Why add fiction to reality, if reality overflows already?

Interview with Cees Nooteboom

/ by Nadina Štefančič

“It's like walking on subtitles,” Cees Nooteboom commented, when he first walked into Death Valley. Born in 1933, raised in Netherlands, he watched John Ford westerns with subtitles. Yes, Cees Nooteboom makes geography feel poetic. A traveler and a writer, a kind of geo-novelist, a poet of landscapes, a passenger. Since his first hitchhiking trip in the early 1950s, to Scandinavia and Provence, he has travelled mostly alone to all of the continents; the travelers’ slogan “meeting new people” had become his modus operandi, long before it was hip with the hipsters. Some of these new people, such as the philosopher Rüdiger Safranski and painter Max Neumann, became his friends. He was always there, as history was unfolding, during the fall of Berlin Wall, the Russian invasion of Budapest, and May 1968 in Paris; he has found glimpses of poetry and stories in the regions, cities, streets, views, and on bridges all around the world, but most importantly, he has put all of this into his reports, columns and stories for newspapers, his poems, novels, novellas and, of course, his travel stories. His travelogue, Roads to Santiago, about the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, has been praised as a must-read. He has won prizes for the novels Rituals, Philip and the Others and The Following Story, and has been mentioned as the Dutch candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Locations have also been a part of his love life: he worked as a sailor on a freighter to Surinam in order to woo a girl, who he married later in New York. Love can happen anywhere, but as I learnt from our interview during the literary festival Fabula, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, writing comes to him in just two precise locations, the same ones that have spoken to him for the past 40 years. If there is one thing, all (great) writers have in common, it's a routine of writing. Alejandro Jodorowsky, for example, routinely puts the same record on every day, and burns a stick of incense before the writing can start; Nooteboom told me he needs nothing but the notes from his travels and the quiet of his studio.

We imagine a writer needs only a room and a pen. But you are writer with the life of a filmmaker, you are always on location of your novels.

No, no, no. Not true. For writing, I only need a room and a pen. But for what the writing is about, I need locations. This summer I spent four months in my house in Spain, writing outside of everything. My studio is even outside of the house.

Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri

Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

So the experience happens in the travels, but the writing happens later.

It couldn’t be different. I couldn’t write. I wouldn't write in hotel rooms, if it wasn’t necessary. In Ljubljana I won’t write anything. I will only give interviews.

But still your lifestyle is closer to Hemingway’s, who was moving constantly, than to static writers like Balzac, who spent his days in Paris.

Absolutely. But Hemingway probably wrote in all kinds of places. I do move around a lot, but I have had the same house in Amsterdam for forty years and same house in Spain for forty years. Once the traveling stops, I go to one of the houses and stay there.

But still your writing has a traveler's feel…

Yes. When I travel, I make notes. I take those notes home…

In one of her essays Joan Didion said that she always just keeps notes of very concrete stuff, like grocery lists, overheard conversations, and that this makes her remember certain things later on.

Yes, certainly. I’ll note that I saw somebody on the street or note the landscape. Sometimes three weeks later, I don’t know what I wrote. For example, I write something on a train that I can’t even read later on.

Scribbles on napkins.

Yes. But there is something essentially serious in being in your own studio. In Spain I have this studio built especially for writing, to which I walk through the garden. I have nine little windows and I have to stand up to see the house. So if I sit down, I don’t see anything.

Great novels were never written in paradise, were they? In presumably ideal places like an island, surrounded by clear blue water.

Quite a lot of writers went to Italy, which was beautiful to them. Compared to Germany, it was paradise. But it's not your Shangri-La island. At one point in Australia, when I worked on my novel set in Perth, I saw there was this holiday colony, at that point rather empty, and I took one of those silly rooms that have no atmosphere and I made the room my own with shells and stones I collected on the trip.

What about journalistic writing?

If someone asks me to do an article, like the one about Umberto Eco I wrote two weeks ago, I can write practically anywhere, as long as it's quiet. I can write an article under circumstances outside of my home. In May 1968, in Paris, I sat in the hotel and wrote about the events for a newspaper. But that is rare and it doesn’t work with novels.

Does poetry happen in the movement or when the traveling is done?

Recently I went to one of our northern islands in Holland; I got really inspired and wrote poetry, after a long time.

There or later in the studio?

First three or four were written there. We were talking about novels before. I've written poems in a bus and in a train. It’s different with poems. You write a poem, take it home, and leave it, like wine, to see after a few weeks if it's ok.

Does the geography of your movement enter the writing?

No. It's the novel that tells what you do and what you don’t. Once you start writing, you are in the novel, and things follow their own logic. I will give you an example. In Holland we have a Book Week gift. Every year, a writer is asked to write a book, which will be given away to everybody that buys a book.

An extra book with every book?

Yes, and the print run is enormous. Now it's a million copies. When I was asked to write it, 26 years ago, it was 570,000 copies. You ask yourself, what could I write that would be acceptable to 570,000 people? That’s several soccer stadiums. My instinct told me: “Go to Lisbon!” So I booked a hotel, traveled for a week, made notes. Notes of the river. Notes of crossing the river. Went to a restaurant, full of mirrors and to a bar in which the clock went the other way. That all went into the book later on. By the end of the traveling, I had the decor, but I had no story. This is mostly my situation. I sit there and have no ideas.

There is a quote by Marguerite Duras: “Writing is a case of letting writing do what it wants. It's knowing and not knowing what you're going to write, not believing that you know the answer, and being afraid.” Does that apply to your beginnings of writing?

Perfect, yes. But you also have different writers. I was in Oxford, Mississippi, in the house of William Faulkner. On the wall was his plan for his last book. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, completely organized. Nabokov had everything on cards. I envy them, but it's not my situation. So for the Book Week Present novel, I sat down and found myself writing about a man who wakes up and is astonished about where he is. Because he is in Lisbon, but last night he went to bed in Amsterdam. You surprise yourself.

And you knew with certainty that that is the beginning of that book.

Yes, I opened the book, I started writing on the first page and this was what was there. But this is not fantasy. I don’t write fantasy, there must be an element of reality. This man, he had a heart attack. This is the last two seconds of his life. There is a common saying that at the end of your life…

your life flashes before your eyes.

Yes. Everything that is happening is happening in his brain in the last two seconds of his life.

You have been a commentator of what is going on in Europe for decades, reporting on the Russian Invasion of Budapest and May 1968 in Paris. What is the reality of Europe in the time of migrant crisis?

Let me use a metaphor. When I was writing my book on Hieronymus Bosch, I saw the picture of the Turkish soldier with a tiny little baby in the newspapers. The child is dead and the soldier has to put this dead child in the soil. He’s carrying the child. On the next photo the tiny child has been moved. And then there is a painting by Bosch of St. Christopher. The legend is that there is a heathen, a giant, who sees a child standing on one side of the river, but he doesn’t know that the child is Christ. He takes up the child on his shoulder to carry him to the other bank, where he supposes the child wants to be brought. The only thing is, and this is the legend, the child gets heavier and heavier, until the giant can no longer carry him. But he does, with his last strength. He brings the child to the other side of river. So why couldn’t this Turkish soldier get the child to the other side of the river? Because of the weight of the child. His weight is death, because the child is dead. Why is the child dead? Because Europe does not exist.

In the epilogue to your book Lost Paradise there is a comment made that men don't read anymore, only women do. Do you see your readers as solely women or do you hope some men still read?

Thank god, some men still read, don’t underestimate us. But yes, it's true: if it weren’t for the women, a lot of literature would no longer be sold.

You use lots of references from other literature in your books. In film, it’s clear that it’s an homage. Is it trickier in literature?

Yes, an homage is to let everybody know how clever you are, with almost hidden quotes from Hitchcock. I don't use quotes in that way. I use quotes in the beginning of the book and sometimes at the end. In one of my novels, I used a quote in the end, because it fitted the whole book. The book is about fiction, not in a novelistic sense, but what is real and what is fiction, the writer sitting in his room thinking about why one should write. Why add something to it, for whom? So the quote at the end of this novel is by Wallace Stevens: “Let be be finale of seem, the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” I put it at the back of the book, hoping some people would get it. It’s a joke, not to show that I read Wallace Stevens.

Nadina Štefančič

studied Philosophy and Slovenian Studies at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana. Enchanted with Prague, she made the city her home for three years in her mid-twenties as a Philosophy student at the Charles University and as an intern at the Institute of Documentary Film. Today she works at the film festival Kino Otok - Isola Cinema and writes mostly about literature and feelings.