"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

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)