‘A writer like Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer is his story, he embodies it completely’

‘A writer like Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer is his story, he embodies it completely’

The author lives again! He was once declared dead by literary theorist Roland Barthes, metaphorically: to say that a literary text must be judged on its own merits, regardless of the author. For years since then, the author, and the author’s intention, has not mattered to the literary scholar. Officially then, because he was not really ‘dead’ in the meantime. A writer is indeed someone, and moreover visible: someone who has his name and head on the book, but who often also speaks in talk shows about the state of the world.

That does something for literature, says Dutch scholar Sander Bax (1977), professor of education and culture in Tilburg. Where writing becomes a public matter, it must therefore also be studied, is the starting point of his new book, Writer’s Myths. Literature and writing between 1880 and 2020. Bax: “For a long time, Dutch studies was mainly focused on the text, so we did not concern ourselves with everything that had to do with the author. But: what an author does influences how we look at those texts. That is the paradigm that has emerged in Dutch studies over the past ten years, and that should also be incorporated into a literary history.”

Yet Dutch students still learn that they are not allowed to talk about the author’s intention.

“Yes, that idea is still very much present. And text-oriented study also remains important. The fact is also that you can never extract an author’s unambiguous intention from an ambiguous literary text. But it goes too far to not want to talk about the author at all, as if he or she does not communicate with you. At the same time, I think that a statement in a writer’s interview is also ambiguous. All that is literary material. As a Dutch scholar you have to sift through and analyze all of this to see what happens.”

That was also a talent of Mulisch: you kept looking at him

You previously wrote ‘The Mulisch Myth’. Did that present, public writership begin with Harry Mulisch?

“With Mulisch I saw how the myths about him, which he eagerly played with, influenced the imaging process. But it existed for much longer: I place the starting point with the poets we call the Tachtigers. They established the ideal of an anti-bourgeois, exalted writer. That writer was exceptional, selfless and independent. Their image of what a ‘real’ writer is gradually became the convention. That image still resonates.”

Someone like Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer plays that role perfectly.

“He is now the strongest example of this, and I would immediately like to say that he not only plays that role, it is more than a pose. Pfeijffer lives in Genoa and writes about it, he is a classicist and writes a megalomaniac historical novel in which he outlines the contemporary political situation in a historical framework – it is all connected. It is fundamental to his writing. And that idea even goes back to Goethe: that you don’t just tell your story in books, but fully embody it.”

Why does that work so well?

“Because people are attracted to those who behave a little differently: that’s how we appreciate an artist. At the same time, such anti-civility is in line with the laws of the media, which require a recognizable image, a clear message that attracts attention. That was also a talent of Mulisch: you kept looking at him because he mastered the game so well.”

Then we have to talk about The Big Three again – Mulisch, Hermans, Reve

There is something suspicious in that look: the scientist who sees through the writer’s self-mythologization.

“What you call suspicious is also the refreshing direction that literary theory has taken. Ideological literary criticism taught us decades ago that words also conceal a worldview. And that standard of autonomous writing also has a color. If I had only written the history of writers who successfully played the role of “great writer,” I would have ended up with a book full of white men and would have missed many important writers. If you find out how that game works, you can also show its dark side.

“The Vijftigers, for example, used warlike avant-garde rhetoric: young men like Lucebert and Kouwenaar who turned their predecessors around, they stood for innovation. That’s a nice, creamy story, but underneath that violence there were also authors who remained in the shadows. The poet M. Vasalis was vilified by the Fifties, very painfully. She stopped publishing and was only rehabilitated as an author much later.”

What has changed the prevailing image of the ‘real’ writer?

“Then we have to talk about The Big Three again – Mulisch, Hermans, Reve. They embodied all the conventions of autonomous writing, but they did so for the first time for a mass audience, i.e. outside their own circle of literature lovers. They had incredible success with that, but it couldn’t be repeated. Media appearances by writers became the most normal thing in the world.

“And the balance shifted: media laws and audience logic became more decisive, and so the autonomy of writers was affected. Writers joined the game, which meant they could no longer be independent and aloof. Think of Charlotte Mutsaers who joined in 2017 The world goes on because of what she had written: that she had sold her brother’s child pornography magazines. She defended herself by saying it was a novel. That worked in Hermans’ time, but now it doesn’t work at all.”

Literature is there to put the thermometer into society

We live in a time of ‘broadening, fragmentation and polyphony of the concept of literature’, you write. Is that bad news, because at the same time the prestige of literature has also diminished?

“It actually makes me optimistic! Perhaps literature no longer provides a mediagenic, unambiguous story, but if you make it one story you exclude other perspectives.”

What does this loss of prestige mean for literature?

“Perhaps the literary problem for writers of the twentieth century was the question of how they could and should relate to the world. How can an unambiguous political message be connected to ambiguous literature? Now the problem of ‘bubbles’ has been added: that there is hardly any common public space anymore where you can communicate with each other. How do you reach a broad audience? Is that still there? Literature is there to put the thermometer into society, but what role do writers still play in the world, and what role does their position in the world play in the text? Such questions are asked, also in literary texts. In this way, writers look for new ways to engage.”