Someone recently asked me what defines Dutch literature. For a moment I found myself in a tight spot: I had to come clean.
I thought about a few sentences from Herman Koch’s novel Finally War (Eindelijk oorlog) that conjure up this feeling very well. The main character says this about his birthplace, Arnhem: For me, it begins on arrival at the station: the feeling of being in a boiling hot room where none of the windows open.
The Dutch trade right around the globe, but this isn’t necessarily reflected in Dutch literature. It often deals with children who have died, parents, a terrible upbringing, or the writer’s particular set of friends. Beautiful books but not very adventurous, though lots of authors experiment with form, for example by publishing poems complete with crossed-out words.
Herman Koch began by writing novels that were thin on plot, but his latest novels have a very strong plot line. It’s these later books that have become bestsellers.
This generates raised eyebrows in the Netherlands: is it possible for such a successful book to be any good? Personally, I rate all of Herman Koch’s novels highly, from his very first to his latest. Of course his most recent books appeal to a larger section of the reading public, but the interesting fact is that Koch doesn’t follow the current fashionable literary trend. Without being experimental, he simply knows how to tell a gripping story.
The most wonderful thing is that in these later, more accessible books there is even more clearly an extra layer of meaning than in the earlier works. This extra layer is about moral choices.
Dutch books tend to date very quickly. This is in part due to regular spelling revisions and it actually means that earlier books have to be regularly rewritten. Only a few older authors are still read, among them Multatuli, Couperus and Van Eeden. Nobody reads books written before 1860 any more.
Dutch literature often follows fashion and is defined by movements or groups. Authors love belonging to a group and giving it a name: Fifties Authors (Vijftigers), Generation 90s (Generatie Nix). There is a lot of controversy between them. I even know of a feminist publishing house which publishes feminist books that can be bought in a feminist bookshop. Pigeonholing people is a favourite board game.
Breaking free from religion is another important theme in Dutch literature. Just over sixty years ago the Netherlands was one of the most religious countries in Europe; now it’s the most secular.
This new secular faith, too, is practised in quite a fanatical way. ‘It’s amazing that those dumbheads in the rest of the world still believe in god!’ I must point out that the writer I believe to be the greatest Dutch author, Gerard Reve, became a Roman Catholic in 1966, completely against the tide.
There is also a lot of sex in Dutch novels. However, walking down the street in the Netherlands you don’t get the immediate impression that there’s a lot of sex among the Dutch. In other words, the Dutch are rather grey, and not in fifty shades either. Sometimes I think: Dutch literature is sex in suburbia. And you wouldn’t want English literature to be mainly concerned with sexual goings-on in Milton Keynes.
I’m reluctant to say it, but the Second World War was a gift to Dutch literature. It produced some wonderful novels. Harry Mulisch, son of a collaborator father and a Jewish mother, even stated: ‘I am the Second World War.’
Luckily the Netherlands had a colony: the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). This provided an exotic twist to Dutch literature and resulted in wonderful writers such as Hella Haasse and Adriaan van Dis. The influence of immigrants, mainly from Morocco, is fairly recent. Despite the success of such Moroccan writers as Mustafa Stitou and Abdelkader Benali, most Dutch people view Moroccans chiefly as criminals.
The best Dutch writers wrote or were inspired to write their works during a stay abroad. Cees Nooteboom travels constantly, exactly as Jan Jacob Slauerhoff did in his time. Multatuli was a civil servant in the Dutch East Indies, Hella Haasse grew up there, Gerard Reve lived in France for a long time, and Arnon Grunberg lives in New York. The advice for promising Dutch writers is therefore: travel or emigrate.
On Saturday 19 January, Herman Koch will appear as part of High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, London. Highly recommended!
By Arnold Jansen op de Haar
Translation Holland Park Press
This column was originally published as part of Holland Park Press’s Magazine on 9 January 2017.