Hella Haasse – The Scarlet City

Most of the historical novels that I have read follow the same approach to tell their story. Either the authors create a fictional character who gets involved in all kinds of historical events or they find minor historical character about whom little is known who is or could have been in the same position as the fictional character. In both cases their impact on the events is presented in such a way that their contribution could have been overseen by history.

A very different approach is taken by The Scarlet City (1952) by Hella Haasse. Her main character is an actual historical character although of minor importance. Although this main character is most prominent in the narrative there are also several other narratives which are written from the viewpoint of very important historical characters. Haasse tries to get under their skin and represent their thoughts and views within the historical framepoint from which the story is told.

The narratives are told in a unique way. Haasse often starts out the specific narrative from a third person stand. This is usually used to quickly tell their involvement within the historical or personal events that have passed and then turns to their inner thoughts. This part is written from a first person point of view as the character also tells a story of what has happened to them and how they feel about it. These events can be recent or flashbacks to events from the past. A similar first person narrative is used in the form of letters between historical characters which also tell the developments of historical events in combination of the feelings of the characters. A third narrative is one that has none as it consists of a long bare dialogue between two characters. This approach forces the author to represent all emotions through the words she uses for the dialogues. I considered this quite well done. The dialogue narratives form a stark contrast to the pieces containing inner thoughts as those lack dialogue and take a bit more effort to get through because they are fairly long.

So there is quite some variation in how each narrative is told while the focus lies on each character’s feelings and inner thoughts. It is a more psychological approach. One often writes literature behind the background of a familiar contemporary setting as it is easier to obtain the right mindset. Here Haasse tries to do the same in a historical novel set in a time centuries ago. This is of course much harder to do although through the use of diaries and letters that survived from those times one can get close.

The story itself covers a dramatic period in sixteenth century Italy when it was the focus of Habsburg and French conflict with the papal city of Rome in the center of events. It was also a struggle between Spanish and French loyalties conflicting with independent Italian resistance to them both. Haasse does not create much fictional history. Only for her main characters she has to provide details and situations so that they are in a certain way involved with each other. After finishing the novel I looked them all up and there were only a few minor discrepancies. As the novel is 60 years old it could be that certain details were not known back then.

As Haasse is a Dutch author I have obviously read her novel in Dutch. She is one of the most renowned Dutch female authors and has been translated into English and other languages a lot so this should be a novel you can find in your own language if you want to read it. Her prose was easily readable, never complex or overly stylized. She was very careful with the words she used. Often an author will have a specific recognizable style in the way of the words that are chosen. One can see that as habitual phrasings. What I felt from Haasse was that she avoided getting habitual and chose her words in such a way that one cannot sink into the rhythm of the prose. She changed that rhythm in such a way that you don’t sink into but are lifted on it instead. The prose remains fresh while still having it’s rhythm, although it is not through the habitual phrasing of words.

This is a good novel and I enjoyed it. It has no particular strong plot as it only covers a small timeframe within eventful historical times and the focus lies on the inner motives of historical characters. That in itself is interesting and well done. The original way Haasse presents her narratives and her strong prose provide another reason why to read and experience this novel.

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