notes on dutch literature

Posts Tagged ‘Harry Mulisch’

The Dutch read W.F. Hermans

In Pick of the Week on November 10, 2012 at 2:41 PM


Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) was an adolescent in Amsterdam during the Second World War, a period that made an indelible impression on him, compounded by his older sister and cousin committing suicide soon after the German invasion in 1940. Hermans often chooses the war as backdrop for his novels, since it is an environment in which malice and misunderstanding, and the pointlessness of our existence can best be brought to the surface.The Darkroom of Damocles is no exception.

The Netherlands Reads is the Dutch version of US campaign One Book, One City run by the Foundation for Joint Publicity for Dutch Literature (CPNB). After previous successes promoting Dutch classics like Two Women by Harry Mulish in 2008 and The Happy Class by Theo Thijssen (2007), this year the Dutch are reading The Darkroom of Damocles (translated by Ina Rilke, Overlook Press).

The Darkroom of Damocles is about the tobacconist Henri Osewoudt, a man a bit too short to fight in the Dutch army during World War II, but who gets involved with Dorbeck, a mysterious figure supposedly involved with the Dutch resistance who looks exactly like Osewoudt. Osewoudt is very much a pawn, doing whatever Dorbeck tells him, such as helping British agents and murdering traitors.

The whole time, it’s clear that Osewoudt is in way over his head, and isn’t completely sure what’s going on. What’s worse—for him personally—is that he’s suspected by both the Germans and the Dutch, a situation that really comes to a head after the war ends, and Dorbeck is nowhere to be found.

The impossibility of deciding what’s “right” from what’s “wrong” in relation to the war, is what really drives this book.

“Yet it would be a mistake to read The Darkroom of Damocles, which was first published in 1958, as a historical account. Rather, the Occupation, with its moral reversals, its laws and shibboleths, its imposed need for disguises, untruths and assumptions of alien identity, provides the perfect setting for Hermans to exercise his disillusioned view of human nature. (…) To read this novel in Ina Rilke’s sensitive, supple English is a literary experience of the rarest kind.” – Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement


Mulisch’s Magnum Opus

In Masters on October 28, 2012 at 10:10 AM

Discovery of Heaven


Harry Mulisch (1927-2010), the Dutch novelist who wrote fiction, prose, commentary, plays and poetry, was also widely solicited for his views on politics. He was considered one of the “Great Three” of postwar literature next to Willem Frederik Hermans and Gerard Reve. He had a gift for writing with clarity about moral and philosophical themes made him an enormously influential figure in the Netherlands and earned him recognition abroad

The New York Times looked back on his life after his death in 2010, mentioning that in several interviews Mulisch said that the Dutch, a nation of avid readers and talented writers, needed a Dutch author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature to draw attention to the country’s literary activity. It became a public secret that Mulisch thought the winner should be he.

Mulisch was the child of a Jewish mother and a Nazi collaborator father whose pro-German efforts during the Second World War almost certainly saved his young son’s life.  Probably due to this fateful if unusual personal history, the patina of the Holocaust and the question of who was truly guilty in the war continually find their way to the center of his work.

Many of Mulisch’s novels were translated in multiple languages (his first novel to be translated into English was The Stone Bridal Bed in 1962). The AssaultMulisch’s most well-known work, was translated into 32 languages, and made into a successful Dutch film, which in 1987 won the Oscar for best foreign film.

His most ambitious novel is The Discovery of Heaven which is widely translated and considered as his masterpiece. Mulisch called this is Magnum Opus, 700 pages long. The Discovery of Heaven is about an intense intellectual friendship spiced with a love triangle, framed by debates between angels in heaven. It offers a sweeping discourse on history and art, science and religion, man and God, good and evil. It became a best seller and was voted “the best Dutch-language book ever” by Dutch readers in a 2007 newspaper poll. In 2001  The Discovery of Heaven was made into a movie by Dutch actor and director Jeroen Krabbe, starring Stephen Fry and Flora Montgomery.

Other books by Harry Mulisch:

Two WomenLast callSiegfried / Procedure

Armchair Traveller

In Bookstores on October 26, 2012 at 3:21 AM

Mireille Berman, Manager of International Projects at the Dutch Foundation for Literature, gives a virtual tour of a Dutch bookshop.

If you walk into a Dutch bookshop – there are more than 1.500 in the Netherlands, struggling to survive – as a tourist, you will probably experience the joys of recognition. The inevitable international bestsellers – E.L. James, Suzanne Collins, Nicci French, Jonas Jonasson, Stephen King and Karin Slaughter – are all there, and selling very well. These titles, mostly translated from English, share their space on the bestseller tables with the occasional original Dutch title, like Paulien Cornelisse’s quirky observations of Dutch vernacular, and successful thrillers, all written by blond, high-heeled women authors (and if they happen to be male, they wisely use a female alias). The rest are sports books, mostly about football, which is very popular in the Netherlands.

A look at the top 60 bestselling titles shows that exactly 5 of them are literary titles. One is a quality, up-market non-fiction book about how we ‘are’ our brain (instead of just having one) from neurobiologist Dick Swaab. The other three are from authors who may very well be the new literary establishment, as the old masters (Mulisch, Wolkers, Claus, Haasse, and Reve) have passed away in the last couple of years. Read the whole blog

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