Ever since reading Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates as a kid -- still a nice book! -- I've had a strong interest in all things Dutch. For a few years here in Northeast Wisconsin, I lived in Little Chute, a largely Dutch-American community founded by Dutch Catholics back in the 1840s. A committee in Little Chute is raising money to build a historically authentic Dutch windmill as a tourist attraction, and I was involved with that committee during the time I lived there.
One of the projects that the windmill project's executive director and I launched (with only marginal success, I'm afraid) was a Dutch-literature-in-translation reading group, which gave me a good excuse to tackle some of the Dutch (and Flemish) novels I'd been meaning to read for years. A number of these were on the subject of the Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, which has been a fertile topic for Dutch literature (and which is the subject of an excellent study available in English, Mirror of the Indies by Rob Nieuwenhuys).
Here are the Dutch novels I have read or am reading. I have a lot more planned.
Frans Coenen, The House on the Canal -- I read this short novel by Coenen (1866-1936) back in 1984, and my notes indicate that it was "bizarre" and "fascinating"; I should read it again.
"Multatuli" (Edward Douwes Dekker), Max Havelaar -- This 1860 novel by a disgruntled Dutch colonial civil servant is the best-known work in Dutch literature and kicked off the entire Dutch-Indonesian sub-literature. For a mid 19th century work of fiction, it is decidedly odd and restless in its form, told in multiple voices and nestled layers of narrative -- not with entire success, but this sort of aesthetically challenging experiement was quite a few decades ahead of its time in European literature. The novel is politically challenging, too, since Douwes Dekker's denunciation of Dutch colonial practice is scathing; it electrified his contemporaries. (The Roy Edwards translation in Penguin Classics reads very well.)
Maria Dermout, The Ten Thousand Things -- Maria Dermout (1888-1962) was born and spent much of her life in Indonesia, but blossomed late as a writer, in her sixties. The Ten Thousand Things, her most famous work, is no more conventional a novel than Max Havelaar (I somehow get the feeling that modern Dutch literature is not strong in that sort of convention). It is rather a dreamy collection of linked tales -- maybe a little too dreamy for me (I found it lacking in forward motion, which admittedly it doesn't aim for). The book has had a bit of a cult following since it appeared in English translation, and periodically comes back into print; it is currently available from New York Review Books in a translation by Dutch-American novelist Hans Koning.
Louis Couperus, The Hidden Force -- Another Indonesia-based novel, this is my favorite of the group, a marvelous book that is certain to please any discriminating novel reader. Couperus (1863-1923) was the most famous Dutch writer of his generation, extensively translated into English, and has lately been undergoing an understandable, well-deserved revival. Critics have called him a "genius," and The Hidden Force, with its brilliant plotting and characterization and its profound understanding of the psychology of colonizer and colonized, certainly reads like the work of a genius. I strongly recommend the modern edition from the University of Massachusetts Press; the generally good Alexander Teixera de Mattos translation has been touched up, corrected, and de-bowdlerized by E.M. Beekman, who also contributes excellent introductory materials and end notes.
Willem Elsschot, Soft Soap -- I just started this comic novel of the business world by the celebrated Flemish writer Elsschot (1882-1960) and will report on it further. (Since I wrote this post for my blog, I finished Soft Soap; see the separate thread on Willem Elsschot for my comments.)