In Search of Self

New Prose Writing in Dutch after 1985

Revisor Prose

The wave of innovation which gave rise to the ‘new’ prose of the 1980s first made its appearance in the Netherlands with the publication in 1974 of the literary journal De revisor. The generation of young writers which it brought to the fore — Dirk Ayelt Kooiman, Frans Kellendonk, Nicolaas Matsier, Doeschka Meijsing and Patrizio Canaponi (A.F.Th. van der Heijden) — rapidly entered the literary canon as a group, thanks to the anthology of their work compiled by Carel Peeters (Heart in HeadHet hart in het hoofd, 1979), and to the attention they received in subsequent essays of his (collected in Sustainable IllusionsHoudbare illusies, 1984).

Form is paramount in Revisor prose: it excels in careful construction, in writing-as-craft. ‘Pure’ realism, a straightforward storyline (Jan Cremer), anecdotal and atmospheric writing (M. Biesheuvel, Maarten ‘t Hart), and direct political and social commitment (Harry Mulisch, News for the Rat KingBericht aan de rattenkoning, 1966), all so characteristic of prose in the sixties and early seventies, have disappeared from the new writers’ field of vision. The euphoric sixties were followed by an economic crisis which brought unemployment. As a result, a new inward-looking view of society emerged. From this point, the self and the individual imagination are central again; the new ego-age has begun.

In a typical Revisor story, the representation of reality is, in true postmodern fashion, questioned and the subjectivist (‘Idealist’ in philosophical terms) position of the individual consciousness gives rise to a problematic relationship between literature and reality. The statement that ‘the world is an idea in the minds of individuals’ applies to the work of Frans Kellendonk, Doeschka Meijsing, Nicolaas Matsier and Dirk Ayelt Kooiman as well as to that of Leon de Winter and, later on, of Oek de Jong. With his Billowing Summer Dresses (Opwaaiende zomerjurken, 1979), De Jong produced not only the book with which a younger generation of readers could identify, but also the epic of idealism and the ego-age, which marked the renewal of interest in the novel of ideas. The 1970s did indeed witness the return of intellectuality and erudition to Dutch literature. And it was this ‘intellectual’ and ‘erudite’ kind of novel which continued to dominate the literary scene in the 1980s, culminating in 1986 in The Body Mystic (Mystiek lichaam) by Frans Kellendonk, whose work can be seen to have had a leading role in shaping the literary sensitivities of his generation.

In The Body Mystic, Kellendonk is first and foremost a critic of his own time and culture. The book caused something of a stir when the critics, condemning the antisemitic pronouncements of one of the characters, attributed them to the author himself. The novel opens in realist mode, constructed around a ‘normal’ family, but there is no obvious main character, and situations and statements – from the Easter story, the Song of Songs, and other biblical texts – are frequently mirrored and reversed. An ultra-conservative, aging father is confronted with the fact that his daughter is ‘with child’ by a Jewish doctor and his homosexual son infected with AIDS. This situation leads to provocative statements about sexuality and religion, and about human social and cultural relations in general. The novel can be read as a satire on the ‘postmodern condition’, but taken as a whole, it is formulated so ambiguously and ironically that a single interpretation is not really possible.

A breakthrough in Flanders

The same development took place in Flanders, though somewhat later. After the euphoria of the 1960s with its belief in social change and involvement came disillusionment, self-reliance, the search for identity and an obsessive preoccupation with the nature of individual perception and the way it influences our knowledge of the world. This in essence neo-romantic tendency (which was also present in poetry) was, however, slow to appear in the South: the real breakthrough did not happen until the 1980s.

Around 1985 a remarkable double shift took place in Flemish literature. Monika van Paemel (see The Low Countries 1994-95: 131-138), known until then for several slim, fairly intimate neo-romantic novels, published her ‘masterpiece’ The Accursed Fathers (De vermaledijde vaders), a broad-brush epic which ensured her breakthrough in the Netherlands. At about the same time, in 1986 to be precise, the anthology Beautiful Young Gods (Mooie jonge goden) appeared, bearing the self-conscious subtitle ‘Flemish Literary Talent’ (the subtext is not ironic). The book made it into the media spotlight, and although its contents were not representative of a group or generation, it had the advantage of focussing attention on a number of talented young writers like Tom Lanoye and Herman Brusselmans, as well as Stefan Hertmans and Guido van Heulendonk. Beautiful Young Gods was the precursor of what was soon to be known as the new wave of Flemish prose. It was quickly followed by a number of strong literary debuts which were not, however, presented to the public as forming a group: Kristien Hemmerechts (see The Low Countries 1995-96: 208-216), Rita Demeester, Patricia de Martelaere, Gie Bogaert, Eric de Kuyper. In fact, they were presented together as a group (without Gie Bogaert) retrospectively in the photographic exhibition New Names. Twenty-one Newcomers in Flemish Literature 1980-1990 (Nieuwe namen. Over 21 nieuwkomers in de Vlaamse literatuur periode 1980-1990. With a catalogue by Paul Buekenhout bearing the same title, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1991), which actually highlighted the great differences between the ‘twenty-one newcomers’.

Meanwhile, these authors have given new impetus to Flemish prose, and they have also taken steps to ensure that their books have received the critical attention due to them in the Netherlands. The fact that a number of them have found a home with publishing houses in the Netherlands may have created a favourable situation, though this is not to suggest a causal link. After all, it is not clear whether the quality of Flemish prose is improved by being published in the Netherlands or whether young writers from the South were attracted to and/or accepted by Dutch publishers because they were indeed producing better work. Be that as it may, the publishing house issue was apparently an important one in the eighties. It was in 1986 that Julien Weverbergh, a director of the Flemish publishing house Manteau, was removed by the board of Elsevier (up to this point, Manteau had had a virtual monopoly of literary publishing in Flanders) and started up a new publishing company (Houtekiet). This led not only to a great deal of movement of authors between the competing publishers, but also to a search for new writers which clearly bore fruit. But let us return to 1985 for a moment. The Accursed Fathers is the book in which Monika van Paemel found her own style, form and themes. But in the context of Flemish literature, the novel acquired a special bridging function. Both in form and substance, it occupies a position midway between the introverted, neo-romantic confessional prose of the previous ‘quiet’ generation on the one hand, and the sarcasm, bitterness and hard cynicism of the younger representatives of the ‘no-future’ generation on the other. Another striking feature is that, with Hugo Claus’ The Sorrow of Belgium (Het verdriet van Belgie), which appeared two years previously, The Accursed Fathers represents the Flemish variant of the ‘roots’ phenomenon which originated in the United States. In both cases, the authors go in search of their own past and background. This personal search is embedded in a larger world of social and political history. Such a combination of autobiographical and historical writing had been used earlier by Walter van den Broeck (in Notes of a GenealogistAantekeningen van een stambewaarder, 1977) and is also evident in Disorder and misunderstanding (Ontregeling en misverstand, 1983) by Greta Seghers and in View of the World (Het uitzicht van de wereld, 1984) by Alstein.

The gap between North and South was now bridged. All these novels are characterised by a narrative mode which is closely related to the ‘crafted’ Revisor-prose. They are novels which make liberal use of the arsenal of postmodern devices: careful construction, doubling or multiplying of temporal layers and perspectives, multiple mirror effects, the incorporation of internal cross-references and literary quotations. Perhaps even more remarkable is that this form of realism is also characteristic of the autobiographical documentary novel as realised by A.F.Th. van der Heijden (see The Low Countries 1993-94: 239-247) in his large-scale tetralogy Toothless Time (De tandeloze tijd) – a fictionalised self-portrait which, at the same time, chronicles a particular era. The first part of the cycle, Parents Falling (Vallende ouders), appeared in 1984; in 1996, the third part, consisting of two fat volumes, appeared and was immediately hailed as a literary monument.

The ‘new’ prose

The writers of ‘new’ prose in Dutch – the generation which made its debut in the 1980s – represent the many tendencies which had always been present on the literary scene without it being possible to single out any one of them as dominant or in the vanguard. Neither in the North nor in the South were there any groupings or magazines with clearly defined manifestos around which authors could come together. Where was the collective experience to draw them together or the collective idea for them to rail against? The new writers of the eighties had only themselves to look to in their search for and exploration of their identity and the world they lived in.

The growing diversity in North and South has also brought with it a broadening of themes. Beside the classic preoccupation of prose in Dutch – i.e. the description of the individual’s world of experience – larger social problems and movements now come into focus: A.F.Th. van der Heijden and Joost Zwagerman write with their fingers on the pulse of time; Tom Lanoye, Herman Brusselmans and Kristien Hemmerechts, each with their own sharply differing personalities, express the wry sarcastic mood of their contemporaries. Even in the work of the newest writers, like Ronald Giphart, Arnon Grunberg and Paul Mennes, this cynical doom-laden fin de siecle thinking comes emphatically to the fore. There has even been talk of a ‘nix generatie’ (a pun on Douglas Coupland’s Generation X) which, in its own way, provides a picture of contemporary realities.

In his autobiographical first novel Blue Mondays (Blauwe maandagen, 1994), Arnon Grunberg gives a laconically narrated caricature of Jewish life. The family he portrays is marked by wartime trauma and a disastrous marriage, but the grotesque comedy which develops as the story unfolds also gains a wider dimension: it is ultimately a cynical, bitter and wryly drawn comedic humaine in tragic slapstick guise.

Alongside uncomplicated, small-scale realism we increasingly find writers looking beyond the confines of the self and problematising the relationship between reality and imagination. And these problems were already present in the prose of the many women writers who made their debut in the eighties. Marja Brouwers, Vonne van der Meer, Fleur Bourgonje, Margriet de Moor, Hermine de Graaf, Tessa de Loo, Nelly Heykamp, and, later, Charlotte Mutsaers – greeted by the (male) critics in the Netherlands with ‘The new girls are on the march!’ – do not so much write a typically female kind of prose, but develop within a broad range of themes to which they, not surprisingly, add a ‘feminine’ sensitivity.

In this context, it is revealing to compare the two women writers who are most prominent in Flanders. There would seem to be a world of difference between the cynically observant realism of Kristien Hemmerechts and Patricia de Martelaere’s hard portrayal of reality with its philosophical basis, but their central concern is the same: problematic relationships, the individual’s vulnerability in an environment which offers no certainties.

It is also worth noting here that Patricia de Martelaere, with the emphatic philosophical interests which underpin her work, is representative of a tendency which had already come to the fore in the work of Revisor authors like Frans Kellendonk, Nicolaas Matsier and Doeschka Meijsing, and which was still noticeably present, if not prominent, in the work of writers making their debut at the end of the 1980s. Margriet de Moor (see The Low Countries 1995-96: 217-24) whose debut was in 1988, but who first attracted attention with First Grey, Then White, Then Blue (Eerst grijs dan wit dan blauw, 1991), which has already been translated into several languages, has much in common with the Revisor writers with her carefully thought-out prose (the sudden changes in perspective, for example) and thematising of the unknowability of reality.

The Revisor generation’s novel of ideas could even be said to have grown into a philosophical novel when one considers Mendel’s Legacy (Mendels erfenis, 1990) and The Great Longing (Het grote verlangen, 1992) by Marcel Möring (see The Low Countries 1994-95: 296-297), or The Laws (De wetten, 1991) and Friendship (De vriendschap, 1995) by Connie Palmen. They are, without exception, novels which ‘are about something’, as Carel Peeters put it, and which have played a not inconsiderable part in changing the literary climate in the Netherlands, although there have been attempts to slate novels with a philosophical flavour as ‘deadly boring’. But this kind of carping seems to be part and parcel of a change in climate.

If one tries to look at literature in Dutch in the last twenty years from a wider perspective and with a degree of detachment, it appears possible to discern, in the great diversity of form and theme, a common feature which literature in Dutch shares with literature elsewhere in Europe. For, after the experiment with the nouveau roman which coincided largely with the wave of protest movements (the new novel’s formal innovation can be seen as a manifestation of the desire to undermine rigid fixed norms and forms), there was a return not only to ‘ordinary’ narration but also, strikingly, to autobiographical writing. What is quite remarkable is that Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, the main practitioners of the nouveau roman, have in the meantime published their own autobiographical novels.

Viewed in this context, the ego-age which began in the Netherlands in the 1970s and which produced a novel with wider horizons in the eighties, does not look like an odd or excessive development. On the contrary. Interestingly, this autobiographical writing seemed at first to be concentrated around Southern authors whose work is, to a greater extent than that of writers north of the border, still shaped by a tradition influenced by the proximity to France and French literature.

In the idiosyncratic prose of Pol Hoste, which deserves to be better known, covert autobiography and social satire go hand in hand. Leo Pleysier (see The Low Countries 1996-97: 141-151), Eriek Verpaele and Eric de Kuyper, on the other hand, use a form of fragmented poetic autobiographical prose which seems only to have an equivalent in Jeroen Brouwers (see The Low Countries 1996-97: 97-109) in the Netherlands. Eric de Kuyper, author of a series of memoir novels initiated in 1989 with Aunt Jeannot’s Hat (De hoed van Tante Jeannot) can be considered representative of this ‘new’ autobiographical writing. Delving into his own past gives him the opportunity for an evocative account of his social, cultural and family backgrounds. The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which will eventually form the self-portrait are rearranged to give a wide kaleidoscopic picture of a time and of the cities where he lived. The confirmation that autobiographical writing in all its forms has developed into a genre in its own right was given by Stefan Hertmans, who in To Merelbeke (Naar Merelbeke, 1994) has not only described his youth with amused self-irony, but at the same time takes an ironic look at the genre itself by working numerous improbable or fantastic elements into the story.

In the Netherlands, too, the tradition of autobiographical writing has received new impetus, for example from the work of Adriaan van Dis. In the prize-winning memoir novel My Father’s War (Indische duinen, 1994) the author goes in search of his roots in the former Dutch East Indies through fragmented and varied images of the past. This is more than a coincidence: when we consider how Van der Heijden takes his own autobiography as a starting-point for creating a general portrait of the period, and even considering all the differences in style and ideas between the two authors, we can safely say that what we are witnessing here is the revival of a tradition in the literature of the Low Countries.

By Anne Marie Musschoot
Translated by Jane Fenoulhet

First published in The Low Countries, 1997

List of Translations

ADRIAAN VAN DIS. My Father’s War (Tr. Claire Nicholas White). New York, 1996.
ARNON GRUNBERG. Blue Mondays (Tr. Arnold & Erica Pomerans). New York, 1997.
DIRK AYELT KOOIMAN. A Lamb to the Slaughter (Tr. Adrienne Dixon). New York, 1986.
MARGRIET DE MOOR. First Grey, Then White, Then Blue (Tr. Paul Vincent). London, 1994.
The Virtuoso (Tr. Ina Rilke). London, 1996.
MARCEL MÖRING. The Great Longing (Tr. Stacey Knecht). London, 1995.
CONNIE PALMEN. The Laws (Tr. Richard Huijing). New York, 1993.
LEON DE WINTER. La Place de la Bastille (Tr. Scott Rollins). Haarlem, 1993.
Hoffman’s Hunger (Tr. Arnold & Erica Pomerans). London, 1995.
‘New Flemish Fiction’ (guest editors: Hugo Bousset and Theo Hermans), The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. IV, no. 2 (Summer 1994). pp. 7-185. Normal (IL).