‘Socks’ by Sarvat Hasin

The first time their mother disappeared, they were in a supermarket.

You Can’t Go Home Again, the collection from which this story comes, is a delicate blend of the mundane and the mythic, charting the adult lives of a group of school friends who experienced a disturbing incident as teenagers. Throughout the collection, unease bleeds and tangles its way through often unremarkable circumstances and in ‘Socks’, I think this feeling is at its most heightened. Creating a world of stark daylight and creeping darkness, the story deals with parents and children, suggested ghosts and djinns, always counterbalanced by a grounding realism. Hasin is good at lists – at the cumulative power of objects, supermarket items, possessions, clothes, and the eerie aspects they can take on when shown in the wrong light.

Collected in You Can’t Go Home Again, Penguin India, 2018

‘William Holds the Stage’ by Richmal Crompton

Taking a quick detour into classic children’s comedy, in which no-one is stalked by a grisly double but a schoolboy does nearly drive his teacher insane. I think including this story might be cheating, since I listened to the audiotapes – read by Martin Jarvis – so much as a child that I’m not entirely convinced I’ve ever actually read it. A story in which William Brown gets involved in a production of Hamlet, ‘William Holds The Stage’ contains probably the finest takedown in English Literature of Shakespeare-truthers, and it’s my favourite for this reason:

“How could that other man Ham…”
“I said Bacon.”
“Well, it’s nearly the same,” said William. “Well, how could this man Bacon write them if Shakespeare wrote them?”
“Ah, but you see I don’t believe that Shakespeare did write them,” said Mr Welbecker mysteriously.
“Well, why’s he got his name printed on all the books then?” said William. “An’ if this other man Eggs…”
“I said Bacon,” snapped Mr Welbecker again. “I want first to tell you the story of the play of which you are all going to act a scene,” he said. “There was a man called Hamlet…”
“You just said he was called Bacon,” said William.
“I did not say he was called Bacon,” snapped Mr Welbecker.
“Yes, ‘scuse me, you did,” said William politely.
“Listen!This man was called Hamlet and his uncle had killed his father because he wanted to marry his mother.”
“What did he want to marry his mother for?” said William. “I’ve never heard of anyone wanting to marry their mother.”
“It was Hamlet’s mother he wanted to marry.”
“Oh, that man that you think wrote the plays.”

Collected in William The Pirate, George Newnes, 1932

‘Luxury Hour’ by Sarah Hall

A woman takes a morning off from her husband and new baby to go swimming at a lido and runs into an ex-boyfriend, freshly returned from his travels. This obviously works on its own, but might also be a reference to the last third of Jane Eyre, if looked at with the right eyes. I read this story first in a collection of shorts inspired by Jane Eyre and only later came across it in Hall’s collection Madame Zero. On reading it a second time, I was aware of the strange additional layer of context that I might never have assumed otherwise – the ex-boyfriend could be a St John Rivers proxy or could simply be an ex-boyfriend. In a way, this confusion is emblematic of Hall’s strength as a writer; you can take her writing almost any way you want to and its power, at its core, remains the same.

‘Luxury Hour’, regardless of context, is a story about swimming, about the freedom and fierce joy of it and the way the violence of outdoor swimming can briefly throw you out of your life. Wiry and tender, like almost all of Hall’s writing, it captures the ache of dissatisfaction and the panic of choice, made all the sharper by watching this woman go from the cold clarity of the pool straight back to the wooly uncertainty of her life.

Collected in Reader, I Married Him, The Borough Press, 2016, and Madame Zero, Faber & Faber, 2017

‘Episode of the Dog McIntosh’ by P.G. Wodehouse

This is really a placeholder for the platonic ideal of the Jeeves story, because I can’t realistically be expected to choose. Wodehouse is fun to read and even more fun to read aloud, ideally to your partner whilst doing the voices. I advise starting with this one – Bertie Wooster has to babysit an Aberdeen terrier, provide lunch for an American theatre impresario and avoid upsetting his Aunt Agatha, all in the space of one day. Any number of funny voices are required. 

First published in The Strand Magazine, 1929 as “Jeeves and the Dog McIntosh”. Collected in Very Good, Jeeves,Herbert Jenkins, 1930. Currently findable in The World of Jeeves, Arrow, 2008

Introduction

“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.

‘Het tillenbeest’ (‘The Mammary Beast’) by Jan Wolkers

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