Arnon Grunberg

The Unimportant Spy

Ladies and gentlemen,

Is it possible to speak about literature without getting pompous? Is it possible to speak about your own books without falling into the trap of self-importance? Having been a participant on a few panels at half a dozen literary festivals I have noticed that it is rather difficult to avoid pomposity while discussing the merits of literature. Even when a subject like humor or irony in the novel is supposed to be discussed.
My promise to you is that I’ll do my best to avoid the traditional pomposity and if you hear a sentence or even a few paragraphs which can be described as utterly pompous, if during the reading I really get unbearable, I would like to ask you to stand up, raise your voice and point this out to me.
I have been asked to speak about my work and the place of this work in the wider context of Dutch literature and the Second World War.
That is quite a mouthful.
And there the problems start already.
To begin with, what on earth is Dutch literature? Let’s leave the definition of literature to scholars. Let’s just concentrate on the word Dutch. Something belongs to Dutch literature when the novel or poem, or essay for that matter, was originally written in the Dutch language. Fair enough. There are people who would argue that authors who live in the Netherlands but write in another language, for instance Spanish or English, also belong to the body of Dutch literature. This is making things too difficult. Should we in hindsight describe Paul Bowles as a Moroccan author because he lived in Morocco for so many years? The main reason for my presence here in Portugal is that my novel, The Jewish Messiah, has recently been published in this country. Anyone looking for typically Dutch things may be highly disappointed by this book. The main characters in this novel are not of Dutch origin, and most of the action takes place in Switzerland and Israel, although there are a few scenes as well in Amsterdam. None of the problems that the characters in this novel cause, none of the hardship felt by these characters, can be described as Dutch hardship or Dutch problems. To be fair I would not even know how to define a Dutch problem. Even the fight against the sea is hardly a unique Dutch endeavor anymore, now that we are all faced with rising sea levels.
A couple of years ago, at a reading in the Austrian city of Salzburg, I managed to upset both the audience and the host when I declared that the fact that Goethe was German didn’t seem of great importance to me.
I wasn't trying to provoke anyone and I didn’t want to steal a hero from an already battered people – I was merely making the point that considering what is German in the works of Goethe is not the most interesting way of approaching and discussing his work.
The Austrian playwright and novelist Elfriede Jelinek is a woman and this is by all means more than a minor detail. But to explain her work solely from the point of view that Mrs. Jelinek is indeed a woman, is more than a mistake, it’s an offense.
Last month on a panel at the PEN-festival in New York (for your information, the panel was about humor) I was asked to describe my cultural influences in terms of nations.
Well, where should I have started? I was born and raised in the Netherlands, my parents were born in Germany, some of my grandparents came from a city in the Austrian-Hungarian empire, a city that now belongs to the Ukraine, and it’s not a myth that I have longed to be an Italian since the age of 22.
But after the discussion a woman approached me. She was disappointed that I had not mentioned the US as a cultural influence despite the fact that I have been living in New York for almost twelve years.
To be honest I had not thought about it, I had completely forgotten the place where I live. As far as I’m concerned, a nice definition of home is: the place you forget to mention when you have to list your cultural influences in terms of nations.
Not only do I have difficulties defining myself, what’s more important is that I have quite a few objections to the way I am defined by others, and I don’t know how to define the people for whom I write, if they should be defined at all.
The question I am often asked by kids in schools, but also by other readers, “For whom do you write?”, is still a shock to me. What am I supposed to answer? Should I give the flippant answer: “For human beings”? Or should I try to be honest and say that since most novels are bought and read these days by women, I probably write for women? The starting point of literature should be that it is universal. If this is an open door to you I apologize, but my experience is that this open door is closed in many places.
Yes, it is helpful to know that I’m Dutch or that Thomas Bernhard was Austrian, but to stare at a body of work through the lens of gender or national identity or religion is yet another example of reductionism.
I would even say that literature offers both the reader and the author an escape when it comes to the small cage of identity forced upon all of us. My identity nowadays is very much connected to the fact that I’m an author. This is more important and telling to me than the simple observation that most of my work – but not all of it – is still written in Dutch.
It is undeniable that there are quite a few Dutch novelists who have been important to me and can be listed as influences, most notably Willem Frederik Hermans and Frans Kellendonk. But at least as important an influence and maybe even more important is a not very well-known Polish author named Marek Hlasko.
And quite a few years ago, I wrote an essay for a Dutch newspaper, in which I explained that my biggest influence of all (at least at the beginning of my literary career) were three novels written by Astrid Lindgren.
I’ll quote from this essay: “My shining example is a hero. My shining example is a fat little man who can fly, because he has a propeller on his back. A fat little man who lives in a shack on the roof, above the Erikson family in Stockholm. My example’s name is Karlsson on the Roof. And although he himself claims to be the son of the Sandman and Mama Mia, we all know that his real mother is Astrid Lindgren.
No story can do without a hero. It is the hero who drags you through the boring parts, it is for the hero’s sake that you read on. And not because of the sublime style, the gorgeous symbolism or – yet another expression that makes me gag – the fine eye for detail.
In Stendhal’s The Black and the Red, there are whole chapters both gristly and boring. The reason we keep reading is because the hero, Julien Sorel, has been brought to life so well. We keep reading because we want to go on with Julien Sorel, until he is beheaded, and preferably beyond that.
One of the most successful heroes in the history of literature is named Karlsson on the Roof. He can easily compete with the great names - which you may fill in yourself - and many a hero dwindles away when compared with Karlsson.” “In earlier essays, I have mentioned the importance of credibility. Is a fat little man who can fly and who lives on the roof credible? No, but the brilliant thing about Astrid Lindgren is that she knows that herself. The Eriksons, with the exception of Erik, have a great deal of trouble believing in Karlsson. And when they are finally left with no choice but to admit his existence, they are horrified by the irrevocable consequences of having a Karlsson exist in one’s immediate surroundings.
Lindgren renders the incredible credible by emphasizing how strange it is that fat little flying men exist. That it is, in fact, most terribly strange, but terribly strange things do have a way of happening in this world. After a few chapters, the reader -–like the Eriksons – has capitulated. Karlsson is not a figment of the imagination. Karlsson exists. Even though Karlsson says of himself: “If I am a figment, then I’ll have you know that I happen to be the best figment in the world.” No: anyone who makes a claim like that cannot be a figment.” (End of quote.)
Karlsson is an enemy of pomposity if ever there was one, even though he himself is full of self-importance, and he should be mentioned here, if only for that reason.
But there are other important reasons as well. It is Karlsson who taught me that the big enemy of literature is the idea that literature should do something that it cannot do, or can do only coincidentally: changing the world by teaching readers clear and compact lessons - which incidentally does not imply that the novel is not a moral universe.
Karlsson not only offered me the possibility of identity far beyond the identity forced upon me, he taught me the necessity of playing and of taking the play seriously. In life, you can only become serious when you are willing to continue playing. When you are conscious of the fact you are playing. Later I came across similar ideas expressed by Erasmus.
But a clear break from the old identity is never possible, not even with the help of Karlsson.
And the old identity is always connected to parents or the lack of parents.
In my case therefore a big part of the other, the old identity, was connected with World War II.
My parents were Germans, but also Jews. They were survivors. My mother survived the camps. My father went into hiding, not as a Jew, but as a German soldier.
After the war they were Germans and Jews, and Dutch if for no other reason than that they lived in Amsterdam. My father was opposed to religion but at the same time sent me to all kinds of religious schools. And the confusion didn’t stop there. Naturally my interest in World War II was considerable, but I discovered a strange attraction towards the Nazi’s, which I kept a secret. Whenever I saw them in movies or documentaries there was something in me that wanted to be just like them. I don’t want to go into psycho-analytical explanations, I just want to point out the attraction of fascism. The appealing side of the fascist aesthetics has been underestimated for a long time after the war.
And it’s here, ironically enough, that my individual identity resembles the national identity in the Netherlands, if there is still such a thing.
If we look back at the scandals that haunted the Netherlands in the last thirty or forty years, we see that World War II and it shadows are omnipresent.
A Dutch actor kidnapped himself after a theatre decided to perform a play by Fassbinder that according to some was anti-Semitic – the actor kidnapped himself to warn against anti-Semitism. And whether it is the scandal of an important politician who turned out to have been a member of the Waffen-SS, or even the killings of Van Gogh and Fortuyn recently, the Second World War is always there.
When you study texts before and after the killings of both Van Gogh and Fortuyn you will have a hard time finding a text with no references to World War II at all.
Inevitably these references were not always accurate, not always necessary, and not always used in good faith.
It is unavoidable that history sooner or later turns into a myth. There is a case to be made that the Second World War might have been something exceptional and that it is wise to be extremely prudent when using this war as a metaphor.
When Auschwitz is used as the metaphor for all the suffering in the world, Auschwitz becomes meaningless, and to a certain degree also the suffering itself looses meaning. Auschwitz becomes a religious symbol, and as all religious symbols a tool that can be used and abused easily.
The metaphorical use of World War II is at the same time empty and extremely dangerous. This realization provided the starting point for my novel The Jewish Messiah. This novel is not about the war, but about the image of the war, about our collective memory. It is about the traps of well-intended lessons we try to teach our children and fellow citizens.
In 1997, I wrote an essay about the German author Edgar Hilsenrath, in particular about his novel Night, which was for a short time prohibited in postwar Germany.
I will quote from this essay: “Night is set in a ghetto. The inhabitants of this ghetto (Jews, probably, although we are never told that in so many words) do everything in their power to survive. They steal, trade sex for bread and a place to sleep, knock gold teeth out of the mouths of the dead and dying, they allow the sick to waste away, and waste away themselves. That the novel fuels anti-Semitic sentiments must be emphatically denied, and not simply because Hilsenrath himself happened to be a Jew and actually spent some time in a ghetto. A novelist cannot be expected, for the sake of a little Aufklärung, to crowd his book with kindly, benign and sympathetic Jews who, when given the opportunity, also play violin on the roof.
In the long run, Kindler printed only 1,250 copies of Night. Two years later, the book appeared in translation at Doubleday in the United States and sold 500,000 copies. Apparently, the American people were considered less suggestible than the Germans.
Those who believed that the Germans were likely to be swayed by Night were respectable people, with good intentions, operating in the service of a good cause: combating anti-Semitism in Germany.
The danger that is involved in claiming that people may be unduly swayed by a book, or that a book may have side-effects that should be precluded, is illustrated by the following example: A judge in the state of Oklahoma recently ruled that the movie The Tin Drum, after the book of the same name by Günter Grass, is child pornography. Anyone in Oklahoma found in possession of a videotape of that film can be arrested and prosecuted. Just to be clear: this is not a hypothetical example. This is real. The law that made this verdict possible was passed to help ban child pornography from Oklahoma and the United States which, as far as I can see, is a reasonably noble objective.
Kenneth Anderson’s comment on the Oklahoma verdict in the Times Literary Supplement seems quite relevant in this regard: “In order to play with power in public life, the right-wing fundamentalists have placed children on a higher plane than their own God. And precisely because they realize that children are a God to non-believers, they have made a public appeal to the well-being of those children in a way they could not to God Himself.
Substitute Jews, Negroes, women or their husbands for the word “children” in the above sentence and you will see how important it is that God’s throne in this world remain vacant.” (End of quote.)
I stated before that my own identity is connected to my being an author, and although I cannot really escape my parents and their history, by the same token I cannot turn their history into my history. There is a border between the lives of my parents and my life that cannot and should not be crossed; certain experiences don’t bind us, they separate us.
When I have to define the author, the novelist, as I see him, as I espy him to be, I would say that he is a spy, but not a common spy. He spies to come closer. He spies in order to make a connection. His spying is an exit strategy out of a state of isolation.
And at the same time he has to realize that his spying is without any real importance.
Today's novelist should accept his unimportance, both from a practical and ethical point of view. Only then can he try to take himself seriously again.