Wolkers, Jan

Wolkers, Jan
Oct. 26, 1925-Oct. 19, 2007
Dutch novelist, poet and sculptor


Jan Wolkers, a dutch novelist, was born at Oegstgeest, a village near Leiden, where his father owned a grocery. The father, Jan Hendrik Wolkers, was a strict Calvinist—a man, according to his son, "of almost exalted religiousness." Most of Wolkers's work is a kind of fictional declaration of independence from this dominant father figure, his religion, and the rigid values and conventions of his generation, to which Wolkers opposes an equally extreme amorality. His mother, "a very diplomatic person who never … [said] much," bore her husband eleven children, of whom Jan Wolkers was the third.

It was as a sculptor that Wolkers first made his name. He studied in Amsterdam and Salzburg, and in Paris under Ossip Zadkine, and is still as active in that medium as in literature. Wolkers did not start writing until he was in his thirties, but then published several books in rapid succession. He made his debut in 1961 with a volume of short stories called Serpentina's Petticoat, and it is significant that the first story in the book opens with the words: "I rarely pay a visit to my parental home." A few months later came Wolkers's first novel, Kort Amerikaans (Crew Cut, 1962). Both books combine autobiographical material with bizarre and gothic elements; both are fierce assertions of a self-liberation, celebrating sexual freedom and the overthrow of every kind of moral repression and inhibition. It is not surprising that reviewers in the early 1960s were taken aback by the loosening of so many bonds all at the same time, and that Wolkers met with a warmer response from his readers than from his critics.

Gesponnen Suiker (Candy Floss), another volume of short stories, followed in 1963 and continued the mixture of autobiography and grand guignol. "Dominee met Strooien Hoed" (Minister in a Straw Hat), perhaps the most admired of Wolkers's short stories, is a brilliantly executed portrait of one of his fearsomely dour father figures, a small masterpiece of realism. But the same collection contains such bizarre entertainments as "Gevederde Vrienden" (Feathered Friends), in which a man disposes of his murdered wife's corpse by feeding it in bite-sized portions to the sea gulls. Wolkers's realistic fiction generally carries a great deal more conviction than his horror stories, and he seems to recognize this: "Only one's own experiences can have the quality of genuineness. But this is not enough. A transformation has to take place. One must try to see things more sharply and then arrange them in such a way that they assume meaning…. Imagination is useless. Lunatic asylums are full of it."

In Wolkers's grim novel Een Roos van Vlees (1963, translated by John Scott as A Rose of Flesh), a little girl is fatally scalded in the bathroom while her parents are arguing downstairs. The tragedy ends the parents' marriage, and the father, Daniel, becomes a lonely asthmatic, eaten alive by guilt. It was agreed that Daniel's agonized sensibility and his preoccupation with death and disease had been sharply and convincingly conveyed, but most reviewers shared the opinion of Manfred Wolf, who wrote: "By insisting that there is no more than despair Wolkers weakens the effect his main character can have. And despair itself, when examined from so fixed a position, at such stiflingly close quarters, becomes all too often merely oppressive and dreary."

The same year, 1963, Wolkers published two plays, De Babel (The Babel) and Wegens Sterfgeval Gesloten (Closed Owing to Bereavement), and in 1964 came another book of short stories, De Hond met de Blauwe Tong (The Dog With the Blue Tongue). Terug naar Oegstgeest (Oegstgeest Revisited, 1965), regarded by many critics as Wolkers's best novel, is like much of his earlier work an evocation of his claustrophobic youth. But the miseries and occasional pleasures of those years are recalled here with a new objectivity and freedom from bitterness. A great deal of the material Wolkers had previously drawn upon reappears in this novel, which thus functions as a key to his earlier stories. His characteristic combination of realistic observation with imaginative selection never before worked so well as in this book, in which Wolkers also kept rigorously in check his tendency to overstate and overwrite.

In Terug naar Oegstgeest, Wolkers seemed finally to have settled accounts with the fearsome father figure that had haunted him, but other ghosts lingered. In Horribele Tango (1967, translated by R. R. Symonds as The Horrible Tango), he returned to a theme that from time to time had appeared in the short stories: the relationship with a dominant elder brother. A young student in Amsterdam meets a poor French-speaking black from Guadeloupe, and is impelled to share both his flat and his girlfriend with him. This urge is revealed as an attempt to exorcize childhood sufferings at the hands of a sadistic brother, now dead. But the participants in this Freudian scenario are not equipped to play the violent roles assigned to them, except (it seems) in fantasy. Horribele Tango is a hallucinatory novel, in which the boundaries between past and present, dream and reality, are never clearly defined. A reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement praised its "sharply evocative passages" of descriptive writing and thought that Wolkers's "predilection for surrealist imagery" had been "kept in tune with the narrator's fevered awareness." Structurally, it is Wolkers's most ambitious book, but it is marred, in the opinion of several critics, by too artificially neat a denouement.

Two years later, in 1969, Wolkers had a tremendous popular success with Turks Fruit (translated by Greta Kilburn as Turkish Delight). The story is told by an unnamed sculptor-painter who recalls his meeting with a redhead named Olga, their ecstatic sexual union, their tumultuous marriage, the divorce and the years of self-destruction that followed for them both. "What is right with these two," wrote Martin Levin, "their delight in one another, is described with gusto and humor…. What is wrong with them has a real sense of tragedy." And what is wrong can this time be traced not to a demonic father or brother, but to a satanic mother-in-law more dreadful by far. The novel's structure is a great deal simpler than that of its predecessor, and its style is direct, boisterous, and deliberately antiliterary. It took the Dutch public by storm. It went through seventeen printings in its first year, was translated into half-a-dozen languages, and was made into a successful film.

Melodrama, an important ingredient in Turks Fruit, dominates De Walgvogel (The Dodo), which followed in 1974. The narrator, having lost his great love, finds her in Indonesia, then loses her again, first to another man and then to death. The improbability of the story seems to suggest that Wolkers has taken leave of realism proper and is moving in the direction of a kind of symbolism, while retaining the accuracy of his observation and his sense of both the macabre and the comic. Or it may be, as one disillusioned former admirer has suggested, that Wolkers, possessor of "one of the most brilliant gifts of his generation," has "chosen the path of self-indulgence in sick neo-decadence."

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