Destination: The Netherlands

Delve into Lowlands literature and discover there's much more to this prosperous nation than wooden clogs, tulips and -- of course -- weed.

Topics: The Literary Guide to the World, Travel, Books,

Destination: The Netherlands

For a country that was once the global capital of the publishing industry, it’s extraordinary how little the Netherlands has influenced world literature. Most of the canonical writers of Dutch fiction are unknown outside Holland; many are untranslated. From a traveler’s point of view, this is wonderful. Nothing could be more tedious than arriving in a new country with a suitcase full of preconceptions about its culture, drawn from world-famous novels already reduced to clichi by generations of English-language critics.

That said, some of the books any visitor to the Netherlands ought to read are familiar enough to the English-speaking world. Chronologically, one would have to begin with “In Praise of Folly,” by the humanist clergyman Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?-1539). The book is a tongue-in-cheek twist on the classical genre of the encomium, in this case delivered by Erasmus’ invented muse Folly (“Moriae”), in praise of herself. Folly’s routine starts off lightly enough, as she congratulates humanity for embracing her so thoroughly. But soon the irony turns darker and harder to pin down. Folly insults people by calling them “wise,” and praises them by calling them “fools.” The reader becomes unsure which lines are backhanded compliments, and which are openhanded slaps. Gradually, Folly’s speech turns into a sort of 16th-century “Colbert Report”: a blistering condemnation of the hypocrisy, bloodthirstiness, stupidity and corruption of contemporary lay rulers and the Catholic Church, all delivered in the guise of “praise” from one of the world’s first unreliable narrators.

Erasmus wrote “In Praise of Folly” in 1509, when the Netherlands didn’t yet exist as such. But he hailed from Gouda and Rotterdam, and in the book, he gives Folly a couple of sly, “complimentary” lines that attest to the author’s sense of nationality:

“Close to [the Brabanters] as neighbors, and also in their way of life, are my Hollanders — for why shouldn’t I call them mine? They’re my devoted followers”

Nothing could be more Dutch than this wry mix of self-mockery and pride.

So what exactly are the Netherlands? For a guide to the country’s birth and Golden Age, it’s hard to do better than Simon Schama’s “The Embarrassment of Riches.” Schama’s book is stuffed with plates of the great works of Dutch art of the 16th and 17th centuries, bringing visual life both to the grand historical dramas of the Eighty Years’ War and to the domestic and aesthetic culture of the period. The book’s title refers to a conflict Schama contends is central to the Dutch situation, that between the country’s prosperity and its frugal Calvinist morality. Schama thinks the Dutch are caught in a perpetual bind between the pursuit and disavowal of riches, a constant anxiety that the wealth that testifies to the country’s diligence and moral probity is itself a harbinger of immorality and disaster.

Such thematic oppositions breathe new and surprising life into the masterpieces of Dutch art and architecture. In his opening chapter, “Moral Geography,” Schama introduces the “drowning room,” a punishment supposedly employed in a reformist 17th-century Amsterdam prison that aimed to instill the work ethic by forcing prisoners to pump water out of an enclosure before it covered their heads. This metaphorical elision of crime, laziness and drowning (in a country dependent on vigilant communal dike maintenance to keep out the sea) leads Schama to the recurrent Dutch concern with the word “overvloed,” used both to refer to the floods that follow dike breaks, and also to the wealth that flooded the country in the era of its mercantile dominance. This in turn brings in masterpieces depicting floods, by Brueghel and others; the invocation of God’s drowning of Pharaoh and his soldiers in patriotic Dutch literature; the related drama of the deliberate flooding of Leiden, which routed the Spanish siege of 1598; and so forth. The book’s great accomplishment is to defamiliarize the gorgeous kitsch of classic Dutch culture, and to situate it in a context of historical upheaval, commercial revolution and moral anxiety.

Holland owes its world-beating cuteness to the glorious 17th century, with its brick houses and storybook canals. But so much of the country’s 17th century is preserved, in part, because the 18th and 19th centuries were much poorer. For a sense of the narrowness of Dutch life on the verge of the modern age, the traveler would do well to read one of the novels of Louis Couperus, such as “Langs Lijnen van Gelijdelijkheid” (1900), published in English as “Inevitable.”

Couperus’ subject was the constriction and self-righteousness of Dutch social life. In “Inevitable,” Couperus follows Cornelie de Retz van Loo, a young woman from The Hague’s snooty upper class, who takes the then extraordinary step of divorcing her cold diplomat husband, and is repaid with social exclusion. Cornelie flees to Italy, scandalizing society by moving in with a free-thinking Dutch painter. They are happy but desperately poor, and gradually, irresistibly, Cornelie drifts back to her miserable ex-husband. The opposition between Cornelie’s dreams of Southern passion and the dull conformism that strangles them is one you’re likely to encounter repeatedly in Holland; think about it if you find yourself in conversation with a pale Amsterdammer who wants to tell you about his spiritually enlightening trip to India.

World War II was an epochal event in Dutch history. One of the first signals of what would follow was the idiosyncratic 1947 novel “De Avonden” (“The Evenings”), by the young Gerard Reve. Reve, who died this year, was gay and intensely funny, and he would become one of the most original of the provocateurs who reinvented Dutch culture in the 1960s and ’70s.

“The Evenings” is a book about the absurdity of late adolescent boredom. Twenty-three-year-old Frits lives with his parents, enduring a tedious daily routine of arguments over control of the radio dial and the whereabouts of the key to the coal cellar. He escapes on excursions with an odd clique of friends — to the movies and the dance hall, or for evenings in their chilly, half-decorated flats. Frits entertains the gang with viciously inappropriate comments in a high, ironic style. (Is a friend’s infant son, whose head keeps nodding, just going through a phase? “‘Let us hope so,’ said Frits, lighting another cigarette off of Viktor’s. ‘But it is quite possible that the child is crazy.’”)

In some ways, “The Evenings” is a Dutch “Catcher in the Rye.” But it’s underscored by an unspoken darkness, partly emanating from the war, partly from forbidden sexuality. In one feverish late-night conversation, Frits teases his petty-criminal friend Maurits into revealing his fantasy of tying another boy to a table, naked, and torturing him to death. The book paints Dutch society in the late ’40s as a mute pressure cooker of repressed grief and desire. (Amazingly, “The Evenings” has never been translated into English. Try the movie version, “De Avonden” [1989].)

In the ’60s, the top of the Dutch pressure cooker blew off. For a taste of how that felt, one might try “Turkish Delight” (“Turks Fruit”) by Jan Wolkers, who, like Reve, is among the “big four” of postwar Dutch writers. (The other two are W.F. Hermans and Harry Mulisch.) “Turkish Delight” features plenty of promiscuity and bohemian revelry. And, confirming Schama’s point about Dutch moral anxiety, it ultimately chalks up the escapades of its wild heroine to a fatal brain tumor. The book has been translated, but may be hard to find; but, again, you can always watch the 1973 movie, often voted the best Dutch film of all time, which features lots of nudity and a young Rutger Hauer.

Another way to capture those years would be to turn to 1992′s “The Discovery of Heaven,” by another of the big four, Harry Mulisch. Mulisch, the child of a Jewish mother, was protected during the war by his Christian banker father, and went on to become a key figure in the swinging, Castro-sympathizing ’60s left. In “The Discovery of Heaven,” Mulisch reuses his own biography for one of the characters, the astronomer Max.

The plot hinges on the intense friendship between Max and Onno Quist, the polymath child of a former prime minister. Both become involved with the beautiful Ada, a cellist first seduced by Max before she marries Onno. (Fun fact: Ada’s parents’ used-book store, where Max sweeps her off her feet, is called “In Praise of Folly.”) On a visit to revolutionary Cuba, both men sleep with Ada, and she becomes pregnant with a son by one or the other — a child who may or may not be some kind of messiah. The book leaps ahead to the ’80s, sketching Dutch society at the moment of its greatest self-satisfaction: a time when the Dutch thought they had solved the full range of modern social problems, from drug use to sexual openness to religious and cultural pluralism to the balance between capitalism and socialism.

Since the late 1990s, the left-wing consensus that governed Dutch society from the ’70s on has begun to disintegrate. The rock upon which it has foundered is the Dutch Muslim population, immigrants from Morocco and Turkey and their children, who are now 1 million of Holland’s 16 million inhabitants. For a guide to the Netherlands in the current moment of transformation, there is no better book than Ian Buruma’s recent “Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance.”

Van Gogh was a hilariously tasteless television and film director, who collaborated with the feminist Muslim activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2004 to produce a film about Muslim women’s abuse at the hands of Muslim men. A Dutch Muslim extremist murdered him on an Amsterdam street soon thereafter. Buruma takes an insightful and even-handed approach to the twin phenomena of Muslim violence and Dutch Islamophobia, showing how the hysteria of the clash between Islam and “enlightenment values” is just one part of a generally hysterical, throw-the-bums-out mood that has seized Dutch society in recent years. The book is a must read to understand the tensions that are reshaping the Dutch social landscape today.

Obviously, there are a number of subjects that don’t fit into this compilation. For instance, anyone who visits the Netherlands ought to read something about Dutch graphic or urban design. One suggestion: David Winner’s “Brilliant Orange,” a terribly clever 2001 book that relates the genius of Dutch soccer to the genius of Dutch spatial efficiency — thereby taking care of two crucial Dutch subjects that we haven’t yet covered.

But one can’t read everything. In any case, this is an interesting time to visit the Netherlands. On the one hand, the country’s peculiar and much-admired social and political character remains very much in evidence. On the other hand, it is being transformed by immigrant communities, Muslim, Caribbean and African, and many of the political bargains that have shaped the country’s image abroad are being renegotiated. It’s often difficult, in today’s Holland, to understand quite what you’re looking at. Which makes it all the more important to get a passing familiarity with the country’s background literature before one goes, and get a little further than the clichis. It really isn’t all about bicycles, canals and smoking first-rate Dutch weed.

That said, bicycles, canals and smoking first-rate Dutch weed are an enormous lot of fun, too.

Matt Steinglass writes for the Boston Globe and other publications, and for the children's television show "Arthur." He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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