Monday, December 11, 2006

A literary guide to The Netherlands

Matt Steinglasss wrote Salon's literary guide to The Netherlands.

It opens:

For a country that was once the global capital of the publishing industry, it's extraordinary how little the Netherlands has influenced world literature. Most of the canonical writers of Dutch fiction are unknown outside Holland; many are untranslated. From a traveler's point of view, this is wonderful. Nothing could be more tedious than arriving in a new country with a suitcase full of preconceptions about its culture, drawn from world-famous novels already reduced to cliché by generations of English-language critics.

That said, some of the books any visitor to the Netherlands ought to read are familiar enough to the English-speaking world. Chronologically, one would have to begin with "In Praise of Folly," by the humanist clergyman Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?-1539). The book is a tongue-in-cheek twist on the classical genre of the encomium, in this case delivered by Erasmus' invented muse Folly ("Moriae"), in praise of herself. Folly's routine starts off lightly enough, as she congratulates humanity for embracing her so thoroughly. But soon the irony turns darker and harder to pin down. Folly insults people by calling them "wise," and praises them by calling them "fools." The reader becomes unsure which lines are backhanded compliments, and which are openhanded slaps. Gradually, Folly's speech turns into a sort of 16th-century "Colbert Report": a blistering condemnation of the hypocrisy, bloodthirstiness, stupidity and corruption of contemporary lay rulers and the Catholic Church, all delivered in the guise of "praise" from one of the world's first unreliable narrators.

Erasmus wrote "In Praise of Folly" in 1509, when the Netherlands didn't yet exist as such. But he hailed from Gouda and Rotterdam, and in the book, he gives Folly a couple of sly, "complimentary" lines that attest to the author's sense of nationality:

"Close to [the Brabanters] as neighbors, and also in their way of life, are my Hollanders -- for why shouldn't I call them mine? They're my devoted followers…"

Nothing could be more Dutch than this wry mix of self-mockery and pride.

The rest of the essay concerns more current recommendations and is worth reading even if you are not particularly interested in the Dutch and their literature. Click here to read on.

Other items in Salon's literary guide series include:
A literary guide to Chile
A literary guide to Alaska
A literary guide to Washington, D.C.
A literary guide to Vancouver
A literary guide to Baltimore
A literary guide to Argentina
A literary guide to Afghanistan
A literary guide to Louisiana
A literary guide to Australia
A literary guide to Norway
A literary guide to Turkey
A literary guide to Japan
A literary guide to Martha's Vineyard
A literary guide to West Texas
A literary guide to Togo
A literary guide to Brooklyn
A literary guide to Miami

--Marshal Zeringue