Dutch non-fiction: universal and boundless

Non-fiction in Flanders and the Netherlands

© Stephan Vanfleteren
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Frankfurter Buchmesse
Guest of Honour 2016
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Dutch non-fiction: universal and boundless

Dutch non-fiction: universal and boundless

by Mireille Berman and Patrick Peeters

Much of Dutch non-fiction is not actually about the Netherlands or Flanders. Many non-fiction authors write about subjects that take place in far distant locations or which are so universal that it would be difficult to characterise them as typically Dutch or Flemish. Where this profoundly international orientation originated is an interesting question: is it the heritage of a trading nation that has always been open to international influences, or perhaps it is the lack a powerful sense of nationhood? Either way, Dutch non-fiction writers are open to international issues and ideas.

Another noticeable aspect is that while much Dutch non-fiction may be scholarly, it is not academic. Historians, social scientists, psychologists, philosophers, economists and anthropologists write in an accessible style aimed at a wide audience of informed readers. Between pulp and thesis there is an interesting, broad layer of informative, well-written works that often reveal a clear personal perspective and political or social involvement.

The Netherlands has a long tradition of non-fiction writing and while most publishers are established in the Amsterdam, Flanders is currently working hard to make up the accumulated deficit. With new Flemish publishers focusing increasingly on non-fiction this is now the fastest growing genre in the Dutch language area.
In recent years, bookstores have been selling more and more books about philosophy, psychology and ethics as interest among readers grows, stimulated by popular scientific magazines and newspaper supplements dealing with these subjects. Some of these publications may be characterised as quality self-help books: how to solve problems using Socrates, or how to be a better person with a daily dose of Spinoza. Other volumes are more an expression of intellectual amazement at the convolutions of the mind. Douwe Draaisma, professor of the history of psychology, is fascinated by the way memory works. He writes in a wonderful literary style about forgetting, suppression and dreams, often drawing on literature for examples. In his work he discusses questions that everyone asks: why do we forget the important things yet we remember all kinds of rubbish? Why does life suddenly pick up speed as we get older? Without losing subtlety he manages to make these questions accessible to a broad readership among people who, just like him, are astonished to discover what an incredible phenomenon memory is.

A number of authors are writing on the cutting edge of psychology and ethics, producing incisive social criticism designed to encourage debate. Paul Verhaeghe, psychiatrist and professor, gained a wider international audience with his books Love in a Time of Loneliness and Identity. In his latest book Authority, he notes that there is much to complain about when it comes to authority. Politics and religion have lost their credibility, parents find it increasingly difficult to control their children. Like his Dutch counterpart, the nation’s philosopher Marli Huijer, the Flemish Verhaeghe issues an impassioned plea for a new form of authority.

Many socially-engaged and critical publications about the effect of capitalism and the rise of consumerism have also appeared: books about the banking crisis, the food industry, the crisis of democracy, the power of capital and how to find sustainable alternatives. A particularly successful volume is Joris Luyendijk’s Swimming With Sharks (Dit kan niet waar zijn). Based on his blogs for the Guardian, Luyendijk’s anthropological impressions of London’s financial sector were an unprecedented hit – over 300,000 copies were sold – and the book received the ultimate literary accolade. Also active in the same genre is Luuk van Middelaar, who has been actively involved over the last ten years in European policy-making, not least as righthand man  to European Council president Herman van Rompuy. Van Middelaar employed his experiences in a much-admired volume on the birth of the European Union: The Passage to Europe.

Belgium’s failure to form a government within a normal time span left many wondering whether we were in a crisis of democracy. That led in Flanders to a debate about how to raise the level of democracy in society. David Van Reybrouck called for citizens to take responsibility in his pamphlet Tegen verkiezingen (Against Elections). Perhaps the most unusual idea in his book was to select parliamentarians by lottery.

Books by research journalist Chris De Stoop, who discusses subjects such as trafficking of women and the first Belgian female suicide bomber, reveal a particular concern with social issues. His latest title, Dit is mijn hof, is his most personal book. De Stoop goes back to the house he was born in to look after his mother who suffers from dementia and to manage the family farm. Lyrical passages about the surrounding farmland are interspersed with criticisms of European agricultural policy, economies of scale and the strategies of campaigners for so-called new nature. De Stoop makes the enormous pressure that weighs on family farms these days tangible.

History is another genre which remains ever popular, especially when big stories are interwoven with minor, personal narratives. A highly successful example is Suzanna Jansen’s Het pauperparadijs, in which she traces her family’s roots among the pauper colonies of the nineteenth century. Equally fascinating is the way Geert Mak connects the fate of ordinary people with the grand scheme of history. Mak, by training a lawyer, writes with a profound concern for social issues about the way the masses relate to the ruling elites. He has written a series of books about Dutch, European and world history, and made his mark with an international best seller entitled In Europe. In Travels Without John (Reizen zonder John) he follows John Steinbeck’s footsteps across the United States fifty years after, while his latest volume brings him back to the Netherlands. In his Life of Jan Six (De levens van Jan Six) he turns the spotlight on the Dutch elite and tells the story of the Six family of Amsterdam patricians over four centuries.

David Van Reybrouck’s Congo: The Epic History of a People (Congo. Een geschiedenis) is a best seller that has garnered international as well as national awards. In magnificent prose Van Reybrouck describes the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods down to 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence. He interviewed over 500 people for this book in Kinshasa and in the interior, as well as investigating the African diaspora in Europe and China.

In that sense he follows in the footsteps of one of the greats of Dutch non-fiction, Lieve Joris. In her books about Africa, China and the Mideast she manages to make global questions accessible and tangible. Her latest volume, On the Wings of the Dragon (Op de vleugels van de draak), discusses Chinese exploitation of Africa: an effervescent travelogue which sheds new light on the impact of globalisation in post-colonial Africa.

The Second World War is a topic that has never failed to find an audience in the Low Countries over the past decades and it remains a moral benchmark. Several firsthand witnesses have achieved lasting fame - first and foremost the diary of Anne Frank and the writings of Etty Hillesum - while less familiar books by people such as Philip Mechanicus, Nico Rost and Klaartje de Zwarte-Walvisch have also appeared in many other languages. In recent years, the perspective on the Second World War has become more complicated. Slavist Laura Starink, whose roots are German, wrote a history of her mother and aunts growing up in Silesia, a distant corner of the Third Reich, where their father was a teacher. Starink describes how as young women they had to flee the Russians following the defeat of the Nazis and shows the impact their experiences had on the family, breaking the silence which has long hidden this part of postwar history.

In Orgelman: Felix Nussbaum: Een schildersleven Mark Schaevers delivers a remarkably successful biography of German artist Felix Nussbaum, who was killed in Auschwitz in 1944 and whose work has only now been recognised as being of seminal importance in twentieth century art. Sales and literary prizes underscore the huge significance of the biography, which has made a major impact in Dutch literary circles. International recognition has also not been lacking for Jan Caeyers’s biography of Beethoven in Germany, which has been reprinted several times.

Is this Dutch of Flemish historry? Not exactly. Dutch non-fiction’s diversity, breadth and  subtle variation offers a rich treasure of well-written, engaged and intelligent analyses.