If Arthur Japin’s new novel, What silence wantsstarts with the description of a pond (‘reflecting against the blue-black sky’) then you know that the main character Anna Witsen will drown in it, because she is ‘oversensitive and finely organised’, her soul ‘impatient, searching and unsuitable for the regular’ .
Anna Witsen (1855-1889) really existed and it is understandable that Japin chose her for the lead role, tragic and intriguing as her life was. She is best known as the subject of a number of artworks by the Eighties, whom she knew through her brother, the artist Willem Witsen. Frederik van Eeden, Herman Gorter, Alphons Diepenbrock and Jan Toorop – through these men Anna takes shape as a troubled woman.
But who was she really? Japin seems to want to answer that question with his novel, although he is rather distracted by that famous club of artists. The Eighties founded the literary magazine The New Guide ushering in a time when the oppressive bourgeois norms had to give way to the ‘most individual expression of the most individual emotion’ – just something for Japin, who has never shied away from pompous sentiments in his work. And imagine, those guys were just sitting together in the pub, reading each other’s work a bit. With Japin it goes like this: ‘Sometimes they closed their eyes to drink in the meaning of each other’s words, and they seemed to know each other’s work so well that occasionally the mouths moved together, forming the same words, one speaking, the other silent. . And they looked at each other. And again.’
At a distance
The question is whether Japin would have been interested in Anna if she hadn’t orbited the Tachtigers universe like a satellite. While she also had her own talent: Anna could sing well and does so, in the description of Japin, ‘genuinely serious and pure’. “Her voice made her whole. It penetrated every phalanx of her being. When she sang she could completely coincide with the song.’ hmm. The addition that ‘a flame’, ‘a quiet depth’ and ‘something’ arise during the singing in Anna does not make it any clearer. It remains vague, that ‘deep’, ‘boundless’ and ‘unbridled’ passion of hers, as if Japin only creates more distance with all those words. At no point do you really come close to Anna and that’s because she’s talked about so much. By Japin in the first place, but also by her father, her brother and his friends. They all think they know what’s best for her (Short! Liberate!).
This is of course the tragedy of Anna, and of so many women of that time: they are not asked anything, it is the men who decide. And if you look through their eyes, you see a helpless doll. It would drive you crazy, and many women did – witness novels like Eline Vere, Madame Bovary and Anna Kareninabut also From the cool lakes of death.
What Couperus, Flaubert, Tolstoy and Van Eeden understood, however, is that as a writer you are not limited to the gaze of a (male) outsider. As a creator, you have the opportunity (the duty?) to show that your character is more than what it seems. You can get inside her head and show that she has a fascinating world of mind. That she is sharp, quick-witted, with her own observations and plans. Japin misses this opportunity. Anna is dominated by emotions that arise out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. She never thinks long about gritting her teeth (she is not allowed to go to the conservatory). When she is asked why she is not angry with her father, who has locked her up in an asylum, she responds gently: ‘I’d rather not think about it that way, we all have such a long way to go. This happened. I’ve been through it, it’s been through.’
Sparks of resistance
The little sparks of resistance that do exist are always sparked by something Outside herself. Witnessing the Eel Riot in the Jordaan stirs something in her (‘This was a season of revolt, she felt with all her heart’), but immediately afterwards: ‘She drifted away from emotions.’ About the man she is in love with: ‘He was the only one with whom she fully experienced herself as a woman.’ Geez, indispensable, such a man! And sure enough, only when she goes to bed with him does a voice sound ‘inside her’ that sings: ‘this is it, after this I will be free, here is my resistance!’
‘Her mouth should have tasted kisses’, ‘She blushed, lowered her eyes’, ‘Tell me I’m doing this out of love’ – whoever reads Japin shouldn’t whine about kitsch, it’s just part of it, just like his tear-calendar sayings : ‘Feelings know no measure. The heart cannot be measured.’ The coquettish word combinations – stiff-silent, limp-lisped, high-angry, shoe-skating – can be called creative with a little goodwill, about the clichés (‘Both felt their knees buckle now. Their hands were shaking and their hearts was in their throat’) we don’t give a shit. And his somewhat ludicrous imitation of a 19th-century novel, complete with obsolete words such as strangulation, crunch, iced, welaan and kouten – alla.
But the fact that Japin turns a fascinating woman like Anna Witsen into such a dull figure that it leaves you unmoved when she does – finally! – walking into that dark pond, that is unforgivable.
Arthur Japin: What silence wants. The Workers’ Press; 336 pages; € 24.99.