A little while back I mentioned that I wanted to do another review of a book where a writer had used a specific location to demonstrate a particular point. I didn’t like “Tulip Fever” by Deborah Moggach much, but she does use the city of Amsterdam in an interesting way to mirror what is going on with her protagonists.
It’s not only the streets that reflect the plot’s main action – the city of Amsterdam is in the grip of tulipomania (tulip fever), a love-affair as truly, madly, deeply felt by its citizen as the love-affair Moggach’s two protagonists, young Sophia and painter Jan, are about to plunge into.
Set in about 1636 during the height of tulipomania, the main action takes place in a rich merchant’s house in the Herrengracht, one of Amsterdam’s most splendid residences overlooking a gracht or canal, then a major thoroughfare within the city. And Moggach mirrors the action not just literally, she reflects it figuratively – what Amsterdam’s respectable burghers get up to is reflected in the ever-present water as well as in numerous paintings commissioned from artists who’ll later become some of the most famous painters in history, including on Jan van Loo(s).
Every Hans, Frans and Cornelis wants their painting done – including the rich, elderly husband of Sophia. She promptly falls in love with the young painter, Jan van Loos, during the first sitting and clichéd romance, revenge and divine retribution ensue from this point onwards.
What I did like about the novel was the ever-present water as a metaphor for life and death. The peculiar quality water has when reflecting both objects and light suffuses the book, making it an illuminating read in more ways than one.
Maria, the maid, dreams of living in her mistress’s house with her as yet unborn six children. In her dreams, Maria and her brood swim through the house in a strange underwater world free of man’s obsessions with tulips, wealth and status. For Maria, water means freedom from domestic servitude and happiness in the bosom of her own family.
Water means life, but also death to many. Storms sweep the Dutch coastline frequently, killing Amsterdam’s residents indiscriminately, as the seawater is driven into the grachts. Whole districts get flooded in the process. Dogs, cats, humans rich and poor, they all meet their fate, when water sweeps clean the streets of Amsterdam.
Water means earning a decent enough living for a large number of people. Run a barge up and down the Amstel River or trade in the grachts. Maria’s lover Willem earns his living from selling fish. Disappointed in love and robbed of his savings and dignity, he later goes to sea to seek his fortune as a soldier. Water can help people to change their lives.
The merchants get rich – or lose everything – by trading with foreign countries, sending out fleets of ships to exotic places.
Water, water, everywhere…water-logged streets, overflowing hearts, fortunes lost at sea, tear-stained lovers’ letters and new types of paintings where herrings take centre stage. Water determines the fate of them all.
By contrast, the painters of the day, artists such as Jan van Loos or Rembrandt, record the mundane terrestrial, the domestic lives of Dutch burghers – whoever can afford to commission a painting, does so; those who can’t afford to pay, may be lucky enough to attract a painter into their dark and dingy hovel – some artists are keen to record Dutch life of the lower classes.
Everybody wants their lives to be captured for eternity, holding off the grim reaper in their own way. Even the land these splendid merchant houses have been built on has been snatched back from the sea and wetlands. If they can do THAT, why not hold on to life for a little longer with the help of paintings? It may only be one fragment of a life captured on canvas, but in their minds that one moment can hold off the inevitable drowning in ever-lasting darkness.
It’s the age of discovery, especially in the field of botany. For a brief period in history, Dutch people succumb to a strange mania, buying tulip bulbs for enormous sums and speculating on the flowers as if they were gold or diamonds. Historians and psychologists all over the world are still debating what prompts human beings to enter into such bizarre manias.
We can see some of the wonderful flowers these explorers brought back with them in Dutch paintings of the period. Somehow this humble wild flower from dry and arid Turkey and Afghanistan captured the imagination of people like no other plant has done before or since in human history. Neither rose, poppy, lotus nor orchid has caused such manic behaviour or ever commanded such prices. Did the Dutch fall in love with tulips simply because the flowers grew in desert-like conditions in their natural habitats? Did the wild tulip represent a secret longing for terra firma, a place not dominated by water?
Moggach’s book creates a strange world out of this fluid, ever-changing medium.
You can practically taste the salt on your lips and smell the herring, when Sophia hastens through the dark and empty streets at night to spend time with her lover, when lanterns twinkle on passing barges, when raucous laughter fills the air from all those sailors stepping off vessels that have been to parts of the world, where new types of tulip are only just being discovered.
Sometimes a lover embracing you, sometimes a monster swallowing you whole: the grachts of Amsterdam are the veins and blood vessels that run through each and every one of its 17th century citizens.
I also liked the idea to set a novel in an era of extraordinary events, when a city is in chaos over something other than war. In this case it’s tulipomania, in Boris Akunin’s novel “The Coronation” it was the crowing of Csar Nicholas II and the start of the first rumblings of the Russian revolution that made Moscow a perfect location for a kidnapping mystery and metaphor for a heart in turmoil. Part 2 of this post will go into tulipomania itself and what historic Amsterdam was like around 1636.