Does Louis Couperus still count in Dutch literature?

The three most heard prejudices about Louis Couperus

Is Louis Couperus (1863-1923) still relevant in Dutch literature? Are his books still being read? Of course. For years he has a prominent place in the official textbooks and literary histories. There is a flourishing society, a well-visited website, and a museum dedicated to the author. In Arabesken, the Journal of the Society, his work is extensively sniffed, turned inside out, analyzed, and commented on. In addition, his most famous novels are still reprinted with some regularity. Are there more Dutch writers of his generation for whom that counts?

Well, I would be inclined to answer that question with a resounding NO, though when I express my appreciation and love for the author., I sometimes come across an angry literary outer world. I can’t tell you how often I’m confronted with glassy glances thrown out when I drop the name of Louis Couperus.

Louis Couperus… ‘Isn’t that the writer who… ‘, and then a mostly cautious, but undisguised opinion is best given. All too often, these judgments prove to be based on a volatile and compulsory introduction to the author in a distant, school-past. Time to reply to these people and give them a second chance. ‘But Louis Couperus, that’s the writer who… ‘ Read on to learn all about the three most heard prejudices about Louis Couperus

Prejudice 1… Couperus…did he write those long-winded and far too thick books…?

This is number one by far. Although long-winded and thick are two very different qualifications, they are often attributed to the work of Couperus in one breath. Let’s take into account that Couperus has written a lot of books. Perhaps too many, as the author himself once said, and even the most committed Couperus fanatic will have to admit that his oeuvre does not consist of mere masterpieces. But for heaven’s sake, we have to judge an author by his best work. Check out this post to learn more about the Louis Couperus Museum in The Hague.

Read, for example, the first chapter of The Comedians (1917). Who would still dare to argue that Couperus is long-winded or boring? Those pages are about the meaning of life. There are not many authors who can portray reality in words so effectively. I tend to think that Couperus. if he had lived a hundred years later, would have made a brilliant Director. I wouldn’t know of another author whose words are so easily transformed into image and from image to reality. This is true when he describes the Hague around the 1900s and also when he describes Rome in the first century AD.

For readers who already start to hyperventilate at the idea of having to go through a book that contains more than 150 pages, I have good news: Couperus wrote more thin than thick books. Moreover, he was an equally good sprinter as a long-distance runner. Before the word was invented, Couperus wrote columns. In his travel descriptions, personal revelations, and short stories, Couperus often shows himself from his airy side. Airy, but not volatile. In spite of the laws of the genre, his ‘ feuilletons ‘, as they are usually called, have proved timeless.

Prejudice 2… Couperus…only homosexuals can appreciate his works…

This is a ridiculous assumption, but I have heard this sort of words more often. Admittedly, Couperus was most likely homosexual. Most likely, because there is no evidence. In those days, you didn’t show. In our contemporary “Zeitgeist”, there is a lot of interest in the sexual preferences of the author and the impact of this on his work. There is indeed a multitude of homosexual motives in his books. But who cares? If he was homosexual, he is in the illustrious company of great contemporaries such as Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, and André Gide.

If you ask well, it turns out that it is more about the person Couperus than about the writer. His image of the affected queer is still obsessing many people. So be it but I can assure that the characters in his books are anything but frail types and slack men.

3… Couperus… Isn’t he the author who wrote in that outdated, pompous, affected style?

Sure, Couperus isn’t Nescio, Elsschot, or Hotz. The adage ‘less is more’  (for many authors an iron guideline) didn’t mean that much to Couperus. Although his style is as varied as his subject choice, he was generally not very economical with adjectives and phrases. For a description of nature, he took all the time in the world. If deemed necessary, he made one new word out of two existing words. This way of writing, also called word art or very chic écriture artiste, has been made forever suspicious by writers around the 1980s and their followers.

Some already get the creeps when they see this sort of writing. For them, only modern spelling counts. Using too many words is not always harmful and can even be functional. Couperus’ best work is convincing evidence of this. He did sequence one sentence on the other to place his characters in a convincing and lively world. That costs time and space. Let yourself be swept away by his meandering style and you will be rewarded with vistas that you have not seen before.

Close Menu