When the reading is over and the inevitable question-and-answer session begins—and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course—the question invariably arises. “When exactly did you start writing?”
As though it could be traced back to an exact date and time, like one’s first cigarette, or the loss of one’s virginity. The interlocutor tends to adopt an expression that demands a painstakingly precise answer: “September 20, 1986. Immediately after dinner.” But mightn’t a classroom essay, written with no matter how great a lack of enthusiasm, be considered the start of writing? Or an awkward love letter? Perhaps even a poem written for an uncle’s silver wedding anniversary?
If called upon to pinpoint the moment when I began writing, I suppose I would have to say that it was the moment when I—of necessity, and prematurely—ceased to attend the Vossium Gymnasium in Amsterdam. Yet even that can’t really be called “a moment,” for like so many estrangements my estrangement from high school was a long, drawn-out affair that lasted weeks, even months.
Then perhaps the birth of my writing career—if you’ll excuse the pretentious tone—is to be found not so much in my farewell to the Vossius Gymnasium as in my decision not to enroll in another, somewhat easier, high school where no Latin and Greek was taught, as I was advised to do from all sides. I decided, in fact, that I no longer wanted to go to school at all. To me, the fact that I was thereby effectively putting an end to all prospects of an academic career seemed merely the icing on the cake. I was going to be an actor, and no university was needed for that.
At readings like the one mentioned above, I usually tell my audience that I locked myself for twenty-four hours in the bathroom of my parental home, where I still lived at the time, in order to show my parents that I was serious about putting an early end to my academic career. That is, I fear, a form of mythologization, an activity which comes naturally to the writer. But a writer, in my view at least, is also well-advised to then turn around and do a little demythologizing as well.
To convince me that I must not fritter away my life at an early age, my parents exerted emotional pressure on me, and I undoubtedly exerted emotional pressure on my parents to convince them that frittering away my future was, as far as I was concerned, the only way to create enough room for my own life. And if my memory serves me well, during this mutual exertion of emotional pressure I did indeed lock myself in the bathroom, but definitely not for twenty-four hours. Three hours, max, it couldn’t have been more than that.
My father did, however, succeed in pushing through orders that I allow myself to be tested by a psychological consultancy in Utrecht, half an hour from Amsterdam.
The consultancy promised to tell its customers what it was they were good at. What the consultancy did not mention was that some of those customers might very well prove to be good at nothing. At that stage in my own life there was, with the exception of acting, nothing at which I wished to be good, but my father was determined to let the psychological examination have the final say.
The test took all day. There were a few young people in the room, but most of those being tested were men in their forties who, despite years of job-market experience, still seemed to have no idea where their own strengths lay. The mood was somber and a little tense, like in a crematorium.
Four weeks later the test results arrived. My arithmetical skills were somewhere around average, but my language skills were below average. Exactly what it was that the consultancy advised me to do with my life I can no longer recall. All I know is that my father was deeply disappointed by the agency’s recommendations, and hid away their report in the bottom drawer of his desk, from which it reappeared only after his death.
Meanwhile, my attempts to get ahead as an actor were being systematically thwarted. No theater school wanted to have me, and in the world of film I made it no further than glorified extra. A few of these experiences I was later able to incorporate in my novel Silent Extras.
After a couple of years on the sidelines of film and theater, two things became clear to me. First, when you are a glorified extra everyone is allowed to humiliate you. The second conclusion was a more personal one: I was not an actor. I lacked the fire that burned deep within. And probably the talent. I no longer wanted, in the middle of the night and at freezing cold locations, to perform stunts that never made it into the movie anyway.
My father told me: “I don’t care what you become anymore, even if it’s a shoeshine boy. But you have to become something.” For once I thought he was right. Being an extra was not a profession, merely a hobby at best, and one you had to stop doing before it was too late.
I responded to an advertisement asking for unskilled administrative personnel, and my acting career came to an end. On second thought, however, that is also a form of mythologization. My acting career guttered out. I no longer bothered auditioning indiscriminately for bit parts, and soon enough the casting agents stopped calling. A vestige of that dream, which in retrospect seems more like an attempt to elude my parents and their expectations, took the form of dance lessons. Classical ballet lessons, to be precise. Every Monday evening from eight to ten. A theater school had informed me politely but matter-of-factly that my motor skills and the musicality of my movements were not exactly the cat’s meow. Without receiving any commitment whatsoever that they would accept me once my motor skills had improved, I decided to go to work on it. Through an acquaintance, with whom I had once played in an amateur theater production, I came in contact with his mother: Jolanta Zalewska.
Jolanta gave dance lessons to students. Born in Warsaw, she had fled the Communists and ended up in Amsterdam. Her son said she had once been offered a job as choreographer with Amsterdam’s prestigious National Ballet, but was struck down by a crippling case of nerves the day before she went in. She polished off two bottles of vodka and arrived at the interview in a woeful state. That was the end of her career as choreographer with the National Ballet.
Later it turned out that she had not so much fled Communism as come to Amsterdam for the sake of love. Those are details. Writers are not, by the way, the only ones with a talent for mythologization. It’s also worth noting that it is often extremely unclear just where running away from Communism (or whatever) begins, and love ends.
In any event, I will never forget the day I met Jolanta. She was little and volatile. She spoke Dutch with a heavy Polish accent and smoked greedily, with abrupt gestures. It was as though she kept forgetting that she was holding a cigarette. Then she would remember and, with thinly disguised irritation, take a drag.
Ballet lessons for students was indeed her métier: jazz ballet and classical. She recommended that I begin with classical.
The Monday evening sessions were attended by a number of students, including a number of attractive young women after whom I lusted to no avail, each and every one of them, as well as a few older academic types: a philosopher, a general practitioner, a theater director.
Our pianist, Roman, was a Polish refugee as well, but unlike Jolanta he never spoke. At the stroke of eight he would appear, lift the lid of the keyboard, and begin to play. At the stroke of ten he would stop, close the piano, and disappear without a word.
One day he was dead, and Jolanta placed a rose on the piano. From then on she used a cassette recorder.
I can no longer clearly recall why I didn’t stop with classic ballet even when I knew that my acting career was drawing to an early close. Perhaps I was ashamed to admit to Jolanta that I had abandoned hope. Perhaps there were more practical considerations. In those days I was not exactly what you’d call a loner, but the classical ballet lessons offered the prospect of a certain amount of social contact. When the evening was over, Jolanta, unlike Roman, always went to the cafe with a few of her students. It would probably be wise to pause now and reconsider the moment when I started writing; it was not the moment when I dropped out of school, it was the moment when I decided to take classical ballet lessons, to do something about that musicality in which experts said my body was so sorely lacking.
At the end of the evening Jolanta would usually speak a few comforting words to me, something along the lines of: “Okay, you’ve got a weak back, but legs like a bull.” Another time she told me: “You’re attractive, with those dirty glasses of yours.”
Perhaps that is why I was always one of the last to go home. Or perhaps it was simply because there was nothing for me to go home to. Jolanta always went home late. Sometimes she didn’t go home at all.
It behooves me at this point to say something about the rose vendors who, in those days, wandered the streets of Amsterdam. They were usually Indians or Pakistanis, armed with a bouquet of roses of dubious quality and a Polaroid camera, often of dubious quality as well, who went from cafe to cafe in the hope of selling a rose and a photograph to needy romantics.
When the evening was young, Jolanta would ignore those rose vendors, but as it wore on she became increasingly friendly toward them, until the moment arrived when she would say: “Give me all the roses you’ve got.”
Later it turned out that she maintained sexual relations with several of those rose vendors. The more she drank, the less particular she became, until at a certain point, I suspect, she would admit to herself: “Body heat is body heat.”
Jolanta also had a hobby that expanded into a part-time job: she liked to borrow money. That she liked to borrow money, of course, had to do with the fact that she also liked to spend money, and preferably more than she earned. Her ability to keep on borrowing money can only be ascribed to her charm and powers of persuasion. There were a number of cafes and restaurants where she was able to eat and drink on credit. And there were, of course, establishments where that no longer worked. Having said that, it is important to note that she borrowed money only from people who, in her eyes, already had enough of it. In those days I had little money myself, and she never borrowed much from me.
She was also extremely generous. With other people’s money, to be sure, but that is a talent in its own right.
Despite this shifting field of interests, there were few things she took more seriously than art in general and dance in particular. In the midst of a cafe conversation about politics, wine, or roses, she might suddenly launch into an analysis of another customer’s body language. She also liked to talk about the difference between the way Dutch people and Poles moved. “The reason Dutch people walk funny,” she told me once, “is because they ride bicycles so much.”
Jolanta’s son, Redbad, also brought me into contact with another Polish emigre in Amsterdam: Ewa Mehl.
As a baby Ewa had been found along the tracks in Poland, and was therefore almost certainly Jewish. She had been raised in a foster home in Wroclaw, the former Breslau.
She was an artist, a ceramicist to be more exact, and she had a studio in downtown Amsterdam. Redbad suggested I stop by and visit her sometime.
Ewa Mehl welcomed me to her little studio with the words: “So, you want to become an actor?”
“Well,” I said, “to be honest I’m not so sure about that anymore.”
“Well then what do you want to be.”
A brief silence ensued.
“What do you do now?” she wanted to know.
I told her that I performed unskilled administrative duties.
Her next question, whether I hoped to continue performing unskilled administrative duties for the rest of my life, was not hard to answer.
“I write, too,” I said.
That was not a complete lie. I had written a couple of plays, one-acters to be precise, albeit more in the hope that those plays would further my acting career than that they would lead to a breakthrough as a playwright. At the age of 15 I had, almost by accident, won a playwriting prize for young people. I was honored, but still a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a prize for my acting abilities.
For the rest, I wrote letters. To the waitresses and salesgirls I lusted after. I believed that those letters might do what the body itself had failed to do: seduce. That the letter would cause the faulty musicality of the body to be forgotten by focusing all attention on the musicality of the language. My confidence in the written word must, in those days, have bordered on the insane. Especially seeing that I did not limit myself to one letter, even though the only reaction was silence: no, I kept writing.
As letter writer I lived a life of serial monogamy. This time it was a salesgirl at the grocery store, the next time an actress I had met and who had started talking to me. Most of all, however, I wrote letters to a waitress at a cheap Italian restaurant in Amsterdam. Her name was Mariëtte and even now I cannot think about her without an echo of lust and longing. Through the grapevine I have heard that she recently gave birth to her first child.
I told none of this to Ewa Mehl. All I said was: “I write, too.”
To which she replied: “So show me something you’ve written.”
The first person who took my writing seriously and provided it with criticism was a Polish immigrant in Amsterdam whose Dutch was only so-so.
Her criticism was fairly scathing. “Write about people you know,” she said. “Write about me, write about Jolanta, write about your parents. Don’t write about revolution, because you don’t know shit about revolution.”
From that day on, after performing my unskilled administrative duties, I would cycle to Ewa Mehl’s studio where I received a cup of tea, a bowl of borscht, and where we talked about art.
Was that, then, not the moment when I started writing? That moment in Ewa Mehl’s studio when I said: “I write, too”?
Ewa and Jolanta were friends, but they had a complicated relationship. Someone told me that when Jolanta’s son was little she would drop him off at Ewa’s place with the words: “Watch him for a little bit, okay? I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
Then she would disappear for days on end.
One afternoon Ewa said to me: “You know who you should read? Marek Hlasko.”
I had never heard of a Polish writer by the name of Marek Hlasko. But, I will freely admit, there were not an awful lot of Polish writers I had heard of back then.
There were no Dutch translations of his work available, but in a bookstore called Die Weisse Rose I found Hlasko in German.
I started reading. Although he wrote about a world that could not have been farther away from my own, it all seemed familiar to me. Hlasko wrote about the Poland of the 1950s, at the height of Stalinism. One of his most famous stories, “The Eighth Day of the Week,” is about two young people in Warsaw who can’t find a place to make love. I admit, “outlook on life” is a horrible term, but there was something about Hlasko’s outlook on life that I thought I understood, feelings I could share, and I had never come across that in quite the same way with any other writer. The desolation, the rage, the disgust, the naïve—who knows, perhaps spurious—faith in love.
Whenever I seemed about to lose my way during the writing of my first novel (Blue Mondays), I turned to Hlasko.
Recently I reread what is perhaps his finest book, Killing the Second Dog. It is about two Polish emigres in Israel. One of them is a director, the other an actor. The actor seduces older women on the beach at Tel Aviv, in the hope of cheating them out of their money. The director comes up with the texts, the actor recites them.
The book has its faults, yet I can still recommend it heartily to one and all. It is about seduction as a game, and the ironic fact that the game more or less ceases to be a game as soon as one starts taking it seriously. It is about the power of the word and the negation of the cliché, at the moment when the cliché is used to a different end and so takes on a new ambiguity. Perhaps it is also about how, if one looks carefully, almost everything boils down to the art of seduction, even though that art often presents itself in a different guise.
What these three Poles, Jolanta Zalewska, Ewa Mehl, and Marek Hlasko, taught me in the end had to do perhaps with the attractive power of destructiveness. About how discovering that power within yourself and taking it seriously may very well be a precondition for the ability to construct, to create.
But let there be no misunderstanding: generally speaking, I have no problem whatsoever with the accouterments of a bourgeois existence.
Marek Hlasko committed suicide on June 14, 1969 in Wiesbaden, Germany.
Jolanta Zalewska was found floating in an Amsterdam canal in the mid-1990s. Sometimes it is hard to say where alcoholism ends and suicide begins.
Shortly afterwards, Ewa Mehl died of leukemia.
In 1995, shortly after my first novel appeared in the Netherlands, I moved to New York.
During the final years of their lives I had little contact with Ewa and Jolanta. I may have allowed myself to become a bit carried away with the success of my first novel, with success in general, even though I should have known that success was an illusion.
When my second novel came out, Ewa Mehl sent me a packet of powdered borscht. There was no note attached.
I am writing this text in the Ukraine, where I am accompanying a group of American men in search of Ukrainian brides. I act like I am searching too, but I am here to write about them for the newspaper. And who’s to say where the acting ends?
Never, since the days when I would pop down to the cafe with Jolanta after dance lessons, have I drunk as much vodka as I have here.
This morning I awoke with a head of iron, and I felt it, an almost physical sensation. They are very close to me, Jolanta Zalewska, Ewa Mehl, and Marek Hlasko.
Translated by Sam Garrett