In search of Dutch Literature (in English)

When I travel, I look for “local” literature as a way to get a line into the culture of a place. I did the same in Amsterdam, where I went in search of Dutch literature translated into English.

European readers will probably already know this, but Americans might be more surprised to find out: it is very difficult to get contemporary Dutch literature that has been translated into English, even in Amsterdam, the largest city in the Netherlands!

There are an impressive number of bookstores in Amsterdam, and all of them (from what I could tell) are owned and operated independently. Unfortunately, this did not help me find what I was looking for…

I went into one such bookstore, a sizeable space, and asked about contemporary Dutch lit (especially short stories) translated into English. Out of the entire store, I was shown one shelf with 20 books on it.

I was really surprised when the clerk mentioned that only one of the books would be considered contemporary … then he added he didn’t even like the book!

When I asked what authors he would suggest he mentioned only two. I can’t remember the name of the first writer because I later found out he has had none of his works translated into English. The second author mentioned was Arnon Grunberg. Of course the shop had none of Grunberg’s six novels that have been translated into English, which gave me a mini-quest while roaming to other bookstores.

Just around the corner from the first shop I found a place with the sign “Used English Books” hanging from the doorway so I went in and requested Grunberg. Luckily, they had a hard cover copy of one novel: Blue Mondays, Grunberg’s debut novel from when he was 23 years old, a breakout hit in Amsterdam that was soon translated into many languages. I bought it for the bargain price of $7.50 euros.

(Perhaps it is telling to report that after Grunberg’s tremendous success with Blue Mondays, he moved to New York City, where he still lives two decades later.)

*           *           *

During the course of the remainder of my trip, I read Blue Mondays. The book is set in Amsterdam. The novel’s main character is named……… Arnon Grunberg. This is unusual, having an author write a work of fiction where the main character shares the same name. Of course it leads us to wonder how much of the material from the novel is autobiographical.

The book is about a young man named Arnon Grunberg, a Jewish guy living in Amsterdam. The loosely written story is about his relationship with his crazy parents as well as his obsession with women, and particularly with the prostitutes he starts seeing regularly as the novel progresses.

If there is a dark, seedy underbelly to Amsterdam (and I can easily believe there is) it’s likely that Grunberg has captured it. He never once refers to the Red Light District, and roams all over the city to various cafes and ‘houses’ where he meets the prostitutes.

The novel is not particularly graphic in its depiction of sex, but Grunberg does not shy away from the kind of details that show the human quality of these encounters. So cigarette butts overflowing in ashtrays, the smell of smoke in a woman’s hair, old food left to rot on a table or unwashed dishes are all part of the scene.

I’d recommend the book, it made for an interesting read.

*           *           *

The only other book I could find, when I visited the American Book Center (in the Spui district of Amsterdam) was Joseph Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories.

Again, this was the only book in the entire store written by a Dutch author translated into English. (Of course, if you want English copies of Dan Brown and John Grisham, you’ll find overflowing window displays of paperbacks from these guys and the other names you’d expect.)

Amsterdam Stories is a slim volume written by Nescio over the course of a few decades from 1907 to the 1940’s. Nescio did not produce a lot of literature during his lifetime and was more of a hobbyist (I can’t remember what he did for a living, but he had four children and needed to support his family.)

The most famous story in the book is about “Joppy” (pronounced Yoppy) who is a freeloader. The guy squats at people’s houses, eats their food, drinks their wine, sleeps in their beds, and smokes their cigars.

Nescio’s primary theme is about the passage of time, and his rose-colored-glasses view of what it’s like to be a young man roaming through the Netherlands countryside.

I didn’t enjoy these stories as much as I enjoyed Grunberg’s work, mostly because Grunberg is speaking in a more contemporary voice whereas I felt the Nescio stories are dated.

*           *           *

Incidentally, Grunberg just released a new novel in May this year, called Tirza which was reviewed by the New York Times.  When I was in Schipol Airport, getting ready to leave Amsterdam to come home, I wanted to buy a book for the plane and went into the airport bookstore.

When I asked for Grunberg, the clerk immediately made her way to one of the tables.

“I’ll need it in English,” I said.

“No,” the clerk said, “in that case, we have none.”

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One Response

  1. Actually there is a Flemish popular literature with some well known Flemish authors. Flemish feel more patriotic with the Dutch language and inheritance than the Dutch themselves. We have to explain a bit of history here and I don’t think that this is the right spot however Dutch are more Americanized than the Flemish. So it makes sense that you would find more American authors or translations in Netherlands than in Belgium. Some famous names in Flemish literature are Anne Provoost, Humbert Lampo, Paul Verhaeghen and Hugo Claus whose’ books I think have been translated to English and German.

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