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 rapidly creates a wartime atmosphere where there is no time for nicety, or even to distinguish the calamitous from the casual:
Now take Van den Borre who always wore wooden clogs and who’s dead now and forgotten and not even buried, bits of him were just swept up and shoved in the ground, his name and his case are typical of these times.
Very soon it’s clear that if we were aware of the circumstances of Flemish Belgium during the war, then the chronological ordering of the pieces and the many allusions to names and events would yield more sense and allow for a deeper reading. Between descriptions of coal thieving, ration cards, and mutual suspicion, Boon is engaging his reader in a debate about collaborationism and resistance during the Nazi occupation and he assumes that we all know exactly what he’s talking about. But despite some disorientation, the urgency of the voice, together with the universally recognizable awfulness of wartime conditions, carries the day. The rejection of all official rhetoric comes across loud and clear:
WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE FATHERLAND even if the whole world now seems full of Belgian patriotism? I’m someone who just wants a bit of food on his table and some coal in his stove, someone who just wants the warmth of his bed and the body of his wife and the eyes of his child, who doesn’t feel like the world revolves around him but like a man among men, who loves people AND NOT FATHERLANDS.
Reve’s Evenings, which I read in a 1970s French translation, could hardly be more different. In line with received wisdom that fiction from the Catholic Flemish tends to be more flamboyant than that from the Protestant Dutch, Reve’s work is absolutely dour and, for something written in what the Dutch refer to as their “starvation year,” 1946, provocatively downbeat and laconic. Ignoring all questions of wartime guilt and responsibility, the novel focuses on the empty life of Frits van Egters, a bored young man whose sole, sadistic consolation is to expose the hypocrisy of his respectable middle-class parents. The realities of the body (usually unpleasant) and the mindlessness of daily routine constantly and sometimes comically give the lie to all the values that society offers, feeding the same kind of frustration and disaffection that would appear years later in the work of England’s so-called Angry Young Men.
Despite their differences, these novels are similar in their abandonment of traditional plotting to focus on the basic conditions of existence and their willingness to cause offense in an all-out attack on a society that they believe is in denial, hiding behind empty proprieties.
The randomness and meaninglessness in Boon and Reve’s early writing are shaped and galvanized, in Claus, Hermans, and Mulisch, by an anxiety that what might seem to be casual suffering is in fact the result of some dark conspiracy that goes far beyond the Low Countries and the ken of the novels’ protagonists. It’s as if, in the 1960s, these writers had begun to use the specifically Dutch or Flemish condition of living in a relatively circumscribed cultural milieu as a metaphor for the universal concern that what is important in the world lies beyond one’s knowledge or control.
So we have a return of plot in the form of mystery and menace, with the postwar obsession about who was responsible for war crimes and collaborationism still very much to the fore. Claus’s Wonder (1962) has a feckless schoolteacher who follows a beautiful but elusive woman only to become embroiled in a bizarre international conference of right-wing extremists gathering to pay tribute to a wartime collaborator who sought Nazi support for imposing Flemish supremacy over Francophile Belgians.1
There is a great deal of historical detail, but so unreliable is Claus’s narrator that it is hard for a foreign reader to know how much of the history is accurate and how much invented. So many incidents are inexplicable, so many scandals blow up only to fizzle out without consequence, that the discovery that the narrator is being held in a mental hospital comes as no surprise. Despite all the difficulties in getting to grips with Wonder, it offers the excitement of engaging with an author who is urgently addressing his community at a particular moment in history to denounce what he sees as a complete moral and cultural breakdown.
Once again the Dutch Hermans is less flamboyant than his Flemish counterpart, but he compensates with a tight, effective, traditional narrative. In The Darkroom of Damocles (1958), Henri Osewoudt believes that he has been active in the Dutch Resistance, committing crimes and even killing in response to orders received from a certain Dorbeck, a dark double of his blond self. But when, after the war, Dorbeck turns out to have been a German agent and disappears, Osewoudt has to justify himself to the Allied authorities who mistake him for Dorbeck and arrest him. As the nightmarish story develops, the reader is again denied any explanation of events and left unsure about the sanity of the protagonist, who has an ever weaker grasp on whatever actually happened during the war. In any event, foreigners are very much in control; straying out of his prison cell in a state of confusion, Osewoudt is shot dead by an American guard. Like Reve, Hermans was anxious to have his books translated, and the way this novel about the Dutch wartime experience is pitched as both a thriller and a philosophical debate on the difficulty of knowing reality suggests an awareness of foreign readers that is not there in Boon’s or Claus’s work.
That the Dutch market for books was indeed too small to support many adventurous literary authors was acknowledged in 1965 when the Dutch government set up a Foundation for Literature, granting novelists a significant sum2 for each book-length project and promoting their work abroad by offering subsidies for translations with foreign publishers. The message was that a literary culture was important to Holland’s sense of identity, yet at the same time writers were encouraged to think of their work as a product to sell in an international market. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hermans’s 1966 novel, Beyond Sleep, makes much of the unequal relationship between dominant and minority languages and cultures, working these preoccupations into his theme of conspiracy.
Albert, a young Dutch geologist, whose botanist father was killed doing fieldwork in Switzerland, travels to Lapland to do research for his Ph.D.; his professor is hoping he can verify the improbable hypothesis that some small lakes there were formed by meteorites, something that would make both men’s international reputations. To have any chance of success, Albert must secure aerial photographs of the area from a professor in Oslo but is sent on a wild goose chase from one remote station to another and begins to fear that he is being denied a chance of success by jealous colleagues. One professor in particular tells him that it is pointless for a man coming from “a tiny, flat country of mud and clay” to imagine he could ever be a successful geologist. Although the trip seems hopeless without the aerial maps, Albert proceeds to Lapland, meeting three young Norwegians who will accompany him and carry out their own research. Immediately one of the Norwegians complains:
Our language is of no consequence in the rest of the world…. The most advanced studies are written in foreign languages. The great minds come to us in English by way of English textbooks—a language we can read quite easily, but which we can seldom speak or write without making mistakes. I notice it even now, as I am trying to explain this to you. If I were speaking Norwegian, I could be more subtle, more precise.
Norway is thus even more disadvantaged than Holland, its scientists condemned to a sense of inferiority. When Albert discovers that one of the Norwegians has the aerial photographs he needs, he becomes convinced that he has been duped in a race for international recognition. Later, discussing his family, Albert reveals that his mother is considered “Holland’s foremost essayist,” which turns out to mean—and here Hermans pushes his satire of Dutch intellectual life to the limit—that she is famous for her reviews of English and French novels, “a total of thirteen articles each month, in which she reviews some thirty books.” Not that she reads these books; she has subscriptions to foreign newspapers, which she plagiarizes. Albert is appalled by his mother’s success and what it says about Dutch culture; by staying within Holland’s boundaries and praising the work of foreigners in Dutch she has achieved a fame that doesn’t bear examination. At the same time, given that his botanist father got himself killed trying to break into the world of international science, it is his mother’s shrewdness that has paid for Albert’s education.
Convinced that the Norwegians are misleading him, Albert sets off alone into the desolate landscape, gets lost, and seems doomed to end as his father did. Surviving extreme experiences of isolation, cold, and hunger, he eventually returns to urban Norway where an American tourist, an older woman eager to take him to bed, complains “how irritating it is to find a big nation like the United States being copied the world over in the silliest ways.” There are “more and more people nowadays” she observes, and here Hermans takes a swipe at his compatriot Reve, “writing poems, and even novels, in the most awful broken English.” They are “wasting their energy on a sort of spiritual enslavement.”
In short, Beyond Sleep establishes a geography that locates harrowing existential reality in the polar wilds and success and celebrity in the lingua franca of New York and London, while between the two, in the provinces of Holland and Norway, are only mediocrity and paranoia. Not surprisingly, in 1973 Hermans abandoned his native country for Paris; the search to emancipate oneself from national limits ironically establishes itself as a central theme in Dutch literature.
Harry Mulisch, a Jewish Dutch writer, was translated into English sooner and more regularly than his compatriots. In his 1992 novel The Discovery of Heaven he draws on Jewish mysticism to extend the theme of conspiracy into the cosmos, presenting us with a group of celestial beings, wayward angels, determined to end the ancient covenant God made with Moses. This is a novel of bizarre ideas and intellectual extravagance. Most curious of all is its alternation between realistic and topical depictions of Dutch life and the sort of “international” plot one now expects from, say, Umberto Eco, or on a different level Dan Brown, a conspiracy stretching back to the beginning of time.3
Reviewing the novel favorably in these pages, J.M. Coetzee nevertheless remarked that “the chapters devoted to the internal squabbles of Dutch politics of the 1970s are largely wasted on the foreign reader,” suggesting a tension between Mulisch’s desire to address his fellow Dutchmen and at the same time to write an effective novel for a wider audience.4 That Mulisch was not unaware of such problems is clear in The Procedure (1998), where he comments directly on the translatability of his writing: a stylist like Nabokov, he points out, who wrote “unforgettable sentences,” comes across poorly in translation, while Dostoevsky, who wrote “unforgettable books,” survives the worst travesties. Considering Dostoevsky the greater artist, Mulisch decides: “The language must disappear completely, only the narrative must remain.”
By the time Mulisch wrote The Procedure, though one could hardly say the Dutch language was disappearing, nevertheless its position in Holland’s bookshops was radically altered. If in 1946 only 5 percent of the country’s book production was made up of translations, in 2005 it was 35 percent; in prose fiction the share leaps to 71 percent. Of those translations, 75 percent come from English (most from America). Meanwhile, the number of people reading directly in English has increased to the point that Dutch publishers seek to publish their translations of English and American novels before publication in the original language, for fear that eager readers may otherwise prefer the English edition.
As in other European countries, then, the relation between the national experience and what people read is weakening.5 Perhaps as a result, public support for funding national literature is weakening too. In June of this year the Dutch government announced cuts of 20 percent in support for authors and translators; the less literature is perceived as a contributor to the construction of national identity, the less sense it makes to subsidize a literary elite. If in 1965 writers could be thought of as a precious resource under threat, now they may appear as just another player in a global market. One of the most successful “Dutch” authors today is the Iranian-born Kader Abdolah, who came to Holland aged thirty-eight in 1988 and writes, in Dutch, about Iranian life. His The House of the Mosque, which fits into a now established genre of migrant writers evoking the charms and horrors of their origins for Western consumption, has been published in twenty-one languages, but has nothing to do with Holland.
Turning to some contemporary Dutch novelists, writers who grew up in this more international literary environment, it’s intriguing to see how they continue the Dutch tradition, particularly a peculiar abruptness of tone and willingness to push the didactic side of a novel to extremes, while nevertheless working hard to find a form and content that will appeal to an international readership.
The forty-year-old Arnon Grunberg is currently Holland’s author of literary fiction most frequently awarded prizes. His first two novels, Blue Mondays and Silent Extras, are engaging presentations of young people in search of visibility in a society bereft of principles and deserving only of merciless irony; inevitably, they abandon Holland and head for New York where Grunberg himself lives and keeps his own blog, in English.
Like Mulisch, Grunberg is Jewish and aware that the Jewish experience can give an international dimension to a book (after all, the most widely sold Dutch book of all time is The Diary of Anne Frank). If the early novels feel like lightweight reworkings of the more powerful disaffection to be found in Boon and Reve, his ambitious The Jewish Messiah spoofs the larger canvas and quest for ultimate truths that Mulisch attempted in The Discovery of Heaven. Xavier Radek, grandson of an SS officer, decides to dedicate his life to “comforting the Jews,” becomes the homosexual lover of a rabbi’s son, has himself messily circumcised, preserves an amputated testicle that he calls King David, and learns Yiddish to make a translation of Mein Kampf, eventually becoming prime minister of Israel and provoking nuclear war. While earlier Dutch writers are troubled by life’s meaninglessness but never doubt the value of their art, Grunberg’s writing hovers on the edge of slapstick. To those unaware of its Dutch roots, this novel will come across as postmodern provocation pushed to the point of hysteria.
Dimitri Verhulst’s Problemski Hotel is equally determined to offend. In this case, the setting could not be more topical for the international community: a detention center for asylum seekers from the world’s war zones and disaster areas. The novel opens with its narrator, the photographer Bipul Masli, complaining that his perfect picture of a child dying of malnutrition on an African garbage dump was spoiled by the absence of any flies and ends with the same narrator being photographed in the Flemish detention center as a fly settles on his despondent features. In between, every kind of ugliness and atrocity, every sort of racism and ethnic stereotyping is presented with the most abrasive irony and the suggestion that for all our liberal rhetoric our governments treat asylum seekers as so much meat. A closing chapter entitled “Naturalization Exercise No. 4545KFSD45b: ‘Louis Paul Boon tells a Gag at the Tavern'” retells an anecdote from an earlier chapter, but in Boon’s very recognizable style, as if to say that the ultimate demand on these asylum seekers will be that they learn to recount their suffering in a celebrated Flemish manner.
In The Window Dresser, Christiaan Weijts sets up a conundrum of moral responsibility of the kind that Hermans and Mulisch explored in stories about German-occupied Holland: a violent eco activist group attacks a large department store known to invest in such things as arms trafficking and child labor. Trapped between the antagonists is the talented artist and window dresser who is redesigning the store and whose long-lost love turns out to be a member of the protest group. Never declaring where the novel takes place, Weijts constantly stresses the sameness of urban environments worldwide, a similarity that is extended to the consciousness of their inhabitants:
Globalisation, he thinks, inevitably leads to uniformity. Across the globe, almost everybody begins their working day to the same little tune that tells them Windows is starting up. During the day they use the same programs—Word, Outlook, Excel—read the same books—Grisham, King, Brown—in the evenings, and watch the world’s news on homogeneous TV channels, with the same headlines at the bottom of the screen next to a stock market stream. Why do we need so many people, you ask yourself, if they all end up having the same experiences?
Thus in the frame of a recognizably Dutch solemnity Weijts questions what it might mean to have a national identity in the modern world.
It might be a mistake to imagine that what gets immediately translated into English is entirely representative of contemporary Dutch writing. When I visited the country in July many bookshops featured the novel Tonio by A.F.Th. van der Heijden, an author celebrated for his seven-volume autobiographical saga about life in Amsterdam, The Toothless Time. Considered one of Holland’s foremost novelists, van der Heijden is not translated into English. Perhaps, addressed specifically to the Dutch, his work might, in Coetzee’s words, be “wasted on foreign readers.”
Today it is around €20,000 for each book length work. There is no limit to the number of times a writer can apply. In 2008 the fund financed more than two hundred novelists and poets. ↩
Critics seeking to establish a morphology of the novel that achieves global success have identified the vast international/historical/religious conspiracy as a formula able to engage readers the world over, who see in globalization itself a form of conspiracy. ↩
“Their Man on Earth,” The New York Review, March 6, 1997. It’s worth noting how attentive Coetzee is to this problem in his own novels, which frequently address (or addressed) the political situation in South Africa, but without ever entering into the kind of detail that would have required more than an ordinary newspaper reader’s grasp of South African politics. ↩
It goes without saying that this process is reminiscent of what happened in the film industry decades ago. ↩