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Novels: Coming to terms with Calvinism, colonies and the war

Elsbeth J. Etty; Elsbeth Etty is literary editor at NRC Handelsblad.
FOR THOSE seeking to understand the Netherlands, national taboos and obsessions are a good place to start. These can best be gleaned from Dutch literature, in which three themes have generally been dominant: the relationship with the (former) East Indian colonies, the Second World War and the results of a Calvinist upbringing. These themes come back strongly in this Top Ten of typically Dutch novels.

1. Multatuli: Max Havelaar or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (Max Havelaar of de koffijveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelmaatschappij, 1860. Preface by D.H. Lawrence. Sijthoff, New York; Heinemann; London House & Maxwell, 1967. Also Penguin Classics, 1987).
This unconventional roman à clef by Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887), first published in 1860 under the pseudonym Multatuli ('I have suffered much'), marks the beginning of modern Dutch literature. It is a passionate book that is set partly in the restricted world of Amsterdam coffee trader Batavus Droogstoppel and partly in the colonies: the Dutch East Indies or, in Multatuli's words, the Emerald Belt. Max Havelaar is an idealised self-portrait of Douwes Dekker, who, like his main character, was a colonial official in the Javanese town of Lebak. Initially intended as an attack on what Douwes Dekker regarded as the colonial exploitation of the people of Java, the book nevertheless remains a literary masterpiece.

2. Louis Couperus: Old People and the Things That Pass (Van oude mensen, de dingen die voorbijgaan, 1906. Heinemann, London, 1963.)
Louis Couperus' magisterial novel, set in The Hague, shows how the colonial past has influenced and haunted generations of Dutchmen. Couperus (1863-1923)is still regarded as the Netherlands' greatest novelist. His debut work Eline Vere (1899) and Small Souls (De Boeken der kleine Zielen, 1901-1903) are also set in The Hague. Couperus' characters usually come from the slightly decadent social milieux of people who made their fortune in the Indies and moved in the highest circles in The Hague.

3. Simon Vestdijk: Back to Ina Damman (Terug tot Ina Damman, 1934.)
Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971) was the most productive novelist in the Dutch language. Before turning exclusively to writing, he travelled to the Indies as a ship's doctor. He went on to write historical and psychological novels. The autobiographical Anton Wachter books belong to the latter category. Back to Ina Damman is the most famous of the cycle, and is a classic, universal story about youthful love. It is set in the Frisian port town of Harlingen (Lahringen), but might as well have been set in any small, pre-war provincial Dutch town. There is no English translation of this work, but there is a translation of Vestdijk's partly comparable novel The Gardens Where the Brass Band Played (De koperen tuin, 1950. Quarter Books Ltd., 1992), about a love affair in the Frisian provincial capital Leeuwarden.

4. Gerard Reve: De Avonden (1947).
Strangely enough, the war plays no part whatsoever in this, the most important novel of the post-war generation. The book gives a perfect picture of the sober post-war era, typified by restoration rather than the so ardently desired renewal. In heavy, almost depressing prose, De Avonden depicts the revulsion of an adolescent unable to deal with himself or with his narrow-minded Amsterdam environment. Reve (1923) has become the best-selling author of innumerable novels and collections of letters. He made headlines in the 1960s by openly declaring his homosexuality and converting to Catholicism. There is no English translation of De Avonden, which provides any foreigner with more than enough cause to learn Dutch. While they are still learning, they will have to make do with Reve's Parents' Worry (Bezorgde ouders, 1988. Minerva, London, 1991).

5. W.F. Hermans:The Darkroom of Damocles (De donkere kamer van Damocles, 1958. Heinemann, Londen/ Melbourne/ Toronto, 1962).
Together with Gerard Reve and Harry Mulisch, W.F. Hermans (1921-1995) is regarded as one of the three best Dutch novelists of the post-war era. The Darkroom of Damocles is set in the period 1932-1945 and deals with the subject of resistance and betrayal during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. It is a psychological, ideas-based novel with an extremely bleak outlook on life and humanity. The doppelgänger-motif and the search for personal identity are the most prominent themes.

6. Harry Mulisch, The Assault (De aanslag, 1982. Collins Harvill, London, 1985; Pantheon Books, New York, 1986; Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1986).
The Assault is perhaps Mulisch's most accessible book. It is set in Haarlem (Mulisch's birthplace in the province of Noord-Holland) and Amsterdam during and after the Second World War. The life of Anton Steenwijk, the main character, is largely determined by an assassination carried out by the Resistance in the street where he lived as a boy. The novel also vividly evokes the atmosphere of the Cold War, and ends with the 'Dutch disease', the massive and unprecedented protests against nuclear armament in the 1980's.

7. Marga Minco: Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle (Het bittere kruid, 1957. Oxford Press, 1960, Penguin).
Marga Minco (1920) was the only member of her Jewish family to survive the Second World War. Her debut novel Bitter Herbs is about a young girl who escapes while the rest of her family is arrested. At the end, she realises that she has lost everyone who was once dear to her. Minco's novels all deal with the consequences of the Holocaust, and have all been best-sellers, with print runs into the tens of thousands.

8. Jan Wolkers: A Rose of Flesh (Een roos van vlees, 1963. Secker & Warburg, London, 1967; George Braziller, New York, 1967; Panther Books, London, 1970).
The main character of this book, Daniel, has suffered from asthma since his divorce. He seems condemned to spend the rest of his life in solitude with animals. The novel bij Jan Wolkers (1925) describes one day of his life, and its main themes are death and disintegration. Wolkers' book is typically Dutch in its returning motif of strict Calvinist upbringing and the accompanying feelings of guilt, the result of which is gripping and funny. Wolkers' marvellous love story Turkish Delight (Turks fruit, 1970. Dell Publishing, New York, 1974; Futura Publications Limited, Londen, 1975), with its unique portrayal of the Amsterdam of the 1960s, has also been translated into English.

9. Anja Meulenbelt: The Shame is Over: a Political Life Story (De schaamte voorbij, 1976. The Woman's Press, London, 1980).
This is a feminist, autobiographical roman à clef set in the Amsterdam of the politicised 1970s. Panned by the critics for its lack of literary quality, the book retains its value as a cultural and historical document of the changing relationship between the sexes. Since Anja Meulenbelt (1945) published The Shame is Over, innumerable women have emerged who have published novels of great literary value.

10. A. F.Th. van der Heijden: Parents Falling (extract). (Vallende ouders, 1983. In: The Low Countries yearbook 1993-'94, pp. 244-247).
Parents falling is the first part of an ambitious, multi-volume series of novels named The Toothless Era, which follows Albert Egberts from his birthplace in the southern province of Brabant to Nijmegen, where he studies Philosophy, and to Amsterdam, where he becomes addicted to heroin.Van der Heijden (1951) is not only the best Dutch novelist of the new generation, he is also a chronicler of his age. His works include references to many important social and political events, such as the squatters' riots during Queen Beatrix's coronation in 1980.

NRC Webpagina's
2 juli 1998

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