"Secretly Inside" by Hans Warren
Translated from the Dutch by S.J. Leinbach
Introduction by Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor
The University of Wisconsin Press
104 pages, $16.95
To conflate hiding from the Nazis with a homosexual hiding his or her sexual preference “in the closet”, even in an age less chauvinistically accepting than ours, would be artistically disastrous if not just embarrassing for a lesser writer than the Dutch Hans Warren. Survival must precede sexuality. One must be alive before one may profess love, or lust.
In Warren’s newly translated novella Secretly Inside, written in 1975, the year Warren left his wife and children and quite publicly “came out” as a homosexual, a young Jew hides from the Nazis in the remote Dutch countryside. While attempting to pose as a farmhand renamed Cornelius Goense, he uncovers his true sexuality, and that of the young son of the family with whom he lives. If he survives, he can love; if he doesn’t, he can’t.
Though best known for his seventeen-volume memoir Geheim dagboek, “Secret Diary”, a Proust-meets-the-gossip-rag omnibus published in installments between 1946 and the present (posthumously after 2001), Hans Warren is also a fiction writer with deep respect for secrets, a novelist of artfully hidden existences, master of a prose gifted with an incredible, almost nonchalant, purity that recalls the most concise Thomas Mann (Death in Venice, The Black Swan) wedded to the lucidity the so-called noveau roman.
“‘When you’ve passed the last house in the village, turn right at the dike,’” Warren begins his story. “‘You’ll come to a very long lane that leads to the farm.’ That was all he had been told.” That’s all the reader is told, too. The instructed, Eduard van Wyngen, is a young, entirely secular Dutch Jew we know only from his own account; we engage him exclusively through his self-image. “He said that he was twenty-five, studied literature and for his pleasure psychology […] and that he hadn’t just come to the farm to be safe from the reprisals that threatened him because of his origins and an act of resistance he had committed, but that he also wanted to work as hard as he could, to earn his place on the farm.”
Known as Ed, he has been sent out on a Kafka’s Castle-like journey to Kruisdrope, a village secreted in the countryside of Warren’s native Zeeland, an area comprised largely of a chain of islands located in the southwestern corner of the Netherlands, to be hidden there by the Van ‘t Westeindes, an impoverished Roman Catholic family of farmer-landholders, prominent in their rural enclave. Ed is welcomed into their home if not warmly then with stereotypical Dutch stoicism; he rooms with the son, Camiel; the daughter, Mariete, slowly falls in love with him. It emerges that Camiel had earlier developed a relationship with a “Kraut”, an atypical German officer with a passion for poetry (especially that of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, of the ephebophilic, boy-loving school of German poet Stefan George, who elevated German “brotherhood” to a homoerotic firmament), who was found dead on family land, stripped half-naked, a bullet in his chest, lipstick on his lips. Camiel killed the soldier accidentally, in one account; in another, it was a mercy killing, as the “Kraut” was destined shortly for the Eastern Front. As Mariete attempts to seduce the hero (whose name Ed, must echo that of the writer, Hans, with Wyngen standing in for Warren, the elevated “van” being a pretense that raises the hero, though Jewish, to the social class of his hosts), Ed and Camiel become close, though their relationship ends before consummation, with the arrival of the Gruene Polizei.
As Ed and Camiel flee together, Camiel is shot. A final chapter, set two years later, finds Ed returning to Kruisdorpe, to find Camiel insane, “waving his arms like the blades of a windmill,” “drooling and hiccupping.” At first, Ed refuses to recognize the former object of his affection. “I’m looking for Mr. Van ‘t Westeinde.” “Grrr, says Camiel, “ — gesture of someone being hanged — kaput!” “Kaput, alles, kaput, alles kaput!” Finally, Camiel hands Ed a “grubby, folded piece of paper,” a poem the German officer had gifted his former lover; “there was a dark brown bloodstain on it, and it was missing a corner.” The poem is Herrn Stefan George – Einem, der vorübergeht, which Hofmannsthal wrote upon first meeting George: “you reminded me of things / which are secretly inside me / for the strings of my soul you were / the nocturnal whispering wind […]”
Secretly Inside is doubtlessly less strange for English-language audiences, especially today, than it was for the Dutch when first published. As each nation developed its own genres of literature addressed to the Holocaust, the Dutch were no different, engineering a response peculiar to the tenor of their wartime; their favored genre, with all the comfortable cliches endemic to any familiar narrative (the dark night, the unfamiliar surroundings, the strange directions to an unknown house, the hosts at one moment to be trusted, at another, to be feared), might be called the “hiding narrative,” the literature of the secret annex. Ill equipped to fight the Nazi Occupation (luftkrieg, or air war, had rendered Dutch naval superiority worthless; the Low Countries fell in four days), a Holocaust literature that saved Dutch face had to be focused not on the glory of resistance, which was minimal, but on the more mundane, and yet ultimately more successful, endeavor of hiding. Though in all of Europe, the Jews of the Netherlands had the worst survival rate in the camps, in no other country did so many gentiles hide Jews. Undoubtedly, this genre’s preeminent example is the famous diary of Amsterdam’s Anne Frank, later reworked to achieve more dramatic form by Otto Frank, her father; this diary would become codified, and many works, both of fiction and memoir, would be based upon its habits. Secretly Inside is at once an heir, and subversion; its capacity for sensationalism converted to naturalism with homosexuality presented as a fact that manifests equally among the impure (the Jew), the pure (the Nazi), and those who might metaphysically mediate between the two (Camiel).
One complaint. Novels in translation often lead secret lives, too. Secretly Inside was originally published as Steen der hulp, the Scriptural “Stone of Help,” after the name of the Zeeland farm on which Ed is hidden, the landmark to his love for the rural, simple Camiel. This title, which unavoidably treats on helping others as a necessary burden of our humanity, with the superadded notion of embracing one’s true sexuality against dominant perception as both a saving grace and an enormous weight that can never be lifted, is immensely preferable to the more filmic, and ultimately glib, Secretly Inside — speaking either to the occasional misjudgment of translator S.J. Leinbach, or to the difficulties in selling the English-language literature in translation. Let it be no secret that Warren deserves better, and his readers do, too.
Photograph of Hans Warren from http://www.dbnl.org