From Writer at his Own Expense to Public Phenomenon
An attempt at self-explanation
The decline of this group of friends culminates in a break between Paul Dehoes and Maarten Koning. The former professes his non-conformism through a deluge of words and in so doing bases himself on the principles set out in the literary magazine Forum (1931-1935), which through its edi-
tors Menno ter Braak and E. du Perron propagated a form of uncompromising honesty and was highly sceptical of all forms of collectivism. Paul only borrows Forum's jargon, however, as his actions increasingly entangle him in society. He is seen slipping towards a cosy middle-class lifestyle, encouraged by his girlfriend, who later becomes his fiancée and then his wife and who is expecting a child by the end of the novel. As his family name suggests (‘hoes’ = ‘cover’), Paul uses words to cover up what he is really like. We discover in retrospect that the real king (‘koning’ = ‘king’) of non-conformism is Maarten.
On Closer Examination develops in strict chronological order and seems to be told from a purely objective standpoint: all characters are described from a distance in the third person. Their unspoken thoughts are not related. The friends are often shown in the middle of a discussion or at a party in some student's flat. Sometimes Voskuil shows a character preoccupied by ordinary everyday life in these passages. The reader sees that character's personality with such clarity that he or she feels almost like a voyeur. The loneliness of the alienated Henriette, for example, is nowhere more excruciatingly
J.J. Voskuil (1926-). Photo by Bert Nienhuis.
depicted than in his bald description of her trip to the country on 30 December 1948: ‘You could barely make out the path. There were reeds growing in the water on one side. The wind was blowing through the willows on the other. It took a long time for her eyes to get so accustomed to the dark that she could see where the meadows began. She stumbled along the uneven path, stepping in the puddles. The wind was cold. She was shivering. Her coat flapped and slapped against her legs. She continued on mechanically. It started to rain again. She slipped in the mud and slid down off the path. A dog began to bark in a farmyard further up the lane.’
On Closer Examination's behaviourist narrative style is only seemingly neutral. From the very beginning, Maarten's protagonist, Paul, is presented to the reader as a poseur. He brags to his friends about his erotic adventures, but the reader knows better. He is so afraid of failing that he swallows two raw eggs in preparation before going to bed with a woman for the very first time.
In 1963 On Closer Examination was well received by the Dutch critics, but it also came in for criticism. People objected to the false sense of objectivity Voskuil had instilled in the novel; nor were his detailed descriptions in keeping with popular taste.
The author himself refused to comment. He gave no interview, nor did he release any new work for publication. It was later discovered that he had written a sequel to On Closer Examination, titled Under the Skin (Binnen de huid), but hadn't dared publish it. As a result of this, and also because of the book's size and its relatively high price, Voskuil's first attempt was a financial disaster. The book had to be sold off at less than cost price.
Nevertheless, On Closer Examination remained popular among a small circle of readers, this popularity growing along with increased popular interest in the years immediately following the Second World War. It was reprinted in 1985 - this time accompanied by interviews with the author in which he explains the essence of his novel. He characterised On Closer Examination as ‘an attempt at self-explanation’ which he had undertaken at a time when the illusions of his student days had become untenable. According to him the book expresses the idea that friendship is of no consequence. He wished to express this to his friends in a sort of parting letter.
The reprint sold better than the first edition, partly because of the 6-part tv series based on the novel by the director Frans Weisz which was shown in 1990.
If On Closer Examination deals with Maarten Koning's life between 1946 and 1953, The Bureau deals with the period 1957 to 1987, when he is working at the scholarly institute mentioned in the title, which conducts research on dialectology, folklore and onomastics. In order to secure a livelihood, Maarten only aims for a low ranking position but soon finds himself appointed the busy head of the Folklore Department. The institute grows at an enormous rate, as a result of which Maarten finds himself in charge of staff and has to make public appearances, delivering lectures and writing papers on such diverse items of Dutch folk culture as the flail and the wedding ring. He does not manage too badly, his self confidence strengthened by repeated approval, but it demands so much of his energy that it gives him headaches and stomach pains. He is lacking in the social graces and consequently finds it hard to combat the somewhat blunt manner of the Bureau's director, Balk. Maarten feels ‘threatened’ by the slightest thing; this word appears with striking regularity in the cycle of novels. In the books that have appeared till now, we find him having to make more and more concessions regarding the principles he had set himself as a student. This leads to violent confrontations with his wife Nicolien, who serves as his angry conscience.
In The Bureau, Voskuil gives an account of his thirty years at the P.J. Meertens Institute (the real name of the Bureau) in Amsterdam. Again, what drives him to write is the loss of illusions, in this case the illusion that he had been part of a department that held solidarity in high esteem. After his retirement he was forced to re-examine this view - the result being his gigantic manuscript: The Bureau. After some hesitation, the publisher decided to include it among his titles, a decision he can look back on with pleasure since the volumes published so far have already sold tens of thousands of copies.
The issues in The Bureau are again of a moral order, as immediately becomes apparent from the beginning in Part 1, Mr Beerta. According to Maarten Koning, an individual should lead an authentic life with a minimum amount of pretence, a life where there is only room for a few trustworthy people. He measures people according to these standards, as he does with Mr Beerta, his boss during the first few years of his job. Initially, Maarten has a good opinion of Mr Beerta. He considers him as someone who, like himself, believes in nothing. But he soon loses credit. Beerta turns out to be dishonest and cowardly; he abuses his position and finally, following a visit to the ddr, reveals himself to be a political nincompoop.
Like Paul Dehoes in On Closer Examination, Beerta becomes a caricature with whom Maarten contrasts favourably, partly because of the slanted narrative in The Bureau. For we really only get to follow Maarten's comings and goings, and now we are also treated to an insight into his thoughts and feelings. The result is that it is he who engages the reader's sympathies, even when he does not respect his own principles and behaves badly. The reader can only judge Mr Beerta and the other characters and their often unpleasant deeds through Maarten's eyes, their inner lives remaining hidden at all times.
And Maarten continues to add more water to his wine as far as his principles are concerned. To his wife, Nicolien, who accepts no responsibility whatsoever and continually confronts him with his principles, he replies: ‘The only thing that remains of your principles is that you do the things but with aversion’. This quote is from Part 2, which bears the highly significant title of Dirty Hands. These are the words of someone who has given up.
And yet, Maarten Koning is not a weak character. He commands the respect of his colleagues and does not allow himself to be pushed around, as is shown by the detailed description in Plankton of the problems involved in the periodical Ons Tijdschrift. This periodical for folk culture is a Flemish-Dutch initiative, but the influential professor Pieters, municipal secretary of the city of Antwerp, considers it as his own personal property, and often breaks agreements made with the Dutch members of the editorial board. This leads to a split, as actually happened in real life.
The conflict derives in part from differences between Flanders and the Netherlands. There are disagreements as to which direction the magazine should take. Pieters wishes to reach as broad a readership as possible with a regionalist publication that has links with various folkways museums and associations. The Dutch members of the editorial board, led by Maarten Koning, strive to maintain a high level of academic precision and reject all forms of regionalism.
This difference in policy is probably closely related to differences between Flanders and the Netherlands. Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, has been oppressed for centuries. This being so, it is understandable that they see the need to spread their own culture rather than provide the critical analysis of it that Maarten argues for; it is no coincidence that he represents a region that has been independent for centuries.
Voskuil makes no attempt to deny the autobiographical background of his novel. On the contrary, in his interviews he shows how little esteem he has for fiction - an attitude he reinforces by changing with ease to the first person singular when referring to Maarten Koning. Critics have also pointed to and clarified the reality behind The Bureau. Some articles go into great detail, revealing which people served as models for Voskuil's characters. These people were then interviewed about their views on his account of things.
Fiction Beats Reality
The success of The Bureau has been strengthened by a cultural climate in which there is a great interest in biographical writing. Over the last ten years a number of biographies of prominent Dutch people have appeared, in a country that has had no real tradition in this field. The attention paid in the mass media to literature is also strongly biographical in tone. Like a soap opera, The Bureau offers its readers the opportunity to follow the lives of its characters over a number of years and has the extra attraction of being true to life.
This notion of true-to-lifeness is strengthened by Voskuil's style. With almost obsessive precision, he gives us detailed descriptions of the comings and goings of his characters and in so doing never shies away from repetition. We are therefore given repeated descriptions of how Maarten Koning begins his working day: ‘He went back to close the door, he opened the win-
dow, hung up his coat and put the plastic bag in the bookcase... He removed the cover from the machine, moved his chair sideways, took the top letter from the pile that had to be answered and placed it beside him.’ The syntax is regular and the words sober: his use of adjectives is strictly functional and metaphors - absent in the above quotation - are few and far between. Voskuil excels in rendering dialogue, such as Maarten's tedious discussions with his colleagues or the arguments with his wife.
This interest in reality found in The Bureau has led to some remarkable scenes. When the P.J. Meertens Institute planned to leave its beautiful premises beside a canal in Amsterdam, people were offered the opportunity to visit the place where The Bureau had happened. Crowds stormed the building. And scenes from The Bureau were played in the original setting in order to make this autobiographical fiction even more true to life.
And that was not all. In the summer of 1997, news reached the papers of a conflict at the P.J. Meertens Institute, the problem being one of reorganisation. That reality and fiction had become further intertwined was proven by the fact that one of the parties to the dispute had borrowed his arguments from Voskuil's novel.
Nor did the writer himself remain aloof. During the same period Dutch farmers were suffering losses due to swine fever, which provoked a public debate on agribusiness in which Voskuil became heavily involved. Totally in keeping with Maarten Koning, who has always been concerned about the welfare of animals, he used his fame to launch a campaign designed to improve the living conditions of pigs which he called Pigs in Danger (Varkens in nood). During the celebration at which the Libris Prize is presented, he took the opportunity to address a politician present on the needs of Dutch pigs. He donated a part of the prize money to his campaign.
So J.J. Voskuil, a writer at his own expense with a small circle of readers, has grown to become a writer read by tens of thousands and even a public phenomenon. Perhaps he has found the social acceptance for which Maarten Koning has searched in vain.
Translated by Peter Flynn.
Extracts from The Office
‘What sort of conference is it then?’
‘This is a celebratory conference.’
‘A celebratory conference?’ Her voice was shrill with indignation. ‘But surely you don't have to go? What is it anyway, a celebratory conference?’
‘The Belgian Commission is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary.’
‘And you have to go to that? Surely that's got nothing to do with you? Don't tell me you take such nonsense seriously! When your office celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary you didn't give a celebratory conference, did you?’
‘No,’ he admitted.
‘Well then! Why on earth should you go to theirs now? Let someone else go! Some idiot who actually enjoys such nonsense.’
‘I'll think about it.’
‘You'll think about it?’ She had stopped eating and was now looking at him furiously. ‘Why do you have to think about it, for God's sake?’
He lowered his eyes to avoid her furious gaze and painstakingly tried to cut a bite of meat. ‘In the first place because Beerta thinks I should go, and in the second place because I can't think of any reason not to.’
‘No reason?’ She clenched her fist next to her plate and leaned forwards as though she was going to fly at him.
‘If I don't go, I'll never know whether it's because I think it's nonsense or because I'm afraid,’ he said, doing his utmost to control himself.
‘So you have to give it a try first? You have to go to it before you can decide whether or not it's nonsense? It's not enough if I tell you it is?’
‘If I refuse to go I want to know why,’ he said, sitting up straight and looking at her angrily. ‘If I refuse to go because I'm scared, then I'll just get more and more scared! If I refuse because it's nonsense, then it's nonsense!’
She was shocked into silence for a second but recovered at once. ‘And if I tell you that it's nonsense?’
‘That's not enough.’
‘Not enough?’ Her voice rose again in anger.
‘No, that's not enough,’ he repeated, infuriated. ‘And I'm the one who decides whether or not it's enough! It's my job, not yours!’
She was silent for a moment.
‘When is this conference?’ she asked.
‘At the beginning of September,’ he said diffidently.
‘Then you can't go. That's when we're going on holiday.’
‘We can go on holiday afterwards.’
‘You don't mean you're going to put off your holiday for a lousy conference?’ He didn't answer, turning his attention instead to his food.
‘Answer me,’ she said threateningly. ‘You're not going to put off your holiday for a lousy conference, are you?’
‘I won't have to put it off,’ he said, controlling his temper. ‘The conference finishes on the fourteenth, so we can leave on the fourteenth!’
‘Leave on the fourteenth? How can you possibly leave on the fourteenth if the conference doesn't finish till the fourteenth?’
‘Because the conference is in Brussels.’
‘And what about me? You expect me to bring our rucksacks to Brussels by myself? I wouldn't dream of it! How could you think such a thing?’
He stared tensely at the plate in front of him. ‘I was going to suggest that you come along to the conference.’
‘Me?’ she said indignantly. ‘You think I should go to that conference? I wouldn't dream of it. Imagine me taking part in such nonsense!’
‘You're invited too.’
‘Me, invited?’ She laughed. ‘Well, then they don't know me yet, do they? Just imagine! Tagging along as the wife of that scholar chap, I suppose? And having to talk to all those jerks! You didn't really think I'd go, did you? You didn't really think I'd do it? You know me by now, don't you?’
‘Yes, I know you,’ he said with forced restraint.
‘Well!’ she said angrily. ‘Don't say such idiotic things then!’
From Mr Beerta (Meneer Beerta. Het Bureau I. Amsterdam: Van Oorschot, 1996, pp. 478-480)
‘You weren't here yesterday afternoon,’ said Balk, coming into the room.
‘No, I was at the library,’ said Maarten by way of apology. He was immediately annoyed with himself for having said it, but it had slipped out before he could think.
‘One of the applicants was a man you'd really get along with,’ he continued, paying no attention to what Maarten had said, ‘a good bloke. I wanted to send him along to you. I told him to come back tomorrow. Will you be here tomorrow?’
‘Yes, but I don't have an opening for him.’
‘That doesn't matter. If you can use him, then there's an opening for him! You're the only one here who doesn't have a documentalist, and this chap is exactly what you need. Wait a minute, I'll get you his letter.’ He walked resolutely out of the room.
Maarten looked out at the garden, but without seeing anything. He felt threatened by Balk's proposal, which had caught him off guard, especially because he couldn't think of any reason to argue. He thought it unlikely that Balk would be able to choose someone he could get along with, but he saw that he wouldn't be able to convince Balk of this without starting an argument, and he was afraid of arguments. This insight made him instantly unhappy. Again the door opened. Balk marched in and put the letter down in front of him with a forceful gesture. ‘Here you are. Tomorrow morning at ten o'clock. The man lives in Rozenburg, but he says that's not a problem. After you've seen him, bring him to me and we can discuss the practical details.’ He turned around and was out of the room before Maarten could answer.
Maarten read the letter with reluctance. The man's name was Jan Boerakker, twenty-nine years old, living in Rozenburg and doing administrative work at a Shell laboratory. He possessed a Librarianship Diploma C, a wife, and two children, and wanted to apply for the job of librarian. The letter was written in a child-like, spidery scrawl which Maarten found off-putting. Depressed, he got up, took the letter, and walked through the second office to the back room. His entire staff was there: Heidi Bruul, whose name was now Heidi Muller, the Misses Schot-van Heusden and Boomsma-Varkevisser, who had taken the places of Kees Stoutjesdijk and Ad Muller as his student-assistants, and Bart. He greeted Heidi and Bart by their Christian names and the other two by their surnames and sat down across from Bart on the other side of his desk.
‘An applicant's coming round tomorrow,’ he pushed the letter over the desk towards Bart.
Bart read the letter, his eyebrows raised in surprise, with the paper close to
his glasses, because even with glasses he had difficulty reading. ‘Surely this to replace De Gruiter?’ he said, looking up.
‘No, he's coming to us. It's Balk's idea.’
‘I should like to have been told about this beforehand.’
‘Me too, but Balk made the decision, he thinks this man would suit us.’
‘But we don't have an opening, do we?’
‘He's made one for us.’
‘That's very nice of Mr Balk, but I really don't think I would have accepted it.’
‘I can't think of any reason not to. Shall we see him together?’
‘I'll have to think about it first,’ said Bart, put out.
An hour later he came to say that he didn't want to be present at the interview because he didn't want to share the responsibility for a decision he hadn't been told about first.
From Dirty Hands (Vuile Handen. Het Bureau II. Amsterdam: Van Oorschot, 1996, pp. 17-19)
It was quiet by the canal. A Sunday morning, early. They walked slowly under the trees in the direction of Brouwersgracht. The wind rustled for a moment in the leaves above their heads and then died down again. Their feet ambled over the cobblestones. Grass was growing here and there between the stones at the edge of the water. Where cars had been parked there were dark oily spots. He looked up at the white cornices gleaming in the sunshine. A couple of doves were sitting up there on one of the ledges. They rounded the corner and walked down Brouwersgracht. A man with a little dog was walking towards them. He waited by a tree while his dog lifted its leg. The dog kicked up the earth with its hind paws, then, when the man started walking again, quickly ran after him. On the bridge over Prinsengracht they lingered for a while, looking at the houseboats, which were reflected in the placid water, so motionless that there was almost no difference between the boat above and the boat below. They descended from the bridge to the North Church and sat down on one of the benches. He took the newspaper he'd been carrying and opened it halfway, gave the supplement to Nicolien, and put his half of the paper on his lap, though he didn't read it. He stared drowsily ahead, his eyes half closed against the sunlight. A couple of churchgoers walked past. He followed them with his eyes while they crossed the square and disappeared around the corner. Coming from the other direction was a man with a beard, a child, a dog, and a pregnant wife. They sat down on another bench. The man got up again, took the child over to the slide, lifted him up and let him slide down. After repeating this a couple of times, he brought the child back, took a plastic bag, and went over to the sandbox. While he collected all the rubbish from the sandbox, putting it in the plastic bag, his dog jumped in and began digging a hole enthusiastically. The child was put in the hole and the man and woman watched from the bench as he swung a little shovel around. In the church the organ had started to play. The muted sounds filtered through to the square and evaporated in the silence. The congregation started to sing: Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide; When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me. He listened, moved. When the hymn was over he needed a minute to get his emotions under control.
‘Shall we move on then?’ he asked, sounding a bit choked up.
From The A.P. Beerta Institute (Het A.P. Beerta Instituut. Het Bureau IV. Amsterdam: Van Oorschot, 1998, pp. 161-162)
All extracts translated by Diane L. Webb.