De duivelskunstenaar (Matthias Rozemond) 2016
[Novel, Uitgeverij Luitingh-Sijthoff, Amsterdam, 2016, 288 pages]
De duivelskunstenaar [The devil’s artist] is a historical novel written by Dutch author Matthias Rozemond (1962) whose protagonist is Jeroen van Aken. In May 1481 Jeroen returns to ’s-Hertogenbosch after having spent seven years in Italy. The atmosphere in the city is festive because of the Chapter of the Golden Fleece but this is of little importance in the story. Jeroen is hosted by his elder brother Goessen who has been in charge of the family workshop since father Anthonis died. Goessen is married to Kathelijne, who was once Jeroen’s girlfriend, and has two little sons, Jan and Toon. After a while we learn that Jan is in fact Jeroen’s son. Jeroen’s arrival in the family causes some problems. Goessen is not really happy with the newcomer because before his stay in Italy Jeroen was known as a cheeky loose liver and Goessen (who is portrayed as a boring, conservative and not very talented person) fears that Jeroen is still some sort of rebel. As this is not really the case, Jeroen is allowed to finish the triptych Goessen is painting for the Confraternity of Our Lady. This triptych will become the Garden of Delights.
Furthermore, Jeroen and Kathelijne still have romantic feelings for each other. This will develop into the novel’s main theme. The first 23 chapters are told from Jeroen and Kathelijne’s perspective alternatively and boil down to the fact that Kathelijne is continuously trying to revive her relationship with Jeroen (on page 242 she explicitly suggests adultery), whereas Jeroen shies away from this. On the contrary, he agrees with a marriage that Goessen has arranged for him. Jeroen’s bride will be Aleid van de Meervenne (a rich, quite elderly lady who has been married once before, is unable to produce children and is portrayed as some sort of bigot). When Kathelijne is the only person to find out that Jeroen has painted himself and her in the central panel of the Garden of Delights several times (pp. 253-254) she understands that Jeroen is still in love with her. On page 132 Jeroen has already said that he wanted to show in the central panel ‘how Paradise would have looked like if that damn snake had stayed home’ and on page 160 Jeroen says: ‘I would like to fill the central panel with Paradise regained’. Apparently, the author agrees with those who interpret the central panel in a positive way as some kind of paradise lost, but because we are dealing with a novel no objection can be made to this.
The 24th chapter is suddenly situated three years later (in 1484) and is told from the perspective of Aleid. Jeroen is now happily married and owns a private workshop. We also learn that Kathelijne has told Goessen that Jeroen is Jan’s father and that she has run away from her family. The 25th and last chapter suddenly jumps to the year 1517 and is told from the perspective of Jan, grown-up now, who owns the Garden of Delights and sells the triptych to a ‘stadholder’ (governor) in an inn. This stadholder’s identity is not revealed and Jan’s last sentence (also the last sentence of the novel) is: ‘We had an agreement but don’t ask me this bloke’s name’ (p. 286). On page 283 Hendrik III of Nassau-Breda had already been introduced to the alert reader and this Hendrik is called ‘stadholder of Holland and Zeeland’.
After all this, it has become clear that we are dealing with a ‘Hieronymus Bosch novel’ although in the case of a historical novel it is always a matter of balancing between historical facts (to create a familiar and plausible context) and the writer’s own fantasy (to keep the suspense going). In this respect, it may be pointed out that the early dating of the Garden of Delights (1481) is based on a recent hypothesis that has been strongly disputed and that the presentation of Aleid van de Meervenne as a woman who is much older than Jeroen is influenced by an erroneous interpretation of the historical sources that has long been corrected. On page 155 the author subtly suggests that Jeroen took drugs (hemp, cannabis) but this does not play any further part in the novel. Less appropriate (in a historical novel) is that archduke Maximilian is repeatedly called ‘emperor’ (in 1481 Maximilian was not an emperor yet) and even more astonishing is that on pages 83-84 the Burgundian duke Charles the Bold is also called ‘emperor’. On page 156 the God figure in the left interior panel of the Garden of Delights is called ‘God the Father’, whereas this figure is ‘God the Son’ (Jesus Christ), but this is a mistake that occurs more frequently.
Of course, all these remarks are typical of people who think the dot on the i is important but it stands to reason that the dot should never become more important than the i itself. In this case the i is the question: is De duivelskunstenaar a good novel? Rozemond’s style is quite simple and very direct and uses a lot of short sentences. Every now and then (but in our opinion somewhat too rarely) he writes down nice and witty phrases. Some examples.
All these passages are clear signs of writing skills but once again: there could have been more of these.
Although the Garden of Delights definitely is a motif in the novel, the major part of the attention is spent on the problematical relationship between Jeroen and Kathelijne, undeniably turning the story into hyperromantic fiction. De duivelskunstenaar cannot really be called a pulp novel although in our opinion many readers, expecting a clever and sound historical fabrication about the figure and the oeuvre of Hieronymus Bosch, will be somewhat disappointed, not in the least because with the last two chapters the novel ends rather suddenly and abruptly (as if the author also thought it was time to call it a day).
Undoubtedly, every reader will wonder why Jeroen did not marry Kathelijne instead of running off to Italy. This question is answered step by step (keep the suspense going!) but we are not sure whether the answer is satisfactory from a psychological point of view. We learn that the young Jeroen was a loose liver and after his return from Italy he still cherished his own freedom: ‘I had no longer anything to do with guilds or church masters – no craftsmanship for me’ (p. 13). On page 204 Jeroen remembers the time when he was 18 and Kathelijne was expecting, and then we read: ‘The youngest son of a burgher cannot possibly marry the daughter of another burgher as long as the much older son has not got a roof over his head, and even less so when that youngest son is known as a scallywag who fools around with the rules, who does not know whether he will be accepted in the guild’. So, Jeroen could not marry because his elder brother was not married yet? When Kathelijne (in another flashback, on page 233) tells Jeroen that she is pregnant, Jeroen only feels tired, insecure and anxious of losing his freedom: ‘I felt a growing desire to cut off the conversation and to go on painting’. And on page 245 father Anthonis asks Jeroen’s opinion about the idea to have (the pregnant) Kathelijne marry Goessen, in spite of the fact that Kathelijne ‘had not cared about Goessen since long’. Jeroen’s answer: ‘If she is indeed pregnant, that is perhaps the best solution for everyone’. Finally, on page 252 Kathelijne is thinking about Goessen: ‘There are so many things, Goessen, that you will ,never understand. One of them is that I have once forced myself upon you because I knew Jeroen was unable to act as a father. I had to move quickly. The child in my belly could not be seen yet. And you? You were all too willing’. After that, Jeroen leaves for Italy. Not immediately, because in a flashback on page 240 Jeroen sees Kathelijne and Goessen sitting next to each other in church during mass.
What is all this about? If Jeroen had not had an elder unmarried brother, he would have married Kathelijne? Or he wouldn’t, because apparently Jeroen did not welcome the child, which is also the reason why he does not object to marrying an infertile woman (Aleid). But on the other hand, he regularly shows that he is interested in and has warm feelings for the young Jan. And at the same time it is suggested that Jeroen’s changing character (at first not fond of children and glad to be free – later married and fond of Jan) is being sabotaged by Satan through Kathelijne. On page 222 Jeroen thinks: ‘But I was not safe yet. No, here I was less safe than anywhere else. It would be Satan’s final victory to subject me here in the Van Aken workshop. He had sneaked inside and had presented himself again as flesh and blood, but now perhaps – could it be more vicious? – as the woman I had made pregnant ten years ago’ (from which can be deduced that after Kathelijne’s pregnancy Jeroen stayed in ’s-Hertogenbosch for three more years before travelling to Italy). Conclusion: all of this is a bit confusing and this novel’s psychology (strongly emphasised through the numerous interior monologues) is not always convincing.
To round off, a last hairsplitting dot on the i. On page 163 Kathelijne tells Jan to go and ask something to Jeroen who is busy in the workshop and Kathelijne hears the boy ‘running downstairs in the familiar way, jumping from step to step with two legs at the same time’. But later in the novel (pp. 177 / 183 / 192 / 200 / 253) people always go upstairs to reach the workshop. For example on page 177: ‘We walked up the stairs. It seemed as if we were not on our way to the workshop but to the bedroom right across it’. Strange.
[explicit 26th October 2016]