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  • Mediators as the Subject of Dutch BiographyThe Year in the Netherlands
  • Hans Renders (bio) and David Veltman (bio)

On September 18, 2018, the biannual Dutch Biography Prize was awarded to Onno Blom's biography of the author Jan Wolkers. The list of submissions for the prize is a good way to look at the state of the art in Dutch biography. Using a broad concept of biography, one can say that no fewer than two original Dutch biographies are published every week. We will surely miss one or two, but for the Biography Prize the jury could choose from a list of 171 entries, all published in the last two years. What kind of books are these and what tendencies can be found in them?

After taking a quick look at the list of nominees for the Dutch Biography Prize, a few developments immediately come to the fore. Apart from who is chosen as subject for a biography, it is clear that there is an increased effort to use sound archival sources as the foundation for biographical research. The market—the reader—is apparently asking for quality. There is an increasing desire, if not request, to be able to retrace the facts presented to a verifiable source. Biography shares this demand for verifiable facts with journalism, two fields that always had a close relationship, not only because the reader wants to discover new things, but also because of the changeability of societal views. In a biography of the Dutch artist Lucebert published this year, Wim Hazeu reveals that his subject aired hardcore anti-Semitic opinions when he was nearly twenty years old. Would reactions to this discovery have been different twenty years ago? Also this year, biographer Onno Blom writes frankly about the coercive sexual behavior of the artist Jan Wolkers. Surprisingly, this book has so far not drawn any attention in relation to the #MeToo movement.

The Real Story

Because we are living in a world of alternative facts, biography and journalism seem to be more relevant than ever. Although many biographies of the Dutch dancer and [End Page 96] spy Mata Hari have already been written, only recently two biographers, Jessica Voeten and Angela Dekker, have started researching in her archives, and those of the British, German, and French secret services. In Moed en overmoed: Leven en tijd van Mata-Hari, they finally tell Mata Hari's real story, a story based on facts. Numerous biographies have already been written of Mata Hari in which she was depicted as a victim: since she was wrongly judged as being a spy, she was put before the firing squad unguilty. But in Moed en overmoed, it appeared that Mata Hari was indeed a spy, although one of meagre quality.

After all these years, some sort of correction is happening in biographies, both in their reliability and in their way of telling a story. Of course, it has become easier for readers to check facts on the internet. The availability of reliable online sources must have contributed to a change in the way biographies are written. Much has already been written about the Dutch nineteenth century statesman Johan Rudolph Thorbecke and his contemporary homo universalis Jacob van Lennep, but only now Remieg Aerts (author of Thorbecke wil het) and Marita Mathijsen (Jacob van Lennep: Een bezielde schavuit) have published biographies of these men that are stylistically appealing as well as thoroughly researched.

But there is still no reason to believe that these books are "definitive" biographies, as each generation has its own demands. This can be said for biographies of literary figures, as well as for biographies of politicians. In the case of Belgian biography, another factor comes into play: the language in which the book was written. Until recently, the French- and Dutch-speaking communities in Belgium were deeply divided by mutual prejudice and incomprehension. Biographies written by French-speaking authors were mistrusted by Flemish readers, and the other way around. Especially when the remembrance of the Second World War was at stake, the critical reception of biography often made use of clichés: all Flemish people were collaborators, for example, or all Walloon people were part of the...


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pp. 96-102
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