Posts Tagged ‘Dutch literature’

THE EVENINGS, by Gerard Reve, 1947.
Published by the excellent Pushkin Press, in its first English translation, by Sam Garrett, 2016

Avonden_eerstedruk

I am currently reading The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (Gerard Kornelius van het Reve, 1923 to 2006).

This is an early, outsider-novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’  (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written….’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem.
The novel is set in 1946, presumably in Amsterdam. There is no TV, no record player or records; there is  a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
Of course no internet, iphones….
And everyone is bored out their heads.

Note that, ye critics of today’s youth.

And so the chief character, 26 year old Frits van Egters, entertains himself by needling everybody. This ‘entertainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I had the distinct impressions of Billy Liar, by Alan Sillitoe, but no.

And so I am struggling with it; struggling to keep up the interest.
Because…. ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’.
Exactly.
The date, see: 1946.
The best minds of the generation before were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, the transports. The best engineers, mechanics, workers, had been trucked off for the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, physically malnourished, spiritually dead.

And Frit’s generation were beginning to stir, wake, shake themselves, look around. And what did they see?
‘He looked at her’ (his mother), ‘:  the thin face, the grey hair, the slight growth of hair around the mouth and chin, the arms that never stopped moving. “Help us,” he thought.

 – Is it me, or is it always the woman is the easy target? That she must maintain a static, constant, role, appearance, demeanor, for the narrator/character.
Woman as a distant, uncomprehended being; woman as an inhabitant of the same world, also – but surely she cannot feel what we chaps feel, how we feel. She goes on doing that house stuff as though nothing else mattered, or had happened.
Only, Frits wakes one night, to sounds in his parent’s room. He entered, to find his mother shaking and sobbing. His father, isolated in his own wrecked existence, excuses it as one her nervous attacks.
There is an unwritten novel in that, certainly. In her side of the story.

Frits looked around his world, and saw people holding onto the known and trusted traditions, but they now seemed little more than threadbare habits:
‘”Who’d like a pickled herring?…”, “”No, please, no.” But he does.
‘“… there’s a real Middenweg wind blowing…” , “…Please don’t use terms unfamiliar to the uninitiated.”

The book starts off well, with a sly, dry, ironic humour as Frits woke early one Sunday morning. Early: good, despite the bad dreams, but time to make something of the day. Then we see him every few minutes clock-checking, and the opportunities flounder, die, as the day wears on.

The story is set in late December. Even the Winter was a disappointment: the ice on the canal melted early; there was no real snow; plenty of drizzle, yes, but nothing with any energy or excitement to it.
The intention was there, but it is as though the life had been drained out of people, the world, even; the spark to ignite a creative fire, dampened.

‘“Tom ta tom tom, tom ta tom,” Frits sang to himself, “nothing ‘s good, but everything’s fine.”
– There’s definitely a modernist technique at work here. There is certainly an echo of Doblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in the use of vernacular, in the internal monologues, thesinging.

*

The novel is structured on ten evenings, of increasing frustration with a fruitless life, and world. Each chapter charts the route taken by the tacking and manouvering of a clumsy, mostly empty, boat.

No, the novel is a not a ‘Ulysses’; it may share some of the self-absorption of Joyce’s classic, but the scale and scaffolding are pointedly small-scale.
After the previous period’s vacuous claims to new world orders, new worlds, great futures, this is a pointedly and purposely humdrum conception of humanity.
When you build, you must build from proper materials: people as they are – and not cloud cities, a reich, built from vacuous guff shored up with people’s real blood, guts, lives.

We see Frits attend the school re-union; his peers were trying to adopt the old role of getting on, making something of themselves. Frits, perversely, does not.  It is not as definite as that, or as a much a stance. His life has no heroic gestures, statements, no focussed disavowal of old values. No, he rumbles on in a diffuse scepticism.

And it is here where the book’s strength lies.
It does not succumb to cliche, or stereotype. Frits is disagreeable, but not hateful. The story charts  the hinterland that is his life: he does not veer far from the main path, and certainly not off into the dubious byways, side roads, the district beyond the tracks.

The immediately pre-War writers grouped under the banner of Forum, were preoccupied with the relationship of man to society. The War changed all that; the War brought the Nazi regime’s Kultuurkamer and its prescription of everything other than National Socialist writing.
Reve’s book was the first one of impact to be published in that aftermath.

Reinder P Meijer, in his’ Literature of the Low Countries’ (Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd, 1978) writes, ‘The dreariness of the subject matter recalls the work of the nineteenth-century naturalists, of whom Van de Reve may be regarded as a descendant.’
The directness of Gerard Reve’s depiction, though, is the main factor: ‘Van het Reve offers no explanations, no comments, no psychological key.’ (: Reinder P Meijer).
Gerard Reve also employs ornate speech – the interactions between Frits and older brother Joop, and associates, reads – as his response to the use of vernacular, above, shows – as an arch, ornate, edging-towards-parody of earlier high-flown literary styles.

It is not Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the book shares kinship with, but perhaps Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’. They both explore the ennui. Sartre’s book has the definite stance, raison, backstory even, in the opus of Being and Nothingness. Reve eschews those grand gestures, definitions, concepts, in favour of the individual vision.
Where Sartre argues for the individualistic response, Reve gives it.

*

Gerard Reve hit the headlines again with his 1970’s quartet of books ‘Dear Boys,’ ‘Sweet Life,’ ‘I Loved Him,’ and ‘A Circus Boy,’ where he explores gay sex, with a brutal edge. It is the style, also, that grabbed attention. The books are written with a blend of fact and fiction, in the form of written letters, and fantasy, but not the standard epistolary format.  Reinders P Meije again: the books stand out because of their ‘firm structure and … skillful way(s) of preserving a precarious balance between reality and the fairy-tale elements… introduced in his later novels…’.

But I’m still stuck.

from my kindle book, Parameters:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Parameters-Michael-Murray-ebook/dp/B07893LB8Z/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1513428648&sr=1-1&keywords=parameters

 

A World Beyond Myself, Enitharmon, 1991

Memories of the Unknown, Harvill Press, 2001

RK1

Part 1: Beginnings

In 1996, New York’s Vintage Press brought out ‘The Vintage Book of World Poetry’; the book settled many reputations, but also introduced many more.

The Dutch writer Rutger Kopland woke up one morning to find himself a world-class poet. Ok, he was already a top-selling author in his own country. But that is the point, as Martinus Nijhoff lamented in 1936, it is a country whose literary appreciation is limited to a small range by its language.

We are very lucky to have the masterful translations of the late James Brockway. He preferred the description of ‘collaborations’, it reflected more the close work with the author to render as near a syllabic and tonal copy as possible.

“…what I am presenting,” he wrote, “…is a Dutch poem by a Dutch mind, but now in the English language”.

James Brockway was made ‘Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands’ in 1997, for his services to Dutch literature. He died in 2000.

‘Rutger Kopland’ is the pen name of Professor of Psychiatry (retired) Rudi H van den Hoofdakker. He was born in 1934, and has won many prestigious prizes, one of which is the Dutch highest award for literary achievement, the P C Hooft Prize.

Kopland’s first book, Among Cattle, appeared in 1966. The date is important in a number of ways.

In the nineteen fifties Dutch art and literature woke up to experiment; it was a time of cataclysmic experiment in all forms, only paralleled in Dutch poetry by the exuberance of the medieval Rederijker rhetorical guilds.

Of course, as with many such movements, they also carry and help generate the seeds of their successors. Out of the foment of imagistic, lexical experiment a strong realistic note was beginning to be detectable.

Kopland, along with Judith Herzberg are now readily identified as the best representatives of this tone: of a sane, nonrhetorical, everyday language and subject matter.

In this first book are to be found all the tonal keys of his later work. An instant favourite was the first poem of the book, now a much anthologised piece

A PSALM

                     The green pastures the still waters
on the wallpaper in my room –
                     as a frightened child I believed
in wall paper

                   ……………………………………………………………………….

 

The first thing to notice here is the almost total lack of punctuation. In the original there is only the final full stop, even the commas, lines 8 and 14 of the translatioon, do not appear.

We catch the tone of slow, almost ruminative, can we call it, ‘thinking aloud’? Are we overhearing a sotto voce between intimate friends? Husband and wife, perhaps, or is it between father and child, as maybe becomes apparent in the last stanza? I wonder, does it matter: the drama of a listening audience is of less importance, than the manner and intent of the narration.

Also notice the slow accumulation of details that reveal-but-not-reveal the narration: what was it he had, or had been, forgiven? The biblical references (note lowercase ‘god’) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) set a tone, particularly in the traditionally Calvinist/Lutheran Netherlands, for solitary meditative discourse, whose  heavy and responsible purpose: to converse with God, without intercessors, is offset by the witty, chatty aside: ‘as a … child I believed in wall paper…’.

Psalm 23 becomes a constant reference point in his writing.

The setting of the poem: the home, night, childhood, segue into the author’s own fatherhood; the meditative tone; the rural setting : an image of continuity, perhaps.

This may seem a little dated to those only familiar with the great urban sweep from Rotterdam, east and south; it is, however, deeply ingrained in the Dutch cultural model.

Kopland has lived all his working life in a village outside Groningen. This is where many still refer to as the real ‘rural’ Netherlands. These are the heartlands of the Dutch, the green ore that runs through the urban stonework.

What we read with Rutger Kopland, especially with these earlier books, are the books of the Dutch interior: the soul-lands. The irony is, Kopland is the least metaphysical of men; his insights are, I suspect, very much coloured by his profession as clinical neuroscientist.

Kopland was born in 1934; by the time of that terrible winter of German reprisals 1944/5, he would have 10 years old. 10, 1000 died that winter.

Consider the following poem in the book:

UNDER THE APPLE TREE

 

                                         I came home, it was about
                                         eight and remarkable
                                         close for the time of year,

                                        ……………………………………

                                         under the apple tree

                                        ……………………………………………..

                                         watching how my neighbour
                                         was still digging in his garden,

                                         …………………………………………………………….

                                         then slowly it once again became
                                         too beautiful to be true, …………

…………………………………………………………………………………………..

                                         and later I heard the wings
                                         of wild geese in the sky
                                         heard how still and empty
it was becoming

                 …………………………………………………………

                                         under the apple tree,
remarkably close

for our time of life.

Masterly; we scarcely even notice the ‘literaryness’: the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, the manipulation of mood-buttons. He earns our trust, and the trust of the ordinary reader by foisting no great ideas of redemption on us, by insinuating no Political awkwardness. We get the ‘feel’: the surburbanism of life lived by the ordinary person, with a job, family… in fact, do we recognise in ourselves: nostalgia for the past? This is a claim that plagued Kopland from these early books.

See how he builds the tension from stanza two: the juxtaposing of details of the neighbour (for which read, everyman/the identifier of self as ordinary: the classic Dutch sense of communalness), the change in light: the dark that identifies colours, blues…. Having keyed up the emotions at this point: the ‘…too beautiful to be true…’ (those last three qualifying words communicate so much, particularly in combination with preceding, ‘…once again…’), he immediately disengages and redirects; the emotional response is channelled via the toys in the grass to the house, the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but the mind is made open, the imagination engaged by this “mental event”, so that when the geese fly they are identified immediately as ‘wild’, the sky is emptied by their presence, a sense of immanence is apparent. Once again this keying-up of emotions is channelled to the ‘…precisely you…’. An anchoring, grounding in the here and now.

Kopland displays here a willingness to be honest about feelings, a willingness to be open about his experience of them, of their place in his life and world.

And yes, he is privileged: he has a satisfying though demanding job, he has happy children, he has a close relationship with his partner. Is it Kopland, here? Or is it the ‘ordinary person’? Is it the person glad to be alive, having survived that last terrible winter of the War; like his neighbour he goes through the daily affirmation of survival.

RK2

Following a sequence of poems on his father’s death, we have:

                             MISS A

                            On September 19, a misty

                            nineteenth, Miss A ………….

………………………………………………………………………………..

                           …………………………………………….

……………………………………………. God and the

                            DHSS seemed out of reach.

                            She disembarked.

An altogether different piece. We have here, I think, irony used as a stylistic device; there is no longer the personalizing, intimate nature of the experience, but a distancing. A tragic event; but almost, in this retailing, a news item; the details of particulars: date, boat name, area of mooring.

The domestic details are all laid out for us to see, like the effects of a dead person, to be collected by relatives (us: readers-as-community?), or the unknowns who will come later when our attention is caught by other news. Whichever way it is read we, the reader, or, shall I qualify that: we, the ones amongst the readers who actually care what happened to her – are involved: her fate impinges upon us. We may not be responsible, but we are made witnesses. To be able to remain open, to witness, and not close-off is maybe one of the things makes a workable community.

This poem appeared in print in 1968. This is significant: 1968, and The Netherlands were as much caught up in social upheaval as we were in England. It may be this poem can be read as a response to the student protests, the extreme political factions.

Another, more significant poem of his poems of the period was :

                           YOUNG LETTUCE                        

                           I can stand anything,
the shrivelling of beans

                         …………………………………………………………….

                            But young lettuce in September,
                            just planted, still tender,
in moist little beds, no.                                         

Literary friends would repeat this poem when latest news came through of some new social upheaval, or political upset. Why? It is the understatement; the masterly irony; it is also a poem of great benevolence. The weary retort to old problems presenting themselves in new clothes, of seemingly insurmountable social problems… and yet the response is of a wry gentleness.

Maybe this poem can be read as an attempt at affirming communal responsibilities.

The ironic yet engaged tone of the times, the response of an older generation.

Kopland’s sharper mode was prompted to some extent by what he saw as misreadings of his work. After the anecdotal style a greater dissatisfaction with accepted things became apparent. There emerged a ‘stern’ period of disillusionment.

 Reposted from 2012

jh2

Judith Herzberg was one of the group of Dutch writers who appeared in print in the 1960s. After the experimental ‘50s there emerged a plainer style. She writes accessible poetry in a language and style many find easier to understand and warm to. Along with Rutger Kopland they found a ready audience.

Her English translations occur in two main sources: BUT WHAT: Selected Poems, translated by Shirley Kaufman, Oberlin College Press, Field Translation Series 13, 1988. And excerpts in the Seren Books collection IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT, Fourteen Contemporary Dutch-language Poets, 2002. There is also a good selection of her translated poetry on Poetry International’s Netherlands page

Born in Amsterdam, she has made her home both there and in Tel Aviv for much of her adult life.
She has since branched out into plays/theater, children’s books, film.

ButWhat

One of her earlier poems was On The Death of Sylvia Plath, from her 1964 book Zeepost/ Sea-mail. This shows a precocious awareness: even the English poetry world were not fully aware of Sylvia Plath’s writing until later. Her identity was being mapped out in this first book: we have May Fourth:

Just when he was about to say:
but everyone provides himself with problems
not so large he can’t see past them
to an unattainable, better life,
it was time for the two-minute silence…..

May 4th is the Dutch day for commemorating the dead of WW2.

Later in the same book we have Bad Zwischenahn, 1964:

The bride hobbles out church on too-high heels,
and smiles her chafed smile under top-heavy hair

…………………………………….

Now the pastor can explain
the old altar-piece to us.
The man beating Jesus must keep roaming,
he is the Jewish people, the wandering Jew
……………………………………………….

 

I swallow and ask him in this warm and stifling Germany
why his church honours the heroes of the First War
not those of the Second with a plaque.
He speaks to himself, me, god,
the photographer, the dead:
It doesn’t come easy for any of us
to fit into ourselves and go on.

As enigmatic a comment as any could have been uttered there, at that time. Here is a fully realised image of the pastor ‘s equivocations, unable to look anyone in  the face, looking fully everywhere but at the narrator.

The poem opens with a classic image of stilettos, beehive hairdo – wedding photo from the early to mid ’60s bang on!

Immediately before this poem in BUT WHAT we have Yiddish. It begins:

My father sang the songs
his mother used to sing,
to me, who half understood.

And already we have three vital points: the father who sang reminds us of those wonderful cantors in the synagogue; the mother who passed on the songs, is the mother who passes down the religion; and then there is the break-away post-war generation.

She later ends the poem:

Sad intimate language
I’m sorry you withered
in this head.
It no longer needs you
but it misses you.

The tenderness and toughness of the ending cannot help but warm us, no matter what religious or secular beliefs we hold to.

Her poetry seems wholly modern; her titles tell their commitment to the experiences of our lives: The Day-After Pill, Political Consciousness, Sneakers, Pain Killers. She can catch transient moments effortlessly: Between

Between your shoulder and your ear
I see the grey underside of the ping-pong table.
…………………………………………………………………………..
suggest the true difference between ah! and gone.

IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT contains poems from all books, as well as new poems (up to 2002). Here she shows her range: page poet and performance poet. Her wonderful The Waiting at the Bus Stop is printed here. It is a nearly three-page witty and droll rumination recognisable to all who have ‘spent time’ waiting at bus stops:

The seeing of a taxi.
The thinking: not yet. I’ve only just got here.
The noticing someone else arrive.
The sizing up of him/her.
The pretending I’m not looking at him/her.
The not pretending I’m not looking at him/her.
The looking past him,/her into the distance as if to see if bus is coming.

……………………………………………………………………..

And ending on that agonised and self-blaming cursing for not having got the taxi, then being so wrapped in this as to nearly miss the bus.

Let me end with Disturbing the Peace:

The raging next door has no end…

……………………………………………………

When I ask: why don’t you leave?
she’d say if she were honest, but she isn’t
she says, so I don’t ask.

………………………………………………………..

The she could say oh meaning
that’s what you’d like, and I could say no
and think yes and not be able to explain.

This poem deserves to be better known, deserves its place amongst those uncomfortable but essential life-saving poems. Its impact lies in how it breaks open our sureties and complacencies. There is a toughness here combined with sensitivity that is really quite admirable.

JH1

 

One unsung comedy character I have long thought, must be BATAVUS DROOGSTOPPEL.

The Dutch novel MAX HAVELAAR by Matatuli, is mostly known, famous, for exposing the iniquities of the Dutch East Indies/Java coffee trade. Published in 1860 it found an uncomfortable welcome in the colony-based wealth and comfort of Dutch culture.

 

MH

Indonesian novelist Pramoedva Ananta Toer has put forward the argument that this book started educational reforms, and by extension firing the Javanese nationalist movement against the Dutch colonists. His point is that the book was instrumental in killing colonialism. Indonesian President Sukarno cited the book as an inspiration in his struggle.

The name Max Havelaar is now synonymous with Dutch Fair Trade

FT

It is an uncomfortable read, even now.

Matatuli’s (Eduard Douews Dekker, 1820-1887) framing of the central episodes of fictionalised reportage was with the creation of the comfortable world of Dutch coffee traders. They lived far away and wholly ignorant and disinterested in the horrible realities their trade was based on. This world of coffee traders he depicted was not direct realism, but exaggerated and made droll and ridiculous.

His master stroke was the creation of narrator Batavus Droogstoppel.

Droogstoppel

The name, suggesting dry as dust, introduces us to a solid citizen. He is a coffee trader – Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht – husband, and father. In that order.

Batavus Droogstoppel – Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht – is so honest and upright, and true in his Faith that he cannot tell a lie. Truth and common sense – that’s what I say, and I’m sticking to it. And so when he comes across culture he cannot see anything but lies there. And this he goes on to describe at great length.

The trouble starts, he tells us, as far back as children’s books (Van Alphin). Those ‘dear little mites’. What on earth made that old gentleman want to pass himself off as an adorer of my little sister Gertie, who had sore eyes, or my brother Gerard, who was always picking his nose?

Droogstoppel’s character is not malicious or criminal. He is reasonable, sensible and oh so dull. It is his sheer dullness Multatuli renders so well.

His dullness and grey sensibility does have a sinister shade which only goes to further point up his ridiculousness by being ever-so-slightly over the top.

We have to talk about Luke.
There are always 13 at the office – Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht –  but Luke was the warehouseman. He was always punctual, honest to a fault, and dependable. Droogstoppel was discussing the concept of Virtue with us, the reader: regular churchgoer, teetotal, Luke became old. Now he’s old and rheumatic, and can’t work any more. So now he starves, for we deal in business, and we need young people. Well, then … I consider Luke very virtuous; but is he rewarded?….. Not on your life! He is poor and stays poor, and that is how it should be.

Where would virtue be, he says, if he could have an easy time in his old age? Then every warehouseman would become virtuous, and every one else too, which can’t be God’s intention, because in that case no special reward could remain for the good in the hereafter.

The ‘good’ of course, are the Droogstoppel’s of the world.

Droogstoppel is, as I stated above, coffee trader- Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht – , husband, and father. In that order.
We get a sense of this order when he tells us of his ingenious plan to prevent life-long German customer Ludwig Stern from being lured away by competition, who are trying to undercut Last and Co (- 37 Lauriergracht – ).
His plan was to write to Stern  – and, by the way did he and we know this competitor’s young daughter had just run away with a young German trader-trainee? And Droogstoppel’s daughter only 13, too. So he wrote to Stern to invite his young son to stay with him and his… family, to learn the trade.
A master-stroke, thinks Droogstoppel, tying the Sterns’ ever closer.

The man could come across as an absolute scoundrel, but the author balances his character so well, skillfully, that we become more deeply aware of ridiculousness than villainy.

The last point in his support as a great comic character is in Droogstoppel’s encounter at last with ex-school friend Max Havelaar. Havelaar we learn in due course has just returned almost destitute from the East Indies, the Trade grounds, with young a family, but also a document he has authored, which becomes the substance of this book. Trying to shake off this man, because he is poor, and the poor should not be encouraged, he leaves him his card. The card reads, you guessed it – Last and Co, 37 Lauriergracht – . But, says Havelaar, I took you for Droogstoppel; your card says Last.
The reality is that Droogstoppel for all his indispensability, purposely marrying into the old firm, supporting it, working all hours, his name is not even on the card. It is still his father-in-laws’ name.
Do we get a moment here of old Luke’s fate being Droogstoppel’s?

Droogstoppel is pompous, narrow, limited but he is also a great comic creation. Multatuli (the name refers to ‘one who has borne much’ for like Max Havelaar, Dekker witnessed the Javanese trade) has so finely observed, detailed and balanced this character that he is capable of holding the weight and strain of the book together. He is larger than life in a book exposing iniquities that are larger than one man’s blame or fault.

Droogstoppel could have gone on and on. He could have had his own series of books; it is a loss to Dutch literature he did not. He could have opened up the unknown, enclosed, 19th Century Dutch world to world literature.

Multatuli:

Eduard_Douwes_Dekker_-_001


A World Beyond Myself, Enitharmon, 1991

Memories of the Unknown, Harvill Press, 2001

Part 1: Beginnings

In 1996, New York’s Vintage Press brought out ‘The Vintage Book of World Poetry’; the book settled many reputations, but also introduced many more.

The Dutch writer Rutger Kopland woke up one morning to find himself a world-class poet. Ok, he was already a top-selling author in his own country. But that is the point, as Martinus Nijhoff lamented in 1936, it is a country whose literary appreciation is limited to a small range by its language.

We are very lucky to have the masterful translations of the late James Brockway. He preferred the description of ‘collaborations’, it reflected more the close work with the author to render as near a syllabic and tonal copy as possible.

“…what I am presenting,” he wrote, “…is a Dutch poem by a Dutch mind, but now in the English language”.

James Brockway was made ‘Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands’ in 1997, for his services to Dutch literature. He died in 2000.

‘Rutger Kopland’ is the pen name of Professor of Psychiatry (retired) Rudi H van den Hoofdakker. He was born in 1934, and has won many prestigious prizes, one of which is the Dutch highest award for literary achievement, the P C Hooft Prize.

Kopland’s first book, Among Cattle, appeared in 1966. The date is important in a number of ways.

In the nineteen fifties Dutch art and literature woke up to experiment; it was a time of cataclysmic experiment in all forms, only paralleled in Dutch poetry by the exuberance of the medieval Rederijker rhetorical guilds.

Of course, as with many such movements, they also carry and help generate the seeds of their successors. Out of the foment of imagistic, lexical experiment a strong realistic note was beginning to be detectable.

Kopland, along with Judith Herzberg are now readily identified as the best representatives of this tone: of a sane, nonrhetorical, everyday language and subject matter.

In this first book are to be found all the tonal keys of his later work. An instant favourite was the first poem of the book, A Psalm, now a much anthologised piece:

 

A Psalm

                     The green pastures the still waters

                    on the wallpaper in my room –

                    as a frightened child I believed

                    in wall paper

 

                   ……………………………………………………………………….

 

The first thing to notice here is the almost total lack of punctuation. In the original there is only the final full stop, even the commas, lines 8 and 14, do not appear.

We catch the tone of slow, almost ruminative… can we call it ‘thinking aloud’? Are we overhearing a sotto voce between intimate friends? Husband and wife, perhaps, or is it between father and child, as maybe becomes apparent in the last stanza? I wonder, does it matter: the drama of a listening audience is of less importance, than the manner and intent of the narration.

Also notice the slow accumulation of details that reveal-but-not-reveal the narration: what was it he had, or had been, forgiven? The biblical references (note lowercase ‘god’) and Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd…”) set a tone, particularly in the traditionally Calvinist/Lutheran Netherlands, for solitary meditative discourse, whose  heavy and responsible purpose: to converse with God, without intercessors, is offset by the witty, chatty aside: ‘as a … child I believed in wall paper…’.

Psalm 23 becomes a constant reference point in his writing.

The setting of the poem: the home, night, childhood, segue into the author’s own fatherhood; the meditative tone; the rural setting : an image of continuity, perhaps.

This may seem a little dated to those only familiar with the great urban sweep from Rotterdam, east and south; it is, however, deeply ingrained in the Dutch cultural model.

Kopland has lived all his working life in the villages outside Groningen. This is where many still refer to as the real ‘rural’ Netherlands. These are the heartlands of the Dutch, the green ore that runs through the urban stonework.

What we read with Rutger Kopland, especially with these earlier books, are the books of the Dutch interior: the soul-lands. The irony is, Kopland is the least metaphysical of men; his insights are, I suspect, very much coloured by his profession as clinical neuroscientist.

Kopland was born in 1934; by the time of that terrible winter of German reprisals 1944/5, he would have 10 years old. 10, 000 died that winter.

Consider the following poem in the book: Under the Apple Tree:

 

                                         I came home, it was about

                                         eight and remarkable

                                        close for the time of year,

                                        ……………………………………

                                         under the apple tree

 

                                        ……………………………………………..

                                         watching how my neighbour

                                         was still digging in his garden,

                                         …………………………………………………………….

 

                                         then slowly it once again became

                                         too beautiful to be true, …………

…………………………………………………………………………………………..

 

                                         and later I heard the wings

                                         of wild geese in the sky

                                         heard how still and empty

                                         it was becoming

 

                                       …………………………………………………………

                                         under the apple tree,

                                         remarkably close

                                         for our time of life.

Masterly; we scarcely even notice the ‘literaryness’: the ballad-like repetitions of key phrases, the manipulation of mood-buttons. He earns our trust, and the trust of the ordinary reader by foisting no great ideas of redemption on us, by insinuating no Political awkwardness. We get the ‘feel’: the surburbanism of life lived by the ordinary person, with a job, family… in fact, do we recognise in ourselves: nostalgia for the past? This is a claim that plagued Kopland from these early books.

See how he builds the tension from stanza two: the juxtaposing of details of the neighbour (for which read, everyman/the identifier of self as ordinary: the classic Dutch sense of communalness), the change in light: the dark that identifies colours, blues…. Having keyed up the emotions at this point: the ‘…too beautiful to be true…’ (those last three qualifying words communicate so much, particularly in combination with preceding, ‘…once again…’), he immediately disengages and redirects; the emotional response is channelled via the toys in the grass to the house, the laughter of children. The emotions are stirred but not settled, their direction may have been channelled but the mind is made open, the imagination engaged by this “mental event”, so that when the geese fly they are identified immediately as ‘wild’, the sky is emptied by their presence, a sense of immanence is apparent. Once again this keying-up of emotions is channelled to the ‘…precisely you…’. An anchoring, grounding in the here and now.

Kopland displays here a willingness to be honest about feelings, a willingness to be open about his experience of them, of their place in his life and world.

And yes, he is privileged: he has a satisfying though demanding job, he has happy children, he has a close relationship with his partner. Is it Kopland, here? Or is it the ‘ordinary person’? Is it the person glad to be alive, having survived that last terrible winter of the War; like his neighbour he goes through the daily affirmation of survival.

Following a sequence of poems on his father’s death, we have:

 

                             Miss A

 

                            On September 19, a misty

                            nineteenth, Miss A ………….

………………………………………………………………………………..

 

                           …………………………………………….

……………………………………………………the

                            DHSS seemed out of reach.

 

                            She disembarked.

An altogether different piece. We have here, I think, irony used as a stylistic device; there is no longer the personalizing, intimate nature of the experience, but a distancing. A tragic event; but almost, in this retailing, a news item; the details of particulars: date, boat name, area of mooring.

The domestic details are all laid out for us to see, like the effects of a dead person, to be collected by relatives (us: readers-as-community?), or the unknowns who will come later when our attention is caught by other news. Whichever way it is read we, the reader, or, shall I qualify that: we, the ones amongst the readers who actually care what happened to her – are involved: her fate impinges upon us. We may not be responsible, but we are made witnesses. To be able to remain open, to witness, and not close-off is maybe one of the things makes a workable community.

This poem appeared in print in 1968. This is significant: 1968, and The Netherlands were as much caught up in social upheaval as we were in England. It may be this poem can be read as a response to the student protests, the extreme political factions.

Another, more significant poem of his poems of the period was Young Lettuce:                        

                           I can stand anything,

                         …………………………………………………………….

 

                           But young lettuce in September,

                           just planted, still tender,

                           in moist little beds, no.                                         

Literary friends would repeat this poem when latest news came through of some new social upheaval, or political upset. Why? It is the understatement; the masterly irony; it is also a poem of great benevolence. The weary retort to old problems presenting themselves in new clothes, of seemingly unsurmountable social problems… and yet the response is of a wry gentleness.

Maybe this poem can be read as an attempt at affirming communal responsibilities.

The ironic yet engaged tone of the times, the response of an older generation.

Kopland’s sharper mode was prompted to some extent by what he saw as misreadings of his work. After the anecdotal style a greater dissatisfaction with accepted things became apparent. There emerged a ‘stern’ period of disillusionment.