The first of these novels I reread was Ik, Jan Cremer
(‘I, Jan Cremer’), published in 1964. The novelist, Cremer, was then 24 years old. It was not the first controversial novel ever to be published in Dutch, but it was the first one to be marketed in a modern fashion. It was also one of the first that was explicitly autobiographical. Earlier books had shocked too, but they had always been presented as fiction or as fantasy. Ik Jan Cremer
, a picaresque novel full of sex, violence and vandalism, claimed to be authentic, which made it all the more difficult to digest for conservative readers. Written in a style and genre that reminds one of Jack Kerouac, the American novelist of the beatnik generation, the book describes the troublesome youth of the author, who grows up in the city of Enschede near the German border, where he gets involved in sex and petty crime at an early age. He rebels against the authorities—police, the boarding school he is sent to—and leaves his hometown to travel. He becomes a sailor, a marine, and joins the French foreign legion, then moves to Paris to become an artist, developing a style of painting he calls peinture barbariste. Meanwhile he has many short love affairs.
Apart from its bohemian anarchism, the book came as a shock because of its rough, unpolished language. The author continued this lack of respect for good taste in interviews, in which he said things like: ‘Who is Rembrandt? I am not interested in sport.’ Or: ‘I don’t read. I am being read.’ For the first time, scandal was self-consciously used to sell the book, and with unprecedented success. When a police officer confiscated a copy of the book because he felt it was a threat to law and order, the author under a different name wrote a letter to the editor of a well-known newspaper, praising the police officer for his civil courage. Reviewers called the book ‘fascist’, Jancremerisme became another word for vandalism and football hooliganism, and questions were raised about it in Parliament. As a result, more than a hundred thousand copies of the book were sold in no time. ‘All these readers enjoy the book enormously, telling themselves at every page they turn how bad it is’, the author said.
In a way, the book marked the end of the 1950s, when only small groups of so-called nozems (bikers) were provoking the authorities. It signalled the beginning of the proverbial 1960s, when anti-authoritarianism became much more widespread, political, commercial and mainstream. The book is nonetheless atypical because of its unproblematic and exuberant tone. The author joyfully embraces a self-chosen bohemian romanticism without God or authority. His childhood in poverty, without a father, hardly seems to trouble the author; rather, he fondly remembers the freedom and lack of upbringing in his early years. His art, too, is unproblematic: although he has been to art schools, his paintings are marketed as pure expressions of spontaneity, unspoilt by civilization.
Of the five books I reread, Ik Jan Cremer
(1964) appeared to me as the least problematic, the least painful. There is hardly a development. The author, who is also the protagonist, stays the wild, unspoilt, natural child he has always been. He has never lost his freedom. Even his exile, prompted by the conventional character of the Dutch nation and its artists, becomes a great adventure. That cheerful tone, together with the unusual marketing strategy, makes the book rather unique. Soon after Ik, Jan Cremer
the literary scene would begin to describe freedom as a painful rather than an adventurous state of mind.
A year later, in 1965, another book written by a young writer-cum-artist came out: Terug naar
Oegstgeest (Oegstgeest Revisited) by Jan Wolkers (1965). Wolkers was forty years old when the book was published, and he had already published a few novels about his childhood in the village of Oegstgeest, near Leiden. This book too is written as a memoir, told by a protagonist who is an artist residing in Amsterdam for whom artistic genius and sexual promiscuity are two of a kind. His present life in the capital city, however, soon makes room for memories about his parents, his brother, the neighbourhood, his schoolteachers and the schoolgirls.
More conventional in style and language than Ik Jan Cremer
, Wolkers’ novel appeared to me as not very original. It reminded me of another famous novel in Dutch, De Avonden
(The Evenings), published in the late 1940s by Gerard Reve, an author to whom I return below. We would now say that it is a book written by a man suffering from a midlife crisis, trying to come to terms with the environment of his upbringing that he thoroughly detests. The melancholia already starts with his arrival: it rains, everything is grey, the monotonous rhythm of the petty bourgeois life makes him sick. His return does not offer a solution: the book ends with the death of his brother, or rather with his dead brother’s coat, the only thing he has inherited from him, which is torn to pieces by a heron, a large bird.
Oegstgeest was less scandalous and less successful than Ik Jan Cremer
,Footnote 10 but in its own way it was also controversial, primarily because of its dual themes of religion and violence. Religion was everywhere in the Netherlands of the 1930s, the decade of the author’s youth. It is primarily embodied in his father, a churchgoing shopkeeper. Talking to his father as an adult, Wolkers suddenly asks himself: ‘If he dies, what will become of God?’ That happens in one of the first chapters of the book. Later on, the schoolboy develops an interest in animals, and more particularly in torturing and killing them, the suggestion being that this youthful violence is a reaction to the invisible violence of the religious order. This makes Terug naar Oegstgeest
a much more passionate book than Ik Jan Cremer
. Whereas in the latter the violence is located in the wild barbarous child, in Wolkers’ novel the violence of the child reflects the social repression of the conventional lower middle-class milieu.
Whereas Jan Cremer is now a somewhat marginal figure, Jan Wolkers would gradually become a national darling. When he died in 2007, some called him the national teddy bear. If Terug naar Oegstgeest
did not free him from the violent God of his parents, his turn to nature in his later years did. He went to live on the island of Texel, near the sea, his fascination for plants and animals increasing and no longer feeling the urge to destroy them. In the biblical language of his Dutch reformist upbringing he would now praise the beauty of insects, shellfish and women. Unlike Cremer, he cultivated a fragility and a sense of humour that spoke of a lifelong fascination with nature that he had developed in his youth, as well as, perhaps, a sense of melancholic pity for the God of his parents and His language.
If sex was a rather unproblematic alternative for a God who was dead (Cremer
) or dying (Wolkers
), for Gerard Reve, already mentioned, the relationship between sexuality and religion was much more complicated. In 1963 and 1966 he published two books that were one of a kind: Op Weg naar het
Einde (Toward the End) (1963) and Nader tot U
(Closer to Thee) (1966). Like Cremer’s and Wolkers’ books, this one pretended to be purely autobiographical. There was not the slightest attempt to develop a plot. Both books by Reve were selections of letters, monologues intérieur, or rather litanies, written in a melancholic style that was exalted and banal at the same time. He also had an absurd sense of humour. Both books were full of decadence and mysticism, expressed in the double bind of irony, which he defined as ‘doing as if you do as if’.
The books also announced the author’s triple coming out: as an alcoholic, a homosexual and a convert to Catholicism. Each constituted a stigma in predominantly sober, heterosexual, Protestant Dutch society—although the writer himself was from a communist family. To make matters worse, alcohol, homosexuality and Catholicism were all intrinsically connected in Reve’s work. The images, smell and sheer atmosphere of a Catholic church provoked his lust. Sodomy with kneeling altar boys in front of a statue of Mother Mary was his ultimate desire, and in what came to be known as ‘the Donkey Trial’ he was accused of blasphemy because in Nader tot U
he depicted God as a donkey he had made love to three times. He was, however, acquitted.Footnote 11
Since publishing De Avonden
in 1947, Reve was known as a post-war nihilist. The books he published in the 1960s were also about an author who believed that nothing was real, except perhaps death, and even that only after the fact. What saved one from complete darkness was not sexuality per se: on the contrary, for him sexuality was little more than lust, pain and violence. He constantly wanted to punish his lovers for their scandalous beauty. But sex—again, after the fact—did lead to a moment of compassion with the victim of his own lust. During these short post-coitus moments, Mary, Mother of God, appeared with her naked, tortured son in her arms. It was only during these brief moments of compassion and guilt that the veil of irony was removed, but never for long. The desire for pain and punishment was soon revitalized.
For Reve, neither religion nor sexuality offered any form of redemption whatsoever. Nor did alcohol, for that matter. None of them revealed a deeper truth, be it the oceanic feeling provoked by intimate contact with nature or the barbarism of an unspoilt childhood. Religion and sexuality were both, in fact, highly ritualistic: both desires were triggered by a surplus of alcohol, after which the body simply and automatically followed the ritual pattern. There was nothing authentic about it; there was only, perhaps, redemption in death. Meanwhile, the best one could do was to try to make life bearable by letting the body perform the rituals it had been taught. Catholicism was kitsch and, in Reve’s own words, a ‘puppet theatre’, but for that very reason preferable to iconoclastic Protestantism or secular communism, both of which left humanity all to its naked, miserable self.
Another book with a profound nihilist message was also published in 1966: Nooit Meer Slapen
(Never to Sleep Again) by Willem Frederik Hermans. But his was a very different kind of nihilism, in a way a quite romantic kind of nihilism. There was no sex in this book, apart from a fantasy about a naked black woman, and, at the very end, a seductive American tourist on the verge of betraying her drunken husband. Unlike the other three, this book does pretend to be fiction, and the protagonist’s name is different from the author’s name, even though both share an interest in physical geography. In fact, the book tells the story of a PhD student sent to northern Scandinavia in order to prove that the landscape there has been formed by meteor showers. The journey becomes a hellish one. The protagonist fails to get the aerial photographs that are essential to the project. He has difficulty following his Norwegian fellow students on the long marches through rough terrain, pestered by swarms of mosquitoes. He cannot sleep because the sun never sets. When he sets out to explore the region alone, he loses his compass; when he is finally back on track, he finds that his closest companion has died after falling from a mountain. He returns to the Netherlands with no evidence to prove his thesis.
A considerable part of the book is devoted to the discussions the students have while camping in the wilderness. Many of them are about the silliness of believing in the existence of God, which suggests that the journey should be read metaphorically as a Nietzschean novel, the non-existing meteorites being a metaphor for the empty universe. Life on earth is as barren and cold as the Nordic landscape. The northern lights deprive one of the possibilities to sleep and dream and escape the harsh reality that humanity is alone in a hostile cosmos. The message is already made clear in the famous opening scene of the novel, featuring a blind receptionist who has to show the protagonist the way to the Norwegian professor whom he has asked for aerial photographs. The universe is blind, there is no one out there to see and recognize our existence and we only exist in the eyes of ourselves. This place is not kind to a student born in the swamp of religion that is called the Netherlands; to survive here you need to be like your Norwegian fellow students who, like hyperboreans, disappear beyond the polar winds.Footnote 12
The book, then, is about loneliness, even despair. Implicitly, it is also about a certain heroism. Apart from Ik Jan Cremer
, this book is undoubtedly the most masculine of the five. That is, Hermans’ novel not only has a Nietzschean undertone, it also resonates with the frontier romanticism of the Western movie. Hermans’ heroes are not unlike the lonesome cowboy, a Clint Eastwood if you like, leaving the comfort of human society not because he wants to, but because he has a wisdom that no longer allows him to share in the lies and illusions of his fellow human beings. Those who survive in the Nordic landscape are a doomed but superior tribe. To face the truth of God’s non-existence, in other words, is a passion and a fate. The atheist’s suffering is superior to the suffering of the believer because he lacks the anaesthesia of the God delusion.
So far the novelists have been only men. The fifth book I reread was a feminist one. In 1976, ten years after the novels by Hermans and Reve came out, Anja Meulenbelt published her book entitled De Schaamte Voorbij
(Beyond Shame) (1976). To some extent this is the feminist answer to Ik Jan Cremer
. It is also pure autobiography and is mostly about sex. The style of writing is as unpolished and straightforward as Cremer’s book, although less explicitly provocative. It is written in a hurry by an author with a mission. There are also, however, a number of important differences from Cremer.
, who later became a senator for the Socialist Party and a part-time preacher in the progressive Amsterdam church known as the Student Ecclesia, was a journalist and an activist. It had taken her some time to come to that. She becomes pregnant and marries early to escape the middle-class home in which she grew up. Her equally young husband is from Austria, whom she follows on several jobs throughout Germany and France before finally divorcing him after returning to Amsterdam. This is the beginning of long years of poverty, petty jobs and an endless series of relationships with men, many of them married, others visiting Amsterdam from abroad, none of them staying for good. When Meulenbelt’s book came out, many male novelists had already written explicitly about their love affairs, gay or straight, but this was the first time a female novelist had done so. But there was a difference: while for the male novelist every new lover was a triumph, for Meulenbelt each affair added to a gradually increasing sense of self-hate and shame in the protagonist.
The turn comes halfway the book, when, already active in left-wing, counter-culture activism of various kinds, she is introduced to a group of women who are discussing sexual politics. She feels uneasy at first, not least because her male comrades in the activist world, some of whom are lovers, frown upon feminism as a petty bourgeois phenomenon. But soon she starts to feel at home, becomes a feminist activist, breaks with the married man she is having an affair with and instead starts a relationship with his wife. For the first time in her life, she feels fully loved and accepted. Men, at least some of them, were able to give her excitement. She thought of herself as someone who could get along pretty well with men, particularly if naked, but in loving another woman she experienced a sense of tenderness she had always missed.
However, the book does not have a happy ending. Her lover leaves her to return to her husband. Meulenbelt starts a relationship with a man, a kind and understanding man this time, who nonetheless envies her newly developed independence, her sense of direction and her grief caused by the love she has lost. The two of them, together with her thirteen-year old son, go on holiday to the south of France, where she starts to write the novel in an attempt to come to terms with her broken relationship. Instead, it becomes a book in which she gets to the bottom of her shame and returns sadder, wiser and more independent.
The book caused quite a stir when it was first published, partly because Meulenbelt was already a well-known journalist and was acquainted with other public figures, some of whom featured in the book in promiscuous situations under their own names. But others who were not in the book were not overly happy with it either. Some feminists, for instance, regarded the fact that the author had gone back to a male lover after her unhappy relationship with his wife as a defeat. In the long run, however, Meulenbelt received much praise for her courage and honesty. The book was a milestone in the feminist movement that significantly changed the world of left-wing, progressive, counter-cultural politics and activism.
message was that the sexual revolution of the late 1960s had liberated the sexuality of men but had dubious consequences for women. The alternative she offered, despite the straightforward language of the book, was more complex than it appeared at first sight. First, there was a need to rescue sexuality from pure lust and lustful ritual, and to recognize, beyond shame, one’s desire for an intimate and tender kind of sexuality. But that desire for affection could also become the political basis for personal independence. At a time when free sex, partner-swapping and pornography were becoming the norm, here was a call to start seeing sexuality in terms of both independence and intimacy. If the first half of the book was about free sex, the second half was about free love—or, at least, the desire for, and political agenda of, free love. Given the complexity of that concept and the paradoxical expectations that were attached to it, it is no wonder that the book could not end like a fairy tale.