Literary author Hella S. Haasse (1918-2011) is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century in the Netherlands. Next to a substantial oeuvre of novels and essays, she performed a public role in lectures and on television, establishing the image of an intellectual, serious thinker. In Haasse’s biography, Living in the Imagination, written by Aleid Truijens and published in 2022, this image of serious public authorship was contrasted by showing the writer in her private realm as a daughter, mother, and spouse. The main message of the biography is that the author was not happy in the conventional woman’s role and tried to escape from it by using her imagination.

In this contribution, I use Lawrence J. Friedman’s biography of Erich Fromm as a starting point for a reflection and critique on the biography of Haasse. The central point is that the public intellectual has different lives or roles that are neither exclusionary nor disparate. Inner conflicts occur while both Fromm and

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Haasse seem to have been “sensitive humanitarians” in order to range over various possibilities in life: spiritually, aesthetic, political, and existential. Haasse’s biography needs reframing: Her imagination was not an escape from an ordinary life but an intellectual exercise for someone with a profound humanist interest.


In The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s prophet, Friedman (2013) underlines that Erich Fromm (1900-1980) was a man with various roles and activities: a psychoanalyst, political activist, social critic, and committed writer. He was a “Renaissance man” whose ideas and inner conflicts were developed between the two world wars in Germany as an intellectual in the Frankfurt School. After 1934, he continued his work in the United States and Mexico while deliberately addressing the broad public with best-selling books. Fromm was a complex man of varied visions, temperaments, and lives. He lived through two World Wars, characterizing World War I as “the most crucial experience in my life,” and afterward trying to understand the irrationality of human mass behavior (Friedman, 2013, p. 9). He grew up in a Jewish, Hasidic tradition, received an education as a social psychologist, and, connecting Marx and Freud, developed the concept of “social character.” This concept underscores how social structures shape instinctive life; the socialized human being is both a product of society and a unique personage. When the Frankfurt School moved to Columbia University, Fromm, in contrast to his fellow émigré scholars, immediately embraced American culture. He saw the attraction and relevance of reaching out to the public beyond academe and succeeded in this with books such as Escape from Freedom (1941) and The Art of Loving (1956). Both works sold millions of copies around the globe.

Hella S. Haasse was born in Batavia (now Jakarta) in the former Dutch East Indies and went to school in an era and space of colonialism. At the end of the 1930s, she left for the Netherlands to study Scandinavian Languages at the University of Amsterdam, but after two years—during World War II—she decided to become an actress. She also started writing texts for theatre and comedy performances and wrote poetry. The first book that established her as an author was her 1948 novella Oeroeg (The Black Lake), which narrated a friendship in colonial times and became a standard text for generations of school pupils in the Netherlands.

Her first great historical novel was In a Dark Wood

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Wandering (1949), a voluminous fictional biography of the French aristocrat and poet Charles of Orléans. The novel was based on the meticulous study of historical texts. Haasse wrote the book in a period of mourning after the death of her (two-year-old) child, in which she also gave birth to a second daughter. She published more than 20 novels as well as several anthologies of essays and autobiographical writing. Today, Haassee is considered the grande dame of Dutch literature, but during her life, she had to fight the stereotype that her writing was classical and not experimental, the suggestion being that as a woman she was standing in the shadow of important male authors such as W. F. Hermans, Harry Mulisch, Gerard Reve, and Flemish Hugo Claus.

Friedman’s Biography of Fromm

According to Friedman, every biography of a public intellectual and writer needs a conceptual structure that not only shows the basic storyline, the main events that happened, and the actions that were taken but also develops a perspective of understanding of these. Biographers position themselves in personal dialogue with their subject and the work. Friedman explains how he came to identify with Fromm as the activist and theoretician during the 1960s and how Fromm’s work in the American peace movement inspired him in his own struggle to reverse the American military involvement in Vietnam. Fromm’s activism helped Friedman (2013) “to facilitate the thematic structure of all the books that I have written since… The spirit of political activism, mine and Fromm’s, is quite evident in The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet” (p. XXI).

Fromm was an academic, a political activist, and an effective global educator. His reasoning against nationalism in particular was provocative and courageous, as Friedman (2013) explains: “After the Holocaust, the Stalinist executions, Hiroshima, and Vietnam, there was a small number of social commentators, scholars, and public officials who, like Fromm, announced in public forums that nations and nationalism had caused more harm than good. They called for ‘One World’ and ‘A family of Man’” (p. XXIII). This positioning brought Fromm disfavor among many American academics but also gave him a continuing influence beyond academia. In this sense, Fromm acted as a public intellectual, even before the term was used to characterize writers and scholars taking a position and responsibility as social commentators, examining crucial issues that cross disciplines and addressing pervasive human

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Friedman underlines how Fromm’s personal life shaped and was shaped by his intellectual contributions. The signal concept of “social character” that Fromm developed was related to feelings of estrangement that prompted him to move on “to happier situations, a pattern repeated, if in different circumstances, for the rest of his life” (Friedman, 2013, p. XXVIII). Throughout that life, Fromm increasingly took the role of the outsider in scholarly circuits but found his strength as a global teacher of serious subjects. The transformation implies the different lives and roles that the intellectual performed.

Truijens’ Biography of Haasse

Truijens seems not so much interested in entering into a dialogue with Haasse, her biographical subject, and her work, but searches for who she as a human being was. In the Prologue to the biography, Truijens (2022) explains, “I wanted to know who she was. What kind of life she led” (p. 16). The biographer frames the life of her subject as decided by a difficult, unhappy marriage: “Her fate, apparently is to live with this difficult man. The pain and effort that this took would be the red thread in her life and the theme of a huge part of her work: the laborious living together of husband and wife. Haasse herself does not mention this as her central theme: for her, it was ‘the labyrinth’” (Truijens, 2022, p. 187). Where Friedman strives for a conversation with Fromm based on his work and ideas, Truijens offers the description of a life in the contour of an unhappy and asexual marriage, reducing it to one central theme and squashing Haasse’s work, including all its diverse ideas, psychological characters, and relations, into one blueprint.

Let me give one example of where a dialogue could have been established. In “Identity Paper,”, an autobiographical essay from 1967, Haasse reflects on World War II and searches for an explanation for “The Final Solution.” In a carefully phrased, complex passage that is cited by the biographer, Haasse ponders that “something on this scale and with this method could only be executed, because it was part of a much bigger movement, a much more dangerous and long lasting process, in which many forms of salvation thinking, fear for consciousness and independence established a monstrous connection” (Truijens, 2022, p. 160). The biographer does not seem to be interested in how Haasse is thinking here, and judges that this passage is “high toned vagueness” in

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which the author approaches the belief in a conspiracy (p. 160). This passage is, according to Truijens, the consequence of Haasse’s naiveté and detachment during the war.

In my perspective, there is much more to say about this passage, in which Haasse’s thinking resonates before the letter, an idea proposed by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1989) in Modernity and the Holocaust. For Bauman, the Holocaust represents collusion between universal or transhistorical purposes and technological means. He argues that the Holocaust tells us something about modernization, civilization, science, and social engineering, and about us. Bauman (1989) writes: “the Holocaust was a characteristically modern phenomenon that cannot be understood out of the context of cultural tendencies and technical achievements of modernity” (p. xiii). The sociologist opposes the view that the Holocaust was a German cultural problem without messages for all humans around the globe. To compartmentalize the Holocaust is to push it away, rather than seeing it as part of Western modernization that involves “us” as well.

Biography as Personal Dialogue

Writing a biography from a dialogical position implies that questions are asked and answers suggested, without offering a final explanation and perspective on the subject. Friedman indeed approached Fromm as a conversation partner, a man of ideas and acts, without being too much interested in Fromm’s everyday and private life. Fromm had different lives and roles which give the biographer multiple perspectives. Truijens fixes Haasse in her unhappy marriage—bringing in a “black cahier” (exercise book) in which the author wrote about her personal frustrations—and reads the whole oeuvre as a mirror of that existence as mother and spouse. According to the biographer, most of Haasse’s novels present troubled married couples, and many create an artist who is imprisoned in ordinary practices and obligations. Even the 1966 novel, Threshold of Fire: A Novel of Fifth-Century Rome, which is not about a married couple and considered by Haasse herself to be her favorite, is interpreted as a “vintage Haasse,” reflecting the main preoccupation of the author: the artist asking what her task in life is.

From my point of view, this complex and political novel is about much more: it narrates two days in 5th century Rome in which a man, Marcus Anicius Rufus, is accused of high treason (because of a pagan sacrifice ritual executed in his villa) by prefect Hadrian, who is doubting his own perspective on the case. The narrative

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perspective changes from the prefect to an outlaw who is accused of burying the remains of a sacrificial cock and who has been a poet at the emperor’s court. The outsider is named Claudius Claudianus, a real historical figure of whom Haasse had read some lines of poetry. She molds this figure into a fictional character: He was brought up in Egypt as a slave and came to Rome as a protégé; he now lives illegally in the suburbs. He has taken the name Niliacus to hide his real identity. Haasse wrote a complex historical tableau in which three characters are representing the changing times and construction of new ideas, norms, and practices. That Haasse as an autodidact wrote such a concise, complex novel in the midst of her life demonstrates her intelligence, creative talent, and deep fascination for humanist ideals of freedom and self-reflection.

The title of Haasse’s biography, Living in the Imagination, underlines the main message of the biographer: Haasse preferred imagination over the actual reality of living as a spouse and mother. But the effect of this is the stereotyping of a mid-20th century woman’s authorship: she is unhappy in her marriage and writing is her way out. According to Truijens, Haasse did not consider herself a feminist, but took self-development seriously and was convinced of the quality of her writing. Haasse, explains Truijens (2022), took “the male standard as norm” and adapted herself to it (p. 415). She never liked housewife activities and only enjoyed cooking and gardening later in her life, after her two daughters had grown up, and while feminism was in its heyday.

But while the biographer is giving a manipulative description of the life of her subject, she forgets how Haasse, early in her career, wrote essays on the position of women in culture. With the 1959 A bowl of water | A test with fire, she published a collection of six essays (based on public lectures) on womanhood in Europe, from Roman marriages to the ideals of love, from sexuality to the position of woman in The Netherlands. In the biography, this volume of essays is characterized as a cultural-historical and philosophical treatise on the differences between male and female principles. The biographer underlines that Haasse in writing these essays intended to be a “serious literary author” who did not want to end in the “housewife’s corner” (Truijens, 2022, p. 253). Haasse’s “dilemma” is that she wanted to address the public and talk about societal issues, but she was an intellectual as well. The suggestion, evidently, is that she did not reach a huge audience with this work.

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Fiction as Investigation

According to Friedman (2013), Fromm was a “flawed man who devised coping mechanisms and divers ‘lives’ to rise more often than not above difficult familial circumstances and to contribute substantially to his day – and ours” (p. XXXV). Haasse’s biographer describes the life of the author as a troubled one that could only be escaped by the imagination. Imagination, however, is a more complex concept than the biographer suggests, and Haasse, I would argue, was very well aware of this. In Shooting Swans, a magnificent autobiographical essay, she muses on the “made up story as projection of experience, or as worded recognition of not yet earlier seen connection” (Haasse, 1998, p. 7) and on how the essence of writing lies in “the incomprehensibility of a not reasonable knowing, which can only be expressed in images and metaphors” (p. 10).

Haasse’s essay articulates an idea that was (one decade later) worked out by French sociologist Ivan Jablonka (2014) in History is a Contemporary Literature. Jablonka underlines a tripartite division of narrative: fiction, faction, and investigation. Fiction is an imaginary narrative whose characters, settings, and actions do not exist. Fiction is implicit, acted out as if it were true. The factual as a second narrative form is an informative text: annals, chronicles, genealogy, biographical sketches, blogs, accounts, reports, travel guides, etc. Facts are obtained and transmitted. The factual narrative describes but poses no question. Investigation as the third form of narrative is driven by a line of reasoning, a cognitive activity. The investigative narrative is not about what is revealed, but what is sought out by formulating a problem, cross-checking sources, inventing methods, and insisting/understanding. This third category of narrative texts encompasses inventories of the self, books of the world, and reparations of the past.

Many texts written by Haasse are articulating narrative investigation by combining fact and fiction. A pivotal example is The Tea Lords (1992) based on written letters from a family archive of planters of kina (a plant that holds quinine, a medication to treat malaria) and tea companies in West Java. Inspired by the letters, Haasse created Rudolf Kerckhove, who started a tea plantation in the Preanger. She fictionalized parts of the narrative, added segments of original letters to the novel, and completed it as a “historical documentary” on life in the former Dutch colony. The composition of the book is affective; the novel became enormously

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popular and got translated into many languages. My claim is that the investigative power, amalgamating fact and fiction, works well: readers identify with the singular voices of the families in the colony. Imagination is not just an escape but a constructive epistemology.

Concluding Remarks

If he would have studied Haasse’s oeuvre, how would Lawrence J. Friedman have written a biography of Haasse—how would his “personal dialogue” have demonstrated a perspective of understanding? It is a challenging thought to imagine that someone would really dive into Haasse’s work, putting the texts in context while reading them closely and carefully. Reading implies asking questions, constructing answers, and relating the texts to the reader’s own time and perspectives. Writing a biography is about dialoguing and making the work timely and relevant—demonstrating its complexity, contingency, and singularity.

Where Fromm is characterized by Friedman as a man having had various roles, Haasse is pushed into the format of being a writer in a frustrating marriage. But let this not be the final description: We can also see her as an inspiring intellectual autodidact who kept on studying, reading, and writing, contributing novels as well as essays to her time and our time as well. She left an impressive oeuvre that invites readers to keep asking questions. Imagination was not an escape from an ordinary life but an intellectual exercise into new forms of human knowledge and identification.

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  • Haasse, Hella S. (1998). Zwanen schieten (Shooting stars). Querido.
  • Friedman, Lawrence J., & Schreiber, Anke M. (2013). The lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s prophet. Columbia University Press.
  • Truijens, Aleid (2022). Leven in de Verbeelding (Living in the imagination). Querido.
  • Bauman, Zygmunt (1989). Modernity and the Holocaust. Cornell University Press.


Odile Heynders

Odile Heynders, PhD, is Professor of Comparative Literature at the Department of Culture Studies in the School of Humanities & Digital Sciences of Tilburg University. She published several books and many articles on European literature, authorship and strategies of reading, as well as on how literary fiction intervenes in democratic public spheres. Her book, Writers as Public Intellectuals, Literature, Celebrity, Democracy, appeared at Palgrave Macmillan in 2016. Her current book project is on Fictions of Migration, which focuses on how literary texts can offer new knowledge within the interdisciplinary context of migration studies. Heynders is a member of the NWO (Dutch Research Council) Board: Social Sciences and Humanities. She can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Heynders, O. (2023). Biography as dialogue? The case of Hella S. Haasse in relation to Lawrence J. Friedman. In M. I. West, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Lawrence Jacob Friedman Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 29(3), 294-302.

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