‘Becoming the part you are playing’

Marek van der Jagt aka Arnon Grunberg

Like his alter ego Arnon Grunberg (1971-), the young Dutch novelist Marek van der Jagt (1967-) writes life stories. His 2000 debut, De geschiedenis van mijn kaalheid (lit. – as in the American translation – ‘The Story of My Baldness’, but widely translated as Amour fou, after its main theme), could be seen as a novel of adolescence or Bildungsroman. His second novel, Gstaad 95-98, which appeared in 2002, goes further, following a life far into adulthood.

This resulted in the unique phenomenon of a writer being honoured twice in his lifetime for producing the outstanding debut of the preceding two years, since Grunberg had received the award for his own first novel, the masterly study of adolescence Blue Mondays (Blauwe maandagen, 1994).

Actually the latter book is the only one of his novels to be set entirely in his own country, in the prosperous Jewish world of South Amsterdam, the Greenwich Village and Long Island of the Dutch capital. If there is one striking feature of the rapidly growing oeuvre of this master-narrator, it is its cosmopolitan character. Silent Extras (Figuranten, 1997), for instance, is set mainly in New York, where the author has lived for the past ten years, as is Phantom Pain (Fantoompijn, 2000), which in 2001 won the Netherlands’ main annual fiction prize, sponsored by a Dutch bookshop chain. In his most recent large-scale novel from 2004, The Jewish Messiah (De joodse messias), Basel is the principal location for the complex lives of his characters. This Swiss city close to the border with France and Germany is also where the main characters of Van der Jagt’s Gstaad 95-98 find a temporary refuge, at a midway point in their sinful course through life. As Marek van der Jagt the writer has positioned his characters in Central and Western Europe respectively.

It will consequently come as no surprise that the literary roots of Grunberg/Van der Jagt are to be found much less in Dutch literature than in the Jewish American and Central European novel tradition. In The Low Countries 9 Frans de Rover pointed, for example, to the link between Grunberg’s first novel Blauwe maandagen and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The tragicomic approach in substance and style that is Grunberg’s hallmark is equally evident in the two novels of Van der Jagt. The author shows an affinity with writers of international stature who explore the world of Jewish immigrant families in the US – writers like Philip Roth, whose Portnoy’s Complaint is definitely among Grunberg’s favourites, Saul Bellow, the chronicler of the oversexed Jewish-American intellectual in crisis (in Herzog), or Bernard Malamud. In the work of Grunberg/Van der Jagt the father is a failure, the mother a hysterical nymphomaniac, and all the members of the household go their own headstrong way. Harmony is nowhere to be found. Grunberg thoroughly explores the picture of Jewish togetherness. In addition he shows some of the same boldness with which the Czech master of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera, records the ways his characters enter into sexual relationships and regard life as a task that they must somehow fulfil. Van der Jagt/Grunberg’s main characters are acutely aware of the role they play on the stage of life.

As an essayist Grunberg pondered the ‘consolation of slapstick’ and that phrase, which he attributes to Buster Keaton and others to Woody Allen, brings us to the heart of the work of Grunberg/Van der Jagt, whose greatness lies in its humour and in the author’s ability to expand the tragic developments in which his characters become entangled because of their apparently directionless lives, into full-blown tragicomedies. Almost every page of Van der Jagt’s two novels triggers hilarity, although the facts described are as gruesome as the final outcome, particularly in Gstaad 95- 98.

An obsession

‘At the age of fourteen I read about amour fou. A few weeks later I had made my decision; man’s vocation is amour fou. Exactly what it was, I did not know; amour fou came without a beginner’s manual.’ In Van der Jagt’s debut Marek, the main character and narrator, looks back on his life. He tests out his theory on a maid. Don’t try it again, she says, it’ll pass of its own accord. Amour fou becomes an obsession. ‘Like comparing a twenty-volume encyclopaedia with a piece of toilet paper’, is how Marek experiences the qualitative difference between his own diminutive penis and the member of his elder brother Pavel. He might have an eternal smile on his face, but his prick was useless. This is the obsession which with its tragic-comic consequences preoccupies him throughout the story. Two girls from Luxembourg, whom he picks up in a bar, make it clear just how modest his obsession with amour fou will have to be. What a contrast with his nymphomaniac mother, a Viennese opera singer who claims the scalp of one artist after another! This woman is something of an oddity among the many that feature in Grunberg’s and Van der Jagt’s stories, a woman with lots of money, in an environment that generates money. Whatever the narrators, alter egos of the writer, may do, they are never short of money, they are awash with it, and never need to earn any. Giving out-of-school coaching to Max, the victim of a traffic accident, is simply an attempt by Marek to see if he can do it and so gain some self-respect. Older women are constantly falling for the youthful protagonist. He puts up with this in a detached way and is seldom really involved in what happens to him.

Marek’s family is just as chaotic as Arnon’s is in Grunberg’s first novel. Everyone lives in their own little world. All the characters in this work are essentially lonely, egocentric individuals, who wherever possible exploit other individuals. Grunberg does not have a high opinion of humankind. For example, none of Marek’s family react to his announcement that he is in the grip of an amour fou. So Marek decides to be a ‘dwarf trapped in the body of a medium-sized giant’ – and those who know their literature can take this as a wink in the direction of Günther Grass’ Die Blechtrommel, whose hero Oskar decides at the age of three to remain a dwarf as a protest against hypocrisy. A hilarious image: ‘To understand what it feels like to be a dwarf, I started walking on my haunches at home. And not long afterward I summoned the courage to walk about in public in a squatting position.’

His mother is the dominant presence in his life. ‘Anyone who knew no better would think that promiscuity was mama’s sole aim in life. But she was not a slave to her lust, nor was she driven by money worries. She was simply looking for something that was nowhere to be found in this world. Mama wanted to be resplendent and awaken desire. But those whose sole aim is to be resplendent do not exist when the other person is not looking.’

The unmistakable climax of this book is the moment when the protagonist realises that his obsession was a huge mistake. ‘All that remained of amour fou at this moment was a desire for vengeance’, vengeance directed at everything and everyone that has previously claimed his attention, from his genitals and his mother to the French teacher who introduced him to the surrealists and ‘to the civilisation I didn’t believe in’.

From now on all that remains for him is the imitation of an amour fou, experienced with an older lady, by whom he feels deflowered. He exclaims pathetically: ‘I’m the jamming station and all of you are the silence, I rattle the gates of you family graves, I bring the dead back to life with my whip.’ That has a New Testament ring, as if Christ himself were cleansing the temple! His imagination is more powerful than reality, Marek realises; in fact, he sees only his own creations. He is obsessed by the thought that his genitals will disappear completely and even a plastic surgeon cannot convince him otherwise. Only when his now terminally ill mother forces him to take to the mountains with her does the obsession disappear. After she has revealed mockingly to Marek that his father is not his biological father, he shakes himself free of the woman who for so long has kept him under her thumb. ‘With all the strength I possessed, I pushed her away from me. Because she was laughing. At a moment when I saw nothing to laugh about.’

Marek is subsequently given penis-enlarging homeopathic remedies by a woman he had met in a pub at the start of the novel, and this introduces the story of his baldness, which provided a title for the novel’s original version. In this woman Marek does unexpectedly find his great amour fou, but also loses all his hair. Whereupon the woman dumps him. End of amour fou. The grotesque wheel has come full circle.

Chronique scandaleuse

Even more than Amour fou Van der Jagt’s second – in fact Grunberg’s seventh – novel has the character of a picaresque epic-cum-chronique scandaleuse. The main characters are the narrator and his mother Mathilde. A product of the hasty copulation of this woman with a French down dealer travelling through Heidelberg, Francois Lepeltier learns from his mother how to steal like a magpie. He is not only her accomplice in crime, but throughout his life is her only true lover. The two are an inseparable pair of rogues. As a baby he hides the booty acquired by his mother as a chambermaid in hotels and boarding houses under his soiled nappies. From Heidelberg the action moves to Baden-Baden. There mother and son enter the service of an elderly Italian couple; the wife seeks sexual satisfaction with the mother, while the son endures the advances of the husband. This episode ends with the electrocution of the Italian woman by a heater placed in her bath, after which mother and son come under the protection of her husband. When the latter sexually assaults the boy, Mathilde skewers him with the bread knife. This is followed by episodes where the son practises as a phoney dentist among illegal Turkish immigrants in Stuttgart and presents himself as the ski instructor Bruno Ritter near Basel, where he concentrates on the peaceful deflowering of young ski pupils. The story, as shocking as it is hilarious, climaxes with the murder of a young girl by Bruno Ritter, now working as a wine waiter in the Palace Hotel in Gstaad, who has meanwhile entirely lost touch with normality. He is universally denounced as the Monster of Gstaad. Despite all the hilarity it soon becomes clear to the reader that Ritter’s infantile fixation will end in disaster. Every aspect of his behaviour, particularly as evoked in his physical contact with his mother, points to his sexual frustration, his inability to progress beyond the anal phase.

As in Van der Jagt’s first novel the last period of a life gives its name to the whole book, since Gstaad is only the place where Francois’ life takes its decisive turn. For three years as a wine waiter at the Palace Hotel he will play the gigolo before meeting his final downfall. Actually no one and nothing matters here except his mother, but life has to be acted out. And the main character proves incapable of doing so, at least when it comes to finding the right way. Again the neurotic falls prey to obsessions and compulsive behaviour. These are his undoing. ‘My Mathilde. She was real, I was imitation. When she died, a life came to an end, when I died only a game would end.’ Having assumed this role, he flies kites that he has made himself in his bachelor home. ‘In the superfluous world my kites provided a pleasant distraction.’

‘I had become the person I had at first only been playing,’ says Francois later when he has passed himself off as a dentist. ‘And that is the essence of happiness. People who can’t be anything have to become the part they are playing.’ Here Gstaad 95-98 also touches on the dominant theme of the oeuvre of Grunberg/Van der Jagt. In his books he puts into practice Sartre’s assertion that ‘to be is to be seen’, and in so doing, for all the larger-than-life effects used by the author, often to the great amusement of the reader, he comes very close to the everyday reality of our TV society. ‘Identity is closely bound up with how other people see you’ says Grunberg in a recent interview. That one can control this is proved by the main character of Gstaad 95-98. I would also refer to what one could call the Blechtrommel effect to explain the determination of the protagonist to create his own identity: ‘I stared back with those eyes behind which I had always hidden and behind which I can still hide, the eyes of a backward child that heard everything but understood nothing, that saw everything but retained nothing.’

By Wam de Moor
Translated by Paul Vincent

Published in The Low Countries, 2005


The Story of my Baldness was published by The Other Press, NY (tr. Todd Armstrong). 264 pp., 2004.

In this article the translations of quotes from that novel are Paul Vincent’s.