Name a Dutch artist…

Above: (atlasobscura.com) Auvers-sur-Oise, outside Paris: in 1890, Vincent van Gogh was buried, the day after he died, in the village public cemetery. His burial was attended not only by his devoted brother Theo and villagers who had grown fond of him, but by a small cohort of the Parisian art community as well—including painters Lucien Pissarro, Charles Laval and Émile Bernard, and the well-known art dealer Julien Tanguy. Six months later, Theo died at the age of 33. He was buried in Utrecht, about 50 miles from where the brothers were born in Zundert, Netherlands. His body stayed in Utrecht until 1914, when the family had it exhumed and transported to join his brother’s side.

Andreas Janssen wrote at theOxfordblue.co.uk on 5.4.20:

“Name a single Dutch author.’’ At this question my otherwise far better-read Oxford friends go blank. It is not an oversight on their part: Dutch literature has been awfully and very sparsely translated into English. For example, one of the post-war classics of the Dutch literary canon is The Evenings (1947) by Gerard Reve, the kind of book every Dutch schoolboy gets forced down his throat and subsequently hates…

When I therefore found out that the young Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (28) had been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, I was naturally thrilled. Rijneveld is the first Dutch author to make the shortlist. Her novel The Discomfort of Evening (De Avond is Ongemak) is a phenomenal portrayal of a family tragedy in its Freudian dimensions, containing an all-too relevant social critique…

It would not be pointless academism to read this novel side by side with Freud’s Future of an Illusion and Moses. Predictably, Jas grows up in a state of enforced infantilism with its logical end in neurosis. All we know her by is an abbreviated name, Jas, which in Dutch means ‘coat’; a figurative and literal coat she categorically refuses to take off, fearing and denying the advent of her own budding breasts. Her naïve awareness of her sexual development can only be voiced through Christian symbolism and images from farming life…

A puritan atmosphere might not exactly be the first thing that you associate with The Netherlands. However, for all its image as a weed-smoking, pill-popping, liberal-secular paradise (here speaks a proud Amsterdammer), we remain among the few countries in Europe where major political parties have an explicitly religious agenda, defending that most boring and anxiety-ridden legacy of Protestantism, Calvinism. Governmental funding for ‘special’ (read: religiously oriented) primary and secondary education has been enshrined in the constitution for over a century; any attempts to abolish that clause have so far come to a dead end. Rijneveld’s novel is brilliant not just for its oscillation between real-surreal or its unique topical metaphors. Its seemingly local scope should not mislead the reader: this compact and gruesome family drama is a indictment of the repression/regression that religion effects in the domestic and educational sphere nationwide. The fact that a young author chooses such material demonstrates that sixty years after Reve’s acquittal at the ‘donkey trial’, our oft-invoked ‘Judaeo-Christian heritage’ remains a pernicious influence.

To an English public, The Discomfort of Evening is not an easy read: at its most dream-like and hallucinatory moments, it is more poem than novel. Yet the translation by Michele Hutchinson facilitates it considerably by breaking up the longer Dutch sentences in Jas’ breathless monologues, without diminishing their shock value. To my mind Rijneveld’s unprecedented achievement fully deserves to stand as a representative of Dutch literature to the world.”

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