This novel poses the question: is the self-righteous, equal-minded class in the Netherlands perishing?
It immediately stands out in Heidelberg, the fourth novel by Martijn Simons (1985). It is, for example, in the way in which the three boys of the Wagenaar family, around whom this ambitiously conceived family novel revolves, are portrayed. Simons shows what they do in the backseat of the car, en route to the holiday address: Ruben is glued to Donkey Kong on the gameboy, Micha looked out in silence – they are harbingers of their characters, so will be later.
It’s also in the way each chapter—which follows the family members alternately—has a different tone, resulting in the protagonist’s character coming to the fore. For example, in his chapter starting, father burns out by starting about Utrecht station (‘not the arbitrary grandeur of Amsterdam’), because he is a boomer with endless opinions. Micha has a lot of room for flashbacks, because he doesn’t really live in the here and now. Mother Annet is very good at that: how she complains about a hotel that ‘the fresh fruit at breakfast’ […] completely different [was] than was on the website’, you see that she focuses too much on superficial details, and not on what there is really to do.
Yes, this is good and effective and vivid storytelling – exactly what you hope for from a novel like Heidelberg: an entertaining, compelling, fanning out well read, with multiple perspectives, many plot lines, and a simple main piece that will eventually tie all of those together. That main fact: the Wagenaartjes travel to the southern German city of Heidelberg, where first the son Ruben will first conduct his PhD research, later the four family members will scatter the as of the fifth, Cas, the eldest son, the apple of the eye, who previously passed a cardiac arrest. Before that – and you immediately feel that if it can only be published in the last edition – there is a lot more going on, Simons does not immediately reveal all the information. Father Willem has just dishonorably retired as a doctor, son Micha has lost his teaching job downstairs because he ‘kicked a fifth-grader back from a field trip on his face’ and Ruben had concocted an escape plan with a Justin, but he seems to have disappeared.
Escape, that is the explicit wish of all family members. Or in any case: they are stuck, in the choices they have made of what they have unconsciously gotten themselves into. And the family ties are a constraint for these characters: in what they are taught, in what is expected of them, in the extent to which they are seen and what they put in effort.
Well, it should be clear that they care a lot – which is evident from the fact that the Wagenaars are shockingly unkind to each other at an enormous number of moments in the novel. Snarling, snapping, snapping, judgmental. That unkindness sometimes makes them a bit strange and human than you might expect from hopes of literary characters – but they are fascinated nonetheless. In this way Simons shows their inability to act, you conclude while reading and psychologizing, thus expressing their power not to be able to feel. The dead Cas shines through absence, yes even as a topic of conversation as an object of mourning: a tragic fact, which you again take in for the family.
In many ways it seems Heidelberg on -Simons’ previous novel, The Dutch dream (2020), which was nominated for the BNG Bank Literature Prize. That too was a family novel with multiple perspectives and storylines, in which, like the title, a larger story is told about the Netherlands around the century of history, in which multicultural drama emerged socially and democracy wavered. The Dutch dream was also a novel that sometimes got out of hand: with few violent scenes that were picked out of a box, with characters and storylines that were just a bit too captivating. Feels like that Heidelberg as revenge: Simons’ narrative pace is developed, more layered, the plot is not more important than the character development and what this story has to say about contemporary Netherlands is stronger, more painful. You could say: that composing, (self-)critical story has ultimately distinguished itself with the novel.
Chopping in a hummel
The major problems that both father Willem and son Micha face are typical. Willem left the hospital where he worked because complaints had arisen about his manual dexterity, behavior that was neglected. And Micah came to the field trip incident when he was stressed over a compromising video of him with a student. ‘You could almost see a preconceived plan in it’, Willem grumbles about the agreement. ‘That someone somewhere has been ordered to decimate the Wagenaar family within a few years.’ Significantly: it is not the similarity in their (cross-border) behavior that strikes him, but he laments the unpleasant consequences they have to bear, the victimhood where he sees himself suddenly arise. That’s the upside-down world, and draws the feeling of straight, of the right they believe they have to their own opinion and standards. Which amounts to grumpy and asshole behavior – because they are not used to counterbalancing.
They could grow up with the ‘Great Own Right’ as their basic attitude, as mother Annet could ‘get the story they needed to keep her version of the dream fit’, as Simons clearly states at one point. In this way all these family members live in a world that works against them, they find themselves. They do not see their own intolerance and narrow-mindedness, as was also apparent from the complications surrounding the intended circumcision of grandchild Aziz, the son of Cas (with, yes, his wife Yousra). ‘You’re going to be hacking into such a bumblebee anyway’, is the opinion to which one has every right. Heidelberg is about how the self-righteous, equally greedy and dominant class in the Netherlands survive. In vain? Are they going down? That is the question.
the explicit phrases are sometimes too much of a good thing: Simon had also just shown it, instead of comprehending there you had just given the writer an extra self-confidence. In other respects Simons’ ingenuity and writing skills are clearly visible: for example in the daring lock. By not completely meeting the expectations you have as a reader of this family novel, he gives his message an extra harsh, almost cynical undertone, which characterizes his mercilessness. Although the goals that the characters draw about themselves from others rather show their faithlessness look (and therefore their unreliability, and their powerlessness). It is related to the fact that Simons does not make his characters completely unsympathetic: for example, father Willem is really not a sexual roof animal, but rather someone who does not realize that he is exceeding the limit. Self-insight – that breaks them up, that’s what Simons cleverly shows.
Also read: Fucked with champagne in a Vinkeveens country house