In memory of honorary doctor Jeroen Brouwers

On Wednesday afternoon, 11th May, in a hospital in Maastricht, writer and essayist Jeroen Brouwers died at the age of eighty-two. In 2018, Brouwers was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Arts at Radboud University.

Brouwers is widely regarded as one of the most important Dutch-language authors, with his work also being widely translated. He was a much-praised and much-read writer who, in his novels, combined a virtuoso style with a treatment of important social themes, such as camp traumas (Bezonken Rood, 1981) and abuse in the Catholic Church (Het Hout, 2014). As a polemicist, Brouwers was admired but also feared: He set himself high standards when it came to literature, but he expected others to have the same level and attitude, and he was merciless when superiorly formulated and meticulously documented; he filleted his opponents, such as authors as Guus Luijters or Dirk Ayelt Kooiman ('a sparrow blown up into a bird of paradise by a bicycle pump'), his former publisher Dietz or Minister Ronald Plasterk ('the boss of culture, the supreme leader of the Taalunie').

In Memoriam eredoctor Jeroen Brouwers
In Memoriam eredoctor Jeroen Brouwers

But Brouwers was also a careful and meticulous literary historian who wrote critically, lovingly and competently about authors such as Godfried Bomans and Hélène Swarth. His magnum opus in this field is the study, De Laatste Deur (The Last Door, published in 1983 and expanded and updated to two volumes in 2017), which deals with Dutch authors and their suicides. What prompted their actions? Were there indications in their texts? What influence did social and private circumstances have? De Laatste Deur (The Last Door), which has often been called Brouwers' 'dissertation', is a thorough, scholarly work that nevertheless presents, examines and analyses an important literary theme for a large audience.

One of Brouwers' most famous maxims is: 'Nothing exists that does not touch something else'. This statement characterises his view of human life - first and foremost his own life - and the structure of each of his individual works and his oeuvre as a whole. A book like his monumental suicide study cannot be seen separately from his world of novels: everything forms one large reflective, referring, and internally connected whole, fiction and non-fiction.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Brouwers' novels is the way in which he manages to make his personal life supra-personal. At a time like ours, when literature is almost swallowed up by small stories about grief among family and close friends and other private traumas, Brouwers invariably succeeded in using the themes from his personal history to rise above the small and individual.

With the death of Brouwers, Dutch literature has lost one of its most important authors; fortunately, there is his versatile, rich oeuvre that will keep his memory alive.

Jeroen Brouwers was unable to attend the Dies Natalis of Radboud University in October 2018 to receive his honorary doctorate. It was presented to him at home by the (then) dean of the arts faculty Margot van Mulken. Brouwers expressed a word of thanks on that occasion, which was displayed during the Dies celebration:

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Art & Culture, Radboud then and now