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The Lure of the Near East - Couperus in the Maghreb

by Caspar Wintermans in Films & Books , 24 november 2009

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

According to data from the Foundation for Authors’ Literary Rights, one in fifteen Dutchmen dreams of a writer’s career. You may smile about this - only one percent of the manuscripts publishers receive appear in print -, but you can also rejoice in the fact that the love of literature has not been extinguished in this our super-swift and shallow time. José Buschman from The Hague belongs to the happy few who did not find a standard rejection letter on her doormat when she asked Bas Lubberhuizen Ltd. to issue “Een dandy in de Oriënt. Louis Couperus in Afrika” (A Dandy in the Orient.

Louis Couperus in North Africa). Her study, published as volume 3 of the Pearl Diver Series, has been hailed as a welcome addition to the voluminous body of secondary sources on the greatest Dutch novelist.
Yes, the greatest! The musicality, the descriptive and suggestive power, the sheer beauty of his prose have not been equalled in our linguistic area. I dare not hazard a translation of the opening paragraph of “De berg van licht” (The Mountain of Light) (1905-06), an historical novel that sets forth the licentious life of the boy-emperor Elagabalus.

From Syria, where he worshipped the sun, he moved to Rome in 218 AD, following an invitation by the Pretorian guard to mount the throne. An artistic Eastern who fancies his own sex, transplanted to the West: the character shows similarities with Couperus who was born in The Hague, it is true, yet had been raised in Indonesia. But unlike Elagabalus the repatriated author, married to his niece, did his utmost not to get talked about.

Nevertheless, rumours concerning his sexual orientation did circulate, the result of his exquisite manners and rather effeminate appearance. In Buschman’s book a caricature from 1917 is reproduced, showing Couperus, dressed in a robe and wearing stiletto-healed shoes, gazing at his reflection in the mirror while powdering his cheeks. The caption reads “Miss Couperus.”

According to an obstinate piece of gossip the dandy was involved in a gay sex scandal that rocked the residence in 1920, but Buschman emphasizes that, in spite of strenuous research, the evidence for this accusation has never been found. Yet it is remarkable that during the time when the newspapers were full of the affair, Couperus did not contribute to the “Haagsche Post”; and when he finally broke his silence his articles gave the impression that he was slightly unbalanced.

Couperus, who wrestled with his homosexuality, now made much of a wrestler called Daan Holtkamp, noted for his “nice mug” and “slender, airy body” whose tricks the artist admired in a theatre in the Boekhorst street. “Crushing embraces,” “statuesque poses,” “virile body lines” - Couperus was enraptured. Many citizens of The Hague must have raised their eyebrows on reading these panegyrics.

“The time had come again to make a journey,” Buschman ironically comments. In her book she treads in the footsteps of her fellow townsman and his wife who, by order of the “Haagsche Post,” departed for Algeria and Tunisia in October 1920, from where Couperus dispatched twenty instalments of a serial which appeared in the magazine before being collected in a volume that has always been considered a weaker link in his works.

Untrodden Paths

José Buschman relates how she came to write her book, a peculiar story. What triggered her off was the acquisition of a painting by the well-nigh forgotten Ernest Weckerling. It was not so much the painting itself - a desert landscape - that caught her attention; rather, it was the backside where she read a neatly-written dedication, “To my dear friends Louis and Mrs Couperus,” dated Algiers, 2 May 1921, and signed Pieter Marinus Ruys, Consul of The Netherlands.

The gift intrigued Buschman. What sort of man had Mr Ruys been? She began to investigate, traced descendants of the diplomat with the big moustache, and decided to give her information a place in a book dealing with a little-known phase of Couperus’s life, a book that testifies both to her erudition and (just as important) to her passion for the writer. Anyone perusing her well-designed book gets the pleasant feeling of being taken by the hand by a guide who knows the way and leads you on untrodden paths.

It is Buschman’s merit that she does not just focus on Couperus. She also discusses devotees of the Orient such as Victor Hugo and Gustave Flaubert, as well as contemporaries of Couperus who visited North Africa and spoke about the region in a more critical tone than the correspondent of the “Haagsche Post.” It is curious that the latter hardly seemed to notice the extent to which the French exploited the indigenous population, and that he scarcely touched upon the deplorable situation wherein the women found themselves. Buschman not only points out this strange gap, she also tries to come up with an explanation for it. Meantime it is sad to observe that the emancipation of North African women is not making any progress.

A photograph reproduced on page 120 shows a couple of fully wrapped ladies on the roof of a house in Algiers. Since their eyes are not covered, they are able to see an aeroplane skimming over the city. The machine is obsolete, the women’s garb, unfortunately, is not. The burka has never been away and is gaining ground, also in Europe (A matter that came up for discussion in the BBC radio show “World Have Your Say” in July.

A member of the panel asked an orthodox Muslim why he expected his wife to don a burka, while he himself was wearing a shirt and trousers. “Because the Koran doesn’t say that men should wear a burka,” he answered, “we are lucky.”

The women are unlucky, it can’t be helped!). Buschman quotes male and female authors who in Couperus’s time expressed their indignation about the Muslimas’ oppression, but Couperus, as I have said, hardly touched upon the subject. Instead, he described his visits to museums and excursions to archaeological sites.

[Photo] Caricature of Couperus, from the satirical illustrated magazine "De Roskam", 11 May 1917

He mentioned the names of the people he met, with the exception of that of a fellow countryman whom he praised as “a brilliant driver,” K. v. H. To whom did these initials refer? Buschman has elucidated this mystery. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs she studied a dossier on the Dutch Consul, Ruys. She found a letter containing a reference to Baron J. Keller van Hoorn, a resident of Algiers who in 1919 had lent his car to a naval officer. That’s the man!, Buschman thought.

In the autobiography of Maurits Wagenvoort (1930) she later read that he (Wagenvoort) in Algiers had come across “Baron van H., formerly a Dutch officer, who was referred to, not without reason, as ‘madame la baronne’ by his entourage.” In other words, the aristocrat was gay. Had he asked Couperus to suppress his name? Or did Couperus fear to compromise himself should his readers learn about his association with Keller van Hoorn? Why, then, not call him “X”? After all, “K.v.H.” was a code that could be broken.

[Photo's] Portrait of Louis Couperus by ETC. Hoppé, made on 4 June 1921 in London / Caricature of Couperus by Herm. Ockers, from "Uiltje", 12 November 1921

Hunks Like Ali And Achmed

The Maghreb - the North African countries to the west of Egypt - was a favourite destination to European homosexuals, and Buschman provides an interesting glimpse of the adventures that writers such as André Gide, Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas had there with hunks like Ali and Achmed. “Of course Couperus has seen the young men who obtruded themselves on every traveller,” Buschman says. “And it is quite possible that he visited a bath house, [...] but he held his tongue about that, too. In his historical novels he could deal with homoerotic matters, but in his autobiographical sketches the subject was altogether taboo.”

It is interesting, however, that the photographs he selected as illustrations for his novella “Safar en Ali,” written during his trip and published in the Christmas issue of the “Haagsche Post,” were taken by Rudolf Franz Lehnert and Ernst Landrock, a couple that had settled in Tunis and specialised in “nude studies of dancing girls and boys” (a selection from their work has been edited by Nicole Canet in Paris). The editorial staff of the “Haagsche Post” thought the forwarded photograph depicting the naked Zuleima problematical, and the image was expurgated; in Buschman’s book there is no such censorship, thank goodness.

[Photo's] Opening words of the short tale "Safar and Ali" from the Christmas number of "Haagse Post" (1921) / Photograph from Rudolf Lehnert, "'L Album des nus masculins (1905-1934)"

The historian draws attention to the fact that the Amsterdam firm of Van Campen which in 1921 collected the articles under the title “Met Louis Couperus in Afrika” (With Louis Couperus in Africa) did not devote much effort to the project: “The bound volume is printed on inferior paper and has a slipshod, limp cover, of a light brown colour.” This shabby appearance is rather symbolic, for even the most ardent Couperus fans will have to admit that his itinerary cannot stand comparison with masterpieces such as “Footsteps of Fate” and “The Hidden Force” (of which English translations have appeared).

The man who in 1920 packed his luggage was an author past his prime. After a labourious life he simply lacked the inspiration and the health to maintain himself at the level he had reached in the years preceding the Great War. On his return from a stay in Japan the time had come for him to embark on his final voyage. He died on 16 July 1923, aged only sixty. But his best works live on, and with “Een dandy in de Orient” José Buschman has presented us with a pearl that scintillates on the string of Couperus research.



In the New Issue of Gay News, 323, July 2018

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