Sunday, October 9, 2011

RIP Hella Haasse: Grand Old Lady of Dutch Literature

i was sad today to learn of Haasse's death.  she was 93, actively writing til the end of her life. Born in the Dutch East Indies to a prosperous Dutchman, she grew up the daughter of Ruropean invaders.  Born in a country in which she would never be a native, she was a native of a country foreign to her.  In some way this experience was similar to that of Albert Camus, the frenchman born in algeria, though his family suffered poverty as well as an unsought position as a member of the invading ruling class.  Like Camus's, her writing always reflected this sense of a dual identity, or rather non-identity.  and like Camus, she was strongly aware of the guilt of her inheritance, and was almost inheritantly a leftist.
At 30, she  published her first novel,  Oerog, a short, intense story of the freindship between  the title character, an indonesian boy whose father lives adn works on the estate of a rich dutch settler, and the settler's son, in whose persona the story is told.  as both boys grow and learn the history of the country's occupation by dutch settlers, the friendship suffers and eventually turns, on oerog's part, into hatred. in spite of the narrator's personal innocence and sympathy with the natives' cause, his heritage can't escape him.  when the book was published in english it was significantly retitled Forever a Stranger.  the title might well have been applied to haasse herself.

at 20, she went to holland to study at the university; when the nazis took over, they forced students to sign a loyalty oath. rather than comply, she left the university and went to acting school instead.  she began writing plays, but soon switched to fiction--where, she said, she was playwright, director, and producer of her own works.  not surprisingly she wrote superb dialogue.

over the years, she grew more and more attached to historical fiction, and once told an interviewer that she preferred to escape into the past than stay in the troubled present.  but the past she inhabited was no less troubled, and her writing was always a vivid depiction of the interplays of political and social power that shaped and destroyed lives.

not much of her work is available in english, but there are a few.  Oeroeg, as i mentioned.  the best known in america is het woud der verwachting--literally, 'the forest of expectation.'  the english title, approved by haasse, is taken from a translation of the Inferno,  In  a Dark Road Wandering, a long, detailed picture of the 11th century Duke of Orleans.  It was my introduction to Haasse, and i have loved her ever since.  later works include The Scarlet City (a literal translation), a rich, disturbing novel of 16th century italy, peopled by such varied luminaries as machiavelli, michelangelo,  the dramatically different poets vittoria colona and tullia d'aroganna, and assorted borgias.  i loved it, and taught it one semester at the castle, but the students pretty much all hated it.  i never understood why; it's a difficult book to read, and its cast of characters can be overwhelming.  i never tried teaching it again.

but meanwhile i discovered a much shorter historical novel that may be the most radical of her novels, Een Nieuwer Testament,  which literally means 'a newer testament,' and whose english name is Threshold of Fire. Here we are taken to the last days of the Roman Empire, when christianity has grown from an oppressed sect into the dominant and oppressive state religion.  after many semesters of teaching it, i have, not surprisingly, come to love it more each time i read it.   its two major characters, implacable enemies, live out the sad phenomenon of the choice to reject one's background to become part of the 'better' majority and the choice to embrace all that one is while letting go of what has become useless and destructive.  both perpetual outsiders, one devotes himself to being 'more roman than the romans,' the other to escaping either glorifying or diminishing his past, but simply to look at whatever truth he sees.

haasse herself clearly chosen the latter model, embracing the fact that she was 'forever a stranger' and thus inhabiting whichever world she was in, whether the present Nederland and Indonesia, or the various pasts she has resurrected in her fiction. i am sad for her death, grateful for her life.  Thank  you, mevrouw haasse.

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