Archive for January 4th, 2011

Jacoba van Velde – The Large Hall

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

During the holidays I got a free giftbook called The Great Hall (1953) by Jacoba van Velde. It is a Dutch novel and the author is actually rather unknown. She only published a few novels in the fifties and sixties. The Great Hall (also named The Big Ward), her debut work, did obtain critical acclaim at the time and has been translated in several languages, including English. Thus I can review it, although non-Dutch readers will have a hard time finding a copy.

The Great Hall is not a long novel. It is a tragic story about an elderly woman who is forced to live in a place for the elderly and her daughter. Both points of view are followed, although the main focus is on the mother. The theme of the book is old age and death, as one can guess. Van Velde provides variation through the two viewpoints and clear characterizations of the other elderly women at the retirement home.

Two things stand out in Van Velde’s prose. She writes with great clarity and without any finery. This is a typical style which was used by a number of writers during the interbellum. As the book was published in 1953 this style was still to be found. I like this kind of style because it shows that prose can be enjoyed without it having a notable style for which a certain knowledge of words is required.

Another oddity of the novel is the lack of punctuation to define paragraphs and dialogue. This requires the reader to put more attention to the text, but I cannot say it’s something positive. Of course there are paragraphs but they just look like long slabs of text.

The Great Hall is a timeless work. Even as it has been written 50 years ago anyone reading it will find elements that will touch you. The characters described are of all times which you can find anywhere, even how peculiar they seem. It is not a remarkable work, but it surely gives a vivid and accurate description of old age and the coming of death. Even as it is tragic it does not focus on this and its length is kept short enough so one will not end it with mixed feelings but more solemnly.