Which books are still being read a hundred years from now?
Holland Park Press has published two Dutch classics in translation. These books are also still very popular in the original Dutch. They are Eline Vere (published in 1900) by Louis Couperus and Hedwig’s Journey (published in 1889 under the Dutch title of: Van de koele meren des doods) by Frederik van Eeden.
The number of Dutch novels that haven’t dated is much smaller than the number of English classics. Not only in absolute figures but also if we take into account the difference in size between these two languages. Dutch is of course a minor language but there also is another issue namely the frequent changes in spelling and grammar. Since the Second World War the Dutch language has been subjected to no less than four spelling revisions: in 1947, 1955, 1996 and 2006.
This in stark contrast to the English Language, in 1755, Samuel Johnson published the first comprehensive dictionary, his Dictionary of the English language. On the whole modern English has barely changed since this event. Actually we can go further back in time, most English speaking people still feel great affinity for the language of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), compare this to work by Joost van den Vondel (1587-1679), which for modern Dutch people is barely readable.
Eline Vere and Hedwig’s Journey gained a new lease of life by being translated into English. This happened because the original Dutch text was translated into English which means all the subtle period features are maintained. On the other hand when these books are re-published in Dutch they have to be transposed into modern Dutch.
Nonetheless irrespective of whether books starts their life in Dutch or English, why do certain books live on whereas other ones are pensioned off to the rubbish heap of history?
Eline Vere and Hedwig’s Journey belong to the established classics: think of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Novels about real people, we can identify with, novels that give an insight about the daily life of their characters. Not only that but which also tell us something about the universal truth of human nature, this never goes out of fashion.
An example are Ian McEwan’s novels, well, at least that’s my opinion. What about JM Coetzee’s work? Well he too, although, there is not the same affinity for all his books. I prefer Boyhood over Elizabeth Costello. The first one gets under your skin, the second one plays to the fashion of the day.
So the crucial question is: which books are still read a hundred years from now and most importantly why?