"Dutch Literature, my personal choice" Top 5 Page for this destination Netherlands Travelogue by ATLC

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Reading has been for centuries, the most virtual travelling that a person could do. In an entertaining and relaxing way one can start to understand a country's history and culture.
So here are some suggestions of novels by top Dutch authors about the history and society of The Netherlands. Some however, are written by English or American novelists who managed to catch the Dutch way of thinking or who have a Dutch theme in their novel.
This is a highly personal selection of authors and titles that have been translated into English.

I have used the cover texts but I have also added my own reading experiences.

The ISBN (unique 10 digit number for each book) is to make it easy for you to order titles from your favourite bookselling website.

Girl in Hycinth Blueby Susan Vreeland

ISBN: 014029628X

Cover text
"Cornelius Engelbrecht harbors a secret obsession-an intensely captivating painting, thought to be an original Vermeer, given to him by his father, who acquired it under highly questionable circumstances during World War II. Vreeland's novel, which starts at the end of the story and works backward to the beginning, uncovers the painting's wild, diversely layered, sometimes daunting history of ownership, tracing it all the way back to its climactic inception. We learn that the painting was once sold in desperation to pay for food, and even sent downstream with an out-of-wedlock baby. The reader lives the stories of those who possessed it and comes to understand the ways it has possessed its many owners; it serves variously as a symbol of greed, love and inspiration. This is an ambitious book that provides a peephole into the past, into an eternal source of wonder: the origins of our most captivating artistic conceptions."

My notes: a perfect book for a long plane journey. Written by an American writer, but of course she is of Dutch origin. I lived in the pretty village "Vreeland" in the province Utrecht (see travelogue on my Utrecht page).
This not-so-long novel spans several centuries and are really a collection of stories (not even in chronological order) in which the painting is the main character.

Tulip fever by Deborah Moggach

ISBN: 0099283050
Cover text
In 1630s Amsterdam, tulip fever has seized the populace. Everywhere men are seduced by the fantastic exotic flower. But for wealthy merchant Cornelis Sandvoort, it is his young and beautiful wife, Sophia, who stirs his soul. She is the prize he desires, the woman he hopes will bring him the joy that not even his considerable fortune can buy.

Cornelis yearns for an heir, but so far he and Sophia have failed to produce one. In a bid for immortality, he commissions a portrait of them both by the talented young painter Jan van Loos. But as Van Loos begins to capture Sophia's likeness on canvas, a slow passion begins to burn between the beautiful young wife and the talented artist. As the portrait unfolds, so a slow dance is begun among the household's inhabitants. Ambitions, desires, and dreams breed a grand deception?and as the lies multiply, events move toward a thrilling and tragic climax.

Deborah Moggach lives in North London.

My notes: if you like an easy read, a bit of suspense and yet also a historical novel, than this is it. Actually, it reminds me of the rise and dramatic fall of shares in ICT companies. Seen that way, it is quite contemporary!

Astraea by Jane Stevenson

ISBN: 0099286645
Cover text
The Netherlands, the 1640s. Two royal exiles meet - Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of Kames I of England and Omolojou/Pelagius, once heir to the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo but now a freed slave with shamanic powers. They fall in love and clandestinely marry. Secretly, Elizabeth gives birth to a son, Balthasar Stuart, whom both of them see as a new hope for the future.

My notes: A strange, compelling novel which I find particularly interesting because Pelagius, prince of Oyo, was taken as a slave to Indonesia and freed by his master on their return to The Netherlands.
A long passage in the book describes how Pelagius and his master Comrij produce a book describing exotic plants. How this book is actually made is very enlightening and interesting. These days, the pictures (etches and engravings) are cut out of books and sold separately.
This book seems to be the first of a trilogy, but so far I have not yet seen the next volumes published.

Minnieby Annie M.G. Schmidt

ISBN: 1571316000
Cover text
Mr. Tibbs is a shy newspaper reporter in danger of being fired because he writes only about cats. Then he meets Miss Minnie, formerly a cat but now a ginger-haired woman with more than a few feline mannerisms. When the journalist timidly offers her a place to stay (a large cardboard box in his storeroom), Miss Minnie responds by providing him with news for his stories, which she gathers from nightly forays into the neighborhood. Trouble begins when Mr. Tibbs pens an article accusing a prominent citizen of running down a local fish vendor. Since no human witness is willing to corroborate the story, Miss Minnie and her feline friends orchestrate a campaign to force the villain to reveal his true character. This gentle fantasy, first published in 1970 in the Netherlands, has not suffered from either time or translation. Children will smile as Minnie, pursued by a dog, scrambles up a tree; laugh as she tries to control her instinct to devour some aquarium goldfish; and sympathize as she tries to decide whether to become fully human or revert to her previous form. A great choice to read aloud or read alone, this is sure to please both cat lovers and adventure fans.

My notes: This book is written by the best Dutch children's books writer Annie M.G. Schmidt. All Dutch children (me too!) grew up with her stories and rhymes. I still know some by heart!
Minnie is recently been made into a popular film.
There is an album with 50 of her children's verses translated in English, called Pink Lemonade (ISBN: 0802840507).

Miffy booksby Dick Bruna

ISBN: 1568361513

My notes: Dick Bruna's Miffy character is called "Nijntje" in Dutch. Nijntje, short for konijntje (little rabbit) has become world famous. The deceptively simple drawings and rhymes are read and looked at in every Dutch household with small children.
Dutch illustrator Dick Bruna invented Nijntje (Miffy) in 1955.
There are countless Miffy books, each with their own little rhyming story, usually sold in toy shops too.

The Discovery of Heaven (Ontdekking van de hemel)

ISBN: 0140239375
Cover text
Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch has created an epic tale of love, friendship, and divine intervention in this cerebral story of heavenly influence. On earth, the novel revolves around the friendship of a brilliant, charismatic astronomer and a talented linguist born on the same day. The two men also happen to share a lover, a woman of simple beauty who is a gifted cellist. These relationships, both intellectual and intimate, produce several intriguing conversations about science, art, and theology, and a child of uncertain paternity. The child's birth is closely followed by a number of mysterious accidents, spirited affairs, untimely deaths, and other acts that reveal the influence of higher powers. Quinten, the star-fated child, has a mission from on high to return the covenant God made with man before he was led astray by science and the dark influence of the devil. An engrossing, and at times comic, story of theology and science, angels, and earthly desires, is cleverly told in this hugely ambitious novel.

My notes: one of the best Dutch novels I have ever read and re-read, and read again. It was at my bedside for months. I loved it for its complexity, the things I learned from it, the sensuality and it's downright funnyness!
The book was recently made into a film called Discovery of Heaven. Director: Jeroen Krabbé. One of the main roles is played by Stephen Fry. The cast is mainly British. The film caught the essence of the book quite well, I thought. In 2007, 15.000 readers voted this book the best ever written in Dutch literature. Personally I would've voted for Multatuli's Max Havelaar, but I'm quite happy with this choice. It is a great book.

The Assault (De Aanslag) by Harry Mulisch

ISBN: 0394744209

This must be the best book written about the German occupancy of the Netherlands in WW2. It's a true story of a family in the war.

My notes: this book was turned into a film and if I remember correctly it won an Oscar. It's a typical book that is read in high school for literature lists.

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse

Also known as: Wald der Erwartung (German) / Woud der Verwachting (Dutch)
ISBN: 089733356X
Cover text
This is the first English translation of this monumental work. First published in the Netherlands in 1949, and never out of print, it has sold more than 100,000 copies-equivalent to a U.S. sale of 2.5 million. Set in the fifteenth century, during the Hundred Years War between France and England, Hella Haasse's epic masterpiece brilliantly captures all the drama of one of the great ages of history.
The novel's larger-than-life characters move across a panoramic tapestry woven together by criss-crossed bloodlines and intense rivalries. There is the mad King Charles VI and his heartless Bavarian wife Isabeau; the King's dashing brother Louis, Duke of Orléans; his sensitive Italian Duchess, Valentine, and their son Charles, who inherits a ferocious feud with the powerful and scheming Duke of Burgundy. There are also Louis' bastard son Dunois-the fruit of his seduction of the beautiful wife of a courtier-who becomes the right arm of Joan of Arc, and the English kings: Richard II; Henry IV; and Henry V, the brilliant architect of the English army, who changes the face of war at the battle of Agincourt. Also in German.

My notes: Gives a vivid and mesmerizing account of political Europe during the 15th century. A deliciously long read. History is fun!

Max Havelaar or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch T

ISBN: 0140445161
Cover text
When Max Havelaar was first published in Holland in 1860, it ignited a major political and social brouhaha. The novel, written by a former official of the Dutch East Indian Civil Service under the pen name Multatuli, exposed the massive corruption and cruelty rife in the Dutch colony of Java. Max Havelaar is an undeniably autobiographical novel; like his hero, Multatuli--the pseudonym for Eduard Douwes Dekker--was an Assistant Resident of Lebak in Java; like Havelaar in the novel, he resigned his position when his accusations of corruption and abuse were disregarded by higher authorities, resulting in years of poverty for both author and fictional hero. Max Havelaar is told from several different perspectives; the reader first meets an Amsterdam coffee dealer named Droogstoppel, a man so obsessed with coffee that his every thought and action is governed by it. Droogstoppel has come by a manuscript from an old schoolmate who, down on his luck, has asked him to get it published. The schoolmate is Havelaar, and the manuscript relates his experiences as an idealistic and generous young civil servant who tries to protect the poor and bring justice to the powerless.
The central part of the novel details conditions in Java, particularly Havelaar's efforts to correct injustices in the face of a corrupt government system. That his efforts will prove futile soon becomes apparent, and there is something almost Greek in the inevitability of Havelaar's declining fortunes. Despite its tragic themes, Max Havelaar is savagely funny, particularly the chapters narrated by Droogstoppel, a character unmatched for his veniality, narrow-mindedness, or singular lack of understanding or imagination. Though Multatuli's masterpiece is nearly 150 years old, it wears its age well, and Roy Edwards's excellent translation offers English-speaking readers a wonderful opportunity to experience one of the Netherlands's great literary classics.

My notes: a fat book which is certainly THE classic of Dutch literature. Some may find it boring, but then, don't attempt to read it in one go. Highly entertaining, one big soapbox. As I am of Indonesian descent myself, even though it is far behind is, it remains heart rending too.

The Hidden Force (Stille Kracht) by Louis Couperus

ISBN: 0870237152
Cover text
This book is about a family in the East. It's about the difference between east and west, about the hidden powers of the people surpressed by the Dutch colonial government. It's also about passions and secret relationships. And on top of that it's even a thrilling story. Dutch TV made an adaption a few years ago which was very inspiring. Look for similar books by couperus about the society of The Hague at the turn of the century.

My notes: by far my favourite Dutch author. He was a contemporary and friend of Oscar Wilde and translated some of his work in Dutch. His novels (some of them great family histories) have been turned into plays, tv-series and films.

In Babylonby Marcel Möring

ISBN: 0060959630
Cover text
Trees have roots. Jews have legs." Möring's protagonist, writer of fairy tales Nathan Hollander, tells the story of his family, Jews, always on the way, traveling West. It begins with the clockmaker Magnus Levie, from the area bordering Poland and Lithuania, who starts his trek to the West in 1648, after finding the house of his uncle Chaim burned down by Cossacks, his uncle presumably murdered. After twenty years of wandering he shows up in Holland, in what is its prosperous Golden Age, and finds a welcome there and a place to settle, and he assumes the name Hollander. The trek West is then interrupted for eight generations, all clockmakers in Rotterdam, physicists, engineers. Holland, poignantly characterized as the land of milk and butter, with its biblical echoes of "land overflowing of milk and honey", is almost the promised land, but not quite.

My notes: a contemporary, very popular writer who lives in Rotterdam. We read this book in my Reading Club. Opinions differed, but then I like long-spun, time-spanning family histories.

The Sign of Jonahby Boeli van Leeuwen

ISBN: 1877946621
Cover text
Rich with symbolism and filled with historical and philosophical references, van Leeuwen's short novel uses the fluidity of dream and fable in an attempt to jury-rig an accommodation between the Old (European) and the New (colonial) worlds.
Told by an elderly curmudgeon known as ''the professor,'' events are set primarily in Willemstad, the vibrant and culturally diverse Caribbean port capital of Curaçao, a Dutch-speaking island of the Netherlands Antilles. The narrative is disjointed, but that seems to be appropriate for the professor, an idealistic alcoholic who is haunted by death and pontificates on issues ranging from power-hungry Latin American dictators to the beauty of Barbra Streisand. The professor rescues a fabulously wealthy businessman, Juan Carlos de Altamario, who in return invites the narrator onto his yacht and, from there, to his surreal estate on the fictional island of Balboa.
In this fantasy section, the professor tours the magical island and meets its inhabitants, who include Leo Tolstoy, Nazi war criminals and priapic dwarves. Eventually, he has a falling out with Carlos and returns to Curaçao, where he celebrates with the island's poor and spends a night in jail. Van Leeuwen throws every mythic trope he can think of into this rijsttafel of a novel, from the biblical horsemen of the apocalypse to the great white whale of Moby-Dick. But he mixes it all up with such evident gusto that it doesn't, in the end, matter how much articulated sense he makes: for the book is animated less by the Old World's need to impose order than by the New World's desire for a carnival.

My notes: I've devoured all his books and to my joy one of them is translated so he can be read by a wider audience. His books combine the steamy Caribean culture with Dutch protestant calvinism. He describes life in Curaçao as raw, sensual and in complete disaccord with Dutch culture. Both clash and exist together between groups but also within even one person. He writes with much humanitarian love and tenderness which has moved me again and again.

Other books (in Dutch only):

De Eerste Adam (the first Adam)
Rots der Struikeling (Stone of offence)
Een Vader Een Zoon (A father a son)
Een vreemdeling op aarde (A stranger on earth)
Schilden van Leem (shields of clay)

Doubleplay (Dubbelspel)by Frank Martinus Arion

ISBN: 0571194214, publisher: Faber
Cover text
The framework of this novel, set against a background of colonial unrest, is a marathon game of dominoes lasting from early morning to dusk and involving four men for whom the game is a trigger for social, political and sexual rivalries.
Four natives play their Sunday game of dominoes: Manchi, the daydreaming money collector, Boeboe, the friendly but faithless taxi driver against Janchi, Shell-employee and Chamon, the propertyowner from Saba who emigrated to Curaçao. It transpires slowly that the four men play out their lives with the domino stones and that in the end one loser will be killed by one of the winners.
Compelling, yet humorous.

My notes: It's been a long time since I read this book. Not only the four men are central in the book but also the women in their lives. Strange how that fact never seems to turn up in any of the descriptions about this book. The cultural and social mores must be followed even to the extent of a life/death situation.
What I will never forget about this book is the young woman that was once unfaithful to her not-so-nice husband. He punishes her by forcing her to put a 5 guilder bill beside his plate every night so that he can pay her like whore.

  • Page Updated Mar 13, 2007
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