Alice Paul
DOOR Bregje Hofstede
28-11-2014

Three days’ festival, ten hours’ sleep. Even so, I remain awake on the train home; it’s not over yet, there’s a lot to write down in the little hard-back book first.

Last summer, I was writing by the side of a canal during the Venice Biennale when I dropped a precursor to this book in the water. I immediately fished it back out, shook it out, and dried it off on my dress, but the blue ink had been washed away.

I was inconsolable. After the book had dried out, I spent hours trying to reconstruct the sentences, and trying to determine whether the pressure of my pen had left any indentations that, perhaps, under the floodlights… I was overcome with a feeling of panic that I’d lost something important: it seemed as if everything I’d recently encountered had no longer actually happened. In the end, I gave up, but not without first having stayed up in my hotel room typing until late at night, fifty thousand words all at once, completely rewriting my memory of the past weeks. The old weeks were still gone; now I had new ones. Since that night, I’ve been much better able to understand why I write.

Something else I noticed is how experiences — if you look back on them a week or two later — change with time. When I leaf back to my time at the festival now, it’s like a mountain range: rugged, craggy, with striking peaks blocking your view. I make brief notes that suddenly break off and don’t mention what’s going on outside The Hague: my job, Brussels, future plans. When you’re in the middle of an intense experience, your horizon is the here and now. It’s only when you step away from the memory that it becomes flattened and you get a clear view of it, a radiant whole you can observe from afar.

The following quote from David Mitchell can be found on the wall of my bookshop in Brussels, “Style is not what you excel in, it is actually everything you get wrong.” If this is true, my stumbling block is probably my use of metaphors. Leave the Netherlands behind, and get the impression you’re travelling away from mountainous scenery? Come on!

The great thing about festivals, and especially The Chronicles, is that you get to share the experience with other people. If I throw my diary into a puddle now, there’ll still be numerous accounts of it, running parallel to mine and adding new layers. Over the past few weeks, new photos have constantly been surfacing; reviews in newspapers; Facebook notifications from (new) friends. I’ve read Sjisjkin and Wortel — Waters, Debroey and Boström are still on my list — and I haven’t stopped listening to the CD I bought at Crossing Border. Instead of flattening off, sedimentation is making the mountains get bigger and bigger.

In a café where I sometimes go to write, I bumped into Wide Vercnocke. I’d just finished reading his graphic novel Wildvlees — another find from The Hague — about a rutty deer that goes storming across the Anspachlaan. It took me back to the graphic novelists in the reddish light of the Heartbeat Hotel, and their dance moves at the after-party, and suddenly a north face soared up above the rooftops on the Vlaamsesteenweg.

I anticipate extensive foothills rolling out from the Crossing Border mountain range for a while to come yet. Vea urged me to go to Vienna to present the German translation of my novel. And Alice, Laia, Guillaume, and the other Chronicles: if you’re ever in the vicinity…? Come to Brussels, and bring the mountains with you.

All translations from Alice Paul
28-11-14

Three days’ festival, ten hours’ sleep. Even so, I remain awake on the train home; it’s not over yet, there’s a lot to write down in the little hard-back book first.

Last summer, I was writing by the side of a canal during the Venice Biennale when I dropped a precursor to this book in the water. I immediately fished it back out, shook it out, and dried it off on my dress, but the blue ink had been washed away.

I was inconsolable. After the book had dried out, I spent hours trying to reconstruct the sentences, and trying to determine whether the pressure of my pen had left any indentations that, perhaps, under the floodlights… I was overcome with a feeling of panic that I’d lost something important: it seemed as if everything I’d recently encountered had no longer actually happened. In the end, I gave up, but not without first having stayed up in my hotel room typing until late at night, fifty thousand words all at once, completely rewriting my memory of the past weeks. The old weeks were still gone; now I had new ones. Since that night, I’ve been much better able to understand why I write.

Something else I noticed is how experiences — if you look back on them a week or two later — change with time. When I leaf back to my time at the festival now, it’s like a mountain range: rugged, craggy, with striking peaks blocking your view. I make brief notes that suddenly break off and don’t mention what’s going on outside The Hague: my job, Brussels, future plans. When you’re in the middle of an intense experience, your horizon is the here and now. It’s only when you step away from the memory that it becomes flattened and you get a clear view of it, a radiant whole you can observe from afar.

The following quote from David Mitchell can be found on the wall of my bookshop in Brussels, “Style is not what you excel in, it is actually everything you get wrong.” If this is true, my stumbling block is probably my use of metaphors. Leave the Netherlands behind, and get the impression you’re travelling away from mountainous scenery? Come on!

The great thing about festivals, and especially The Chronicles, is that you get to share the experience with other people. If I throw my diary into a puddle now, there’ll still be numerous accounts of it, running parallel to mine and adding new layers. Over the past few weeks, new photos have constantly been surfacing; reviews in newspapers; Facebook notifications from (new) friends. I’ve read Sjisjkin and Wortel — Waters, Debroey and Boström are still on my list — and I haven’t stopped listening to the CD I bought at Crossing Border. Instead of flattening off, sedimentation is making the mountains get bigger and bigger.

In a café where I sometimes go to write, I bumped into Wide Vercnocke. I’d just finished reading his graphic novel Wildvlees — another find from The Hague — about a rutty deer that goes storming across the Anspachlaan. It took me back to the graphic novelists in the reddish light of the Heartbeat Hotel, and their dance moves at the after-party, and suddenly a north face soared up above the rooftops on the Vlaamsesteenweg.

I anticipate extensive foothills rolling out from the Crossing Border mountain range for a while to come yet. Vea urged me to go to Vienna to present the German translation of my novel. And Alice, Laia, Guillaume, and the other Chronicles: if you’re ever in the vicinity…? Come to Brussels, and bring the mountains with you.

17-11-14

“I can sign that book for you if you want.”

I lowered the male Russian author’s book and turned to face the young woman who’d just spoken to me. She was signing copies of her novel at the book ‘n’ bar in the foyer of the Royal Theatre. I vaguely recognised her from somewhere.

“And this one?”I picked up a copy of my own debut novel from a pile on the same table.

“I haven’t read that one; I really couldn’t comment.”

She turned away again. A professional muse.

I stood there for a moment still holding the books, and imagined myself feeling so completely at home in the spotlight.

The other day I bought the special edition of Elle about feminism. I’ve been avoiding glossy magazines for years because of their ability to evoke acute self-loathing. (“I’m not eating anything ever again!” I yell as I turn the last page, and make a dash for the biscuit tin.) So a feminist glossy…?

I wasn’t disappointed. Reports from various countries, lots of female novelists giving their views. The only thing that bugged me was a double-page spread of a huge advert for something called Modern Muse. The photo: soft pink lighting, with a woman walking down a Parisian street in stilettos. The slogan: “Be an inspiration.”

It made me think of the time a famous Dutch author signed a book for me and wrote, “For Bregje, someone’s muse.” Amused, I accepted the book. I have a muse, I thought, feeling satisfied. Be an inspiration? Be inspired!

Having a muse is a magnificent thing. A really attractive one, who stays in bed all grubby and warm whilst you’re writing, hunched over your desk with your big woolly jumper on. But when you’re on stage, and probably especially if you’re a woman on stage, everything is different.

On Saturday evening, we — the Chronicles —read from our work one by one in a room called Heaven. Suddenly, the temptation to play the role of a muse increases greatly. Does my hair look alright? Can you tell I’m nervous?

The text changes as well. It usually works out just fine without me, but now, all of a sudden, I’m part of it too: whether, today, I happen to appear frumpy or undaunted, my voice, whether or not I squirm on stage, if I manage without slipping up. A real muse would recite her work melodiously as she strides across the stage swinging her hips, emanating pink clouds of perfume. As I step away from the microphone, I realise I’m still no muse, but I do have one. And I’m going to go and hunt down that muse of mine again right away, in Brussels.

15-11-14

In a certain type of restaurant — well so I’ve heard — you’re served a sorbet between courses to neutralise your palate. Away with the old flavour, ready for the new. Flavours blend together, with positive or negative results. And the same goes for experiences you gather over the course of a day.

In the darkness of the theatre auditorium, a braid swishes past my cheek. I awaken from the music with a start, and raise my hand to my face. The girl who was trying to squeeze past is already gone, but I feel the need to fend off the seagull that came swooping down towards me a couple of hours earlier, when I was at the stall by the Hofvijver pond eating a herring roll. I still had a hold of the tail end of it, he had the rest, and I felt his leg on my forehead. Now, in the theatre, I rub my forehead and try to chase the seagull out of the room. On stage, a bearded man is singing beautifully. “Say today and she may look your way and lead you home.” Back in the hotel, I search for the song online; still beautiful, but less magical. It’s difficult to get absorbed by things on YouTube.

If you were to ask me what the difference is between sitting at home with a book or CD, and experiencing the same music or literature live at a festival, I’d probably say it’s the powerful way impressions merge together in an elongated here and now.

Before the festival, I cycled to the Rothko exhibition. I only knew his work from reproductions: big blocks of colour on top of each other, perfect for posters. I knew the theory too: the physical experience of that colour should be used to “communicate with the audience as directly as possible”. Feeling somewhat sceptical, I step inside. I’ve never communicated directly with any of Rothko’s posters, and I’ve never really been absorbed by them either.

The museum is busy. I shuffle from one piece to the next until I arrive at an enormous canvas that, just like all the others, doesn’t have a title. I stop in front of it. I look at the man-sized blocks of colour. Cobalt blue is glowing behind the umber. The canvas is so big that I lose my grip on it: the colours at the edges of my vision start to run, and I feel myself tilting forwards. So that’s how it works, I think. You just disappear in a canvas like that – how long have I been standing here now?

At the festival I look for a spot at the edge of the room where the first artist of the evening is just starting. Next to me, in the corner, unused cymbals vibrate along with the bass. My breast bone hums along quietly too. I look towards the theatre lights, drawing coloured paths through the darkness, and think of Rothko. I slowly drift away. At a certain moment, I’m no longer able to differentiate between colour and sound.

What if there was a perfect way to prepare for a concert? Fewer seagulls, and more Rothko. Sorbets in between. And perhaps a spot of aromatherapy to make the synesthetic experience complete.

 

 

14-11-14

Whenever I cross the Dutch-Belgian border from my current home in Brussels to my native country or back again, I receive a text message on one of my two phones. ‘Welcome abroad.’ Suddenly, the other phone has reception again. In this way, I’m always half at home and half abroad.

In Brussels, I’m one of many who are half at home. Signs on the metro read, ‘Suffering from homesickness? Call…’ If you happen to commute between an old, labyrinthine working-class area —where the gloomy, wood-lined pubs are filled with men playing chess from ten in the morning — and the giant glass missiles in the city centre, you’re sure to believe in quantum theory: past and present occur simultaneously, distance and time are relative.

That’s how it feels to be in The Hague. You’ve got the station district, where the trains and trams shoot along over and under the administrative towers, the sensible version of a futuristic city. And a bit further on you’ll find the reassuring brick façades, the fish stall, and ducks on the canals. To cross the border between these two worlds, you barely have to travel at all: you only feel a small shock, like a bump in the road.

When I arrive far too early at the hotel, the young man behind the counter warns me, “If you check in now, you’ll get a room with a bath.” Taken aback, I reply that I’ll come back later then, wondering why a bath would be a cause for concern. Maybe due to withdrawal symptoms once you get back home?

A skinny man approaches me on the street, asking for money. He’s shaking and comes far too close. “Sorry, I don’t have any,” I try. “I’ll go with you to the cash point then,” he says, his eyes open wide. That cash point is the magical gateway to another world, and I have the code word. He curses when I don’t want to go with him. I leave him behind on the square.

One of the attractions of a festival is the sense of belonging to a group. No bumps in the road: you’re surrounded by like-minded souls. In the evening, the other Chroniclers, translators and authors, greet me with a discussion about the translation of the Dutch word ‘gezellig’. We quickly establish:

1) That it describes a group activity.

One by one, the others come down. On the way to the festival opening party, and later on in the restaurant, changeable groups form according to language: I sit in the German corner, speak French or Dutch, and if in doubt revert to an English no man’s land.

2) That everyone is at ease with each other.

“So how did you two meet?”

“I need more wine first!”

“You’ve had enough. Spill the beans.”

3) That ‘gezellig’ isn’t structured; that you lose track of time.

“Your columns have to be in by 12:15.”

“I thought it was 12:30!”

“…”

“But I need that quarter of an hour.”

“Sleep well.”

4) That anticipation is very ‘gezellig.’

In my hotel room I look at the festival programme. I throw my stuff across the room willy-nilly, open up my notebook in the middle of all the mess, and feel at home.

Prologue
04-11-14

It felt great to take my things off. I started with my trainers, liberating my white, clammy feet. It wasn’t sandal season anymore — not according to my mother — but it was unseasonably warm for the end of October. The warmth seemed to come in part from the sun, low in the sky, and in part from the baking hot sand I dropped my clothes on, piece by piece. I hid my trumpet case as well as I could in the dry tufts of grass at the foot of the conifers.

Once again, the lesson had been a disaster. My music teacher had stared at me as I put the trumpet to my pinched lips and let the tension build up in my mouth.

“I’m waiting. Take your time, by all means.”

Not a single note.

“How on earth can this be so difficult? Improvise! It doesn’t matter what.”

He was a pink, stocky man with lips like thick elastic bands. He’d been teaching me for four years, and recently I’d been having lessons with him every single day, because the school concert was coming up.

With my eyes closed, I played a few notes. I didn’t choose them myself: my fingers did, stumbling over the valves. They half-knew the route, like sleepwalkers in search of the toilet. What if they mumbled secrets in their sleep?

“Stop. That’s ‘Round Midnight’. I want to hear you, not Thelonious Monk.”

He tensed his elastic lips and sprayed a confetti shower of sounds across the room.

 

We’d left our bikes by the fence to show the way. Two ladies’ bikes, bought to grow into, with plastic flowers wound around the handlebars. Two boys were now walking down the dirt track. My friend pulled her t-shirt up over her head in a single movement, revealing her well-filled bikini.

Over the course of half a year, the flesh around the outside of her bones had become soft. I could see the indentations from her socks and the seams of her jeans. Now my flesh was starting to rise like croissant dough too. My reckless days would soon be over. All grown-up women are soft and cautious.

Before the boys reached the waterside, I walked into the lake. You couldn’t see my knees anymore. When I moved, the water enveloped my thighs like green velvet. Below that green curtain, everything was dark, cool and quiet. Holding my breath, I let myself sink into the water, leaving the dust, horseflies and boys behind.

I floated for a while in the middle of the lake, my face in the sun and my body in darkness. Underwater I listened to the trumpet melody I was practising, and it fell to pieces just before the part where I had to improvise in front of a packed audience.

I kicked with my feet. The water splashed up high, sparkling in the sun like the glistening melody of a brass player. For a moment, the notes were suspended, silent in the sky.

Suddenly I sensed how it was meant to be. I could see the music and I was the queen of the lake. I was going to play it so lightly and freely. My music would be like a letter, illegible to my pink music teacher, but addressed to all the friends who hadn’t found me yet.

When I started shivering, I swam back to the water’s edge. The silt pushed its way up between my toes. My swimming costume was green with algae. I had to endure the boys’ glances, as well as the fact that they immediately looked away again.

I struggled back into my clothes behind a towel, and laid my hands on the blazing hot trumpet case. The performance was in two weeks’ time.