Havank, schets van leven en werk

By J.P.M Passage

Almost completely forgotten (although the capital of Frisia, Leeuwarden, has named the streets in a new development after characters in his books), the Dutch author Havank has been treated to only one biography; this book.

  • Author: J.P.M. Passage
  • Title: Havank, schets van leven en werk
  • Pages: 239
  • Published: 1997
  • Publisher: Uitgeverij Passage
  • ISBN: 90-5452-042-6

I still maintain that Havank is the Dutch Wodehouse in use of language, and most people will agree he is the Dutch Charteris in subject matter. But in contrast with Wodehouse and Charteris, Havank never received the recognition he deserved. His publisher made him translate Charteris at a gruelling pace while still demanding one or two fresh, own works a year. In fact, a brief look at Havank’s life shows the portrait of man who was the complete victim of his publisher.

This book is the only work that permits that brief look at Havank’s life. Being the only one makes it hard, perhaps to criticise; still, even for a book that declares itself to be just a ‘sketch of life and work’, and not a biography, it is a meager bit of work.

The style throughout reminds me of nothing so much as a high school essay. Particularly irritating are the sic! exclamations whenever the author encounters an innovative spelling in some quoted document. Passage, when writing about Havank’s gay brother, feels compelled to use the old-fashioned, and nowadays pejorative, adjective ‘homofiel’. Really, it’s only right-wing protestant ministers and Roman-Catholic bishops who use that word, nowadays.

Biography generally demands a certain distance between biographer and biographee, otherwise the biography is in risk of becoming a hagiography.

Passage cannot completely avoid that fate; but the less pleasant facets of Havank’s life, like his drinking (it’s interesting that one can follow Havank’s capacity for alcohol in how much the characters in the books drink, from coffee and little else, to brandy and wine by the litre, to coffee again), or his inability to manage his affairs.

Of course, for an author with sales that ran in the millions, Havank was ridiculously underpaid, and that meant he was always in debt with his publisher. That part of his life is very well depicted.

Anyway, the definitive biography and literary analysis this book isn’t, but it’s doubtful whether that book will ever be written, especially since all the main players in Havank’s life are dead, or dying. So, let’s be glad we have at least something.