Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nooteboom in Berlin 1963

Happy Birthday Cees Nooteboom, eighty today. A noted Dutch novelist, Nooteboom has won various awards, not least the prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, but is equally well known for his travel journalism. Recently, a translation into English of his writing about Berlin has been published in English, and this contains several diary entries about his first experiences of the Berlin Wall in 1963. They are so readable and interesting that one hopes Nooteboom has a stash of diaries to be published one day.

Cornelis (Cees) Nooteboom was born on 31 July 1933 in The Hague, Netherlands, the middle child of three. His parents separated, then his father died as a result of a bombing in 1945. After the war, Nooteboom’s mother took the family to live in Tilburg, and she remarried. Nooteboom was educated largely at religious schools. He made use of some early experiences hitchhiking around Europe for his first novel, Philip en de anderen (Philip and the Others), which, subsequently, became a classic of Dutch literature. After various clerical jobs, he found work as a journalist, with the weekly magazine Elsevier, then with the newspaper de Volkskrant, and then, in 1967, he became travel editor of the magazine Avenue. Meanwhile, he also published further novels and books of poetry.

In 1980, Nooteboom published Rituelen (Rituals) which was later made into a film. This book, Nooteboom himself says, marked the beginning of the second phase in his career as a writer, in which he produced many more poems, novels, novellas and anthologies of pieces on travel and art. In 1987, he taught for six months at the University of California at Berkeley, and in 1989 the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) invited him to live for a year in Berlin, from where he witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and wrote about it for many European newspapers. In 1991, his novel Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story) was given away free for Dutch Book Week.

Nooteboom has lived in Amsterdam since 1954. He married Fanny Lichtveld in 1957, but the marriage was annulled in 1964. For some years he was in a relationship with the singer, Liesbeth List, but is now married to Simone Sassen, and they divide their time between Amsterdam and Minorca. In 2009, Nooteboom was awarded the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the most important literary award in the Dutch-speaking world. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia or Nooteboom’s own website.

I do not know if Nooteboom keeps a diary or not - I hope so - but one of his recent books translated into English - Roads to Berlin - contains a few early diary entries. His first Dutch book on Berlin - Berlijnse Notities - was published in 1990 and a second book - Terugkeer naar Berlijn - in 1997. Texts from both these books were collected with new material for a more recent publication, Berlijn 1989/2009. This has now been translated by Laura Watkinson, and published in English by Maclehose Press, London (2012) as Roads to Berlin.

The Maclehose Press website quotes a few reviews: ‘It is a wonderful voyage of self-discovery, and a psychological exploration of a nation in turmoil’ in the Financial Times; ‘Nooteboom wears his erudition lightly, and weaves personal anecdote into memorable reportage’ in The Sunday Telegraph; ‘there is a melancholy in his writing and a nostalgia for the past, both of which are very German - or at least used to be’ in The Spectator; and ‘his Berlin reportage, from a 1963 Khrushchev rally in East Berlin to the tearing down of the Palast der Republik, brilliantly captures the intensity of the capital and its associated layers of memory,’ in The Economist.

Several pages of the Kindle edition (by Quercus) can be read freely online at Amazon. Here is one diary extract to be found in the Prologue.

15 January 1963
‘West Berlin. You drive down Kurfürstendamm, which is bedecked with high, white lights, to the corroded, mutilated Gedächtniskirche, and then onwards. To your surprise, you see that the West has its own ruins: magnificent, hollowed-out monuments and empty windows with no rooms behind them, chunks of fossilised war, bricked-up doors that no smiling father will ever pass through again, off for a walk with Werner the dog. The only crossing point for non-German, non-military personnel is in Friedrichstraße, but we end up at the Brandenburger Tor by mistake. Snow and moonlight. Nothing on the frozen square in front of the gate: no people, no cars. Along the edge of that space, the black columns topped by the quadriga, the triumphal chariot. Four horses race along, pulling a winged figure that holds aloft a wreath, towards the east. Beneath, a quarter of the height of the columns, the blunt teeth of the Wall. A West German policeman signals that we are not allowed to drive on. So we stay where we are and watch things not happening. Two Russian tanks stand up high on huge pedestals, a reminder of 1945. We see two Russian sentries, shadows amidst the marble.

Friedrichstraße is not far from here. The same checks as at Helmstedt: documents, pieces of paper, money being counted, barriers, a classic copperplate engraving through which we move, remaining as human as possible. Two low walls have been erected across the road so that a driver would have to perform a dramatic swerve if he wanted to get through quickly. When all the German boxes have been ticked, we are allowed through, and the city continues, the way cities do after walls: the same, yet different. It is probably just me being oversensitive, but it smells different here, and everything looks browner. [. . .]

Not much traffic. Lots of neon signs. Is it a disappointment? Would I have liked it to be more dramatic? And why do I think I have any right to expect something? Two motionless soldiers stand guard in front of a monument. At Alexanderplatz, a steam train passes over a viaduct, but otherwise there is nothing to report - the occasional sign with words that look rather unread, slogans talking to themselves.’

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