Posts Tagged ‘The Netherlands’

Menno Wigman, the Dutch poet, is dead.

Ok, he died in February this year.
He was aged 51. He had been diagnosed with Loffler’s (I cannot get the  a to umlaut!) syndrome. Of only forty reported cases in the world, he was one.
‘How come I manage to go running around with it?’ he’d said.

He was born in 1966, in Santpoort, The Netherlands. He eventually relocated to Amsterdam in the eighties. Drummer for a punk band; self-published early poems. His drive and commitment to his work was consuming.
From 2012 to 2014 he became Amsterdam’s own Poet Laureate.

In 2016 the excellent Arc Publications (https://www.arcpublications.co.uk/) brought out Menno’s selected poems, WINDOW-CLEANER SEES PAINTINGS. It is Number 40, of Arc’s Visible Poets series, and translated by David Colmer.

The first poem in the book, from his first book, All Cities Stink in the Summer, 1997, opens:
Ik zag de grootste geesten van mijn generatie…. translated as
I saw the best minds of my generation….

Yep, we start of with a bang, quoting Allen Ginsburg. The tone is low-key, enervated. In sonnet-form, it ends :
They came too late. Their promise unredeemed.
   The cities gleamed as black as caviar.

And whose last line gives the title of his next book.
More and more his models, his emotional brothers, became Charles Baudelaire, Jules Laforgue, poets of that period, the ‘dark Romantics.’. He described the appeal as that of recognising with them that one lived in the ‘end time.’ A fascination with a falling-off, then, that went hand-in-hand with the revelation of the riches in the here-and-now.

The poem that first caught my attention was Misunderstanding, from the next book. It starts:

This will not be an upbeat poem. And why
I’d even let the secret slip’s a mystery to me….

We’re straight into liminal regions, places where nothing is as it seems, not certain, but part of the flux of one’s being.

But no, I was wrong – the first poem of his that caught me was In Conclusion:
I know the melancholy of copy centres…


Technically he was very much a poet of steady, driving rhythms, strong metres. He used sonnet forms, pantoum (Hotel Night), half-rhyme, assonance.
‘You write poetry with a drum-kit in your head,’ another writer had commented.
It’s how to convey this layered interlacing was David Colman’s challenge. He gives in his introduction illustrations of the original sound and rhythm structure of lines, and his equivalences to these. This is priceless.

*

Menno Wigman also wrote as part of the Lonely Funerals scheme (see my last posting).
There are several pieces here from the scheme, and they reveal a lot about the way he worked, wrote, felt, hoped… was.

Beside Mrs P’s Council Coffin, begins:

Is she asleep? She is. After eighty-three years
of combing her hair three hundred and sixty-five
days a year, of walking to the shops and back….

He ushers us into an intimacy with her life, the personal and mundane; an identification with people as they show themselves to us. That is, the ordinary, that constitutes most of our lives, like it or not. It is our mastery or not, partial or fluctuating control, of the ordinary gives us our kudos, our tags, our recognisable social factors.
The last verse veers away from any demeaning sentimentality, any further diminishing of Mrs P as a person, the one lying dead there, in that plain council coffin:

…. Call it tragedy, rhythm, rhyme –
time, that dirty carnivore, ensures an end
   that stinks. But she’s asleep at last, asleep.
So cover her up, make sure her weary feet
          don’t need to tread the streets again.

What I especially appreciate about this verse is the range, how it veers from the reality of death, the dead body, to the humanity we shared and continue to share with her. That ability to shift register I applaud. And listen to its sound patterns: David Colmer gives good indications, even in this extract I quote, how the poems work to the ear.
In another Lonely Funerals poem, we see something altogether different:

Earth, Don’t Be Hard (this from his last collection, in 2016)

Earth, a virtuous body has now arrived.
A royal sun rose in it once,
its eyes shone brightly like a long July,
a breath of mellow twilight filled its lungs,
a spellbound moon traversed its breast.

He knew himself dying at this point. But if you need uplifting poetry, words to gladden and celebrate, here it is, this is it.

The palms of its hands felt water and stroked pets.
The soles of its feet kissed beaches and rocks. Insight.
A strange insight formed in its head, its tongue
grew sharp, its fingers found the fists they held,
it fought for bread and money, love and light.

Notice that ‘its‘ – there’s no ease of relationship; the sense of self has sharpened, become individualised, rather than considered a social statistic.

You can read an awful lot of books about it.
You can even written your own. Earth, don’t be hard
on this man who had at least a hundred keys,
but not a map or a compass for this blind path,
and now has come to spend his first night here.

His control of the change of register by this time was masterful: from the quiddity, the detail that could be mockery, of ‘the hundred keys,’ we go straight to the common fate, the all-end, to all our own blind endings on that same path to that first night in the grave.

– I don’t think Menno would mind me saying how that last line reminds me of that moment in the film, The Hunger, with Catherine Deneauve and David Bowie, when he was laid the first time among the ones who had gone before him, in that attic among the coffins: ‘Be gentle with him on his first night,’ she said tenderly to them. –

How well do you know the poetry of Jules Laforgue?
Let us consider this early poem, The  First Night.
It begins:

Here comes Evening, sweet to the old lecher…

It is the last verse, though, I call you to:

I imagine myself in the heart of the graveyard, and I put myself in their place, and I enter the coffins of those who are about to spend their first night here.
(plain prose translation by Graham Dunstan Martin, 1998, for Penguin Books).

This does not distract from Menno’s poem, but enhances. Jules Laforgue’s poem is almost flippant, it has the bravura of youth (he did not live long enough to outgrow it), but he given gravitas. It is interesting to see how that has been done.

Jules Laforgue was greatly enamoured of Schopenhauer, but his greatest love was Hartmann. With him he found a fellow-in-arms against the bourgeois world. Hartmann (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Robert_Eduard_von_Hartmann) created a distance, rather than empathy – though acknowledging that the two positions are intertwined, co-dependent.
It is here that I think Menno’s ‘it‘ (above) was found, his love-hate relationship with life, the world.

So, how do Menno’s poems work? I mentioned above his extensive use of metre and regular forms. For him metre and rhythm are what pulls the reader through the poem. Not following the sense, the argument.
This is important.
For Menno Wigman this was his secret, and on this he worked all his short life. There was an lot of ‘attitude’ in those early poems – Jules Laforgue, at times, seems all ‘attitude’ – but he matured into a compassionate writer.

https://www.trouw.nl/cultuur/menno-wigman-1966-2018-was-poezie-al-kon-hij-er-ook-aangenaam-over-somberen~a1192853/

https://www.neerlandistiek.nl/2018/02/in-de-poezie-heeft-niemand-gelijk-interview-met-menno-wigman/

 

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Earlier this year we went to a funeral for which the deceased’s family could not afford to pay. Payment for the funeral, interment, service, devolved to the local Council. It was, in fact, a pauper’s funeral.
The service was led by the undertakers, no priest was present. It was a good, dignified service, but there was no religious aspect, the focus was on the sense of loss, and our common bond. A plain coffin, a plain service.

How many funerals, though, have no mourners at all? No attendees, other than officials?

*

In 2001, the Dutch writer, Bart FM Droog, the city poet for Groningen, conceived of a scheme where writers could give readings at such ‘lonely funerals’.
The scheme took off; Amsterdam took it up, the rest of The Netherlands, then Belgium.

It is estimated that around 60% of Dutch households have a Funeral Plan.
Sounds good, doesn’t it – but that’s only just over half: a good 40% do not.
Poverty is always with us, and in our economic climate it is a close cousin of many. We do not hear of those who die alone. Those whose remaining family cannot be traced. Those with no assets at death.

This scheme, to me, seemed such a touching and wonderful achievement, and for it to get official backing and financing would suggest many felt so as well.

But then other things happen, once a thing becomes financed – a competition was started for the ‘best’ commemorative poem.
With winners.
So, those who didn’t win… are their commemorations… not valued?
Does the competition cause ‘better’ pieces to be written?

Or is another way of drawing people’s attention to the scheme? Better coverage=greater support?

It is still a moving and an excellent scheme, despite all that.

https://www.rnw.org/archive/lonely-funeral

http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/the-dutch-city-poets-who-memorialize-the-lonely-dead/

http://blog.sevenponds.com/lending-insight/%E2%80%A8%E2%80%A8lonely-funerals-remembering-those-who-everyone-forgot

https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_low001200001_01/_low001200001_01_0006.php

I still cannot understand why the Christian minister did not take the funeral service at the funeral I attended. Where was the vaunted Christian charity?
It could be that the family of the deceased  did not ask for a specifically Christian funeral. I hope that was it – if they had so much as a choice.

We knew the deceased person, and were able to give our own short commemorative speech. She was young still, bright, intelligent, caring, a mother of two children
Without our words there would have been none.

Support the Lonely Funerals scheme.

Earlier, I had written:

 Book Review: ‘The Evenings, by Gerard Reve

This is an early outsider novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’ (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written…’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem with the book.
Thr novel is set in 1946, presumably Amsterdam. There’s no TV, no record-player or records, there is, a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
And everyone is bored out of their heads.

The chief charcter, 26 year old Frits Egters, entertains himself by needling everyone. This ‘enetrtainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I thought I had a distinct impression of Billy Liar, by Keith Sillitoe, but, no.

And so I am struggling with it. Brcause… ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’
Exactly.
The date, see, is 1946.
The best minds of the previous generation were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, transports. The best minds of that generation were shipped out to the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, malnourished, spiritually dead.

OK, so, recently I was thinking about it again. And thought:

This book is not about boredom.

That is, boredom as the ubiquitous malaise we know it to be. The book describes conditions that are time-specific, culture-specific.

Think of it like this:
people had been living on a chemical diet of fear, adrenalin, horror for all the years of the Nazi Occupation. It had become their lives, creating its own neural pathways and specific synapses. The mind develops a world-sense around the nodes that provide the  information coming in.
Then it was gone.
The body, and concepts that the mind runs, its narratives, had to adjust. To what? What was left? Nothing was as before.
It must have been utterly exhausting, to the point of physically and mentally debilitating.

The Evenings was not about boredom.
It was about one person’s sense of War-fatigue, of dislocation, and trauma. Gerard Reve, the author, wrote of specifics, of a singular sense of these things, within the specific mind-set of Dutch culture, and its older sense of exclusiveness and strong cultural community.

And I’d mentioned the book’s kinship with John-Paul Sartre and his La Nausee.
In this way, nor was this book, and by extension Existentialism a universal condition.
It was a temporal, contingent, and place-specific physiological engagement with a suddenly changed world.
Sartre wove together his own grand narrative from writers who were exploring, or had explored, adjacent states of being, mind. Merleu-Ponty; controversially, Heidegger; Husserl; Simone de Beauvoir; they can all be counted as having contributed. Would they continue to recognise their work in his? And at which points, in the process that was the development of Existentialist thinking?
In this way Sartre attempted to create a universal mood from a specific, particular, set of circumstances.

It could be argued that this was Derrida’s modus also: his ‘little game’ as Foucault called it, of foregrounding (inconsequential?)  background detail. The destabilising he created – was that also a symptom of post-War reaction?

I suppose I am thinking here in terms of Post-Traumatic Distress.
If so, then forms of this state of being would also be present in Vietnam; Afghanistan; Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Serbia; in Syria and Iraq. In China and Russia. In all war zones.
It  comes down, in the end, to whether it is politically acceptable to recognise, define, identify, this in one’s populace.

*

Ever since I became fully aware, I have felt to have lived under a cloud from World War 2 fall-out.
It is the psychic damage that has been hardest to overcome.
So much so, that it now seems it would be an act of monstrous dimensions to attempt to overcome all that. One would have be a dangerous person indeed not to feel the, hear, the terrible cries still, of people killed mercilessly in that War. Any war.
And they do still keep occurring.

There is a book I read some time back: On The Causes of War, by Hidemi Suganami, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1996.
Hidemi Suganami was Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the time of writing. He is now Professor of International Relations at Aberystwyth University.
For those who are not familiar with this post: Aberystwyth has a most prestigious International Relations department, of great reputation and  long standing.
His conclusion may seem banal in presentation:

That there is war, because war is still seen as an option.

It is the implications, though: we would rather kill huge numbers of people, let the beast in us out, and harm people for generations to come, than seek out other means of resolution.
And now we see the previously unthinkable: nuclear conflict actually on the cards.
It is definitely time to join CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). I do not believe in unilateralism – but sometimes it is necessary to make a stand.

The perpetrators are as deeply affected as those they inflict their terror upon.

Trump and N Korea:
Yeh, that’s the way forward:
‘What brave new world….’

THE EVENINGS, by Gerard Reve, 1947.
Published by the excellent Pushkin Press, in its first English translation, by Sam Garrett, 2016

Avonden_eerstedruk

I am currently reading The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (Gerard Kornelius van het Reve, 1923 to 2006).

This is an early, outsider-novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’  (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written….’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem.
The novel is set in 1946, presumably in Amsterdam. There is no TV, no record player or records; there is  a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
Of course no internet, iphones….
And everyone is bored out their heads.

Note that, ye critics of today’s youth.

And so the chief character, 26 year old Frits van Egters, entertains himself by needling everybody. This ‘entertainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I had the distinct impressions of Billy Liar, by Alan Sillitoe, but no.

And so I am struggling with it; struggling to keep up the interest.
Because…. ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’.
Exactly.
The date, see: 1946.
The best minds of the generation before were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, the transports. The best engineers, mechanics, workers, had been trucked off for the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, physically malnourished, spiritually dead.

And Frit’s generation were beginning to stir, wake, shake themselves, look around. And what did they see?
‘He looked at her’ (his mother), ‘:  the thin face, the grey hair, the slight growth of hair around the mouth and chin, the arms that never stopped moving. “Help us,” he thought.

 – Is it me, or is it always the woman is the easy target? That she must maintain a static, constant, role, appearance, demeanor, for the narrator/character.
Woman as a distant, uncomprehended being; woman as an inhabitant of the same world, also – but surely she cannot feel what we chaps feel, how we feel. She goes on doing that house stuff as though nothing else mattered, or had happened.
Only, Frits wakes one night, to sounds in his parent’s room. He entered, to find his mother shaking and sobbing. His father, isolated in his own wrecked existence, excuses it as one her nervous attacks.
There is an unwritten novel in that, certainly. In her side of the story.

Frits looked around his world, and saw people holding onto the known and trusted traditions, but they now seemed little more than threadbare habits:
‘”Who’d like a pickled herring?…”, “”No, please, no.” But he does.
‘“… there’s a real Middenweg wind blowing…” , “…Please don’t use terms unfamiliar to the uninitiated.”

The book starts off well, with a sly, dry, ironic humour as Frits woke early one Sunday morning. Early: good, despite the bad dreams, but time to make something of the day. Then we see him every few minutes clock-checking, and the opportunities flounder, die, as the day wears on.

The story is set in late December. Even the Winter was a disappointment: the ice on the canal melted early; there was no real snow; plenty of drizzle, yes, but nothing with any energy or excitement to it.
The intention was there, but it is as though the life had been drained out of people, the world, even; the spark to ignite a creative fire, dampened.

‘“Tom ta tom tom, tom ta tom,” Frits sang to himself, “nothing ‘s good, but everything’s fine.”
– There’s definitely a modernist technique at work here. There is certainly an echo of Doblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in the use of vernacular, in the internal monologues, thesinging.

*

The novel is structured on ten evenings, of increasing frustration with a fruitless life, and world. Each chapter charts the route taken by the tacking and manouvering of a clumsy, mostly empty, boat.

No, the novel is a not a ‘Ulysses’; it may share some of the self-absorption of Joyce’s classic, but the scale and scaffolding are pointedly small-scale.
After the previous period’s vacuous claims to new world orders, new worlds, great futures, this is a pointedly and purposely humdrum conception of humanity.
When you build, you must build from proper materials: people as they are – and not cloud cities, a reich, built from vacuous guff shored up with people’s real blood, guts, lives.

We see Frits attend the school re-union; his peers were trying to adopt the old role of getting on, making something of themselves. Frits, perversely, does not.  It is not as definite as that, or as a much a stance. His life has no heroic gestures, statements, no focussed disavowal of old values. No, he rumbles on in a diffuse scepticism.

And it is here where the book’s strength lies.
It does not succumb to cliche, or stereotype. Frits is disagreeable, but not hateful. The story charts  the hinterland that is his life: he does not veer far from the main path, and certainly not off into the dubious byways, side roads, the district beyond the tracks.

The immediately pre-War writers grouped under the banner of Forum, were preoccupied with the relationship of man to society. The War changed all that; the War brought the Nazi regime’s Kultuurkamer and its prescription of everything other than National Socialist writing.
Reve’s book was the first one of impact to be published in that aftermath.

Reinder P Meijer, in his’ Literature of the Low Countries’ (Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd, 1978) writes, ‘The dreariness of the subject matter recalls the work of the nineteenth-century naturalists, of whom Van de Reve may be regarded as a descendant.’
The directness of Gerard Reve’s depiction, though, is the main factor: ‘Van het Reve offers no explanations, no comments, no psychological key.’ (: Reinder P Meijer).
Gerard Reve also employs ornate speech – the interactions between Frits and older brother Joop, and associates, reads – as his response to the use of vernacular, above, shows – as an arch, ornate, edging-towards-parody of earlier high-flown literary styles.

It is not Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the book shares kinship with, but perhaps Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’. They both explore the ennui. Sartre’s book has the definite stance, raison, backstory even, in the opus of Being and Nothingness. Reve eschews those grand gestures, definitions, concepts, in favour of the individual vision.
Where Sartre argues for the individualistic response, Reve gives it.

*

Gerard Reve hit the headlines again with his 1970’s quartet of books ‘Dear Boys,’ ‘Sweet Life,’ ‘I Loved Him,’ and ‘A Circus Boy,’ where he explores gay sex, with a brutal edge. It is the style, also, that grabbed attention. The books are written with a blend of fact and fiction, in the form of written letters, and fantasy, but not the standard epistolary format.  Reinders P Meije again: the books stand out because of their ‘firm structure and … skillful way(s) of preserving a precarious balance between reality and the fairy-tale elements… introduced in his later novels…’.

But I’m still stuck.