Dola de Jong: De thuiswacht (The Tree and the Vine)

The latest addition to my website is Dola de Jong‘s De thuiswacht (The Tree and the Vine). This book became famous as it is about lesbianism at a time (1954) when respectable Dutch women did not write about the topic. Bea is a sensible and responsible young woman. She meets Erica, an erratic and unpredictable young woman. Both are trainee journalists. It is 1938. They soon become close friends and move in together. Bea finds Erica’s behaviour both trying yet fascinating. They fall out when Bea’s boyfriend, Bas, and Erica clash. Erica wins and Bas is gone. It is only halfway through the book that Erica admits to Bea that she is lesbian and feels sure that Bea is too. Bea is certainly spellbound by Erica but she is resolutely heterosexual. The two continue their up and down relationship but Erica is half-Jewish and a German invasion is imminent. The book has now just been published for the third time in English and clearly the lesbianism helps but what makes it, is the complex and unpredictable relationship between two very different women.

Willem Frederik Hermans: De donkere kamer van Damokles (The Darkroom of Damocles)

The latest addition to my website is Willem Frederik HermansDe donkere kamer van Damokles (The Darkroom of Damocles). This is the story of Henri Osewoudt. When aged twelve, his mother murders his father (we do not know why) and he goes to live with his uncle and aunt and shares a bed with his nineteen year old cousin Ria. Some years later, just before World War II, his mother is released so Henri marries Ria (to her parents’ disgust) and moves back to his parents’ tobacco shop with Ria and his mother. He is visited by a shady man, Dorbeck, seemingly from the Dutch Resistance, and is unwittingly dragged into the Resistance, killing people and getting involved in various dubious activities. He is captured and escapes (twice). When the war ends he is arrested for having betrayed numerous Dutch resistance fighters, saying Dorbeck can vouch for his innocence. But Dorbeck is not to be found and no-one has heard of him.

Willem Frederik Hermans: Het behouden huis (An Untouched House)

The latest addition to my website is Willem Frederik HermansHet behouden huis (An Untouched House). This is a long story about a Dutchman who had been captured three times by the Germans during World War II and had managed to escape every time, finally ending up with a group of Soviet partisans. Our unnamed narrator has no idea where he is but they keep on killing Germans. In this story they capture a spa town and he goes into an empty house, bathes, shaves and puts on civilian clothes. When he wakes up, the Germans have retaken the town and want to billet officers with him, thinking he is the owner of the house. He has to agree but what if the owners return or the partisans retake the town or the Germans find out that he is not the owner? This is typical Hermans, bleak, with much wanton cruelty and random destruction and very much in the War Is Hell genre.

The Hague

Just back from a few days in the Netherlands. Though we visited a few cities, it is The Hague that was most interesting from the literary point of view. As you can see from the photo of the display of new books in a bookshop to the left, there are new books from writers already published in English, including Arnon Grunberg with Moedervlekken [Birthmarks] about a psychiatrist who specialises in suicide prevention dealing with his own personal problems, Tommy Wieringa with De dood van Murat Idrissi [The Death of Murat Idrissi] about an illegal immigrant dying in the boot of a car, Jeroen Brouwers with De laatste deur [The Last Door], a substantially revised and expanded version of a book he first published thirty years ago, also about suicide, the Flemish writer Erwin Mortier with Omtrent Liefde en Dood [About Love and Death], letters the author writes to a recently deceased couple about, what else?, death and, though not visible in this picture, a collection of essays by Connie Palmen called Het drama van de afhankelijkheid [The Drama of Dependency].

Fabritius’ The Goldfinch

The Mauritshuis art gallery in The Hague has two paintings which have been the subject of recent novels. The Girl With the Pearl Earring was a novel by Tracy Chevalier. I have not read it but my significant other has read it and she found it somewhat sad. It was also, of course, a film. We both read and enjoyed Donna Tartt‘s The Goldfinch and you can see the painting that was stolen in the book, to the right. Fortunately the Japanese tourists were crowded around The Girl With the Pearl Earring and ignored The Goldfinch.

Gerard Reve

Purely by chance I discovered the Literary Museum in The Hague. It was not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide and the lady in the tourist office could tell me nothing about it, as she had not visited it for many years (which I took to mean that she had not visited it at all.) It is just behind the Centraal station, in the Royal Library. I can see why Lonely Planet does not mention it, as it is only about Dutch and Flemish authors and there is very little in English. There are two parts. The upstairs is for children’s literature, which I did not visit but was packed with screaming children and their parents. The adult section was downstairs and had three sections. The first was what they called a pantheon. It had an entry for each of the greatest Dutch authors. These consisted of a couple of pictures and an audio recording you could listen to about the author. Inevitably most of the recordings were only in Dutch, but there were a few in English (Erasmus, Multatuli and Anne Frank, for example). You can see a complete list of the authors on their website. The list is in alphabetical order but in the museum it was in reverse chronological order.

The second section was documents, first editions and so on relating to various authors. The document to the right is a letter Gerard Reve wrote to his bank. This is no ordinary letter to one’s bank. Much of it is rambling and completely inappropriate in a letter to one’s bank. (You can read the full text (in Dutch) here.) However, there is one passage in which he talks about having sex with God. As a result of this, he was charged with blasphemy though was acquitted. There are also various court transcripts, newspaper clippings and so on relating to the case.

Willem Frederik Hermans

The third and perhaps most interesting section was a series of portraits of over four hundred Dutch and Flemish writers. These were portraits, in a variety of styles, of living, dead and long since dead Dutch authors. The one to the left, for example, is of Willem Frederik Hermans which, as you can see from his Wikipedia page appears to be somewhat imaginative. Similarly, the one of Gerard Reve above left is not an accurate portrait of him, at least according to the photos on his Wikipedia page. I assume that the authors themselves approved these paintings. Amazingly enough you can buy a book of all the portraits. It is quite small but contains every portrait and costs the princely sum of €2.50. I must admit that I have heard of relatively few of these authors but, as you can see from the two portraits on this page, the portraits were often interesting in themselves.

Hendrik Groen: Pogingen om iets van het leven te maken. Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 jaar (Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old)

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The latest addition to my website is Hendrik Groen‘s Pogingen om iets van het leven te maken. Het geheime dagboek van Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 jaar (Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 1/4 Years Old). This is a hilariously funny diary by an elderly Dutch man in a care home in North Amsterdam. For a long time, the real identity of the author was unknown and various hypotheses were proposed, including Arnon Grunberg, Stijn Aerden, Marcel Verreck, Marcel van Roosmalen, Sylvia Witteman, Remco Campert, Nico Dijkshoorn, Carel Helder, Robert Vuijsje, A.L. Snijders and Youp van ‘t Hek. However, it has since been learned that he is a librarian, born in 1955, who lives in North Amsterdam, called Peter de Smet. Groen claims to be friendly and helpful and often is, but he is very much opposed to the authorities, and mocks them ceaselessly, including the care home management, the government and the police. He is happy to subvert in a way reminiscent of the UK TV programme Waiting for God (shown on PBS in the USA). He and his friends, particularly Evert, are determined to go out with their heads held high, which means both having a good time and causing minor sabotage in the home. Above all, this book is very funny and shows that old age and approaching death can and should be treated light-heartedly and that one does not have to succumb to sitting quietly in the care home chair when one is nearly eighty-four years old

Thomas Rosenboom: Publieke werken [Public Works]

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The latest addition to my website is Thomas Rosenboom‘s Publieke werken [Public Works]. Thomas Rosenboom won the prestigious Dutch Libris Prize for this work but, sadly, it has yet to be translated into English. It is a historical novel set in late nineteenth century Netherlands and involves some poor Jewish peat diggers, a rural pharmacist and his cousin, a violin maker, living in Amsterdam, who is both affected by and very much interested in the building boom going on in Amsterdam. When he learns that a large hotel is to be built where his house is, he tries to hold out for a large payment for the house. With the money he expects to get, he plans to invest in an emigration project for the poor peat builders. With a complicated plot, which leads to things going wrong for several of the main characters, Rosenboom tells a first-class, fast-paced story as well as giving us a vivid picture of the Netherlands of the period.

Amsterdam

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We spent the couple of days after Christmas in Amsterdam. As you can see at the left, much of our time was looking at works of art. This painting is, of course, Rembrandt’s Night Watch, from the Rijksmuseum. and I would estimate that there were around five hundred people in the room when I took it and I only just managed to take it when the woman next to me briefly stopped waving her arms around, pointing out details to her friend. Indeed, the whole city was packed as were the Van Gogh Museum and the Hermitage. The secret is to buy your ticket on-line before you go, otherwise you have to queue to buy your ticket, which can take up to an hour.

Schelterna

However, I did manage to visit what I was told was the best book shop in Amsterdam, Schelterna. You can see some of their books in the photo to the right. New books that the Dutch are reading include:

A F van de Heijden’s De Ochtengave (= The Morning Gift), a historical novel set in 1672, commissioned to commemorate the Treaties of Nijmegen, 330 years ago. As far as I can see only one of his books has been translated into English. Tonio, Een requiemroman was published this year as Tonio. A Requiem Memoir by Scribe in Melbourne. It is a tribute to his son who was killed in a car accident, aged twenty-one.
Dimitri Verhulst’s Bloedboek (= Blood Book) is his rewriting of some of the stories from the first five books of the Bible, which a Dutch newspaper described as a gruesome bible. Verhulst, a Belgian writer, has four books translated into English, with a fifth, De laatkomer, coming out this year as The Latecomer.
Jeroen Brouwers’ Het hout (= Wood) came out last year but has appeared in paperback this year and was being promoted. It is about sexual abuse in a Catholic boys’ boarding school. His Bezonken rood is available in English as Sunken Red.
Connie Palmen’s Jij zegt het (= You Say It) is about the Ted Hughes/Sylvia Plath relationship from the Hughes’ point of view. Two of her novels have been translated into English: her first, De Wetten as The Laws and her second De Vriendschap as Friendship.
Gustaaf Peek’s Godin, held (= Goddess, Hero) is about the long-term love affair between Tessa and Marius. They met at school and continue their affair, despite both marrying other partners. The story starts with Tessa’s death and works backwards. Apart from one story, he has not been translated into English. This book also came out in 2014 but appeared in paperback this year.
My Dutch friends tell me that Thomas Rosenboom’s Publike Werken (= Public Works) is one of the best recent Dutch novels. It actually came out in 1999 but was released as a film this year so is in the news and in the book shops. It is a complex story, set in the late nineteenth century, involving two cousins – one a violin maker in Amsterdam whose houses developers want to buy and the other a pharmacist involved in certain shady dealings – who get together, nominally to help some peat diggers emigrate to the United States. I do not need to tell you that neither this nor any of his other works have been translated into English.
Ernest van der Kwast’s De ijsmakers (= The Icemakers) is about an Italian family that spends the summer in Rotterdam but the winters in an Italian valley where much of their time seems to be spent in having sex. But then one of them Giovanni, has to choose – poetry or ice cream? Of course, it is not available in English but is coming out in German next year.
Nicolien Mizee’s Toen kwam moeder met een mes (= Then Came Mother With a Knife) came out ten years ago. The sequel, De Halfbroer (= The Half-Brother) came out this year and it is a complicated saga of Marly Sanders’ family.
Maarten ‘t Hart’s Magdalena, a novel about his mother, also came out this year. Four of his novels have been translated into English.

They are also reading foreign books: Javier MaríasAsí empieza lo malo (Thus Bad Begins) (out in English next year), Almudena Grandes‘s Las tres bodas de Manolita (= The Three Weddings of Manolita) (not availabe in English), David Mitchell‘s Slade House, Rupert Thomson‘s Katherine Carlyle, Leila S ChudoriPulang (Home), Colm Tóibin’s Nora Webster, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès’s L’île du Point Némo (= The Island of Nemo Point) (not yet in English), and even Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and Jordi Llobregat’s El secret de Vesalius (also not available in English). I do not have to mention Franzen, Ferrante, Knausgaard and Harper Lee, though I will.

It is amazing that there are several novels available in Dutch which are not available in English but I have said this sort of thing before and will doubtless say it again. And, of course, wouldn’t it be nice if more Dutch novels came out in English?

Gerard Reve: Bezorgde Ouders (Parents Worry)

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The latest addition to my website is Gerard Reve‘s Bezorgde Ouders (Parents Worry). This novel tells the story of Hugo Treger, an alcoholic, homosexual, Catholic poet and translator. We follow one day in his life (a short time before Christmas) and, though the story is told in the third person, the story consists entirely of his inner thoughts. These thoughts are often about his sadistic, homosexual lusts, aimed partially at his room-mate, Unicorn, eighteen years his junior, but partially at other men he sees. Unicorn – we never learn his real name; his nickname is derived from the size of his penis – is a passive young man, nominally studying, though exactly how much study he is doing is unsure. Treger fantasises about Unicorn in various sexual encounters, generally involving other men, but also thinks about his Catholicism (like Treger himself, he only converted in middle age), has racist thoughts, some involving sexual encounters with Unicorn, and tries to scavenge what he can, as he is not very well-off and Unicorn contributes little financially. Treger is a very conflicted man, though he himself is not aware of this, struggling with is poetry, drinking large quantities, not a very good Catholic, though this does not bother him, and, above all, a man whose lusts drive him to continual sexual fantasies. It is the only book of Reve’s published in English and, given the strong homsexual fanatasies, it is easy to see that this book would not be everyone’s liking.

Gerard Reve: De avonden [The Evenings]

avonden

The latest addition to my website is Gerard Reve‘s De avonden [The Evenings]. This book was voted top in a poll by De Amsterdamse Leesgroep (The Amsterdam Reading Group) of the best Dutch literature of the 20th century. It was written while Reve was in prison for having helped a prisoner escape, while he was serving in the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia). The original manuscript was destroyed by the guards but, fortunately, he had made a copy and he took this with him, when he escaped and fled to Belgium. The story is relatively straightforward. It recounts ten days in the life of Fritz van Egters, starting on 22 December, 1946 and ending shortly after the first hour of New Year’s Day. Fritz is a twenty-three year old Dutch man, who lives with his parents and works in a boring office job. He seems to have no romantic attachments; indeed, he shows virtually no interest in such matters and does very little during the ten days of the novel, except go to a few low-key parties, meet a few friends, get drunk once and talk to his parents. However, he does have something of a dark side, having recounted his childhood love of torturing animals, telling stories which are often macabre or sick and sometimes downright nasty and being quite cruel to various friends, who seem to be used to his remarks. Nothing major happens and the story begin and ends with him in bed, with his life continuing the same as always. I found it an interesting story, as Reve writes well and the dark side of Fritz is interesting, as you wonder where it might lead, but I am not sure that it qualifies as the best Dutch novel of the twentieth century. While it has been translated into various languages, it has not been translated into English. Perhaps, like the guards who destroyed the original manuscript, US and UK publishers found the book nihilist and immoral.

Arnon Grunberg: Onze oom [Our Uncle]

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The latest addition to my website is Arnon Grunberg‘s Onze oom [Our Uncle]. This is a long and quite complicated novel, set in an unnamed Latin American country where there is a war on terror going on. Major Anthony, known only by his first name and with an English name because of his father’s anglophilia, leads a small mission to arrest a couple suspected of aiding the terrorists. An inexperienced corporal inadvertently kills them, leaving a young daughter, Lina. Anthony notes on the record that she is dead and essentially kidnaps her as a present for his wife, as the couple have not been able to have children. The wife, however, is not grateful. After Major Anthony leads a convoy into the North, where military outposts seem to be surrounded and in need of help and does not return for a long time, Lina sets out to find her parents and ends up in the same Northern area, working in a gold mine and then having a child by a man known only as The Leader, who is in charge of the resistance to the military. It is an excellent novel, one of his best though, as yet, only available in French and German.