In Search of Utopia

On the Trail of the Most Influential Book Ever Published in the Low Countries It was raining as I turned into Eiermarkt. I was looking for a house called De Biecorf, the Beehive, where Pieter Gillis lived in the early sixteenth century. But the street didn’t look too promising, with a big car park on…

Olla Vogala (hinase) (All Birds (save))

A Canon of Dutch Literature I would like to discuss the Dutch literary canon, and already see storm clouds on the horizon. How do you dare to give a ranking to books, to raise the personal preferences of a few self proclaimed experts to the level of absolute truth, and to solidify living literature into…

Flemish Master of the Small Canvas

In Praise of Willem Elsschot Willem Elsschot’s (1882-1960) eleven novellas, with their irony, sardonic humour and stylistic sophistication, are as vibrant today as when they were written. Five works have so far been translated into English. In 1963 the great trio of stories, Soft Soap, The Leg and Will ‘o the Wisp appeared in one…

Love in the Lost Republic of Amsterdam

In Praise of Doeschka Meijsing The cultural officer (or ambassador, if you will) that I was for many years, and the reader and translator I still am – and hope to remain for some years to come – are struggling with each other to decide which as yet untranslated book, which as yet untranslated author(s)…

New Roads to Paradise

In Praise of Hans Boland In search of the most beautiful untranslated book from Dutch literature I am re-reading the novel De zachte held (The Tender Hero) by my colleague-translator Hans Boland, published in 2014, favourably reviewed in the newspapers, but subsequently relegated to the background until Boland was heard from again in early 2015…

Farewell to the Serial

About Comic Strips and Graphic Novels Comic strips first appeared in Dutch-language newspapers and magazines in the run-up to the Second World War, although these were still chiefly (with a few notable exceptions) American imports. Editorial boards found that translations of Mickey Mouse or Flash Gordon were considerably cheaper than new, commissioned works. Only when…

A Gaze Trained on the Horizon

Children’s Books in the Low Countries A country by the sea is boundless, or perhaps it would be better to say, it seems boundless. The open water with the distant, intangible horizon urges exploration and adventure, but close by the undulating power of the salt sea and the constant wind cause continual commotion. Inevitably this…

Prometheus Unbound

Essays as an Orphic Counterforce The Dutch – or rather Hollanders, Frisians and Zeelanders – are coastal dwellers, and traditionally their eyes were focused more on the sea than on dry land. As long ago as the early and high Middle Ages, long before the rise of the Hanseatic towns in the East of the…

Dutch and Flemish Prose of the Early Twenty-First Century

When the twin towers came crashing down on 11 September 2001, so did the post-modern belief in the end of the ‘grand narratives’, which had all but dominated Dutch and Flemish literature in the 1990s. Or so it seemed. The era-changing event certainly brought about a new sense of historical awareness, provoking novels that grappled…

How Free Is Dutch-Language Poetry?

The word is free. Like Gezelle’s swift it soars through the immeasurable space of the mind, lifted up or blown along by cool or sultry winds from distant parts, by ‘Luft von anderem Planeten’, as Stefan George has it. Nothing and no one can thwart its vitality and urge to freedom, however much social institutions,…

Tres Fratres Belgae

Brothers, Poets and Civil Servants in the Sixteenth Century This article is based on an extensive study of the works and lives of Janus Secundus (1511-1536), Adrianus Marius (1509-1568) and Nicolaus Grudius (1504-1470), three brothers who became famous as the ‘triga’, the ‘team of three’ poet-brothers.1 For once, I have decided not to stress the…

DUTCH SINGLE-PRICE COMPANY AMSTERDAM

As truly Dutch as pea soup with diced bacon. One nation all, though school children are at their texting, foursomes at the chat. And down my neck pink Fristi some child’s shaken. The oldies here consume their daily ration of mishmash, kale and sausage, on their plate a paper serviette to keep things straight. And…

Three Poems by Annie M.G. Schmidt

The Fairy-Tale Man I know a fairy-tale writer, a man who starts work each morning as soon as he can. From a quarter past six until two o’clock he’s writing tales about witches, hobgoblins and fairies. From a quarter past two till about six he writes about dashing princes, princesses and knights. Then he sleeps…

‘I LIKE Being Naughty!’

The Work of Annie M.G. Schmidt The writer Annie M.G. Schmidt (1911-) is often affectionately called the Grandmother of the Netherlands; or, if it doesn’t sound too solemn, the Mother of the Fatherland. She owes this title to a combination of talents which it would be hard to find anywhere else. Children’s literature has Astrid…

World Champions

Hockey’s a game in which sticks are used and everyone watching is bored and bemused – that fact is, I think, abundantly clear, although it’s hard to accept the idea. We don’t want to know, because it’s a sport that not only has games that are far too short, but has fans that are now…

A Tender, Bitter Mother’s Breast

It was 1992 when I first set foot in the Netherlands. No, of course I didn’t travel by ship like my ancestors, those two Scheepers brothers from Gelderland who left for South Africa in 1701 from the Dutch town of Enkhuizen. No, I came by train from Frankfurt and first stepped onto Dutch soil at…

On Passing the new Menin Gate

Who will remember, passing through this Gate, The unheroic Dead who fed the guns? Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,— Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones? Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own. Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp; Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone, The armies who endured that sullen…

Utrecht revisited

This canal is narrower than I thought and deeper. Ducks are standing on the ice. The winter was severe, a late spring ought to be expected. Trees are drab and bare and fallen leaves still cover yellow grass. Yet on the dark-gray ramparts where we go, after those many years of life abroad, we see…

The New Fish

Already when the specimen was being served adjoining tables stopped the digging of further trenches in the chestnut purée, the spading of curled-up lettuce leaves stagnates, wines linger in lifted glasses: this fish is not the usual feast of the deep. A revelation, hauled it would seem from primordial waters. Though head and tail-fin gone,…

The End of the Nineteenth Century in 1914

On Gas Attacks, Poetry, Cruelty and Increased Mobility in WWI Belgium ‘The attack of last Thursday evening was preceded by the rising of a cloud of vapor, greenish gray and iridescent.’ This is how Will Irwin, correspondent for the New York Tribune, described the German offensive at Ypres on 22 April 1915. It was a…

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In…