"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

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 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.





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 (The Art of the Novella 14)

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.

March 12, 2014

"The Hidden Force" by Louis Couperus

The Hidden Force (De Stille Kracht) is another account of Dutch colonialism, written 40 years later than the Max Havelaar, in 1900, by Louis Couperus. Although some things had changed in the Dutch East Indies - the "cultivation system" had been abolished - other problems remained the same. The double nature of government, where Dutch civil servants worked via the local aristocracy, still was in place. Also in The Hidden Force this system leads to a collision. A Javanese Regent who drinks and gambles is fired by the Dutch Resident, which leads to an attack on that Resident and his family by a sort of supernatural "hidden force," presumably called up by the Regent (these Regents in general were indeed considered by the local population to possess various spiritual and supernatural powers).

But the hidden force in the novel is much more than only one case of resistance against a particular civil servant - it can be seen (although with modern eyes) as a general symbol for the silent opposition of the Indonesian population against their conquerors, symbolic also for the difference between both cultures which in the end cannot come together. It is the reason why colonialism could not be successful, something which is demonstrated through the fate of the Resident, who after an extremely active official life, trying to do good for the local population as well, suddenly breaks down and quits his job.

In The Hidden Force Couperus sniffed out the decay and final doom of the Dutch empire in the East Indies - a great feat as to all purposes in 1900 Holland was at the zenith of its colonial power.

[Louis Couperus - Photo Wikipedia]

Louis Couperus was born in 1863 in The Hague and spent part of his youth in the Dutch East Indies (1873-1978), going to primary school and the gymnasium (grammar school) in Batavia. His family had many ties with the colony - Couperus himself had some Indonesian blood. Back in The Hague, Couperus studied Dutch literature; he also wrote poetry. Although he took his teacher's certificate, he did not aspire to a career in education and continued to write literature instead.

His first novel, Eline Vere, a psychological masterpiece about the tragic fate of a young heiress, a neurotic woman with a turbulent family, set in fin-de-siecle The Hague, was published in 1888. It was an immediate success and Couperus continued to publish critically and commercially successful work until his death. His oeuvre contains a wide variety of genres: lyric poetry, psychological and historical novels, novellas, short stories, fairy tales, travelogues and sketches. Couperus is one of the foremost Dutch writers of all time. There are some influences in his work from both naturalism and symbolism, and his language can sometimes be typically "fin-de-siecle poetic," but his dialogues are natural and above all, Couperus had a sharp psychological insight.

His greatest novels include, besides Eline Vere, Ecstasy (Extaze, 1892), Inevitable (Langs lijnen van geleidelijkheid, 1900), The Books of Small Souls (De Boeken der Kleine Zielen, 4 vols, 1901-03) and Old People and the Things That Pass (Van oude mensen, de dingen die voorbijgaan, 1906). Besides his "The Hague" novels, Couperus also wrote many historical novels situated in the ancient world.

But his greatest achievement is possibly The Hidden Force (De stille kracht), written in 1900 and inspired by a year long visit to the Dutch East Indies in 1899-1900, the country of his childhood. Many of the details of the novel, for example about the life and duties of a Resident, Couperus derived from his brother-in-law, who had the same position in the colony.

[The highway near Buitenzorg, Dutch East Indies - from Wikipedia]

The novel tells the story of the conflict between Resident Van Oudijck and the Regent Sunario, set in the fictional provincial town of Labuwangi in Eastern Java. Van Oudijck, a hard-working and efficient administrator, has Sunario fired because of his open drunkenness and gambling. He has to use all his authority to prevent the outbreak of a revolt by the local population. But then strange occurrences start frightening his household, supposedly supernatural powers called forth by the Regent: stones fly mysteriously through the air, breaking windows; whisky suddenly changes color; in the trees cry pontianak vampires, and above all, the wife of the Resident, Léonie, is attacked in her bathroom by some invisible presence that spits red betel juice (sirih) on her.

The fearful reaction of the Europeans to these supposedly supernatural events can be said to reflect anxieties inherent to colonialism. But Van Oudijck remains cool and firm and demands successfully from the Regent's family to stop all this foolishness. But then, when all is over, he suddenly breaks down psychologically: he degenerates into suspicion and superstition, even becoming physically ill, and resigns from the civil service to retire as a recluse to a quiet place in the countryside. He loses everything he was once proud of: his family, his future and his district. In the final analysis, his practical, logical world proved no match for the "hidden force."

It should be stressed that Couperus' novel is not a political book, in contrast to the Max Havelaar. The political interpretation is something we, with hindsight, put into it. The novel itself is a grand evocation of Dutch life in the East Indies, with all the smells and colors, and full of fin-de-siecle symbolism. Couperus believed in the power of "Fate," like the Javanese, and it is Fate that has the novel in its hidden grip.

There are two other important characters in the novel. In the first place Léonie, the (second) wife of Van Oudijck, who looks cool but is in fact a very erotic woman, who jumps into bed with every man she can lay hands on. Behind the back of Van Oudijck, who is always busy with his official duties, she has a relation with her own stepson, Theo, and also with the smart Don Juanesque Addy de Luce - although her stepdaughter Doddy is madly in love with Addy, too. The incident of the betel spitting so shocks Léonie, that she loses her mask of cool correctness and even is caught by her husband in a rendez-vous with Addy. She then leaves Labuwangi and goes to live in Paris.

And in the second place we have the history of the sensitive and artistic Eva Eldersma, the wife of Van Oudijck's controller. She has a central position in the social and cultural life of the Dutch community, organizing various cultural events to prop up European civilization and prevent the colonists from "going native." Eva also is the only European who notices the mystery of the "hidden force," which to her always seems to be present in the air of the East Indies. Her European culture is so different from the local culture that in the end she feels she cannot keep it up and returns to the Netherlands, disillusioned. 

[Residence in the Dutch East Indies - from Wikipedia]

To put it again in modern terms: the "hidden force" can be interpreted as the silent opposition of the colonized, as the symbol for the cultural gap which in a colonial situation can never be breached successfully. We could also say that colonial society, founded as it is on the right of the strongest, leads to moral decay, which slowly but irresistibly wrecks the Europeans. Behind a mask of propriety, colonial society was governed by avarice, exploitation, racism and violence - another type of "hidden forces" that wore out the colonists.

One notable motif in the novel is the spooky and threatening appearance of a hadji in white dress, who flits by at crucial moments in the story - as if Couperus could foresee the force that Islamism would become in the region. 

English Translation: Paul Vincent, published by Pushkin Press (2012). 
An older translation is also available at Gutenberg. 
Dutch original online at DBNL.

March 6, 2014

"Max Havelaar: or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company" by Multatuli

Max Havelaar has been called the best Dutch novel ever written, and the author has along the same lines been deemed the best Dutch writer of all time. The author, Eduard Douwes Dekker or Multatuli as he called him self (somewhat grandly, as this Latin name means "I have suffered much") was a whistle-blower about problems in the Dutch colony of the East-Indies. His whistle of epic proportions was the present novel and it did indeed shake up Dutch society, which in the mid-19th century was sunk in a deep sleep, comfortably pillowed on the income from the colonies. Like all whistle-blowers, Dekker led a difficult and financially insecure life, struggling on behalf of his cause.

[Multatuli - from Wikipedia]

But before we can talk about Multatuli's life or the Max Havelaar, we first have to understand the situation in the colony of the Dutch East Indies, present-day Indonesia. The first Dutch expedition came in 1595 to the East Indies, with the motive to get access to the spice trade and kick out the Portuguese. As a huge profit was made, soon the United East India Company (V.O.C.) was founded. Within a short time, the Dutch set up a large network of trading posts and fortresses in the Indonesian archipelago. Besides the original spice trade, also non-indigenous cash crops like coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco, rubber and sugar were introduced. This has been called the "period of the Dutch East India company," and it lasted from 1602 to 1800. The capital was Batavia, present-day Jakarta. Initially, the Dutch had come to trade, not to conquer, and they built up a good working relationship with Java's many feudal lords.

The East India Company was dissolved in 1800, after which the Dutch state nationalized the company's possessions, starting the next "period of the Netherlands East Indies," which lasted from 1800 to 1942 and - after the occupation by Japan - again briefly from 1945 to 1950. In this period, the East Indies were a colony governed directly by the Dutch - the local lords had been brought under the authority of the Netherlands. Finally, in 1950, Indonesia became independent after fighting a liberation war with the Dutch, who only reluctantly gave up the islands.

In 1830 the Dutch colonial government introduced the so-called "cultivation system," primarily on Java - this was the system in force in the years in which the Max Havelaar is situated. As a kind of tax, 20% of village land had to be devoted to government crops for export or, alternatively, peasants had to work in government-owned plantations for 60 days of the year. The Dutch payed a rather low price for these crops and then sold them with huge profit at world markets. Java was in fact turned into an agricultural sweatshop. Peasants were also forbidden by law to move away from their villages.

This system was very profitable for the Dutch. It lasted until around 1870 when it was gradually replaced by a system based on private enterprise (which was not necessarily better for the local population, as they were always in the weakest position). A new, more ethical policy towards the colony was also introduced (among others, thanks to the Max Havelaar). Between 1830 and 1870, one billion guilders were taken from Indonesia, amounting to one fourth of the total annual Dutch government budget. It helped reverse a Dutch economic decline which had become severe in the 1830s. But the Cultivation System brought much economic hardship to Javanese peasants, who suffered famine and epidemics in the 1840s.

[House of the Resident in Surabaya - from Wikipedia]

The way the Dutch East Indies were governed was rather ingenious - and typically Dutch in the sense that much was achieved by very little means. The Dutch ruled in an indirect way, by using the local aristocracy as an indigenous civil service. Indonesia consisted of many small states and after these were conquered by the Dutch, their rulers were allowed to stay on as "Regents" under a hierarchy of Dutch officials: the Residents, the Assistant-Residents, and the Controllers. This indirect rule did not disturb the peasantry and was cost-effective for the Dutch. For example, in 1900, 35 million colonial subjects were ruled by just 250 European and 1,500 indigenous civil servants (plus an army of 16,000 Dutch and 26,000 native troops)! This serves to show that colonialism was mostly based on bluff - the Netherlands itself only had 5.6 million inhabitants in 1900.

But this double system also had its problems: the Indonesian regents were obliged to keep up a high status in the eyes of their own people, and had many obligations towards their extended families, and so needed a larger income than they received from the Dutch. They also still had a feudal mentality and forced their subjects to do corvée work or donate buffaloes (and sometimes even their daughters), this all on top of the tax of enforced planting on behalf of the Dutch government. When these combined burdens became too heavy, famine, banditism and chaos could be the result.

[Dutch Fortress in Batavia - from Wikipedia]

Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli) was born in Amsterdam in 1820 and already in 1838 left his native Holland to enter into government service in the Dutch East Indies. Although he often disagreed with his superiors due to his high sense of justice, he gradually climbed the bureaucratic ladder to Assistant-Resident at Ambon, before in 1852 taking a long vacation in the Netherlands for health reasons. He was back in the colonies at the beginning of 1856 as Assistant-Resident of Lebak (now part of Banten province). Dekker tried to address the ill-treatment of the population by the Javanese regent and his family, but refused to follow the slow, formal procedure and bypassed his Dutch superior, the Resident. This led to a conflict between Dekker and his boss - who because of this bureaucratic blunder refused to accept Dekker's accusation against the Regent - with as a result that Dekker decided to leave the civil service. The ill-treatment discovered by Dekker consisted of corvée labor. It has been pointed out that Dekker was rather dogmatic here, as normally a certain extent of such practices were condoned by the Dutch administration as a necessary evil due to the social demands made on the local Regents. Also, the case criticized by Dekker does not seem to have been a particularly severe one.

Dekker returned to Holland and Europe and started a period of wandering, often in poor circumstances and without his family. In 1859 he wrote the Max Havelaar in only seven weeks time, while staying in a shabby hotel in Brussels. In this book he shaped the events that led to his departure from the civil service into a complex literary work of art, turning the in fact rather modest case of ill-treatment he had witnessed in Lebak into a general plea on behalf of the local population.

[The submission of Prince Diponegoro to General De Kock at the end of the Java War in 1830 - Photo Wikipedia]

Max Havelaar is a multi-layered book, like a Russian doll. We start with a frame narrative, bringing on stage the hypocritical Amsterdam coffee broker, Batavus Droogstoppel ("Drystubble"), who of course stands for the average dime-counting, bigoted Protestant Dutch tradesman of the age. Droogstoppel tells how he accidentally met an old acquaintance from school, whom he calls "Scarfman," as he only wears a scarf and has no coat, and received a pack of manuscripts to help get these published ("Scarfman" is of course Max Havelaar). Droogstoppel almost throws them away as he hates literature as a pack of lies, but as it also contains a report on the coffee trade (his trade!) and the fact that this might be endangered when there would be an uprising of the Javanese people, he asks Ernest Stern, the idealistic son a German business partner - who is staying with him as a trainee -, to bring some order in these varied papers.

The story that thus unfolds tells about the trials and tribulations of a Dutch colonial administrator, Max Havelaar, who tries to stamp out corruption in a poverty-stricken district where he has just been sent as Assistant-Resident. To make the Russian doll even more intricate, Max in his turn tells stories - for example, Javanese folk tales - to his wife Tine and to his colleagues. The narrative oscillates between several modes of presentation, also official reports and correspondence are included. There are many diversions and the book seems to jump from one thing to another, but everything is there with a careful purpose and the various elements cleverly echo each other. A beautiful story at the heart of the book is the tragic tale of Saïdjah and Adinda, two Javanese children whose lives are crushed by the double heaviness of indigenous and Dutch rule. The story of Max Havelaar ends with the protagonist's defeat, for he resigns from the civil service without having achieved anything.

And then, suddenly, Multatuli steps forward as the true author. He dismisses his two narrators, Stern and Drystubble, as fictitious characters, and directly addresses the King of the Netherlands, asking him to take action and right the wrongs in his colonies.

Although published in 1860 with modifications and in a small, expensive edition, Max Havelaar did create something of a stir. The novel became an instrument for a growing liberal movement in the Netherlands, which strove to bring about reform in Indonesia. Although these reforms initially were modest and gradual, from 1870 on the "cultivation system" which rested so heavily on the population, was abolished. The reforms also led to better education for Indonesians, which in its turn helped form an elite who after 1945 fought successfully for emancipation and freedom from colonial rule. (It may be clear that Multatuli did not fight against colonialism in itself - for that he was too much a child of his time).

The rest of his life, Multatuli struggled for his cause, wavering between becoming a full-time author and being a political activist - his greatest wish was to be vindicated and reinstated in the civil service so that he could show what good government was, but that of course never happened. The other works Multatuli wrote were mostly polemical essays, in a sharp and modern style. He called these "Ideas" and among the thousands he produced, another novel, Woutertje Pieterse, is hidden.

Multatuli spend the last decades of his life in a sort of exile in Germany. He died in 1887 in Ingelheim am Rhein. But Max Havelaar is a book that will not shut up, even today.

English translation by Roy Edwards in Penguin Classics. Original text at Gutenberg. 
Filmed on an epic scale in 1976 by Fons Rademakers with Peter Faber as Max Havelaar. 
The Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans has written an interesting biography of Multatuli, available online at the DBNL, called De raadselachtige Multatuli (only available in Dutch). 
Multatuli Society and Multatuli House. 
Incorporates data etc. from relevant Wikipedia articles on Multatuli and the Dutch East Indies. 

March 1, 2014

"The Pretty Horsebreaker" by Edwin Landseer (Best paintings)

The Pretty Horsebreaker, also known as The Shrew Tamed, was painted in 1861 by the English animal-painter Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873). In private hands, present owner unknown (it was sold in 1994 at Sotheby's for 140,000 BP).


We see an elegant Amazon reclining in the hay between the hooves of a glossy steed, while leaning on the horse's shoulder. At first sight, this painting looks like all the other, almost countless animal paintings (particularly dogs) made by Landseer - only suitable for Victorian biscuit or shortbread tins. But in fact, this painting contains several hidden, controversial elements, which deserve our attention.
  • The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1861 and in the catalogue was described as a portrait of a noted equestrienne, Ann Gilbert. Ostensibly she reclines on her horse practicing the "taming technique" of a famous "horse whisperer," an American called John Solomon Rarey. Rarey had visited England in 1858 and demonstrated his "horse whisperer" technique to the Royal Family, causing some sensation. Ann Gilbert also advertised her services as a professional horsebreaker.
  • But at the time of the exhibition, critics advanced the opinion that the woman in the painting was none other than Catherine Walters, a gorgeous belle from Liverpool who was the top expensive courtesan of her day, also called the "Queen of mid-Victorian harlotry." Catherine Walters (1839-1920), also known as "Skittles," was rumoured to have political leaders, aristocrats and even a member of the Royal Family as her "benefactors." The Prime Minister, Gladstone (whose affairs with courtesans were notorious), marvelled at the narrowness of her waist and was said to have tested it "by manual measurement." 
  • Walters' classical beauty was matched by her skills as a horsewoman, for which she was almost equally renowned - in the 1860s the sight of Walters and other courtesans riding on Rotten Row in Hyde Park drew large crowds of sightseers. As a blatant advertisement for their trade, these elegant equestriennes brought London to a full stop and fashionable young bucks eagerly courted them, leading to complaints in the press that "eligible daughters of respectable families were without prospect of marriage." But aristocratic ladies themselves copied the cut of Walters' stunning, tight-fitting riding habit (so tight-fitting that the husbands speculated she had nothing on underneath it), making her a fashion trendsetter. Walters was also perfectly discreet and loyal to her lovers, never divulging names or confirming rumors. She died as a wealthy woman. So the name for the painting, "The Pretty Horsebreaker," can very well point at Catherine Walters.
  • This is supported by the way the subject has been addressed in the painting: a langerous woman dominating a powerful animal - like a top-class courtesan "dominating" and "taming" the most powerful men of the age. The smile on her face seems to be one of female supremacy as she playfully pats the jaw of the horse with the back of her small hand. One more symbolical step - but I doubt of Landseer meant that - is to read "husbands" for "horses" and see the painting as a small gender rebellion.  
  • A double identification of the Amazon in the painting is of course also possible: "officially" it is a painting of horsebreaker Ann Gilbert, but "in reality" it refers to the much more famous Catherine Walters, the "breaker of mighty males." (P.S. "The Shrew" in the alternative title refers of course to the horse, not to the woman - this no Shakespeare!).
  • You may know Landseer's work without realizing it: he was also responsible for the four bronze lions lying at the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square.
[Presumably Catherine Walters (or someone like her) on horseback,
with notably narrow waist and close-fitting riding habit.
Photo Wikipedia.de] 

[Catherine Walters. Photo Wikipedia]