Michele Hutchison investigates what the future might hold for the 21st Century novel: provincial literature with a global reach, or the literature of the cosmopolitan flâneur?
Dutch writers and critics can be quite prescriptive about literary fiction; it is a frequent topic of discussion in the broadsheets here, and the debate is an eye-opener about Dutch culture and attitudes. Most recently, the acclaimed writer Oek de Jong offered his own views of what a novel should be, to coincide with publication of his latest magnum opus Pier en ocean (Pier and Ocean, an eight-hundred-page Bildungsroman which has been praised for both its style and its detailed reconstruction of local social history on a micro level). Predictably, given his own production, he is inspired by the greats of the nineteenth and twentieth century – Stendhal, Tolstoy, Proust and Joyce, Babel, Chekov. He says, ‘A good writer can only succeed if he knows the canon.’
One point he makes mirrors something I touched on earlier on in my PEN Atlas piece on globalisation. According to him, it is difficult for a writer to make his way (both in international publishing and in attracting a large readership) if he sets his novel in a different country from his own. De Jong refers to the ‘pseudo-cosmopolitanism’ as he calls it, of Dutch writers who set their novels abroad in the [mistaken] belief they will attract foreign publishers. He then quotes the great W.F. Hermans:
‘All great literature is provincial literature. What is world literature? That is literature from provinces the whole world is interested in.’ De Jong concludes, ‘The future is a combination of the local and the global.’ 
I was recently forced to re-address my own assumptions on the subject – I was onboard with Oek that novels (in translation) are more interesting when they tell the reader about local culture – when I read two excellent novels, both set in countries not the writers’ own. The first was the wonderful Leaving the Atocha Station by American Ben Lerner (Coffee House Press, 2011). The protagonist is a young American poet on an academic fellowship to Madrid. Rather than writing a thesis on the Spanish Civil War in the form of an epic poem (!), he spends his time learning the language and observing what goes on around him. The title is a taken from a poem by John Ashberry and the latter even gave a quote, ‘[a]n extraordinary novel about the intersections of art and reality in contemporary life.’ One of the joys of the novel is the way Lerner questions the poetic experience and replaces a new vision of reality, vanity dismantled, back at the centre. The novel feels authentic because the view of Madrid is that of an outsider, perhaps better equipped to really ‘see’ the city than a local writer might be; the story is about the experience of being abroad, of otherness. I cannot imagine that Lerner did not spend a gap year in Spain.
The second example is a just-published Dutch novel La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, whose debut Rupert I translated for Open Letter a few years ago. Like Lerner, Pfeijffer is a talented poet, and both have chosen poets as protagonists – as did Roberto Bolaño in The Savage Detectives, it occurs to me now. Pfeijffer gives his protagonist his own name as a nod to the semi-autobiographical nature of the piece, but also because he likes postmodernist game-playing. The lines between fiction and non-fiction are deliberately blurred.
Like the writer himself, the Dutch protagonist has moved to Genua in Italy and is living the ex-pat dream. The result is a wonderfully European novel: a mystery surrounding an amputated leg is a nod to the Anglo-Saxon thriller genre, but at its heart the novel recalls the nineteenth-century French roman de flâneur. These were novels featuring ‘a gentleman stroller of the city streets’ according to Walter Benjamin, one of the first to describe the genre. The flâneur would walk around Paris or sit in its bars and cafes and simply observe life in the city. Essentially this is Pfeijffer’s approach too, like these former decadents he sits on terraces drinking and watching the world go by, or goes for long walks around his adoptive city. Perhaps the genre is enjoying a minor revival, American-Nigerian Teju Cole’s flaneur’s roman Open City (2011), was a critical success too.
Combining the global with the local, La Superba’s structure follows several immigrants – not just Westerners like the Dutch poet and a retired British academic, scraping by with enough money to get drunk every day, but immigrants from elsewhere – transvestite prostitutes involved in petty crime, the Senegalese labourer Djiby P. Souley – who naturally lead a much harder life. The displacement of immigrants from poorer countries is contrasted with the mobility of immigrants from richer ones. Pjfeijffer’s gift is to bring together a ragbag of people who have all made Genua their new home and bring down the veils on their illusions. A better life elsewhere? No, just a different one.
Perhaps this is the next step in the twenty-first century novel – our new reality means that more people move around, don’t have roots, and so won’t be able to write the purist (authentic) regional novel with global appeal that Oek de Jong was thinking of. New Bohemians like Lerner and Pfeijffer will take us somewhere else, as long as readers are prepared to accept their authenticity.
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.
Article on Poetry Foundation website about novels featuring poets as protagonists
- NRC Handelsblad, Boekenbijlage, 22 maart 2013