You laugh because I struggle with syllables and inflect skies and hills…
Lazarillo of Tormes hoisted himself as ‘Lázaro’ on the stage of literary history – however, he remained unknown. Written on the cover the translation of the little book we read: ‘About the author there is considerable uncertainty, thus the book has usually been published anonymously’.
Perhaps such anonymous publication had also to do with the content. That story gave it in 1559 an honourable place on the Index librorum inhibitorum. On this laundry list of books forbidden by the pope you will find almost all history’s authors of any intellectual and/or literary standing. Trust judgment of taste to religious pedants and nothing of literary quality would be left to read.
In any case, it seems far better if your book ended up on the Index, than that your body burned at the stake. Both rubbish-dumps were managed by the Inquisition. So: Watch out! After all, the Inquisition managed to beat the Holy Spirit out of any man, almost like water out of rocks, yet without any miracle involved in the process. The pen may be a sword – however, be careful in your choice of duellists.
In the introduction of A Picaresque Novel Lázaro was doing his very best to devalue the content of his own writings. Books should not be destroyed, he says, “there is always something to be gotten out of them.” An author will always be rewarded, not so much financially, as by “knowing that his work is seen and read.” The author then continues to present his little book as “of a poor performance.” It is offered the reader “from the hands of someone who would have made it much better, if only his skills had been as great as his desire.”
How different this is from the attitude of the famous and infamous Dutch author W.F. Hermans. Born in the village like metropolis of Amsterdam, he moved out into the provinces and from the Dutch provincial towns Voorburg and Groningen started to fire wild-west at anything and everybody, harassing whomever he could, especially those others in the centre of culture who might be regarded as better writers than himself.
His life long he modelled a growing collection of little pointed essays, titled Mandarins on Sulfuric Acid. Each contemporary Dutch author, but also writers from the past, got their beating – often minor authors who did not deserve such critical attention. That title is funny though – at least in the Dutch language in which a ‘mandarin’, of course also referring to the Chinese version, is the smaller edition of a big orange. Often, however, the book exudes a sad kind of infantilism.
Then again, we should not forget that Hermans also wrote a masterpiece: Damokles’ Dark Room.
In the copy his Paranoia, a book with short stories which he gave as a present to the anthropologist Fokke Sierksma, Hermans wrote the following dedication:
For Miracle Doctor from Leyden Fokke (…Sitting Bull) Sierksma,
these early shoots of my genius – W. F. Hermans, Groningen 1953
This book had just been published by G. A. Van Oorschot who also brought out other Hermans-books. This did not prevent the writer at a later date to wage vicious war against this former friend, including a process in court which lasted over a decade.
W.F. Hermans and Fokke Sierksma, by the way my father, together with others filled the pages of the literary magazine Podium. Their relationship has had its ups and downs, Sierksma being editor of the journal, Hermans only so in the years when Sierksma stopped as such, this in order to write his PhD on Freud, Jung and Anthropology.
In the margin of this little essay I would like to relate the personal astonishment with which I read this dedication. It is only now, in 2016, that I read Paranoia for the first time. My own PhD from 1990 was dedicated to no one else but… Sitting Bull, chief of the Hunkpapa Indians. With my father I had quarrelled for ages – not seeing him for a long time till death did us part.
The picture of this Chief, which still charms my study, resembles both my granddad and my father, who both died so early.
That jibe at the ‘Miracle Doctor’ refers to Hermans’ lifelong suspicion of anything to do with religion. Even if the atheistic F. Sierksma, a professional anthropologist, studied indigenous religious rituals, masks or sexual habits, such things remained for Hermans, the professed Positivist, suspicious per se and seriously abject. As if by merely studying such things, you were also irretrievably infected by it.
Hermans’ remark on his own ‘genius’ is honest and has nothing to do with irony, even though his corrosive mockery of others can sometimes be quite funny. Even in one of the titles of his books, I Am Always Right, gravity dominates self-mockery.
However, one may argue against the phrase ‘early offshoots’. Before Paranoia Van Oorschot had indeed already published Hermans’ Tears of the Acacia’s, and before that Conserve, a book written during the war – at a time when my father fought in the Resistance. Hermans’ sneering at Van Oorschot was extremely inappropriate.
And apropos war. The Great Writer had been very jealous of his indeed smarter sister, who – alas – when war broke out committed a double suicide with her older lover. Hermans must have seen the parallel with the suicide of Ter Braak at that time, a famous Dutch author whom he detested and always wrote against. Did he perhaps consider suicide also as something religious, or as something to brave for a little sister?
That may not be the writer’s attitude. Feigned humility, we know, can be a sign of a real, hidden streak of megalomania. And the megalomaniac quite often poses as a humble man. A scary cocktail, which one observes in many a religious maniac and – why not – in miracle doctors, sectarians and sometimes in writers. Between Lazarillo’s humility and the rather obvious megalomania of W.F. Hermans there must surely be a third stance, something like mundane restraint.
Perhaps, a dose of paranoia is part and parcel of all art.
Sierksma Haarlem 02/18/16