In her monthly column, Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
“Shameless” and “unpublishable”—this was the reaction of her publishers when the Dutch writer Dola de Jong first submitted her novel The Tree and the Vine (De Thuiswacht) in 1950. Four years later, it made it into print, thanks in large part to the backing of prominent literary figures such as the Dutch poet Leo Vroman and the Belgian writer Marnix Gijsen, both European exiles living in America (as was de Jong by this point in her life). She also had the support of renowned New York editor Maxwell Perkins, the man who’d discovered both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and who’d published de Jong’s And the Field is the World (1945), the story of a young Jewish couple who flee the Netherlands for Morocco on the eve of the Second World War.
What made The Tree and the Vine so shocking was its candid depiction of queer desire. It follows two young women in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in the late thirties: Erica, a rash and impatient fledgling journalist who doesn’t live by anyone else’s rules, and the much more guarded, inhibited Bea, the narrator of the tale. De Jong’s publisher’s concerns were predictable. A bold and groundbreaking work, The Tree and the Vine caused a stir, both in Holland when it was first published, and then later again when it was translated, by Ilona Kinzer, into English and American editions, in 1961 and 1963 respectively. Though it clearly struck a chord with many readers—de Jong, it was said, received piles of fan mail from married women who questioned their life choices after reading it—its nuances were lost on many. As Lillian Faderman explains in her afterword to the Feminist Press’s 1996 reprint, a reviewer writing in The Statesman and Nation (May 12, 1961) was “unable to appreciate the book’s subtleties and larger meanings.” A new translation, by Kristen Gehrman, published this month by Transit Books, hopes to appeal to a broader readership today. As Gehrman argues, it’s a novel that deserves to be appreciated as something more than just a tale of war, or a lesbian romance.
Though the Statesman and Nation’s reviewer describes the novel as a portrait of “exotic vice,” “compulsive sin,” and “sexual pervert[s],” by today’s standards, de Jong’s depiction of lesbian love really couldn’t be any tamer. This is not a book that titillates; its emphasis instead is on the pain and damage caused by repressed desire. Although they have their more theatrical moments, on the whole Erica and Bea are far from histrionic. As Faderman reminds us, though, the reviewer is using “cliché terms […] characteristic of cover copy for the lesbian pulps of the era.”