Long before he turned to literature, Multatuli was shaped by his admiration for the altruism of Christ, although he disdained institutional Christianity, and the outspokenness of Socrates. Their influences, coupled with Multatuli’s fascination for the bold egocentrism of Napoleon I, shaped his literary sensibility. During an era of tectonic cultural, political, and social upheaval across Europe, Multatuli was possessed of a heroic imagination that conceived of literature as a force for broad change, a way to confront convention, challenge complacency, and reform the status quo. Because he came to literature after nearly twenty years in public service, Multatuli, with the crusading zeal of a self-appointed prophet, targeted not only what he perceived as the corruption of colonial administrative protocols but also, on a far wider scale, what he perceived as the moral bankruptcy and casual hypocrisy of the complacent Dutch middle class. Much like his contemporaries Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, and Mark Twain, Multatuli was a compassionate, if scathing, social realist. After all, long before he turned to literature, his life was grounded in the immediate: He was raised during one of the Netherlands’ frequent economic depressions; minimally educated, he was trained as a bookkeeper and worked at a factory; and he was a career civil servant.
To read the works of Multatuli, however, is to be aware of how galvanized he was by the Romantic vision. His social realism is charged by his conception of himself as a heroic outcast, a Byronic misfit, a truth-sayer whose thorny vision and uncompromising dedication to the truth made him an unsettling presence and more than justified, in his mind, the obscurity in which he lived most of his later years. Like the Romantic heroes whom he admired, he was given to extreme passions: He maintained numerous public romances while he was married; he was a gambling addict whose legendary runs of bad luck at casinos damned him to penury; and he was noted for a trigger temper and a penchant for picking fights. In merging social realism and Romantic individualism, Multatuli’s writings are both compelled by idealism and compassion and undercut by a mocking bitterness that perceived the collective culture as too blind to realize any significant change. Long abandoning the idea of a controlling deity because he found such notions superstitious, Multatuli conceived of the material universe as driven by a kind of necessity, a heartbreaking certainty that the arrogance and intolerance of the small-minded, the entrenched status quo, inevitably rejected daring change. Paradoxically hopeful and despairing, he tirelessly championed truth as the goal of the writer. Forsaking the chic fin-de-siècle fascination with beauty and the aesthetic appeal of a literary form, Multatuli sought truths that he perceived came not from the intellect but from the gut, a conception of truth as an intuitive sensibility.
Although neither social realism nor Romantic idealism had found specific expression in Dutch national literature before Multatuli, his sensibility and his philosophy were nevertheless part of the European mind-set of his era. What is not so clear about Multatuli’s writing, however, is the impetus for his formal experimentation, his avant-garde sense of challenging inherited conventions of narrative technique itself. Although certainly his social advocacy and his idealism would encourage him to reject inherited notions of literary expression, his writings anticipate a revolution in structural techniques that was still more than a half century away. Ironically, Multatuli’s stinging social criticism and his incendiary reform ideas gave him whatever celebrity he realized in his lifetime, while his narrative techniques were largely ignored, or, as was most often the case, dismissed as the careless work of an undisciplined civil servant turned scrivener.
Today, of course, the opposite holds true: Whereas his themes are period-bound and often dated, his formal techniques are audacious and even shocking and place him among the precursors of the most innovative literary modernists. Although often unacknowledged, as his works have not been extensively translated, Multatuli is a direct ancestor of writers, including Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, who in the years surrounding World War I broadly experimented with how to tell a story. Among the techniques that Multatuli’s writings exhibit that would become staples of modernism include experimenting with framing narratives, specifically stories-within-stories; deploying unreliable narrators as thematic devices; shattering conventional plot into recursive nonlinearity; splicing different genres and multiple tones within the same work; manipulating the premise of metafictional self-reflexivity by using an authorial presence often through both direct and...
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