Vol 1 No 7
Selected Books (1)
The Disturbing and the Disturbed
Some post-war Dutch poets and novelists
‘Thinking of Holland, I see broad rivers . . .’ goes a twentieth century Dutch equivalent of ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’. Since the end of the war many Dutchmen, most of them writers, have been airing the view that the time has come for the English-speaking world to do a little thinking about Holland, too, and particularly about Dutch writing. For there is such a thing as Dutch writing, and although it is still a closed book to all but a few million of the world’s inhabitants, this writing has very close ties with modern world writing, is, indeed, part and parcel of it. Perhaps it is because in Holland itself there is so lively an interest in the work of English authors that lack of knowledge — and, worse still, lack of curiosity — about contemporary Dutch literature should seem so unreasonable, and perhaps a little ungracious, to Dutchmen. So much so that some of them often overlook the fact that works by Dutch authors have appeared in England and America in the twentieth century and in increasing numbers in the past decade.
For the Englishman making the acquaintance of post-war Dutch writing (and for the Frenchman as well, for that matter) there are any number of surprises in store. Who in England, for instance, is aware that Holland had its Jimmy Porter nine years before Mr John Osborne provided England with hers? His name is Frits van Egters, and he arrived on the scene in 1947, in Simon van het Reve’s prizewinning and shindy-raising first novel, De Avonden (The Evenings). Who in France is alive to the fact that the notions, purposes and methods of the nouveau roman were already vieux jeu in Holland by the time the French novelists (and critics) had got to work? The same ingredients are present in the poetry of the Dutch Experimentalists, who first began to publish their strange new poetry in the late ‘forties: a rejection, a destruction, of the old moulds, of the preconceptions of bourgeois writing: a new way of looking at things; a disregard of the traditional ordering function of the intellect, a dérèglement de tous les sens, a beginning again from scratch. All elements with political and social as well as aesthetic aspects, and evident not only in this poetry but in some Dutch prose works too.
On further consideration, however, it is not so very surprising that a writer like Van het Reve, and others like W. F. Herrnans and Harry Mulisch, should have been launching their attack on their society long before Messrs Amis, Wain, Osborne and Sillitoe began attacking theirs. For these Dutch writers were produced by the cataclysmic experience of five years of enemy occupation, in which the society into which they were born broke down, in the end completely. This side of Auschwitz it is difficult to imagine an environment more drab, more disheartening, a social setting more subversive of the bourgeois ideals of order, comfort and decency, than Holland in the Hunger Winter of 1944-5. The aesthetic revolution this new Dutch poetry and prose embodied sprang from a social, political and psychological situation. It was not the planned child of a few leading writers and poets, not comparable, for instance, to the revolution associated with the names of Hulme, Pound and Eliot. It was involuntary, inevitable. Its cosmopolitan features, its conscious anti-provincialism, were also the product of the war, which had shocked Holland once and for all out of her cosy political isolation. Neutralism — and not only political neutralism — was dead for ever.
Not that Dutch writing had been wholly devoid of new trends or totally impervious to outside influences in the inter-war period. In the ‘twenties H. Marsman and Herman van den Bergh were writing their expressionist verse, and the ‘thirties, which saw severe economic depression and the rise of Hitler just over the frontier, had produced a poetry and prose of social realism and political awareness. It was not without reason that the critic, Menno ter Braak, guiding light and most brilliant intellect of this period, committed suicide when Nazi troops moved into Holland. At the same time his friend and colleague, the poet, novelist and essayist, E. du Perron, died of a heart attack, and Marsman, then the leading Dutch poet, was drowned attempting to reach England from Bordeaux, when his ship, the Bérenice, was torpedoed in June 1940.
If, then, it was the surge of new ideas and new creative energy following upon five years of oppression and aesthetic stagnation which provided the driving force for new writing in post-war Holland, it was the tragic and dramatic disappearance of these and other leading figures which made a new movement essential. Yet this new writing proved — inevitably — to be utterly unlike the rational, intellectual movement associated with Ter Braak and Du Perron and their magazine, Forum.
The Experimentalist poets did not claim to form a school. They were, however, able to find a common platform in the avant-garde magazine, Podium, and the essays devoted to them by one of their number, the poet and critic Pant Rodenko, and above all, the appearance, in 1951, of Atonaal, an anthology of their work introduced by Simon Vinkenoog, made it difficult not to regard them as a group. What is more, though they have since gone their individual ways, their poetry has so many features in common — and one particularly: that it is unlike any that had been written in Holland before — that there is adequate justification for seeing them as a movement. Their poetry is primitive, ‘pre-rational’, anti-intellectual. It is a poetry, sometimes, of almost animal responses.
Heirs of an age of violence, cruelty and disruption, these poets have renounced the world into which they have been born without their permission, a world of false values and assailable institutions (and of false poetic values and assailable poetic institutions), and seem, some of them, to have retired to their nursery attic, where the fire has gone out, there attempting to build a new world out of toy bricks, or rather, out of plasticine, which they can, and must, knead into their own shapes. One of their number (though in many respects the least typical), Hans Andreus, has said, in fact, in an early poem that he has peopled the pond in his garden with aquatic plants and fish ‘and then, with my own hands/I created blue fishermen/out of costly clay’.
The task the Experimentalists had set themselves was, of course, an impossible one, and it is not surprising that they should have since been criticized for narcissism, for over-concern with themselves, with sensory perception, and especially with their own bodies. The body is, after all, not only an obvious departure point for primitive experience, for beginning again, but also the last retreat of those who reject the world that is there, whether they asked to be thrust into it or not. Reject it, because they cannot come to terms with it, just as they cannot come to terms with life itself — for to accept life is also, among other things, to accept death.
If they have failed to build a new world, the Experimentalists have in any event recorded their protest and, in doing so, created a new poetry. For in rejecting the world they found, they also rejected the poetry they found and built another to take its place. Built it, sometimes gropingly, as in the case of Hans Lodeizen, ‘a voice wise yet stammering’; sometimes bleakly and despairingly, like Remco Campert: ‘I am a voice/cold and dying/full of wintry words’; sometimes with a playful resignation, like Hans Andreus: ‘I no longer care about logic/I forget all the bikes and the cars/I sit on a branch like anthropos/and sing along with the birds/cantate cantabile’, and sometimes with an aggressive, self-assured exuberance, like Lucebert: ‘I’m reeling off a lovely little revolution.’
Hans Lodeizen (1924-50) (1) was the forerunner who, perhaps unwittingly, set the keynote and opened the way for this new poetry. Sensuous, wistful, his poetry is capable of exerting a wider appeal than that of most of his contemporaries (a copy of Lodeizen’s posthumous collection will often be found on the bookshelves of those who do not normally read poetry), while interest in him was inevitably heightened by his early and tragic death. His isolation from the world had roots in a personal psychological problem; yet through his poetry he succeeded in generalizing this problem. In free verse — one might almost say in ‘Lodeizen verse’ for it has a form, mood and texture all its own — he expressed an unfulfilled longing for a world wiser, richer and subtler than the world he found himself in.
Here the rejection of the outside world has nothing aggressive about it. The iconoclasm has yet to begin. In fact the keynote is still a longing for reconciliation.
The poetry of Renico Campert, (2) born in 1929, is reminiscent of Lodeizen’s in its estrangement from the world, though here the rejection is more deliberate and absolute. His poems are bleaker and more bitter while he makes greater use of surrealist devices. Both in his earlier and later poems, Campert is still haunted by the wartime environment of his childhood:
Charred and rusted remnants
of shot down bomber planes
were the symbols of disaster
I played among as a boy
the sky was the colour of pill-boxes
ack-ack drew a charcoal skull.
He is more socially conscious, too, than Lodeizen, conscious particularly of the drabness, greyness and inadequacy of the acquisitive society shaped by the efficiency fiends and planners who rule his country and paid lip-service to by newspaper men. In one poem this comes out clearly when he is showing a negro the wonders of western civilization evident in his own urban environment; in another Campert effectively compares the Dutch churches with petrol-filling stations.
Several of these poets (Campert among them) seek a refuge from their dissatisfaction with the world in sexual relationships. There is then a change of tone. In the following poem, Campert’s voice is no longer ‘cold and dying, full of wintry words’.
Life With You
Aglow from head to toe
as though I’m being scourged
by a sun and a storm.
How you fill me, sweet rain,
through my two ears,
till I’m a gourd
bursting with love.
Like stories which thrilled me
when I was a boy,
you set my whole world
the forest’s on fire
and we open our homes
to each other’s flames.
The same thing is true of the poetry of Hans Andreus, born in 1926, whose first volume appeared in 1951. In that small book, with its surrealist title, Muziek voor Kijkdieren (Music for Look-Animals), there is a poem on love, uncharacteristically rhymed and in marked anapaestic metre, entitled ‘Game’, which goes roughly like this:
Who knows of the game of the child and the woman
the child and the woman are in search of pale blue
but the child finds pale grey and the woman pale fawn
and the child is the woman and the woman the child.
Who knows of the game of the child and the woman
the child and the woman are in search of bright red
but neither child nor woman finds the red that they seek
and the child and the woman together find death.
Early in 1959, however, he is writing poems about a love which no longer means disillusion and death, despite the fact that the poet is still, significantly, alone:
Tree of Man
You are my warm earth,
you are my black soil.
I stand in you
and grow and do
of everything so much —
but sometimes nothing too:
for then I’m no longer waiting
for anything anymore,
for nothing, for then I seek
even less than nothing,
in the illumined air,
in the warm earth,
the dark soil.
The distrust of human society, of others, still lingers even in these more recent love poems by Andreus. In one, for instance, he tells his love that should he die tomorrow, she should tell the trees, a child, an animal, houses of bricks and stone how much he had loved her:
But tell it not to men
They would never believe you,
They would simply hate to believe
That mere man could love mere woman
As I loved you.
The most sensational of the Experimentalists is a poet who goes by the name of Lucebert, complete, until recently, with fringe beard, cloak, and if not a dagger, very probably a prophet’s staff. Lucebert, born in 1924, is a conjurer with words, who in recent years has taken to conjuring in paint as well, some of his work having been on show in New York. The movement’s High Priest, it was he who wrote early on that experimental poetry is a sea into which all the rivers with names like Dada, etc., flow, the sea being an effective image for freedom as well as for revolutionary power and the rejection of imposed form. For formlessness even. He has written, too, that in our time beauty no longer consoles the human being but frightens him, making him aware that he is but a ‘breadcrumb on the skirt of the universe’. Lucebert’s ‘liberated’ verse, celebrated particularly for its untranslatable word-play, is exuberant, as the following well-known early poem of his may, perhaps, show:
I’m reeling off a little revolution
I’m reeling off a lovely little revolution
I’m no longer of land
I’m of water again.
I bear foaming whitehorses on my head
I bear shooting phantoms in my head
On my back rests a mermaid
On my back rests the wind
The wind and the mermaid sing
The foaming whitehorses hiss
The shooting phantoms fall
I’m reeling off a lovely little rustling revolution
And I fall and I hiss and I sing
The Experimentalists’ protest is often oblique — the shaking off of the old poetic manner and diction amounted to a protest in itself and one aimed not only at the Literary Establishment but also at the smug, colourless society which accepted the old values without question.
In the work of the younger novelists, the protest can also be oblique, as it is in many of the stories and novels of Harry Mulisch. But in the work of a writer like W. F. Hermans, the most formidable figure among post-war Dutch novelists, the protest becomes direct, amounts to a full-scale frontal attack with heavy artillery. Gerard Kornelis van het Reve, author of the novel The Evenings mentioned earlier on (he was then known as Simon van het Reve) occupies a place somewhere between the two. Of these three, Mulisch is the most prolific, Van het Reve, tantalizingly, the least.
Since 1952, Mulisch (born in 1927) has published several novels and short stories, and in February 1960 his first play, Tanchelijn — The Chronicle of a Heretic, set in the twelfth century with twentieth century slang, was produced in Amsterdam. Literary prizes abound in Holland; not always to the benefit of the writer, or of his dignity, for they are awarded by ‘juries’ whose assessments, however glowing, never seem to avoid the condescending ring of the schoolmaster’s report. Mulisch has had his share of these prizes, and one of his books was actually commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences, a peculiar bureaucratic form of literary patronage adopted in Holland, which does more, perhaps, for the amour-propre of officials than for the status of the writers they patronize.
An over-fluent writer, Mulisch’s work is aggressive, provocative, and often maddeningly fantastic. An impression of this can be gained simply from titles and details. One prize-winning novel, for instance, is entitled The Black Light, another The Stone Bridal Bed. In one (too long) short story, The Horses’ Leap and the Freshwater Sea, five aged, bearded Frisian fishermen, called Odde, Gnodde, Slikke, Stobbe and Ubbe, sink into the despised fresh water of the former salt Zuyder Zee and drown resignedly, as one of their number declaims the legend of their island, now revoltingly embedded in reclaimed farmland. In another short story a Dutch soldier in New Guinea turns to stone. A book of nightmarish stories, entitled The Miracle, has for sub-title ‘Episodes of Consolation and Debauchery from the Life of Mr Tiennoppen’.
Mulisch’s extravagance elicits an equal extravagance in his eulogists and critics. But perhaps he is not wholly to blame. His verve, his abundant talent cry out for a wider audience than he is likely to find in the Dutch-speaking world, and given that audience, its higher standards and more stringent criticism, he might discard his less mature quirks and poses and a seeming compulsion to impress by exhibitionist stratagems.
It would be difficult to imagine two books less like each other than Van bet Reve’s 1947 novel, The Evenings, and Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel, Billy Liar. Yet the basic situation is the same in both books. Frits van Egters, the hero of The Evenings, hopelessly at odds with his environment, particularly with his parents, would have been a far healthier character if he had been able to take Billy Fisher’s way out through self-glorifying fantasies and pathological lying. But though he has many pathological traits, he lacks Billy’s sense of farce. Humour he does have, but it is a sardonic, sadistic humour, finding its gratification in the absurdity and pettiness of his father and mother and of the world with which they have surrounded him. Gratification, too, in sowing seeds of unease in others — for instance, he is often warning people that they are going bald. All through the novel, which is devoid of plot and which makes great use of repetition, trivial anecdotes and foul language to create an atmosphere of oppressive boredom, Frits van Egters is observing and recording the facts of his environment, and rejecting all the values which keep other people going. His attitude is not cynical; it amounts instead to a plain, blank disbelief in any spiritual values. We leave him crawling into bed, muttering: ‘It has been seen — it has not gone unobserved.’ This cryptic remark might be taken as an indication, a threat, of action to come, based on what Frits has observed. But it might just as well be an expression of impotence, observation merely being a substitute for action. However this may be, in The Evenings Van het Reve succeeded brilliantly in striking the mood of the young post-war generation and in creating a type of novel such as had not been written in Holland before. How great was the interest the novel aroused is shown by the fact that the magazine Podium devoted an entire issue to its discussion.
Reacting violently to the storm of criticism that followed upon the award conferred on The Evenings, to the misinterpretation of his artistic aims, Van bet Reve announced that henceforward he would write in English only, and he did later produce a book of short stories, The Acrobat, in English, three of which appeared in The Paris Review. He has recently changed his mind and turned to playwriting, his first play, Moorlands Huis (Moorland’s House) having won the Van der Vies prize for 1960; a second Captain Kennedy is awaiting production. Van het Reve is also the Dutch translator of Harold Pinter’s play, The Caretaker, produced with great success in Holland in the autumn of 1960, and of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story and The Death of Bessie Smith.
W. F. Hermans, born in 1921, is probably an even more disputed figures. The publication of any new book by him is almost certain to lead to raging controversy in Holland. But there was at least almost general agreement, when his latest novel, De Donkere Kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles) appeared in 1958, that this was a masterly work and his finest book so far. Hermans made his début in 1946, when chapters from his first novel, De Tranen der Acacia’s (The Tears of the Acacias), published in 1949, began to appear in a literary periodical. This novel depicts young people adrift in the dislocated world of wartime and early post-war Holland. Through its main character, it delivers an attack on all the moral principles on which personal behaviour in our society is founded, values which Hermans sees as a pretence, a mere screen for self-seeking. His characters move in our world and yet are not of it. They have broken loose; they do not belong.
In a later novel, Ik Heb Altijd Gelijk (I’m Always Right), a Dutch soldier returning home from service in Indonesia, where has has already proved himself a rebel, joins a new revolutionary party, grows disillusioned with it, and ends up taking a lucrative job from a person he despises.
The Darkroom of Damocles (3) on an altogether grander scale. Many Dutch novelists are more concerned with arguing a thesis than with devising a plot, and they are rarely skilled at sustaining tension. Neither of these remarks refers to Hermans’s latest novel, which tells its story in gripping fashion. It is the story of Henri Osewoudt, a miserable undersized little tobacconist, who during the German occupation works for the Dutch Resistance Movement. In this capacity he commits several crimes, including murder. He receives all his instructions from a man, Dorbeck, whose acquaintance he makes on the first day of the war, when he enters his shop as an officer in the Dutch army and asks Osewoudt to have a roll of film developed for him. There is a striking physical resemblance between Dorbeck and himself. At the end of the war, Dorbeck turns out to have been a German agent. He has disappeared and Osewoudt is mistaken for him by the Allied authorities and arrested. The second half of the book records, with mounting tension, Osewoudt’s endeavours while in prison to convince his captors that he is not Dorbeck but has worked all through the war for their cause. In the environment of post-war disruption and devastation, with witnesses missing or dead and all traces lost, Osewoudt’s increasingly desperate endeavours are in vain. At last he remembers that he had taken a photograph of himself and Dorbeck standing side by side in front of a mirror. If only the camera could be traced, for the film was left inside it, he could prove beyond all doubt that Dorbeck existed and that he himself was not the man the Allied authorities are after. These authorities succeed in tracing the camera and Osewoudt is allowed to develop the film himself in the prison, while they wait. When it is ready, he takes it out of the bath and holds it up to the light. The exposure showing himself and Dorbeck is a blank. In a state of delirium, Osewoudt wanders out of the prison and is shot down by a guard.
It is a bitter, cynical story. But well told though it is, the point of the novel lies in its symbolic meaning. Though convincingly portrayed, even the characters are symbols for Hermans’s various social targets . . . the shabby tastelessness of the lower middle-class scene, for socialist sentimentality, for military fatuity, for the ineffectualness of the Roman Catholic Church (a powerful political force in Dutch life). For instance, in the novel’s very last words Hermans writes that the Catholic priest attending Osewoudt has insufficient fingers on his two hands to staunch all the bullet wounds in the dying man’s body.
In this book once again Hermans is attacking the concepts of the hero and the unreal distinction we make between innocence and guilt. In the following passage from the novel the argument is illogical and perverse, but it illustrates Hermans’s vehemence. It is typical of him that he should put these words into the mouth of an ill-advised youth of eighteen, who had assisted the Germans in the last days of the war and who is now imprisoned with Osewoudt. During a break in a period of exercise, this youth comes and sits at Osewoudt’s side, and this is what he says:
‘D’you know what it all boils down to? It all boils down to this: that man is mortal but doesn’t want to admit it. But once a man realizes he’s got to die some day, morals, absolute morals, just can’t exist any longer. To such a man goodness and mercy are simply disguises for fear. Why should I behave morally, if I know I’m sentenced to death anyway? Everyone gets the death penalty one day, and everyone knows it, too. The muddleheaded philosophers who built our western civilization thought there was a difference between guilt and innocence. But what I say is that in a world where everybody gets the death penalty, there can be no difference between innocence and guilt. And as for mercy! You’ve never read a decent book in your life either, have you? The same as all the other nitwits in our country. But if you get the chance you just read Shakespeare’s Richard III. Now Shakespeare, there was a man who knew what’s what. What happens when Richard’s kingdom is about to collapse and he’s on the point of fighting the decisive battle?
‘He’s asleep and in his dream appear all the friends and relations he’s murdered in order to get to the throne. Do you know what they say to him? What d’you think they say? D’you think they say, Richard, it was a mean thing to do, to murder us, but there’s nothing that can be done about it now. We can’t return to life. And so we forgive you for what you have done to us and we hope you’ll be spared our miserable fate, for even if you were punished for your crimes, it wouldn’t help us . . . D’you think they say that? No, my dear chap, they don’t say that! Despair, and die! they say. That’s what they say. Despair and die! Women, children and greybeards. Despair, and die! they say. Shakespeare knew!’
It is a far cry from this to the buffoonery of Jim Dixon, Charles Lumley and Billy Fisher. Dutch writers, however, have no great comic tradition behind them, comparable to the eighteenth-century English novel. Indeed, it is characteristic of the Dutch mind to take serious matters seriously, to seal off humour and committed art in strictly watertight compartments. It is a far cry, too, from Hermans to the ranting of Jimmy Porter or the parlour pessimism of an Archie Rice. The moods of the young Dutch writers are blacker than those of their British counterparts for, unlike them, they have lived, as youths, through the violence and disruption of five years of enemy occupation. Their wounds are different and deeper and will not heal to order. But whether this is, in the long run, an advantage or a disability where writing is concerned is another matter.
(2) See The London Magazine (old series), Vol. 8, No. 3, March 1961.
(3) Messrs Heinemann have announced the forthcoming appearance of an English translation by Roy Edwards.
- 10th Muse
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