A Secret Language: Dutch and Flemish Writing Today



SHORTLY before the war, the eminent Dutch essayist Menno ter Braak attended an international writers’ congress in Paris. Many distinguished writers had spoken before him, and the audience was very tired by the time he got up to speak. Nobody knew anything about him. Everyone was thirsty. And everyone knew that there was a bar somewhere in the building. While Ter Braak spoke, the audience slowly disappeared, until only Heinrich Mann (Thomas Mann’s brother) and the president of the congress remained. Heinrich Mann whispered, “Who on earth is this man?" And the president whispered back, “I really don’t know.”

I was told this tragi-comic anecdote by the late Eduard du Perron, one of the greatest of modern Dutch writers, who observed, “What a terrible thing it is to write in a secret language!” Indeed, it almost seems as if the Dutch have always written in a secret language, as far as the other nationals are concerned.

A few of our best-selling authors, to be sure, have no reason for complaint. A whole page of a recent German bibliography was devoted to translations of the novels of Jo van Arnmers-Küller, whose fiction is of the caliber fuund in popular women’s magazincs. Jan de Hartog, author ofThe Four poster, is well known abroad; also the prolific woman writer Willy Corsari, who is especially widely read in Scandinavia. The popular regional writer Anne de Vries had her phenomenally successful Bartje translated into twenty-two languages, including Japanese and Chinese. Yet most of the Dutch literature of real significance has remained untranslated.

It would be a valuable stimulus to our most gifted writers, if the international body of publishers would show a bit more interest in Dutch literature, which undoubtedly contains some of the glories admired in Dutch painting.

After these preliminary remarks, I must contradict myself somewhat by pointing out that the Dutch reading audience is not quite so small — at least potentially — as is usually assumed. There is still a sizeable market in Indonesia, and our publishers cling to the hope that Dutch will continue to be used as a second language among the growing body of Indonesian intellectuals. There is a long-standing interest in Dutch literature in the Union of South Africa—Afrikaans, after all, derives from the Dutch. In addition, we still have the Netherlands Antilles in the West Indies and Surinam on the South American continent, where Dutch books are read side by side with Spanish and American.

And there is also Flanders. The cultural frontiers of the Netherlands extend far into our politically independent neighbor Belgium. All through the northern part of that country Flemish is spoken, which, granted differences of idiom, is in effect the same language as our own. There is a steadily growing two-way traffic of literary ideas and books between Belgian Flanders and the Netherlands. The Dutch and the Flemish together are now writing for a potential European audience of eleven million in the Netherlands proper and about four-and-a-half million in Flanders.

Even so, Dutch literature rests on very shaky economic foundations, especially since the tremendous postwar rise in costs of production. It would be an exaggeration to say that there are as many publishers and booksellers in Holland and Flanders as writers, but occasionally you get that impression. On a per capita basis, Holland has three times as many publishers as the U.S.A., and there are actually 1,460 bookshops in our country — you can find two or three good ones even in the smallest towns. The existence of such a large book trade undoubtedly reflects a wide interest in reading. Moreover,

I know of no country in Europe where you find a better organized and more harmonious collaboration between publishers and booksellers. There is only one catch: there is not enough money in it for anyone— especially not for the writers.


IN 1952, the production of new books in the Netherlands— 6,728 titles—was nearly three quarters of that in the United Stales, where the population is fourteen times larger. But the printings are usually small, varying from 1,500 to 10,000. A Serious novel is considered a best-seller when around 5,000 copies are sold; only a very few popular novels pass the 25,000 mark. Quite a few of the booksellers and publishers keep going only precariously; and it is a vital question whether attempts should be made to develop new book outlets in addition to the costly orthodox bookshops — possible equivalents, for instance, of the American drugstore.

One of Holland’s most enterprising publishing houses, the Busy Bee, is a curiosity in this fieldit is run as a co-operative. Its authors receive the usual royalties and also a share in the annual profits — so far, the firm has not had a losing year. The Busy Bee is directed by two young businessmen, Geert Lubberhuizen and Willem Schouten. During the Nazi occupation, while still undergraduates, they organized the escape of Dutch Jews, and in order to raise the necessary funds they started to publish, secretly, occasional volumes of poetry of the Resistance. Today, their firm is a center of all that is young and progressive in Dutch letters.

Within the powerful organization of publishers and booksellers, a Committee for Publicity arranges a yearly Book Week with special literary events. A campaign is launched to convert “book heathen" to the joys of reading and especially buying books — a campaign which has some typically Dutch aspects. A ship with a representative exhibit ot books cruises Dutch waters, landing at any small town where book heathen are likely to be found. It is difficult to find out how many converts are made; but even in the smallest port ol call, whether it be on the shores of the Zuider Zee or on any of the big rivers, almost everyone excitedly gathers around the harbor when the “book ship" is seen sailing in.

The Dutch-Flemish writer, in addition to having a small audience, has to struggle against the massive competition of foreign literature. In 1952, a little more than half of the novels and long stories published were translations, three out of four foreign titles being translated from the English and American, with U.S. fiction claiming the largest share. The same situation applies to Flanders. Then, too, there is a form of snobbery which works against the writers of the Low Countries. In Holland, it is possible to meet cultured persons who will declare, with a certain pride, that they never read a Dutch book. They would be ashamed, however, to admit they had not heard of the latest title by a prominent British or American author; and Dutch society especially in the provinces — will flock to a lecture about English or American literature. The regular editions of U.S. books are too expensive for most people in Holland, but there is a tremendous market for the American paperbacks. This situation certainly helps to keep Dutch writers, who are themselves verv internalionally-minded, on their toes. But the danger is that they will not keep solvent.

Whether the writer in the Lowlands likes it or not, he has to look lor a job. The majority prefer to stay as close as possible to the creative field by working as journalists. This work taps a great deal of their energy and forces them to become “Sunday writers.” They all dream of gaining complete liberty, but few succeed. During the war the situation was slightly different. In that strange period of les grandes vacancies, as some french writer has called the occupation years, a new literary generation came into being. It was a dreadful period, hut it gave the artist a sense of belonging, of close comradeship with the people. In spite of the hardships of the occupation, the spiritual insult of being bossed by the invader, the lack of publication possibilities except in the underground press, the arts were greatly stimulated. Writers, who in our competitive society often feel isolated, lost that feeling because the whole of society was isolated. Poetry, which had long been neglected, seemed to have a real function again as an assertion of the free spirit, and was widely circulated from hand to hand. Economically, too, there were fewer difficulties. Money did not mean a great deal — everyone had plenty of it (underground publications were well paid), and no one could buy much with it. Publishers, who were day-dreaming of the sales possibilities after the war, made large advances on all kinds of manuscripts.

Immediately after the war, too, publishers were fighting for books. Customers were begging the bookseller to let them have a copy of anybody’s newest novel or book of poetry. The cultural department of the government embarked on generous plans for promoting the arts. Within a couple of years, however, the tide had turned to the writer’s disadvantage; and the new generation of writers, who had refused to believe that they could not make a living by their art, were bitterly disillusioned.

I have often wondered what kind of literature an American would expect from the Lowlands. On the surface our country may appear to be nothing more than a neatly run toyland. Only when you look deeper do you become aware of a certain grandeur in the landscape with its variegated sky and infinity of clouds, with its sometimes glaring sun, mysterious mists and strong winds, and its broad stretches of water leading to the sea. Then, although the Netherlands is a tiny country, it lies on the crossroads of two civilizations, the Germanic and the Roman, and shows a keen awareness of other cultures. The contribution from the surrounding countries has been completely assimilated, but the spirit of Dutch literature is far removed from the tourist’s image of Holland. You should not look for a quainlly picturesque Dutch literature. Let me quote from Silt and Sky, a spirited little book on Dutch letters by Annie Romein-Verschoor: —

“The Dutch spirit may be more specific than any other national spirit, but it lies deeper; it is, as in every ancient culture, no less historically defined than by climate and landscape, and it is not visibly linked with wooden shoes and windmills. One trait is its adaptability, an adaptability acquired by this small and ancient merchant people during their centuries of intensive commercial relations with surrounding nations, and a correspondingly weak or at least critical, nationalism. The modern Dutch writer[’s] . . . conscious purpose is to achieve a European level rather than to express the national spirit. He knows only too well that the conscious expression of the national spirit is the prerogative of the great cultural nations, and that in the smaller nations it too easily degenerates into a hollow chauvinism, for which he has a spirited contempt.” This applies to Flanders as well.


ONE OF the most important traits of the literature of the Lowlands is the strong pictorial influence. In all periods of Dutch and Flemish letters, there has been an intimateinterplay between painters and writers. The art of storytelling is not particularly developed in our literature; on the other hand you often find a superlative gift for creating atmosphere, for evoking the most vivid scenes. The pictorial influence is powerfully exemplified in the work of one of our greatest epic writers of this century, Arthur van Sehendel (1874-1946), who in his most mature writing creates the same scenic and, especially, moral world as you find in Rembrandt’s paintings.

The interpenetration between painting and writing is so natural that most of the Dutch artists in both fields are hardly conscious of it. Yet it is evident that a recent novel of the grand old man of Flemish letters, Herman Teirlinck’s The Fight with the Angel, is inspired by the rich colors of Rubens’ great work. In a novel by the young Flemish author Hubert Lampo, The Promise to Rachel, which describes the biblical Joseph as a dictator, the ancient landscape of Canaan and Egypt closely resemble the Flemish countryside of Brueghel’s paintings. Marnix Gijsen’s evocation of even the remotest ancient world is saturated with the golden glitter of Flemish wheat fields at harvest time.

Marnix Gijson is the pen name of the fifty-fouryear-old Jan-Albert Goris, director of the Belgian Information Service in New York. One of the most successful books of this richly gifted Flemish writer is Joachim of Babylon, the story of the husband of the Suzanna of ancient times who takes a bitter second look at his frigid wife who made a cull of her virtue. The action of his latest novel, The Flesh pots of Egypt, takes place in America and describes the difficult situation of the European intellectual who cannot completely accept the New World, yet cannot exist without it, once he has lived in it.

Adrianus Roland Holst (1888), one of our most significant poets — though withdrawn in his own mythological world, like Yeats, to whom he owes a debt — is nevertheless a poet of the wild threatening sea and sand dunes under hurriedly moving clouds. In the poetry of longing and disillusion of one of our elder pools, J. C. Bloem, the atmosphere of old Dutch provincial towns is reflected in the melancholy mood of a perpetual misty autumn. The work of Martinas Nijhoff, the gifted poet who died only last summer, seems to catch the crystalclear morning light of a Dutch int erior by Vermeer.

The group of Dutch poets who grew up in the Depression period with an intense awareness of the coming war mirrored the same irrational fear as you find in the “magic-realistic” school of painters. The poems of Eduard Hoornik (1910— ), who spent some of the war years in Dachau, are notable for their sense of intimate related ness to the collective sufferings of our day. Ferdinand Bordewijk (1884), an elder novelist and short-story writer, is completely at home in this modern spiritual atmosphere. The main theme of his works is the search for an equilibrium between the two opposites of chaotic fear and severe discipline. The impressive new writer A. Alberts treats a similar subject in his collection of stories about the small isolated Indonesian islands, De Eilanden, where a lonely Dutch civil servant attempts to fight the gloomy atmosphere of mental disintegration. Adriaan Morriën is the exact opposite of these writers in his emphatic affirmation of the blessings of the natural life. Yet he occasionally betrays his doubts in the ironical handling of his material. To chase away the shadows of melancholy, he clings desperately to the earthy attachments, especially the relation between man, woman, and child, which he sees as the sole justification of life.

Finally, the experimental Dutch-Flemish writers who have emerged into the foreground since the war pursue strikingly similar aims to those of the experimental semi-abstract painters. In fact this poetry, in which the value of the single word is stressed instead of that of word groups, is a logical continuation of the postwar experimental painting which is seen in the studios of Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Brussels. Atonaal, an anthology of the new poetry, contains illustrations by the new avant-garde artists. The young author Hans Andreus described his latest volume of poems as idea-pictures — “notion-pictures” — which are meant to convey the same sensations as abstract art; and as title Andreus revealingly chose The Art of Painting.


THIS pictorial background of Dutch literature, however important, does not prevent the writers in the Lowlands from exercising their remarkable facility for appropriating foreign material, It may be true that we are exceptionally good ruminators of other people’s ideas, as one Dutch writer rather maliciously said of his colleagues. Some of the more traditional poets, such as Martinus Nijhoff, work in the vein of Eliot. (Nijhoff translated The Cocktail Party, which was a success on the Dutch stage.) There are also those steeped in the French symbolist tradition — for instance Victor Emmanuel van Vriesland, an erudite essayist and a poet of the finest sensibility, who exercises a strong influence on Dutch letters.

But somet hing essentially Dutch is added — even in experimental prose such as that of thirty-fiveyear-old Bert Schierbeek, whose works are written under the influence of both Kenneth Patchen (whose Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer is well known here) and Henry Miller, who has quite a number of disciples in Holland, as has Ezra Pound.

The influence of the existentialist movement has also been considerable; it has produced a number of savagely pessimistic works far removed indeed from the stereotypes about the supposedly placid, goodnatured Dutchman. No less important has been the contact with surrealism. Young poets like Lucebert and Remco Campert found in the work of French poets from Apollinaire to Michaux an antidote to the paralyzing effects of the occupation; the affirmation that one can enjoy a dynamic life even without illusions. Characteristic of their work is the growing independence of metaphor, which approaches the autonomy of the dream life. The young poets have eagerly welcomed any contact with foreign writers whose work corresponds to their needs. The visit of a single American poet such as Robert Lowell, who made many friends in Amsterdam, had almost revolutionary effects on the poetry of, for instance, Adriaan Morrien, a writer who until then had worked in the formal tradition.

The talented woman poet M. Vasalis has aptly described this experimental poetry as “Rorschach tests.” This comparison with one of the tools of psychiatry reminds us of the subtle but pervasive influence of Freudian doctrine. Despite Holland’s strong Calvinistic background and ingrained moral conservatism, Freudianism has undoubtedly become an important component of our culture. The analytical urge is not only noticeable in the spread of thinly disguised autobiography, the search for the hidden element in human nature, but also in the technique of the essayists and the new jargon of literary criticism.

The main literary theorists of the ‘thirties, Menno ter Braak and Eduard du Perron, wanted less surface— fewer fine phrases—and greater sincerity. Eduard du Perron’s The Land of Origin—a story of his youth in Indonesia and mature years in France, which was aggressively called “an antinovel” — is the best example of this kind of resolutely honest literature. A young essayist who pursues a similar line of thought is Hans Gomperts. He might almost be called a disciple of the American critic Edmund Wilson, who is highly esteemed among the intellectuals in Holland. Gomperts, too, concentrates on giving a complete picture of the writer as a man, partly through explanation of the inner meanings of his work, partly through investigation of his psychological and cultural background.

Freud’s influence has been most strongly marked in our greatest writer, the fifty-one-year-old Simon Vestdijk. Although he embarked on his writing career relatively late in life, Vestdijk — a physician by training, as well as poet, novelist, short-story writer and essayist — had produced more than fifty books of real importance before his fiftieth year. An extremely subtle psychologist, Simon Vestdijk, like Thomas Mann, owes a great deal to a clever manipulation of Freud’s anthropological theories and to a Joycean projection of the states of consciousness. In fact, one of his early novels, Mr. Visser’s Descent into Hell, is entirely based on the interior monologue of Joyce’s Ulysses. It is even possible that for Vestdijk, whose large production undoubtedly indicates a strong inner compulsion, writing has a necessary therapeutic function. His first manuscript of no less than 1,200 folio pages, out of which he later extracted five novels and several long stories, was written after a long period of illness. When Eduard du Perron had convinced him that he had exceptional literary gifts, he sat down to work and has not stopped writing since. Even during the war, as a hostage in a German internment camp, he continued producing novels, essays, and poetry. A young writer recently published a poem picturing Vestdijk in his garden, armed with a fearful whip, playing Simon Degree to nine hundred negro slaves who were writing his books for him. The joke is a good indication of the perplexity in the Netherlands about this one-man literary factory.

There are Dutchmen who would argue that the strongest prose writing in the postwar literature of the Low Countries has come from Flanders. In fact, during last year’s Book Week a cartoon appeared in one of the leading weeklies depicting a Bookstand groaning under the weight of new Flemish novels; beside it there was a meager display of books by Dutch writers. Flanders is a land of peasants and of a sturdy small-town bourgeoisie. The rural background of so many of the Flemish writers may explain their strength and vitality. Creatively they live long, which is exemplified by Herman Teirlinck, who produced his major novel at the age of seventythree and who is still the undisputed leader of Flemish literary life.

Marnix Gijsen has published in the postwar period one admirable novel after another, and Raymond Brulez (1895— ) is finishing the last volume in an autobiographical series built around the theme My Homes. Brulez has always been a delightful writer with a philosophical turn of mind. In his fictionalized autobiography — a valuable record of the Flemish bourgeoisie in the first half of the twentieth century—he is not only an ironical rationalist of the Voltairean school, but also an accomplished social psychologist. His work contains all of the best qualities of Flemish writing: a strong sense of realily as well as mystical wonderment about the nature of human existence.

A happy mixture of acute sensitivity and ironical common sense is also to be found in the fiction of the elder novelist Willem Elsschot (1882— ), who bitingly satirized the methods of advertising in his novel Huckstering—Elsschot has been a successful advertising executive all his life. Gerard Walschap (1898) is a masterly psychological observer of the pathological aspects of Flemish rural life. In his latest novel, Revolt in the Congo, Walschap, who owes a debt to the French writer Francois Mauriac, directed his keen powers of observation at the Belgian overseas possessions, where he analyzes the relations between the blacks and the whites. To Maurice Roelanls (1895) goes the credit for introducing into Flemish letters the strictly psychological novel of Gallic clarity and lyrical tenderness of phrase, such as his Coming and Going. The restlessly active Johan Daisne intermixes dream and reality in his novels, notably in The Stairs of Stones and Clouds and The Man Who Had a Haircut.

To conclude this sketchy report on recent Flemish writing, mention should be made of twentyfour-year-old Hugo Claus, who shows the greatest zest and promise among the experimental Flemish writers. His best work so far is the novel The Dog Dugs, which is the moving record of a boy’s life at the transition point between the freedom of youth and the responsibility of maturity.

The contemporary literature of Flanders undoubtedly reflects a mood of greater optimism and self-confidence than you will find in Holland. An important factor in determining the state of mind of the young Flemish writers is the fact that their liberation from the Germans came much earlier than did that of the Dutch. The war created in Amsterdam, the cultural capital of the Netherlands, exaggerated expectations about the postwar prospects for the artist; and the strong disillusionment which set in was first reflected in a disgust about all heroics of the Resistance.

Let me quote a typical statement of one of the young poets, Simon Yinkenoog. “The mediocrity of this war bred a mediocre poetry, which expressed either the false heroism of the Resistance or the hyper-aesthetic poetry of isolation.”

The sense of insufficiency and failure is strongly marked in the novel, I Am Always Right, of the thirty-two-year-old Willem Frederik Hermans. The story describes the nearly insane bitterness of a young Dutch soldier, who after postwar fighting in the former Netherlands Indies has to return to the overpopulated Netherlands. This sentiment is also reflected in the work of another young talent, Gerard Kornelis van het Reve. After a disenchanted description of the background of his youth, The Evenings, written in a prose reminiscent of the early Hemingway, Van hot Reve renounced writing in Dutch altogether in order to switch to English — for him symbolically the language of the free spirit.

These young writers with their claustrophobic nightmares feel themselves to be displaced persons shut up in a prison of circumstances not of their own making. They do not realize how much they mirror in their work the widespread tensions of their generation which came of age in the era of the concentration camp. But although they may write in a “secret" language, they afe open to the world. These young authors are doing symbolically what so many emigrating Hollanders do in reality: looking for living space. Something worth while may crystallize out of their dissatisfaction. Unconsciously they are pleading for something which, in political terms, could perhaps be translated into the idea of a United States of Europe. A sense of belonging to a community larger than Holland max be the answer to their spiritual needs.