Archive for the ‘dutch literature’ Category

So I set myself the challenge of reading 6 translated Dutch works before the Frankfurt Book Fair in October, where the Netherlands were Guest of Honour.  Hmmm. Self-imposed deadlines are made to be broken.  The main thing is that I have now finished the reading project, and at least I’m on time for the European Literature Network ‘s Dutch Month. The books I read and reviewed were:

The Decision – Britta Böhler

Dear Mr M – Herman Koch

3 The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories (Favourite Story)

The Boy – Wytske Versteeg

The Evenings – Gerard Reve

Craving – Esther Gerritsen

I recommend them all.  Yes, even the Evenings, which, although not to my personal taste, is an undisputed masterpiece of Dutch Literature.

The thing is, as with all reading projects, the possibilities multiply, and I have discovered a sizeable stash of translated Dutch and Flemish Literature in the TBR. So I’m just going to keep going …..

Did you read any Dutch literature recently?


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imageNominated for the 2017 Dublin Literary Award by Utrecht Library

Translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchison

Elisabeth is a long-time divorceé.  Her only daughter, Coco, lived with her ex-husband and his second wife, and, as a result the mother-daughter relationship is far from close.  Yet when Elisabeth is diagnosed with terminal brain camcer, she feels impelled to cross the street and blurt out the news to her daughter.  Coco, for her part, then feels impelled to move in to care with her mother.

But this is going to be a far from cozy nursing tale, for both women are complex creatures. Elisabeth has never really got over the divorce; her ex-husband being the love of her life, not her daughter, who she felt was detrimental to their relationship. As a result she was a distanced mother, with parenting methods that would not be approved of today.   Nor does Coco appprove of them in her adulthood, remembering some incidents and taking her mother to task, only when prompted by the ex-husband.

Elisabeth’s view of this is that Coco didn’t mind when she was younger, why should she mind now? Not that we can believe Elisabeth, as she has no empathy for others, and there is that disturbing incident when Coco at the age of 5 purposely drove her bicycle through the window ….

The child becomes a woman with issues.  She is fat – emphasised multiple times in the text- and she is needy.  She knows her boyfriend is going to leave her. He’s a psychologist and does not approve of her moving in with mother. And Coco is desperate to hold  onto him. She craves for something to fill her emotional needs –  Hans (the boyfriend), alcohol, casual sex with strangers …. Hans is right when he says moving in with Elisabeth is a bad move.  It precipitates a psychological unravelling in Coco which mirrors the physical unravelling of Elisabeth.

The story is told in sections alternating between Elisabeth’s and Coco’s points-of-view, a structure which accentuates the disconnect between mother and daughter.  The Dutch title Dorst means thirst, and there are a number of motifs running throughout highlighting Coco’s thirst for love, respect, good favour, and, unfortunately, alcohol and other acts of self-sabotage.   In places, particularly when Coco goes right off the rails, it was too sexually graphic for me, but otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed this unsentimental emotional drama.



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imageTranslated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

De Avonden! Gerard Reve’s 1947 masterpiece finally translated into English!  The book  that the Dutch Society of Literature has declared the Best Dutch Novel of All Time … finally translated into English!

It is a cause for celebration.  It doesn’t matter whether I enjoyed it.  Does it?

At this point, I wonder how to approach the it’s-not-the-book-it’s-me review …

Because if you look at the literary comparisons that have been made with Camus (can’t stand him) and  Knausgaard (just does not appeal),  you have to wonder why I was so keen to read this. In a word, nostalgia.  The fact is, many moons ago I read it in Dutch.  I know I did – I read everything on the syllabus of my Dutch course (yes, even Multatuli) but I have no memory of it.  Perhaps I struck it from memory because even then it didn’t sit too well with me … Or come to think of it, it was more likely a dreaded DNF.  At least I finished it in English.

So now that I have declared myself, I’ll tell you about the book and let you decide whether you’d like to give it a spin. Actually I should just let Tony tell you about it, because he has much more patience with this type of novel.

It’s 1946 and Frits van Egters, a 23-year old bachelor, is still living with his parents, who drive him crazy with their petty squabbling. He has a boring office job and there is no end in sight.  He lives for the evenings, which he spends mostly wandering the cold streets of Amsterdam, or chatting with his mates in their homes, or occasionally going to the cinema or the dance hall.  There’s no girlfriend, and, probably, no chance of one given Frits’s candour and  lack of diplomacy. (I’ll come back to that later.)  He is truly stuck in a rut.

The novel is structured over 10 days and nights and each day breaks down into time spent in the parental home, time spent outside either alone or with his mates, and time spent sleeping and dreaming.  (Dreams in fiction  – there’s another pet hate of mine.) There’s little said about the office, because there is little to say.

I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is all.

Everything is told in 3rd person but from Frits’s point-of-view – the minutiae of his mundane life, his thoughts, the long conversations anf his even longer dreams. There’s no plot as such and I would say no resolution, although Frits does make a minor concession to his mother at the end. (On New Year’s Eve, he humours her by drinking some cordial, which she had thought to be wine. Could this signal a truce on the home front?)

Yes, it’s bleak, bleaker still when you consider that it’s set during the festive season.  Frit’s loneliness smacks of desperation at times, buying 2 cinema tickets in the hope of finding someone to come with him.  But then, who can blame his friends for seeking the company of others? When he’s with them, Frits plays on their weak points, discussing their paleness, baldness, criminality, ad nauseam.  He’s a liar too. (Denying he had grassed up the petty thief Maurits.) I’d tag him as a wind-up merchant and avoid him.

And yet, he’s likely using attack as the best form of defence, to deflect from his own mania and distress.  Because this wasn’t an age of 24/7 entertainment on tap. How is a young man to pass the long dreary winter hours?   Books and radio will only go so far, when your father’s driving you completely round the twist with his slobby eating habits. Talking to Viktor,

“Affliction cometh forth”, Frits said in a solemn tone. …. “Porridge for dessert every evening .  My mother puts the sugar bowl on the table.  With a little spoon in it.   Everyone takes sugar from the pot with that little spoon.  What does my father do? He digs out the sugar with his own dessert spoon.  Still clean and unused, I’ll admit, but it drives me mad to see it, I’m going crazy!”

I must admit I chuckled there, and, in other places too.  For who has not been driven potty by a family member for something similar?

The human observation is sharp, the ennui palpable, and the dialogue entirely natural. Neither could Reve have found a more effective structure to stick the reader in a same rut as Frits.  Sam Garrett has, as ever, translated excellently.

To summarise, I can appreciate the literary merit of The Evenings, and I fully expect it to be a contender for the Man Booker International later in the year.  Though you won’t be suprised to hear that I don’t consider it the Best Dutch Novel of All Time. To that end I offer you this.

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Translated from Dutch by Richard Hujing


Bottle-dungeon St Andrew’s Castle

One of the most chilling things I have ever seen is the bottle dungeon at St Andrew’s Castle in Fife.  Impossible to capture in a photo without a very wide-angled lens (as you can see on the right), but imagine this.  There is a hole in the ground with a 30-ft fall to the rocky bottom. It is pitch black and you are about to be thrown into it, knowing that even if you survive your inevitable injuries, you will never come out alive because there will be no food or water provision.  Your fate is to die in pain of hunger and thirst surrounded by the dead and dying who have preceded you.

imageI had nightmarish visions about what that must be like, and so, when I came to Bel Campo’s story in the recently released Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, I was amazed to find those nightmares on paper.

The story begins as the unnamed warrior is cast into the dark pit, not knowing what awaits him there.  Man-eating animals perhaps?  As his eyes accustom to the gloom, he discovers he is in a human pit full of vanquished peoples, in various states of decay.  Noone is moving, noone is speaking.  Each man is resignedly undergoing the decline of the body.

What is there left to do, except to cling to life for as long as possible, as an act of independence against the conquering nation?  To reminisce on the sweetness of life, before it was darkened by war and ethnic cleansing.

That was the stuff of my nightmares but Bel Campo had even more horrific things in store.  For our prisoner’s enemies are not content with allowing their prisoners a dignified death.  Deeper humiliations await.  They wish to further divide and conquer, to reduce their prisoners to the level of animals, to strip them of all vestiges of humanity.  This they do by staging what I can only describe as a diabolical banquet. No further details here, but I was reminded of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as I read ever more wide-eyed.  The temptations of the flesh leading only to death and damnation for both conquerors and conquered ….

… and yet, in the midst of this hell, the unnamed protagonist manages to find a kind of grace in the form of true love. What a twist!

Belcampo’s story is as vivid and visual as a painting, and it is a shame that this is the only story of his that I can find in English.  An admirer of E T A Hoffman, this nom-de-plume is taken from one of Hoffmann’s characters, which suggests that there is is a fantastically gothic oeuvre just waiting to be discovered by Hoffmann’s many English-reading fans.  If only someone would translate it.

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Winner of the 2014 BNG Bank Literature Prize
Translated from Dutch by Sarah Welling

Kito, a teenage boy has drowned and his mother struggles to come to terms with reality.  That, in essence, is the distressing core of The Boy, which probably should not be approached if you’re feeling particularly sensitive.  However, if you’re looking for emotional rawness and psychological complexity, then prepare to be engrossed.

For Kito’s mother is a psychiatrist, and, her tragedy is that the walls she builds between herself and her patients remain in place when she is dealing with her son and her husband.  Here is a woman who didn’t realise, that despite her good intentions, she would have much more to regret than the death of her son.  By the end of her journey through the stages of grief,  however, there’s no doubt about it and the question is whether she can accept the truth and survive ….

Adopted from China by his well-meaning Dutch parents, Kito’s fate is that of the outsider.  Separated by his skin colour, he is never really accepted by his peers.  Other kids play with him only because he has access to the latest video games.  His mother recognises this but tolerates it, because seriously what other option is there? Kito seems to take it in his stride.  Naturally placid, he’s not for asserting himself.  But he does feel it.  As he grows into puberty, he turns inwards and away from his parents.  How much of this is just puberty or is something more worrying at play?

In the first section of the novel, Kito’s mother reflecting on her son’s childhood is in denial.  Her son has not committed suicide, someone has killed him.  In the second section, 4 years later, she homes in on the person she holds responsible (based on the stories Kito’s peers have told her). This takes her away from her now non-functioning marriage and to Bulgaria, to Kito’s former drama teacher, Hannah.  With murder in her heart,  by the end of the part two, it looks as though revenge is just a matter of time.

The third section delivers all the surprises – all of them heart-wrenching.  As Hannah tells of Kito’s experiences in the school – the peer-pressure, the bullying and the way in which she tried to help him – the perspective shifts on some of the events related in the first section. At one point, Kito’s mother says:

I have patients who are convinced that the well-being of the world depends on the way they brush their teeth in the morning or arrange their belongings, and as long as they stay vigilant and pay attention at all times, the world order will be safe. It’s our job to convince them that the small choices they make are unimportant, but since Kito disappeared I find myself thinking more and more often that they are right, and everything matters because you never know beforehand what your one crucial mistake will be. 

Well, she discovers her mistake alright and the game of consequences she has been playing with Hannah turns right on its head.

This is a brilliant and devastating novel with much to debate. Key to a reader’s response would be the reaction to Kito’s mother – to condemn or otherwise? I can’t. For all her flaws, she is a mother. In fact, we never learn her first name, so that role is her entire identity in these pages.  Her love is real. Her grief is real.  Her mistakes are real.  And that’s the key lesson here – even the most well-meaning mums get it tragically wrong sometimes.

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imageTranslated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

My second read for #dutchlitautumn is the third novel published in English by Herman Koch, which I approached with trepidation still feeling sleazy after reading Summer House with Swimming Pool.  A make or break read if you will.  Would this reader/author relationship survive?

Koch specialises in unsavoury characters, and he doesn’t take long to hit his stride here.   The opening section is a monologue addressed to Mr M by Herman, a man with a grudge stemming from the appropriation of his adolescent self in one of Mr M’s novels. Herman is to all intents and purposes a stalker.  I have plans for you, Mr M, he says with menace.

Mr M’s novel, Payback, was based on a case in which a teacher disappeared without trace.  Jan Landzaat, married with two children, had been romantically involved with his pupil, Laura.  He struggled emotionally when she traded him in for the rather ugly and gangly, Hermann, and wouldn’t let go.  After following Laura and Herman to a remote hideout,  Landzaat disappeared without trace.  While no case was brought against Laura and Herman for lack of evidence, in Mr M’s novel Laura and Herman are guilty of murder.  It was a high profile case, and once can only imagine the resulting impact of the novel on the lives of the two teenagers.

Koch’s novel examines the events leading up to the teacher’s disappearance from the viewpoints of the main characters, and nobody comes out well:  Laura, the prettiest girl in the class, and arch manipulator; Landzaat, the teacher with form, and Herman, who owns a video camera, which he uses as a candid camera, filming people during moments of high provocation.  This is a foretaste of the stalker he is to become, as well as a delicious irony.  The  younger Herman is just as intrusive in other people’s lives as Mr M will be in his own. Is the fact that Koch gives Herman his own name a commentary on an author’s keen powers of observation? At what point does such observation become intrusive?

This is just the tip of the metafictional iceberg at the heart of Dear Mr M, which is as much an analysis and satire of the writing life as it is a mystery.  At one point Mr M is interviewed about his objectives and decision making processes. In those pages, explanations are given for the necessary simplifications and omissions in Payback which in turn clarifies the occasional bagginess of Koch’s long but clever novel.  If you look closely, this interview also hints at the solution of what really happened to Mr Landzaat.

The tone is sly and snidey throughout.  Those expecting the shock (as in horrifying) value of Koch’s previous offerings  may be disappointed, although there is a final twist which may shock some. I had seen it coming – not that it matters. It’s a satisfying ending in which loose ends are tied … apart from one.  Just what did Stella do?  The fact that both Mr M and Koch deliberately do not tell niggles the hell out of me …..  I shall ask Koch about that, if I catch sight of him at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Despite that Koch and I are once more friends and I look forward to reading more.  I notice that there is a fourth Koch novel in existence, Odessa Star.  I hope that Sam Garrett is working on the English translation as I type.

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“Hell reigns”‘ he (Joseph Roth) writes to (Stefan) Zweig.  He also says there can be no compromises with the enemy.  Anyone who continues to have business with Germany,  anyone who so much as maintains a connection to Germany, is a monster.


They resent Thomas Mann for taking so long to make himself one of the exiles, for trying not to wreck things with the regime in Germany, for not wanting to lose the German market.

(Extracts from SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK, Volker Weidermann)

Earlier this year I read Volker Weidermann’s retelling of the summer of 1936, when the exiled literati of Nazi Germany (Zweig, Roth, Keun etc.) congregated in Ostend to console and encourage each other.  I haven’t stopped thinking of it since and a fascination with the 1930’s is developing. Reading the views of the exiles about Thomas Mann quoted above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was colluding with the Nazi state for the sake of his book sales.


Translated by Jeannette K Ringold

“Fair criticism or not? I have been wondering, and so I decided to kick off my #dutchlitautumn with Britta Böhler’s retelling of a pivotal three days in 1936 during which Thomas Mann deliberated whether to publish an open letter denouncing the Nazi regime.

Böhler’s fictionalisation cleverly writes into a historical gap.  While Mann wrote copious diaries, there is very little covering these particular three days.  As Mann’s deliberations are not on record,  Böhler can set out his thoughts and concerns without without fear of contradiction.  I have no doubts that these are based in the realities of Mann’s mindset at that particular time: not just those of the public persona, but of the family man and the private individual.  I separate those two facets deliberately, because there were secrets that Mann kept from his wife that were written in diaries hidden in his beloved Munich home, and that had been confiscated by the Nazis.  His fear of the Nazis discovering these and the resulting damage to his reputation is very palpable.

The timeframe of the novel is extended backwards in time through Mann’s thoughts which cover his marriage to a rich Jewish heiress, the raising of his children and his early criticism of the Nazi regime.  His exile in Switzerland from 1933 was in some ways self-imposed.  Warned by friends not to return, as arrest was imminent, he took their advice, and brought his half-Jewish children out of Germany before the Nazis got hold of them.  But the Nazis wouldn’t leave him in peace. Fined for his abandonment (!), his property confiscated, they continued to persecute him from afar. And yet, as he was not Jewish, his books were not banned.  A full denunciation of the regime would result in his books being burned with unfavourable attention being directed to his Jewish publisher.  Would it also constitute abandonment of his loyal German readers?   How would he feed his family when his Nobel prize money (which he had judiciously banked abroad) ran out?

Böhler succeeds in putting Mann in the moment, on the cusp of a momentous decision, which would result in the permanent loss of not just his income and his home, but his homeland.  The result is a human portrait of a man deliberating the pros and the cons until the deciding factor tips the balance; it is a picture enabling a more reasoned and charitable assessment than that of the exiles in Ostend.

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