To their Downfall, Eyes Wide Shut

About the Novels of Thomas Rosenboom

The report by the panel of judges for one of the Netherlands’ literary prizes referred to Thomas Rosenboom as a ‘young writer’. An extraordinary description. It is certainly the case that the media have long had an appetite for ‘cool’ young writers. But Rosenboom was born in 1956. Leaving aside his actual age, the phrase ‘young writer’ cannot even be applied to Rosenboom in the sense of ‘new writer’. After all, his debut with the volume of stories The Folk at Home (De mensen thuis) was in 1983. Since then he has devoted his energies to a distinctly unfashionable variant of the historical novel. And his stylistic hallmark is a crazy kind of old gents’ language, as the following phrases from his latest novel Public Works (Publieke werken, 1999) demonstrate: ‘Anijs, now a corpulent man, had donned a dignity which had matured from an acquired status to an inner quality. His round face gleamed like a newel post that had grown greasy from the touch of many a hand.’

So there must have been another reason for describing Rosenboom as a young writer. With the appearance of his very first book, the Dutch weekly paper Vrij Nederland called him a virtuoso: ‘What next for a young writer who displays such clear virtuosic tendencies; satisfied with his own talent, without a trace of doubt? The three long stories which make up “The Folk at Home” are written with a disturbing facility, showing a Vestdijkian lust for storytelling, reflection and fabulation.’ The comparison with the Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk is a telling one because Rosenboom has been a wunderkind of Dutch literature from the outset. The eternal wunderkind. Nor was recognition slow in coming. The Folk at Home was awarded the Lucy B. and C.W. van der Hoogt Prize, a prestigious distinction for a debutant. In 1995 he was awarded the Libris Prize for Literature for Washed Flesh (Gewassen vlees, 1995), and Public Works received the Libris Prize in 2000. No mean feat, given the modest size of his oeuvre — his only other book is the novel Deserving Friend (Vriend van verdienste, 1985).

Yet one might well ask what the immense popularity of Rosenboom’s historical novels says about the state of Dutch literature. Taken together with the rise of autobiographical prose and the egodocument, does it suggest a regressive tendency? The answer is both yes and no. The question of whether Rosenboom does actually write historical novels is hotly debated, for instance. According to the Libris judges’ report, Public Works is too grotesque, not realistic enough for a historical novel. It sits between a historical evocation of town and country at the end of the nineteenth century, and a psychological analysis which frequently cuts to the quick of individuals whose self-created problems are their downfall.

The theme of evil

Rosenboom’s approach to the historical novel is quite unlike that of his Dutch colleagues. After all, the average historical novelist is a plodder who is so absorbed by his subject matter when preparing to write his creative prose — no publication is left unread — that he comes unstuck the moment he must make a selection from the pot-pourri of the past. He could always hurl the whole load of studies and reference books out of the window, but instead of doing so, he conscientiously sets about working all the facts and figures into his prose. With the result that not only does the background come between writer and reader, any larger picture of the subject also disappears under the copious documentation. After the death of the prolific S. Vestdijk in 1971 it seemed as though the genre of the historical novel in the Netherlands — with the odd exception such as Hella Haasse whose work has been much translated into English — had died with him. That is, until Thomas Rosenboom’s Washed Flesh appeared on the scene. It is not the historical information on the eighteenth century which stays in the mind after reading this book, but a powerful image of the troubled inner man who is the anti-hero. Over and above an interest in authentic detail, which Rosenboom does not shy away from, the historical novel demands a high level of sophistication in a writer who is to avoid falling into the trap of studiousness. After all, the readers of historical novels are not primarily looking for information, or they would have chosen history books. Or put another way, the scenery should not dominate the stage. Rosenboom’s work embodies the difference between a real historical novel and the old-fashioned biographical romance which is of little literary interest.

In Rosenboom’s books the past evokes the present, as in all successful historical novels. In S. Vestdijk’s The Latter Days of Pilate (De nadagen van Pilatus, 1938), for example, the historical character of Pontius Pilate reminds one of a weary British colonial official who, eager to return to his home country, is consequently completely uninterested in a trouble-maker like Jesus. Rosenboom’s aim is not to describe the century in which his story is set; he is focused on his characters. As he said in an interview: ‘My heroes must be absorbed to the fullest extent in their dramatic struggle.’ Which makes his books psychological novels. And what makes those novels so refreshingly contemporary in comparison with historical novels of the past, is their removal of the traditional division of the narrative universe into good and evil.

Rosenboom’s characters all have in common that, through their idiosyncratic reasoning, they achieve the opposite of what they are aiming at. They try to control events, but ultimately they are digging their own graves. They are, in the writer’s own words, absolutist, totalitarian figures. Characters who, from the best of motives, set their sights on rising above themselves, only to become the victims of the evils they have created.

The main theme running through Rosenboom’s oeuvre is evil. His first stories are exercises involving brooding, gloomy adolescents. The theme really comes into its own in the psychological thriller Deserving Friend. In this novel, based on a famous Dutch murder case from the nineteen-sixties, mutual blackmail ensures the characters keep a stranglehold on one another. The overall picture painted by the novel is of the final convulsions of class society in the Netherlands.

The opening of the masterly novel Washed Flesh is truly emblematic of Rosenboom’s themes. The lame boy Petrus sacrifices his cat to make an impression on other boys. The animal’s paws are dipped in tar so that walnut shells will stick to them, thus rendering its claws useless. Petrus then places the animal on the slippery ice where a fierce wind is blowing. ‘Thus was the  animal entrusted to the wind and the eternal ice, it began to slide on its shells and was still looking at Petrus when the wind turned it around. Only now did the tail thicken, the cat stiffened it like a flagpole which only increased its speed. (…) After a while he saw the animal walking again, but he knew: towards the slippery ice — as long as it had the strength, it would keep itself upright with the wind behind it. With one hand shading his eyes Petrus watched his cat. Nothing else was alive, only the dancing little red flame in the distance. For a moment it seemed to stand still, then it went out and all that was left was the mineral glassiness of the ice, gleaming brightly with an antimony sheen.’ I know few images which capture the human condition — what people do to themselves and others — so concentratedly as this scene which has its origins in a historical rural tradition of animal abuse.

A far-off past

In an interview Rosenboom revealed that he does not regard the historical novel as a contemporary story in historical clothing. What he finds so attractive about the genre is the distance from his own time. Losing yourself in a far-off past. That is why he set Washed Flesh in the eighteenth century and Public Works in the Amsterdam and rural Hoogeveen of the late nineteenth century. No-one will deny that every fibre of these books breathes the particular period of the past in which they are set. I suspect that what Rosenboom is referring to in this statement is the writer’s experience of creating such books, not the reading experience. Rosenboom researches a period until he knows everything there is to know about it. But that does not interfere with his creativity: for Washed Flesh he created an archaic-sounding ‘historicising’ language which comes across to the reader as perfectly fitting and natural. Public Works may be full of bucolic expressions and obscure phrases, but Rosenboom reveals himself to be a less pastoral and less constrained writer than previously.

However pleasant it may be for the writer to immerse himself in another time, the reader experiences Rosenboom’s historical novels as very much of his own time. One example: The young bailiff Willem Augustijn’s craving for sugar in Washed Flesh is very reminiscent of a more modern addiction to cocaine. Besides its plot and the stream of anecdotal events, Public Works is a psychological piece about the personal and social consequences of childlessness. The writer has spoken about this: ‘In my environment I distinguish between two sorts of people. People who have children and people who do not. The people who have children are in my eyes the true adults. They bear responsibility day in and day out. They do not pursue exclusively their own pleasure, do not only put themselves first (…) This is a reflection of how I feel. I myself have no children, and no job which binds me to society. This is why in recent years I have started to feel increasing repugnance towards my occupation.’

Pride and fall

If Public Works is about childlessness on the psychological level, at a thematic level it is a tale of manifold pride which comes before a fall. In this respect it is comparable to Washed Flesh which tells the story of the young eighteenth-century bailiff Willem Augustijn van Donck, who attempts to set up a sugar factory and a colony for the poor in the small town of Hulst. As the story unfolds, however, this patrician young man slides ever deeper into his delusions until a pistol shot puts an end to his life. In Public Works this eighteenth-century character has made way for two nineteenth-century gentlemen: Christof Anijs, a somewhat older apothecary who concerns himself with the peat cutters of Hoogeveen, and his cousin Walter Vedder, an Amsterdam violin-maker who, under the pseudonym of Veritas tracks the progress of the public works of Amsterdam, suddenly finding himself personally involved when a grand hotel is planned for the site where he lives. Rosenboom describes the ‘history’ of an architectural anomaly in Amsterdam. The front elevation of the nineteenth-century Victoria Hotel close to the Central Station contains two seventeenth-century facades. Fascinatingly, for some inexplicable reason the hotel was built around these little houses. Public Works portrays the circumstances which led to this, as imagined by Rosenboom, at a time when public works were shaping Amsterdam. Within a short space of time the Concertgebouw, the Rijksmuseum, the Amstel Hotel, American Hotel and the Central Station all came into being. It is against this backdrop that Rosenboom brings his characters’ tragic lives into existence.

Anijs, in his sixties, feels inferior to his new, young, university-educated colleague Halink. But he is determined to hold his own. With a devout belief in science and progress, he hands out medicines without a doctor’s prescription, clothes himself in a white doctor’s coat which he has stolen from the local doctor, and cures the poor peat-cutters in the area. Not only does he cut free the tongues of those suffering from speech impediments, he also gives a child and a dog highly unsuitable, strong tablets. He even performs a puncture with a circumcision knife on a woman in labour who is in difficulty. The baby is born dead. His intentions are good, but his megalomania huge. He even likens himself to Moses, when he succeeds in shipping the peat-cutters and their families as emigrants to the promised land of America. As a character, he is almost the twin brother of Monsieur Homais, the Voltaire-reading pharmacist in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Anijs’ Amsterdam cousin Walter Vedder is just as arrogant. Like Anijs he is self-made and unqualified, having worked his way up from joiner to violin-maker. He, too, thinks he is a man of the world, but at the same time feels unrecognised by his fellows. Which is why he doggedly sabotages the negotiations when the firm which wants to build the Victoria Hotel on the site where his seventeenth-century house stands alongside others, tries to discuss things with him. The representative of the enterprise makes a generous offer: twenty thousand guilders, whereas the actual value of the property is five thousand. Vedder, however, insists on fifty thousand, an impossible price, views his own lack of flexibility as ‘negotiation’ and the other party’s refusal as a ‘bluff’. The most tragic aspect is that he is also negotiating on behalf of his next-door neighbours, two simple old people who trust him implicitly, and who, like him, end up with nothing.

Rosenboom depicts the behaviour of the two cousins as ‘boyish’. They constantly misinterpret the signals from the world around them, and they suffer as a result of their childlessness due to infertility. ‘Ah, no children…! How often does it not happen that it is precisely those people with the largest hearts who are denied the blessing of children?’ Vedder even dreams of a family. When he finds himself in conversation with a widow and her small son, his thoughts take flight: ‘Everything had changed, so suddenly and so completely; he had changed too. The late sun on his face: so peaceful! The time: much later… The widow’s hand on his forearm: he felt so light, it was as though he was dancing, and as he did so along the path between the tethered horses which to him seemed like an avenue, he could feel not just the young mother on his arm, but also the child she was leading on her other arm. His progress was immense, manly, full of dignity, the people moved aside as a matter of course: he had become a family.’

The cousins, on the threshold of progress, meddle with affairs that are beyond them, great public concerns like big business and the struggle to overcome poverty and disease. They are shown to be unfit for such work, and yet they achieve great things through their boyishness. The poor emigrants arriving at their destination are eternally grateful to Anijs and Vedder. Vedder comes to a wretched end: the Victoria hotel is simply built around his house and that of his neighbours, he receives no money but has already given a guarantee to pay fifty thousand guilders for the peat-cutters’ crossing to America. He dies just in time. Anijs ends up in hospital, his wife deserts him, the medical disciplinary committee has forbidden him to practise as an apothecary, but at the end of the novel there is a prospect of happiness in love.

Rosenboom is the cruellest writer in the Dutch-speaking world. What he does to the cousins in his uncaring superior prose, the way he leaves them to go round in circles within their own limitations, the way he leads them eyes wide shut to their downfall, displaying their more than human humanity, is not so much malicious, it is frankly devilish.

By Jeroen Vullings
Translated by Jane Fenoulhet

First published in The Low Countries, 2001