We begin PEN Atlas in 2013 with Michele Hutchison, who reports on the ‘High Impact’ tour that will bring Dutch authors to the UK later this month
‘If there is any relationship between literature and nationality at all, it is a very strained one indeed,’ critic and director of the famed Athenaeum bookshop, Maarten Asscher once wrote in an essay on the misconception that the Dutch are ‘due’ the Nobel Prize. (1) The essay itself is interesting; he argues that the Dutch obsession with consensus means they only ever submit a single candidate, which gives the impression of ‘stagnancy’. But that’s beside the point, the concept of a national literature is a trap I’ve found myself falling into in recent years in my attempts to get to know the local canon.
Naturally I have identified tendencies in Dutch literature – the Calvinistic background, quiet introspection, naturalistic novels with few characters and little plot. The great writer W.F. Hermans criticised this tendency; ‘boring’ is how he labelled most Dutch novels.(2) An initiative by the Netherlands Embassy in London, in partnership with Flanders House, aims to send a wrecking ball at this cliché.
Six top Dutch-language writers will tour the UK from 14th
January 2013 in a project named ‘High Impact’, a rather incongruous name on first glance when thinking about that quiet introspection. The Dutch are usually shy of making an impact with their art or literature – those sticking their heads above the parapet tend to be knocked down – but perhaps things are changing.
I contacted the Embassy to enquire about the thinking behind High Impact and heard back from Jan van Weijen, head of the pleasingly-named Department of Dutchness. This is what he said:“Flanders and The Netherlands have an extensive common cultural heritage and share a language, Dutch. Its literature is vibrant and encapsulates a sea breeze. Outward-looking and incorporating foreign influences, it clearly matches an UK audience.” I also talked to the tour’s curator, international literature specialist Rosie Goldsmith and she said, “the Dutch and Flemish are honestly up there with the best. It is always a pleasure to interview them, not only because they speak excellent English but because I believe our countries and cultures share a great affinity.”
So: vibrant, outward-looking, multicultural, with an affinity to the UK? Let’s take a look at the writers involved and what kind of impact they might have. Flemish writer Peter Terrin, who recently won the top Dutch literary prize, the AKO, with his latest novel Post Mortem, works with a filleting knife more than a hammer; his novels are dark, cool, composed affairs. The prize-winning novel, which will be published in 2014 by MacLehose Press, is a study of the impotence of writing in the face of personal tragedy; it is a post-modern puzzle, demonstrating his technical mastery. Wielding a sabre is Ramsey Nasr, just coming to the end of his term as Dutch Poet Laureate. Nasr is half-Palestinian, half-Dutch and knows how to thrill with special effects. His poems are audacious, bombastic, colourful affairs. The collection Heavenly Bodies, published by Banipal provides a good taster of his work.
Herman Koch is practically a household name now, after his international hit The Dinner. A comedian and actor as well as a writer, he makes his impact with humour. Covering the non-fiction field, there is Belgian writer Lieve Joris who has written extensively on Africa and has now turned her hand to China. Her forthcoming book on the commercial relationship between China and Africa sounds immensely promising and will certainly add to the debate. Geert Mak will join the last two days of the tour. His magnum opus, In Europe, Travels Through the Twentieth Century brought him international recognition. ‘Mak’s artful interleaving of personal stories with epic events is a constant reminder of the human scale of history’ wrote The New Yorker.
Chika Unigwe hails from Nigeria but has made her home in Antwerp. I have just finished reading On Black Sister’s Street, published by Jonathan Cape, a Dickensian novel telling the story of four African prostitutes trying to make new lives for themselves in Antwerp. The novel has a tragic ending and the characters remind me of some of Lieve Joris´s studies. Last but not least, Judith Vanistendael will showcase her artistic talents. Both of her graphic novels have been published in English by selfmadehero. The first, Dance to the Light of the Moon is an autobiographical telling of her relationship with a Togolese asylum seeker; it is as incisive and evocative as her second, When David Lost His Voice, a cancer story. Her novels have great emotional impact.
The tour’s creators are right, you’d be wrong to expect quiet introspection from this selection of the best that the Low Countries have to offer at the moment. And the Dutch, with their expertise in export are sensible to join together with the Flemish to focus on exporting their common cultural riches.
The High Impact tour will take place from 14th
January 2013 and stops in Oxford, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Norwich and London. Please see www.highimpact-tour.nl and www.highimpacttour.com. Follow my live blogs from the tour:
Facebook community: High Impact
About the Author
Michele Hutchison (Solihull, 1972) worked in publishing in the UK before moving to the Netherlands in 2004. She now works as an editor at a Dutch literary publishing house and as a freelance translator. Writers she has translated include Joris Luyendijk, Rob Riemen, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Simone van der Vlugt.
Interview with Sam Garrett on translating The Dinner: http://www.letterenfonds.nl/en/entry/245/translators-in-the-spotlight
Michele Hutchison on Herman Koch, author of The Dinner, for PEN Atlas: http://local.pen/entertainment-for-the-middle-classes-the-success-of-herman-koch/
- “‘The 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature should go to the Netherlands’ – a misconception of national proportions” in De Gids, issue 5/6.
- “Unsympathetic Characters”, in Dutch Literary Journal, vol 4, 2013