From Writer at his Own Expense to Public Phenomenon

On the Work of J.J. Voskuil

It was front-page news on 26 May 1998. ‘J.J. Voskuil wins Libris Prize’ read the headline in the NRC Handelsblad, a much respected Dutch newspaper. The writer J.J. Voskuil had been named as winner of an important literary prize sponsored by a Dutch bookstore chain. A photo shows the author, accompanied by his wife, being congratulated.

This is a remarkable event. Not because the award had gone to Voskuil’s Plankton (1997), the third part of his 5,500-page cycle The Bureau (Het bureau) (its seventh and final part is to be published in 2000). The first two parts, Mr Beerta (Meneer Beerta) and Dirty Hands (Vuile handen), published within six months of each other in 1996, and part 4, The A.P. Beerta Institute (Het A.P. Beerta Instituut, 1998) had all been praised by the critics and even shortlisted for literary prizes. And part 5 (And Melancholy Too / En ook weemoedigheid), published in January 1999, was also well received. But because much public furore is difficult to reconcile with the nature of J.J. Voskuil’s writing, which is so inseparably bound up with his personality.

For a long time Johannes Jacobus Voskuil, born in The Hague in 1926, was known as the writer of a single book, and one that had attracted only a small circle of readers: the highly autobiographical novel On Closer Examination (Bij nader inzien, 1963). Its 1,200 pages relate the story of a group of students of Dutch language and literature at the University of Amsterdam. From September 1946 till May 1953, we follow them in their attempts to take a stance against a society that fills them with disgust and anxiety. The highest ideal they hold is to keep society at a distance and never pursue a career. One after another, however, they are ensnared by marriage or their profession. At the end of the novel Maarten Koning (Voskuil’s alter ego) is the only one left.

An attempt at self-explanation

The decline of this group of friends culminates in a break between Paul Dehoes and Maarten Koning. The former professes his non-conformism through a deluge of words and in so doing bases himself on the principles set out in the literary magazine Forum (1931-1935), which through its editors Menno ter Braak and E. du Perron propagated a form of uncompromising honesty and was highly sceptical of all forms of collectivism. Paul only borrows Forum’s jargon, however, as his actions increasingly entangle him in society. He is seen slipping towards a cosy middle-class lifestyle, encouraged by his girlfriend, who later becomes his fiancée and then his wife and who is expecting a child by the end of the novel. As his family name suggests (‘hoes’ = ‘cover’), Paul uses words to cover up what he is really like. We discover in retrospect that the real king (‘koning’ = ‘king’) of non-conformism is Maarten.

On Closer Examination develops in strict chronological order and seems to be told from a purely objective standpoint: all characters are described from a distance in the third person. Their unspoken thoughts are not related. The friends are often shown in the middle of a discussion or at a party in some student’s flat. Sometimes Voskuil shows a character preoccupied by ordinary everyday life in these passages. The reader sees that character’s personality with such clarity that he or she feels almost like a voyeur. The loneliness of the alienated Henriette, for example, is nowhere more excruciatingly depicted than in his bald description of her trip to the country on 30 December 1948: ‘You could barely make out the path. There were reeds growing in the water on one side. The wind was blowing through the willows on the other. It took a long time for her eyes to get so accustomed to the dark that she could see where the meadows began. She stumbled along the uneven path, stepping in the puddles. The wind was cold. She was shivering. Her coat flapped and slapped against her legs. She continued on mechanically. It started to rain again. She slipped in the mud and slid down off the path. A dog began to bark in a farmyard further up the lane.’

On Closer Examination’s behaviourist narrative style is only seemingly neutral. From the very beginning, Maarten’s protagonist, Paul, is presented to the reader as a poseur. He brags to his friends about his erotic adventures, but the reader knows better. He is so afraid of failing that he swallows two raw eggs in preparation before going to bed with a woman for the very first time.

In 1963 On Closer Examination was well received by the Dutch critics, but it also came in for criticism. People objected to the false sense of objectivity Voskuil had instilled in the novel; nor were his detailed descriptions in keeping with popular taste.

The author himself refused to comment. He gave no interview, nor did he release any new work for publication. It was later discovered that he had written a sequel to On Closer Examination, titled Under the Skin (Binnen de huid), but hadn’t dared publish it. As a result of this, and also because of the book’s size and its relatively high price, Voskuil’s first attempt was a financial disaster. The book had to be sold off at less than cost price.

Nevertheless, On Closer Examination remained popular among a small circle of readers, this popularity growing along with increased popular interest in the years immediately following the Second World War. It was reprinted in 1985 — this time accompanied by interviews with the author in which he explains the essence of his novel. He characterised On Closer Examination as ‘an attempt at self-explanation’ which he had undertaken at a time when the illusions of his student days had become untenable. According to him the book expresses the idea that friendship is of no consequence. He wished to express this to his friends in a sort of parting letter.

The reprint sold better than the first edition, partly because of the 6-part TV series based on the novel by the director Frans Weisz which was shown in 1990.

Threatened

If On Closer Examination deals with Maarten Koning’s life between 1946 and 1953, The Bureau deals with the period 1957 to 1987, when he is working at the scholarly institute mentioned in the title, which conducts research on dialectology, folklore and onomastics. In order to secure a livelihood, Maarten only aims for a low ranking position but soon finds himself appointed the busy head of the Folklore Department. The institute grows at an enormous rate, as a result of which Maarten finds himself in charge of staff and has to make public appearances, delivering lectures and writing papers on such diverse items of Dutch folk culture as the flail and the wedding ring. He does not manage too badly, his self confidence strengthened by repeated approval, but it demands so much of his energy that it gives him headaches and stomach pains. He is lacking in the social graces and consequently finds it hard to combat the somewhat blunt manner of the Bureau’s director, Balk. Maarten feels ‘threatened’ by the slightest thing; this word appears with striking regularity in the cycle of novels. In the books that have appeared till now, we find him having to make more and more concessions regarding the principles he had set himself as a student. This leads to violent confrontations with his wife Nicolien, who serves as his angry conscience.

In The Bureau, Voskuil gives an account of his thirty years at the P.J. Meertens Institute (the real name of the Bureau) in Amsterdam. Again, what drives him to write is the loss of illusions, in this case the illusion that he had been part of a department that held solidarity in high esteem. After his retirement he was forced to re-examine this view — the result being his gigantic manuscript: The Bureau. After some hesitation, the publisher decided to include it among his titles, a decision he can look back on with pleasure since the volumes published so far have already sold tens of thousands of copies.

The issues in The Bureau are again of a moral order, as immediately becomes apparent from the beginning in Part 1, Mr Beerta. According to Maarten Koning, an individual should lead an authentic life with a minimum amount of pretence, a life where there is only room for a few trustworthy people. He measures people according to these standards, as he does with Mr Beerta, his boss during the first few years of his job. Initially, Maarten has a good opinion of Mr Beerta. He considers him as someone who, like himself, believes in nothing. But he soon loses credit. Beerta turns out to be dishonest and cowardly; he abuses his position and finally, following a visit to the DDR, reveals himself to be a political nincompoop.

Like Paul Dehoes in On Closer Examination, Beerta becomes a caricature with whom Maarten contrasts favourably, partly because of the slanted narrative in The Bureau. For we really only get to follow Maarten’s comings and goings, and now we are also treated to an insight into his thoughts and feelings. The result is that it is he who engages the reader’s sympathies, even when he does not respect his own principles and behaves badly. The reader can only judge Mr Beerta and the other characters and their often unpleasant deeds through Maarten’s eyes, their inner lives remaining hidden at all times.

And Maarten continues to add more water to his wine as far as his principles are concerned. To his wife, Nicolien, who accepts no responsibility whatsoever and continually confronts him with his principles, he replies: ‘The only thing that remains of your principles is that you do the things but with aversion’. This quote is from Part 2, which bears the highly significant title of Dirty Hands. These are the words of someone who has given up.

And yet, Maarten Koning is not a weak character. He commands the respect of his colleagues and does not allow himself to be pushed around, as is shown by the detailed description in Plankton of the problems involved in the periodical Ons Tijdschrift. This periodical for folk culture is a Flemish-Dutch initiative, but the influential professor Pieters, municipal secretary of the city of Antwerp, considers it as his own personal property, and often breaks agreements made with the Dutch members of the editorial board. This leads to a split, as actually happened in real life.

The conflict derives in part from differences between Flanders and the Netherlands. There are disagreements as to which direction the magazine should take. Pieters wishes to reach as broad a readership as possible with a regionalist publication that has links with various folkways museums and associations. The Dutch members of the editorial board, led by Maarten Koning, strive to maintain a high level of academic precision and reject all forms of regionalism.

This difference in policy is probably closely related to differences between Flanders and the Netherlands. Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, has been oppressed for centuries. This being so, it is understandable that they see the need to spread their own culture rather than provide the critical analysis of it that Maarten argues for; it is no coincidence that he represents a region that has been independent for centuries.

Voskuil makes no attempt to deny the autobiographical background of his novel. On the contrary, in his interviews he shows how little esteem he has for fiction — an attitude he reinforces by changing with ease to the first person singular when referring to Maarten Koning. Critics have also pointed to and clarified the reality behind The Bureau. Some articles go into great detail, revealing which people served as models for Voskuil’s characters. These people were then interviewed about their views on his account of things.

Fiction Beats Reality

The success of The Bureau has been strengthened by a cultural climate in which there is a great interest in biographical writing. Over the last ten years a number of biographies of prominent Dutch people have appeared, in a country that has had no real tradition in this field. The attention paid in the mass media to literature is also strongly biographical in tone. Like a soap opera, The Bureau offers its readers the opportunity to follow the lives of its characters over a number of years and has the extra attraction of being true to life.

This notion of true-to-lifeness is strengthened by Voskuil’s style. With almost obsessive precision, he gives us detailed descriptions of the comings and goings of his characters and in so doing never shies away from repetition. We are therefore given repeated descriptions of how Maarten Koning begins his working day: ‘He went back to close the door, he opened the window, hung up his coat and put the plastic bag in the bookcase … He removed the cover from the machine, moved his chair sideways, took the top letter from the pile that had to be answered and placed it beside him.’ The syntax is regular and the words sober: his use of adjectives is strictly functional and metaphors – absent in the above quotation – are few and far between. Voskuil excels in rendering dialogue, such as Maarten’s tedious discussions with his colleagues or the arguments with his wife.

This interest in reality found in The Bureau has led to some remarkable scenes. When the P.J. Meertens Institute planned to leave its beautiful premises beside a canal in Amsterdam, people were offered the opportunity to visit the place where The Bureau had happened. Crowds stormed the building. And scenes from The Bureau were played in the original setting in order to make this autobiographical fiction even more true to life.

And that was not all. In the summer of 1997, news reached the papers of a conflict at the P.J. Meertens Institute, the problem being one of reorganisation. That reality and fiction had become further intertwined was proven by the fact that one of the parties to the dispute had borrowed his arguments from Voskuil’s novel.

Nor did the writer himself remain aloof. During the same period Dutch farmers were suffering losses due to swine fever, which provoked a public debate on agribusiness in which Voskuil became heavily involved. Totally in keeping with Maarten Koning, who has always been concerned about the welfare of animals, he used his fame to launch a campaign designed to improve the living conditions of pigs which he called Pigs in Danger (Varkens in nood). During the celebration at which the Libris Prize is presented, he took the opportunity to address a politician present on the needs of Dutch pigs. He donated a part of the prize money to his campaign.

So J.J. Voskuil, a writer at his own expense with a small circle of readers, has grown to become a writer read by tens of thousands and even a public phenomenon. Perhaps he has found the social acceptance for which Maarten Koning has searched in vain.

By G.F.H. Raat
Translated by Peter Flynn

First published in The Low Countries, 1999