From the diary of JJ Voskuil: the writer would rather be a farmer

Nowadays you fly the flag if you have managed to get a permanent job somewhere, but there has also been a different time, with other people. In an unforgettable scene from Dutch literature, ex-teacher Maarten Koning returns home after a job interview at a scientific institute. His wife Nicolien turns off the vacuum cleaner and Maarten tells her that there is a good chance that he will get the job in question. Nicolien reacts agitated and doesn’t like that their lives will change like that. “I was so hoping you wouldn’t,” she says. “I loved it so much together.” She calls the work ‘a compromise’ and had hoped that Maarten would not be tempted. “I hoped we’d always stay together and die together.” ‘That is still possible,’ replies Maarten. Nicole: ‘No! Not if you’re at work all day! I hated it when you were a teacher!’ There may be quite a bit of pathos throughout the scene (Nicolien also sheds a tear), it is beautiful and penetrating. Because of that unusual contradiction between love and work, but also because it is so at odds with what just about every political party or emancipatory movement will claim, namely that someone would by definition be wise to throw oneself fully into the labor market. That is where it can be found, that is where the realization takes place. It is also very strong that Nicolien and Maarten, as you will discover later, actually find it a bit indecent to work. They are not the scum of the ledge, the scum of the ledge rolls up their sleeves.

Evaporated time

The above scene is, you probably already noticed it long and wide, from the beginning of The desk, the 5000-page series by JJ Voskuil (1926-2008), about the troubled career of his alter ego Maarten Koning, published between 1996 and 2000. Voskuil started writing to it after his retirement because he noticed that not only had his work been meaningless (as he had always suspected), but also that the thirty years he had spent at the Amsterdam Meertens Institute in the Netherlands in no time at all. were evaporating; no sooner had he closed the door behind him than they had already forgotten him there in the office. You’d The desk, which is written in a pure and measured, but extremely accurate Dutch, in that sense can be seen as a form of rehabilitation, as a stylish revenge against the anonymization of the work: I may not have really existed then, but here I am fully yes. Lousje, Voskuil’s wife, was finally proud of her husband.


After Voskuil’s death, a few more books by his hand were published. Striking (and spicy) was, for example Within the skin (2009), the novel that Voskuil had already completed in the 1960s, but which was initially resolutely rejected by his publisher Geert van Oorschot (‘A failure, annoying, nagging, lukewarm water on a filter with coffee already drawn off’).

But certainly in a quantitative sense, a work like Within the skin, in which Voskuil wrote about an existential crisis, revenge and adultery, just a small harbinger of what was to come with the diaries. Voskuil considered it too painful to share it with the readers during his lifetime, and now his widow has given the green light. Voskuil kept a diary for a lifetime, and a total of seven thick volumes will appear in the coming years – who knows the extent of The desk superlative.

At the start of almost a man, the first part just published, Voskuil is a boy of barely thirteen. Coincidentally or not, you soon read about activities that seem to suit him a lot better than his future official work, namely farming. In the heart of the war, in 1943, he worked for a while on the land in Grolloo, Drenthe. He has to work (‘Saturday 7 August. Walked behind the harrow all day’), but he doesn’t complain, at least not on paper. And the memory of Voskuil who at the very end of his life said in an interview on TV that he would rather have become a farmer immediately pops up in your head.

Good environment

Was not ‘someone like Voskuil’, someone with a good set of brains, coming from a good environment and with, for example, a father who was editor-in-chief of a newspaper, more or less condemned to an existence as an intellectual, so a prisoner of his origin and his (or other people’s) expectations? Because that intellectual ability, especially if he interferes in the Amsterdam student life, soon determines his identity and thus also his future. Enthusiastic (but just as timid and capricious) he discusses with his friends, i.e. the people who later became the cast of the On closer inspection (1963) would form. About writers, philosophers, about the meaning and nature of science and about – it was fashionable at that time for Du Perron and Ter Braak, among others, who died in the war – their ‘character’, that with which you relate to a world in which you had to make the most difficult choices.

Had to make, because Voskuil is located in almost a man in the luxury of not having to choose, refuse, or be heroic at all. The diary covers a period which, as with many young people, is mainly dominated by theory and orientation: you read, listen and watch, discuss this with others, are for or against the system or that war… and in the meantime you are faced with corner of the working society to wait with angelic patience for the moment when you have to participate.

Voskuil here blows up a balloon, filled with vain hope, before our very eyes. He almost exclusively writes down arguments against instead of for, measures his friends but also himself psychologically very skillfully, saws at his own chair legs, in fact reasoning himself incapacitated for the many years of work that will take place after the award of the degree. follow. On the last pages he has become a teacher in Groningen, something that is miles away from his previously noted ideal, namely that there is really nothing more decent than getting drunk on your own.

damn dude

It is also remarkable how negatively he relates to the majority of literature. Hardly anyone is good (‘I can’t read Multatuli because I think he’s a rotten guy, right down to his punctuation’) and very seldom people really cheer. Literature to him was a grindstone, not a diamond to admire. But even Voskuil, a skeptic down to his punctuation marks, had to admit in the early 1950s that The evenings is a fantastic book. He has to read it a few times to get the hang of it, but oh well. His strict attitude may have prevented him from becoming a critic, for example, after his studies in Dutch language and literature. Because also in a book like I am not me (2014), the posthumously published collection of articles and critiques, Voskuil hardly takes anyone’s attention.

So he is almost a man here, but also almost a writer. Because he may be as sharp as a knife, he clearly still has some big strides to make until he was the writer who a few years later On closer inspection could write, which can be regarded as an undisputed masterpiece. Voskuil’s diary is, at least in this early period, something like a starter, a meccano box of which you cannot yet fully imagine what can be built with it. almost a man is usually entertaining, sometimes long-winded or impossible to follow and, especially for Voskuilians, sometimes downright exciting, for example when you read that the writer already knew as a teenager where the boundaries of his ‘fiction’ were. No, nothing not a highly fictional novel with fantastic figures and mythological references, not an ode to the imagination, but a novel ‘about a boy my age, his difficulties and problems’. Voskuil ‘could put everything in it’. “As the idea matures, I’ll try to work it out, not to publish it, but for myself, because that seems like a great satisfaction to me.” Or if you read about his declaration of love to ‘the anecdote’, in other words the insertion of purely descriptive text parts in a novel or story. It could be the key to what we consider to be the most underrated parts of On closer inspection or The desk to consider, namely the parts in which the frictions between friends or colleagues do not predominate, but nature, walks and travels. As a reader, you can do whatever you want with those parts, and you can interpret them the way you want. Something like this may sound like a simple writing grip (just as his friends react skeptically to something as accessible as the anecdote), but it is actually very difficult to do well. And besides, they are a more than welcome change from the oxygen-poor Voskuilian scheming indoors, whether that was in the lecture hall, the pub, one’s own home or in the office. As a big cycling skeptic, I can remember descriptions of cycling trips through the polder that made me think: I should go and have a look there. And not because of the lyricism. Shouldn’t those neutral passages be used to what Voskuil so badly missed in the rest of (described) life: a total lack of threat, of direction?

There is, of course, an ironic limitation to a Voskuil diary, especially when it is as extensive as this one. Because while the diary of another writer might shed new light on his respected oeuvre (oh, did he graft that character onto that person, etc.), with a diary like this you (often) only have the carcass of the novels in hand. Because Voskuil worked very autobiographically and promoted diaries (and for The desk also reports of Meertens meetings) to very dramatic novels for the good listener. Who knows, the real answer can be read in a next part of the diary, but for the time being it seems that Voskuil first has to suffer, actually had to be weighed down in practice by the burden of routine work, the bankruptcy of friendship or the desire for someone else’s wife to pupate from a writer who didn’t want to be published to one who did. The already foreseen hell had become reality.

Also read: I have life at its wits’ end; Conversation with JJ Voskuil

Leave a Comment