The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories
2020-01-27 | By Giulia Quaresima
If you’re looking for brief but intense stories to enjoy with a cup of coffee or tea, then this collection from Dutch writers is for you.
The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories is a compilation of 36 different short stories from a range of Dutch writers, many translated into English for the first time. This collection began life as a monumental 250 short stories in Dutch and Flemish before Joost Zwagerman reduced the amount and they were translated into English for this 2016 version. The curator, Zwagerman, was a novelist, poet, essayist and editor of several anthologies, with a love for Dutch literature.
I picked up The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories as an expat with a curiosity to learn more about Dutch literature. While there have been some exceptions, it could be said Dutch literature is less well-known that other European fiction. Zwagerman, in his introduction, explains how one of the reasons is that the Dutch language has flowed and changed over time, so that many writers and stories are unknown even by contemporary Dutch readers. His argument is that if readers at home in the Netherlands are largely unaware of their own literary history, it’s unsurprising that international readers know even less: “Many great works of seventeenth-, eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Dutch literature have to be translated into modern Dutch to make them accessible to the average reader, to whom eighteenth-century Dutch–and I do not exaggerate–seems almost like a foreign tongue.”
This collection introduces Dutch writers to the wider world via some of its best short stories. For an interested international, a Dutch reader, or even the wider literary world, The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories is a welcome taster to the delights beyond.
With their power, shorter lengths and fewer characters, short stories at their best are strong and sharp and stay in readers’ minds. The finest short stories are as good as longer literature novels. Which is true for many in The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories.
The opening tale An Eccentric, by Marcellus Emants, is about a man, Z., and his anthropologic questioning of a life, where he sees himself “doomed to live in absurdity.” Joost de Vries’ A Room of my Own offers similar sentiments and ponders similar questions from the perspective of a man taking part in a re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo and facing death.
The tale of Winnie and the Innocence of the World, by Joost Zwagerman, concerns the unrealistic experience of a man who becomes a clandestine and unpowerful guardian-angel of the woman he loves, Winnie. The mix between detailed and realistic descriptions and a fantastic trip inside another’s mind is captivating. Nescio’s Young Titans recalls five friends’ lives, their great dreams, their daily experience and discoveries, and their plans and projects to change the world.
The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories is a trip through the time and space of Dutch literature, or in critic Clare Lowden’s words, “a fascinating guidebook to a landscape you’ll surely want to wander in again.”
Either in the realistic Amsterdam of the early years of the twentieth century in Young Titans, or on the magic and imaginary island of The Sirens by Maria Dermout, this collection takes the reader on a journey through different places and times, following the interesting and remarkable characters’ actions and inner lives.
Each story in this volume could be seen as a snapshot of Dutch life, taken all together they are a remarkable introduction to Dutch literature’s surrealism and subversion. This anthology contains melancholy and humour, fervour and dourness, realism and fantasy, with a story for everyone.
This collection could be seen to illustrate clichéd traits of “being Dutch,” such as tolerance and flexibility, and being level-headed and hardworking, characteristics which contributed to build “a nation governed by rationality, with a vision of classlessness at its heart,” according to Jonathan Gibbs in the Guardian, but also one able to expand its colonial power over the centuries. The Golden Age casts its shadows on Dutch literature, which is, on the other hand, enriched by writers from overseas Dutch territories. To better understand a country’s culture start from its literature, and The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories is no better place to begin.
Publisher: Penguin Classics
About the author
From Italy, Giulia Quaresima lives in Den Haag with her husband, and enjoys writing, reading and travelling.