9 of the best Dutch books to read
Dutch literature is popular all around the world due to its rich history and wonderful storytelling - and rightfully so, as the Netherlands has a voracious reading culture. Whether you’re an expat trying to learn Dutch or have just gotten into reading, here are some of the best books from the Netherlands to get started with if you want to immerse yourself in Dutch literature.
Dutch literature to dive right into
The following are some essential books to start your reading journey.
1. Heart of Stone, Renate Dorrestein
Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein tells the story of Ellen van Bemmel, who lives with her family in an old Dutch house in the suburbs of Amsterdam, running an American news-clipping service. Ellen’s picturesque childhood is infused with the influence of Americana, from potato chips to the moon landing, but everything changes when tragedy hits on her 12th birthday. This story of love and loss recounts Ellen’s life in a darkly humorous yet compassionate way.
The works of Renate Dorrestein can be best described as imaginative with dark humour, but also containing astonishing philosophical and psychological insight. Her writing has been nominated for the AKO Literature Prize, the Libris Literature Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her novels have been translated into 15 languages, including English.
2. De zwarte met het witte hart, Arthur Japin
De zwarte met het witte hart (The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi) by Arthur Japin follows the true story of two 19th-century Ashanti princes from modern-day Ghana who were raised in the Netherlands as guests of the royal family, Kwasi Boachi and Kwame Poku. The book juxtaposes the hideous bigotry Kwasi and Kwame face with the opulent life of royalty in Europe. The poignant story progresses to uncover a dark truth at the heart of their life experiences in Dutch postcolonialism.
Arthur Japin is a Dutch novelist best known for this book. His first few novels cemented his reputation as an excellent writer, and he was later asked to write plays along with novels. He has won many prestigious Dutch literature awards for his writing, including the Libris Prize.
3. Grand Hotel Europa, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Grand Hotel Europa by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer is a unique love story that follows a couple travelling from Malta to Palmeria to Cinque Terre, hunting for a painting by the famous painter Caravaggio. The book questions whether tourism is a curse or a blessing, and what the future of Europe looks like if what most of the continent has to offer is its iconic, historical past. The book maintains the quintessential writing style of a beautiful love story.
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer is a renowned Dutch poet, novelist, polemicist and classical scholar. He obtained a degree in Classical Literature from Leiden University, and is currently one of the most compelling writers in contemporary Dutch literature. His powerful writing style has awarded him the Libris Prize, amongst other accolades.
4. De ontdekking van de hemel, Harry Mulisch
De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven) by Harry Mulisch portrays the chaos of the world by introducing the complicated souls Onno and Max, who are mysteriously and magically brought together, leading to them becoming parents. Together, the family embark on a journey filled with humour, philosophy and theological theories throughout all the lands of Europe that will leave the reader stunned.
Harry Mulisch is considered one of the three great postwar Dutch writers, and he has written an incredible number of plays, novels, essays, poems and philosophical writings. While many of his works are reflections on the Second World War, his writing enamours readers to this day. He was awarded the Prize of Dutch Literature.
5. Nooit meer slapen, Willem Frederik Hermans
Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep) by Willem Frederik Hermans is the story of a Dutch geologist, Alfred Issendorf, who goes abroad to northern Norway to prepare for his geology dissertation. Throughout the scientific journey, Alfred and his team encounter many difficulties which have him questioning the paradoxical nature of life. This novel is the scientific equivalent of a man undergoing “the holy grail quest”, and it is extremely reflective of the notion of futility while having strands of psychology and philosophy.
Willem Frederik Hermans is a famous postwar Dutch author who has an extensive literary portfolio consisting of poetry, novels, studies, essays and critiques. He is considered to be one of the three most important writers in the Netherlands in the postwar period, and he has earned the prestigious award, the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, for his work.
6. Hersenschimmen, J. Bernlef
Hersenschimmen (Out of Mind) by J. Bernlef is the tragic and intimate story of Maarten Klein, an Alzheimer’s patient whose health is rapidly declining. The book is written from Maarten’s perspective, and it gives fantastic insight into how debilitating the disease is on a man’s everyday life in regards to relationships, jobs and routines. The reader is gripped by how Maarten recalls the past while attempting to maintain his hold on his present life, while already knowing the inevitable dreadful end.
J. Bernlef is the pseudonym for the Dutch writer, poet and translator Hendrik Jan Marsman, who has written a plethora of novels, stories and poems. The writing of Hendrik Jan Marsman has a sombre tone and expresses a unique fascination with the workings of the human mind, specifically memory. He has received many awards for his work, including the AKO Literature Prize.
7. Het diner, Herman Koch
Het diner (The Dinner) by Herman Koch is a story that is narrated by a history teacher, Paul Lohman. He and his wife meet his elder brother, Serge, and his wife for dinner in a restaurant in Amsterdam to discuss a crime committed by both of their sons. Serge is also a prominent Dutch politician and a strong candidate for the position of Prime Minister. The violent act committed by the boys has been captured on tape, and now the two sets of parents must discuss what to do over a heated and tense dinner.
Herman Koch is a Dutch writer and actor who has written short stories, novels and columns while acting for radio, television and film. His characters often have questionable morals and extreme views with themes of cynicism and mediocrity. His most famous novel is Het diner, which has been translated into over 21 languages, and has had multiple film adaptations.
8. Turks Fruit, Jan Wolkers
Turks Fruit by Jan Wolkers is the raw and sensual story of an impossible love between Olga and Eric. Their deep passion has taken them on wild adventures but due to their differences, they continuously break up. Eric retells their tumultuous relationship in the novel, and how their viewpoints shift when tragedy befalls them, forcing them to choose what matters most to them. Turks Fruit came as a shock to Dutch literature in 1969 as never before had love, sex, and death been so seamlessly woven together.
Jan Wolkers was a Dutch writer, sculptor, and painter and is considered one of the great postwar Dutch authors. The rawness of his writing and his eccentric nature, especially in terms of love and sex, were often controversial and shocking to the public in the 1960s. He refused several literary awards such as the Constantijn Huygensprijs and the P.C. Hooftprijs.
9. Het gouden ei, Tim Krabbe
Het gouden ei (The Vanishing) by Tim Krabbe is a Dutch horror novel about the girlfriend of Rex Hofman, who vanishes without a trace at a French petrol station. Unable to rest while she is missing, Rex launches a global missing persons search for his girlfriend, and has to pay a dire price to find out the truth. This thriller has deep psychological and even disturbing elements to it, but for fans of horror, this short and tantalising read will have you at the edge of your seat.
Tim Krabbe is a Dutch writer and novelist who is best known to the international world for Het gouden ei, which has been adapted into a film as well as translated into many languages.
Explore Dutch culture through these incredible pieces of literature
Reading in Dutch or even translated works in English is one of the best ways to broaden your library and horizons with different experiences and cultures. These works are just some of the best Dutch novels to start with. Want to explore more Dutch literature? Check out our list of the most influential Dutch poets!