This is a remarkable short novel, beautifully written and exquisitely translated by Ina Rilke, one of the world's most gifted translators, and for my money the best translator of Dutch literature into the English language. De Kat has a precise, direct style that pierces with lasting images, especially of characters. I hope Ina Rilke's translation will bring De Kat's work to the attention of more readers. "Julia" is every bit the equal of De Kat's much-lauded "Man on the Move" and superior to his excellent, though flawed, "Figure in the Distance." If you appreciate novels of the human condition, interior struggles under extraordinary circumstances (here, of immediately pre-WWII Germany & Netherlands), then I highly recommend both Julia and "Man on the Move." Man on the Move has more action but both books concern the effect of these events on the more advantaged portions of Dutch society, especially on the soul of a generation that came of age in the pre-war period.
We feel the hand of another Rilke, Rainer Marie, whose poetry and images suffuse Julia. The novel concerns a reluctant Dutch industrialist, Chris Dudok, who returns to his homeland after a year working in Lubeck where he has encountered and fallen in love with Julia Bender, an engineer and colleague. He returns to the Netherlands to avoid danger but, most pointedly, at the urging of Julia. She saves him by insisting that he will endanger her if he remains in Germany. She stays to oppose the Nazis and in the hope of assisting her brother, Andreas, who is sent to a concentration camp for political activities. Ultimately, Dudok loses Julia to the war and his timidity, "the impotence of the self-respecting bourgeoisie" (though De Kat uses this phrase not to describe Dudok but rather the German middle classes under Hitler).
We first encounter Dudok dead, on the day of his suicide, following a lifetime of yearning and regret. The story is a sort of remembrance told on the evening and morning of his suicide: in other words, a reflection on his life as he contemplates death. De Kat borrows images from Rilke's poem, Autumn Day (the wind, the sundial, the leaves). Julia is carrying The Book of Images, the collection in which Autumn Day appears, when they meet in a cafe shortly before their separation. Although De Kat includes this nod to RM Rilke early in the book, the poem has more weight as a fragment that Dudok pens at the moment of his expiration: "Whoever has no house now will never build one, whoever is alone now will remain so for a long time." How do we read this? I am inclined to see it as a plea for courage of many kinds; the courage to live a life worth living and to grasp love firmly and never release it. This interpretation is tempered by the inherent uncertainty about the path not taken. Consider the central character in "Man on the Move"; he did not take the safe path and yet was crushed by events. Julia is a "must read" unless you cannot bear to contemplate how your decisions have shaped your life.