wintrop, the viewing of an object of art is the ritual par excellence to give structure to the personal past and integrate his life into the tradition of Western culture. In this way, the individual life is given meaning as a link in a supra-individual continuity. Although he also sees a world without God, in this last aspect, Nooteboom is more positive than the absolute nihilist Willem Frederik Hermans.

This also connects Rituals to the travel writings of Cees Nooteboom, such as Return to Berlin or Roads to Santiago, where the author not only evokes landscapes and cityscapes, but also reports about his extensive visits to museums and exhibitions. It is the submission to art that enables him to be temporarily released from skepticism and detachment.

But that fundamental skepticism is important as a basic attitude of life, and a defense against absolutism. In Rituals, Inni is copiously endowed with it, in contrast to both father and son Taads, who become the victims of their absolutism.

And finally there is one more "ritual:" the ritual of reading, which gives the reader insight into all these problems...

[Ritual of the tea ceremony - Wikipedia]

I would like to add that Rituals is also interesting as a skeptical-melancholic image of the years between 1953 and 1973, the years from Sartre to Zen. In the second part, we still are faced with the strictness of the 1950s and the heaviness of conformist religion; in the parts about the 1960s and 1970s we experience the free Amsterdam of the hippies and flower power. This is another link to Nooteboom's travel reports, such as Return to Berlin, where certain times and places are vividly evocated.

On top of that, as an "idea book," Rituals is full of snippets of wisdom and quotable sentences. To give one example: "Memory is like a dog that lies down where it likes."

Cees Nooteboom (1933) debuted in 1955 with the novel Philip en de anderen (Philip and the Others) and has since built up an imposing oeuvre of novels, poetry and travelogues. Among his other books are the travelogues Berlijnse notities (Return to Berlin, 1990), which won him the German "3rd of October Literature Prize," and De omweg naar Santiago (Roads to Santiago, 1992), and the novels Allerzielen (All Souls' Day, 1998) and Paradijs verloren (Lost Paradise, 2004).

In 2004 Cees Nooteboom was awarded the prestigious P.C. Hooft Prize for his entire oeuvre. This being said, he is more popular as a "European writer" abroad - especially in Germany - than in the Netherlands, where critics seem to have difficulty understanding his work. This may be due to the erudition, the vast knowledge of European art and history, that fills his books to the brim, as well as to Nooteboom's cosmopolitism, which is not seen favorably in the small-minded nationalistic atmosphere that has gripped much of the Netherlands in the 21st century. Dutch critics, who suffer from their low level of education, apparently see Nooteboom's erudition as a form of "name dropping." Nothing could be further from the truth, as is shown in the above: for Nooteboom, culture is what gives meaning to life, and the link with European culture serves to integrate our small lives into the larger tradition.

English translation by Adrienne Dixon, published by Mariner Books (1996). 
Dutch original published by De Bezige Bij.
Cees Nooteboom website

March 26, 2014

The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans

Together with Harry Mulisch (1927-2010) and Cees Nooteboom (1933), Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) forms the formidable triumvirate of postwar Dutch literature. Abroad, Hermans is the most neglected of the three, probably because he wrote his greatest work in the 1950s and 1960s, when translations from Dutch literature were rare, in contrast to the other two writers who peaked in the 1990s to 2000s.  But in Holland Hermans is generally seen as the best 20th century author, comparable to Multatuli in the 19th c.

Willem Frederik Hermans was an adolescent in Amsterdam during WWII. The war made an indelible impression on him, and he often chooses the war as backdrop for his novels. This is not for historical reasons, but because war is the environment in which, according to Hermans' existentialist philosophy, malice and misunderstanding, as well as the pointlessness of our existence, can best be brought to the surface. In wartime, society sheds it thin veneer of culture, humans loose their pretense of humanity. The world, for the atheist Hermans, is nothing else than an originally "sadistic universe."

[W.F. Hermans in his study in 1977 - Photo Wikipedia]

The Darkroom of Damocles (De donkere kamer van Damokles), written in 1958, is no exception. Set in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation and its aftermath, it tells the story of Henri Osewoudt, a young man who performs secret missions against the Gestapo, getting his instructions from a mysterious stranger called Dorbeck. Dorbeck, who remains a shadowy figure, bears a close resemblance to Osewoudt, but as a positive mirror image - everything that is effeminate and weak in Osewoudt, is strong and manly in Dorbeck, everything that is passive, is active. "I had the feeling I was an extension of him, or even part of him. When I first set eyes on him I thought: this is the sort of man I should have been." Osewoudt is a man without beard growth and a high squeaky voice who is just an insignificant tobacconist in a small town near The Hague, living with his mentally ill mother and an unattractive wife who is also his niece. He has no self esteem at all.

It is probably because of that insignificance that Osewoudt wants to become a "hero" - even though the circumstances are more than a little ambiguous - including in the first place the reliability of his task giver, Dorbeck. The tasks given to Osewoudt escalate in danger, from developing photographs in his basement darkroom to helping an English agent to a safe house and finally, killing several presumed informers and traitors.

Here Osewoudt impresses the reader as an ugly, amoral man, without any passion or empathy towards his fellow beings. He performs his killings blindly, like a robot, without any reflection. When Osewoudt discovers that his wife has denounced him to the Germans, he murders her too. But are the people he kills really traitors? Is Osewoudt a Resistance hero or just a stupid little man who has been fooled by lies? Or is he a psychopath driven by delusions (as a doctor who visits him in prison surmises)? In wartime, the thin veneer of civilization and humanity breaks down, and it becomes impossible to detect good from evil, right from wrong.

Having survived capture by the Germans, at the end of the war Osewoudt is again captured, now by the Dutch. He cannot prove that he really was in the Resistance and is considered as a collaborator with the Germans. Dorbeck has evaporated - Osewoudt even cannot prove that Dorbeck, his doppelganger, ever existed. When he develops a roll of film that should show a photograph of the two of them together, it turns out that the film is empty. He flees from prison and is shot on the run.

The conclusion the novel reaches is that it is impossible to know the world, and impossible to understand other human beings. It is also impossible to justify oneself to others. At the end of the book, also the reader has no way of knowing who or what Dorbeck is or if he existed at all. On purpose, a logical interpretation of the novel has been blocked by the author.

[Hermans in 1986 - Wikipedia]

The title of the book refers to the darkroom where Osewoudt tries to develop a film given him by Dorbeck. He fails, but later will work successfully in a darkroom for a Resistance group. To compensate for the loss of the film, Osewoudt buys a Leica camera and tries to take pictures of military objects. It is this camera that contains the unsuccessful film with the photo of Dorbeck. And "Damocles" of course refers to the "the Sword of Damocles," an allusion to imminent and ever-present peril, which hangs constantly above Osewoudt in the dark room of his life.

The Darkroom of Damocles, written in a spare, relentless style, is a starkly existentialist novel about the human condition, bringing to mind Kafka or Celine. But it also has a complicated, thrilling and fast moving plot and often reads like a suspense novel. It also contains enough humor to make the dark journey bearable. Important is also the realistic quality of the novel: all street names are given exactly, as are names and locations of buildings, etc. - Hermans himself walked around all locations and took pictures.

Interestingly, a similar morally ambiguous situation occurs in the film Black Book (Zwartboek) by the Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, another story about WWII. Both may have been indebted to the Englandspiel, a historical counter intelligence operation launched by the Germans, during which the codes of captured agents were used to fool the Allies and indeed create doubt of who was on whose side. Hermans was one of the first to question the prevalent black-and-white ideology in Holland about WWII, in which every Dutchman had been in the Resistance and saved hundreds of Anne Franks.

Willem Frederik Hermans was born in Amsterdam and studied Physical Geography. In 1958, he became Reader in this subject at the University of Groningen. He had already started writing and publishing in magazines at a young age. His polemic and provocative style, based on the sturdy logical reasoning of the scientist that he was, led to a court case as early as 1952 (he was accused of having insulted the Catholics in his novel I am Always Right, in which he wrote that "Catholics breed like rabbits"). Hermans was always contrary, in opposition, like Multatuli before him - he is the greatest writer of polemical essays of the Netherlands, in books with titles as Mandarijnen op Zwavelzuur (Mandarins on Sulphuric Acid, 1964). Interviewers came with shaking knees to his door, fearing his biting cynicism and bouts of anger. He broke many undeserved reputations of writers, critics and other prominent persons, fighting the narrow-mindedness and bigotedness of Dutch society in the first two decades after WWII. After quarreling with his colleagues at the university, who said he spent too much time writing and neglected his teaching duties, in 1973 he quit his job and became a free writer, first settling in Paris and later in Brussels.

In order to survive people have to create their own reality, Hermans says - and it is inevitable that all these different models of reality will collide. As a writer, he considered language as essential to create order out of this chaos, a problem he studied in depth in his essays on Wittgenstein.

Hermans greatest novels and novellas often address WWII: De tranen der acacia's (The Tears of the Acacias, 1949), Het Behouden Huis (The Safe House, 1951), De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958) and Herinneringen van een Engelbewaarder (Memories of a Guardian Angel, 1971). The reality that Hermans' characters create for themselves, is always equivocal for the reader. His protagonists try to impose their truths upon reality, to make the facts fit their personal framework, but in the end they either perish in the chaos or are left in disillusionment. His above mentioned novel, Ik heb altijd gelijk (I am Always Right, 1951) is about the failed Dutch military action in Indonesia and the terrible bigotry in a Holland plagued by a chronic housing shortage. His short stories, collected in books with meaningful titles as Paranoia or Moedwil en misverstand (Malice and Misunderstanding, 1948) and Een Wonderkind of een Total Loss (A Child Prodigy or a Total Loss, 1967) have a surrealistic tendency. A great non-war novel is Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep, 1962), about a geological expedition to the North Cape, which ends in failure and even disaster - it is exceptional among Hermans work because of its great dose of humor. In his later novels, Hermans is less dark, but moves on to satire. Onder Professoren (Among Professors, 1975) is the best satire I know of the academic establishment, and also of the leftist political foolishness of the 1970s.

Everything in Hermans' rich oeuvre is subordinate to the author's pessimistic philosophy. To quote a final statement:
"Evil is a disguise of death. The fact we all must die, causes the universe to be lopsided. Everything ends with the individual death. Therefore "evil" always wins in the end, one disappears, one goes to pieces. That is the main theme of all my work." 

The Darkroom of Damocles was translated to English in 1962 by Roy Edwards, and again in 2007 by Ina Rilke. 
It was adapted into the 1963 film Like Two Drops of Water, directed by Fons Rademakers.
English translation by Ina Rilke at the Overlook Press. Dutch original published by Van Oorschot.

March 22, 2014

Character, a novel of father and son, by Ferdinand Bordewijk

Ferdinand Bordewijk (1884-1965) was born in Amsterdam, studied law in Leiden and worked most of his life as lawyer - first for a law firm in Rotterdam and after that independently. Bordewijk seems to have been a very private person and rather nondescript lawyer. His wife, Johanna Roepman, with whom he had two children, was a composer of classical music. He lived a quiet and impeccable life, a far cry from his novels and short stories, which were written in a solid, terse and often violent style, which has been called "New Objectivity." There is a harshness in his characters which is typical for the 1930s, which were after all a time of violent and hard politics - not so very different in fact from our own regrettably populist times. Novellas like Bint (about a disciplinarian teacher literally taming a bunch of wild pupils), Growling Beasts (about race cars) and the dystopian Blocks also contain expressionist and modernist elements. Late in life Bordewijk received the highest literary prize that exists in the Netherlands for his whole oeuvre.

[Rotterdam - Arcade around 1900 - Wikipedia]

The most famous and accessible novel written by Bordewijk is Character (1938). It is a Bildungsroman about a young man called Jacob Katadreuffe, the illegitimate son of a fiercely independent mother and a ruthless debt-collector father, who applies himself to struggling his way up in society (he starts at the bottom because his mother, who has refused money from the father of her child, is dirt-poor) until becoming a lawyer. Katadreuffe is an autodidact with a great head for languages, who by studying in the evenings, gets his Grammar School diploma, and then continues with a law study at Leiden University while already working as a clerk in a Rotterdam lawyer's office.

His father, Dreverhaven, estranged from mother and son, at every turn when success is within reach, tries to obstruct his son's path. Twice the villainous bailiff has the son declared bankrupt (Katadreuffe had to borrow money to pay for his studies) and finally he even tries to block his admission to the bar. Then, in a final confrontation with the son, the father declares that he has in fact worked for his son - by putting obstacles in his way, he has made his son "a man of character." But there is no reconciliation.

Dreverhaven is a massive man who enjoys evicting the poor from their houses or declaring people bankrupt. He knows no mercy. To challenge his enemies, he has his office in one of the darkest and poorest areas of Rotterdam, but although he is generally hated, nobody dares stick a knife in his back, not even when there is a sort of revolt of the poor in Rotterdam.

The novel describes Jacob Katadreuffe as a hard worker who is unable to establish warm human ties or accept generosity from others because of his rigidity. He has inherited his exceptional pride from both his father and his mother. He has a rather distant relationship with that mother, and although he has one friend, Jan Maan, a communist who lives as a lodger in his mother's house, they gradually drift apart. This character trait also makes him miss the love of his life, with the secretary of his office, Lorna te George. He only sees his relation to her in career terms and so estranges her that she finally marries someone else. In this way, the novel also shows the negative side of a strong character. Katadreuffe finds success, but not personal happiness.

[Stock Exchange Rotterdam around 1900 - Wikipedia]

Besides the father-son relationship, the novel paints a beautiful portrait of Rotterdam and its large international port in the interbellum - before the old city would be destroyed by German bombs in 1940. Interesting is also the description of the lawyer's office where Jacob starts working as a lowly clerk, the various colleagues, the office politics, something Bordewijk knew from his own experience.

The language of Character is very businesslike - concrete and concise. Short sentences stand next to unusual metaphors. One strange aspect is, that of each of the characters the state of health of their denture is described in surprising detail. Healthy teeth seem a symbol for general health. This exceptional attention for teeth from Bordewijk almost seems like a fetish.

Another typical Bordewijk thing are the grotesque names, such as "Katadreuffe," although this is perhaps difficult to see for a non-Dutch speaker.

Character was filmed in 1998 by Mike van Diem. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in that year.

English translation by E.M. Prince (Ivan R Dee; 1st Elephant Pbk., 1999)

March 20, 2014

Ten Masterworks of Dutch Literature

Not only Dutch music, also Dutch literature has long been neglected by international audiences. That is partly the fault of the Dutch themselves who in the past made little effort to promote their own literature abroad (happily, this has changed since the establishment in 1991 of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature - now merged into the Dutch Foundation for Literature); but on the other hand it is also due to the regrettable lack of interest of English-speaking peoples in foreign literature, in contrast to, for example, Germans or Scandinavians. These are markets where - as in the Netherlands - about 20% of all literature is literature in translation (and this includes quite a lot of Dutch literature as well), while in Anglophone countries this figure only amounts to a meager 2%.

Dutch literature is also a good way to learn to understand the obsessions and taboos of Dutch society. Three themes stand out here, three things the Dutch have tried to come to terms with in the last century-and-a-half: Calvinism (the results of a strict Calvinist upbringing), colonialism (the relationship with the former East Indian colonies) and the War (World War II when Holland was occupied by the Germans).

Below is a personal selection of ten great Dutch novels which are all available in English translation. Click on the titles to read the full reviews, which will appear gradually. I give the books in historical order.

1. Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker, 1859)
"Max Havelaar, of the Koffie-veilingen der Nederlandsche Handelmaatschappij."
The passionate novel that harshly woke up Dutch society in the 19th century by blowing the whistle about the passive and bureaucratic manner in which the colonial administration in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) dealt with ill treatment and oppression of the Javanese people. Set partly in the restricted world of Amsterdam coffee trader Batavus Drystubble and partly in the colonies. Max Havelaar is an idealized self-portrait of Eduard Douwes Dekker, who, like his protagonist, was a colonial official in the Javanese town of Lebak. The book is also a literary adventure in the form of a self-reflexive frame story with countless digressions and stories-in-stories. In the Netherlands, Multatuli is revered as the country's most important and influential author.
Translation: Roy Edwards in Penguin Classics (1987).

2. A Posthumous Confession by Marcellus Emants (1894)
"Een Nagelaten Bekentenis."
A razor-sharp psychological analysis of the mind of a man who has murdered his wife. Written in the form of a confession, like Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, or the early stories of Arthur Schnitzel, and about just such a pathologically introverted protagonist, indolent, uninterested in society, and without empathy for his fellow humans. The result is a grueling and gripping novel.
Translation: J.M. Coetzee, published by NYRB Classics (2011). 

3. The Hidden Force by Louis Couperus (1900)
"De Stille Kracht."
A withering account of Dutch colonialism, shown through the clash between Western rationalism and indigenous mysticism. After a conflict with a Javanese prince, a Dutch administrator becomes the subject of what seems to be an attack of supernatural forces, completely freaking his family out. But this hidden force is also symbolic for the silent resistance of the local population against the colonial masters. In a colonial situation, the two cultures cannot communicate properly. As usual with Couperus, there are some fine female portraits in the novel: of Leonie, the love-sick wife of the administrator, who even has a relation with her own stepson, and Eva, the wife of the Dutch controller, who misses European culture but whose artistic mind also makes her the only one to sense the "hidden force."
Translation: Paul Vincent, published by Pushkin Press (2012).

4. Amsterdam Stories (incl. The Freeloader, Young Titans and Little Poet) by Nescio (1910-1918)
"De Uitvreter," "Titaantjes" & "Dichtertje." 
The three main stories are about the sadness of youth: all great and artistic dreams shatter on the harsh rocks of reality and an unfeeling society. In "The Freeloader" we also find one of the most famous characters in Dutch literature, a man who tries to spend his life doing absolutely nothing. His favorite pastime is to sit still all day watching the sea. He sponges off his friends, but is such an innocent character that nobody minds. "Little Poet" is about an office worker whose big dream is to be a famous poet, and who falls in love with the younger sister of his wife - a love affair which itself is made of the purest poetry.
Translation: Damion Searls, published by NYRB Classics (2012)

5. The Forbidden Kingdom by Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1931) 
"Het Verboden Rijk."
A classic of early modernism, a romantic tale of adventure, seafaring and colonialism, told through an experimental narrative, joining a historical novel to a contemporary story and merging the two protagonists. The historical story is about the Portuguese poet Camoes and his banishment to Macao, as well as about the early history of that colony on the coast of China; the modern story tells about an Irish radio operator on a small ship steaming around Asia, who finally ends up in Macao and follows in the footsteps of Camoes. They are both aimless wanderers, attracted by the vastness of China. Slauerhoff was Holland's poete maudit.
Translation: Paul Vincent, published by Pushkin Press (2012).

6. Cheese by Willem Elsschot (1933)
A gentle satire of the business world. A clerk in Antwerp becomes the chief agent in Belgium for Edam cheese and is saddled with 10,000 wheels, which are slowly decomposing in a warehouse. Of course, he has no idea how to run a business (only occupying himself with non-essential things as selecting a letterhead for his correspondence) - and on top of that, he doesn't even like cheese!
Translation: Paul Vincent, published by Granta Books (2004). 

7. Character, a novel of father and son, by Ferdinand Bordewijk (1938)
Bildungsroman about Jacob Katadreuffe, illegitimate son of a principled mother and ruthless debt-collector father. The father - although never open about the family relation - again and again appears in Jacob's life to throw obstacles in his way. In the end Jacob can only escape by defeating his father - and then he realizes that his father's obstructions have steeled him and in fact helped him become successful. Good description of the atmosphere in a solicitor's office in the interbellum. The novel is situated in Rotterdam and the international city and its large port also play an important role. Made into an Oscar-winning film in 1998.
Translation: E.M. Prince, published by Owen (1966; 1999).

8. The Darkroom of Damocles by Willem Frederik Hermans (1958)
"De Donkere Kamer van Damocles"
Both a dark wartime thriller and a metaphysical mystery, based on the doppelganger motif. During the German occupation of Holland, tobacconist Henri Osewoudt is visited by a man named Dorbeck, who looks exactly like a "positive version" himself. Dorbeck asks Osewoudt to execute a number of dangerous assignments on behalf of the resistance movement against the Germans, including several killings. Things quickly go awry. After the war, Osewoudt is regarded as a traitor and captured. He is unable to prove that he received assignments from Dorbeck - he cannot even prove that his doppelganger ever existed! Shows the moral ambiguity rampant in a society in the grip of war and chaos and the impossibility of heroism. Hermans was the greatest 20th century writer of the Netherlands.
Translation: Ina Rilke, published by The Overlook Press (2008)

9. Rituals by Cees Nooteboom (1980)
Although in the first place known as a travel writer (see my post about  "Roads to Berlin"), Nooteboom has also created a fine novelistic oeuvre for which - strangely enough - he is more famous in Germany than in the Netherlands. Set in Amsterdam during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The protagonist wanders the streets of Amsterdam, looking for meaning in the "wonderful, empty universe." He happens to encounter Arnold Taads and his estranged son Philip, who in a universe without god, are attempting to create their own meaning in life through rituals. We even have a Japanese tea ceremony here!
Translation: Adrienne Dixon, published by Quercus, London (2013)

10. The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch (1992)
"De Ontdekking van de Hemel"
Huge novel containing all the themes that are important in Mulisch oeuvre. Mulisch masterfully intersperses mathematics, biology, linguistics, numerology, philosophy and theology, a bit like the the Thomas Mann of Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus. As mankind has discovered DNA and therefore the secret of creation, God wants to end his covenant and have the tablets he once gave to Moses returned to him. Events on earth are manipulated by a couple of angels so that two men (an astronomer, Max, and a linguist who later turns politician, Onno) and a woman (Ada, who is a cellist) meet and a child is conceived who is to become the person who will find the Tablets and return them to Heaven. This setup results in many bizarre and humorous complications. The novel paints an interesting picture of Holland in the 1960s and after, before turning into a sort of Foucault's Pendulum with Raiders of the Lost Ark mixed in.
Translator: Paul Vincent, published by Penguin Books (2011)
For more translations of Dutch literature in English and other languages, see the translation database at the website of the Dutch Foundation for Literature.

March 16, 2014

The Forbidden Kingdom by Slauerhoff

The Forbidden Kingdom (Het Verboden Rijk, 1932), the masterwork of J.J. Slauerhoff, is a classic of modernism with an experimental narrative, and at the same it is also a romantic tale of travel and adventure.

The novel starts with two historical tales: the founding of Macao in the 1550s, by Portuguese soldiers and colonists, the fortress-trading city on the South Chinese coast, and back in Portugal itself, we get the story of Luís de Camões ("Camoens" in the novel), courtier and poet, author of the classic epic, The Lusiads. Camões is exiled to the new colony by the King of Portugal for having an affair with the prospective bride of the Infante. After suffering shipwreck near Macao, Camões is helped by Pilar, the daughter of the Administrator of Macao, who has fled her father's house to escape an unwanted marriage. He is finally arrested and taken away with a Portuguese embassy that enters China bound for its capital but that looses its way in the country's vastness. The narrative not only switches between these two historical story threads, in each thread there are also shifts between third person and first person narration.

[Illustration from The Lusiads - Wikipedia]

The shifts in perspective which keep the reader from settling down comfortably in historical novel mood, already indicate that The Forbidden Kingdom is not an ordinary, realistic novel. This becomes all the more clear when, about halfway through the book, Slauerhoff once more surprises us by shifting to a story about a nameless 20th century Irish radio operator. This man works on a small ship steaming around Asia, and finally ends up in Macao. He describes himself as "the most rootless and raceless person alive."

[Camões - Wikipedia]

But also these two stories have been closely linked together by Slauerhoff. Much of what Camões felt and said appears again, as an after-echo, in the twentieth-century sections. Slauerhoff even goes so far to drop hints that the 16th century Camões and the 20th century radio operator may be the same person! The radio operator recognizes places where he cannot have been before, his memories become a mixture of his own and those of Camões. At the end, like the 16th century poet, his highest wish becomes to be absorbed by the anonymous millions of China. Past and present merge as if a hidden passage through time has been opened.

[Macao in the 19th c. - from Wikipedia]

Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936) was born in Leeuwarden in the northern part of the Netherlands. He studied medicine in Amsterdam before in 1923 enlisting as a ship's surgeon and making numerous voyages to the East and West Indies, China and Africa, until his death from malaria in 1936. From the publication of his first poetry collection in 1921, he came to be regarded as one of the foremost poets of the Netherlands, a poète maudit in the style of Baudelaire and Verlaine. He wrote about the sea, about travel, about outcasts and outsiders, often concluding on a note of cynicism or bitterness.

{Slauerhoff - Photo Wikipedia]

Slauerhoff wrote 3 novels (one published posthumously) and 2 collections of short stories - all just as unconventional as his poetry. His first novel is his greatest, The Forbidden Kingdom (1932). His second, Life on Earth (1934), can be seen as a loose sequel to the first, as it also concerns the theme of self-destruction by merging into the anonymous masses of China. In contrast, his third novel is set in Mexico.

Of course, the China in Slauerhoff's novels has little relation to the real China - he only knew China from the colonial port cities as Hong Kong and Macao, and had not studied its culture or language. But the vast realm of the "Forbidden Kingdom" became a sort of imaginary paradise for him, an elysium to which entry was forbidden - a paradise in the Buddhist sense of Nirwana, of annihilation - returning to Nothingness was Slauerhoff's ideal, as he saw himself as a piece of driftwood in the sea of time.

Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent. Published by Pushkin Press.
Original at DBNL. 

March 15, 2014

Amsterdam Stories (incl. The Freeloader, Young Titans and Little Poet) by Nescio

Some of the finest stories in the Dutch language were written by someone who was not a professional writer at all, but a businessman. He used the pseudonym "Nescio" (Latin for "I do not know") so as not to jeopardize his business career. Only in 1929, Nescio acknowledged that he was in fact Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh (1882–1961), director of the Holland–Bombay Trading Company. Grönloh was born in Amsterdam as the son of a shopkeeper and - after an idealistic youth that provided the material for his later stories -, joined the said trading Company in 1904, gradually climbing the ladder of success until his retirement in 1937. Grönloh was married and had four daughters.

It was only in his spare-time that Grönloh let himself go, digging out his youthful artistic ideals, and in the process creating a handful of very original and luminous stories that remain popular in the Netherlands and have in recent years also been translated into English. One of his passionate lifelong pursuits was taking long "marathon" walks, often solitary, through Amsterdam and its outskirts and farther afield.

[Statue "The Reading Nescio (1991) by Ronald Tolman in Ubbergen
- Photo Wikipedia]

Central in Nescio's small oeuvre stand the three novellas "De uitvreter" ("The Freeloader"), "Titaantjes" ("Little Titans") and "Dichtertje" ("Little Poet"). These were published together in 1918, but written gradually from 1911. Another published story is "Mene Tekel" ("The Writing on the Wall"), from 1946. And then there are five unpublished stories - all collected in the English translation called Amsterdam Stories. I will concentrate below on the first three stories, as these are the most famous and often published as a set.

"De uitvreter" ("The Freeloader") is about one of the most interesting characters in Dutch literature: Japi, a man who wants nothing at all to do with life, who just wants to sit down all day long and look at the sea. Japi is the perfect bohemian, he has no possessions, no money, nothing - and lives by sponging off his friends, a would-be author called Koekebakker, who is the narrator, and an unsuccessful painter named Bavinck. They belong to a small group of impecunious but idealistic young men who dream of "astounding the world" as artists.

The narrator starts the tale with a sentence that has become famous:
"Except for the man who thought the Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I've never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader." 
Both Koekebakker and Bavink have a weakness for Japi, as he is such an innocent, even when he sleeps in their beds, borrows their raincoats and walks around in their best shoes. The reason Japi has opted out of the system could not be put better than in this statement:
"First you go to school till you're 18 ... I had to learn the strangest things. [...] Then your old man sticks you in an office. And you realize that the reason you learned all those things was so that you could wet slips of paper with a little brush."
Nescio spent his own life among those slips of paper, trapped behind a desk... but the freeloader has no such ambitions: "I am, thank God, absolutely nothing."

But when Japi's ideals start conflicting with the realities of society and he is no longer able to pursue his ideal of doing absolutely nothing, he quietly commits suicide by stepping off a bridge. Bavink keeps struggling with his art, but the narrator is slowly seduced by material comforts. And so the youthful ideals evaporate...

[The Sarphatistraat - Photo Wikipedia]

"Titaantjes" ("Little Titans") is a sort of sequel to "De uitvreter" and again features Koekebakker and Bavink, plus several new characters belonging to the same bohemian group: Hoyer, Bekker, and Kees. The narrator reminiscences about his youth, when he and his friends still had their ideals. Now, several years later, they have all failed their ambition in one way or another. Koekebakker is has become journalist instead of a great writer, and Hoyer, a painter, now makes portraits for money and has forgotten he wanted to shake up the world... and Bavink, the only one who tried to hold on to his artistic ideals, has gone mad after being unable to complete the masterpiece (a view of the town of Rhenen) he had been struggling with for so long.

[View of Rhenen by Jan van Goyen, 1648]

"Dichtertje" ("Little Poet") brings the "God of the Netherlands" on stage, a kind of "Drystubble" figure (see my post on Max Havelaar) who has no affinity at all with the young man he sees walking around on his earth and who wants to be a great poet. Of course our poet fails, for he marries and becomes a bourgeois family man like Nescio - but he still secretly writes poetry. And then his poetic feelings find release in another way: by his falling in love with the younger sister of his wife. It is a very pure love story that - how could it be otherwise - ends in disaster.

In short, these stories are bittersweet accounts of artistic, idealistic young men, their big plans and mad longings, all ending in sadness and resignation. Nescio writes about our complete insignificance in the grand scheme of things - but also that our insignificance doesn't matter, for there is something wonderful in that, too.

Nescio has created the greatest small oeuvre in Dutch literature.

Translation: Damion Searls, published by NYRB Classics (2012). This book contains an introduction by Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland (2008). 
Originals: De Uitvreter in DBNL; Dichtertje, De Uitvreter & Titaantjes at Gutenberg.