Lust for Literature: A New Literary History of the Low Countries

Let's be grumpy for one second. What's the use of literary history, canons and texts in a day and age where, as a teacher or lecturer, you're supposed to talk about communication? Who needs boring surveys when pupils and students are mainly interested in the world at large, in ideas and lifestyles? After all, surveys aren't practical.

Now let's rejoice and not care about all these musings on contemporary life. Literature is a wickedly wayward business after all. The recently published A Literary History of the Low Countries, edited by Theo Hermans (University College London) is a survey and it's a pretty solid one. The book is an adaptation and actualisation of Histoire de la littérature néerlandaise, which appeared 10 years ago. It's also an upgrade, with its wealth of maps and illustrations. Moreover, it contains an exhaustive list of translated Dutch and Flemish books and an extensive index. All in all it's a standard work for the study of Dutch-language literature for years to come. And about time too we got a book like that, because the most recent survey before this one was Reinder P. Meijer's  1971 Literature of the Low Countries. A Short History of Dutch Literature in the Netherlands and Belgium (In 1978 a revised edition of this book appeared, which can be consulted in extenso here, thanks to the invaluable work of the Digital Library of Dutch Literature, a collection of primary and secondary information on Dutch-language literature)    This is not about literature for literature's sake. Or not a literary history just for the sake of literary history, for that matter. The press release already indicates that this is so much more: 'What was the written culture behind visual artists like Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Rubens? What made the historical novel in nineteenth-century Flanders so different from its counterpart in Holland? What was the literary impact of the huge colonial empires run by the Netherlands and Belgium? What role did Latin, French, and Frisian play in the literary culture of the Low Countries through the ages? Why is experimental writing so prevalent in modern Dutch literature? What has made Cees Nooteboom an internationally acclaimed author? And how does Flemish relate to Dutch anyway?'. Not merely a survey hence, but also a cultural history of ideas from the medieval period up to the present day. And yes, of course there will be pertinent criticism and less pertinent whining about the selected authors, trends, movements and periods. But one has to bear in mind that this book is just one vantage point to overlook Dutch-language literature. Those prone to discussion and re-evaluation should know this: you need a canon if you want to roll out the cannon. 

In 2006 a German edition of this literary history came out, and an Italian version is presently being prepared. A Literary History of the Low Countries was published with the support of the Dutch Language Union, the Flemish Literary Fund, the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature  and the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds.

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