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“To get the dollies dancing” is the Dutch equivalent of “opening up a can of worms”, which is precisely what happened after Jonathan invited me to compile my personal anthology of favourite Dutch short stories. There were worms and dancing dollies. It was a mess, but also hugely entertaining.
To begin with, I was forced to admit that – despite having a Dutch passport, writing novels in Dutch and living the life of a Dutchman in Amsterdam for more than thirty years – I am not a huge fan of Dutch literature. This brutal admission prompted a great deal of soul searching on my part, taking me all the way back to 1986, which is the year I re-emigrated to the Netherlands at the age of twenty, having spent most of my youth in South Africa, where I was transformed into a loyal speaker of the Queen’s English.
As I intended to start a new life in Amsterdam, I vowed to swiftly reacquaint myself with my mother tongue. Fortunately, I had a head start over other immigrants, because I could read and speak Dutch, which I cheekily supplemented with the Afrikaans vocabulary I had picked up at school in South Africa.
This delighted my new Dutch friends, but also became a source of embarrassment to me, so I began asking them to lend me their favourite Dutch books, hoping to improve my proficiency. These modern classics by authors like Hermans, Mulisch, Reve, Haasse and Wolkers all seemed somewhat introverted and insular, almost invariably containing some shadow of the nation’s great trauma: the occupation of the Netherlands and its colonies by German and Japanese forces. Many of the narrators also seemed to be struggling to free themselves from the religious strictures of an older generation, often resorting to some form of sexual exploration/liberation to achieve this.
When I cautiously mentioned this to a Dutch friend, he remarked that Dutch literature might indeed seem slightly boring to a newcomer, because it was more about style than about the story. “But don’t worry,” he added, “Because I also have this entire bookcase over here with works by Böll, Camus, Eco, Garcia Marques Kundera, Nabokov and all the others authors of the alphabet.”
And so I discovered that I could quite easily improve my proficiency in Dutch without reading a single word of Dutch literature. In fact, I am convinced that my knowledge of Dutch has given me greater access to foreign literature and culture than English ever could have, simply because so many great books from other cultures are available in Dutch translation.
Another thing that skewed my opinion of Dutch literature was the movie Turks Fruit (Turkish Fruit, 1973), which is based on a bestselling novel by Jan Wolkers. My Dutch friends loved this movie and invited me over to watch it on television, delighting in the weak jokes, wooden dialogue and unsubtle performances. Naturally, I refrained from sharing this opinion with them at the time, not wanting to spoil their fun and our budding friendship.
My subsequent encounters with Dutch movies were equally disappointing and so I stopped watching them almost entirely, which wasn’t a problem because Amsterdam’s many art-house cinemas (now sadly in decline) offered almost unlimited opportunities to watch the best movies from all corners of the globe, subtitled in Dutch.
To complicate things further, I enrolled at the University of Amsterdam and discovered that all the textbooks were in English and that I was completely free to write my exams and essays in English.
It was also around this time that I realised my written proficiency in Dutch would never match my ability in English, and so I began restricting myself to books and magazines in English, which were also freely available everywhere in Amsterdam.
In short, I never really made a conscious effort to avoid Dutch literature. It’s just that the Netherlands (and Amsterdam in particular) offers access to so many other cultures that it’s quite easy to overlook Dutch literature entirely.
Having dealt with the worms, it was time to get the dollies dancing, almost literally in this instance, because I decided to compensate for my woefully inadequate knowledge of local literature by asking Dutch authors, publishers, reviewers and book lovers in general to share their favourites with me. The idea being to read these stories, write a brief review and translate an excerpt into English, so that an international audience might join me as I acquainted myself with the stories and styles of some of the Netherlands’ best-loved authors.
You may rest assured, dear reader, that you’re getting these tips straight from the mouths of Dutch literary thoroughbreds, which is why I’ll also be dropping names and brief bios for those who suggested stories.
To make things even more exciting, the Dutch Foundation for Literature has taken note of my voyage of discovery and, who knows, all this attention may even result in an actual anthology of Dutch short stories in English.
Having said all that, here’s hoping you enjoy this bloemlezing (readers’ bouquet) of excerpts from Dutch short stories.
Suggested by Peter Abelsen, novelist and translator of the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Tennessee Williams, Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen.
In just under 1,500 words, Wolkers sketches a vivid portrait of a seemingly ordinary family and its chequered past. A marble sphinx on the mantelpiece, endowed with spectacular breasts, reminds the narrator of an incident from the war. The author’s wry style shines through in this excerpt, in which a photo of his grandfather kick-starts the narrator’s memory. He has the light eyes and worried frown of an obsessive-compulsive. My mother told me, in the old days, when he’d come home, my gran would always say: Quick, set the cups straight! And the kids would turn the motif on the cups until it was lined up with the motif on the saucers. He wouldn’t greet anyone when he came in. He’d just stare at the cups. Then he’d grab his paper and, before lowering himself into the armchair, he’d check if there were any bits of fluff on the cushion. I look him in the eye. He’s looking at the photographer. You died of cancer, I think to myself. You reproduced yourself. I too will die of cancer. The tumour doesn’t fall far from the tree. When he first went to hospital, they put a tube up his bottom for his stools. But the disease filled his bowels with rampant toadstools and he soon had a whole sewerage system lying beside him in bed. There was no stopping it. Even so, he managed to get into a fight with the nurse, about an hour before he died, because she hadn’t placed the flowers I’d brought dead-centre on his bedside table.
From the collection Serpentina’s Petticoat, 1961. Available online in Dutch here
Suggested by Joost Nijsen, founder of the publishing house Podium, one of the champions of the Dutch short story, regularly publishing collections and anthologies by local and foreign authors.
This story sets off like an ordinary walk in the park, but you soon find yourself in the woods, where you tumble down a surreal rabbit hole, which leaves you wondering what happened, gasping with surprise and disgust.“Do you come here often?” she asked with a perfectly poised smile.
“How often is often?” the poor man shrugged. “Maybe two or three times a week. It’s beautiful here, as I said, and you live in a wonderful house. Very impressive, that white among the green”
“It was very expensive, but I think it’s worth it. It was my late husband’s. It’s ever-so-tranquil living here. Everything seems easier when you live in a house like this. Do you have a nice place?”
“I have a room in the centre of town. It’s small, but I live comfortably.”
“A house is so important for one’s wellbeing. It makes up for so much of life’s misery.”
The poor man could no longer contain himself.
“You’re absolutely right!” he cried. “So very right. I can’t tell you what I wouldn’t give to live in a house like yours!”
As he said this, the two Great Danes leapt into the canal with playful enthusiasm. Minutes later they scrabbled onto the bank, barking wildly. They sniffed around in the leaves with their wet noses. Then, as if rehearsed, they both stopped, squatted on the wet quay and, with the look of those absorbed in prayer, twisted out two giant piles of poo. There was a distance of approximately a metre and half between the two boluses, which lay steaming in the autumn morning chill.
The lady, who had been sitting ducked down deep in her priceless fur coat contemplating the man’s words, suddenly got a strange twinkling in her silver-blue-shadowed eyes. An unfamiliar, but not unpleasant, tingling made its way from her toes to her tummy.
“I’d like to make you an offer,” she began. “Did you see what my two darlings were up to a moment ago?”
“They leapt into the canal,” replied the man. “They’re such swift, athletic creatures, as anyone can see.”
“I mean on the quay,” the lady pointed. “Over there. Those mounds are impossible to ignore.”
Her mother-of-pearl polished nail directed his gaze towards the two glistening dark-brown piles of dog poo.
“If you eat those two turds, I will give you my home. The home of your dreams, along with the garden and everything in it.
From the collection Begeerte (Desire), 1995. Available in English translation in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, Penguin, 2016. Available online in Dutch here
Suggested by Bas Belleman, a poet, reviewer, essayist and translator of Shakespeare’s sonnets, who is currently managing Holland’s youngest and hottest funk quartet, starring his three sons and their cousin.
It’s hard to imagine that this dark tale of obsession was first published more than a century ago. The charming, florid prose may seem slightly dated, but the obsession that plagues a young operagoer is all too familiar in a world where a vast array of stimuli constantly vie for our attention.He could not clearly see who was seated there, directly below him. The theatre was very dark. But it was this darkness, in which the outlines of the audience dwindled, that he saw once more, yonder, the dove-grey lady he had noticed earlier, who had grabbed the fluttering programme. And the shave-skulled gentleman who sat beside her…
His skull gleamed. Amid the thousand, closely clustered, attentive silhouettes and coiffured feminine heads, but also bald masculine heads, the distant skull gleamed… It gleamed at approximately three-quarters of the sloping distance between the fourth rank and the stage below… It gleamed round, as a full moon of obsession, sunken between figures cloaked in darkness; pious crowns and motionless backs, enraptured; it gleamed like a goal, like a target; it gleamed white; it glistened…
From the collection Proza, (Prose), 1920. Available in English translation in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, Penguin, 2016 and available online in Dutch here
Suggested by author Jan van Mersbergen, who is on the editorial team of De Revisor, but also a generous connector in the Dutch literary scene and an infamous defender in the Amsterdam Saturday League.
Another delightfully absurd story involving pets. A couple find an original way to cope with the death of their dog, adding a new dimension to their own lives and offering an intriguing take on the Dutch expression “niks menselijks is ons vreemd” (we are all prone to human frailty).She asked him on a Wednesday evening. He had swum his lengths at the local pool. When he returned, she said: “I miss the dog.”
“I know,” he said. His hair was still wet. Fifty lengths he’d swum. To stay fit, now that he no longer had to walk the dog and throw sticks around.
Sanderijn was in the kitchen, leaning against the fridge. She had fried potatoes, sliced iceberg lettuce, laid it out on plates.
‘Could you imitate him?’ she asked. She stroked Hans’ head, ruffling his wet hair.
Hans did not reply. He just gave her a quizzical look.
“The dog,” she said. “I really miss him.”
“His barking,” she said. “The fun we had.”
“I’m not going to imitate the dog,” said Hans. “The dog is dead.”
“Yes,” said Sanderijn. “Exactly. It’s so quiet around here.”
She kept quiet for a moment to emphasize the silence.
“Just bark once,” she said. “To hear what it was like. Try it, for me.”
Hans barked. It sounded lame. He didn’t sound like a man who knew how to imitate a barking dog.
“No,” said Sanderijn. “You can do better than that.”
Hans barked again. Much better this time. Sanderijn took a step forward.
“Down,” she said.
“That’s enough now,” said Hans. “Is there any meat?”
“Down,” Sanderijn said once more. She looked strict, raised her finger and put Hans in his place, just as she had done with the dog.
In De Revisor, Biannual Edition 2011-2. Available online in Dutch here
Suggested by Bart Wessels, former marketing manager at Singel Publishers, where he currently heads the imprint Volt, focusing on translated work by leading foreign authors.
Driven by the desire for love and joy (or perhaps just a tranquil harbour where his soul can find rest), the narrator sails the seven seas in search of the woman of his dreams. This detailed, sublimely written ship’s log hints at the many hours Slauerhoff spent at sea as a surgeon. “My miserable life was slung across those three encounters like a broken bridge on wrecked pillars,” the narrator laments. Then you appeared on one of the verandas of the last house. That’s when it began. You leaned over the unpainted balustrade. You did not look up at first, but a glance was all I needed to take you in from top to toe, from your skin’s surface to your innermost depths. Still you resembled so many other Spanish women, with a mantle around your slim shoulders, your pose betraying the promise of slender and sultry movement, and of course you wore a red flower in your all too shiny hair. Although I could not see your eyes, your overall appearance hinted at their colour and gaze. When you looked up, just as the train was gathering speed, several metres from the window, I was dismayed to see your eyes were filled with the suffering that has waited patiently for centuries and, despite the grief and subjugation, has refused to submit, but has instead grown stronger in resistance, as if it awaits a single unspeakable word to rise up proud and irresistible, as if that long humiliation were borne arbitrarily, driven by a strange desire to be put to the test. That is how you looked at me and I forgot everything, even that I was being dragged onward, and so I was shaken by the torment that overcomes us all; to be faced suddenly with a life-changing decision, which must be taken that very instant or never again, and once taken is forever irrevocable. This truly is our mortal struggle, in the midst of life, compared to which our later death is merely a painless ascent, but I did nothing and lost you, Larrios.
from the collection Schuim en Asch (Foam and Ash), 1930. Available online in Dutch here
Suggested by an anonymous editor at Tzum.info, a leading Dutch literary website. Tzum annually organises a competition for the best sentence published in Dutch during the previous year. The cash prize is equal to the number of words in the sentence.
This story almost immediately immerses the reader in a clandestine relationship between a young woman and her elderly lover, mapping out memory and loss inexcruciating detail, as the following excerpt confirms.The rain has stopped and a stiff, warm breeze is blowing. Against a dark-blue sky, tatters of black cloud race past a moon in its first quarter. The streets are quiet. A weekday night.
He has wrapped his arm around her and she lets him set the pace, which adds stability and rhythm to her unsteadiness. This makes for pleasant walking, especially if he keeps quiet.
The narrow bed in her dorm room creaks disconcertingly under his weight. He is too colossal, in every way, for these tiny quarters full of girly accessories, dried flowers and frilly cushions. A lion in a boudoir. He has chairs at home that even two men cannot lift. Standing by the window a moment ago, he lifted a fragile, light-blue bottle full of cuttings off the windowsill, holding it up to the light to study the delicate roots, before smiling and replacing it with the utmost care. He is studying her with much the same smile now.
An unbearable gaze, prompting her to pull him towards her by his shirt sleeves. He is warm and heavy and smells of cigars. He speaks – his voice a double bass – then he kisses her gently, as if any greater force might snap her like a stick of cinnamon. She trembles under his caressing hands.
Published in Hollands Maandblad, 1988. Available online in Dutch here