1 September 2017 Susannah

About Dutch Literature

Waterstones Booksellers Amsterdam
Why the Dutch are Different

Why the Dutch are Different

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

I only recommend books I have read and know. Some of these links are my affiliate links. If you buy a book by clicking on one of these links I receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.


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Featured image credit- Waterstones Booksellers Amsterdam, by Susannah Fullerton ©
Body image credit- Why the Dutch are Different. from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25860139-why-the-dutch-are-different
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Comments (20)

  1. Hello Susannah
    I highly recommend Harry Mulisch’s novel The Discovery Of Heaven (Penguin 1996).
    Up there as one of the greatest reads for me.

    About the Author from book translation by Paul Vincent:
    Harry Mulisch (1927 – 2010)was described by The Times as ‘the most celebrated Dutch novelist of modern times’.The Discovery of Heaven is widely regarded as his masterpiece and was made into a film in 2001 staring Stephen Fry. In a newspaper poll of 2007, Dutch readers voted it ‘the best Dutch-language book ever’.
    The Times: ‘This … masterpiece was widely acclaimed and led to speculation that its author was a shoo-in for the Nobel Prize in literature.’

    The book is a mix of ideas, philosophy, religion, politics, humanity and life.
    Difficult to put down. A wonderful engrossing read.

    PS I enjoy your newsy newsletter

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Now that sounds like a book not to be missed!Thanks so much for the recommendation. I’ll get hold of a copy asap.

  2. Ada Cable - de Graaff

    Hello again Susannah, great to get more titles for me too. My friend reminded me of the recent wonderful story The Last Painting of Sara De Vos by Dominic Smith‎.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, it was a lovely book – thanks for reminding me. But not written by a Dutchman, even though set in Holland. I hope he writes more!

  3. Toni Pollard

    This is from my Dutch friend, Sia Arnason in the US to whom I sent your post on Dutch writers
    “Hello all you readers in far away places. One of the Dutch books that has been translated into English is ” Ten Thousand Things” by Maria Dermout, a wonderful book about the Moluccas. Highly recommended! Another writer I like a lot in Dutch is Hella Haasse, some of her books have been translated one I can recommend is “In a Dark Wood Wandering, A Novel of the Middle Ages”. There are probably a lot more in various bookcases but this will have to do for now. Regards to all. Sia ”
    There was s also the great “Max Havelaar” by Douwes Dekker that every Dutch school child must read, about colonial Java in the 19 th C that played a major role in changing Dutch colonial policy.
    ). Another Dutch friend here in Sydney tells me “The key one missing, in my opinion, in terms of 19th century literature is Louis Couperus. He is most famous for De Stille Kracht – The Hidden Force (turned into a TV series in the 70s) set in Indonesia where Louis lived as a boy. Also translated into English.”
    There is a lot of translated literature, some in the form of novels, other in memoirs, by Dutch writers of their war time experiences under the Japanese occupation in Indonesia.

    In terms of the experience of the Dutch in Indonesia I have translated two novels from Indonesian for the publisher, Lontar Foundation that are available online by googling either Lontar or the titles. Mirah of Banda by Hannah Rambe tells the story of a Javanese child kidnapped and taken to the nutmeg islands of Banda to work on a Dutch plantation where she becomes the owner’s concubine. Set in first half of 20 th C. The other is “Departures” by NH Dini about a Dutch Eurasian girl who chooses not to leave Indonesia when the last of the Dutch are thrown out of the new republic in 1958. She becomes one of Garuda’s early air hostesses- Garuda took over KLM in Indonesia. Both are eye opening reads. Cheers, Toni

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks Toni and Sia for adding such interesting recommendations to the Dutch reading list. I especially like the sound of ‘Departures’ and I feel I should know more about the history of the Dutch in Indonesia. I’ve noted them all down and will look out for them in libraries and bookshops. Great to know that my newsletter is being shared around and getting people thinking about books from the Netherlands.

  4. Ada Cable - de Graaff

    Lovely to be in Amsterdam! I agree with comments about other books. What about Guinevere Glasfurd’s ‘The Words in my Hands'(2016) about a young servant girl (Helena Jans) desperate to learn and an ambitious philosopher (Rene Descartes)in search of the truth. A story from history.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      That sounds good. Thanks for the recommendstion. I would like to learn more about Descartes.

  5. Peter-Paul Steenbergen

    Hello Susannah

    Toni Pollard suggested I comment on your list of Dutch books. I agree with the recommendations above. A key one for me (same era as Max Havelaar – Multatuli) is the author Louis Couperus; The Silent Force and Eline Vere. The fist novel set in Indonesia and the second in The Hague late 19th century. The latter was in 2010 released in a new translation. My wife is currently reading this beautiful new English publication. [Archipelago Books]. Other well known, more contemporary authors are Harry Mulisch, Arnon Grunberg and my favourite Adriaan van Dis. All of these have been some of their novels translated into English as well.

    Happy reading!


    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks so much for your suggestions, Peter-Paul. I had hoped that my comments on Dutch literature would provoke some response and suggestions, and I now have a fabulous list to go on with. I went to the Hague 2 years ago and just loved it, so a novel set there will be lovely to read. Does Toni regularly send you my newsletter? I can add you to the regular subscribers if you want to get it every month?

  6. Miland Joshi

    How about Tessa de Loo’s The Twins (made into the film Twin Sisters, directed by Ben Sombogaart?
    Also a whole series of murder mysteries set in old China by Robert Van Gulik with a Judge Dee as the main character. There are collections of short stories as well as full-length novels.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Oh how could I have forgotten ‘The Twins’?? Thanks for reminding me. It was excellent. I have never heard of the mysteries, but they sound intriguing. I don’t know that I have ever read a novel set in old China. Thanks so much.

  7. Melody

    Another “Dutch” book I would recommend is Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, which was inspired by the amazing dollhouse of Petronella Oortman that is displayed in the Rijksmuseum. Again, it’s a novel written in English by an Englishwoman, but set in Amsterdam in the 17th century. I found it a gorgeous read!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have read ‘The Miniaturist’ and enjoyed it, but didn’t love it. I am fascinated by that period of Dutch history, so perhaps my expectations were too high. But thanks for reminding me of another interesting book set in the Netherlands.

  8. Kate Zimmerman

    Dear Susannah
    I was born in The Netherlands and brought up on the children’s books of W G van den Hulst. Every night after dinner and before bed time we would sit with him on the divan and become immersed in the adventures of a jolly baker and his mean wife. In de Zoete Suikerbol was the name of the series – In the Sweet Sugarbun is my translation.I still have my father’s books in my possession, a little the worse for wear. Later I discovered Dick Bruna and Annie M G Schmidt, the latter wrote poetry, songs, musicals, children’s books and more. At least one of her books has been translated to English, A Pond Full of Ink. Cees Nooteboom is a novelist, poet and travel writer. His book Roads to Santiago I have on my shelves. Many of his books are available in English. Herman Koch was well known for his book The Dinner. Geert Mak is a non-fiction writer. His book Jorwerd is about the six months he spent in rural Friesland. I suspect I will think of others but these are worth a try.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks so much for those excellent additions to my Dutch books list, Kate. What age do you think the Sugarbun books are suitable for? I am thinking of my grandchild and when to introduce him / her to certain books, and the baby has Dutch heritage. They sound delightful. Is the Roads to Santiago book about the pilgrimage route? Many thanks!

      • Kate Zimmerman

        The Sugarbun books were read to us by our father from about the age of five and I still love them. I am not sure they have been translated, so I hope someone in your grandchild’s family can read Dutch! Each page is topped with two black and white illustrations. I believe they are available secondhand on the internet. Indeed the Roads to Santiago is about the pilgrimage route. This route is one of my passions among many others. Enjoy!

        • Susannah Fullerton

          Thanks for the suggestion, Kate. I will look out for the Sugarbun books. My coming grandchild’s grandfather (my son-in-law’s Dad) speaks Dutch (his parents were from the Dutch East Indies) so he would be able to read them aloud.
          One day I would love to do the Santiago to Compostela walk. I need more time in my life!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Two people have now recommended the Herman Koch book to me, so I will add it to my list. Thanks Lorraine!

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