Only a few years after Aldous Huxley wrote about his travels in Holland, Czech writer Karel Čapek devoted a whole book to the country: 'Letters from Holland' ('Obrázky z Holandska', 1932), part of a series of European travel books he wrote in the 1920's and '30's.
Čapek's keen-eyed and charming observations of the Dutch landscape, people and bicycles are welcomely laidback after Huxley's Euclidean allegory, though both travelers remark on many similar Dutch features and customs. Here, for instance, is Čapek's description of this "nation on bicycles" and the effect it has on the national character - an early example of psychogeography.
And then those bicycles. I have seen various things in my time, but never have I seen so many bicycles as for instance, in Amsterdam; they are no mere bicycles, but a sort of collective entity; shoals, droves, colonies of bicycles, which rather suggest the teeming of bacteria or the swarming of infusoria or the eddying of flies. The best part of it is when a policeman holds up the stream of bicycles to let pedestrians get across the street, and then magnanimously leaves the road open for more; a regular swarm of cyclists dashes forward, headed by a number of speed champions, and away they pedal, with the queer unanimity of dancing gnats.
I saw nuns on bicycles and farmers on bicycles leading cows. People eat snacks on bicycles and take their children and their dogs for rides on bicycles, and courting couples go pedalling along, arm in arm, on bicycles, towards a blissful future; a nation on bicycles, in fact. When the bicycle has become a national habit to such an extent as that, we may well consider what effect it is likely to have on the national character. Personally I should say that:
- A man on a bicycle gets used to looking after himself and not getting mixed up with somebody else's bicycle.
- He waits for his opportunity and starts pedalling away the instant he gets the tiniest ration of elbow-room.
- He goes dashing along without having to exert himself overmuch, and without making the least fuss about it.
- Even when he sometimes rides in pairs or in a crowd, a man on a bicycle is more isolated and self-centred than a pedestrian.
- A bicycle brings about a kind of equality and uniformity among people.
- It teaches them to rely on the force of inertia.
- And it fosters in them a sense of peace and quietness, such as is associated with cotton-wool.
(Not sure about the cotton-wool, but #5 especially would seem to be deeply engrained in the Dutch character.)
However, the real highlight of the book are Čapek's illustrations - simple, almost doodle-like sketches that manage to capture the essence of his subjects in a mildly satirical way. Note, for instance, how almost all his Dutch landscapes are symmetrical, either vertically or horizontally, or both.
Vertically, because it struck him how "the Dutch built their towns of houses and water chiefly because in that way they could produce two towns at a single blow, so to speak: one on top and the other mirrored in the water." And horizontally - with even the omnipresent bicyclists choreographed symmetrically along the straight roads - to emphasize the tidy and ordered strips of land and water.
For one thing, these renowned polders are unusually rectilinear; when the Dutchman set about producing his land, he did so in a properly human manner, that is, with the aid of a foot rule, just as when planks are sawn up. Crooked is the history of man but rectilinear are his works.
The only thing Čapek doesn't sketch is the Dutch light - he apologizes for it explicitly - as "it is so pure and transparent that you can see every outline and detail to the very edge of the world". Paradoxically, his line drawings, eliminating all detail to keep only essence, work very well to convey the glass-like clarity of the Dutch landscape.