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Column: Feisty Old Fellows9 March 2010 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
On the 4th of March I had a date at the Letterkundig Museum in The Hague to view my self-portrait which has been acquired by the museum for their National Writers’ Portrait Collection. Youthful writers were very thin on the ground because they hadn’t yet earned their portrait, and so the average age was around eighty.
Bestselling Dutch author Jan Siebelink, at 72 still beating the average age, was sweating profusely on his quest to locate his own portrait without much success and his poor wife was trying to keep up with him. No wonder Siebelink couldn’t find his portrait; even though it was only painted last year, it doesn’t do justice to his seventy odd years of age.
Like a few other authors, Siebelink must have rushed a commission in order to have his portrait ready in time for the opening. He is pictured in a pink jacket, white shawl and his long white locks are artfully arranged around his head.
The end result is that of an advertisement for the local hairdressing salon. It would go beautifully with this caption: ‘Jan Siebelink, unisex stylist’.
Another writer, Joost Zwagerman, one year younger than me at 46 and the author of this year’s Dutch Book Week gift, stood out because of his youthful appearance. The Book Week’s theme is: Youth – growing up with literature. Joost and I represented the ‘youth’ amongst the writers in the National Writers’ Portrait Collection.
For Zwagerman it was a tour of duty. He walked twice past all portraits looking straight ahead before collecting a catalogue and disappearing into a rainy The Hague.
I surveyed my portrait on the opposite wall from a safe distance. It was painted sixteen years ago before I started writing full time. I had just heard that I was going to serve with the UN in Bosnia and at the time it seemed a good idea to leave behind a self-portrait. You never know what may happen during a war.
It is painted in red and my bare hands provided the finishing touch, I used them to smudge the half dried paint across the canvas. My mother remarked: ‘I find it a bit spooky that you have painted this portrait.’
But I survived and my portrait is the only one in the collection tainted by cigar smoke. That’s because it has hung for years above my writing desk.
I looked at the writers who gingerly edged their way forwards. They seemed to avoid each other and most of them inspired me to think: Gosh! I didn’t know he was still alive. Some seemed equally surprised to find themselves at this exhibition.
This reminded me of a quote by Martin Amis: ‘How talent dies before the body.’ Or stated differently: the work of most writers doesn’t age very well.
In any case Amis has called for euthanasia booths on street corners, where the elderly can end their life with a Martini and a medal. Why? Well, because Amis feels threatened by a silver tsunami which will unbalance society.
Yet I found myself surrounded by very elderly, award winning writers raising a glass; a true silver tsunami but one in which its members definitely refused to die on the spot.
Jan Siebelink spent his life on the fringe of the literary world only to write his masterpiece at the age of 67. We should give the man a chance to enjoy his belated success, even when his portrait would look not out of place at the local barber.
Is there really a relation between age and the vitality of one’s writing? Dutch publishing house De Bezige Bij published a new poetry anthology in February called: De 21st eeuw in driehonderd gedichten (The 21st Century captured in three hundred poems). The editor Gerrit Komrij aims to assess the state of the latest Dutch poetry.
To be eligible for selection poets couldn’t be older than thirty two years, this was to ensure that none of the featured poets would be older than Christ, as Komrij proclaimed, a self-confessed atheist. This is surely a case of dragging God into the proceedings only when you need Him, God, however, never discriminates.
It certainly helps if a writer has lived a bit and has something of importance to convey to his audience.
Writers are like winter vegetables, they need night frost to become tasty. It would help if Martin Amis was a Brussels sprout.
© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press
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