Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A New Dictionary

On February 14th, Wahrenbrock's Books in San Diego had its last day of business.

I bought this dictionary from them for a dollar. It is a twelfth edition, printed in 1975. The first edition was printed 20 years earlier. It is rare, in that it is a one-way dictionary, from Dutch to English. The only other one-way dictionaries I have seen are part of two-volume sets. It is much better made than the dictionary I have been using.

It turns out that the bookstore where it was originally sold is still in business.

This is a great dictionary for what I'm reading. Because it was printed in 1975, it doesn't have anything about computers, the internet or cell phones. That means that more archaic terms are still there, which helps a lot for a work about history.

The type is smaller than on the Routledge, but the guidewords are bigger. Someone at either Routledge or Van Dale (Who published earlier editions) was unclear on the concept of guide words. In my copy, they're the same size as the text.

More importantly, the 1975 dictionary was bound far better. It is much less likely to fall apart than the other one.

Both dictionaries are pretty good, but neither one is big enough for what I'm doing. I scramble around the internet a lot. They are the best I could find. If only there were a big LaRousse.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Klare Taal

I have seen and heard shows about good grammar in Portugal, but nowhere else. Recently, I found Klare Taal from RNW. Hosted by the congenial Arie Bas, the program talks about how different words are used. He also talks about Afrikaans.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Harroes genietsalon

Herod's Pleasure Palace. Chapter 15 gets its name from the wave of increasing prosperity that ran from the end of the war to about 1974. European historians agree that those were the good times.

In this chapter, Geert Mak writes of his own generation, their new ideas, and how things changed. He finds that the Baby Boomers were not as conformist as their elders. Having grown up just behind them, I disagree. I remember the Boomers as extreme conformists, and find that they're often that way today. Today's tea partiers are yesterday's hippies. In any case, Mak's main point is that the biggest change for his generation was increasing consumption. The real revolution was in the increasing numbers of cars, appliances and televisions.

This chapter brought to mind my meetings with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in 1987. I met Rubin on a tour of ad agencies with my school's advertising club. He was a suit by then, very polished and congenial. There was some buzz about him because of the past, but in person, he was very corporate and definitely in his element. Abbie Hoffman was on campus for some demonstrations. Hoffman had grown since the 60s, arguing for simple majority votes instead of consensus in community groups, which had been in fashion up to that time. He was still very political. There was something desperate about him. Although he had his audience, he was a man out of time. His generation had turned right, and younger people weren't as interested in changing the world. Abbie Hoffman represents what people think of when recalling the 60s. Jerry Rubin's trajectory represents what mainly happened back then.

In the Netherlands, the expanding economy got a big boost from a major natural gas discovery in 1960.

Since I started doing this, I have read a little bit about Mak. Some have commented that he is a naive leftist. I have not found this to be true. I did not expect someone derided as such to write about immigration and say the Dutch government pursued an, "Ostrich policy."

He contrasts the Paris Worlds Fair in 1900 with the National Fair in 1957 at Shiphol. The fair in 1900 had flying taxis and all sorts of fun stuff. The 1957 event was mainly centered on appliances. Mak points out that while everyone eagerly anticipated the future, nobody predicted the rise of computing, nor what that would mean.

1957 was also the year the European Economic Community got started. That's one of the details that makes this book interesting from my perspective. I have read about European integration before, but this isn't something you see when American media takes a look back.

Similarly, the 1981 demonstrations in Amsterdam were just a footnote here.

The chapter draws to a close with Mak reminiscing about his family and how they coped with bad news as time went on. Geert was the first in his family to get divorced. In 1979, his brother Cas, the only one to have followed Catrinus into the ministry, got cancer. Both of their parents were still alive, and it was heartbreaking for them. He died in 1980. Late in 1982, Catrinus was sick and in bed. He would talk in his sleep at times, speaking in Australian army slang. He died in 1983. Oddly, the century from which this book draws its title seems to come to an end with the death of Geert Mak's mother in 1987.

Seventeen pages to go.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Finished with Chapter 15

The summary will come later.

While reading this, I was thinking of Geert Mak's identity. Maybe I'm seeing too much through the lenses of American tribalism, but I believe I have it figured out.

He's Reformed. Although he might rarely set foot in a Dutch Reformed Church, I think that informs who he is to a great extent. The Reformed are his people. He writes about his family and friends with great affection. The Reformed world and its increasingly byzantine politics was too small, too narrow minded at times, even ridiculous, but it was and remains his own.

Looking back on the book, it's clearer now. Each time the Dutch Reformed Church split, part of the Mak family identity went with it. I think at the core, there is a Reformed identity that supersedes the past century and longs for the unity that Abraham Kuyper preserved.

Friday, April 16, 2010

What might have been

I was cleaning out my papers a month ago, and I found a piece of paper with the list of Dutch authors I made to find something to read. I got it from searching for Dutch authors, then narrowing it down to modern ones. From this list, I narrowed it down to Mak and the book I'm reading now. Here is the list:

Hendrik Marsman

Ferdinand Bordewijk

Willem Elsschot


Remco Campert

Geert Mak

Hella Haase

If you have an opinion about any of these authors, please comment.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

De snelheid van leven

Life speeds up. It's a loose translation, but I think it's appropriate. The title of Chapter 14 comes from reflection on contemporary writing by journalist H. J. A. Hofland. He wrote about how the pace of life was getting faster and how cars and phones were much more widely used.

The chapter concentrates on political and cultural issues in the 1950s.

It opens in 1953. In February, it started raining, and great floods followed. Once again, the Dutch elite was not up to the challenge. The fall of authority happens again and again in this book. It does not fall as a result of rebellion, but rather, as a result of its own ineptitude. In this case, Geert Mak writes of Dutch people pulling together across all sorts of societal boundaries and helping each other. By contrast, the political class was caught flat-footed, wondering what to do.

There was more military action, as Indonesia sought to annex New Guinea, part of which had also been under Dutch control.

Also, the Cold War got more intense. Mak writes that politically, the high point of tension was in 1956, the year of the Hungarian uprising. After Kruschev's denouncing Stalin, other Communists thought they might go a different way. Imre Nagy had several non-Communists in his cabinet. Nagy and thousands of others were killed. The last broadcasts of Hungarian radio reminded some Dutch people of the German occupation. One can only wonder if Communism might still be viable in Europe if experimentation and adaptation had been allowed. One important Russian in Budapest was Ambassador Yuri Andropov, who would go on to mentor Gorbachev.

The other important political event of 1956 was the Suez crisis, which Mak calls a 19th Century action.

The subject of reparations was a painful one for the Mak family. Governments went back and forth about how much should be paid to those working in the camps. It was a bitter experience. Catrinus Mak was finally paid 7500 Guilders in 1981, when he was dying in the hospital.

Culturally, Geert Mak writes of his whole world being Reformed. I am surprised he found it so repressive. Here in the US, one assumes that all Europeans belonged to their respective national churches. He found some relief in a world portrayed as neutral, where nobody was Catholic or Reformed or anything else. This world was in Donald Duck comics.

Though technology was on the march, radio remained king. Catrinus Mak exercised to the radio, and he was listening to it for news of the Cuban Missle Crisis in 1962. The coming of stereo to the Netherlands was fascinating. Here in the US, it was on FM, whose bandwidth was allotted and moved around before finally settling in the area formerly allotted to TV channel 1. In the Netherlands, stereo came through AM. In 1952, a concert was broadcast. One channel was on Hilversum 1, while the other was on Hilversum 2.

Emigration was also a big issue at this time. Some left because of the elite's ineptitude, while others left due to the Cold War. It was said that the occupying Germans were somewhat Christian, while the Russians were completely godless. Emigrants left mainly for Canada, the US and South Africa.

Culturally, Mak says that the 19th Century finally ended.

1956 was a big year for youth rebellion. Elvis broke, and the movie Rock Around the Clock was important. In the US, it was seen as so much fluff. Mak also writes of cigarettes and existentialism as having been strong currents in young life. Even with a background in advertising, it amazes me how the tobacco companies appealed both to rebellious youth and their elders during the Fifties and Sixties.

During the Fifties, the Mak siblings got married, and his grandparents died. He writes of the weddings and funerals. During that time, standards of living went up, and the food at special occasions got better.

The chapter ends with Geert Mak and his parents standing by the Westersingel in their pajamas and coats looking up at the stars in November 1957, looking for Sputnik.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A rave review

Canta America once again had a great show today. Download it. Harold Biervliet puts everything in context. Featured music by LITTLE RICHARD!! Also, Biervliet wins the award as the easiest to understand on the radio. His calm delivery and enthusiasm for the music is comparable to Juan Claudio Cifuentes' A Todo Jazz.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Erger dan dood kan toch niet

Chapter 13 is a long chapter about a short period of time, from 1945-1950. The title comes from a discussion about death being a taboo subject for some, but a daily reality of life in the camps. The quote comes from Gjalt Mak, one of the siblings. "You can't get worse than dead."

During the war, the Mak children lost a lot of respect for grown-ups. Like their father, they had seen the pettiness of camp life and didn't like it.

What happened to them started me wondering about the nature of war. Other than Pearl Harbor, America went to war. Everyone who came back was a hero. The heroic homefront and the heroic troops accepted each other's stories. By contrast, the Netherlands and the Indies were overrun. All were overtaken together. People of all different social standings saw each other crack under pressure. Mistakes and heroism cut across all lines. Unlike the American situation, there was no chance to regroup and iron things out before celebrating victory.

Adjustment was hard for the Maks, as they went from the Indies to the Netherlands. When they arrived, someone said, "You're from the Indies, but you're not brown!" They were restless in a way, and what they had lived through had overwhelmed many of the standard answers that society gives. Some problems were just too big. What is described has the feel of descriptions I have read of Stig Dagerman's work, where people are struggling to make sense of what happened in their own terms, because the old standard terms have failed.

The experience of camp life stalked the Maks in terms of illness also. Their mother got very sick in 1948. Hans was sick for most of the voyage to the Netherlands, and he was ill afterwards. It turned out he had a kidney ailment. Antibiotics, which were then new, helped. Years later, he got a transplant from his brother, Cas.

For Catrinus Mak, readjusting to the Netherlands was also hard. He put his whole being into his ministry. It seems that the war was a high point for him. He not only preached the Gospel, but lived it. Back in the Netherlands, he came home to a schism within his own church. Two factions defined by optimism, pessimism, and different positions regarding baptism were at each other's throats. They had been patched together by Abraham Kuyper decades earlier, but this was it. What is even more appalling is that the schism started in 1944 of all years. It sounds very disheartening.

Still, Catrinus kept working too hard and let his family life slip out from under him. His only drive was to preach, and he was oblivious to his wife's overwork.

These were also the years of decolonization. Although there were treaties with Indonesia starting in 1947, there was a police action aimed at Communist factions. The Mak children listened intently to reports of the war.

At the time, the Netherlands had a strong emotional connection to the Indies, but really didn't know much about it. Churches sent their missionaries and so on. It was ons Indië in many ways. The special forces ran amok. It made me wonder how much of special forces is a high level of training and competency and how much is fighting wars the old way of no quarter. Geert Mak points out that the government was able to make their story look good back home.

Finally, technology was coming in. In the late 40s, the phone was for local calls. Long distance was possible, but rarely used. When their grandmother Van der Molen got sick for the last time, their grandfather wrote everyone a letter.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Two milestones tonight: I made it past page 400 and finished chapter 13. It was 40 pages long, which is 8% of the book. Chapter 15 is even longer. Chapter 14 and the Epilog are much shorter.

I will post my thoughts on Chapter 13 later.

On to the end!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Special Guest Star!

"Why a Dutch" has been picked up by Lexiophiles! Take a look.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Another Virtual Birthday Party

Have some cake! Today we're celebrating the birthday of Fr. Roderick Vonhögen, Facebook friend and new media mogul. He also does a lot of work in English.

It amazes me that anyone would go to church, much less become a priest in the Netherlands. When I was there on my only visit, it seemed that Western Europe had attained the Communist ideal of churches as museums. I toured a number of them, but only saw a service of any kind at the Vatican. Back then, the churches of all denominations that I saw functioned as tourist attractions. I saw a few schedules posted, but that was it.

Fr. Roderick is also from my generation. What's slightly shocking is that there have been so few vocations, that he's one of the jonge priesters, even at 42.

Anyway, I've got to sign off. The Learning Dutch with Geert Mak Building is filling up with well-wishers.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Rembrandt's Recession

Happy Easter everyone.

Yesterday, I saw some prints at the Timken. The above titled exhibit featured Rembrandt's prints from the period near the end of his life that surrounded his bankruptcy.

Although they have been there for several months, it was great to see them on a day like yesterday. All of them were about the Passion of Jesus.

The signs explained that although the Netherlands was decidedly Protestant, Rembrandt was doing art that would sell better to Catholics. They added that he was something of a "Free thinker." I was amazed. He had the temerity to produce art unlikely to sell. He was a true iconoclast, even if icons themselves were the subject matter.

One can contrast Rembrandt's willingness to follow his internal compass with the dull, extremely rigid, Anti-Christian orthodoxy of the American art world. For example, Andy Warhol remained in the closet his entire life, in terms of his religious views. He was even careful to hide his charitable works.

Even when making prints, Rembrandt kept his quality high. Stripped of color, he only used one tool, etching away at metal. The play of light and dark is as incredible as it is in his paintings.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Word from a classicist

This morning I was complaining to the GF about my slow progress. I spent a lot of time yesterday reading two pages.

"Now can you see why I say I don't really know Latin and Greek?" she asked. She explained once again that she was told that you needed a PhD to be really fluent. At that, one only becomes a fluent reader. She has a BA in classics. She also explained that studying both languages meant she couldn't be as good at one or the other. She can read a fair amount of what's posted at the Greek Orthodox church where her sons are in the scouts.

While I doubt I'll be a fluent reader of De eeuw van mijn vader I'm sure I can become a fluent reader of Dutch for the following reasons:

1. Unlike classicists, I can listen. There are lots of broadcasts of various types.

2. As a living language, I can find everything in Dutch, in terms of register. Mainly pompous high-register prose survives in the classics. In Dutch, I can now read a fair amount of ordinary news stories.

I'm wondering if my struggles to read Dutch will be similar to what happened when I started reading Spanish. After failing to read 100 Years of Solitude I got Love in the Time of Cholera. From there, I looked up authors I should read. I read books by Guatemala's Nobel Laureate, Miguel Asturias. Eventually, I got around to Carlos Fuentes. Although he's a great author, he's not Mr. Vocabulary like the others. The experience was amazing. I read his books straight through.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Another milestone

I am on page 370, winding my way through Chapter 13.

The big milestone is Big Mak's first mention of his own experiences as something other than an older person looking at yellowed letters and other archival material. He talks about what he learned about the war at school and how Jews and their actions were largely overlooked in favor of the heroic resistance. Jews were simply victims in that version.

He avoids three major traps:

1. He doesn't yammer on about himself. Too many writers turn everything into an autobiography. An article about the North Pole might devolve into a reflection on last weekend's drinks. In fiction, the writer is always a sympathetic hero, never a villain.

2. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn't overestimate the importance of his own generation. Instead, he correctly places such trends as loosening sexual morality as starting much earlier than the 1950s. Such things happened in a similar way in the US, but Boomers who write the narratives often think that their generation either discovered or invented everything.

3. He looks at his parental generation more accurately than American Boomers ever have. I remember when they were young hippies, cursing their elders as incompetent, unfeeling robots. They aged and went on to write a lot of nonsense about "The Greatest Generation." Mak avoids both useless stereotypes and looks at them as human beings who faced difficult times. Some were heroic and some were not, but all were individuals, not part of a category.

Although this book is very difficult, a lot of it is amazing. I hope there is an English translation. It might stand out now that commemorative "Looking back at the century," books have come and gone. Americans could learn a lot from it.