09 November 2016

On A.F.Th. van der Heijden

The 1997 German paperback of Advocaat van de hanen, published by Suhrkamp, is a memorable book, a fat canary-yellow volume, the cover image a rear view of three punks, two with extravagant cockscomb mohawks. They’ve tried several different covers for the book, but that’s the one that works, the one that caught my eye when it came out; I don’t know that I would have picked up the one with the picture of the crossarmed author staring back past me.
Advocaat van de hanen was not the first of A.F.Th. van der Heijden’s novels to appear in German, but it was the breakthrough work, and the first to come to my attention. I may have dimly recalled the enthusiastic reviews for the hardcover edition from two years earlier, in 1995, but it was new to me. The heft of the paperback – more than 600 pages –, the Suhrkamp imprimatur, the mix of establishment-lawyer and punks, the setting a provocative Amsterdam-scene I was unfamiliar with beyond media reports, and the magical-sounding author-name – only ‘van der Heijden’ on the cover – added up to more than enough to convince me. If I debated the purchase at all, it was only because this was billed as the fourth in a multi-volume novel cycle and, suspiciously, most of the rest was not available in German translation yet (the intermezzo Weerborstels had come out a few years earlier, while the first volume, Vallende ouders, had just appeared in hardcover; the prologue-volume, De slag om de Blauwbrug, wouldn’t appear until 2001). Affordable enough in paperback, I took the risk – and was quickly won over. Brimming over with excess, yet with the author so clearly in command of his material, it was a remarkable reading experience.

The 1997 German paperback of Advocaat van de hanen, published by Suhrkamp, is a memorable book, a fat canary-yellow volume, the cover image a rear view of three punks, two with extravagant cockscomb mohawks. They’ve tried several different covers fort he book, but that’s the one that works, the one that caught my eye when it came out; I don’t know that I would have picked up the one with the picture of the crossarmed author staring back past me. Advocaat van de hanen was not the first of A.F.Th. van der Heijden’s novels to appear in German, but it was the breakthrough work, and the first to come to my attention. I may have dimly recalled the enthusiastic reviews for the hardcover edition from two years earlier, in 1995, but it was new to me. The heft of the paperback– more than 600 pages –, the Suhrkamp imprimatur, the mix of establishment-lawyer and punks, the setting a provocative Amsterdam-scene I was unfamiliar with beyond media reports, and the magical-sounding author-name – only ‘van derHeijden’ on the cover – added up to more than enough to convince me. If I debated the purchase at all, it was only because this was billed as the fourth in a multi-volume novel cycle and, suspiciously, most of the rest was not available in German translationyet (the intermezzo Weerborstels had come out a few years earlier, while the first volume, Vallende ouders, had just appeared in hardcover; the prologue-volume, De slagom de Blauwbrug, wouldn’t appear until 2001). Affordable enough in paperback, I took the risk – and was quickly won over. Brimming over with excess, yet with the author so clearly in command of his material, it was a remarkable reading experience.

Lees hier de PDF.

Part of the appeal of reading foreign fiction is that whatever personality factors seep into and influence both local coverage and consumption are, if not altogether lost, at least diluted abroad. I had no idea who this A.F.Th. van der Heijden was, and neither much interest in nor possibility of – in that still largely pre-internet time – finding out. I knew nothing of his role or position in the Dutch literary world, or of his reputation. He existed only in the abstract, not as a public personality. Beyond that, ‘A.F.Th. van der Heijden’ sounded almost too good to be true – and when I learned that the initials spelled out as the ridiculous Latinate ‘Adrianus Franciscus Theodorus’ it was even harder to believe this was an authentic name, attached to a real-life person; more likely, it seemed to me, this must be part of a more elaborate game of fiction and invention. The impressions stick, even now that I know better, and they’re not wrong: De tandeloze tijd, in particular, involves a remaking and reimagining of self and a reworking of personal and public experience into fiction, even if it is a project whose methods and breadth extend far beyond, for example, Karl Ove Knausgård’s much more simply and directly self-obsessed Mijn strijd.
Van der Heijden had, of course, already attempted to create a different authorial self earlier, as ‘Patrizio Canaponi’ – yet another fact I was unaware of in 1997 – but it was in embracing his own (however unlikely-sounding) identity, that van der Heijden came into his own. Central to the exercise was, of course, the De tandeloze tijd-cycle-dominating character of Albert Egberts. Yet in retrospect, I think I was fortunate to come across Advocaat van de hanen before anything else. Here Ernst Quispel is the main figure, with Egberts decidedly secondary, and that was probably for the best. Egberts isn’t the only alter ego van der Heijden utilizes in his houseof- mirrors books, but Egberts is the one resembling him most closely. There would be enough of him to get to in the other volumes. Quispel’s own excess – arguably controlled, because it is only occasional, yet here one of complete abandon – was more than sufficient in this engrossing tale, making for an ideal introduction to van der Heijden’s fiction.
The De tandeloze tijd-cycle swept me up. Epic and epochal, on a scale rarely found in contemporary literature, it barely mattered that I was unfamiliar with much of the Dutch background it is rooted in. Even the seeming messiness of its sprawl – volumes published out of sequence, even in the original Dutch, such as the two-part third installment; a prologue-book; an intermezzo slipped in along the way – had its appeal. For all its disarray, there is never a sense of the author not being in complete control of his plot and characters, even as he pushes them to such extremes. Moving to his other works, it has also been his most ambitious inventions, and the ones on the largest scale – De Movo Tapes! Het schervengericht! – that I have most enjoyed losing myself in.
With Dutch reasonably accessible between my two main languages (German, English), all of van der Heijden’s work is within my reach – though I have to admit that for a long time it was easier to fall back on the German translations. For more than twenty years Suhrkamp has been publishing his work in German – somewhat haphazardly, and with pieces missing, but all translated by Helga van Beuningen, making for a reassuring consistency. It is striking, however, that his work has still not travelled more widely, making no inroads into French, and barely any into English. The demands of the still-expanding De tandeloze tijd-cycle are of course daunting, and the scale of some of the early volumes of the Homo duplex-cycle similarly discouraging. Het schervengericht, with its American setting and inspired premise, of Charles Manson crossing paths with Roman Polanski in prison, might have seemed an obvious choice for the us market, but at its thousand-page-size, riskaverse American publishers aren’t taking any chances. (Oddly, it doesn’t seem to be just the size of many of his books that is a stumbling block. The American lack of awareness and interest, like some huge blind spot, is apparently much deeper and more comprehensive: hoping recently to consult some of his books I don’t have readily at hand I found that of the fifteen van der Heijden titles in the holdings of the Columbia University library, twelve were stored away offsite, presumably with the safe assumption that there is not nearly enough demand, academic or casual, to bother keeping them readily in reach on the shelves.)
Early ‘sketch material’ from De tandeloze tijd appeared as ‘Pompeii Funebri’ in the 1993 anthology, The Dedalus Book of Dutch Fantasy, but it was too little, or too much, or too early, an aborted introduction to the author for English-speaking readers. That was the same year that the Netherlands and Flanders were the Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair – as they are again this year – and van der Heijden did the rounds. In Engelenplaque he describes pitching De tandeloze tijd to American publishing legend Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as ‘The Great American Novel of the Netherlands’. He records Straus agreeing to take a look at the German translation (and promising that the next time: ‘we’ll talk it over, and we’ll get drunk together’) but despite Suhrkamp publisher Siegfried Unseld’s admonition: ‘you missed Nooteboom. You shouldn’t miss von der Hayden,’ nothing came of it.
Of course van der Heijden was right to tout De tandeloze tijd, even if Het leven uit een dag might have been an easier sell, a slimmer volume that might have served at least as a wedge to crack the American door open for his much more ambitious project. That self-contained and manageably- sized novel is the most widely-translated of his works, albeit also tending to the periphery (German and Spanish, yes, but also Finnish and Bulgarian). It too has an inspired premise – not just a day in the life, but a day as the entirety of life – yet is hardly representative, an interesting stand-alone, but not really a stepping- stone to van der Heijden’s larger visions – and, really, it is those that matter. As such, it was perhaps indeed better to hold out and try to convince of the qualities of the much grander undertaking. The timing was unfortunate too, however, with Mulisch’s magnificent De ontdekking van de hemel (1992) the uncontested great Dutch novel of those years, leaving little room for an unwieldy and even more sizable work.
The multi-volume literary novel-cycle in translation is a hard sell under any circumstances. Even so, it is a stunning and revealing failure of contemporary English-language publishing that it took another two decades for any book by van der Heijden to appear in translation. Predictably, it was the intimate requiemroman, Tonio, van der Heijden’s account of the death of his son, his most obviously accessible work. Yet even this was picked up by a publisher (Scribe) headquartered in Australia, rather than one based in the United States or London.
From the beginning of his career, van der Heijden has been working on a corpus – not a simple monobloc, but a complex structure that is, to varying degrees, interconnected. Many of the pieces are emphatically personal, but even among these the barely embellished Tonio is an outlier. Tonio may serve well as an introduction to the man, but it’s a false start for English-speaking readers. It is in his fiction that van der Heijden’s transformative, creative qualities truly come to fruition, in writing that is never lackluster and which, where it does fall short (it happens), never does so for want of ambition.
In a time when there seems so much more free movement of international literature across borders and languages, it is odd to find a case such as that of a major author like van der Heijden. There are some writers whose work is naturally limited to domestic audiences, but surely he is not one of them. His huge, varied body of work, from intimate Dutch social and personal studies to the elaborate remaking of classical myths, should easily speak to audiences worldwide. But rather than bursting far beyond Dutch borders it has barely staggered past neighboring German. True, from any distance, the towering – and still growing, in all directions – heap might well seem too formidable. How possibly to come to grips with it? Perhaps one really has to simply stumble into it, almost randomly – to fall and lose oneself there, like I did, without really knowing what I was getting myself into. Foreign publishers’ conservative instincts have them gravitate to stories and forms that are safe and familiar – Tonio is such an easy choice – but the true rewards of van der Heijden’s work are to be found in the rich, expansive excess of his epic fictions, from the small-scale Sophoclean Drijfzand koloniseren to the massive Het schervengericht and beyond.
It is a shame that most foreign readers don’t know what they are missing; I count myself lucky that I found and have entry to this extraordinary world.

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