My Mini Dutch Literary Canon, or Just a Few Book Recommendations

When you have acquired a degree in Dutch and English literature and linguistics, you almost automatically become a kind of cultural ambassador. It’s a bit of an odd position to be in at times, because you could say I adore the foreign. I married it, and I live in it. I can’t even remember the last Dutch book I read. I think the last book I read in Dutch was Dien het volk, but that’s a translation from Chinese. Actually not too long before that I (finally!) read Karakter, so I do remember. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I’m currently reading Pallieter, so it’s not all bad. In any case, I mostly read in English, and lately also a fair bit in French. To balance it out, I’ve also taken care to include some German because it was feeling left out. On a whim I picked up an anthology of Heinrich Heine for €1 and I’m absolutely loving Ideen. Das Buch Le Grand. But we don’t care about foreign literature in this blog post, even though Dutch literature obviously doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. No doubt, throughout the centuries it has been most strongly influenced by the cultural spaces of the very languages I myself still read. My basic interest in foreign literature probably makes me quite fundamentally Dutch.

My goal here is not to give an extensive overview of Dutch literature through the centuries, nor is my exclusion of works meant to imply that I don’t like them, for I probably do. Above all, my goal here is to make a selection that I consider enjoyable. If you want more, I recommend you to look at the literary canon from a Flemish perspective, the DBNL basic library, and the DBNL questionnaire among experts.

  1. Van den vos Reynaerde (13th century). Available in English translation as Of Reynaert the Fox, full PDF here. This work is rightfully considered a masterpiece. Inspired by a French original using the basic format of the Arthurian romance, it shows the whole world to be corrupt and egotistical. Its cleverness, its dark humor, its cruelty and its mix of genres make this the seminal text in the international Reynard tradition.
  2. Conscience, Hendrik (1838), De leeuw van Vlaenderen (The Lion of Flanders). Derided in the Netherlands by contemporaries who were writing Literature with a capital L, which has no place for silly nationalist works. Even Flemish people tend to barely consider him readable, but it’s not even half as bad as it’s cracked up to be. And besides, how many novels can claim to have had the same kind of cultural impact? Flanders probably wouldn’t exist in its present form if it weren’t for this book.
  3. Multatuli (1860), Max Havelaar. One of the best novels of the 19th century in any language, provided you can get past the first chapter or two. Even though Multatuli is clearly mocking the kind of then prevalent preachy, moralistic, long-winded narrator, it’s the kind of parody that is almost indistinguishable from what is being mocked, at least for a contemporary reader. I have previously quoted what I considered to be a particularly poignant passage.
  4. Elschot, Willem (1946), Het Dwaallicht (Will o’ the Wisp). Sex, religion, Biblical references… this novella has it all. In Elschot’s work, even failure is glorious.
  5. Maria Dermoût (1955), De tienduizend dingen (The Ten Thousand Things). This book lives and breathes the eastern, taoist world view. I suppose you could compare it to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, although it’s nothing like it. This is a fully engrossing, almost mythical world.
  6. Hermans, Willem Frederik (1958, 1966), Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep, 1966) and De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles, 1958). Hermans wrote several other very worthwhile books, but those two are definitely the big ones. All of his work is very dark and not everybody likes it, but I call it Dutch postmodernism at its best.
  7. Michiels, Ivo (1963), Het boek Alfa. I have some doubts about including this book on this list, but it’s the closest equivalent I can think of to something by Joyce or The Sound and the Fury. Just like Finnegans Wake it isn’t necessarily about something but rather embodies it, but it isn’t even half as incomprehensible. This is an important book in Dutch literature for sure, but I prefer The Sound and the Fury.

Hopefully I’ve managed to spark some interest in these works. Enjoy your summer reading!

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