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 jobsomewhere, but there has also been a different time, with other people. In anunforgettable scene from Dutch literature, ex-teacher Maarten Koning returnshome after a job interview at a scientific institute. His wife Nicolien turnsoff the vacuum cleaner and Maarten tells her that there is a good chance thathe will get the job in question. Nicolien reacts agitated and doesn’t likethat their lives will change like that. “I was so hoping you wouldn’t,” shesays. “I loved it so much together.” She calls the work ‘a compromise’ and hadhoped that Maarten would not be tempted. “I hoped we’d always stay togetherand die together.” ‘That is still possible,’ replies Maarten. Nicole: ‘No! Notif you’re at work all day! I hated it when you were a teacher!’ There may bequite a bit of pathos throughout the scene (Nicolien also sheds a tear), it isbeautiful and penetrating. Because of that unusual contradiction between loveand work, but also because it is so at odds with what just about everypolitical party or emancipatory movement will claim, namely that someone wouldby definition be wise to throw oneself fully into the labor market. That iswhere it can be found, that is where the realization takes place. It is alsovery strong that Nicolien and Maarten, as you will discover later, actuallyfind it a bit indecent to work. They are not the scum of the ledge, the scumof the ledge rolls up their sleeves.

Evaporated time

The above scene is, you probably already noticed it long and wide, from thebeginning of The desk , the 5000-page series by JJ Voskuil (1926-2008),about the troubled career of his alter ego Maarten Koning, published between1996 and 2000. Voskuil started writing to it after his retirement because henoticed that not only had his work been meaningless (as he had alwayssuspected), but also that the thirty years he had spent at the AmsterdamMeertens Institute in the Netherlands in no time at all. were evaporating; nosooner had he closed the door behind him than they had already forgotten himthere in the office. You’d The desk , which is written in a pure andmeasured, but extremely accurate Dutch, in that sense can be seen as a form ofrehabilitation, as a stylish revenge against the anonymization of the work: Imay not have really existed then, but here I am fully yes. Lousje, Voskuil’swife, 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 Voskuilhad already completed in the 1960s, but which was initially resolutelyrejected 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 , inwhich Voskuil wrote about an existential crisis, revenge and adultery, just asmall harbinger of what was to come with the diaries. Voskuil considered ittoo painful to share it with the readers during his lifetime, and now hiswidow has given the green light. Voskuil kept a diary for a lifetime, and atotal of seven thick volumes will appear in the coming years – who knows theextent of The desk superlative.

At the start of almost a man , the first part just published, Voskuil is aboy of barely thirteen. Coincidentally or not, you soon read about activitiesthat seem to suit him a lot better than his future official work, namelyfarming. In the heart of the war, in 1943, he worked for a while on the landin Grolloo, Drenthe. He has to work (‘Saturday 7 August. Walked behind theharrow all day’), but he doesn’t complain, at least not on paper. And thememory of Voskuil who at the very end of his life said in an interview on TVthat 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 froma good environment and with, for example, a father who was editor-in-chief ofa newspaper, more or less condemned to an existence as an intellectual, so aprisoner of his origin and his (or other people’s) expectations? Because thatintellectual ability, especially if he interferes in the Amsterdam studentlife, soon determines his identity and thus also his future. Enthusiastic (butjust as timid and capricious) he discusses with his friends, i.e. the peoplewho 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 worldin which you had to make the most difficult choices.

Had to make, because Voskuil is located in almost a man in the luxury of nothaving to choose, refuse, or be heroic at all. The diary covers a periodwhich, as with many young people, is mainly dominated by theory andorientation: you read, listen and watch, discuss this with others, are for oragainst the system or that war… and in the meantime you are faced with cornerof the working society to wait with angelic patience for the moment when youhave 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, measureshis friends but also himself psychologically very skillfully, saws at his ownchair legs, in fact reasoning himself incapacitated for the many years of workthat will take place after the award of the degree. follow. On the last pageshe has become a teacher in Groningen, something that is miles away from hispreviously noted ideal, namely that there is really nothing more decent thangetting 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 rottenguy, 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 thehang of it, but oh well. His strict attitude may have prevented him frombecoming a critic, for example, after his studies in Dutch language andliterature. Because also in a book like I am not me (2014), the posthumouslypublished collection of articles and critiques, Voskuil hardly takes anyone’sattention.

So he is almost a man here, but also almost a writer. Because he may be assharp as a knife, he clearly still has some big strides to make until he wasthe writer who a few years later On closer inspection could write, which canbe regarded as an undisputed masterpiece. Voskuil’s diary is, at least in thisearly period, something like a starter, a meccano box of which you cannot yetfully imagine what can be built with it. almost a man is usuallyentertaining, sometimes long-winded or impossible to follow and, especiallyfor Voskuilians, sometimes downright exciting, for example when you read thatthe writer already knew as a teenager where the boundaries of his ‘fiction’were. No, nothing not a highly fictional novel with fantastic figures andmythological references, not an ode to the imagination, but a novel ‘about aboy my age, his difficulties and problems’. Voskuil ‘could put everything init’. “As the idea matures, I’ll try to work it out, not to publish it, but formyself, because that seems like a great satisfaction to me.” Or if you readabout his declaration of love to ‘the anecdote’, in other words the insertionof purely descriptive text parts in a novel or story. It could be the key towhat we consider to be the most underrated parts of On closer inspection or_The desk_ to consider, namely the parts in which the frictions betweenfriends or colleagues do not predominate, but nature, walks and travels. As areader, you can do whatever you want with those parts, and you can interpretthem the way you want. Something like this may sound like a simple writinggrip (just as his friends react skeptically to something as accessible as theanecdote), but it is actually very difficult to do well. And besides, they area 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 theoffice. As a big cycling skeptic, I can remember descriptions of cycling tripsthrough the polder that made me think: I should go and have a look there. Andnot because of the lyricism. Shouldn’t those neutral passages be used to whatVoskuil so badly missed in the rest of (described) life: a total lack ofthreat, of direction?

There is, of course, an ironic limitation to a Voskuil diary, especially whenit is as extensive as this one. Because while the diary of another writermight shed new light on his respected oeuvre (oh, did he graft that characteronto that person, etc.), with a diary like this you (often) only have thecarcass of the novels in hand. Because Voskuil worked very autobiographicallyand promoted diaries (and for The desk also reports of Meertens meetings) tovery dramatic novels for the good listener. Who knows, the real answer can beread in a next part of the diary, but for the time being it seems that Voskuilfirst has to suffer, actually had to be weighed down in practice by the burdenof routine work, the bankruptcy of friendship or the desire for someone else’swife 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