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The Pen and the Sword: A reading list about writer's quarrels

Writers are not just storytellers: with their novels, tales and critiques they broaden the social imagination, reflect on societal developments and sometimes put new themes on the map. This can easily lead to a conflict because writers and literati often think very differently about issues such as literary form, the place of artists in society or what makes a work 'good'. Writers' conflicts can tell us a lot about writers themselves, but also about the times in which they worked and their place in society.

What kind of conflicts did writers have in the last one hundred years? What did they fight about, how did they fight and what were the consequences of their conflicts? Leiden University Libraries has extensive collections of literature and on literary history.
This reading list offers a selection of six writer's disputes, with references to books with background information. All books in the list below can be borrowed physically or digitally from the UBL by following the link under the title or by searching our Catalogue yourself.

Oostindisch Kampsyndroom: Kousbroek vs Brouwers

Can the occupation of Indonesia by Japan, and the internment of the Dutch in Japanese camps, be compared or even equated with the atrocities of Nazi Germany? This question became the focus of one of the fiercest writer's polemics in Dutch literature.

In 1981, Jeroen Brouwers published Bezonken Rood, in which he incorporated memories of his time in a Japanese camp. This provoked strong criticism from fellow writer Rudie Kousbroek, who accused Brouwers of exaggerating the crimes of the Japanese and mixing fact and fiction improperly. Brouwers defended himself by stating that he did, in fact, base himself on solid foundation of thorough research, but at the same time reserved the right, as a writer, to choose to tell a fictional story.

The polemic received a lot of attention. Not only because Brouwers and Kousbroek were grandmasters in the polemic, but also because they discussed a very sensitive topic: the end of the Dutch domination of Indonesia.

J. H. van Geemert et al, Verstoten uit het paradijs: Jakarta, Bandung en Surabaya door de ogen van schrijvers (Amersfoort 2020).

Existentialism and Revolution: Camus vs Sartre

Camus and Sartre are known as two of the most important writers and engaged intellectuals of post-war France. They got to know one another during World War II and worked together in subsequent years. Their philosophy of existentialism was widely seen as a philosophical response to fascism and the basis of the post-war political order in Western Europe, so when they became involved in a heated conflict in 1952, it was front-page news.

The focus of the conflict was the book The Rebel, in which Camus praised rebellion but rejected violence and revolution. This stance irked Sartre to no end, as a communist sympathizer and proponent of revolution. Camus' book got devastating reviews in Sartre's magazine Les Temps Modernes, which led to a fierce battle between the two philosophical heavyweights.

The primary reason for the escalation of the conflict between Camus and Sartre was that their philosophical struggle touched directly on the politics of the time. Europe was divided between a democratic West and a communist East, while the decolonization of the world often had to be fought for by force. How were concerned intellectuals supposed to relate to these issues? Although the political context has since changed significantly, the themes discussed by Camus and Sartre – the tension between involvement and radicalism, and between change and violence – remain relevant.

Ronald Aronson, Camus & Sartre: The Story of a Friendship and the Quarrel that Ended it (Chicago 2004).

Fathers and Sons: Thomas vs Klaus Mann

“The father-son conflict was topical for only one year of my life,” wrote Klaus Mann in his autobiography Kind dieser Zeit. And although conflicts between father Thomas and son Klaus never ran as high or were fought out as openly as, say, between Camus and Sartre, there were certainly tensions. As writers they competed with each other, embracing different attitudes to life and dealing with the outside world in their own unique ways. Klaus was torn by bouts of depression, and after taking his own life, Thomas decided not to attend the funeral.

Thomas Mann preferred a symbolic, almost fairytale-like narrative style, while Klaus Mann had a more direct style. The father was a conservative-liberal, the son a radical. The tension is beautifully expressed in the different ways they used Faust's story to understand fascism in Germany. While Klaus had already published Mephisto in 1936, in which a leftist stage actor sells his soul to the Nazi regime in exchange for fame, Thomas chose a different path. In 1947 he published Doctor Faustus, a hallucinatory novel about a composer who resorts to intoxicants to get into the right state for his creative work. The work is more philosophical, but therefore less direct than that of Klaus'.

The Mann family produced so many writers (Heinrich, Thomas, Klaus, Golo, Erika) who had so many different relationships to the world, that they are often seen as a mirror image of German society during the twentieth century. In this way, both their lives and their works can be examined.

Tilmann Lahme, Die Manns: Geschichte einer Familie (Frankfurt am Main 2015)

De adelaar en de struisvogel: Heine vs Von Platen

In the 19th century, a controversy over literary style and form led to anti-Semitic and homophobic name-calling. In 1827 Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) decided to include some verses by Karl Immerman in his Reisebilder, in which he mocked the then-present Persia craze in German literature. This offended August von Platen, who had published two such collections.

Von Platen responded with a satirical play in which Immerman is introduced as Nimmerman and in which he called Heine, who was of Jewish descent, for the Pindarus vom kleinen Stamme Benjamins. Heine retaliated by writing an infamous attack in the next volume of his Reisebilder in which he used Von Platen's homosexuality against him. It shows how poisonous literary polemics could be during this period.

Nevertheless, Heine's Die Bäder von Lucca, in which he continues the polemic, is very worthwhile because of the virtuoso use of language. The comparison between Von Platen and the ostrich is unsurpassed: Überall in den Platen'schen Gedichten sehen wir den Vogel Strauss, der nur den Kopf verbirgt, den eiteln ohnmächtigen Vogel, der das schönste Gefieder hat und but nicht fliegen kann, und zänkisch die polemic Sandwüste der Literatur. With seinen schönen Federn without Schwungkraft, mit seinen schönen Versen without poetischen Flug, bildet there den Gegensatz zu jenem Adler des Gesanges, der less shiny Flügel hat, aber sich damit zur Sonne erhebt.

[Everywhere in Platen's poems we see the ostrich, which only hides its head, the vain powerless bird, which has the most beautiful plumage and yet cannot fly, and hobbles quarrelsomely though the polemical sandy desert of literature. With its beautiful feathers without momentum, with its beautiful verses without poetic flight, it contrasts with that eagle of song, which has less brilliant wings, but with them rises to the sun.]

H. Heine, Historisch-kritische Gesamtausgabe der Werke. Bd. 7: Reisebilder III. (Hamburg 1986).

Polemic beyond the grave: Chodasevitsj vs Majakovski

Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) was a feared critic in the Soviet Union, who, in his own words, imbued "novice poets with disgust, anger and fear". He is regarded as one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century, and in 1939, a few weeks before his death, he published his memoirs (translated into Dutch in 1987).

At the time of Stalin's rule over the Soviet Union, the production of literature was perilous, and polemics could literally provoke deadly repression. This makes Khodasevich's memoirs all the more interesting as a mirror of Soviet literature in this period.
In Khodasevich's memoirs, his criticism of Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) is particularly striking. Mayakovsky had developed as a poet from a rebellious futurist to a loyal purveyor of propaganda for the Soviet regime.
In the latter role, he wrote slogans such as: “Be smart, take out a premium loan.” Khodasevich describes Mayakovsky as a young man "with a horse-mouth and hungry eyes in which utter shyness and wicked brutality played alternately. […] He looked at women with a savage greed.”

Mayakovsky committed suicide in 1930, but years later, Khodasevich did not shy away from criticizing Mayakovsky's suicide note. He calls it a "long, petty letter littered with bad verse, cheap jokes, Soviet jargon, ostentatious Soviet loyalty and much more that I don't want to talk about." It was a polemic that went beyond the grave.

V.F. Chodasevič et al, Necropolis: Over boeken en mensen (Amsterdam 1987).

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