When you hear “the Great Dutch novel”, what is it that first comes to your mind? Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven? Willem Frederik Hermans’ The Dark Room of Damocles? Or, perhaps, Hugo Claus’ The Sorrow of Belgium? but that would be the Great Flemish Novel, wouldn’t it? Anyway, there is this partially autobiographic novel by Jeroen Brouwers, whose title could be translated as The Flood or The Deluge, that has kept fascinating and repelling the Dutch language readers since it was published in 1988, and, by virtue (or, rather, vice) of being untranslated, has stayed under the radar of the English speaking public. Some of its readers do believe that this novel has all the rights to literary greatness and that its author should be awarded the Nobel Prize for it. How come, many of you, readers of this blog, have neither heard of this novel, nor about its author? Well, try to find something in English on him, and you’ll be lucky if you dredge up at least a couple of pages worth of useful information. However, based on the few titbits I’ve been able to dig up, I assure you that The Deluge is a worthy candidate for my rubric The Great Untranslated.
The protagonist of the novel is a bibulous, mysanthropic, sexually frustrated writer who at the symbolic age of 33 flees society to live in a ramshackle cabin in the woods. The story of his life is told in flashbacks, and in general lines, it follows the biography of Brouwers himself. We learn about the main character’s childhood in Indonesia at the time of the Second World War and immediately after it. Besides the hardships experienced by his family in a Japanese internment camp, there are happy memories of the time spent in the post-war Balikpapan which is not meant to last as the boy moves to the Netherlands where he is immersed into the suffocating ambiance of regimentation and strict discipline reigning in a boarding school for boys. While at school, the boy conjures up an image of his beloved, a Beatrice of sorts, that he will be trying to encounter most of his adult life. He does meet a woman he thinks he loves; they get married and have two children. But, eventually, the writer abandons his family that has turned out to be anything but the ideals he has cherished since childhood. Angst-ridden and disillusioned, he becomes a hermit in the woods, drowning his sorrows in gin.
There seems to be nothing striking about the plot, but that is not the main thing in this novel. The Dutch reviewers seem to concur that the imagery and the language are just jaw-dropping. There are also various mythological and classical motifs woven into the fabric of the narrative such as Orpheus’ quest for Eurydice and Dante’s journey through Hell. The narrative itself is not chronological, but jumps between different time frames, and when it comes to reminiscing about things past, Brouwers appears to reach truly Proustian heights.
Returning to the initial question of this post, I cannot promise you that Jeroen Brouwers’ hefty tome is as great as it looks to be based on several secondary sources. You will have to find it out for yourselves. And in order for that to transpire, obviously, this novel should be made available in English. You know, several years ago I would have been very pessimistic on this account, but not anymore. Just recently we have seen the English translations of such perennial preterites as Adam Buenosayres and Prae. Arno Schmidt’s untranslatable Bottom’s Dream, albeit with delay, is for sure to be published by Dalkey Archive at some point, perhaps this year. All these developments give us hope to see The Deluge translated sooner than we might think. Let me know if any information regarding this becomes available.