Explore the 7 best Dutch authors through their most popular books, and learn more about this beautiful country and its culture.
Though it is a small country, the Netherlands has a rich literary tradition. Unfortunately, the number of Dutch books translated into other languages for many years was relatively low. But, in recent years, the Dutch Foundation for Literature has been working diligently to promote their nation’s authors and encourage more translations.
Dutch literature shows a modest attitude to life that is apparent in their literature, as many of their most famous stories explore Dutch protagonists’ internal struggles and unspoken, nuanced feelings. Reading Dutch literature is a good way to experience the world through the mindset of a Netherlands native. For more recommendations, check out the best Argentine authors.
1. Gerard Reve, 1923-2006
Gerard Reve is considered a titan of post-war Dutch literature. He is a controversial character who liked to claim he was the Dutch-born child of Baltic Russian refugees. In truth, however, his father was a Dutch journalist. Reve attended the Amsterdam school of graphic arts, then worked as a journalist for a national newspaper.
Reve’s family were communists, but he rejected their ideology and became a devout, though highly unorthodox, Catholic. Many thought his conversion to Catholicism was a stunt, but he maintained that his faith was sincere until his death. As the first openly gay Dutch author, Reve’s work often delves into themes of religion, politics, and sexuality.
Gerard Reve’s most famous work, The Evenings, was first published in 1947 and has become a modern classic. It is often taught in schools, and the name has become synonymous with dark, biting humor. The story follows a disenchanted young office worker through the ten days leading up to a new year. Often compared to Catcher in the Rye, the novel is full of witty nihilism and the heartbreaking beauty of everyday life.
“I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.”Gerard Reve, The Evenings
2. Tonke Dragt, 1930 –
Tonke Dragt was the oldest daughter of a Dutch insurance salesman and was born in Dutch Indonesia, or what is now known as Jakarta. She had a happy, carefree childhood in a home full of creativity and books until she, her mother, and two sisters were interred in a Japanese camp during World War II. Missing her beloved books, Dragt wrote her first novel while in the camp, using whatever paper she could find.
Upon her release, Dragt and her family moved to the Netherlands. There, she studied art at the Hague and became a primary school art teacher. Dragt struggled to maintain classroom order until she discovered she could keep her large classes engaged by making up stories for her students. These stories eventually led her to a career in writing.
Dragt is most widely known for her second novel, Letter for the King, published in 1962. This cherished classic has sold well over a million copies and is in its 67th publication in the Netherlands. It wasn’t until 2013 that Letter for the King was published in English. Most recently, Letter for the King inspired a popular Netflix series of the same name.
“As long as you remember that fighting evil doesn’t necessarily make you good! Good and evil are each other’s enemies, but they are often found close together.”Tonke Dragt, Letter for the King
3. Willem Frederik Hermans, 1921-1995
Along with Gerard Reve and Henry Mulisch, Willem Frederik Hermans is considered one of “De Grote Drie” or “The Great Three” preeminent Dutch writers of the modern, post-war era. As a child, he was a voracious reader. Noting his intelligence and appetite for learning, Reve’s school teacher parents scrimped and saved what they could of their modest salaries to send him to a prestigious school in Amsterdam. Eventually, Hermans became a professor of geology at Groningen University, though literature remained his first love.
While teaching, Hermans wrote prolifically, eventually earning the ire of his fellow professors. In 1972, he was accused of spending more of his professional time writing than he did lecturing and was subjected to an investigation. The committee concluded that his primary offense was using university stationery for his writing endeavors. Not long afterward, he moved to Paris to write full-time.
Hermans’s two most famous novels, The Darkroom of Damocles (1958) and Beyond Sleep (1966), were translated into English in 2006 and 2007. Both are characteristic of his bleak, existentialist style. Hermans’s stories are often set in wartime and feature pessimistic protagonists who grapple with their inability to reconcile their worldview with that of their peers.
“Everything I’ve ever done is slipping through my fingers! The people I worked with during the war are all either dead or missing, and even the streets I used to know no longer exist. It’s beyond belief. I feel I’m in a different world.”Willem Frederik Hermans, Darkroom of Damocles
4. Herman Koch, 1953-
Though born in the Netherlands, Herman Koch grew up in Amsterdam. As a child, he attended and was later expelled from the famed Montessori Lyceum. Koch became a columnist, actor, and radio personality and co-created the long-running hit television series, Jiskefet. Today, Koch still resides in Amsterdam with his wife and their son.
Herman Koch is the author of numerous short stories and 11 novels. His sixth novel, The Dinner, made him an international success. The Dinner has been translated into 21 languages and published in over 50 countries and became a New York Times bestseller in 2013.
The Dinner unfolds as two couples enjoy a meal together at an elegant restaurant. In classic Dutch fashion, their forced smiles and polite conversation belie a dark truth. Their 15-year-old sons are being investigated for their involvement in an unspeakable act threatening their families’ comfortable, insulated lives.
“That was how I looked at life sometimes, as a warm meal that was growing cold. I knew I had to eat, or else I would die, but I had lost my appetite.”Herman Koch, The Dinner
5. Renate Dorrestein 1954 – 2018
Renate Dorrestein grew up in Amsterdam and was the child of a school teacher and a lawyer. When she graduated high school, she decided to forgo college and instead began working as a journalist. In her spare time, Dorrestein wrote, hoping that one day she would publish a novel. In 1983, that dream came true with the publication of Outsiders. The book was well received and established Dorrestein as a writer to watch in the Netherlands.
Dorrestein published an astonishing 34 books during her lifetime, four of which were translated into English. Though she did not graduate college, her success as an author earned her an invitation to serve as a writer in residence at the University of Michigan in 1986. Afterward, she taught master writing classes at numerous American and European universities.
Heart of Stone, published in 1998, was the novel that first earned Dorrestein international acclaim. Reminiscent of gothic novels, this story is rife with family secrets, guilt, dread, and deception. The story is narrated by a young woman who, while looking through an old family photo album, begins to remember long-repressed events from her childhood.
“Reality only exists if you care about it. You must not give reality the chance to exist.”Renate Dorrestein, Outsiders
6. Jan Terlouw, 1931-
Jan Terlouw grew up in Veluwe, a rural region of the Netherlands known for its natural beauty. When he was eight years old, the Nazis invaded his area of the Netherlands and twice arrested his father, who served as a religious leader in his town. These experiences would have a great influence on his future work.
After high school, Terlouw studied mathematics and physics, earning a Ph.D. in both. He worked for 13 years as a physicist before beginning a new career in politics. Terlouw went on to serve as a Senator and Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands. During his time as a politician, Terlouw also wrote 24 children’s novels. His Winter in Wartime is a much-beloved classic and has become a staple of Dutch childhood.
Winter in Wartime follows the adventures of a teenage boy who helps a downed British pilot evade the Nazis. This thrilling page-turner is full of suspense, near misses, and intrigue. It is a poignant look at war through the eyes of a young person. Winter in Wartime became an award-winning movie in 2008.
“Michiel, though, had secretly decided that war was a very exciting business, and he hoped it would go on for a long time. He changed his mind soon enough. In fact, his first doubts came after only five days.”Jan Terlouw, Winter in Wartime
7. Harry Mulisch, 1927-2010
During the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, Harry Mulisch and his Jewish mother narrowly escaped relocation to a concentration camp because his father collaborated with the Nazis. Mulisch’s grandmother died in a gas chamber, and his father was imprisoned for his collaboration after the war. These events profoundly affected young Mulisch and would later become the driving force of his writing.
As a young man, Mulisch had hoped to become a scientist, but when the advent of war interrupted his studies, he became a writer to make a living. He published 13 novels and numerous other books, essays, and plays. Mulisch is considered one of the top 3 Dutch writers of the postwar era.
Mulisch’s novels primarily focus on the effects of war on the human psyche. His two most famous works are The Assault (1982) and The Discovery of Heaven (1992), which the Dutch people voted the best book in their language in 2007. The Assault, the harrowing account of a 12-year-old boy who is the sole survivor of a Nazi attack, was made into an Academy Award-winning movie in 1986.
“People returning from a journey carry the distances they have traveled with them like outspread wings – until they put the key in their front door. Then the wings fold up, and they are home again, as though in the center of an impassable steel ring on the horizon. The moment they close the door behind them, they can no longer imagine they have ever been away.”Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven
Looking for more? Check out our round-up of the best Australian authors!
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