Beth Fowler
Dagelijkse wonderen
DOOR Pola Oloixarac
30-11-2011

is the title of a fascinating book by Rudy Kousbroek, which I read in pirate English translations. He’s like a Dutch version of W.G. Sebald, full of old cars, water and the ghostly presences of the animals about which he writes. One of his texts is called The Beyond, “about what has happened and is no longer there. About the change, which is incomprehensible.” Kousbroek – I can say his name correctly because it’s a combination of trousers + stockings, both of which I use to wrap up warm in Holland – writes about his days as a young boy at boarding school. As a child, Kousbroek would always contemplate the possibility that his parents, who lived in another city, had forgotten his face: how could they know whether he was still the same Rudy? He used to wonder whether they would still speak his language when they saw each other again. Perhaps they’d talk to him in Dutch, but the meanings would be different: instead of bread, they would mean dead; how to ensure that words wouldn’t completely change their meaning? Little Kousbroek would draw his father’s face so as not to forget it.

The final phase of the festival, in Antwerp, was a delight. After a few days of frenzy, we entered the gentle zone of familiarity; at some point I realised that the festival organisers, father and son, were with us the whole time. You could see them drinking quietly, chatting around the little tables; they received artists in the way that people open their homes and stick around to chat after dinner if the conversation is good. When the father saw that I had a bag shaped like the rectangle of an old typewriter (where my Mac Air usually travels), he rolled up his white shirt sleeve. His left arm sported a picture of an old-fashioned typewriter, its rounded keys in relief; where a leaf jutted out, part of a beatnik poem was tattooed; below that, the typewriter lost itself in a rose.

On my return to Amsterdam, I was introduced to perhaps the most dangerous, exquisite vice of that city, the home of downfall: the old etchings and maps that inhabit Eduard van Dishoeck’s antiquarian bookshop and the old book markets on the Spui, right underneath my house. And that introduction was nothing compared to the display of wonders awaiting me at the Artis Library, thanks to Hans Mulder and Jip. In these marshes, endowed with the glamour of time, etching is a huge tradition: inspired by the Dutch school, Hobbes met Abraham Bosse and gave him instructions on creating the eternal frontispiece of his Leviathan; here, Linnaeus’s plant illustrations were widely circulated when Amsterdam became aware of his genius with the publication of Systema Naturae in 1735. Certain customs are gradually becoming etched on my mind, like drinking a glass of sherry in Café Luxembourg as the sun goes down, with a touch of melancholy because of the lack of feline company (aside from the Red Light District versions, cats are scarce in A’dam, and it’s unusual to see them frolicking in the streets: the bicycles act like ferocious dogs). I can’t draw these wonders, like Rudy drew his father, or like the father at Crossing Border, but I know they’ll stay with me forever.

Alle vertalingen van Beth Fowler
Dagelijkse wonderen
30-11-11

is the title of a fascinating book by Rudy Kousbroek, which I read in pirate English translations. He’s like a Dutch version of W.G. Sebald, full of old cars, water and the ghostly presences of the animals about which he writes. One of his texts is called The Beyond, “about what has happened and is no longer there. About the change, which is incomprehensible.” Kousbroek – I can say his name correctly because it’s a combination of trousers + stockings, both of which I use to wrap up warm in Holland – writes about his days as a young boy at boarding school. As a child, Kousbroek would always contemplate the possibility that his parents, who lived in another city, had forgotten his face: how could they know whether he was still the same Rudy? He used to wonder whether they would still speak his language when they saw each other again. Perhaps they’d talk to him in Dutch, but the meanings would be different: instead of bread, they would mean dead; how to ensure that words wouldn’t completely change their meaning? Little Kousbroek would draw his father’s face so as not to forget it.

The final phase of the festival, in Antwerp, was a delight. After a few days of frenzy, we entered the gentle zone of familiarity; at some point I realised that the festival organisers, father and son, were with us the whole time. You could see them drinking quietly, chatting around the little tables; they received artists in the way that people open their homes and stick around to chat after dinner if the conversation is good. When the father saw that I had a bag shaped like the rectangle of an old typewriter (where my Mac Air usually travels), he rolled up his white shirt sleeve. His left arm sported a picture of an old-fashioned typewriter, its rounded keys in relief; where a leaf jutted out, part of a beatnik poem was tattooed; below that, the typewriter lost itself in a rose.

On my return to Amsterdam, I was introduced to perhaps the most dangerous, exquisite vice of that city, the home of downfall: the old etchings and maps that inhabit Eduard van Dishoeck’s antiquarian bookshop and the old book markets on the Spui, right underneath my house. And that introduction was nothing compared to the display of wonders awaiting me at the Artis Library, thanks to Hans Mulder and Jip. In these marshes, endowed with the glamour of time, etching is a huge tradition: inspired by the Dutch school, Hobbes met Abraham Bosse and gave him instructions on creating the eternal frontispiece of his Leviathan; here, Linnaeus’s plant illustrations were widely circulated when Amsterdam became aware of his genius with the publication of Systema Naturae in 1735. Certain customs are gradually becoming etched on my mind, like drinking a glass of sherry in Café Luxembourg as the sun goes down, with a touch of melancholy because of the lack of feline company (aside from the Red Light District versions, cats are scarce in A’dam, and it’s unusual to see them frolicking in the streets: the bicycles act like ferocious dogs). I can’t draw these wonders, like Rudy drew his father, or like the father at Crossing Border, but I know they’ll stay with me forever.

The Children’s Republic
20-11-11

Hamburger in McDonalds, savouring that strange, delicious, 50 cent Dutch mayonnaise. All the restaurants are closed, the Smokey coffee shop (“a must in Den Haag”) is too. We went to the after-party. Ben put on a jumper for the first time: since we arrived we’ve all been wrapped up to the ears in scarves, while Ben has been going about in a short-sleeved t-shirt and no socks. I’m always charmed by the innocence of parties. I’m fascinated by the fact that we all get together trying to have a good time. I think that people dance not so much because of anything particular in the rhythm, but to honour the delightful fact that we’re at a party by making bodily jokes. In some way, it stirs in us the desire to be remembered by others as children. The DJ wore a bow tie. But the music seemed like it was for an aerobics class. Sacha and Pietr danced ironically. The reading was good, but something happened with the system for the simultaneous translation, the printer didn’t work, and since there was only one person in the room who understood Spanish – the elegant director of culture at the Argentine embassy – I read my Sacha and Snooki column by translating to English what I was reading in Spanish. It sounds terrible, but it worked out quite well. Then we went to see Cake perform. Before leaving the hotel, the lead singer of Cake had held the lift for me before going down. It had been a long time since I’d received courteous gestures from strangers, and I showed my gratitude the worst way possible: he told me that he was in Cake and I asked him what Cake was. I’m sorry, my musical brain was sleeping. The show was fantastic. He split the audience into two to sing the choruses, making them compete against each other like children. He talked to them about good and evil, over a live microphone to northern Protestant heads. The choruses responded to the warnings: “some people are better than others, some win and some lose, some go to heaven and others never will”; the crowd sang a refrain that criticised (I suck) and another part that accused (you suck too), and then something that didn’t matter, and since it didn’t matter I forgot it. I think that children are the most important part of Dutch cultural life; I can’t believe I have to return to New York on 5th December, the day that the true, authentic Sant Klas (is that how you spell it?) arrives on his horse in Amsterdam.

Dick and the blue vowels
19-11-11

Last night I had to use one of those beautiful, blue, open Os they have in Dutch, to pronounce the title of my novel (Het hoorcollege) during a reading. I’m convinced that if you think about the colour blue as you open your mouth to say O, that dark vowel takes on the flavour of an E, the palate curving over it, the mouth like a kiss closing over stretched lips. I think the aural flavour of Dutch lies somewhere between those blue Os, and an A that undulates in a single wave. Consonants seem merely an excuse to justify the magic steps between blue Os and that A. It’s not a static A, held upright, Germanic; perhaps it’s the A with a Latin accent, which is like a little dash above the vowel and tends to go over the second syllable in that language. To me, when I hear spoken Dutch, there’s something very Asian about it. Perhaps the use of the palate is Asian. I’m told the most characteristic aspect of Dutch is its wonderful, animalistic Hs. But the Os and As convey a special feeling.

I read a bit of the novel in Spanish at the festival yesterday, and linked up my iPhone so that it would play a track by Dick el Demasiado (aka Dick Verdult). The legend of Dick Verdult in Buenos Aires, in Holland, in this world, is a strange one. The story goes that Dick arrived in Buenos Aires and, shortly after settling in, was invaded by a poison ivy that entered his body through his ears. It’s an endemic kind of ivy that springs up in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. Its name is cumbia, although some converts would claim more hostile origins. He’s a cult celebrity in Buenos Aires. He arrived and created a genre that didn’t exist, ‘lunatic cumbia’; and so lunatic cumbia spread like a virus that infected the refined, educated areas of the city. In Buenos Aires, Dick played with legends of the Argentine circuit, such as Nico from Obi One Kenobi and Los Psíquicos Litoraleños (The Coastal Psychics). Nico made a similar transition, but instead of going from Holland to Buenos Aires, he went from Buenos Aires to Curuzú Cuatiá. The two of them went deep into the jungle. In Curuzú, Nico discovered chamamé folk music; in Buenos Aires, in the ‘Republic of La Boca’, Dick embarked on metaphysical speculation about Argentine populism. He now has an exhibition in Eindhoven: it’s called y los domingos festejamos a Viernes (in Dutch “en op zondag vieren we Vrijdag”, in English “On Sundays we celebrate Friday”). It’s about the involuntary poetry that arises from misunderstandings and arrogance. There are eight rooms, and Argentina is in all eight. It’s being held in Eindhoven’s VAN ABBEMUSEUM of contemporary art. I’m going to see it on Wednesday: I’ll be back in Amsterdam by then. Dick’s work with national symbols becomes trance in his music. Dick lives in a world of pure metaphors that contaminate one another. He doesn’t just speak the most playful kind of Argentine: the whole Argentine universe seems to conspire to get into his head and come out of there feeling stunned.

Sacha and Snooki
18-11-11

The presence of money, its implications, the way it gets into the persona of those who are loved and abandoned by it, is constantly fluctuating. One way to keep track of this, which differs from the old words like fiction or poetry, is to pick up on the spirit of the age through electronic devices. The young Sacha Sperling was able to read the true face of the society surrounding him through the icons his society longed to emulate (France v USA). Yesterday evening, we went to a very interesting concert: the musicians were good looking, European ‘shabby chic’, cultivating BeeGees-style facial fuzz; every now and then, when the music demanded it, some invisible creature squeezed them tightly in the genital region to allow extremely high-pitched noises to cross the auditorium. We returned to the blue cube of the Mercure Hotel with Sacha, dodging some skateboarders in front of the building. He told me that in Paris, areas of Fascist architecture are now a playground for skaters, who have taken over a space that was created to indulge one of Europe’s previous fascinations. We drank a couple of Pepsis watching Jersey Shore. On the telly, people were violating the law of the physics of money. People were doing the exact opposite of what money should be used for. People make money to achieve a certain level of dignity, to change, to be the best they can be. Jersey Shore is now in its fourth series, and they’re already rich. But they can’t change. They must reinforce the identity they revealed at the start of the series; they have to maintain the vulgarity. They can’t rise socially. In Jersey Shore, work, to Snooki’s mind, could not equate to dignity. Jersey Shore is a war zone in which they must impose themselves according to more primal motivations, brutally, once again, like tribes. They don’t need to change their nature to join in the game where the laws of the physics of money count for something. If they weren’t there for the money, were they there for the liberty of being able to do something without obeying someone else? She’s rich, she doesn’t need to do that. But Snooki must remain spiritually poor in order to provide the comic touches that ridicule money. I’m still the same: Je restais Snooki.

I find out that in Holland it is no longer kosher to smoke; I’m told that, in general, the tradition of tolerance of personal liberties is on the decline. A friend’s boyfriend is in the nick for living in a squat. I have a friend who’s a friend of Princess Máxima, in other words, according to the Kevin Bacon game, there are fewer than six degrees of separation between someone detained for squatting and the future queen of the Netherlands. I don’t know why Holland is becoming conservative, why it doesn’t act like Snooki. She’s free, she doesn’t need to do that. Is it part of the European conspiracy that the poorest countries live off the richest, and the rich ones make themselves pay for it by taking away liberties? Is it a cultural exchange?

On Twitter, #philosophy was a trending topic; yesterday was world philosophy day. During dinner in an Indonesian restaurant, I was told that the name of one of my favourite philosophers, Sloterdijk, means a dijk that is close to the slot. We are in the marshes. I’m obsessed with wondering what this was like eight hundred years ago, a vast expanse of marsh between very gentle hills, so many miles, and whether they filled it in as a way to lay siege to one another and get closer to each other. It had been so long since I’d spoken to anyone.

Hallo festival
07-11-11

In general, festivals provide an opportunity to introduce authors in a relaxed environment that seeks to minimise the tedious, painstaking, nerdy aspects of literature. Less structured than the music festival, since it does not entail the consumption of drugs or the need to tolerate crowds, and newer than the museum, the literary festival can operate much like enthusiastic performances of spiritual music; at the very least, they round off the sightseeing programme, if not something of the general knowledge, of those who go. In South America, a festival is a means to promote a dangerous destination by associating it with culture. In South America, festivals are held in order to mitigate the effect of books, to return beauty to the places that literature has made sinister: the municipality of Medellín holds a festival so that authors and readers can see that what Fernando Vallejo wrote about the city is a lie (it is no longer true). They suggest you go to the neighbourhood where Our Lady of the Assassins takes place: their organisational enthusiasm can be very touching. The same goes for Salman Rushdie in Rio, Martin Amis in Xalapa: festivals can contribute to romanticising these dangerous cities like an adventurous, cultural cloak of light (to defend design, that enemy of the savage past). The European author arrives at the South American festival feeling overwhelmed; overwhelmed by the flight, the heat, the tropicality, the European author is encouraged to take speedy possession of his festival destination: in general he is to be seen sunken in a deckchair admiring the inflorescences of native backsides, flicking distractedly through the festival programme. Goodwill blossoms and perhaps he gives an interview to some young female freelance journalist. In contexts such as these, the desire may arise among writers to speak to one another. If, after a few drinks, just past midnight, the young South American novelist lets herself fall into the pool in her underwear, the chances of a European colleague following her are high (as a distinguished French author did when he wanted to test the waters, dulled by night-time chlorine, in a certain paradise of Caribbean literature). The South American festival can inspire qualities of heroism in the European, but who’s going to rescue me if I fall into the pool in Holland? What measure of alcohol must be allowed for any bystander to even consider it, in the middle of the rainy season? I ponder this urgent psychosocial matter in a Cessna 402 through the North American clouds, crossing the skies of New York and Boston in slow motion; beneath me stretches a world of soft hills like a black and white sudoku grid. I’ve been far from civilisation for a while, shut away in Yaddo, a late 19th century mansion hidden in the woods where Sylvia Plath discovered her taste for the Ouija board and Edgar A. Poe wrote his poem The Raven. I leave Yaddo and return to the grasp of civilisation, visiting Clara, a singer friend in Cambridge. In short, I don’t know what awaits me at this European festival. Will I manage, like my countrywoman Máxima, to be treated like a princess? Or will I be more like my South American compatriots who perform poorly paid jobs to subsist on Dutch soil? Or will it be like the red light district in Amsterdam: a festival that includes celebrated Argentine meat at the hands of a plump Dutch dominatrix? Really can’t wait…