An article about the ‘Grand Three’ in Dutch Literature
Visiting my daughter, Mavi. She is at the edge of 14 and loves Japanese anime, it is one of her great passions. She also draws, so I bought her an iPad with a drawing pen, because even though Veer is teaching her to draw by hand, she needs something good to make progress with it. When asked if she wants to be famous later, she says ‘No, because when you are famous you are no longer a free person’. And I thought, wow, what an age to realise such a truth already.
Yesterday, because I was talking about Reve the other day, I watched a few programmes about ‘The Big Three’, a kind of cramping that they suffered from after the war. I myself was introduced to the ‘adult version’ of Dutch literature at the age of twelve when I took two books from the library, one of which was De God Denkbaar (The God Thinkable) by Hermans and the other a science fiction-like book by Sybren Polet. As a twelve-year-old critic, I absolutely hated Hermans’ book. I can still remember how shockingly bad I thought the quality of that book was, I was quickly done with it. I thought Polet’s book was just weird.
Of the ‘big three’ the only one that really appeals to me is Reve. But is that really because of his books or his personality? The last time I tried to read some Reve books, I put them away pretty quickly, all that rancid stuff with little boys, but then you watch some TV footage again and you think, what a brilliant character Reve really was. And what an extraordinarily well-developed evaluative circuit, interwoven with the narrative ego, so that you actually have someone who constantly produces literature, and does it so well that he really does sound like an almost Santa Claus-like entity that you want to believe in and regard as an authority. And he could also write fabulously well sometimes, so yes, you can call me a Reve fan. But still, I agree with his teacher. Look here, I think this is one of the most striking and painful pieces of television ever recorded in the Netherlands:
A teacher, extolled by him in his books, comes to visit and starts criticising Reve in a fierce manner. A truly splendid fragment, because it is so thoroughly tragic: the teacher’s image was too romantic, the teacher is also right – how should one put it? Reve would have become a much greater writer if he had not grown up in Dutch culture.
Then I watched an interview with Hermans who lacks Reve’s grand-theatricality and is more like a kind of hunger winter version of Komrij. Firmly opposed by the amsterdam canal-elite and a few ‘important’ professors, it sounds familiar to me but it is not enough to arouse my adoration. I think I will never become a fan of Hermans, I later read some of his other books and even his most praised ‘masterpiece’ I found rather childish, see Waarover de Piranha droomt in de limonadesloot
With Mulisch, the feeling creeps up on me that I don’t really feel like thinking anything of it, which Reve himself also lists as ‘A great writer, but fortunately I don’t have to read it’. That is the dominant feeling when i think about modern Dutch writers.
The reproach levelled at Hermans somewhere in the programmes I watched – ‘Hermans doesn’t want to be a great writer, Hermans wants to be the only writer’ – was also levelled at me once. But of course it’s bathtub nonsense – I only know a handful of poets who know how to charm me in Dutch history, and that’s because there were only a handful of great poets, and great poets are unfortunately the only thing that interest me, and rightly so. Anyone who wishes to become a great poet should only read great works.
When the question of whether someone is a great poet may no longer be asked – then you are really in a totalitarian climate. And if a thousand marginalised people think they are a great poet and you say that you don’t see it that way, that doesn’t mean that you want to be the only one. On the contrary, it is precisely because of all the babbling that it is so lonely, just as you can feel dejectedly lonely at crowded parties when you cannot connect with the people. No, no, I would so like them all to be a thousand great poets, so that I could intellectually revel in the most extravagant personalities here.
But the majority here have the personality of a wet newspaper. That is an unpleasant truth if you want to be the great artist. When you see that truth, the only pleasure that actually comes with being a writer is sabotaged in advance. And then you’re left to pick up the pieces, and you’re told that you want to destroy everyone. Oh, oh, what an ignoble world.