I have just recently enjoyed some days in Amsterdam – such a beautiful, vibrant city. I had the pleasure of giving a talk to a group of Jane Austen readers at the English-language bookshop there, and now welcome some Dutch friends to my newsletter list. While in the Netherlands, I read and very much enjoyed Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates, an Englishman who went to Rotterdam, fell in love with a Dutch girl, and stayed. His book discusses various aspects of Dutch history and society, from football to WWII, but made almost no reference to literature, and it left me speculating about Dutch writers. Holland has produced far more than its fair share of internationally renowned artists, but its literary star is not nearly as bright. Why is it that some countries suddenly flourish in one particular area of the arts, but fail to shine in another?
Of course, one of the most famous literary houses in the world is in Amsterdam – the Anne Frank Museum. Anne was born in Germany, but she did write her famous diary in Dutch. Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates is set in the Netherlands, but was written by an American Mary Mapes Dodge. Vincent Van Gogh wrote brilliant letters, but no fiction. Michel Faber, author of the strange The Crimson Petal and the White is Dutch born, but writes in English and considers himself a citizen of the world, rather than of the Netherlands, while Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the autobiography Infidel, is described as a Somali-born Dutch-American and now lives in the USA. English Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever was a good read and has been made into a movie (with a screenplay by Sir Tom Stoppard), due for release in the USA this month. Judi Dench is one of the cast, which is always a good sign. The tulip mania which is such a fascinating part of Dutch history was also the subject of Alexandre Dumas’ 1850 novel The Black Tulip.
I have recently read and enjoyed two Dutch crime novels – A Cold Death in Amsterdam and A Cold Case in Amsterdam Central by Dutch Anja de Jager who now lives in the UK and who also writes in English. And a Dutch classic that has only recently been translated into English for the first time is Gerard Reve’s The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale, published in 1947. It is about a young man named Fritz who goes off to work happily enough, but dreads having to fill in his evenings when he comes home (Fritz needs to discover the joys of reading!). It has been described by recent English critics as “a masterpiece” and as “one of the greatest 20th-century European classics you’ve never heard of”, but I found it a strange and rather neurotic novel.
Geert Mak, journalist and non-fiction writer, has written several books about the Dutch, their history and culture. His In Amsterdam: A Brief Life of a City and My Father’s Century have been hugely popular.
But when it comes to internationally recognised names in the world of literature, Holland has not done so well. Or am I missing out some obvious examples? Do let me know if there are some Dutch classics I should be reading? Tell me by leaving a comment.
Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Anne Frank
Why the Dutch are Different by Ben Coates
Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates by Mary Mapes Dodge
The Crimson Petal And The White by Michel Faber
Infidel: My Life by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach
The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, Robin Buss (Translated by)
A Cold Death in Amsterdam by Anja de Jager
A Cold Case in Amsterdam Central by Anja de Jager
The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve, Sam Garrett (Translated by)
In Amsterdam: A Brief Life of a City by Geert Mak
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