Writing is Gilding
Forming an alliance
This is how Attilio's grandmother sets about telling of her late husband in Een gondel in de Herengracht: ‘His widow took everything that was black about him and sang it into the purest gold.’ She spoke of Attilio's grandfather only
A.F.Th. van der Heijden (1951) © Klaas Koppe
in the ‘noblest of poetry’. Gold is also the central metaphor in the description of Attilio's discovery of auto-erotica, when he stands in the attic in a ‘pillar of sunlight’, ‘a column of pure gold dust’, which completely fits him like a ‘long, straight, sparkling dress’. The suggestion is unmistakeable: this unification with sunlight, associated with a ‘pyramid’ that serves to allow Attilio ‘to reach the heights’, refers not only to the ‘small, sweet sin’ of masturbation but also to the artistry symbolically awakened within the main character, who brings forth the first product of his imagination in the ‘pearl’ with which a number of rats' tails are sealed into a ‘rat king’.
Van der Heijden himself playfully emphasises the coherence of his oeuvre, by making Patrizio Canaponi a character in the third part of De tandeloze tijd. In the reality of the novel he is called Patrick Gossaert, a writer of brilliant style but lacking content, who forms an alliance with Albert Egberts, the main character of the cycle. Albert, who sees his life as a continuous ‘experiment’, has material for stories in abundance. The result, as suggested by a characteristic baroque mirroring effect, is De tandeloze tijd.
This too belongs to a literary game, but it fits well with the shift that has taken place in van der Heijden's work since he began to publish under his own name. Through Albert Egberts, in many respects the writer's alter-ego, he returns to Geldrop in Brabant, the place he really comes from: the departure from the Italian guise appears to be coupled with a generous dose of realism. De tandeloze tijd describes the career of Albert Egberts, the son who is the first in his working class family to go to university (studying philosophy in Nijmegen) but who then moves down in the world to become a junkie in Amsterdam. In the later parts we also catch a glimpse of him after he has dried out in prison and made something of a name for himself as a playwright.
In his first cycle van der Heijden paints a panoramic picture, peopled with many characters besides the central figure, drawing on the great drama in the Netherlands after the Second World War, the transition from a class-based society to mass democracy with all the associated conflict, from workers' emancipation to depillarisation (ontzuiling) and from secularisation to urbanisation. In fifty years the Netherlands transformed (before mass-immigration brought new drama) and van der Heijden sketches the universally recognisable traits of this change. In the Canaponi books everything centres on a strictly personal literary mythology, in De tandeloze tijd he places his mythologizing tendencies (still clearly evident) in a story that concerns not only himself but his entire generation.
Events proceed with a grandeur and largesse that could only be called baroque. Mannerism may have retreated into the background as realism takes its toll - as a writer van der Heijden has in no way conformed to Dutch thrift. In a country where verbal reticence (‘not a word too many’) is often seen as a valuable quality, van der Heijden defines himself by wealth and abundance. His eloquence is a cornucopia, his descriptions impress with their expressive power, his words awaken a suggestion of overflowing reality, continually gilding it, however humble, ignominious and even outrageous it may be. Van der Heijden has not forgotten the lesson of Attilio's grandmother.
Turning mud into gold
This emerges almost programmatically in Asbestemming (‘Ash Destination’, 1994), the ‘requiem’ in the margin of De tandeloze tijd, which van der Heijden dedicates to his father, who died at the age of 67. We recognise the father from De tandeloze tijd again, an alcoholic domestic tyrant, someone who frequents the pub and lands his moped in the ditch blind drunk on more than one occasion. The portrait his son paints of him is humiliating, albeit not on a literary level; there the bond between father and son is confirmed. ‘I was constantly making poetry of even the shabbiest aspects of him, worship without end,’ says Albert of his father in Vallende ouders (‘Falling Parents’). The same is true of Asbestemming. The more shameful and scandalous the father's behaviour, the greater the triumph of the son when he succeeds in making it something beautiful, even ‘holy’, revealing the personal need behind this poetry.
In Vallende ouders Albert Egberts speaks to his friend Flix of ‘reforging, melting down into something beautiful which at the same time - intensifying - buries the memory of the horror inside’. This theme returns repeatedly. Like a second Baudelaire, van der Heijden continues to transform mud into gold. This is part of his own history, but changed into the material of his novels it symbolises the entire reality. Van der Heijden's aestheticism rests on a rather pessimistic view of humanity and the world, in which only literature with its ‘alchemistic’ magic power can offer a counterweight.
Behold the inherent ambition of van der Heijden's writing, continually haunted by a longing to write a ‘humanly impossible’ book that is all-encompassing, one which makes all books superfluous, to chime in with Gerard Reve. Van der Heijden emulates earlier examples such as Mallarmé's dream of Le Livre, or Jean Genet's cycle La Mort, which he never accomplished. The cyclic form of his own oeuvre, in which the One Impossible Book is effectively cut into pieces,
should be seen as a cunning final attempt at that Impossible Book, a series which eventually turns out to be endless.
Life in breadth
In De tandeloze tijd this ambition finds its counterpart in Albert Egbert's ideal of ‘life in breadth’. In the prologue of De slag om de Blauwbrug (‘The Battle at the Blauwbrug’) this notion of life in breadth is placed in contrast to life in length, as he writes of ‘breadth, where everything happened faster, there was more movement, no earthly time was lost: where all events happened simultaneously, instead of following one another, robbing one another of time’. The ideal exhibits a striking resemblance to what Jung called ‘synchronicity’ and the modernists of the early twentieth century term ‘simultaneity’; it amounts to an attempt to capture as much reality as possible in its entirety and is therefore a good match for what van der Heijden hoped to achieve with his Impossible Book.
Within the cycle of the novel Albert Egberts does not achieve his ideal, except in the glow of his heroin addiction, a caricature of his original intention. But as a writer van der Heijden comes close to his aim, continually increasing the scale and narrative density of his novels. In the fourth part of De tandeloze tijd, Advocaat van de hanen (‘Punk Lawyer’), the ‘binge drinker’ and lawyer Ernst Quispel joins Albert Egberts as a second lead character whose murky history runs in parallel to Albert's. In the third part, published shortly afterwards and consisting of two substantial halves, Hof van barmhartigheid (‘Court of Mercy’) and Onder het plaveisel het moeras (‘Under the Pavement the Swamp’), that account turns into an overloaded ‘polyphony’ of voices and stories, from which van der Heijden cunningly cut and pasted to make a separate novel, Doodverf (‘Death Paint’). Even before that, alongside the cycle, De sandwich, Weerborstels (‘Rebels’), and Het leven uit een dag (‘Life in One Day’) were published as ‘satellite books’, showing how difficult it is, if not impossible, to encapsulate everything in a single unit.
We should not, therefore, be surprised that around the turn of the millennium van der Heijden started a second cycle alongside De tandeloze tijd. It shows that his ambition has only grown with time; in his essay about the novel Kruis en kraai (‘Cross and Crow’, 2008) he himself speaks openly of ‘megalomania’, even if its ultimate goal comprises nothing other than a ‘monumental failure’. How could it be otherwise, when both ‘life in breadth’ and the Impossible Book are attempts to stop time, to escape from its teeth, one of the meanings of the title of van der Heijden's first cycle? This is where we should look for the real motivation behind his writing.
Of the eight to nine parts originally announced for the new cycle Homo duplex, four have now been published: an enormous 0th part, De Movo Tapes, and the even more voluminous Het schervengericht (‘The Ostracism’) not even mentioned in the original plan, as well as Drijfzand koloniseren (‘Colonising Quicksand’) and Mim, which are considerably more restrained in volume. It remains
uncertain how the cycle will look in the end. Perhaps part of the reason van der Heijden began this new cycle was to go beyond the autobiographical framework of De tandeloze tijd. In Homo duplex Brabant seems remote; the narrator appears as the Greek god of light Apollo, although he can no longer bear this name, having ‘sold out’ to NASA. His task is to entertain the gods of Olympus by causing as much tragedy and misery on earth as possible.
In De Movo Tapes this results in a real war between Amsterdam and Rotterdam football hooligans, in Het schervengericht the action moves to California, where we witness a confrontation in prison between the French-Polish director Roman Polanski and Charles Manson, the leader of the sect that murdered Polanski's pregnant wife. It is worth noting that this confrontation is also mentioned in Advocaat van de hanen, as the subject of a play Albert Egberts has decided to write, so the two cycles are not entirely separate.
Homo duplex only began to take shape with the newly published parts. So far we know that at a certain point there must be a ‘World Strike’, a ‘war of All against One’, which must bring an end to human futility and the pointlessness of existence. In some sense this is a counterpart to what we find in Harry Mulisch's novel De ontdekking van de hemel (The Discovery of Heaven): instead of heaven withdrawing its hands from humanity, humanity tries to elicit a sign of life from heaven. ‘I aspire to raise the need so high that even if no God ever existed, at that moment one comes into existence...’, says the main character Tibbolt Satink, who, transformed into Movo, must proclaim the World Strike.
Death of a son
It all sounds quite bizarre, even over the top. We might wonder whether van der Heijden will ever succeed in making a convincing tragedy of these curious facts, worthy of Sophocles, if that is his aim at least. For the time being fate has thrown a spanner in the works, as in 2010 on the night of Whitsun, van der Heijden and his wife Mirjam Rotenstreich's only son Tonio died in a traffic accident. In an attempt to express his grief van der Heijden wrote the only ‘requiem’ he had probably expected never to have to write, Tonio. The ‘monumental failure’ that had always been his aim now became a real failure. Literature can keep the memory of the dead alive, but cannot bring the dead back to life. Van der Heijden needs the many pages of Tonio, full of shame and guilt because he was unable to prevent his son's death, the flipside of his megalomania, to distance himself as long as possible from this realisation. At the same time it comes ever closer as he tries to reconstruct the hours before the fatal accident in as much detail as possible. In van der Heijden's view Tonio's death throws a black shadow over everything he has written, and inevitably on what he has yet to write.
Has the writing lost its shine?
Since the death of his son the author has been showered with prizes, including the P.C. Hooftprijs in 2013, the Netherlands' most important literary prize. A new book also appeared for that occasion, a relatively short novel by van der Heijden's standards, De helleveeg (‘The Shrew’), part of De tandeloze tijd, surprisingly, rather than Homo duplex, a sign that the first cycle still cannot be
seen as complete. In the bibliography at the back of De helleveeg van der Heijden mentions two titles ‘in preparation’: a new part of Homo duplex and a historical novel. If we are to believe his expression of thanks for the P.C. Hooftprijs, however, he has yet to return to business as usual. The veil of guilt and shame which has covered everything since the death of his son (a feeling he describes with the neologism ‘beshaming’), also determines the flavour of his new work. This is already clear in De helleveeg.
The aestheticizing force which previously characterised van der Heijden's writing is absent from this novel about a woman who goes through life embittered and full of venom. The literature no longer gilds, but grotesquely exaggerates the horror. De helleveeg is about child abuse, abortion and hypocrisy, pulled together to form a pitiless attack on the world of Catholic Brabant from which the writer comes. Although the novel is certainly no less well written than his earlier work, the transformation to a higher aesthetic plan still eludes him. Pessimism must stand alone, without its glittering counterweight. The writing has lost its shine. The extent to which the same is true of the parts of De tandeloze tijd and Homo duplex still to come is something we can only await in fear and trembling - and suspense.
Translated by Anna Asbury