The combination of Amsterdam’s fraught history, sense of abandon and wealth of culture has led to a literary output that is dark, clever and often very funny. Here are some of the best books set in the Dutch capital.
Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the narrator of this acclaimed philosophical novel by Camus, likens the concentric canals that make up central Amsterdam to the circles of hell. Spending his nights in a red-light district bar, Clamence situates himself – and his reader, who assumes the role of Clamence’s companion – in the symbolic centre of hell, where crimes become “denser, darker”. Set against the backdrop of World War II, this philosophical rumination on guilt and responsibility portrays an Amsterdam that is dark, sinful and representative of the descent of humankind.
Gerard Reve’s debut novel follows the downtrodden Frits as he wanders aimlessly through Amsterdam’s gloomy streets. His mind is plagued by disturbing images of death and destruction, mental fixations that he regularly shares with his sole companion – a stuffed toy rabbit. This sardonic protagonist drinks and smokes his way through ten consecutive evenings, grumbling about his humdrum life while trying to make sense of the endless monotony that stretches out before him.
This tightly wound novel savours every moment of its protagonists’ growing discomfort, restlessness and desperation. After their sons commit a terrible, criminal act, two brothers and their wives decide to meet and discuss the situation in one of Amsterdam’s fanciest restaurants, where they plan to conspire against the course of justice. As the aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres are cleared from their table, each guest gradually comes to realise the overwhelming gravity of their situation.
Connie Palmen’s first novel centres around an Amsterdam-based philosophy student’s insatiable thirst for knowledge. This young woman vows to learn the laws of society and the principles that uphold reality. To accomplish this, she seduces seven intellectually remarkable men, drawn from seven disparate academic disciplines. Each conquest contributes to her worldview, allowing her to discover the strengths and weaknesses of their chosen fields.
Another novel set in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Minco’s novel tells the story of Yona, a young girl who spent the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in hiding. Returning to her family home in Amsterdam, she finds that it has been boarded up and completely ransacked. Nothing remains but an empty house, a remnant of a past that is too horrible to mourn.
Molenbeekstraat is a multilayered autobiographical novel that retraces Ernst Jansz’s family history. After returning to his childhood home in southern Amsterdam, Jansz is overwhelmed by the past. He recalls his father’s gentle presence and the distant sense of sorrow that afflicted his demeanour. As Jansz digs through his parent’s belongings, he makes several astonishing discoveries. It’s a moving insight into the life of one of the most celebrated musicians from the Netherlands.
In this enigmatic novel, Harry Mulisch cunningly tinkers with two of his favourite subjects: the theatre and Amsterdam. Its plot revolves around a contemptible elderly actor whose luck suddenly changes when he is offered the leading part in an avant garde production. Soon, this dream role turns out to be a nightmare and Mulisch’s protagonist is forced to navigate Amsterdam’s sinister underbelly.
This best-selling young adult novel tells the story of cancer patients Hazel and Augustus, who – after reading an incomplete novel – decide to track down its author, a mysterious man who agrees to meet them at his home in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, the star-crossed teenage lovers experience several revelations and the city becomes something of a playground to them. They visit Anne Frank’s house, dine in fancy restaurants and spend their first night together in a hotel room.
Anne Frank’s diary immediately became a part of European history after its publication in 1947. This informal yet beautifully written journal miraculously survived World War II and its author’s brutal murder. Frank was given a diary as a birthday gift and regularly jotted her thoughts into its pages during her time hiding in Amsterdam. Her lighthearted prose is weighed down by the historical circumstances that surrounded her and Frank’s generally positive remarks are underscored by a tangible sense of dread.
Grace Beard contributed additional reporting to this article.