To gauge Mark Rutte’s ‘normal’ Odile Heynders reads a Dutch classic text demonstrating that a normal life is not without frustration. Normal is connected to everyday annoyance.
In January 2017, two months before the parliamentary elections, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte started his ‘decency offensive’ in an interview in the newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. In a military rhetoric he explained that the Dutch have particular norms and values that have to be defended. The most prominent norm is ‘to behave normally’: to bring up your children well, to not throw trash on the road, to be optimistic and to take care of each other. This philosophy of everydayness could have worked if Rutte had declared it with a bit more irony, and if he had shown how the roots of this philosophy are recognizable as well as contested in various artistic and cultural objects. I will choose one literary text, Sunday Rest, to help him out.
Normal life in the Netherlands has been and still is ambiguous
The novella Sunday Rest, was published in 1902 by Frans Coenen, the Emile Zola of the Netherlands. The story is about one day in the life of a working class family living in an apartment in Amsterdam, in the part of the city that is today gentrified and trendy, but was at the time newly built and not posh at all. The three family members live in a permanent state of attraction and repulsion. Sunday is boring and grey. Father Dirk Verhoef works during the week at a laundry shop, now he just likes to read the newspaper. Mother, Kato, is restless and unhappy, full of memories of her former exiting life with a middle class man with whom she has her child, Marietje. The girl is innocent as well as astute. A young bourgeois rents the room at the front of the apartment.
What we read are scenes of a family life at the beginning of the 20th century. There is tea and coffee in the morning. Marietje is allowed to go out and buy cakes, which are almost all eaten by her fat mother. Verhoef would like to go for a walk in the afternoon, but it rains the whole day: ‘that’s my Sunday, it's as if being in a cage, good country this is!’ (57). He worries about his job, about the sour face of his boss. They eat herring for lunch, while Kato gossips about the people living on the upper floor of the building. Marietje only gets the fish tails and revolts by refusing to drink her milk ‘blue and fatty, no thanks’. The parents take a nap, look out of the window in the street, while each having their own thoughts. Then, the atmosphere changes when Verhoef asks the girl to get something to drink from the shop nearby, and they enjoy the Dutch gin [Jenever] with sugar. The mother-in-law comes to visit them – evidently hoping to enjoy the gin as well – and they order some extra ‘maatjes’ that the girl has to buy.
Everyday life even in the Netherlands is not without frustration, contingency, annoyance and solidarity.
The word ‘maatje’ is a typically Dutch word, meaning one decilitre, implying that one should be moderate and not drinking too much. But soberness is not the talent of this small family, again and again they ask Marie to go to the shop to get another ‘maatje’ and in the end, after conversations full of gossip, anger, laughter and screaming, they go separate ways. Dinner consists of meat and potatoes. Kato abuses her daughter, when she is not following up her orders. To avoid making noise she does not hit but pinches Marietje. Finally, Dirk and the young girl go to sleep, but Kato stays awake and fantasies about fancy earrings that she saw in a shop.
This novella exposes urban city life - the normal, mundane life - in Amsterdam a century ago. The space and time, psychological and social attitudes, the real and the imagined all come together in this wonderful text, giving us social insight in how things were at the time. As such the text is relevant material in current research on urban spaces. Sunday Rest is a typically Dutch text, revealing what Mark Rutte underlines - bring up your children well, be optimistic and take care of each other – but also illustrating that this is a myth of happy and normal family life. When the night falls, the rooms, kitchen, and hall way in the apartment get quiet again, ‘while all the life lies buried in the corners’ (128).
We are a free nation with clear ideas on what is and is not normal, Rutte insisted in the interview, but ‘with the arrival of huge groups of refugees, the question arises if the Netherlands stay the Netherlands’. I would respond that in novellas such as Sunday Rest, we read that normal life in the Netherlands has been and still is ambiguous. Normal is not the default for happiness, as Frans Coenen demonstrates. It would be a pleasure for newcomers to read a literary text like this one as an introduction to Rutte’s Dutch normalness. To show them that everyday life even in the Netherlands is not without frustration, contingency, annoyance and solidarity. We only have to translate this absolute classic first.