European studies blog

23 March 2021

Simon Vestdijk, 1898-1971

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Simon Vestdijk’s death at the age of 72. He was one of the most prolific and diverse authors of the Netherlands with 50 novels, 12 collections of poetry, numerous essays and he translated Emily Dickinson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allen Poe into Dutch. He also wrote essays and reviews for a number of literary journals and newspapers, such as the Nieuwe Courant (NRC) and Het Parool.

Portrait of Simon Vestdijk

Portrait of Simon Vestdijk. Source: Ontdek ons digitaal erfgoed | Geheugen van Nederland

Vestdijk nearly didn’t become a writer. For years he dithered between a career in medicine, music, or literature. In 1932 he both graduated as a doctor and published his literary debut, a collection of poems, which appeared in the literary journal De Vrije Bladen (P.P.4261.sa.) He still wasn’t sure which path to choose.

Then he met Menno ter Braak and Eddy Du Perron, the founders of the literary journal Forum (P.901/113.), and settled for literature. From then on he was unstoppable.

He won numerous prizes, the last one being awarded just a few days before his death.

Vestdijk himself divided his work into five categories:

1. Fiction with autobiographical elements around the character Anton Wachter, such as Terug tot Ina Damman (Back to Ina Damman)
2. Fiction with semi-autobiographical elements, for example De koperen tuin (The garden where the brass band played). See below
3. Contemporary psychological work, such as Else Böhler, Duits dienstmeisje
4. Historical work, such as De vuuraanbidders (The fire worshippers)
5. Fantastical work, such as De kellner en de levenden (The waiter and the living) and Bericht uit het hiernamaals (Message from the other side) 

Cover of the first edition of De Koperen Tuin

Cover of the first edition of De Koperen Tuin (Rotterdam, 1950). 12584.w.64. Source: Vestdijk.com 

This year will see a full programme of commemorations; a plaque will be fitted on his house in Doorn. Today a delegation from De Vestdijkkring, a society that commemorates Vestdijk and promotes his work, will lay a wreath on his grave in The Hague. And of course there’ll be plenty of literary events during the year.

You can get a taste of his works in English from the translations listed below.

Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

The Penguin book of Dutch short stories. (London, 2016). YKL.2017.a.14072

A sampling of Dutch literature. Thirteen excursions into the works of Dutch authors. Translated and adapted by James Brockway. (Hilversum, 1960). X.950/43674

The garden where the brass band played; translated by A. Brotherton; with an introduction by Hella S. Haasse. (London, 1992). H.93/3254.

‘My Brown Friend’, translated by M. C. Duyvendak, in New Writers. vol. 2, pp. 9-52. (London, 1962). 12521.d.1/2.

Rum Island, translated by B. K. Bowes. (London, 1963). 11769.g.20.

‘The Blind’; ‘The Jewish Bride’; ‘Saul and David’; ‘Rembrandt and Saskia’, translated by Jane Fenoulhet. In: Dutch Crossing, nr. 46 (1992) pp. 25-30. P.523/827