18 May 2011
Last week I read a short story Welkom thuis (Welcome Home) by well known Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg in the Dutch newspaper NRC/Handelsblad. The two main characters in his story are respectively a writer/creative writing teacher and an army officer. Heavens, they neatly sum up my current and previous lives, I realised with a jolt of surprise. Moreover it turned out to be set in my home town Arnhem!
Such coincidences happen of course quite often. Whatever you make up, there is always someone who thinks it is about him. Even if a literary character was modelled on a real person, the resulting personage is still a product of the author’s mind. A writer can’t know what a real person is thinking however he can for a character in a novel.
It doesn’t make life easy for the author’s acquaintances, friends and relatives. ‘Surely the real Uncle Harry is much nicer,’ Yes but it isn’t Uncle Harry! Even if the author was inspired by Uncle Harry, it is his impression of Uncle Harry and hence literature. What you can say though is that recognition makes a character more believable.
There are of course novels without any recognisable characters. For example Belgian writer Yves Petry has recently won a major Dutch literary prize for his novel De maagd Marino (The Virgin Marino). He was inspired by a newspaper article about a German cannibal. He used this as a basis for his novel. The newspaper article was the only connection, it is how literature works.
However I prefer reading about everyday people. If you look into their minds, they often turn out to be crazy enough. As titles go, The Virgin Marino is a silly play of words. Well, I shouldn’t comment before I have read it. After all I really enjoyed Engleby by Sebastian Faulks, and its central character isn’t very appealing.
People who maintain an author has put them into his novel are in fact cannibals: they swallow their own identity.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar