"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

May 7, 2017

Best European Novels (3): The Netherlands

It's time for novels from my own country, the Netherlands. I have already written about Dutch novels a few years ago, but here I would like to present a somewhat longer list while excluding Flemish authors as these will come in a separate post about the Belgian novel.

As I wrote in my previous article, Dutch literature has long been largely unknown abroad, but thanks to active promotion by writers, publishers and the Dutch Foundation for Literature, that has changed. Today, Dutch novels are, for example, very popular in Germany and Scandinavia and several authors have higher sales figures there than in their own (small) country.

Three themes stand out in Dutch novels: 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).

Here are the best novels from the Netherlands:

1. Multatuli, Max Havelaar Or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1859)
The first Dutch novel of stature - and according to some, still the best - was written in the mid-19th c. by a colonial administrator. A passionate novel that woke up Dutch society by blowing the whistle about the oppression of the Javanese people in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Max Havelaar is an idealized self-portrait of the author, Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker), who, like his protagonist, was a colonial official in the Javanese town of Lebak. The book is advanced in its almost "postmodern" composition, with a self-reflexive frame story and countless digressions and stories-in-stories. 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. Read my full review.
Translation: Roy Edwards in Penguin Classics (1987). An older English translation at Google Books.

2. Louis Couperus, The Hidden Force (1900)
Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was born in The Hague but grew up in the Dutch East Indies. His first novel, Eline Vere, was 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. It was an immediate success. Couperus wrote more novels with a setting bourgeois circles in the Hague, but also Symbolist novellas, as well as historical novels situated in the ancient world (like Flaubert's Salammbo). His greatest achievement is 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. It is the story of the decline and fall of the Dutch resident Van Oudyck due to his inability to see further than his own Western rationalism. 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 was on the right of the strongest, led to moral decay, which slowly but irresistibly wrecked the Europeans, as another hidden force. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent, Pushkin Press (2012). Older translation by Texeira de Mattos at Gutenberg.

3. Nescio, Amsterdam Stories (1910-18)
Three wonderful novellas (The Freeloader, Titans and Little Poet), bittersweet accounts of artistic, idealistic young men, their big plans and mad longings, all ending in sadness and resignation. The individual is no match for the world and helplessly comes to grief if he tries to resist. Nescio (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh, 1882–1961) 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. All three stories provide a good picture of Amsterdam at the beginning of the 20th century. Above all, Nescio's style is wonderful: utter simplicity combined with humor, irony, understatement and sentiment (but never sentimentality), all elements miraculously balanced. Read my full review.
Translation: Damion Searls, published by NYRB Classics (2012). 

4. J.J. Slauerhoff, The Forbidden Kingdom (1931)
The Forbidden Kingdom (Het Verboden Rijk, 1932), the masterwork of poet-maudit and ship's doctor Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936), 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. To this is added 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 person alive." These two stories are then 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 as 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. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent. Published by Pushkin Press (2012).

5. Ferdinand Bordewijk, Character (1938)
Ferdinand Bordewijk (1884-1965) was a lawyer and novelist who wrote in a violent style reminiscent of New Objectivity. Karakter (Character) is his most famous novel. It tells the story of Katadreuffe, a clerk who is struggling to work his way up in society, but who is time and again blocked and even bankrupted by his biological father, the formidable Rotterdam bailiff Dreverhaven. 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. At the end of the book, 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, as Katadreuffe exhibits the negative side of a strong character - he is unable to love others or even connect to them. Katadreuffe finds success, but not personal happiness. Character is also a great portrait of pre-war Rotterdam where the drama is set. Character was filmed in 1998 by Mike van Diem. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in that year. Read my full review.
Translation: E.M. Prince (Ivan R Dee; 1st Elephant Pbk., 1999)

6. Gerard Reve, The Evenings (1947)
In The Netherlands, Gerard Reve (1923-2006) is considered as one of the three greatest writers of the postwar period, together with Hermans and Mulisch. However, he remains completely unknown abroad. His greatest novel and one of the best novels ever written in The Netherlands, had to wait until 2016 before its first English translation finally appeared. Set during the last ten dark days of 1946 in Amsterdam, the story of The Evenings revolves around Frits van Egters, a young man who lives at home with his parents, whom he finds annoying and embarrassing. Each of the ten days is the object of one chapter, and as Reve skips the time Frits spends as a clerk in the office, we indeed get descriptions of his "evenings," plus his time off on Sundays and Christmas. Frits spends his free time by withdrawing to his bedroom and doing nothing, listening to the radio, or visiting friends, whom he tries to provoke and challenge. Central themes in The Evenings are loneliness, boredom, disillusionment, lack of self-esteem, social isolation and the cynicism of the protagonist. Although Frits has several friends, he is in fact very lonely, as the conversations he has with them are generally superficial and unimportant, even nonsensical. The relationship Frits has with his parents, and especially his father, is plainly bad - although he also hides his love, which becomes apparent in the conclusion of the novel. He is also suffering from repetition compulsion: he regularly has to look at his watch, cannot stand pauses in conversations and has an obsessive fear of the future, especially the process of aging and physical decline - baldness is an important subject in his conversations and he studies his own scalp every night in the mirror. He delights in reminding his brother, who is only a couple of years older, that his hairline is already receding. According to most interpretations, Frits van Egters' character primarily reflects the problems of the generation that had matured during WWII, when the Netherlands was for five years occupied by the Nazis, and of whom many came dazed and without faith or ideals out of that war. The novel may strike one as gloomy and cheerless, even negative and cynical, as it did readers in the 1950s, and also me when I first read it in high school. But reading it again after several decades, I now enjoyed the grotesque and liberating dark humor that peppers the whole novel. The author has a sharp eye for absurd and poignant details. Perhaps because I don't live in Holland anymore and am not bothered by the dark and gray weather described in the book, I only registered the comical effects, which are made stronger thanks to the businesslike style of the author, setting down even the smallest things in detail. Also funny is the solemn and needlessly complicated idiolect Frits uses, even when talking to himself. This "ultimate book on the art of boredom" ends with a beautiful and moving epiphany when on New Year's Eve, Frits begs God’s forgiveness for mocking his parents so brutally.
Translation: Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press (2016)

7. W.F. Hermans, The Darkroom of Damocles (1958)
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 shadowy figure named Dorbeck, who looks exactly like a "positive mirror image" of himself - everything that is effeminate and weak in Osewoudt, is strong and manly in Dorbeck. Osewoudt is a man without beard growth and a high squeaky voice who is just a nondescript tobacconist in a suburb of The Hague, living with his mentally ill mother and an unattractive wife who is also his niece. He has no self-respect at all. Dorbeck instructs Osewoudt to execute a number of dangerous secret assignments on behalf of the resistance movement against the Nazis, including several killings. Although things quickly go awry, these violent actions give Osewoudt a feeling of dignity. After the war, Osewoudt is regarded as a traitor and captured. He is unable to prove that he received assignments from Dorbeck - Dorbeck has vanished completely and Osewoudt cannot even prove that his doppelganger ever existed: Osewoudt has taken a photo of himself with Dorbeck, but the film is empty. Hermans shows us the moral ambiguity prevalent in a society in the grip of war and chaos and the impossibility of heroism. In the darkroom of life in wartime, the sword of Damocles is always dangling above one's head. Read my full review.
Translation: Ina Rilke, published by The Overlook Press (2008)

8. Cees Nooteboom, Rituals (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. The protagonist Inni Wintrop wanders the streets of the free "flower power" Amsterdam of the 1960s and 1970s, 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! Arnold Taads is rigidly tied to time, his son Philip in contrast tries to escape time through Zen-like rituals, and as regards Inni, "women had become his religion," but that also leads to complications: when his wife Zita leaves him for an Italian, he attempts suicide. "A parable about  the importance of learning to ride the unpredictable waves of life in a universe devoid of God," as the website of the Dutch Foundation for Literature calls this novel. Read my full review. Another great book by Cees Nooteboom is the novella The Following Story (see my review).
Translation: Adrienne Dixon, published by Quercus, London (2013)

9. Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven (1992)
Huge novel containing all the themes that are important in Mulisch oeuvre. 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 and extrovert ertomaniac, Max Delius, and a withdrawn linguist who later turns politician, Onno Quist) and a woman (Ada Brons, who is a cellist) meet and a child (Quinten) 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. In the two main characters, who are each other's opposites, the reader can recognize Mulisch (Max) and his friend, the chess master, Jan Hein Donner (Onno); it is also the first part of the novel dedicated to their story which is the most beautiful. Read my full review.
Translation: Paul Vincent, Penguin Books (1996)

10. Hella Haasse, The Tea Lords (1992)
When the trio of four great postwar authors is expanded to a quartet, it is usually Hella Haasse who is added to the team. Hella Haasse was of the same generation and also started writing in the years just after the war. Hella Haase was born in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and won fame with the novella The Black Lake (Oeroeg), which came out in 1947. It is a Bildungsroman about an anonymous narrator growing up on a plantation in the Dutch colony, who has a childhood friend of native descent; the story describes their inevitable estrangement as time goes by. Is friendship between a Dutch colonial and an Indonesian child possible and can they really understand each other? Besides colonial themes, Hella Haasse excelled in historical novels, such as In a Dark Wood Wandering, a novel of set during the Hundred Years War and focusing on the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d'Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d'Orleans, a poet and scholar who suffered decades of captivity in England. Equally famous became The Scarlet City, set in 16th c. Italy and bringing to life the Borgias, Machiavelli and Michelangelo. But in my view her greatest achievement is The Tea Lords, a later novel in which she brings historical themes and the Dutch East Indies together. The story is based on family archives of the heirs and relations of the tea plantation owners featuring in the book, so there is a historical basis to it all. Protagonist is Rudolf Kerkhoven, scion of an established family of planters in Java, who after his studies in Holland, returns - young, idealistic, and ambitious - to the colony to be introduced into the mysteries of the tea trade. The core of the story is formed by Rudolf’s struggles to establish his own remote plantation in the jungle, so to speak hacking it out from the teeming undergrowth, in the damp uplands south of Bandung, and in his marriage to the resolute but troubled Jenny, daughter of another old-established Dutch dynasty in Java. The greatest strength of the novel is its atmosphere: a powerful sense of the overwhelming greenness of the Javanese countryside and the steaming jungle pervades the book. But empathy for plantation life does not mean that judgement on colonialism itself is suspended.
Translation: Ina Rilke, Portobello Books (2010)

11. J.J. Voskuil, The Bureau (1996-2000)
A series of seven novels (5,000 pages) called a "soap for intellectuals," filled with detailed descriptions of the daily affairs over a period of thirty years at the "Bureau for Dialectology, Folklore and Onomastics" (based on the Mertens Institute in Amsterdam where Voskuil himself worked for thirty years; the novels have a strong autobiographical component). One the one hand, the novels are a parody of academic specialization, on the other hand a demonstration of office politics. In that last respect, they mercilessly describe the petty irritations and teasing, the conniving and crawling that over the years take hold of people obliged to spend their days working together in a hierarchical setting. The academic satire is evident from the fact that Maarten Koning, the protagonist and Voskuil's fictional alter ego, is charged with research into the most obscure of folk traditions, such as the belief in elves, or the uses of scythes and harrows - nobody knows what purpose the research is meant to serve. Scene by scene and through vivid dialogues Voskuil builds up a picture of a surrealistic agency of which Kafka would be proud and gradually The Bureau itself emerges as the real main character. A classic of Dutch literature.
No English translation available; the novels have been translated into German.

12. Arnon Grunberg, Tirza (2006)
Arnon Grunberg belongs to the younger generation of Dutch writers. He wrote his first novel, Blue Mondays, in 1994. Two other novels, Phantom Pain and The Asylum Seeker, won the AKO Literature Prize (the Dutch Booker Prize). But his best novel is Tirza, about a father's obsessive love for his graduating daughter. This novel won another important literary prize and was also Grunberg's first novel to be made into a movie. As J.M. Coetzee has written, it is a novel filled with "wit and sardonic intelligence." It is the hilarious and tragic story of Jörgen Hofmeester, a man who had it all according to bourgeois norms: a beautiful wife, two intelligent daughters named Ibi and Tirza, a nice house with a garden in an upper-class neighborhood of Amsterdam, a respectable job as editor for a publishing house, and a large sum of money stashed away in a Swiss bank account earned by renting out part of the big house without informing the tax office. But during the preparations for his beloved daughter Tirza's graduation party we come to know what Hofmeester has lost: his wife has left him (and now come back after three years to harass him), Ibi has broken off her university course to start a bed-and-breakfast in France, Hofmeester has been laid off at the publishing house and his Swiss savings have evaporated due to hedge fund speculation. So he has only Tirza left, the apple of his eye... but Tirza tells him she is leaving on a trip to Namibia with her new North-African boyfriend Choukri. Hofmeester is shattered when she disappears on that holiday, and travels to Africa to search for her, but the heat, his drinking and bad memories combine to unhinge him. Finally, in a surprising conclusion we discover the beast that had all the time dwelt within him. Grunberg is an even stronger nihilist than W.F. Hermans - again and again he shows us how thin the veneer of civilization is.
Translation: Sam Garrett, Open Letter Books (2013)

Previous posts in Best European Novels:
Austria - Germany & Switzerland