How we feel about a country deeply affects how we feel about its literature. ‘I do love the Dutch!’ I wrote in my diary on our first family holiday to the Netherlands. I was eleven. We exchanged houses for the summer with another teacher family, leaving behind the sea and seagulls of Cornwall for the dykes and bikes of Holland. We visited Anne Frank’s House and the Rijksmuseum, bought wooden clogs and Gouda cheese, and cycled for miles to visit the windmills. Those positive childhood experiences reverberated across the decades as I learned more about Dutch history and culture, fell in love with Amsterdam (as we all do) and, as a journalist, ended up interviewing inordinate numbers of Dutch people. They made it so easy: they spoke excellent English, were friendly and approachable, and even seemed to like and understand Britain. A revelation!
These things mattered in creating the fertile soil for my appreciation of Dutch literature. The seeds were sown young – with the language, cheese, tulips, tomatoes, art and – coming from Cornwall – seagulls and shared maritime and trade links. Later as a BBC journalist, our Dutch-UK discussions turned to postcolonial guilt, problematic immigration policies and complicated relationships with Europe.
Geert Mak’s millennial masterpiece In Europe, which I read in Sam Garrett’s English translation in 2007, was life-changing for me, as have been the several times I’ve interviewed him. Although with Geert Mak and his fellow Dutch writers you can hardly call it anything as formal as an interview – they are always so reassuringly relaxed and informally dressed. I’ll even stick my neck out and claim that I have never seen a Dutch writer in a suit. Geert Mak wears his erudition lightly and with good cheer. He is witty but self-deprecating, provocative in his ideas but reasonable in debate, not only interested in style, narrative and innovation (all excellent qualities of Dutch literature) but also in the psychology of people and the places they inhabit. Herman Koch, Holland’s best-selling novelist, another early Dutch discovery for me, is similarly scalpel-like in his exposing of the Dutch psyche and Dutch ‘issues’. He is also very funny. Satire? Dark humour? Herman has it nailed. To be able to laugh together and argue freely is a gift among nations.
If only we British were a little more Dutch. Not only are they still In Europe but their commitment to culture and intellectual life is also enviable. Public finances are strapped everywhere, but whereas we downgrade the arts and languages, the Dutch place them on a pedestal. They respect their own literary culture so much – and know how to promote it – that, against the odds, they find ways to fund their authors and translators. You will also find an impressive longterm loyalty of translator to author, and vice versa. Alongside the extensive list of Dutch-language authors from both Belgium and the Netherlands who have graced the European Literature Network and European Literature Nights over the past ten years (and whom I’ve been fortunate enough to interview) – from Cees Nooteboom to Gerbrand Bakker, Tommy Wieringa to Toon Tellegen – you’ll also see the names of their translator-alter egos, such as Sam Garrett, David Colmer, Liz Waters and Michele Hutchison. More often than not, author and translator perform together as double-acts at UK literary events and festivals. For a purportedly self-effacing nation, the Dutch consistently raise the bar for literary performance, such an important skill in our media-digital-publicity-oriented lives.
It is the collective dedication to Dutch literature of so many of us over many years that has led to this Dutch Riveter. You’ll already know about our various UK-Dutch literary love-ins over the last decade: Go Dutch, European Literature Night, High Impact (twice!) and, currently, the superb New Dutch Writing. The first UK-Dutch festival I created in 2013 was High Impact: Literature From The Low Countries. It was wild and wonderful. I was asked to put on a literature festival to represent both Dutch speaking regions, Flanders and the Netherlands, together called the Low Countries. I was given free rein but little time, which meant running a six-day, six-city, six-author tour in the UK in deepest, darkest winter. And in January 2013 it snowed. Heavily. Trains broke down. The heating in trains broke down. There was no wifi. M&S ran out of sandwiches. But ‘crazy’ in my book equals ‘creative’ and the six Dutch-language authors on our tour were both to perfection: Peter Terrin, Lieve Joris, Judith Vanistendael, Ramsey Nasr, Chika Unigwe and Herman Koch, with Geert Mak joining us at the end. By the time we reached The Tabernacle in London for the final packed event our numbers had swollen to embrace three British authors who had famously written about Dutch history, tulips and art in their novels: David The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet Mitchell, Tracey Girl With A Pearl Earring Chevalier and Deborah Tulip Fever Moggach. It was an unforgettable celebration. The affinity we felt as countries and cultures was tangible as we travelled and held public discussions – in theatres, bookshops, universities and even a cathedral – about our quirky humour, our vibrant modern literature and the upheavals and changes undergone by our small, multicultural nations.
In these lonely Covid times I look back with longing on those highly impactful exuberant encounters. The Dutch Riveter helps us look forward. What a gift, to be able to embrace in one volume both new work from my old ‘high impact’ familiars as well as some remarkable new Dutch writing from Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to Rodaan Al Galidi and Maartje Wortel. The Dutch Riveter is a declaration of love to the Dutch, to its authors and translators.
By Rosie Goldsmith, Riveter-in-Chief