"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

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 Schnitzler, 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)
"Kaas."
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)
"Karakter"
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)
"Rituelen"
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.