On 29 September Hella Haasse, born in Batavia, the Dutch Indies, on 2 February 1918, died. She was a wonderful author, this cannot be denied. But labelling someone the greatest is a personal judgement, something she wholeheartedly agreed with.
Following her death, everyone seems to have read her entire oeuvre. I admit to having read: Oeroeg (published in Forever a stranger and other stories), The Scarlet City, In a Dark Wood Wandering, Mrs Bentinck, The Tea Lords and Sleuteloog (not translated, literally Key Eye)
I have read most of these books quite some time ago but I still remember the impressive style and more specifically finding The Scarlet City thrilling; all those popes and love children. Maybe this is because I read it during my secondary school years.
I thought Sleuteloog was magnificent, not on account of it being short but because it is closely related to Hella Haasse’s personal background. It is also very amazing for an author in her eighties to write such a beautiful book.
She was never considered to be one of the ‘Three Literature Giants’: Gerard Reve, Harry Mulisch and WF Hermans. I wonder how many people have read the entire oeuvre of the Three and Hella Haasse. I have only managed to do this for one of them: Gerard Reve and nearly for Mulisch. I have only read a few of WF Herman’s books, although I still have read eight according to my bookshelves.
My feeling is that Gerard Reve is the greatest writer but that’s because he puts so much of his own person into his writing. His personality and his voice are very special to me. For example I even prefer Nader tot U (Closer to Thee) and Op weg naar het einde (On the Road to the End) over De Avonden (The Evenings), yet this novel is considered to be his masterpiece.
And now I have to reluctantly admit that Hella Haasse is my least read writer out of the four greatest Dutch authors.
On the basis of what I have read, and if asked to order these writers by how translatable their work seems to be, this would be my list:
1. Hella Haasse
2. Harry Mulisch
3. WF Hermans
4. Gerard Reve
Hella Haasse is the most international author; probably due to her choice of subjects but also through her descriptive style. Gerard Reve is the least international, mainly because of his choice of words which is so unique that this is difficult to reproduce in another language. This happens for books by certain authors; Ulysses by James Joyce is another example, actually you can only read it in English.
So you could argue that Hella Haasse is the best international Dutch author.
Hella Haasse was cremated at a private funeral service. In death, she remained a great but unpretentious writer, as well as sweet. Unparalleled.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar