Wiel Kusters Wiel Kusters Sacha Ruland

A columnist who longed for eternity

In Culture
Written by  Hans van Vinkeveen Wednesday, 17 September 2014 10:01
Kees Fens was the greatest Dutch post-war literary critic and essayist, an influential columnist and winner of the P.C. Hooft Prize, a lifetime achievement award for literature. But as a new biography by emeritus professor of literature Wiel Kusters reveals, Fens was also an incurable Catholic and an outsider with a multifaceted character: contemplative, witty, but also vicious.

"Great God", was the only thing an emotional Fens could say when he visited the now vacant Chassékerk in the last year of his life. The church in Amsterdam-West had been a symbol for the happy days of his childhood. It was here that the young street urchin developed a love of faith and liturgy and a deep sense of empathy. Now, the dilapidated church seemed to symbolise a world in ruins – the remaining shards of Catholicism, in which European culture had been couched for centuries.
For Fens, God was never far away. His work was steeped in Catholicism. This is the overwhelming impression left by the biography (Mijn versnipperd bestaan. Het leven van Kees Fens 1929-2008), and it is one Kusters was criticised for. "But I didn’t make Fens any more Catholic than he was. It was a constant in his life." For many people, it may have been obscured by his openness. "Fens never subjugated a person’s worldview to his own. What appealed to him was the richness of the Christian tradition and Catholic culture: the Gregorian chant, the incense, the ancient texts and rituals, a persistent world that transcended mundane, everyday things. That’s what he always sought and wanted to experience."

Close reading

Kusters wrote the biography on the invitation of Fens's widow. He assumes this was partly because he himself is intimately acquainted with Catholic culture. "She didn’t interfere with anything else, no”, he smiles. In his view, the biography was necessary: "Someone of Fens’s stature deserves as much." Fens himself had once praised one of Kusters’s own essays. "He had such stature, it was as though you’d been given a diploma." There were no juicy secrets to stumble across, but Kusters was surprised by how great a role Catholicism played in Fens’s life. “No biographer could have got around it.”
This will be more of a surprise to older generations of literature students, who knew Fens mainly as one of the founders of the magazine Merlyn. The magazine promoted a new way of reading – ‘close reading’ – according to which any interpretation of a piece of writing must derive strictly from the text itself. Surely his Catholicism would interfere with this notion of unbiased reading? Even before his Merlyn days, Kusters explains, Fens read texts purely textually. "In fact his way of reading stemmed from the exegetes; people who interpreted Bible texts at different levels." Kusters himself was inspired by this manner of “reading with a microscope”. “It turns reading into a creative activity. Curiously enough, this increases the more you limit yourself to the text alone. Because what’s really there, when you think about it?”


A picture gradually emerges of someone who, from a young age, felt like an outsider everywhere he went. Fens came from a poor family, and idolised his classmates in grammar school: they spoke so beautifully; they already knew what poems were. As a journalist, he shunned topical events in favour of “eternal things”. As a professor with no academic training, he felt even more like a dilettante. But the erudite Fens was not afraid of being oppositional. He was averse to snobbery, and publicly supported the popular children’s books by Annie M.G. Schmidt. And his caricatures of others were notoriously uncanny. As he said of Andries Knevel, a presenter for the Evangelical broadcaster EO, "His style of questioning is always an interrogation and the Inquisition is never far away."
Fens detested modern developments such as rampant commercialisation. In his view, this sent the quality of education and universities downhill, and meant that studying was no longer about critical reflection, as it ought to be. Instead it degenerated into vacuuming up information and consuming courses indiscriminately. Knowledge had to be ‘useful’, Fens felt. According to Kusters, he has a point – but also an unrealistic, overly romantic image of the university, probably because he himself had never had the chance to study. "He grumbled from the sidelines, but didn’t exactly install himself on the barricades, administratively speaking. Ultimately, he wasn’t the man for that either."


Was Kees Fens a happy man? His ideal world lay in tatters. Yet happy is perhaps the most frequent word in his work. The title of Kusters’s biography, a quote from Fens himself, suggests he felt he had squandered his life. He thought of himself as a columnist, nothing more. "He always dreamt of writing a great specialist work,” says Kusters, “but on the other hand, he had tremendous fun writing his pieces. He also enjoyed the short-term hits he was able to score. It was in his nature – he never could sit still."
A figure like Fens leaves behind a void that is never filled. But he does leave a legacy. He was succeeded by a number of good essayists, and had a lasting impact on reading instruction in secondary education. Moreover, he made a significant contribution to the canonisation of authors like Jan Wolkers (whom Fens discovered), Theo Thijssen and Simon Carmiggelt. The latter expressed his thanks to him in his second anthology Kroeglopen: "For Kees Fens, who only likes Coke."

Wiel Kusters (1947) is emeritus professor of General and Dutch Literature at Maastricht University. He has published poems, essays and studies of the Limburg miners. He previously published a biography of the Maastricht poet Pierre Kemp.

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