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A lot of Dutch sarcasm – “Live and let live”, by Hendrik Groen

Leven en laten leven, by Hendrik Groen (Publisher: J.M. Meulenhoff & Peter de Smet; June 15, 2018; language: Dutch; paperback: 288 pages)

“Anonymous”, also known as “Hendrik Groen” (a pseudonym) is famous for his creation of a gang of crotchety old folks of the “Old-But-Not-Dead Club” who live in a retirement home in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen 83¼ Years Oldby Anonymous was published in English in 2016, and the next one was On the Bright Side, by Anonymous (Hendrik Groen), published in January 2018. Hendrik Groen then wrote another novel, Leven en Laten Leven (meaning Live and Let Live), published in Dec. 2018. Unlike the other two novels, this one has not been translated into English and has not been as successful.

When I recently flew to Amsterdam, I made an effort to find it in the Dutch airport bookshops. And believe me, I searched. But there was no Live and Let Live to be found. Heaps of copies of the other two books yes, but not of this one. I eventually ordered the Dutch version directly from the publishers, Meulenhoff.

On the title page the publishers are given as Peter de Smet and Meulenhoff Boekerij (publishers). People have speculated since the first book came out in Dutch in 2014 that Hendrik Groen’s real name is Peter de Smet, not to be confused with the Dutch comic strip artist with the same name who died in 2003…

And so? What’s the reason for the lack of excitement?

No worldwide translation and distribution – yet

Well, here’s my take on it. First, there are reports in the media that the author was unnerved by the publicity his previous books had received and about the subsequent invasion of his privacy. That might be one reason.

Second, it’s about a different set of characters – not the gang of likeable reprobates led by “Hendrik”/“Henkie” and “Evert” (actually Evert died in the second book.) It’s not set in an old age home. It’s about a man,“Arthur Ophof”, who is approaching his 50th birthday and is in a dead-end job and totally stuck in a rut. He makes a plan to get away from his wife and start a new life. It’s not that Arthur is not funny – he is, in the sarcastic way of the Dutch. He is sometimes comically repressed and dull. Here is a snapshot of his home life (pardon my free translation):

“In the Kranenbrurgh Museum there is currently an exhibition called ‘Blissfully Doing Nothing’. I must go and see it before leaving for Italy. Doing nothing is actually not so simple, if I am to believe the newspaper reports. I think you need to have an aptitude for it and have to practice a great deal to perfect it. I am good at doing nothing, of that I am convinced. As a teen I could lie for hours on my back on the lawn without feeling bored even for a moment. In our marriage my talent for doing nothing was a thorn in Afra’s eye. She simply could not stand it when I lay full-length on the couch with a newspaper. Sometimes I read it, sometimes it lay over my face.” (p.230)

This quote is part of a whole chapter about the wonders of doing nothing, or being lazy. Being lazy is not regarded as a virtue by the Dutch. Rather the opposite. The praise of indolence is another bit of sarcastic humour which shows that the author has carefully observed and depicted the mundane details of Dutch middle class life. Arthur deals with so few serious problems that you wonder whether there is anything heroic in this anti-hero. And no, there isn’t.

The novel does not contain the universal themes that were in the other two novels – love, old age, approaching death, dignity, etc. The humour and references are very specific, but also trivial, for instance, when Arthur justifies running away to Italy (again, pardon my translation):

“I am planning, since I am soon to start living my new life, to no longer concern myself with politics. […] I fear I won’t be able to make sense of Italian politics. […] But the quality of the pizzas and pasta will not suffer in the current political crisis in Italy. I love pizzas a lot. I love the Italian kitchen, vitello tonnato, coppa di Parma, handmade pastas. To get passionate about farmer’s cabbage is more difficult. However…for a Dutch sautéed steak I’d make a special trip. I fear that I will be one of those Dutch expats who will take a stock of peanut butter, liquorice, Speculaas biscuits and beef steak with them overseas.” (p.71)

That’s a dig at the Dutch obsession with their favourite foods. An ongoing joke is that Arthur plots his escape while he drives between the towns of Purmerend and Breukelen and sits stuck in the traffic. It’s about half an hour’s drive between the two places – if you don’t get stuck in the traffic.

Arthur’s boring commute.

Purmerend, and the dull little suburb built in the eighties where Arthur lives, is not so bad. But Arthur’s frustration with the social conventions, habits, rituals and resultant boredom of his life is also a typical Dutch thing and another bit of poke at the culture.

Arthur’s midlife crisis

There just isn’t that much to care about when it comes to this character. The problem is that the author alternates each chapter between writing it from Arthur’s view point, and writing it from the view point of his wife “Afra”. This creates an uncomfortable contrast and breaks in the storyline, so that the reader cannot vilify the wife, the main reason for Arthur’s discontent. His wife has a point, sometimes. Arthur is a bit like “Lester Burnham” in Alan Ball’s film American Beauty (1999). Sure, he’s a middle-aged man going through male menopause. But do I care, and does that make him even remotely sympathetic? Nah. (On the other hand, the old folks in Hendrik Groen’s previous novels had a lot at stake – life itself.)

Arthur, is that you?

In fact, I wondered whether this existence, of his job, house, wife, car, dog, buddies, golf, etc., is sufficiently awful for him to want to escape from. In Gerard Reve’s famous Dutch novel, The Evenings, the main character also leads a dull, meaningless life. But he is somewhat off his head, and that keeps things interesting. Sadly, I did not care to read on about the ins and outs of Arthur’s exit strategy. I skipped to the end.

The Curse of the Sequel

I think Leven en Laten Leven is a bit disappointing because of the author’s previous successes. It’s very difficult to write something different from previous books if those books have been highly successful and especially when they have been hits in translation across the world and have been filmed. Call it the Curse of the Sequel. An author is kind of struck in that œuvre and readers have specific expectations of their next publication even if it isn’t a sequel – it’s just their next book.

It’s probably less risky to write something so completely different that readers cannot compare. I guess the author tried – there are some adventurous bits since what Arthur is plotting – his own death – is illegal. But the departure is not extreme enough. I kept wishing “Hendrik” would reappear. Perhaps I just missed Hendrik Groen’s astute observations about the human condition.

Header image: Rijswijk, the Netherlands, 1990.

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