One of the great authors of Dutch literature is Louis Couperus. He wrote contemporary novels around the year 1900 which distinguished themselves as naturalistic, which means that the authors tried to write realistic stories, often with a tragic or not-likable main character which is controlled by his environment and the society he lives in. Nineteenth century Russian literature produced many great novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky who were also part of this literary movement. These kind of novels are interesting to read because the aim for realism leads to an analysis and accurate picture of the times the author tries to write about. Of course it depends on the author on how well this is done.
Eline Vere (1889) depicts the life of a group of young people from the upper class in the governmental city of The Hague in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century. I live in this same city so I am fairly familiar with the locations mentioned in the novel. Couperus also grew up in similar circles so one could say he used autobiographical elements, although non-personal, to create an accurate description of that society. The main character is the woman of the titular name. Much of the story revolves around her, but there are several other storylines, short and long ones, involving characters related to her in some fashion. This provides some variation and relief as the main storyline is rather tragic while the other storyline are relatively more uplifting.
Eline Vere is also very much a psychological novel as Couperus writes about the motives and influences for the behavior of his characters. They don’t have full self-control. In a sense they have to struggle to escape the confines they have created for themselves as they tried to follow their own twisted logic. Couperus spends considerable time on these elements. Fortunately not too much as this could lead to (too long) dreary monologues which would be boring reads. Obviously there is no lack of characterization in this novel, although the time spent on the different characters varies.
The storylines themselves are mostly of a romantic fashion. It is about relationships and each contains its own type of drama which the couple-to-be has to overcome to get together. It is because of this that I classify the novel as a romance as well, although it focuses on multiple ones and not just one.
As I’m a Dutch native I read the book in Dutch and thus in the original version. The prose is a bit old-fashioned, but in no way less readable. Couperus writes in a beautiful style. It is simple, avoiding complicated words and dramatic tendencies. When I first started reading I was quite blown away by it. Obviously I have read quite a bit of Dutch literature over time and I hadn’t crossed an author who was this skillful in using the Dutch language. It is a pity that any translation won’t be able to capture the same quality.
With such wonderful prose one would think this would have been an easy read. This was not the case. A tragic main character does not make an enjoyable read. One has to be in the mood for it. Besides that the fact that the plot revolves around romances is for a male like me is not something to enjoy all the time. Further the frequent time spent to explore the behavior of characters can make the reading tough at times. All this and the many storylines make this (as naturalistic novels seem prone to do) a long novel at 450 pages.
Nevertheless this novel is great literature of excellent quality, especially the magnificent prose and the vivid picture it paints of Dutch upper class society in the late nineteenth century.