Arthur van Schendel Essay - Critical Essays

Schendel, Arthur van


Arthur van Schendel 1874-1946

Dutch novelist and short story writer.

Considered the greatest Dutch prose writer of his day, Schendel is best known for a series of works set in nineteenth-century Holland and the Dutch colonies in Indonesia. Conveying a sense of nostalgia, Schendel's novels are well-regarded for their minutely detailed settings and romantic characters.

Biographical Information

Schendel was born in Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), where his father served as an officer in the army and his mother's family had lived for several generations. In 1879 his family moved to Holland, where Schendel's father died in 1880. Schendel attended a variety of schools, including an acting school, and became qualified to teach French and English. His earliest novels were love stories set in medieval Italy. The first of these works, Drogon, was published in 1896, the same year that he left Holland to study and teach in Tuxford, England. By 1905 he had returned to Holland. During the 1920s and 1930s, Schendel lived in Italy, where he produced the majority of his works. Schendel returned to Amsterdam in the 1940s and suffered a fatal heart attack in 1946.

Major Works

Schendel's novels are distinguished by vivid characterizations, a simple prose style, and engaging plots. The first of his series of Dutch novels, Het fregatschip Johanna Maria (The Johanna Maria), for example, is the tale of a sailmaker's love for the ship on which he serves. The narrative relates the protagonist's sense of helplessness when the sailing vessel is rendered obsolete in the emerging era of steamships. The Johanna Maria is typical of Schendel's novels in its focus on a character who struggles unsuccessfully against a rapidly changing world. According to Frans van Rosevelt, "What shines forth in Van Schendel's work is essentially the detached tone of his prose that is suddenly disrupted by a character's insights and emotions."

Principal Works

Drogon (novel) 1896

Een zwerver verliefd (novel) 1904

Angiolino en de lente (novel) 1923

Oude italiaansche steden (novel) 1924

Merona, een edelman (novel) 1927

Florentijnsche verhalen (novel) 1929

Het fregatschip Johanna Maria (novel) 1930

[The Johanna Maria, 1935]

Jan Compagnie (novel) 1932

[John Company, 1983]

De waterman (novel) 1933

[The Waterman, 1963]

Een Hollandsch drama (novel) 1935

[The House in Haarlem, 1940]

De grauwe vogels (novel) 1937

[Grey Birds, 1939]

De wereld een dansfeest (novel) 1938

De Nederlanden (poetry) 1945

Het oude huis (novel) 1946

Herdenkingen (autobiography) 1950

Verzameld werk 8 vols. (novels and short stories) 1976-78


Fred T. Marsh (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: A review of The Johanna Maria, by Arthur van Schendel, in The New York Times Book Review, October 13, 1935, pp. 7, 21.

[In the following review, Marsh praises The Johanna Maria for its artistry and simplicity.]

[The Johanna Maria] is the story of an old-time sailorman and an old-time full-rigged ship. It is a slight tale, but it is also a chip of the old epic tradition. Its bald and factual bits of narration of events and explanations of people, its high seriousness and its concealed but conscious artistry combine to render it poetic, a little Dutch miniature of an epic in cleanly patterned prose—if we may guess from the translation.

The ship is the Johanna Maria, launched 1865 out of the port of Amsterdam, tall of mast, ready to compete with the best the English have to offer, Captain Jan Wilkens. Many, many years later she is docked in old Amsterdam, her faring days over, a home for an old sailorman who has waited all the years for the chance to buy her and make her his own. In the years between she has made a hundred voyages, known a thousand sailormen, borne a half-dozen different names under a score of captains of various nationalities. But the old logs remain intact, the marks of carpentry, each with its history, can still be seen, and every inch of her tells a story to her first sailmaker, Jacob Brouwer.

This Brouwer was a waif...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Rob Nieuwenhuys (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "The World Beyond," in his Mirror of the Indies: A History of Dutch Colonial Literature, edited by E. M. Beekman, translated by Frans van Rosevelt, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1982, pp. 154-66.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in Dutch in 1972, Nieuwenhuys praises John Company for its unity but compares it unfavorably with Schendel's other novels, faulting its lack of "real human and dramatic content.'"

Arthur van Schendel's John Company is a historical novel dealing, from a Dutch perspective, with the first Dutch settlement in the Indies. The novel shows a great deal of unity throughout. No doubt Van Schendel, while unfolding an important phase in Dutch colonial history, aimed at monumentality.

His novels, especially those written after 1930, have a broad perspective and a carefully worked-out plot. The critic Jan Greshoff, in his Notes concerning "John Company" and "The Waterman" (Aanteekeningen over Jan Compagnie en De Waterman, 1934), compared Van Schendel's John Company to a mural. The comparison, when one thinks of it, makes a great deal of sense, especially because it illustrates so well how carefully Van Schendel went to work.

[John Company] is a detailed portrayal of the colorful first years in the history of the United East Indies Company. One mural, as it were, depicts the young city of Amsterdam and its growing port, its trade, and its rivalries. Placed in the foreground, and somewhat more clearly outlined than the other figures, we see a lively, overconfident young fellow who is anxious to escape the narrow confines of the town and who heads for the Indies.

The second mural reveals the Dutch establishing themselves in the Banten area on Java's West Coast. And again, among a multitude of natives, Chinamen, Englishmen, and Hollanders, we discern the more pronounced figure of De Brasser, soldier, corporal, and sergeant. The third tableau gives us a marvelous view of the Moluccas. It shows us the descendants of the Portuguese living their amiable, naive lives among the natives but it also shows all too well the servants of the Company destroying their idyll through fire and sword in order that they may send even more pepper and cloves back to Europe. The central figure here too is that of Jan de Brasser, now a free man, a landowner, a planter and merchant, who with care and hard work makes his fortune. He also makes it a point to remain as morally upright and just as circumstances allow.

In conclusion, the fourth mural shows the city of Amsterdam again, now much more crowded, greater, more colorful and richer, as the center of European commerce. Against this great national backdrop, old De Brasser stands out again as somebody not quite at home there, albeit for a different reason this time. As we look around us and examine one tableau after another in this manner, hundreds of details begin to stand out, far too many to describe here. Van Schendel shows us an amazing variety and number of things but he has managed to arrange them in such a way as to make them into a harmonious whole. All the parts contribute and are essential to...

(The entire section is 1337 words.)

J. J. A. Mooij (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "On Literature and the Reader's Beliefs (with Special Reference to De Waterman by Arthur van Schendel)," in Dichter und Leser: Studien zur Literature, edited by Ferdinand van Ingen, and others, Wolters-Noordhoff, 1972, pp. 143-50.

[In the following essay, Mooij discusses psychological beliefs evidenced in De Waterman.]

[Nearly] all novels, including De Waterman, appeal to beliefs in that they merely suggest or hint at the motives and causes which underlie certain acts performed by the characters. Of course, the novelist may deliberately try to make the behaviour of his characters incomprehensible, but this is done, I think, only in a minority of...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

Frans van Rosevelt (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: An introduction in John Company by Arthur van Schendel, edited by E. M. Beekman, translated by Frans van Rosevelt, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, van Rosevelt discusses themes and characters of John Company, and its similarities to The Johanna Maria.]

There is no better introduction to the everyday experiences of men and women during the early days of the East Indies Company than John Company. It provides a first-hand account of the perils at sea and in the newly discovered Indonesian Islands. To Arthur van Schendel, its author, the work represented a journey back, both to Indonesia, where he had...

(The entire section is 3919 words.)