Postmodernism in the Literature of the Low Countries

The Dutch language area, like the rest of Europe, did not see the term postmodernism come into use until the early 1980s. The interest generated by this new ‘concept of criticism’ soon gave rise to a welter of publications, all more or less inspired by Jean-Francois Lyotard’s philosophical essay, The Postmodern Condition (La condition postmoderne, 1979). The term itself may be relatively new, but the phenomenon it denotes is not: ‘postmodern literature’ is used retrospectively to include all the new writing – mainly prose – which emerged after the Second World War.

In the United States the term was already current in the 1960s, alongside others such as ‘the new fiction’ and ‘sur-fiction’. But in Europe there were originally a variety of other definitions of the ‘new’ post-war prose. Umberto Eco, for example, introduced the term ‘open’ for literary works which are somehow in motion, producing a famous example himself in The Name of the Rose. Roland Barthes, like Eco no stranger to semiotics, worked with the concepts ‘writerly text’ and ‘plural text’, which he contrasted with the ‘traditional’ ‘readerly text’. The open, plural or polyinterpretable text actively involves its readers so that they interpret creatively – they write – whereas the traditional text merely requires uncomplicated, passive consumption.

It is remarkable that the study of literature in the Low Countries also employed similar concepts to distinguish the new postwar literature from the traditional prewar literature. The innovative poetry of the 1950s was called ‘experimental’ poetry. Descriptions like ‘experimental’, ‘innovative’ and ‘breaking new ground’ were applied to the prose which developed in parallel with this new poetry. Other terms such as ‘meta-literature’, ‘neo-avant-garde’ are also found, together with the term ‘other prose’ (the title of an anthology compiled in 1978 by Sybren Polet), which is an effective, though slightly simplistic way of indicating a break with tradition.

The earlier terms ‘open work’ and ‘polyinterpretable text’ clearly show that postmodernist literary work was approached by critics from a semiotic point of view. The postmodernist novel is a literary form which is theoretically underpinned by semiotics, and according to which meaning is not embedded in the sign (i.e. the actual literary work), but is conferred by the creative activity of the reader, listener, looker, critic. The reader of the postmodernist text is actively involved in giving rise to its meaning. More than this even: meaning is in fact produced by the reader and not by the text. The reader is even called an ‘accomplice’.

Another of the earlier terms, metafiction, stresses one of the most striking features of the postmodernist text – that of its selfconsciousness or selfreflexivity: the ‘new’ postwar novel is a self-preoccupied form of expression which comments on itself and, corresponding entirely to the (postmodern) philosophy of doubt, is given to self-relativity and self-irony. ‘Undermining’ is the word which deconstructionism, under the influence of Derrida and Foucault, uses to describe this. Reflections on the novel and on writing are built into the novel itself, breaking open and calling into question the very conventions of the form. Similar ‘breaks’ with convention can also be found in the modernist novel, but not until the postmodernist novel is the underlying doubt as to the adequacy of the narrative medium (and of language in general) foregrounded as an obsessive theme of self-doubt and self-irony with no way out.

The postmodernist novel has proved itself astonishingly resourceful at creating opportunities for this self-relativization and for the expression of uncertainty. In the Low Countries, the work of the Flemish writer Louis Paul Boon (1912-1979) provides an early example of such a radical renewal of form, first in 1947 with My Little War (Mijn kleine oorlog) and more importantly in the 1950s with the masterly diptych Chapel Road (De Kapellekensbaan, 1953), and its sequel Summer at Ter-Muren (Zomer to Ter-Muren, 1956). An advantage of using a term like postmodernism is that it can highlight how some products of a small national literature and of a minority language like Dutch can be situated unproblematically in an international context and even be seen to gain in significance as a result. In this way, it is possible to draw attention to Boon’s unique position.

In his comparatist study Text to Reader (1983), Theo D’Haen shows that the kaleidoscopic form of Boon’s work, his use of fragmentation and collage, is not an isolated phenomenon in the Western tradition. Boon employs techniques which he has borrowed from American (John Dos Passos) and French (Louis-Ferdinand Celine) examples and which are also comparable with the postmodernist experiments with form carried out by John Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 1969), John Barth (Letters, 1979) and Julio Cortazar (Libro de Manuel, 1973). However, this comparative study also demonstrates that Boon’s work anticipates these experiments by many years and furthermore that Boon is one of the few writers who combine technical renewal with a politically and socially committed view of society.

There are other writers of Boon’s generation; among them W.F. Hermans (1921-), whose achievements could also be given greater prominence in an international context if the developments and concepts of postmodernism were to be used to shed light on his work – not so much on the form this time, as on the central theme, the fundamental unfathomability of human beings. The same could also be said of Harry Mulisch (1927-). Unfortunately, the term postmodernism is still not usually used retrospectively in studies of authors with a long-established reputation. The only recent example is E. van Alphen’s dissertation So to Read (Bij wijze van lezen, 1988), in which he discusses the novels of Willem Brakman (1922-) as postmodernist texts. Apart from this there are a few more or less systematic presentations of postmodernist authors writing in Dutch, but these surveys or analyses deal exclusively with authors and works from the Netherlands, leaving innovative work from the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium completely out of the picture. This is very hard to justify, particularly from an international perspective. The picture of postmodernist writing in Dutch-language literature is an extremely one-sided one if one loses sight of the facts that it was in Flanders that the phenomenon of avant-garde prose produced the more radical and consistent experimentation, and that Flanders embraced the new trend first. The fact that Flanders was more open to the influence of the French nouveau roman is of course not unconnected with this.

In the early 1960s there was something of an explosion of postmodernist experimentation with form in the literature of the Low Countries. The best known and most influential of the new writers were Sybren Polet (1924-) in Holland and Hugo Claus (1929-) and Ivo Michiels (1923-) in Flanders. In the Netherlands, the real breakthrough came with Harry Mulisch and Cees Nooteboom (1933-), followed by Jacq Firmin Vogelaar (1944-), Gerrit Krol (1934-) and Willem Brakman.

It is quite possible, although no-one has yet done so, to see Sybren Polet as the postmodernist par excellence. He expounded his views on literature in a theoretical work entitled Literature as Reality. But which one? (Literatuur als werkelijkheid. Maar welke?, 1972), in which he examines the frontiers between literature and reality and the nature of literary reality. For him, literature is primarily a ‘mental adventure’, a mobile game with words in which there are no fixed rules. Literary reality is a mental experiment; it is only one possible projection of reality, one of many possible ‘ontologies’. The characters in literature are merely ‘open’ models which are to be filled in and changed as one pleases. In Polet’s early work, for example, there is a recurring template character called Lokien, an outline character who constantly takes on new forms, like a kind of ‘Mr X’ with a changing identity. Polet himself called them variable, transformational figures. In the novel Breakwater (Breekwater, 1961) Lokien, starting out on a career as a writer, meets Mr Godgiven whom he transforms into the central character of a novel and whose movements he notes down precisely, day by day. However, at the end of the ‘first new week of creation’ the narrator interrupts his story with the announcement that he is going to change the name of Mr Godgiven: Godgiven is ‘a name which is full of connotations and evokes memories of a previous life’. He insists that his main character really exists ‘after 10 pages of written life’, but also thinks that as long as someone exists, the name under which he exists is of little significance and: ‘Mr Godgiven and literature are different in this respect.’ Godgiven’s new name is Breakwater; he has the same occupation and the same body.

Such intrusions by the narrator, also known as ‘frame-breaking’, are a typical device in postmodernist fiction. Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman provides a well-known example, where the narrator inserts a long digression on the fact that the story he is telling is his own invention: it is ‘all imagination’. Not only does this break through the convention of realism in the novel, but the authority of the central, omniscient narrator is also undermined. This breaking through the boundaries between literature and reality and the undermining of central authority, together with the problematization of the difference between high and trivial literature and between the genres themselves, are at the same time, literary expressions of the general tendency to democratization in the 1960s and 70s.

A year after Polet’s Breakwater, Wonderment (De Verwondering) by Hugo Claus appeared. It is an extremely complex novel, full of literary and cultural references. Claus himself called it an allegory and worked into it emphatic references to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Eichendorff’s From the Life of a Good-for-nothing (Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts), Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad) and many others. Meanwhile, semiotics introduced the term intertextuality for this typically postmodernist procedure of references and reworkings. There is, however, much more to Claus’s novel than the ‘mannerist contemplation of the cultural tradition’, as it was described by one critic. The story itself, that of a mentally ill teacher, is told in four narrative layers and gives the impression, through its ironic and relativistic multiplication of narrative viewpoints, that there is no fixed perspective and that there can be no solution in the quest for the truth of the novel. In this novel, Claus, like so many other postmodernist authors, has in his own way demonstrated the lack of a unified vision. The postmodern attitude to life which underlies this novel is dominated by the assumption that the truth does not exist, that the world is a figment of our minds and that everything is pure imagination.

In the 1970s a new group of authors centred around the literary journal De Revisor, which was set up in 1974, were using typically postmodern forms and themes. Their writing has been characterized as ‘academic prose’ because they place so much emphasis on the structural, technical, formal aspects of writing and appear to have at their disposal all the postmodernist tricks of narrative syntax. The main prose writers of the group – Dirk Ayelt Kooiman (1946-), Frans Kellendonk (1951-1990), Nicolaas Matsier (1945-), Doeschka Meijsing (1947-) and Patrizio Canaponi, the latter a pseudonym of A.F.Th. van der Heijden (1951-), who has come to the fore recently with his series of novels Toothless Time (De tandeloze tijd) – also fit easily into the postmodern tradition as far as the content of their writing is concerned. Using complex linking of motifs, mirroring and doubling, they develop doubt, insecurity and uncertainty into themes. In the work of Leon de Winter (1954-), an author who does not belong to the Revisor group, but who certainly has affinities with it, the attempt to get a grasp on reality always ends in disillusionment, and the story, the narrative, is seen as a tentative reconstruction of a past which remains constantly uncertain.

A much more drastic ‘solution’ is that of the removal of the constraints imposed by time proposed by Louis Ferron (1942-) in his novels. Ferron writes what is known in the subject literature as ‘historiographic metafiction’. In his texts, which usually evoke a phase of German or Austrian history, an amalgam of various fictional realities and historical realities is produced and the line between imagination and reality, between narrative and history, is completely erased. The novel Turkish Vespers (Turken vespers, 1977), for example, is situated in the Vienna of the turn of the century, but in the main character Kaspar Hauser’s world of experience, other historical points in time are also experienced as real: both the Turkish siege of Vienna at the end of the seventeenth century and the totalitarianism of the Third Reich spill over into the main story in one ‘anachronistic collage’. ‘If there is no such thing as a history which is fixed and certain’, the writer said in an interview, ‘then I reserve the right to “falsify” historical reality in my own way in my novels.’ Not only has Ferron mixed together various historical realities in this novel: it has also been shown that he entered into a literary dialogue with Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften).

There is one more facet of the postmodernist world view which has left interesting traces in the literature of the Low Countries, in particular of Flanders. As a consequence of the view that literature only presents us with ‘ontologies’ i.e. theoretically possible descriptions of (parts of) the universe, possible worlds without any pretence that they are the world (for we cannot know the world anyway), some authors have increasingly come to emphasize the non-referential, linguistic aspect of the novel. For them the novel is an autonomous world, a world in words, an abstract opus which refers only to itself and which emphatically presents itself as a complete alternative to the world.

Experiments with this form of ‘absolute’ or ‘abstract’ prose are found mainly in the French nouveau roman (Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon). It is with this tradition that Ivo Michiels, Willy Roggeman (1934-) and Claude van de Berge (1945-) have become associated. Michiels’s ‘alpha cycle’ has undoubtedly been responsible for pushing back the frontiers in the history of prose writing in the Low Countries. In the successive parts of the cycle – Book Alpha (Het Boek Alfa, 1963), Orchis Militaris (1968), Exit (1971), Dixi(t) (1979) and the volume Samuel, o Samuel (1973), intended as a tribute to Samuel Beckett, which interrupted the series, the experiment was pursued relentlessly to its conclusion.

Although Book Alpha was originally seen by the critics as a chaotic, uninterrupted stream of consciousness, it is now clear that the fragments of the book can be read as parts of an ‘open’ or plural text, a construction based on snatches of ‘now-moments’ which are simultaneously present, constructed around an uncertain initial situation. There is no logical temporal or causal coherence, no starting or ending point, nor a rounded or fleshed-out character. In 1983 Michiels published the first part of a new ten-volume series under the overall title of Journal brut. The five volumes which have appeared so far build on the achievements of the alpha cycle, to which they often refer back literally through quotation. Here the text has become, in accordance with the postmodernist and deconstructionist principle, self-perpetuating ‘productivity’. The Journal brut series is indeed one of the most impressive projects produced by postmodernism in the literature of the Low Countries.

By Anne Marie Musschoot
Translated by Jane Fenoulhet

First published in The Low Countries, 1993


FOKKEMA, D.W. & BERTENS, HANS (ed.), Approaching Postmodernism, Amsterdam / Philadelphia, 1986.
BERTENS, HANS & D’HAEN, THEO, Het postmodernisme in de literatuur (Postmodernism in Literature), Amsterdam, 1988.
MERTENS, ANTHONY, ‘Postmodern Elements in Postwar Dutch Fiction’, in: Postmodern Fiction in Europe and the Americas (ed. Theo D’Haen & Hans Bertens), Amsterdam / Antwerp, 1988.
IBSCH, ELRUD, ‘Postmoderne (on)mogelijkheden in de Nederlandstalige literatuur’ (Postmodern (Im)possibilities in Dutch-language Literature’), in: De achtervolging voortgezet (The Pursuit Continued), (ed. W.T.G. Breekveldt a.o.) Amsterdam, 1989.
MUSSCHOOT, ANNE MARIE, ‘The Challenge of Postmodernism’, Dutch Crossing, 41, Summer 1990, pp. 3-15.

List of Translations

LOUIS PAUL BOON. Chapel Road (Tr. Adrienne Dixon). New York, 1972.
Minuet (Tr. Adrienne Dixon). New York, 1979.
HUGO CLAUS. The Sorrow of Belgium (Tr. Arnold Pomerans). New York / London, 1990; Harmondsworth, 1991.
W.F. HERMANS. The Dark Room of Damocles (Tr. Roy Edwards). London, 1962.
‘W.F. Hermans: An English Sampler’ (Tr. Paul Vincent). Dutch Crossing, 16, March 1982, pp. 19-51.
DIRK AYELT KOOIMAN. A Lamb to the Slaughter (Tr. Adrienne Dixon). New York, 1986.
GERRIT KROL. ‘In the Service of Shell Oil’ (Tr. Elizabeth Daverman). Dimension, 1978, pp. 94-105.
‘A Stranger in Hogezand-Sappemeer’ (Tr. Greta Kilburn). Contemporary Literature in Translation, 32, 1981, pp. 42.
IVO MICHIELS. Book Alpha and Orchis Militaris (Tr. Adrienne Dixon). Boston (Mass.), 1979.
HARRY MULISCH. The Assault (Tr. Claire Nicolas White). London / New York 1985; Harmondsworth, 1986.
CEES NOOTEBOOM. In the Dutch Mountains (Tr. Adrienne Dixon). London / Baton Rouge, 1987.
LEON DE WINTER. The Day Before Yesterday (Tr. Scott Rollins). New York, 1985.