Perhaps Frans Kellendonk (1951-1990) has somewhat passed into oblivion, but in the 1980s he was thought to be the most promising Dutch writer of his generation. He was the author of collections of short stories such as “Bouwval” (1977) and “Namen en gezichten” (1983), the essay collections “De veren van de zwaan” (1987) and “De halve wereld” (1989), the novella “De nietsnut” (1979), and the ghost story “Letter en Geest” (1982).
His most important book, the novel “Mystiek Lichaam” (Mystic Body, 1987) deals with AIDS without mentioning the abbreviation, and other subjects, and was considered to be well-written but anti-Semitic and homophobic. He translated books from the English language, and wrote a thesis on an English publishing company in the seventeenth century. He was open about his homosexuality, but referred to it in an ironic way.
When staying at his house in the Bethaniënstraat in Amsterdam, he was a regular customer of gay bar Le Shako, where he would have a gin with a chaser meeting friends. His life and work were extremely influenced and inspired by catholic principles. Those had been drilled into him during his childhood, often colliding with his sexual orientation.
Kellendonk was of the opinion that secularization had created a void - without God and strict morals society no longer had a clear orientation or cohesion. In “Mystic Body,” he juxtaposed the fertile sister Prul, daddy’s favorite, and her art critic gay brother, the enfant terrible. His artistic and erotic activities are meaningless, the sister calls them “sexual space travel.” The child the sister has with her Jewish partner is her contribution to life and history, which is what life is all about. Homosexual antics do not have much meaning.
The book can be interpreted this way, but as mentioned before, it was interpreted in many ways, in particular as anti-Jewish. Falsely, in my opinion, as the novel is a work of the imagination, and not necessarily an expression of Kellendonk’s opinion. His attempt to make the family – no matter what mess it was in - and procreation a central issue in this book about “the disease” stranded on the controversy it caused. At the time, it did not lead to a deeper discussion of the divine nature, religion, gay sex, and disease, among other subjects. Kellendonk’s novel truly is a novel of ideas, but he did not agree with this. To him, it was flesh and blood, sperm and virus, emotion.
In “Mystic Body” and during his lifetime, Kellendonk showed a peculiarity that other gay men, and gay authors, such as Gerard Reve, Jan Hanlo, Oscar Wilde, Joris-Karel Huysmans, and Arnold Spauwen, also displayed, namely to use faith to give meaning to the void created by unbelief. In spite of the gay-unfriendliness of the Catholic Church, they reverted to its “ancient truths” without providing new answers. In an essay Kellendonk wrote: “that I, an unbeliever, am doing God’s work, that I am His blind accomplice, and that I am creating myself in His image in my work, as He creates Himself through me.” His own faith was, as he labeled it, a personal hypothesis.
He lacked the necessary surrender for true faith. He doubted it, but perhaps God himself did so too. The problem remains the void. Faith can no longer offer cohesion, but science and democracy are also incapable of offering this.
Recently a selection was published of letters Frans Kellendonk wrote to friends, family, contacts in the world of literature, as well as others (“De brieven,” Amsterdam: Querido, 2015). Among those are friends such as Jan Duyx, Wim Bergmans and Jacques Dohmen (also publisher), librarian and author Ernst Braches, journalists Pieter Kottman and Willem Oltmans, and fellow author Gerard Reve.
With vivid descriptions of his love affairs, his visits to gay bars and discos, sexual contacts, of San Francisco, and his thoughts on gay sex and gay activism, Kellendonk paints a rich picture of his life and his “homosexophilia.” His level of involvement changes, but is usually conservative in the gay spectrum. He does not really want anything to do with the queer activism of his lover Duyx. He does show awareness when it comes to statements concerning sexual preferences, but thinks they are redundant exercises.
Of his lovers, three clearly come into the picture. Duyx as the first lover he stayed friends with throughout his life, Thijs Westerhout (who tore up Kellendonk’s letters), and Kottman. Besides them, there are boys and young men he often met “in the wild” present in the letters. One gets the impression that they were attracted to Kellendonk’s male beauty as moths to a flame. As reader and fellow townsman, I was always under the impression that the author lived a rather Catholic life and was not someone cruising for men. Perhaps he did not actively roam the streets and bars looking for sex partners, but let things happen.
Contrary to my beliefs, the letters reveal a man with a full sex life, also on his many travels. Once, a sixteen-year-old boy picked him up at a supermarket in Minneapolis (where he was working as a teacher), while having a stop light affair with a Peruvian man - no catholic chastity, but worldly pleasures.
Yet these relationships of the introvert Kellendonk are marked with a certain emotional coldness - he does not seem to show much warmth. There was passion with Westerhout – with whom he organized a pseudo-wedding in 1981 - but it all seems a silly whim. Things did not work out with Kottman, as Kottman’s partner was in the middle. With Duyx he developed a friendship for life, but the love affair itself was short-lived. Kellendonk’s ironic distance appears to have played its tricks on him - love and faith continued to falter. The cool exterior and his powerful observations suggests a stormy inner self that only for a moment blazed up with Westerhout.
This coldness also applies to his books, which succumb to intellectualism. Often, it’s a matter of what exactly Kellendonk means. His work is artificial, and is only understandable with knowledge of the bible and world literature (in particular in English). Fortunately and interestingly enough, many of his letters are about everyday life: stories about the gay scene in Birmingham, where he studied in the 1970s (a lot of drag queens), about the guys he picked up, about his love affairs, and about his work. Others had already emphasized that he was a true mamma’s boy, and only recognized a feeling of solidarity with his father after his death.
The letters bring Kellendonk back to life and are more of flesh and blood than his literary work, making them refreshing and interesting. They raise many questions on his work, his light-hearted Catholicism in particular (he hardly ever visited church services), and his active gay life. Was he more gay, and less of a catholic than “Mystic Body” hinted at? Disconnected from faith, but doing his utmost to keep that faith alive?
Frans Kellendonk, De brieven.
Samengesteld, ingeleid en geannoteerd door Oek de Jong en Jaap Goedegebuure.
Amsterdam: Querido, 2015, 479 blz., index, ill.,
ISBN 9789021457987, € 30,00