Blesok no. 48, May-June,2006
Introduction to Bittersweet Pieces
Bittersweet Pieces. Even if that did not actually apply to modern Dutch literature as a whole, it would certainly cover this selection of short stories from the last two decades of Dutch literature. The low-lying land, the constant battle against wind, water and ponderous skies and a centuries-old tradition of freethinking bourgeoisie, dominated by a Calvinist view of life at once strict and liberal – for the writer these form a well-spring for ironic descriptions and self-analysis. It is remarkable how Dutch writers wrestle with the contrary forces of liberalism and conservatism, conflict and pleasure, free thought and religiosity.
In Moped at Sea one of the characters drives a moped across the waters; in Fear of the Roller Coaster a woman shopper is subject to secret erotic desires; in The Off-Peak Rail Pass an innocent writer comes face to face with the bureaucracy which has wormed its way into all levels of society; and in Indefinite Delay a man gives an impressive description of how incredibly hard it is to get up in the morning. As this collection shows, Dutch writers are not just broody pessimists (although they can be), they dream, curse, make fun and philosophize. The Netherlands is situated not only geographically but also culturally between three dominant cultures. The wit of British, the theorizing of German and the aesthetic philosophy of French culture have, all three, had a profound influence. This could have resulted in an exaggerated degree of assimilation or in spiritual and artistic disorientation. But in fact it led to a completely individual position, only too grateful for the foreign influences it accepts and utilizes. What the effect on literature has been can be seen in this representative selection of Dutch stories.
Flemish literature, often considered to be a branch of Dutch literature, is not represented in this collection. This is because Flemish literature – even though the vast majority is published by Dutch publishing houses – has a character and a voice of its own, so much so that it would be better served by a separated collection rather than being subsumed under the literature of the northern part of the Low Countries.
The stories in the collection were originally selected for a radio project by Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service.
The translations were first presented before an audience by American actors in the Apple Corps Theatre in New York in 1989. The translations were adapted for the purpose by American radio producer Marjorie Van Halteren and myself, acting as Radio Netherlands' cultural editor. The recordings made in New York are available for broadcast by radio stations in other countries.