The Amsterdam First Public Trade School, somewhere in the mid-fifties. The Dutch lesson. Out of dissatisfaction with the stale teaching material of his older colleagues, the young teacher hands out stencils he has made himself. From a remarkably fresh view of literary history for that time, the teacher mainly wants to confront his students with the power of literature itself. The rest is baloney; the tare of literary history. Forget the dates, forget the bloodless facts about the logistics of the literary business, and léés – that is, in a slightly conspiratorial tone, the tantalizing message to the students. Don’t ask yourself whether Gorter is a sensitivist or a romantic, but read his verses! Don’t look to a magazine’s colophon to see who was on the editorial board, read the stories of the best writers who contributed to the magazine!
The slightly rebellious stencils of that teacher, Rob Nieuwenhuys, play a small but striking role in Toef Jaeger’s entertaining and lively book. The guys from Barbarber. Two of the boys from her story were in Nieuwenhuys’s class: friends Gerard Stigter and Henk Marsman. When Jaeger got access to the Stigter archive a few years ago, she not only found one of Nieuwenhuys’ stencils in it (more on that later), but also a very extensive documentation about the iconic rebel magazine Barbar (1958-1972) that would make the two friends great names in the Dutch literary landscape of the twentieth century (although the pseudonymous names were ultimately different: K. Schippers and J. Bernlef).
The boys from Barbarber, to which G. Brands also belonged, came to shake up literature, and according to Jaeger they did so in ‘the nicest literary magazine in the Netherlands’, in which ‘many a literary sacred house was overthrown’. That sounds rebellious in a cheerful way, and it was. It was a rebellion against seriousness (‘literature doesn’t always have to be serious and pretentious’); a light-hearted and cheerful guerrilla against the taste of the public and the power of the literary establishment. And so Jaeger writes that Barbar ‘tried to overthrow the literary conventions without being too pompous’.
There is an interesting ambiguity in the latter formulation, certainly in the mid-twentieth-century context we are talking about. Because, of course, there is something to be said for that provocative, but tidy unpretentiousness. Something definitely had to be knocked over. And about that hated ‘something’ the boys of de Barbar in less light-hearted moods condescendingly and spoken with a certain aggression. Then it was about the ‘heavy seriousness’, about the ‘endurance’ and about the ‘lofty pretension’ of their predecessors, who had been placed on a pedestal with remarkable speed by the literary tastemakers of the time: the Vijftigers barely a decade earlier.
This rapid advance through the literary institutions of the Vijftigers has already been mapped out often and smoothly, and Jaeger now makes a new contribution to the (lesser-known) ‘breakthrough’ of the next generation, the ‘Sixties’. What we already knew is that these newcomers, like their immediate predecessors of Fifty, also joined a scenario that has become part of modern (nineteenth- and twentieth-century) literary history like the blossom of spring. Each emerging new generation manifests itself more or less according to the same pattern, which in the course of this golden age of literature took on more and more ritual and ceremonial allure. And that allure underlined the sacred seriousness of the underlying claim with each new guard, which was aimed at nothing less than cultural hegemony.
Jaeger says at the beginning of her book that she doesn’t want to talk about the Sixties, nor about Barbar in itself, but about ‘how friendship was the basis of the magazine’. That perspective did not completely take away the impression that Barbar not only came from friendship, but also from the editors’ awareness that founding and making a small, independent and unruly magazine is simply one of the rituals associated with the ceremonial change of the literary generations. In that respect Barbar nothing but The new guide (of the Eighties), or then vomiting of Blurb (of the Fifties). And this applies to many more of their manifestations in and around the magazine.
By yourself with Barbar (and with other playful actions) into the glorious ‘tradition of the break’, the boys from Barbar the difference with their predecessors on at least one crucial point: the seriousness and pretentiousness that they found so unpalatable in the Fifties, was not at all strange to this new generation. They played the game according to old rules in 1958; on stage as rebels, but in their hearts also good schoolboys, who have been apprenticed to the predecessors they now say they detest. They too simply claimed their place in the existing system. Despite their distaste for seriousness and pretentiousness, the pedestal remained in their iconoclasm, ready to be mounted by a new guard.
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What would their Dutch teacher, Nieuwenhuys, have thought of it? All this attention to the war of words between the generations, to the outward appearances of avant-garde performance, wasn’t that just even more attention to the already overexposed by-products of literary history? In the Schippers archive, Jaeger found one of Nieuwenhuys’ stencils, in which the teacher calls on his students to remember not ‘the mediocre editors’ of a certain sky-storming literary magazine, but the contributions it contained by the writers JJ Slauerhoff and H. marsman. A wonderful find by Jaeger, because what had the ambitious, diligent and literature-hungry pupil Stigter noted in pencil in the margin? That’s right: the names of the editors of the magazine… Schippers apparently already knew how it worked as a student, and he ignored the call of his teacher, who on closer inspection was perhaps more rebellious than his students…
Jaeger subtly puts into perspective the picture that the three friends themselves liked to paint of their company. Of course she honors their anti-pretentious standpoint and their aversion to literary pretentiousness and loftiness, but between the lines she also beautifully shows that these titans themselves were indeed serious, literary speaking. They hated the pretensions of the establishment, but the idea that they, and no one else, belonged on the main stage of literature is deeply rooted in their hearts.
Interesting from this perspective are the passages Jaeger devotes to the eventual takeover of the self-stenciled rebel magazine by the respectable literary publisher Querido, and the slightly uncomfortable reactions to that encapsulation of Barbarsympathizers from the very beginning. The publisher who, according to Jaeger, wanted to get rid of his ‘decent image’, had eagerly embraced the magazine. Conversely, however, the editors liked to have that dignified image adopted. According to Jaeger, among other things, to acquire ‘an even stronger foundation in the literary world’. She also points out that, thanks to the affiliation with Querido, there are ‘some more pieces by established authors’ in it Barbar came to be. That may indeed be called a bow to the institutions.
The image that eventually sticks is that of a group of friends who find each other in the late 1950s, somewhere halfway through the relevant difference between ‘shaking up’ and ‘shaking at the gate’ of literature. Shaking at the gate, that’s what the boys from Barbar done, although the value of their reward for doing so (a place in literary history) has plummeted in the past half century. But have they also shaken up literature? What, looking back from today’s changed world, you can no longer ignore: what seemed like a playful attack on a serious literary order was effectively a deadly serious confirmation of it.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 16 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of July 16, 2021