Saturday, November 7, 2020

Best European Novels: The Netherlands

The Netherlands (Holland) is a country in Western Europe, with a rich cultural tradition and an open minded and pioneering people, situated in the muddy flatlands of the Rhine delta. Its relatively small area of just over 41,000 square kilometers is home to more than 17 million people, making it the 12th most densely populated country in the world. Dutch society is very international. Since the 17th century, major Dutch cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam have been international trading hubs.

"The Netherlands" literally means "lower countries," a name given because of the low elevation and flat topography; nearly 17% of the land lies below sea level. Most of these areas are the result of land reclamation that began in the 16th century. The Netherlands has the 17th-largest economy in the world, and ranks 10th in GDP (nominal) per capita, giving it powerful international and economic clout. Owing to its fertile soil, mild climate, intensive agriculture and inventiveness, The Netherlands is the world's second-largest exporter of food and agricultural products. Amsterdam is the financial and business capital of the Netherlands, the Port of Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is the third largest airport in Europe. The Dutch capital is Amsterdam, but the government is located in The Hague, where also the royal palace is.

Their international character means the Dutch are generally tolerant and open about different cultures. Culturally, the Dutch face north (Scandinavia) and west (Britain), and a little bit east (Germany), but not south (France). Dutch manners are informal, open and direct with a no-nonsense attitude. Opinions are voiced frankly and directly. There is little protocol; the Dutch dislike showing off and extravagance. The pervasive Dutch egalitarianism has led to a comprehensive welfare state. The Dutch like debates; decision making can be prolonged as everyone has to have his/her say and finally everyone has to agree.
The Kingdom of the Netherlands is bigger than just the Netherlands. There are 3 Caribbean municipalities that are also part of the Kingdom: Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten. Former colonies are Indonesia and Surinam. South-Africa has a large population of people with ancient Dutch roots, and Afrikaans is a daughter language of Dutch.

The Netherlands has had many well-known painters. The 17th century, in which the Dutch Republic was very prosperous, was the age of the "Dutch Masters", such as Rembrandt and Vermeer; later painters are Van Gogh and Mondriaan. Famous philosophers are Spinoza and Erasmus. The high level of education and science in the Netherlands is attested by the fact that this small country had 21 Nobel prize winners, especially in physics (Veltman, 't Hooft, Kamerlingh Onnes, Lorentz, etc). There is no Dutch Nobel Prize in Literature, however.

Dutch literature has long been neglected by international audiences. That is partly the fault of the Dutch themselves who in the past made little effort to promote their own literature abroad; but on the other hand it is also due to the regrettable lack of interest of English-speaking peoples in foreign literature, in contrast to, for example, Germans or Scandinavians. These are markets where - as in the Netherlands - about 20% of all literature is literature in translation (and this includes quite a lot of Dutch literature as well), while in Anglophone countries this figure only amounts to a meager 2%.

Literature flourished in the Dutch Golden Age (17th c.) with poets like Hooft and Vondel, but the novel was a latecomer. The first great Dutch novel was written by Multatuli in the mid-19th c.; an important writer from around 1900 was Couperus. Great 20th c. authors include the postwar trio of Mulisch, Reve and Hermans; the most important contemporary writer is Grunberg.

The big themes of the Dutch novel are:
- Coming to terms with the injustice of colonialism, especially in the former East Indian colonies
- Coming to terms with World War II when Holland was occupied by the Germans and when contrary to what is told in history books, not everyone acted as a hero
- The after-effects of repressive Calvinism in personal lives
- Criticism of typical lower middle class narrow-mindedness

The rules I have followed are:
(1) English translations must exist (it may be our of print, in which case you'll have to try the sellers at Amazon etc., or a good library)
(2) Every writer is represented by only one book (to prevent me from spamming the list with my favorites)
(3) One of the selection criteria is "sense of place," meaning that I have a preference for books that bring the reader closer to the country under consideration.
(4) Besides "high literature," I also include a few "genre novels" (usually thrillers or mysteries), as these can give a good insight in the culture of a particular country.

Useful websites:
Dutch Foundation for Literature:
Digital Library for Dutch Literature:

I recommend checking out the various places mentioned in these novels via Google Maps or Wikipedia for a virtual trip!

Here are the best novels from the Netherlands (with one exception, all novels introduced below have been translated into English):

1. Multatuli, Max Havelaar (1859)
The first Dutch novel of stature - and according to some, still the best - was written in the mid-19th c. by a colonial administrator. A passionate novel that woke up Dutch society by blowing the whistle about the oppression of the Javanese people in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Max Havelaar is an idealized self-portrait of the author, Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker), who, like his protagonist, was a colonial official in the Javanese town of Lebak. The book is advanced in its almost "postmodern" composition, with a self-reflexive frame story and countless digressions and stories-in-stories. A beautiful story at the heart of the book is the tragic tale of Saïdjah and Adinda, two Javanese children whose lives are crushed by the double heaviness of indigenous and Dutch rule. (Detailed review on this blog)

[Residence of the colonial administrator in Surabaya]

The novel was filmed in 1976 by Fons Rademakers as part of a Dutch-Indonesian partnership.

2. Marcellus Emants, A Posthumous Confession (Een nagelaten bekentenis, 1894)
A razor-sharp psychological analysis of the mind of a man who has murdered his wife. Written in the form of a confession, like Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, or the early stories of Arthur Schnitzler, and about just such a pathologically introverted protagonist, indolent, uninterested in society, and without empathy for his fellow humans. The result is a grueling and gripping novel.

The Dutch writer Marcellus Emants (1848-1923) belonged to the group of writers who came up in the eighties of the 19th c. and who modernized Dutch literature - for the first 80 years of the century, Dutch literature (and for that matter, all of society) had been in the deadening, small-minded grip of pastors, preachers and grocers. That changed in the 1880s, when Holland also underwent a rather belated industrial revolution. Many of the new authors were influenced by naturalism (Zola); Emants is considered one of the few examples of Dutch Naturalism. A Posthumous Confession is also very much a fin de siècle novel, encased in a suffocating web of guilt and fear. The English translation is from the hand of Nobel prize winner J.M. Coetzee. (Detailed review on this blog)

3. Louis Couperus, The Hidden Force (De stille kracht, 1900)
Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was born in The Hague but grew up in the Dutch East Indies. His first novel, Eline Vere, was a psychological masterpiece about the tragic fate of a young heiress, a neurotic woman with a turbulent family, set in fin-de-siecle The Hague. It was an immediate success. Couperus wrote more novels with a setting bourgeois circles in the Hague, but also Symbolist novellas, as well as historical novels situated in the ancient world (like Flaubert's Salammbo).

His greatest achievement is The Hidden Force (De stille kracht), written in 1900 and inspired by a year long visit to the Dutch East Indies in 1899-1900, the country of his childhood. It is the story of the decline and fall of the Dutch resident Van Oudyck due to his inability to see further than his own Western rationalism. The "hidden force" can be interpreted as the silent opposition of the colonized, as the symbol for the cultural gap which in a colonial situation can never be breached successfully. We could also say that colonial society, founded as it was on the right of the strongest, led to moral decay, which slowly but irresistibly wrecked the Europeans, as another hidden force. (Detailed review on this blog)
4. Nescio, Amsterdam Stories ("De uitvreter," "Titaantjes," "Dichtertje," 1910-18)
Three wonderful novellas (The Freeloader, Titans and Little Poet), bittersweet accounts of artistic, idealistic young men, their big plans and mad longings, all ending in sadness and resignation. The individual is no match for the world and helplessly comes to grief if he tries to resist. Nescio (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh, 1882–1961) writes about our complete insignificance in the grand scheme of things - but also that our insignificance doesn't matter, for there is something wonderful in that, too.

[Statue of Nescio in Ubbergen]

All three stories provide a good picture of Amsterdam at the beginning of the 20th century. Above all, Nescio's style is wonderful: utter simplicity combined with humor, irony, understatement and sentiment (but never sentimentality), all elements miraculously balanced. (Detailed review on this blog)

5. J.J. Slauerhoff, The Forbidden Kingdom (Het verboden rijk, 1931)
The Forbidden Kingdom (Het Verboden Rijk, 1932), the masterwork of poet-maudit and ship's doctor Jan Jacob Slauerhoff (1898-1936), is a classic of modernism with an experimental narrative, and at the same it is also a romantic tale of travel and adventure. The novel starts with two historical tales: the founding of Macao in the 1550s, by Portuguese soldiers and colonists, the fortress-trading city on the South Chinese coast, and back in Portugal itself, we get the story of Luís de Camões ("Camoens" in the novel), courtier and poet, author of the classic epic, The Lusiads. To this is added a story about a nameless 20th century Irish radio operator. This man works on a small ship steaming around Asia, and finally ends up in Macao.

[Panoramic painting of Macau from Penha Hill, c. 1870]

He describes himself as "the most rootless person alive." These two stories are then closely linked together by Slauerhoff. Much of what Camões felt and said appears again, as an after-echo, in the twentieth-century sections. Slauerhoff even goes so far as to drop hints that the 16th century Camões and the 20th century radio operator may be the same person! The radio operator recognizes places where he cannot have been before, his memories become a mixture of his own and those of Camões. At the end, like the 16th century poet, his highest wish becomes to be absorbed by the anonymous millions of China. Past and present merge as if a hidden passage through time has been opened. (Detailed review on this blog)

6. Ferdinand Bordewijk, Character (Karakter, 1938)
Ferdinand Bordewijk (1884-1965) was a lawyer and novelist who wrote in a violent style reminiscent of New Objectivity. Karakter (Character) is his most famous novel. It tells the story of Katadreuffe, a clerk who is struggling to work his way up in society, but who is time and again blocked and even bankrupted by his biological father, the formidable Rotterdam bailiff Dreverhaven. Dreverhaven is a massive man who enjoys evicting the poor from their houses or declaring people bankrupt. He knows no mercy. To challenge his enemies, he has his office in one of the darkest and poorest areas of Rotterdam, but although he is generally hated, nobody dares stick a knife in his back.

[View of Rotterdam]

At the end of the book, in a final confrontation with the son, the father declares that he has in fact worked for his son - by putting obstacles in his way, he has made his son "a man of character." But there is no reconciliation, as Katadreuffe exhibits the negative side of a strong character - he is unable to love others or even connect to them. Katadreuffe finds success, but not personal happiness. Character is also a great portrait of pre-war Rotterdam where the drama is set. Character was filmed in 1998 by Mike van Diem. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in that year. (Detailed review on this blog)

7. Gerard Reve, The Evenings (De avonden, 1947)
In The Netherlands, Gerard Reve (1923-2006) is considered as one of the three greatest writers of the postwar period, together with Hermans and Mulisch. However, he remains completely unknown abroad. His greatest novel and one of the best novels ever written in The Netherlands, had to wait until 2016 before its first English translation finally appeared. Set during the last ten dark days of 1946 in Amsterdam, the story of The Evenings revolves around Frits van Egters, a young man who lives at home with his parents, whom he finds annoying and embarrassing. Each of the ten days is the object of one chapter, and as Reve skips the time Frits spends as a clerk in the office, we indeed get descriptions of his "evenings," plus his time off on Sundays and Christmas. Frits spends his free time by withdrawing to his bedroom and doing nothing, listening to the radio, or visiting friends, whom he tries to provoke and challenge.

[Bridge near the Jozef Israëlskade, in the novel called "Schilderskade," where Frits van Egters lived with his parents (close to the present Hotel Okura)]

Central themes in The Evenings are loneliness, boredom, disillusionment, lack of self-esteem, social isolation and the cynicism of the protagonist. Although Frits has several friends, he is in fact very lonely, as the conversations he has with them are generally superficial and unimportant, even nonsensical. The relationship Frits has with his parents, and especially his father, is plainly bad - although he also hides his love, which becomes apparent in the conclusion of the novel. He is also suffering from repetition compulsion: he regularly has to look at his watch, cannot stand pauses in conversations and has an obsessive fear of the future, especially the process of aging and physical decline - baldness is an important subject in his conversations and he studies his own scalp every night in the mirror. He delights in reminding his brother, who is only a couple of years older, that his hairline is already receding. According to most interpretations, Frits van Egters' character primarily reflects the problems of the generation that had matured during WWII, when the Netherlands was for five years occupied by the Nazis, and of whom many came dazed and without faith or ideals out of that war. The novel may strike one as gloomy and cheerless, even negative and cynical, as it did readers in the 1950s, and also me when I first read it in high school. But reading it again after several decades, I now enjoyed the grotesque and liberating dark humor that peppers the whole novel. The author has a sharp eye for absurd and poignant details. Perhaps because I don't live in Holland anymore and am not bothered by the dark and gray weather described in the book, I only registered the comical effects, which are made stronger thanks to the businesslike style of the author, setting down even the smallest things in detail. Also funny is the solemn and needlessly complicated idiolect Frits uses, even when talking to himself. This "ultimate book on the art of boredom" ends with a beautiful and moving epiphany when on New Year's Eve, Frits begs God’s forgiveness for mocking his parents so brutally.

8. Simon Vestdijk, The Garden Where the Brass Band Played (De koperen tuin, 1950)
The Garden Where the Brass Band Played is the story of Nol Rieske, who at the age of eight is taken by his mother to the town gardens where he is enchanted by the music of the brass band. He dances with Trix, the daughter of Cuperus, the band’s drunken conductor. The memory of this occasion takes hold of Nol and he is lost forever: never again can he put Trix out of his mind, also not when he has grown up and is a student of medicine. Vestdijk masterfully depicts the force of irrational love - Nol hardly knows Trix at all. But his desperate and complicated love leads to catastrophe, on the one hand because Nol is not mature enough and cannot understand his own love, and on the other hand because the simple and worldly Trix has a feeling of inferiority towards Nol.

The Dutch title, The Copper Garden, has several meanings. The element copper refers not only to the color of the leaves of the garden in the fall, but also to the brass musical instruments that appear at the initial concert given in the garden dome. And it also refers to the conductor, Mr. Cuperus, who is admired by Nol, and to his daughter, Trix Cuperus. Moreover, the Garden is the Garden of Eden from which the narrator Nol Rieske is chased away. In the rest of the book, the garden plays a role as a background to important events.

The story takes place in W ..., by which Vestdijk means Leeuwarden in the northern Netherlands, where he went to grammar school. The garden, where part of the story takes place, is the current Prinsentuin.

[Music dome in the Prinsentuin in Leeuwarden,
the model for the garden in Vestdijk's novel]

Versatile’ is an understatement when it comes to Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971) and his literary talent. His oeuvre includes three volumes of poetry, twenty essay collections dealing with subjects as diverse as music, literature and religion, and fifty-two novels. His psychological novels are realistic but also include subtle symbols and allusions to metaphysical problems. This man wrote ‘faster than God can read’, as was often said at the time. This is all the more remarkable when one takes into account that Vestdijk was also a doctor and furthermore severely depressive for several months each year. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played is the pinnacle of Vestdijk's achievement.

9. Robert van Gulik, The Chinese Maze Murders (Labyrint in Lan-fang, 1951-56)
The Chinese Maze Murders was the first of the mystery stories written by Dutch Sinologue and diplomat Robert van Gulik. Set in imperial China, it was based on the real character of Judge Dee (Di Renjie) and contained three actual cases from Chinese murder casebooks, "The Case of the Sealed Room", "The Case of the Hidden Testament", and "The Case of the Girl with the Severed Head." Judge Dee is the magistrate in the fictional border town of Lan-fang. Upon arrival he has to depose a local tyrant under whom the previous magistrates were but figurehead puppets. Then he is faced with three mysteries at the same time, involving poisoned plums, a mysterious scroll picture, and passionate love letters, all somehow linked to the Governor's garden maze. Judge Dee investigates these crimes under the cloud of the growing threat of a Mongol invasion.

Robert Van Gulik wrote this story in English, but first published a Japanese translation made by an acquaintance in 1951; in 1953 he also published a Chinese version in Singapore from his own hand. The original English version finally appeared in 1956, as did the Dutch translation. In all, Robert van Gulik wrote 16 Judge Dee novels. (See my introduction to the Judge Dee novels on this blog)

10. Maria Dermoût, The Ten Thousand Things (De tienduizend dingen, 1955)
This novel is divided into six parts that subtly repeat each other as in an echo. In the first part, "The Island", the place of action, is introduced; although not mentioned by name, this is the island of Ambon in the Moluccas, the former Spice Islands (now Maluku in Indonesia). This section also introduces the main character of the book, Felicia, a tall, powerful, but also thoroughly lonely woman, who has lost everything to which she was attached (grandmother, son, husband, parents) - she now only has the natural beauty of the island. In the next part, entitled "The Garden Kleyntjes," the focus is on an old spice garden which is located in a secluded place that can only be reached by boat. This section also expands on the main narrative event: once a year, on All Souls' Day, Felicia faces the painful fact that her son was ambushed, and at the same time commemorates all those on the island who have been victims of murder or have died an unnatural death during the past year. The next three parts tell the stories of the victims of that year: the government official, a maid and her sailor, and a Scottish professor of botany. The last, short section entitled "All Souls' Day" is a description of that particular  commemoration. In a vision of enhanced beauty, Felicia sees everything presented in the novel as both general knowledge and specific detail, and the book closes with a final hint of a hard-won consolation.

[View of Ambon, 17th century]

"The Ten Thousand Things" are not tangible things, but they represent the Daoist idea of "everything that lives and teems in the world". All forms of existence in this non-dual philosophy are expressions of the "one", and the motto of her great novel is: "When the "ten thousand things" have been seen in their unity, we return to the beginning and remain where we have always been."

[Maria Dermoût]

Maria Dermoût (1888–1962) was an Indo-European novelist, and an important proponent of Dutch Indies literature. She was born in Pati, Java, Dutch East Indies, and educated in the Netherlands. After completing her education she returned to Java, where she married and traveled extensively across Java and the Moluccas with her husband. In 1933 her husband was pensioned, and the couple returned to the Netherlands. The Ten Thousand Things is widely regarded as a masterpiece and has been translated into thirteen languages. Although not conventionally autobiographical, it draws on Dermoût's own life.

11. W.F. Hermans, The Darkroom of Damocles (De donkere kamer van Damocles, 1958)

Both a dark wartime thriller and a metaphysical mystery, based on the doppelganger motif. During the German occupation of Holland, tobacconist Henri Osewoudt is visited by a shadowy figure named Dorbeck, who looks exactly like a "positive mirror image" of himself - everything that is effeminate and weak in Osewoudt, is strong and manly in Dorbeck. Osewoudt is a man without beard growth and a high squeaky voice who is just a nondescript tobacconist in a suburb of The Hague, living with his mentally ill mother and an unattractive wife who is also his niece. He has no self-respect at all. Dorbeck instructs Osewoudt to execute a number of dangerous secret assignments on behalf of the resistance movement against the Nazis, including several killings. Although things quickly go awry, these violent actions give Osewoudt a feeling of dignity.

[A darkroom]

After the war, Osewoudt is regarded as a traitor and captured. He is unable to prove that he received assignments from Dorbeck - Dorbeck has vanished completely and Osewoudt cannot even prove that his doppelganger ever existed: Osewoudt has taken a photo of himself with Dorbeck, but the film is empty. Hermans shows us the moral ambiguity prevalent in a society in the grip of war and chaos and the impossibility of heroism. In the darkroom of life in wartime, the sword of Damocles is always dangling above one's head. (Detailed review on this blog)

12. Jan Wolkers, Turkish Delight (Turks Fruit, 1969)
The novel opens in the squalid studio of a sculptor who can't accept that his great love, Olga, has left him. He keeps fantasizing about her and also takes out his frustration on other women. We then are told the story of this fateful relationship, which starts with lovemaking in Olga's car when she gives the sculptor a lift and ends under pressure from her shrewish mother, who doesn't like the Bohemian artist. In between, we get scenes from their unbridled and "monstrously happy" love. The narrator loses Olga for a second time, when she is hospitalized with a brain tumor. There, at her bedside, he carefully feeds Olga soft, sweet Turkish delight, the only thing she still can eat and also the fragile symbol of their love.

The novel has been written in a breath-taking style, in which the author piles one sensational scene on top of another, all of them raw and exciting and full of elaborate metaphors. The novel was filmed by Paul Verhoeven in 1973 with Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven.

[Turkish Delight]

Jan Wolkers (1925-2007) grew up in a Calvinist family. After studying at the end of the war at art schools in The Hague and Amsterdam, he worked for a year as a sculptor in Paris. In the early 1960s, he started writing, often strongly autobiographical books as Kort Amerikaans (Crewcut) and Terug naar Oegstgeest (Return to Oegstgeest, 1965). Wolkers wrote in a raw style with realistic descriptions, emphasizing the link between sexuality and death. He can be compared to writers of the American Beat generation and to Henry Miller.

13. Janwillem van de Wetering, Outsider in Amsterdam (Het lijk in de Haarlemmer Houttuinen, 1975)
Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008) was a Dutch author, businessman, and Zen adept. In 1958 he went to Japan to study Zen in Kyoto, an experience about which he wrote The Empty Mirror. In the 1960, while managing a textile company in Amsterdam, he served as member of the Amsterdam Special Constabulary. He also traveled widely, and from the 1980s on, lived in Maine in the U.S. The experience of being a policeman "in his spare time" lent authenticity to his most famous novels, the fifteen volume crime series about police detectives Grijpstra and De Gier, working in the Murder Brigade of the Amsterdam Municipal Police. De Gier is modeled on the author and is interested in Zen and jazz. These were the times that hippie culture reigned in Amsterdam, even among the police force - a very different situation from today's more grim climate.

[Amsterdam police detectives in action, 1971]

The "Grijpstra and De Gier" novels convince because of their authentic atmosphere of the Amsterdam of the non-conformist sixties. One of the novels, The Japanese Corpse, is situated in Japan. Outsider in Amsterdam was the first novel in the series, and was filmed in 1979. The novel's attractiveness is indeed in the atmosphere (including the nonsense conversation between both policemen) and not in the plot which is rather weak as detective novels go - but on the other hand, the lack of over the top violence or grotesque crimes makes this novel all the more realistic.

14. Maarten 't Hart, A Flight of Curlews (Een vlucht regenwulpen, 1978)
A strongly autobiographical novel about a protagonist who is also called Maarten, a shy (almost autistic) professor of cell biology at Leiden University, who has been scarred by his sternly Calvinist upbringing. The novel describes his youth as the only son of a horticulturist, living in the reed lands where he daily rows in his boat to go bird watching. He is a loner who loves being alone and views the world from a safe distance. His exceptional intelligence also makes his isolation at school deeper. The only person with whom he had some intimacy was his mother, but that tie was always threatened by his rude father. The novel describes the mother's death and the deep feeling of loss Maarten experiences. In a comical scene, two church elders who come on a home visit and who urge his dying mother to repent, are thrown out of the house by Maarten.

At school, Maarten falls in love with the beautiful Martha, but he is too shy to talk to her. He only watches (and stalks) her from a distance. The failure of this love undermines his belief in God. Years later, at a school reunion Maarten finally has a brief conversation with her, but by then she is already married. Shortly after this he meets Martha’s sister and has the courage to invite her to a concert, but becomes obsessed with the idea that he will die before they can meet again. In that same period, he has to make a lecture tour to Switzerland, where for the first time in his life he sees mountains (Holland is completely flat!) and also develops special feelings for a female colleague - but also that love leads to nothing, and even when Maarten in a fit of despair tries to bring a whore to his hotel room, he is refused by the woman. Finally he undertakes a climbing expedition in the mountains with his colleagues, and there almost falls to his death - a dramatic experience that sets him free so that he can accept his life. This is not a book to read when one is young - I think one needs some life experience to be able to empathize with Maarten and understand his behavior. Melancholy, tenderness and lyrical descriptions of nature are the novel’s main ingredients.

[Curlew in flight]

Maarten ‘t Hart (b. 1944) has published more than forty books since his debut in 1971. The author stands in the tradition of realistic literature of the 19th century and less interested in the structural subtleties of the modern novel. Much of his work contains autobiographical elements. Popular topics are coming to terms with Calvinism (’t Hart is a staunch atheist), classical music (especially Johann Sebastian Bach), unhappy love and nature (the author was trained as a biologist in zoology and ethology at the University of Leiden, where he also taught until he became a professional writer). His classic novel A Flight of Curlews (1978) sold over one million copies and was filmed in 1981 by Ate de Jong with Jeroen Krabbé. Maarten’t Hart is one of the most popular authors in the Netherlands. His books have been translated into many languages, including a. translated into German, English and Swedish.

15. Cees Nooteboom, Rituals (Rituelen, 1980)
Although in the first place known as a travel writer, Nooteboom has also created a fine novelistic oeuvre for which - strangely enough - he is more famous in Germany than in the Netherlands. The protagonist Inni Wintrop wanders the streets of the free "flower power" Amsterdam of the 1960s and 1970s, looking for meaning in the "wonderful, empty universe." He happens to encounter Arnold Taads and his estranged son Philip, who in a universe without god, are attempting to create their own meaning in life through rituals. We even have a Japanese tea ceremony here! Arnold Taads is rigidly tied to time, his son Philip in contrast tries to escape time through Zen-like rituals, and as regards Inni, "women had become his religion," but that also leads to complications: when his wife Zita leaves him for an Italian, he attempts suicide.

[Amsterdam is the setting of the first and last part of the novel]

"A parable about  the importance of learning to ride the unpredictable waves of life in a universe devoid of God," as the website of the Dutch Foundation for Literature calls this novel. Another great book by Cees Nooteboom is the novella The Following Story. (Detailed review on this blog)

16. J. Bernlef, Out of Mind (Hersenschimmen, 1984)
This novels gives a description of Alzheimer’s disease from the inside, as readers we sit inside a mind that becomes smaller and smaller. Dutchman Maarten Klein is living in retirement with his wife in Gloucester in Massachusetts. During one hopelessly long and cold winter, Maarten quickly loses his memory. Just as the snow falls outside and covers all traces, so the snow also falls on Maarten’s mind. Maarten starts as a logical I-narrator, who outlines his current existence and relives certain memories, but soon incidents start to happen: Maarten forgets things, confuses names, without noticing it himself, so that his wife Vera becomes worried. He suffers from an increasing disorientation in time and space, as a result of which he loses control over his world... (Detailed review)

[Good Harbor Beach, Gloucester, Massachusetts]

J. Bernlef (1937-2012, pseudonym of Hendrik Jan Marsman) was a poet, novelist, essayist and translator of Scandinavian poetry. His novel Out of Mind became a phenomenon. The book saw 50 printings between 1984 and 2010, and literary critics reacted very positively. Popularity and quality of the novel were related to the accurate and nuanced description of this case of dementia. A great feat, and a very moving book.

17. Leon de Winter, Hoffman's Hunger (Hoffman's honger, 1990)
Dutch diplomat Felix Hoffman, ambassador to Prague in 1989, is not a happy man.
- among his colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he is seen as an outsider and a failure;
- his marriage is falling apart (his beautiful wife is engaged in an endless study about the 17th c. poet Vondel)
- their twin daughters Esther and Miriam have died young, one from an illness, the other from a heroin overdose;
- as a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, he harbors traumatic memories (his parents have perished in a concentration camp).
His unhappiness leads to sleepless nights and a chronic hunger and (alcoholic) thirst, as he attempts to forget his misery with food binges. At the same time he is reading Spinoza, the 17th c. Dutch philosopher of Portuguese Sephardi origin, who was one of the early thinkers of the Enlightenment. Hoffman devours the philosopher's advice on supreme happiness with the same avidity he slurps fine wines, trying to find consolation in Spinoza's insistence on a completely ordered world where "necessity" reigns, and where Good and Evil have no absolute meaning. At the same time, his own life enters an increasingly rapid spiral of degradation and despair, especially when he starts a career-busting affair with a beautiful Czech journalist who in fact is a double agent of the tottering Czechoslovak Communist regime. This affair enmeshes him in a wider web of international intrigue, with as players Freddy Mancini, an American tourist who has an even greater food obsession than Hoffman and who is witness to a kidnapping in Prague, and John Marks, a CIA operative who interrogates Freddy, but who also used to be the lover of Hoffman's wife. The intrigue plays against the background of the last days of the Communist regime and start of the Velvet Revolution.


Leon de Winter (1954) was born in Den Bosch and grew up in a Jewish orthodox family. He studied film at the Netherlands Film Academy in Amsterdam, but left without a degree; in the early 1980s, he started writing. He first became known with subdued, intellectual novels like Zoeken naar Eileen W (Looking for Eileen W.) and La Place de la Bastille, but he later concentrated on more popular novels based on his most important themes: Jewish identity after WWII, and good and evil (Kaplan, SuperTex, etc.). One of his bestselling novels was the literary thriller Hoffman's Hunger. De Winter usually writes about someone in crisis, searching for his roots and being forced to make existential choices.

18. Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven (De ontdekking van de hemel, 1992)
Huge novel containing all the themes that are important in Mulisch oeuvre. As mankind has discovered DNA and therefore the secret of creation, God wants to end his covenant and have the tablets he once gave to Moses returned to him. Events on earth are manipulated by a couple of angels so that two men (an astronomer and extrovert erotomaniac, Max Delius, and a withdrawn linguist who later turns politician, Onno Quist) and a woman (Ada Brons, who is a cellist) meet and a child (Quinten) is conceived who is to become the person who will find the Tablets and return them to Heaven. This setup results in many bizarre and humorous complications.

[Lateran Palace in Rome, where one of the final scenes of the novel
(the discovery of the Tablets) is situated]

The novel paints an interesting picture of Holland in the 1960s and after, before turning into a sort of Foucault's Pendulum with Raiders of the Lost Ark mixed in. In the two main characters, who are each other's opposites, the reader can recognize Mulisch (Max) and his friend, the chess master, Jan Hein Donner (Onno); it is the first part of the novel dedicated to their story which is the most interesting. (Detailed review on this blog)

19. Hella Haasse, The Tea Lords (De heren van de thee, 1992)
When the trio of four great postwar authors is expanded to a quartet, it is usually Hella Haasse who is added to the team. Hella Haasse was of the same generation and also started writing in the years just after the war. Hella Haase was born in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and won fame with the novella The Black Lake (Oeroeg), which came out in 1947. It is a Bildungsroman about an anonymous narrator growing up on a plantation in the Dutch colony, who has a childhood friend of native descent; the story describes their inevitable estrangement as time goes by. Is friendship between a Dutch colonial and an Indonesian child possible and can they really understand each other? Besides colonial themes, Hella Haasse excelled in historical novels, such as In a Dark Wood Wandering, a novel of set during the Hundred Years War and focusing on the mad Charles VI, the brilliant Louis d'Orleans, Joan of Arc, Henry V, and, most importantly, Charles d'Orleans, a poet and scholar who suffered decades of captivity in England. Equally famous became The Scarlet City, set in 16th c. Italy and bringing to life the Borgias, Machiavelli and Michelangelo. But in my view her greatest achievement is The Tea Lords, a later novel in which she brings historical themes and the Dutch East Indies together. The story is based on family archives of the heirs and relations of the tea plantation owners featuring in the book, so there is a historical basis to it all. Protagonist is Rudolf Kerkhoven, scion of an established family of planters in Java, who after his studies in Holland, returns - young, idealistic, and ambitious - to the colony to be introduced into the mysteries of the tea trade.

[Tea fields on Java]

The core of the story is formed by Rudolf’s struggles to establish his own remote plantation in the jungle, so to speak hacking it out from the teeming undergrowth, in the damp uplands south of Bandung, and in his marriage to the resolute but troubled Jenny, daughter of another old-established Dutch dynasty in Java. The greatest strength of the novel is its atmosphere: a powerful sense of the overwhelming greenness of the Javanese countryside and the steaming jungle pervades the book. But empathy for plantation life does not mean that judgement on colonialism itself is suspended.

20. Tim Krabbé, Delay (Vertraging, 1994)
Jacques Bekker is on a return trip to the Netherlands from New Zealand when his plane is delayed during a stopover in Sydney. He takes advantage of the unexpected four-hour break by paying a lightning visit to his childhood friend (and first love) Monique Ilegems. He arrives on Monique's street just as a stylish woman is loading a suitcase into the back of a smart car. As we will learn later on, Monique has committed serious fraud (and is carrying a bag full of cash) and is about to disappear. She begs Jacques to help her escape from the police. At first he doesn't feel like it (and keeps looking at his watch as he has to return to the airport to catch his delayed plane - a tense situation I can really imagine, as I am always afraid of missing planes myself), but eventually gives in and forgets about his journey. Soon, Jacques and Monique will be deep in the Australian Outback, on a wicked journey, which also leads them back to their shared past, with fatal consequences. Monique appears more and more in her true form, as a great manipulator. This novel combines a Graham Greene-like travelogue with a haunting thriller. A perfect noir novel, which reminded me of the work of the French author Pascal Garnier.

[The Australian Outback]

Tim Krabbé (1943) was born into a cultured family in Amsterdam, where he studied psychology. He became a master chess player and is also a devotee of cycling. In 1967 he started working as a journalist and in the same year published his first literary work. Since then, he has written numerous novels, stories, poems, non-fiction books and journalistic works. His novels have been translated into more than 16 languages, and four of them have been made into films. The film 'Spoorloos', based on his exciting novel - and Krabbé's most popular book - Het gouden ei (1984), won the Golden Calf 1988 for the best Dutch film. The film was extremely popular in the United States and was remade in 1993 under the title 'The Vanishing' (the original Dutch film is better!). The present novel won an important thriller prize in the Netherlands in 1995.

21. Marcel Möring, In Babylon (1997)
This is a fantasy novel with a wide scope, like The Discovery of Heaven by Mulisch (see above). The ambitious book has both Gothic and thriller elements, and is at the same time the story of a family, of certain important historical events, and a variation on the theme of the "Wandering Jew."

Fairy-tale writer Nathan Hollander inherited a large house in the eastern part of the Netherlands from his uncle Herman - on the condition that within five years he would write a biography of his uncle. When the biography - which has become more like a family history - is ready, Nathan and his niece Nina, the only surviving relative, return for the first time in five years to this house where family reunions used to take place. On the way there, they are caught in a terrible snowstorm and with difficulty manage to get into the house, where they are immediately completely covered in snow. There is no central heating or electricity, therefore, while waiting for help, Nathan lights the fireplace in the library with his uncle's antique furniture, which is wedged together in a complicated way on the staircase to the upper floor. There are also various dangerous booby traps in the house. Luckily, there is no shortage of food, the cellar is stocked as if for a war. To have something to do, Nina listens to some fairy tales Nathan tells, and also reads the family history he has written. As we also hear these stories, the novel is a "frame novel."

The history begins in the 16th century with Chaim and his nephew Magnus who are Jewish clock makers living on the border of Lithuania and Poland. When Chaim is murdered in a pogrom, Magnus leaves and travels for years through Europe and the Ottoman Empire, finally ending up in Holland - and from then on calls himself "Hollander" in honor of his new home. The many centuries deceased Chaim and Magnus are both ghostly companions of Nathan - since his tenth year, they regularly appear to have conversations with him. He also meets them often in the snowed-in mansion.

The family history then skips to the 20th century, when Nathan's uncle Herman is an internationally renowned sociologist and his father Emanuel is an engineer. In the late 1930s the two brothers emigrate to the United States to escape the scourge of the Nazis. Nathan's father works on the Manhattan Project, making the first atomic bomb. Just after the war (when the family again returns to the Netherlands), Nathan's younger brother Zeno (the father of Nina) is born as a very gifted boy with messianic tendencies. He later becomes a sort of prophet and sect leader - before disappearing, an apparent suicide. 

The above only scratches the surface of this incredibly rich novel. Nathan is the family's memory - Nathan reveals to Nina that he uses Breugel's image of the Tower of Babel as a mnemonic device by in his imagination placing stories and memories on the different galleries. Besides the myth of the Wandering Jew (applied in a metaphoric sense to all mankind), the idea of entropy is important in the novel: the law of entropy means that a closed system gradually becomes more refined as it develops, but also more chaotic, leading to its downfall. In the novel, the universe is seen as a clock that uses energy while producing more and more time: the energy is stored in the product, time, and can't be extracted again to wind up the clock. So it is an irreversible process. Therefore the prophet Zeno wanted to stop the process of entropy by silence and thus prevent the end of the world.

The novel, which in between stories also develops the relationship between Nathan and Nina, has an open ending. It is a moving testimony to the continuing tension between the desire for assimilation and the awareness of separateness, as symbolized by the image of the "wandering Jew." The book concludes with the sentences: "I am a stowaway. I came alone, I am leaving alone."

[The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. ca. 1563]

Marcel Möring (1957) was born in Enschede in the Eastern Netherlands. His novel The Great Desire, published in 1992, won the most valuable Dutch literature prize and was an international success. In 1998 Möring was awarded the Gouden Uil for In Babylon. Möring lives as a freelance writer in Rotterdam.

22. Arthur Japin, In Lucia's Eyes (Een schitterend gebrek, 2003)
The story of Lucia, the greatest (fictional) prostitute of 18th century Amsterdam, and her mysterious link with the world’s greatest lover, Casanova. The Italian Lucia is one of the most sophisticated courtesans of Amsterdam, a mysterious woman who looks at the world through a veil, even shielding her countenance from the prying eyes of her lovers. She has good reason to do so: as is hinted at by the Dutch title, "A Splendid Defect:" in her youth, her face has been ravaged by the smallpox. She has met Casanova in her youth in Italy, when she refused him because of her illness. Now they meet again in Amsterdam, where Casanova sets the veiled woman a challenge: if she can find someone who has suffered after falling in love with him, she is entitled to resist his charms. If not, she has to bend to his wishes and accept him as her lover. This is a delicious novel, a clever historical fantasy full of suspense and humor, but also a book that gives a fictional voice to one of the women in the life of Casanova, by setting Lucia’s memoirs – in the form of the present book – against his. And Lucia finally does find happiness, although not with Casanova, and only after she has learned that to give love yourself is more important than to be only on the receiving end.


The writer Arthur Japin was born in Haarlem in 1956 and he studied Dutch literature and theater in Amsterdam and London. He spent many years acting on stage, screen, and television. His literary debut took place in 1996 with a collection of short stories, but his real breakthrough came the next year with his first novel, The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi. He spent ten years doing research in Africa and Indonesia before publishing this historical novel about two princes from Ghana who in the 19th c. were brought to the Netherlands to be educated. The novel has been translated into more than 13 languages and was also made into an opera. In Lucia’s Eyes was even more successful, and in 2004 it was rewarded the prestigious Dutch Libris Literary Prize.

23. Arnon Grunberg, Tirza (2006)
Arnon Grunberg belongs to the younger generation of Dutch writers. He wrote his first novel, Blue Mondays, in 1994. Two other novels, Phantom Pain and The Asylum Seeker, won the AKO Literature Prize (the Dutch Booker Prize). But his best novel is Tirza, about a father's obsessive love for his graduating daughter. This novel won another important literary prize and was also Grunberg's first novel to be made into a movie. As J.M. Coetzee has written, it is a novel filled with "wit and sardonic intelligence." It is the hilarious and tragic story of Jörgen Hofmeester, a man who had it all according to bourgeois norms: a beautiful wife, two intelligent daughters named Ibi and Tirza, a nice house with a garden in an upper-class neighborhood of Amsterdam, a respectable job as editor for a publishing house, and a large sum of money stashed away in a Swiss bank account earned by renting out part of the big house without informing the tax office.

[Film poster of Tirza (2010)]

But during the preparations for his beloved daughter Tirza's graduation party we come to know what Hofmeester has lost: his wife has left him (and now come back after three years to harass him), Ibi has broken off her university course to start a bed-and-breakfast in France, Hofmeester has been laid off at the publishing house and his Swiss savings have evaporated due to hedge fund speculation. So he has only Tirza left, the apple of his eye... but Tirza tells him she is leaving on a trip to Namibia with her new North-African boyfriend Choukri. Hofmeester is shattered when she disappears on that holiday, and travels to Africa to search for her, but the heat, his drinking and bad memories combine to unhinge him. Finally, in a surprising conclusion we discover the beast that had all the time dwelt within him. Grunberg is an even stronger nihilist than W.F. Hermans - again and again he shows us how thin the veneer of civilization is.

24. Herman Koch, The Dinner (Het diner, 2009)
A novel that reads like a thriller as the unreliable narrator only gradually unveils his secret. Set at a five-course dinner in a posh restaurant (deliciously satirized by Koch), the novel lays bare the violence hidden just under the surface of polite society. Two brothers - one a burned-out teacher, the other a successful politician - have dinner with their wives. The real purpose of the meeting is to discuss what should be done about their sons, who have murdered an elderly homeless person by setting fire to her, something which has been covered up so far (although caught on surveillance camera, their faces are not clear). The politician wants to come clean about the truth, even as that will be the end of his career, but the other couple wants to hide the secret by all means, to keep their so-called "happy family" intact, even if that means another murder. The book demonstrates the danger that the more people think in categories ("immigrants," "Jews," "blacks"), the easier it is to hate and destroy others.

[Poster of the Dutch film]

Herman Koch (1953) is a Dutch writer and actor. The Dinner became a huge bestseller and has been translated into 21 languages. It was filmed three times (in the Netherlands, Italy and the U.S.).