Hella S. Haasse (1918-2011)

Hella Serafia Haasse, 1918 – 2011

I am deeply saddened by the death of Hella S. Haasse, in my eyes the greatest Dutch writer in the last two hundred years. Living with the thought that there will be no new novel or essay coming from the Grand Old Lady of Dutch Literature feels like a personal loss as she has for many years been my inspiration.

My admiration did not start with her greatest success (and almost inevitable must-read for high school student) Oeroeg but with that other novel that tells also a tale set in Indonesia. Although I never have been in that country the way Hella Haasse wrote about landscape, atmosphere and culture made me understand, smell and taste that wonderful country. She was born in that country and somehow her writings were often connected with it. Sometimes when I write about my beloved Nepal I try to understand how to describe that land in Hella’s fashion. Not mimicking her style but expanding on it. I find it extremely difficult to do that which tells me what amazing qualities she as a writer had.

But it wasn’t only her books set in the Indonesian landscape. Novels like ‘Het woud der verwachting’ (The Forest of Expectations) about Charles of Orléans, ‘De wegen der Verbeelding’ (The roads of imagination), a contemporary literary thriller and so many other compelling literary novels were written based on strong research and experience combined with limitless imaginary powers. She researched like a true historian and the result of her research was transformed in a list of novels and essays of amazing quality. Still, international recognition has only come from France and not so much from other countries. She never won a Pulitzer or Nobel prize (but she did win the most prestigious Dutch prizes) and that actually is too bad for the foundations behind these prizes. She would have been a just winner.

I have no plan to write a long obituary about her as I guess most literary columnists and literature watchers will do that too often in the coming days and weeks. To let you, my reader, understand why there is no Dutch writer that has inspired me the most is Miss Hella Haasse, the best I can do is to show some lines of text from one of her publications. As only the written word of the writer truly shows what that writer is all about.

Miss Hella Haasse, I’ll miss your beautiful literature but I am also happy with the grand legacy that you have left to both the Dutch and the world literature. You were an amazing writer, one the best. After ninety-three years your pen will not jot down any word anymore on another piece of paper. In deep respect I want to show this citation from ‘Het woud der verwachting’ (The Forest of Expectations) to my audience hoping they will start (re)reading your wonderful work.

‘Als dan de zomer kwam, met zon en bloemen en diepgroen loof, verliet zijn moeder haast dagelijks haar kasteel om buiten te zitten op het gras, kransen te vlechten en kruiden te verzamelen. Vaak ook reed zij paard; het tuig was met vergulde knoppen beslagen en met belletjes versierd en gouden franje hing aan schabrak en zadeldek. Zo ging zij op jacht, met een valk op haar handschoen. Mooier zag Charles zijn moeder nooit, dan wanneer zij na zulk een tocht thuiskwam, met rode wangen en heldere ogen.’

‘So when summer arrived, with sun and flowers en deep green loaf, his mother almost daily left her castle to sit outside on the grass, weave wreaths and collect herbs. Also she often rode horse:; the reigns budded with gold plated knobs and bells and golden frails hanging on the caparison and saddlecloth. Like that she went hunting, with a falcon on her glove. Charles never saw his mother more beautiful, then when she came home after such a tour, with red cheeks and bright eyes.’

Alice Verheij © 2011