Literature and War Readalong June 28 2013: Winter in Wartime by Jan Terlouw

Winter in Wartime

Two years ago I watched the Dutch resistance movie Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter). While it’s not my favourite resistance movie, I liked the story and when I saw it was based on a novel I felt tempted to read it. A review on Iris’ blog during last year’s Dutch Literature Month reminded me of the book. I’m looking forward to this book as it’s the first time that a readalong title is a children’s book or rather a novel for young adults. As Iris states in her review, it is even a classic of Dutch children’s literature.

Jan Terlouw is a Dutch scientist and politician. He has written over 20 books for children.

If you would like to join but are not in the mood to read the novel Winter in Wartime, you could watch the movie instead.

Here are the first sentences

It was dark.

Step by step, one hand groping in front of him, Michiel edged his way along the rough bicycle path that ran parallel to the cart track. In his other hand he carried a cotton bag containing two bottles of milk. “New moon and heavy clouds,” he muttered. “Van Onmen’s farm should be around here somewhere.” He peered to the right, straining his eyes, but could see nothing at all. Next time I’ll refuse to go if they don’t give me the lantern, he thought. Erica should make sure she’s at home by half past seven! I can’t manage this way.


The discussion starts on Friday, 28 June 2013.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2013, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Harry Mulisch: The Assault – De Aanslag (1982)

The execution of a collaborator and Nazi retaliation on the family of twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk have lasting repercussions in Anton’s life as he learns, through chance encounters, the truth of one harrowing night. 

Harry Mulisch is an author I have wanted to read for a long time. I know he is said to be one of the most important Dutch writers.  The Assault – De Aanslag is one of his most acclaimed novels and since it isn’t as long as The Discovery of Heaven, which I’d like to read sooner or later as well, I thought it’s a good starting point.

The book is told in a prologue and 5 sequences, each set in another year, 1945, 1952, 1956, 1966, 1981.

During the course of one single night, in the famine winter 45, just before the end of the war, the life of Anton Steenwijk, a twelve year-old boy, is changed forever.

The prologue describes the location. We get to know that the Steenwijk’s live in Haarlem, in a detached house, part of a housing project with three other houses. They are small but stately houses. At the beginning of sequence one, the family sits together in the darkened dining room, the only room they still inhabit in the icy cold apartment. Anton is reading, his older brother Peter is doing his home work, the mother spools wool and the father is trying to instruct them. A peaceful moment and despite the hunger Anton is enjoying it.

When they hear shots outside in the street, the peaceful moment is interrupted brutally. Looking out of the window they see that someone has been shot down in front of a neighbour’s house and immediately after this the neighbours come out and drag the man to the front of  Steenwijk’s house. Peter is the only one to react. He runs out and discovers that the man is a well-known police inspector and Nazi collaborator. He tries to drag the man away but before he gets very far, a group of Nazis approaches.

We learn later, that in those days, whenever a Nazi or a collaborateur was shot dead, the Nazis would severely punish those living in the houses close by.

This is exactly what happens. At the end of the night Anton’s parents and brother are shot and the house is destroyed. Anton is brought to his aunt and uncle who live in Amsterdam.

How do you go on living after something like this? How do you cope?

Each of the subsequent scenes shows us Anton at another point in his life. There is no conscious coping at first. It is as if he was numb and had forgotten everything right after it happened. His feeling for time is distorted. Whenever he thinks of that night he doesn’t feel much and thinks it’s much longer ago than it really is. Still the event seems to be guiding him in all of his choices and it is impossible to leave it behind for good. It is as if a secret force was at work and pushing him towards people who will help him uncover what happened really.

Survivor’s guilt may be an important theme but morality and fate or destiny are even much more important. While it was a pure coincidence that the dead man was shot in front of Korteweg’s house, Korteweg’s chose to drag him and leave him in front of Steenwijk’s house. Why? And if those who committed the assault had known that almost a whole family would be erased, would they still have done what they did? All these questions that Anton will start to ask many years later will be answered in the novel.

The book explores the question whether it is morally acceptable to commit a crime which will have severe consequences for others, in order to prevent bigger crimes and it explores also how people live with a trauma and repression. It shows in a very subtle way that although you may not be conscious of it, the trauma still lingers and wants to be acknowledged and express itself. It will find ways to make you pay attention. Pretty much like the elements in a dream which will return as long as you have not resolved some interior conflicts. The trauma can even make you choose a profession and it expresses itself in illness and accidents.

The way Mulisch shows the complexity and symbolism in which our subconscious tries to get our attention is amazing. What is equally wonderful is how evocative and expressive his descriptions are. When we open that book, we sit there with the family in the darkened room. We see the flickering lamp, feel the rough wool of an old pullover on our skin, the hunger churning in our bellies.

I didn’t like all of the parts equally well but one thing is for sure, part I 1945, is an amazing piece of literature and as a whole it is well worth reading.

I have read Harry Mulisch for Iris Dutch Literature Month. If you’d like to discover more Dutch books, make sure to visit her blog.

Has anyone read this or another of Mulisch’s book?

Cees Nooteboom: Mokusei! (1982)

Cees Nooteboom’s novella Mokusei! Een liefdesverhaal – Mokusei! a Love story is my second contribution to Iris’ Dutch Literature Month. It is currently out of print in English but there are German and French translations available.

Cees Nooteboom is one of those writers who simply never disappoint me. While reading this short book (70 pages) I was once more wondering how he does it. How can he write such stories that are feathery and light and still so full of meaning. His writing is inventive and informative, playful and deep, beautiful and melancholic. Apart from Nooteboom I know only the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi with a similar style.

Arnold Presser comes to Japan to shoot pictures of a woman in a Kimono standing in front of Mount Fuji. He has a image of Japan in his mind that is very idealized. He thinks, he knows what the real Japan is like. It is the Japan of Kimono’s, Basho’s Haikus, Hokusai’s paintings, the Japan of the many views of Mount Fuji, the Japan of rigid traditions and beautiful gestures. The modern Japan which adopts Western traditions, buys into consumerism, the big cities, the traffic and pollution are not Japan for him. Same as he has fixed ideas about the country he knows what a beautiful Japanese woman has to look like. It takes a while until he finds the perfect model but then he discovers Satoko.

He photographs her and falls in love with her. Their story will last five years. Five years in which they are more separate than together, five years of secret love-making and intense moments in which she will never tell him about her life, never introduce him to his parents. Presser has three names for her, her real name Satoko, the one he calls her to himself, Snow Mask, that implies that he cannot read her expressions and the term of endearment he uses when he calls her, Mokusei. Mokusei is one of the rare Japanese flowers with a scent and seems to perfectly fit his mysteriously withdrawn lover.

Mokusei! is masterful for many reasons. It’s a short, intense and tragic love story, and a meditation on Japan and the images and ideas we can have of a foreign country. What is so amazing is that Nooteboom writes at the same time about an idealized Japan, the real Japan and manages to adopt the Japanese writing style. The concept of wabi sabi pervades this novella on every page. There is a scene in which Presser goes for a walk in a garden and sees a dead leaf hanging not on a branch but on a torn spider web. This image captures beauty, fragility and perishability.

Mokusei! is a beautiful and profound piece of writing and I am glad I finally read it thanks to Iris’ event.

Tommy Wieringa: Caesarion (2009)

During powerful winter storms the North Sea tosses its full weight against the coast of East Anglia, and little by little the land disappears into the waves. High atop the cliff, Ludwig Unger lives with his mother; with every winter that passes the sea comes a little closer.
Ludwig is the child of two celebrities, predestined to be the continuation – raised to the umpteenth power – of both their talents. In his mother’s ambitious dreams, he is already a concert pianist. At the moment, however, he plays for a living in cocktail bars, and in the course of three nights he tells his life’s story to a woman.

I wanted to read at least two novels for Iris’ Dutch Literature Month but so far I only managed Tommy Wieringa’s novel Caesarion that I discovered on Lizzy’s Literary Life.

I’m in two minds about Caesarion. I did like reading it but at the same time I didn’t know what it was all about. That’s a peculiar feeling. Usually I either like a book or don’t like it, I know whether it is good or not, but in this case, I only know it was entertaining but…

Something is missing and I cannot put my finger on it. It was original and trite at the same time. An odd combination. I think the worst was, that I had no feeling for Ludwig. He wanted to make us believe that his life was tragic but I simply didn’t feel it, on the contrary, I found him annoying. The voice and the character didn’t seem to go together well and I’m not sure at all whether Wieringa did like Ludwig or not…  If he wanted to portray a sexist jerk, he did well, but if he felt sympathetic towards Ludwig, he failed.  At the same time one could ask whether Wieringa did intentionally choose to portray gender bias or whether it was rather accidental.

At the beginning of the novel Ludwig is on his way to England to a funeral. In the evenings he plays the piano in a bar, meets a woman and tells her the story of his life. Ludwig was born in Egypt, his mother, a former porn star, has been left by his father, an eccentric egotistic artist. They live in Alexandria until his mother decides she wants to go back to Europe and packs all their belongings. They first go to the Netherlands, his mother’s home country, where she isn’t welcome. She goes to England, leaving Ludwig behind but eventually has him follow her to East Anglia where they will live in a cottage precariously close to the eroding cliff.

The relationship between mother and son is quite strange, incestuous one could say, as Ludwig desires his mother. She loves to dress and make him up like a girl and her touch and warmth arouse him. It seems that she isn’t even aware of this but he is and struggles to get free. One attempt to free himself is to engage in ways that are meant to assure he becomes more traditionally masculine and that is why he joins a rugby team.

When Ludwig turns twenty the thing that everyone expected happens, their house is swiped off the cliff in a storm. At the same time Ludwig finds out about his mothers past as a porn star and even sees the movies. Shortly after this his mother leaves for L.A.. Ludwig manages to track her down and follows her everywhere, pretending he wants to take care of her. His mother is working in the porn industry again and Ludwig disapproves a lot. He meets a nice girl but she breaks up with him when he follows his mother to Vienna and then Prague. Ludwig’s constant nagging depresses his mother and one day she tells him that he has to leave, she cannot stand his accusing presence anymore.

Ludwig starts drifting through life, working as a bar pianist, engaging in love affairs with elderly and old women until he reunites with his mother again after a few years. She is living in Tunisia and has left the porn industry or rather, she has been fired. The reason for this is a oozing spot on her breast which is obviously malignant. Ludwig’s mother must know that it is cancer but she is in denial and even though she finally gives in and has it diagnosed she doesn’t have it treated traditionally but starts travelling through Europe looking for a magical cure. The moaning Ludwig follows her everywhere. When it becomes obvious that his mother will die, the two finally settle down in the Netherlands.

The last chapters lead Ludwig to Panama where he tries to find his father.

It is a very readable book and I would like to read Wieringa’s highly acclaimed Joe Speedboat but I didn’t really get the point of Caesarion. There were so many parts that felt familiar, where I was thinking, that I had read this before. The last part in Panama, for example, reminded me of Max Frisch’s Homo Faber.

The part I liked the most and the one that touched me was the beginning in England. It was done very well but from then on the novel started to turn into hotchpotch. I was wondering whether he wrote this novel over a long period, stopping in between, which could explain why it didn’t feel seamless.

Overall it seemed to have been a re-imagining of the tales of Oedipus and Odysseus. I didn’t like Ludwig at all but then again, is it necessary to like the main character? I don’t think so, but I hated the way he desired his mother and at the same hated her and sabotaged everything she wanted for him (becoming a concert pianist, for example)  or whatever she did for herself. It is as if he blamed her for having been left by his father and for being too attractive. And at the end, when she falls ill, he behaves as if it was justified and she deserved it. All her life she has been exploited because of her body and now this body turns itself against her, and all Ludwig does is hate her for not letting anyone cut her open.

If you are interested in another view, here’s the review from A Common Reader.

Dutch Reading Month in June

I just wanted to raise awareness for the upcoming Dutch reading month that will be organized by Iris on Books. She already hosted the read along for Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven and now, all through June, we will be reading Dutch books. There are already quite a lot of people who want to participate. I did a post a while back with Dutch reading recommendations. If you would like to participate, have a look at my Dutch Book Recommendations or at those Iris is giving on her Blog.

I’m not sure what I will read but I enjoy the fact that I don’t have to decide in advance.  I have two new books on my TBR pile, one is Tommy Wieringa’s Caesarion, the other one Willem Frederik Herman’s The Darkroom of Damocles. Both have been recommended by Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life) and by Iris.

You can also find recommendations on The Dutch Foundation For Literature.

Dutch Literature Recommendations

Lost Paradise

A post on Guy’s blog His Futile Preoccupations, followed by a discussion and comments on Dutch literature inspired me to write a post on maybe not sufficiently known Dutch literature. There is maybe also an upcoming European book tour on Bookaroundthecorner’s Blog.

I did learn Dutch because I wanted to read Dutch books in the original language. It’s a funny language and very close to the Swiss German dialects therefore I can’t say it was difficult to learn for me. The structure of the sentences is very English, the words have either German or English origin. However I read most of the books in the German translation which was mostly OK. Despite having read a fair amount of books I still have a big TBR pile of Dutch books.

I tried to find as many English translations as possible but depending on the author the result is somewhat meager.

The list below consists of literary fiction and a few crime writers. The authors that deserve particular attention are Grünberg, Mulisch, de Winter, Palmen, Hermans and Nooteboom.  I have also read the crime writers. Janwillem van de Wetering’s series is very different, very enjoyable. Saskia Noort seemed rather a bit in the vein of Mary Higgins Clark. Maarten t’Hart writes crime and memoirs and is good at both. Mulisch, Nooteboom and van de Wetering should be easy to find. Many of their books have been translated.

Arnon Grünberg: Phantom Pain

Arnon Grunberg’s masterful first novel is a rare feat: a work that manages to be shocking yet not sensationalist, hip but not trendy, ironic but not cynical. Most of all it is highly affecting. Highly recommended.

Leon de Winter: Hoffman’s Hunger

Felix Hoffman’s hunger is both physical and emotional. A Dutch diplomat with a chequered career behind him, he is now Ambassador in Prague in the late 1980s; his final posting. In Kafka’s haunted city, Hoffman desperately feeds his bulimia and spends his insomniac nights studying Spinoza and revisiting the traumas of his past. A child survivor of the Holocaust, Hoffman married and had beloved twin daughters, but a double tragedy has befallen his family; one daughter died as a young girl of leukaemia, the other, who became a heroin addict, has committed suicide.This has wrecked Hoffman’s marriage and his life; he has not had one decent night’s sleep since the death of his daughter over twenty years ago, and his constant physical hunger reflects his emotional hunger for truth and understanding. When Carla, a Czech double agent, gets into Hoffman’s bed, political and emotional mayhem ensues. Hoffman’s past and his present predicament are inextricably bound up with the tormented history of Europe over the fifty years since the Second World War. Like Europe, he is at a crossroads, and the signs point to an uncertain future.

Willem Frederik Hermans: Beyond Sleep

A gripping tale of a man approaching breaking point set beyond the end of the civilised world: a modern classic of European literature.

Margriet de Moor: The Virtuoso

A novel set in 18th-century Naples. For one entire season, Carlotta sits in her candle-lit box, held in the spell of a world in which knowledge, beauty and love collide: music. She has fallen in love with the male soprano, Gasparo.

Cees Nooteboom: Lost Paradise

Nooteboom brings a subtle, playful brilliance to this exceptional story of escape, loss and identity.

Harry Mulisch: The Discovery of Heaven

On a cold night in Holland, Max Delius – a hedonistic, yet brilliant astronomer who loves fast cars, nice clothes and women – picks up Onno Quist, a cerebral chaotic philologist who cannot bear the banalities of everyday life. They are like fire and water. But when they learn they were conceived on the same day, it is clear that something extraordinary is about to happen. Their worlds become inextricably intertwined, as they embark on a life’s journey destined to change the course of human history. A magnum opus that is also a masterful thriller.

Connie Palmen: The Laws

A debut novel which won the European Novel of the Year Award about unconventional love spanning seven years. A young philosophy student Marie Deniet encounters several men: an astrologer, an epileptic, a philosopher, a priest, a physicist, an artist and a psychiatrist, and attempts to comprehend the laws these loves live by.

and The Friendship

Ara and Kit, two girls in the village school, seem to have nothing in common. Ara, the elder, is large, earthy and illiterate; Kit is lean, brainy and interested in abstractions like philosophy. After they leave school Ara cannot let Kit alone – she is drawn to her as a moth to a candle flame.

Jessica Durlacher. I couldn’t find any of her books in English but she is famous as she writes on the Holocaust and is mentioned in this book: The Holocaust Novel

Dutch crime

Janwillem van de Wetering: Outsider in Amsterdam

Piet Verboom is found dangling from a beam in the Hindist Society he ran as a restaurant-commune in a quiet Amsterdam street. Detective-Adjutant Gripstra and Sergeant de Gier of the Amsterdam police force are sent to investigate what looks like a simple suicide.
Outsider in Amsterdam is the first in the Amsterdam Cops series of internationally renowned mysteries.

Saskia Noort: The Dinner Club

On a cold winter’s night, an elegant villa goes up in flames. Evert Struyck, happily married, father of two and successful business man, dies in the fire. His wife, Babette and the children manage to escape. Babette is part of a group of five women, known as “the dinner club”, who meet regularly and whose husbands do business together. Karen, a dinner club member, takes Babette into her house after the fire, but soon discovers that the friendships in the dinner club are not as unconditional as they seem. It becomes clear that some people have benefited from Evert’s death. Within weeks another member of the club falls from the balcony of a hotel and dies. Karen starts to put the pieces together. White-collar crime, fraud and adultery are the putrefying glue that has kept the dinner club together. Not for much longer. Set in a world of affluent suburbs, flashy 4×4’s and country clubs, familiar to readers in the UK and the US, “The Dinner Club” is a psychological thriller about a group of people desperately hanging on to the outer varnish of their lives. Some of them will defend their material success at any price. Imagine “Desperate Housewives” scripted by Patricia Highsmith. That’s “The Dinner Club”

Maarten t’Hart: The Sundial

The Sundial opens with Leonie Kuyper attending the funeral of her best friend Roos Berczy. She has always felt a little overshadowed by her friend’s glamorous looks and successful career so when she discovers she is the sole heir to Roos’s estate Leonie, an impoverished translator, cannot refuse. Leonie gradually begins to assume Roos’s identity, and as questions arise about her friend’s past, her curiosity becomes piqued. Leonie’s investigations soon unearth certain suspicious circumstances surrounding Roos’s death and the culprit, alarmed by this, springs into action.

I’m planning on reading either Hoffman’s Hunger or Phantom Pain soon.

If you think of reading books in Dutch, it might also be worth trying the literature of Suriname. I have one or two books but they have not been translated.

Does anyone have other suggestions and/or know the books?

If you are interested in a Dutch read along taking place in June, please visit Iris on Books

Phantom Pain