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Why do you write?4 March 2011 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Herman Koch
‘Are there any questions from the audience?’ the interviewer asks. ‘The author is quite happy to answer all your burning questions.’
The neon strip lights are on. Eighty coffee cups are laid out and there are biscuits in a plastic container. Raindrops make their way down the library windows.
‘It’s always difficult being the first,’ says the interviewer.
They have been listening to readings from the author’s work. The interviewer moved on to ask him about recurrent themes. He just about managed to restrain himself from asking about the same old recurrent themes.
‘There are two kinds of writers,’ the author had replied. ‘One attempts a new approach with each book. The other keeps rewriting the same novel.’
He had glanced across his audience. He thought his answer had resembled a clock that chimes precisely twelve times at twelve o’clock. Yet members of the audience – most of them were women sporting a sensible haircut – looked on earnestly.
A smell of coffee now wafts up towards the strip lights. The author is looking forward to drinking a bottle of beer. This will require some effort: after an extensive search through corridors, on bookshelves and behind copiers, the librarian will eventually locate a bottle of beer.
‘There was just one left,’ she will say.
The search is on for a bottle opener. After fifteen minutes they manage to find an opener. The beer is served at room temperature.
‘Someone would have put it in the fridge for you,’ the librarian will explain, ‘but she phoned in sick this morning. We have quite a few people off at the moment.’
A bluebottle has made its way into the library and is bumping against the fluorescent light bulbs. Resembling a scene in an Anton Chekhov story, the author muses. His ears are ringing. His mind wanders to the car. His own car, which is sitting in the car park next to the library. The moment he starts the car, life will resume.
The interviewer says, ‘I’ve spotted someone with a question.’
There is more than one type of sensible haircut. There are gardens with artificial grass and others consisting of nothing but garden slabs. This garden is completely paved.
‘Why do you write?’ the woman asks.
‘Has everyone heard the question?’ the interviewer asks. ‘In any case I’ll repeat it. Why do you write? is what this lady wants to know.’
The bluebottle burns its wings on the light bulb and tumbles into the plastic box of biscuits.
‘Graham Greene once said: “I don’t understand people who do not write”,’ the author answers and again glances at his audience. ‘Neither do I.’
Then it is time to sign his books. They form a queue in front of the author’s table.
A woman with one small tuft of artificial grass tickling her ear asks, ‘Can you put: “For Wenstinieleinde, have fun reading this”?’
‘Do you spell it with e and i or i and j?’ the author enquires.
The librarian asks, ‘Maybe you would like a cup of coffee? Our member of staff who would normally see to your bottle of beer has phoned in sick this morning. We have quite a few people off sick. I feel under the weather too, but I’ve come in anyway.’
The bluebottle hasn’t quite perished. It tries to find its way out from under the biscuits and take off again.
‘This is for my husband,’ says the woman who asked why the author writes. The paving slabs on her head are arranged in such a way that no grass can see the light of day. ‘He would have liked to come but he is indisposed. His name is Uijnst.’
The author asks, ‘With ui or uij?’
The hair of the next woman who wants her book signed seems to the author to represent a rusty tricycle, an empty beer crate and a neglected sandpit used by the neighbours’ cats.
She says, ‘Could you write: “For Draapkreft, I hope you have met your end when I give you this book tonight. Or else that you have decided to leave, without complicated goodbye notes on the kitchen table. I hope you do this tidily, without me having to identify all sorts of items later.”’
The author is learning right now that bluebottles can lift a whole biscuit – evidently, as it is happening before his eyes.
Once the author has penned the dedication the woman says, ‘I have one last question, one I didn’t dare to ask before.’
The author’s mind is on starting his car in the car park.
‘Please go ahead,’ he says.
‘Do you think that your experiences this evening are mainly autobiographical?’
© Herman Koch
© Translation Holland Park Press
Dutch writer Herman Koch born in 1953 has many strings to his bow. For many years he has been starring in and writing for one of the most successful satirical programs Jiskefet on Dutch television. He is also a popular columnist for a major Dutch national newspaper De Volkskrant and Esta magazine. Most importantly he is a celebrated novelist. His novel Het diner sold more than 450,000 copies in the Dutch market and he was awarded the NS Publieksprijs. His latest novel Zomerhuis met zwembad was published in early 2011. It has been occupying the number one spot on the Dutch bestseller list for several weeks.
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