The Window Dresser: A Dance Novella
Much of the best postwar fiction written in Dutch has only recently become available in English: works by Louis Paul Boon, Hugo Claus, and Willem Frederik Hermans, all published in or before the mid-1960s finally appeared in translation between 2006 and 2010. Much still remains to be done. Though the greatly gifted Harry Mulisch achieved a certain international notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s, more than half his fiction is still not translated. (He died in 2010.) More surprisingly, Gerard van het Reve’s controversial early work, Evenings (1947), considered to have set the tone for fiction in Holland in the early postwar period, has never been translated; indeed only one of van het Reve’s ten novels, Parent’s Worry (1988), has ever appeared in English.
So frustrated did van het Reve become about the possibility of reaching a larger readership that in 1953 he left Holland for London determined to write in English and eventually dropped the “van het” from his name. “Let us no longer express ourselves in a local patois,” he declared. But Reve never found an English publisher and his talent would not flower again until he returned to Holland and immersed himself in his country’s national life, raising hackles in this traditionally Protestant society with an incendiary mix of Catholicism, homosexuality, and obscenity. His genius needed his mother tongue, his home milieu, and an atmosphere of antagonism.
Reading these works translated decades after they were published and comparing them with the latest crop of contemporary Dutch novels, translated immediately on publication, offers a chance to see how writers have responded to the sort of frustrations that dogged Reve, how they have learned to craft a novel that while remaining in the national tradition clearly seeks to make itself available to an international readership. If there are moments in Boon, Claus, and Mulisch when, without the aid of footnotes, one feels lost, this is rarely the case with contemporary Dutch novels, where the desire to appeal to an international public can be seen as an instructive case of a worldwide trend.
Louis Paul Boon’s My Little War was published in 1947. Here it has to be said that Boon and Claus were Belgian nationals writing in Flemish, a version of Dutch spoken by six million Belgians. Not only, then, is the readership for this language relatively small, but divided into two distinct groups who publish with the same Amsterdam publishers and compete for the same reading public and literary awards. Boon radically revised My Little War in 1960 to make it more easily readable by a Dutch as well as Flemish public, a move that indicates how the desire to reach a larger audience will modify an author’s prose.
Made up of thirty fragments, each spoken in a loud voice of hurried, indignant protest, Boon’s novel…
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