notes on dutch literature

Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Tomorrow Pamplona

In Review on January 21, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Tomorrow Pamplona-Jan van Mersbergen
“Good – and sometimes even great – literature comes in all shapes and sizes and in the case of Peirene’s classy novellas, small is usually beautiful. In Tomorrow Pamplona, a haunting and sometimes violent exploration of the masculine psyche, the power of the story lies not so much in its noir-style beauty as in its terse, testosterone-generated energy.[…].” Pam Norfolk, Iomtoday

Peirene Press published Tomorrow Pamplona, a short novel by Jan van Mersbergen in 2011 (first published in Dutch in 2007), translated by Laura Watkinson. A professional boxer and a family man meet by chance on a journey to the Pamplona Bull Run. The boxer is fleeing an unhappy love. The father hopes to escape his dull routine. Both know that, eventually, they will have to return to the place each calls ‘home’. A story about anger, aggression and the desire for intimacy.

Van Mersbergen’s spare, subtle, almost poetic style is a perfect match for a dual narrative journey which slowly reveals the secrets of a young boxer fleeing his lover’s betrayal, and a middle-aged husband and father seeking a dangerous reprieve from his dull, domestic routine. Violence, both professional and domestic, forms the backdrop to boxer Danny’s life. When he hitches a lift from insurance worker Robert, we know only that he is fleeing a brutal act of aggression and an unhappy relationship.

Tomorrow Pamplona deliberately echoes Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Van Mersbergen explores similar themes of alienation, and his spare prose succinctly expresses the angst of his two male protagonists – caused for Robert by the banality of his life, and for Danny by a lost love. Both men are wounded – either physically or emotionally. Once in Pamplona, you know that their stories will become irretrievably entwined, when a stranger remarks that Danny has the same look in his eye as the bulls. As he tracks back and forth between the dual narratives, moving inexorably to the double climax, van Mersbergen skilfully builds emotional intensity until the point when the boxer and bulls’ fury are finally unleashed.” Lucy Popescu, The Independent


The Rebel’s Hour

In Pick of the Week, Review on December 20, 2012 at 8:24 PM

The Rebel's hour - Lieve Joris
Award-winning journalist Lieve Joris (Back to the Congo, Mali Blues) gracefully re-imagines the non-fiction genre in The Rebel’s Hour of ‘literary’ reportage, an exhaustively researched, colorfully executed look at war-torn Congo that was released in Joris’s native Holland as nonfiction and in France as a novel (the facts are true, though her subjects could be evasive). A profound portrait of a man and his times, the book follows the life of Assani, a Tutsi cowherd who abandons the tribe of his youth to fight in the Congolese wars, where he becomes a distinguished military man, rising through the ranks of government even as he becomes deeply jaded by the chaos, destruction and suffering around him.

Joris’s Congo is a fragmented mess of political aggression, ethnic clashes and disintegrating national unity, and if the breakdown of Joris’s hero parallels the nation’s collapse a bit too neatly, it’s made up for in the author’s deft handling of Assani’s slippery perspective: “Families paralyzed you; everyone clung to everyone else and they kept asking each other for advice. Assani was against that sort of dependence-it made you lazy.” Joris presents a bare, honest and powerful tableau that illuminates the African delimma in hauntingly personal terms.
Source: Publisher’s Weekly

The Rebel’s Hour, written by Lieve Joris, translated by Liz Waters, published by Grove Press (ISBN 978-0-8021-1868-4)

Lieve Joris is one of the six novelists touring through the UK with High Impact: Literature from the Low Countries, January 14th – January 19th 2013.

The Guard – Peter Terrin

In Review on December 10, 2012 at 8:46 AM

Peter Terrin
Harry and Michel live in the basement of a luxury apartment block, guarding the inhabitants. No-one goes outside. The world might be at war – it might even have been plunged into nuclear winter. No-one knows. All Harry and Michel know is that if they are vigilant, ‘the Organization’ will reward them: promotion to an elite cadre of security officers remains their shining goal. But what if there were no-one left to guard? And if the promised relief shift arrives, how will they fit in to Michel and Harry’s studied routine of boredom and paranoia?

The Guard by Flemish writer Peter Terrin, was translated by David Colmer and published by MacLehose Press. The Guard won the European Prize for Literture. He was nominated for major literary awards several times, including the AKO Literature Prize and the Libris Literature Prize. He recently won the AKO Literature Prize this year for his most recent novel Post Mortem.

Peter Terrin represents a unique voice in contemporary Dutch-language literature, touching on universal and highly topical themes alike. Terrin, who has been described as ‘a master of ominous detail’, is considered by critics to be a literary maverick, a classic writer who doesn’t follow trends, and a masterful stylist.

‘There’s a cold and beautiful precision to Peter Terrin’s writing, and a remorselessness and finally terrifying accretion of detail that begins by seeming fussy and ends by being unsettling’ SFX.

The Guard is so good, its world so minutely described and Michel so undeniably compelling that to suggest anything other than to pick this up and read it immediately would be to do it a disservice’ SciFi Now.

It’s not a lengthy book, but whereas some genre writers would have a field-day in providing a novella around this brilliant situation, Terrin keeps us there for the longer haul, and successfully fleshes out his creation to a full-length novel that has much more in common with Pinter – a relentless masculinity, a wilful drive through the darker side of life, and a gripping sense of control over its audience. While we are isolated in just one fraction of a rarefied, seemingly apocalyptic world, and we cannot be sure what the two characters have full control over, the reader is with Terrin to the end, making this one of the more intriguing variants of the thriller you will come across this year. The Book Bag

Peter Terrin will be one of the six writers touring to six UK cities during the High Impact literary festival, January 14th – January 19th 2013.

Roads to Berlin

In Review on December 6, 2012 at 10:54 PM
“As Jan Morris is to Venice or Trieste, as Edmund White to Paris and Claudio Magris to the Danube, so is Cees Nooteboom to Berlin”. Rebecca K. Morrison, Independent

Roads to Berlin maps the changing landscape of Germany, from the period before the fall of the Wall to the present. Written and updated over the course of several decades, an eyewitness account of the pivotal events of 1989 gives way to a perceptive appreciation of its difficult passage to reunification. Nooteboom’s writings on politics, people, architecture and culture are as digressive as they are eloquent; his innate curiosity takes him through the landscapes of Heine and Goethe, steeped in Romanticism and mythology, and to Germany’s baroque cities. With an outsider’s objectivity he has crafted an intimate portrait of the country to its present day.

Roads to Berlin contains a promise of sorts: that, once tasted, you will always find a road back to a city which will be familiar and yet not. Beautifully translated by Laura Watkinson with a helpful glossary and a bibliography to escort the reader on further journeys, this is a delightful book.

“Roads to Berlin goes some way to explaining why Nooteboom is so highly regarded . . . Roads to Berlin is thoughtful, meditative and strong when he ponders on time, memory and history. There are also diversions into Germany’s literature and theatre, politics and people . . . Nooteboom’s insightful prose is, as the book’s subtitle promises, a luxurious detour in the lands and history of Germany” Ben East, Metro

Read here the blog post by Nooteboom’s translator Laura Wilkenson:
Laura Watkinson: Discovering Cees Nooteboom’s Berlin

Roads to Berlin is published by MacLehose Press, UK

Arriving in Avignon

In Review on November 26, 2012 at 10:32 AM

Arriving in Avignon

The Flemish writer Daniël Robberechts (1937-1992) refused to identify his books as novels, stories, or essays, according them all equal status as, simply, writing.
Dalkey Archive brought his work back into print in 2010 by publishing his dark, multi-genre work, Arriving in Avignon, translted by award winning Paul Vincent. Writing in third person in an unrelenting voice that advances by question and insinuation, Robberechts examines the experiences of his younger self over the course of twenty-one trips he made to the nondescript French town of Avignon. A curious lack of memorable or “significant” experiences despite a near obsessive attraction to Avignon becomes a source of inquiry for Robberechts, and his investigation quickly flowers into a philosophical exercise, played out in the gap between reality and language’s inadequate tools to capture it. Complicating the staid middle-aged Robberechts’ efforts is the young Robberechts’ thundering lust for every female he had even the slightest contact with. By superimposing his erotic longings and thwarted desires onto the town of Avignon itself, Robberechts cleverly equates his inability with being able to apprehend or enter Avignon on a more meaningful level with his self-defeating efforts to become romantically or sexually involved. However, what lifts this work above dull masculinist nostalgia is Robberechts’ anguished and livid frustrations with the slippery nature of reality itself. If Arriving in Avignon is any indication of what Robberechts was capable of, there’s much to look forward to in his forthcoming works.

Source: Critical Mob
An excerpt of Arriving in Avignon can be found on site of Dalkey Archive

When David Lost His Voice

In Review on November 24, 2012 at 8:00 AM

When David Lost his Voice

Belgian Comic artist Judith Vanistendael’s latest graphic novel When David Lost His Voice is moving and powerful. “An superb graphic account of a family coping with cancer is moving without being mawkish […] This is an amazing book, one of the best published by the clever people at Self Made Hero so far”. – Rachel Cooke, The Observer.

The eponymous David learns that he has throat cancer just as his granddaughter is born—but tells no one for two months. As he undergoes treatment and his condition worsens, his family circles around him and around each other. David stays largely silent. The story is about watching a loved-one live with and die of cancer—and that focus lends itself particularly well to the graphic form. It is an outstanding testimony. The narrative is unflinching in depicting the black wars that break out among David’s family, even amid the deepest sorrow. The most touching moments of this book are the family’s fleeting glimpses of the shrinking, fading man. When David turns his back to reach a book for his older daughter, Miriam, she sees a skeleton through his suit jacket; when he turns back to her he is only bones.

When David Lost His Voice is published by Self Made Hero (April 2012, UK) and translated by Nora Mahony.

Read the full review in The Economist.

Love’s Death

In Review on November 19, 2012 at 8:30 AM

Love's Death - Oscar van den Boogaard

A destroyed family and an artfully concealed secret history are laid bare with near-surgical precision in Loves Death, a superbly constructed 1999 novel, the fifth (and first in English translation) by one of Holland’s most accomplished and respected writers Oscar  van den Bogaard. Love’s Death was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001 and translated by Ina Rilke.

It begins in 1973 with a heartstopping description of Inez Herman’s discovery of the body of her neighbors’ young daughter Vera Klein at the bottom of the Hermans’ swimming pool. Then, in present-tense narration, and rapid-fire sequences of brief declarative sentences, van den Boogard focuses on the grief of Vera’s mother Oda Klein, her withdrawal from her stricken husband Paul (a career army officer), and Paul’s later “escape” to a military post in Suriname, and his three-year separation from Oda. Then the narrative leaps ahead to 1980, Paul’s return home and muted reconciliation with the emotionally opaque Oda: a situation that’s complicated when Daisy—a 15-year-old American girl staying with the Hermans—becomes the Kleins’ houseguest, remaining with them after the Hermans’ house has been mostly destroyed by a mysterious fire; becoming, in effect, a replacement for the daughter Oda and Paul have lost.

Read here the review by Kirkus Reviews

Stylistically, Love’s Death is astounding. Boogaard deftly stretches out time through acute attention to every detail, mirroring the attempts of the characters to keep a hold of something in the present. The narrative is told almost entirely in the present tense and at times with such sparseness, such directness, that the sense of loss permeating the text is truly experienced by the reader.
– Jason D. Fichtel, Review of Contemporary Fiction , Fall 2001

My Fellow Skin

In Review on November 18, 2012 at 4:01 PM

My Fellow Skin - Erwin Mortier

There is a sense in which Belgian novelist Erwin Mortier’s My Fellow Skin resembles Proust in his resurrection of lost significant moments. But Proust’s world is wound round in webs of reflection and explanation. Mortier strings those obstinately persisting moments of fear, incomprehension, relief like discrete beads on a string. His first-person narrator does not say he is looking for a pattern of causality or inherent psychological structure. But the linear threading of the beads is itself an ordering.

This is a Bildungsroman which is related to much European literature from Proust and Mann onwards. It is very sparsely populated with things and incidents, but what there are are peculiarly unforgettable, as though the memories of Anton’s body have been acquired by the reader. We are stifled and illuminated with him.

This depends of course on the writing, and the quality of writing is not always easy to discern through the glass of translation. Mortier is fortunate in his brilliant translator, Ina Rilke, who appears to have picked up all the little theological and historical references, all the almost invisible linked motifs, and woven them into an English whose rhythms have an apparently easy clarity and subtlety. Between them they have made a clear and articulate work of art.

Read the full review by A.S Byatt in The Guardian

Two other novels by Mortier, Marcel and Shutterspeed are beautifully translated by Ina Rilke as well, “Mortier writes beautiful metaphorical prose…Marcel is a literary debut of great originality.” The Times Literary Supplement.

Pushkin Press (London, UK) recently bought the foreign rights for Mortier’s award winning novel Godenslaap and Gestameld Liedboek. Pushkin Press will also reprint Marcel, My Fellow Skin and Shutterspeed.

The Dinner deserves its success

In Review on November 17, 2012 at 1:07 PM

The dinner - Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch. Translated by Sam Garrett, published by Atlantic; £12.99. To be published in America in February 12, 2013 by Hogarth; $24

It is almost unheard of for a Dutch novel to become an international bestseller, but Herman Koch’s The Dinner has done the trick. In the Netherlands this psychological thriller sold 400,000 copies in hardback alone, and has so far sold more than 1m copies worldwide. Despite a deceptively shaky narrative start, The Dinner deserves its success. Simon Kuper, Financial Times

Fine dining, at least in the West, is a drama in five acts. The arc moves from aperitif to digestif, from first course to dessert, the curtain rising with each unveiled plate. The five-course dinner is such a perfect theatrical setting in which to spy on unhappy families that it is surprising meals are not used more often by fiction writers and playwrights.

Herman Koch, a 58-year-old Dutch actor and comedian, has filled the gap with a novel that became an immediate bestseller when it was first published in the Netherlands in 2009. “The Dinner” has since sold more than 1m copies in 24 countries, from Norway to South Korea.

Mr Koch’s sixth novel is a psychological thriller about two Dutch families, each with a 15-year-old son. The boys have committed a horrifying act, which has been caught on camera. Grainy images of them cackling cruelly have been put up on YouTube. Despite a nationwide manhunt, the boys remain unidentified—by everyone except their parents.

Read the Economist review here.


In Review on November 9, 2012 at 11:33 AM

Julia - Otto de Kat

‘His writing is as spare and controlled as a poem and just as beautiful’ – Julia by Otto de Kat

Otto de Kat (real name Jan Geurt Gaarlandt) was born in Holland in 1946. He studied theology and Dutch literature at university and has worked as a literary critic and publisher. I had not come across him before, but he has previously published a collection of poetry (The Ironic Charter) and two other novels (The Figure in the Distance 2002 and Man on the Move 2009). All of his novels are short; Julia is less than two hundred pages. It didn’t surprise me that de Kat had previously published poetry as his writing is as spare and controlled as a poem and just as beautiful. Ina Rilke was born in Mozambique and grew up in Portugal. She translates Dutch and French literature into English and has won the Vondel Prize, the Scott Moncrieff Prize and the Flemish Culture Prize.

via ‘His writing is as spare and controlled as a poem and just as beautiful’ – Julia by Otto de Kat.

via Julia.

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