Mansions of Excrement
Turkish Delight is one of the most vulgar novels ever written, and perhaps also amongst the most ostensibly misogynistic, insistently objectifying and emotionally solipsistic. In a moment when moral judgements rank higher than aesthetic ones (and we might be living that moment), this could make Jan Wolkers' 1969 Dutch novel, set in the fifties, a bad book. Indeed, James Reith in a recent Guardian article wonders if Wolkers' novel, on the school syllabus in Holland, might be a little too strong for the millennial era. "I wanted to discuss the rape in detail, but cannot quote it without, somehow, feeling complicit." Reith also says "I assume we're meant to despise the protagonist here, before concluding his piece on the book by saying, "I've just spent an entire article discussing the eloquence of a rapist." But such a claim would be to ignore what Wolkers does with that vulgarity, how he shapes the apparent misogyny, the objectification of women and the central character's self-pity into a work that puts such terms into perspective, all the while staying utterly focused on a first-person narrative that runs furiously through the material.
As the book episodically recounts the narrator's affair and brief marriage with Olga, the novel explores Yeats's notion that "love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement". We are hardly two pages in when the narrator says: "She raises herself just a bit so that her bum hangs down heavily. And I called out, have a shit, goddamit,.Shit for me, and I'll lick it clean." Within the first dozen pages, as he looks back in anger and affection, as our narrator sleeps with numerous others, getting women into bed so he can get Olga out his mind, he informs us of the "crabs they brought you, grey scales on your skin with the greetings of many friends from far-off countries." He tells us that he rented a room to a couple of young American girls, "and didn't lay a hand on either of them." But while having a bath he imagined that, "holding my stiff cock in my hand...I would walk into their room, lie between them and be jacked off cool and hard with those eager grab-dollar hands." In the second chapter as he describes the early stages of courting Olga, his disdain for his lover's mother is such that he considers "taking her false teeth into the bathroom, locking them around my prick and jacking off into the wash basin." 1969 was the year of Portnoy's Complaint, with Roth's youthful hero famously wrapping his member around a piece of liver. There is much in Wolker's novel that will remind Rothian readers of the master's work, and we will talk more of that later. But there is in Wolker's novel, a surprising capacity to throw us out of the solipsistic and into the historically vivid, never more evidently than when the narrator talks about a story Olga, after waking from a dream, tells him that she had been told. That is a lot of distance in the telling, but Wolker describes it vividly indeed. It was after the war, people were starving and a man flies out of a house and seeing a horse tries to grab it. "At that moment a second man burst out of one of the houses. The two of them cut a slice of meat out of the flank of the horse, whose piercing scream drowned out the sound of the artillery. One man after another came out of the houses, fell on the horse and returned with a quivering piece of bloody meat."
But if the book is a fine work it rests partly on Wolkers' capacity to combine immediacy with distance, to suggest the intensity of an experience while also creating the melancholy space for reflection concerning that experience, evident in the moment with the horse. It manages the reflection of fiction allied to the squirmish detail cinema has so often mastered. By the end of the book we will know that Olga is dead, a cancer of the brain that again Wolkers will describe with the literary equivalent of a filmic insert shot: the sort of image that shows us the head bludgeoned, the penis in close up, the foetus being born. We already have what we need to know, and partly why many will avert their eyes when the insert shot is offered. But in a book can we turn our eyes away, or do we close the book shut? Turkish Delight (which was turned into a film three years later) has a cinematic sense of the image (Wolkers was also a painter and sculptor). It manages to keep creating telling images that might have the sort of effect the story about the horse has on Olga: images strong enough to invade our dreams and turn them into nightmares. Literature is not cinema, but it has simile and metaphor which can turn images into personalised evocations which carry the equivalent force. It can do so while also retaining the intimacy of a story told, difficult to achieve in cinema without voice-over, which is so often seen as a literary device that filmmakers should avoid. (An exaggerated prejudice when we consider how many very fine films from Citizen Kane to Jules et Jim, from Goodfellas to Days of Heaven, have utlised its possibilities.) That film has no difficulty with voice-over indicates that it is a cinematic device, too, not only a literary one. Yet maybe other aspects are less easily absorbed into film vocabulary because cinema demands not just a literary device but also a rhetorical one. In other words, lots of elements from the other arts can be used in cinema (chiaroscuro lighting from painting to projected acting from theatre) but other aspects are harder to bring to bear. First person narration for example (film has struggled to show a film consistently from one person's point of view) or metaphor or simile. To draw a comparison between a bar of soap and a brain tumour is very difficult to achieve cinematically but very 'easy' to pull off in literature. It demands the skill of the writer but he or she needn't fight their art form to achieve it. When near the end of the book Wolkers' central character says "they sawed a trapdoor in the side of her head and took out a tumour the size of a bar of soap" film would have to indicate this literally not figuratively. Trapdoors and soap have nothing to do with the brain and any filmic attempt to draw them together wouldn't be impossible, but its difficulty would be part of its cinematic ingenuity: it would perhaps indicate a surrealist work. Such experiments were not unheard of in the twenties, but if Un Chien Andalou, which cuts from the razor about the cut the woman's eye, to a cloud passing across the moon as if slicing the moon in two, to the eye. If Bunuel and Dali were more successful than Eisenstein when it came to experiments with metaphorical imagery (the attempt to draw together Korensky and a peacock in October), it rests partly on its surrealist aspect, and also that it nevertheless retain the literal. Bunuel and Dali (the latter invoked in Wolkers' book) might be showing us that the man sliced her eyeball the way the cloud crosses the moon, but its power still resides strongly in its literalness. It works so well because of the surreal meeting the literal. Writers can far more easily move between the literal and the metaphorical as the language remains an abstraction on the page, not objects concrete in front of the camera. To cut between a brain operation and the removal of the tumorous bar of soap would be nothing if not a surrealist image: what can serve realism in fiction becomes the outer reaches of defamiliarization in film.
Part of Wolkers' capacity for provocation doesn't only reside in the vulgarity of his writing, it also rests on the blitheness of his similes, as though another writer would be more delicate in their turn of phrase. This is evident when the narrator talks of Olga using such an exaggerated amount of spermicidal cream "it was like sticking your prick in glue." Or when he discusses sleeping with a girl who has hair on her chest he says "it was like living between coconuts." When he suggests Olga should urinate on him he finds himself a little relieved, so to speak, that she didn't actually do so when he does hear her pee: "there was such a pelting that it sounded like a goat splashing away on galvanized iron." Wolkers doesn't wish to fall into language so much as fight hard against it. "He had a furious row with his publishers, who tried to persuade him to substitute Latin terms for some of his sexual vocabulary." (Guardian) He was always suspicious of what he saw as a literary establishment. "In 1963 he received an award from the city of Amsterdam, but returned it three years later on grounds of excessive force used by the police in dealing with protests against the marriage of the future Queen Beatrix to a German diplomat, Claus von Amsberg." (Guardian) When the book was released many dismissed it on the claims that it wasn't written properly as Wolkers insisted on paragraphs so long that they stretched to each chapter. "Wolkers' prose, also in spoken form, testifies to an original, shameless and contagious physical presence, an indomitable, earthly primal force that brutally silences the depressing spirit of lowland Calvinism that is forever saying no. (BNL) Wolkers wondered what a yes would sound like, with Dan Van der Vat saying the book was unprecedented in Dutch literature and probably unexceeded anywhere at the time. "A work true to the spirit of the 1960s, it shocked a society that had not yet completed the transition from provincial conservatism to the libertarianism of modern Amsterdam (by no means shared by the whole of the rest of the country; and even Amsterdam now seems to be having second thoughts. (Guardian) Wolkers, whose work often brings to mind Henry Miller in its combination of the explicit, the animalistic and the sentimental awareness of love lost within the vulgar, couldn't have written it at a more appropriate time. Miller was in this sense ahead of his time in that the world had not caught up with his sensibility: he wrote 'dirty books'. Wolkers' novel, which is probably much dirtier than anything Miller wrote, was coinciding with liberating times. He was the voice of a generation, while Miller was always the voice of a bohemian subset, the sort of American abroad whose peculiarities might lead to arrest in his own country.
Of course, this type of writing can liberate on the one hand and oppress on the other. We needn't agree with Sarah Churchwell when she looks at the work of Updike, Mailer, Roth, Bellow and Coetzee and sees writers who mock the male freedoms and reckons it was to the detriment to feminist ones, saying "the problem is that these stories, granted so much cultural authority, have for half a century and more been subjecting the very concept of feminists to near-universal derision, gaslighting the entire feminist perspective." (Guardian) Wolkers can seem like just another book emphasising to the point of exclusion a masculine universe over a female one. Turkish Delight is so one-sided that Olga always remains a figure inside the narrator's head rather than an autonomous woman walking around in the world. She is presented as both sex object and domestic goddess: "meanwhile she managed to look after the house in a fantastic way." "When she bought leeks she rinsed them and laid them side by side on the blocks of stone for a day before we ate them" and so on. "...She could sit her beautiful bum down on me and ride me in a shallow pool. Or could let me fuck her on a sand bank in the sun between bubble weed and blue jelly fish with purple frilled petticoats." She is also a contemporary version of the tragic heroine, evident very clearly in Roth's The Dying Animal and Philippe Djion's Betty Blue as well as much of Houellebecq's work, with the woman's demise all the more capable of bringing out the self--pity of the mourning man. If the 19th-century version was a woman coughing early in the book only to die before the end of it, the contemporary equivalent would be someone who meets many of the desires and fantasies of the male central character before passing away. Feminists would understandably have a problem with such a trope, yet the use of it doesn't make for a bad book unless it insistently simplifies the problem. Wolkers, like Roth, like Djian and even Houellebecq, is interested in working with the ephemerality of both beauty and desire and there are many other ways of addressing this question other than standard heterosexuality from the male's perspective. The problem is there in an older woman and a younger man (as Doris Lessing explored for example in Love, Again) and of course in Thomas Mann too: Death in Venice is a very important text showing the ageing and increasingly obsolete von Aschenbach making sense of his complicated feelings towards young Tadzio. We needn't have a problem with Turkish Delight because it looks at the idea in heterosexual form; better to have varieties of it that indicate how fundamental an idea it happens to be for human existence.
This is the tragedy of the ephemeral , the problem of the perishability of the body and time's workings. The central character may be a sculptor who can freeze material in time, but Olga is the interested object rather than the disinterested sculpture, someone who cannot escape the atemporality of the art object if we think of the difference between an interested and disinterested beauty. The former applies to the agreeable which involves sensory pleasure; the latter to an objective account of that beauty. A gay man may find a woman very beautiful, but in this sense he does not find her agreeable: he has no sensual relationship with that beauty. The heterosexual man who desires her does. While this may touch upon some of Kant's thoughts on the disinterestedness of art, we needn't explore these ideas in any detail, all we want from them is a means by which to understand the nature of Wolkers' problem. The book may have come out of an autobiographical experience but that is hardly reason enough to see it of any value. When people insist that something is based on a true story, part of the problem is that the reader is not seeking from the experience the disinterest of the aesthetic but the prurience of the personal, a characteristic Terry Eagleton seems to see as an especially English trait. Writing on Theodor Adorno he says "The English have always prized the lovably idiosyncratic individual over those arid entities known as ideas... If they aren't able to extricate the man or woman 'behind' the work, they tend to feel a little cheated. Their fondness for biography, a superior version of what the media know as 'human interest', goes hand in hand with their philistinism." (London Review of Books) Whether this is so especially true of the English, we can agree that there is a philistinism to it when someone insists in reading in the text the living being who is supposed to have written it. This doesn't mean that books which play with the autobiographical aren't amongst the most interesting of our time (from Knausgaard's My Struggle to Carrere's Lives Other Than Mine), but it is the doubt they create around the autobiography and their insistence on the aesthetic that keeps them interesting. The tension in the writing rests on the writer managing to shape the aesthetic out of the experiential, and even suggesting to the reader that they have to make sense of what happens to be the experiential, in what might constitute a very elaborate form of artistic license. Wolkers' book is interesting not as a roman a clef but as a transmutable work that muses over the problem of interested beauty that can drive you half-crazy and the disinterested aspect that can allow us to sit and read the book we have in our hands.
Wolkers doesn't directly draw our attention to the writer writing a book as Carrere, Knausgaard and others do: it would be a leap to assume the narrator is also the novelist no matter if Wolkers like the central character makes his living sculpting things. Wolkers was happy (or unhappy) to draw links with his own life and though Olga was a composite character, it seems she was based chiefly on his second wife Anne Marie Nauta, according to Overthehorse.com. Yet sometimes we need to be literal in our reading of books to protect us from the dangers of over-interpreting them. When Eagleton talks about the English feeling the book only really exists if they can find in it the person who wrote it, French criticism by Roland Barthes, Foucault and others insisted on quite the opposite. One wonders whether much contemporary writing that invokes the autobiographical within the fiction is an attempt to marry the two positions: to say that the text is a text, but there is also someone writing it, and occasionally that figure will announce their presence all the better to persuade the reader to keep reading it as a text and not think too much about the writer writing it unless the writer (who after all is only a figure in the narration) announces him or herself within it. For Wolkers this would be too metafictional - that mainly American branch of fiction of the late sixties and early seventies which would constantly find ways to draw attention to the fact that we are reading a book. Wolkers' insistence on paragraph length chapters and a flashback structure that opens with the unnamed narrator recovering from her leaving him seems not to take us out of the text but immerse us all the more in the story. Wolkers starts with a moment of despair and then lets the narrator's mind unravel the contents of it all over the page in paragraphs that won't shut up. These are immediacy devises rather than distancing ones, with the distance available to the reader who does not want their fiction, like their love, to pitch its mansion in the place of excrement.
Earlier on we suggested that Wolkers' book could be seen as a suffocating account of self-pity, viewed from a man's point of view where misogyny was never far away. But could not the same be said of books written by women where the self-pity would be evident, the woman's point of view pronounced and the androphobia pronounced? Anais Nin and Djuna Barnes, Catherine Millet and Margaret Duras, have offered accounts that could be seen as wallowing in solipsistic feeling. Yet perhaps books written by women manage so often to contain the sense of a partial perspective: that the woman's view might be 'self-indulgent' but its indulgence doesn't swallow the world whole. Churchwell's argument insists on the monolithic nature of male writing; it is writing that doesn't only take up the cinema seat it is sitting in, but puts its elbows on both armrests too. It is always taking up so much more room. What can seem like original writing from one point of view can appear like more of the same from another. Turkish Delight is as explicit and detailed account of a love affair as we would have had by the late sixties, but today it could be seen as a novel which uses its explicitness as part of a broader oppression: yet another book detailing men's fantasies to the detriment of women's experience. When the narrator says "in any case I stopped wielding my prick like a harpoon ready to poke the first blubber that rose over the waves of Amsterdam-by-night", this is a man of entitlement indeed. Equally, when he notes the registrar at the wedding "spoke of the blooming love of youth while licking his chops at the sight of my deeply happy darling whose obscene body was squeezed into that purple velvety dress like an eel in its skin," this is the sentence structure that perceives the world through male eyes. But any objectification is countered by a removed subjectivity - Olga has a point of view on the edge of the text that makes her real in the eyes of a narrator who might have been happier had she remained a fantasy object. Yet this would at least partly rest on Olga's determination to remain that object for him: to see herself as he sensed her. "She'd been with me two years before I discovered that her upper front teeth were false."Also, the heft of the book, its 'objective' strength, resides in Olga's move from fantasy object to a manifest physical reality who talks about the life she has led after leaving the narrator. He starts to see himself through her eyes while she describes her relationships with men. It is as though the book has been turned around, that the narrative has been taken out of his hands and the combination of lust and anger, erection and rejection, gives way to a realisation that another person is always more than we imagine them to be: that it takes a leaving and a different type of return to make that manifest. When she comes back to see him years later, she doesn't only inform him of her relationships with other men but also speaks about their relationship too. She tells him how suffocated she had frequently felt when they were together. What he recalls as an idyllic period of domesticity, she now relates to him as from her point of view a mild form of entrapment. They would have sex as often as seven times a day and at one moment she was thinking "here we go again." She never went to the city alone for several years, she tells him. Perhaps she exaggerates her case all the better to make her point: to say that from his perspective everything was going well but from hers there was an element of asphyxiation. It is an interesting example of a woman within a very masculine narrative, within a story that hurtles along at a furiously nostalgic pace, who finds herself inserting her point of view within the tale, a story that wouldn't seem to have much space for any perspective other than the narrator's own.
Yet there is a hint of foreshadowing that suggests an angle beyond the narrator's own immediacy. At one moment earlier in the novel, when he is talking of a time when he fed her seven ice lollies and she had to go home with her hands on her stomach, doubled over with cramps, he adds, "years later when everything between her and me was long gone and hopelessly lost she still remembered all these everyday things when she suddenly dropped in to say hello." These instances are so abrupt they pass for prolepsis as the narrative jumps forward. Most narratives offer instead analepsis as the story goes back into the past: exactly what Turkish Delight does most of the time. But because the story opens by flashing back from the recent past rather than the distant past, Wolkers can introduce within his text a proleptic hint at things to come, and one of those things to come is Olga offering a perspective of her own within this first-person book. If we have compared Turkish Delight to Djian's Betty Blue and Roth's The Dying Animal, nevertheless these are books both less claustrophobic but also less revelatory of the consciousness of the women whom the central character is besotted by. Turkish Delight surprises us not only in the tragedy of the ending (Olga's death from brain cancer) that it withholds for most of the book (and no doubt partly why it is narrated in the past but not initially in the distant past) but also because it gives us her perspective so deeply embedded within the narrator's own. Any idea that the book is misogynistic, objectifying and solipsistic ought to take into account this fact. We might even wonder if the book's tragedy rests in that the narrator never really knows her until it is too late, but this is a twofold tragedy, and part of the ontological tragedy that means we can never contain the future in the present that the present would benefit enormously from possessing. In other words, it isn't just that Olga reveals to our central character aspects of her personality, part of that personality, perhaps even the capacity to express it, comes from the future events: the second and third husband, and living in the States for a while as well as in the Arab world. She has become literally worldly-wise, but at such a price to her mental and physical health that, even before cancer starts eating away at her brain, the narrator is looking at a very different woman from his beloved Olga.
Halfway through the book, the narrator wonders, "what happened?" With her, with Olga? What changed over the years? Or had I been blind to something that always existed? Had I failed to get see the dear red animal trying to free herself from my embrace - with hesitation in the beginning and hardly noticeable, but ever more vehemently as time went on?" In the Complete Review, M. A. Orthofer says, of the narrator's exploration of the relationship: "he does so without really acknowledging his own role: he does describe his actions, but there's little introspective reflection here. He admits to, and describes, slugging her, and he can follow cause-and-effect of his actions, but doesn't make any effort at 'working on their relationship' (though by that point it is presumably quite too late)."
Does this make him an unreliable narrator, a question that becomes a convoluted one if we take into account how a reader might take the novel now rather than in 1969? A narrator does not become unreliable if the reader refuses any longer to take a novel's values as their own; surely the unreliability has to be built into the work itself? If for example a narrator tells us in a 1960s German novel by a writer known for his earlier dismay at the treatment of the Jews that he remembers the heady times when he and his friends would go out and beat up Jewish people with the only drawback the appalling smell emanating from the people they were attacking, we can reasonably assume we are in a consciousness that we are expected not to trust. We will guess that the novelist is quite removed from the narrator. A book with a similar passage written in 1937 in Germany, by a writer who was well known for his anti-semitism, would not suggest an unreliable narrator but, if you like, an unreliable author: someone whose authorial perspective we do not trust, not only whose narrational perspective we call into question. How does this work in the context of Wolkers and Turkish Delight? It is all right to read a book against its grain, but the problem arises if we read it assuming that the writer's values cannot be so very different from our own. James Reith says in the Guardian that "although Turkish Delight was mostly praised by critics, Wolkers was attacked for his style: his coarse prose, use of slang, lack of paragraphs. And his beginning sentences with "And"." Reith notes that Wolkers "tried to capture the way people actually spoke at a time when cultural challenges to authority were being reflected in the Dutch language: according to essayist Cyrille Offermans, the distinctions between "u" and "jij", the formal and informal ways of addressing someone in Dutch, had by then practically evaporated." Anyone reading the book today who insists that Wolkers' novel is an ironic account of a deluded male chauvinist pig unable to see the appalling nature of his behaviour would be imposing upon it a perspective that we believe is not quite the novel's own. Just because he presents the mother as a monster in language that can easily seem misogynistic, this doesn't mean the book should be read as the work of an unreliable narrator so that we can read the mother's actions as different from the way they happen to be presented. When the narrator says "her mother looked at her jealously, as if she would have robbed her of her youth." we don't assume the mother was looking at her daughter lovingly all the better to deny the misogyny that happens to be in numerous comments he makes about her manipulative ways. Speaking of how she got her husband, the narrator says "she petted and coddled him so much that she manoeuvred him straight from the sick bed into the wedding bed. Soon she had him so fat that he was no trouble at all and could hardly move." We might wonder how he has access to some of this information long before his presence in the family, and may wonder how much he has taken a few words offered by Olga or by the father and twisted them for his own purposes as we know that the narration is being told to us after the mother's determination to prise them apart. But this is not the same as saying he is unreliable and we can read in what he is saying the opposite of what he claims. He is we might assume a bitter man prone to miserable hyperbole, but the book still seems to us very much about a someone who believes in creativity, freedom and fighting against cant in any form. We might choose to read it now and find in its notion of freedom numerous other modes of oppression, but we ought to leave the book intact. Reading against the grain and questioning its values does just that. Trying to read in it a deeply unreliable narrator whose values we shouldn't at all take seriously would be a way of taming the book, making it the work we would wish to read in the millennial era rather than a book written during a radically permissive one.
To conclude on this point we realize we have caught ourselves in what might seem a theoretical conundrum. On the one hand, we have the Hirschean approach (after E. D. Hirsch) which privileges the text within its context. Hirsch reckons that the meaning of a literary text is objectively knowable, and distinguishable from the significance attributed to that meaning by particular readers. (Modern Criticism and Theory) On the other, we have various forms of deconstruction and authorial 'undermining' that will often ignore the context all the better to generate a freeplay of meaning within the work For Derrida the meaning of a text is never given, so that what an author claims he or she is saying is quite distinct from what they can be seen to be saying, evident in the claim that he has no problem in a world of signs without fault, without truth and without origin which is offered to our active interpretation. (Modern Criticism and Theory) For Barthes, "the text is henceforth written and read so that in it, on every level, the Author absents himself." ('The Death of the Author') There is no authorial meaning we can return to if we wish to understand the work. However, in Hirsch's reckoning, it is important to distinguish between the meaning of a text from its significance. The meaning doesn't change only the significance happens to do so. This would mean that the narrator here is always a reliable narrator interested in freedom and sexual liberation rather than an unreliable narrator who we should see through for his dubious sexual politics and acts of obvious oppression. Somebody who wants to undermine the significance of the work might understandably say that the book reflects sexual attitudes that grant men all sorts of freedoms that are not matched by women: after all, while the narrator has numerous sexual conquests as he tries to heal his heart, Olga goes through another couple of marriages that all but destroy her. She has none of the freedoms the narrator practices, as one might feel that the book is of its time; finally a pre women's-lib account of a relationship. But that is quite different from trying to change the book's meaning: turning it into the study of an awful, oppressive man who lies his way through the narrative he tells to make him seem better than he is. That would be on Hirschean terms to change the meaning. To read the book against its grain is a healthy way to refuse its 'objective authority' - precisely what Barthes seeks. To read the book insisting that it means something quite different from its authorial intent because we live in a different age is to insist books mean what we wish them to mean - a version of Humpty Dumpty.
We might have problems with someone claiming the book should only be read as an author intends it to be read, and contextualise it within the time in which it has been written, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't also have problems with those who would claim that what the author says about it or the social circumstances in which it has been written is of no importance at all. For our purposes what we see is a permissive book of the late sixties, but also one that can be seen to contain within it oppressions elsewhere. However, we should also acknowledge that the narrator is not oblivious to such claims (partly why we don't feel he is an unreliable narrator) and if throughout the book we might question his behaviour that doesn't mean we ought to internally change it, to see it too readily through our eyes. When Reith says "It is, in fact, Olga's frankness, not the narrator's, that retains some positive, transgressive power. Her joking description of period-sex as a "blood wedding", her assertive delight in anal sex, her disdain at having a child; this is a woman freed from the sexual hangups of her parents' generation. But much of her behaviour is linked back - admittedly with elegant, symbolic foreshadowing - to childhood traumas, suggesting she is not in control of her own actions" (Guardian), we would also need to acknowledge that the novel wonders what might be motivating Olga's behaviour. Indeed the narrator retrospectively thinks that near the end of the marriage, the tumour was already eating away at her, already making her a little crazy. But if someone were to claim that this was a novel which oppressed a generation rather than liberated them, that showed a narrator who was only interested in his own pleasure and speaks only to the most self-absorbed of male desires, it would be to ignore the reality. As Sam Garrett says in his translator's note at the beginning of the 2017 edition, "older Dutch people have told me that they experienced it as a 'liberation' - it was the first time they had the sense of reading a novel in their own language that reflected not only the current mood (Amsterdam in 1969 already bore a solid reputation as a free haven for all things unbridled and psychotropic) but also the way they and their contemporaries thought, spoke, felt and acted." It would be a shame if that sense of liberation were to be replaced by a puritanism which insists not only in reinterpreting the book (a justifiable attempt to attend to its significance) but also damn near rewriting it as one determines to change it eaning. To do so would be to undermine its very excremental nature, to demand from it too clean a bill of health. If it can be read by Dutch schoolkids, it should be digestible for the rest of us too.
© Tony McKibbin