A literary writer must ‘display what he has dug up from his cellars and basements’, Jeroen Brouwers wrote decades ago – and he has performed this task for six decades. Then it was over: Wednesday he passed away at the age of 82, having been frail and old for years. With him literature loses one of the most influential literary voices, one of the greatest stylists the Dutch-speaking region has known over the past century.
Also read this double interview with Jeroen Brouwers and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: Your book will of course win the Libris Prize†
“My life is over, isn’t it? I’ll be dead in three years,” he already knew, during one of the last interviews he gave, last year just before he received the Libris Literature Prize for his latest novel. Client E. Busken† His swan song was a tour de force, a language explosion that led to the soul of a man with dementia, who was no longer able to speak, but in whom everything was still swirling inside. The stories this Busken told about himself became more and more unreliable – and at the same time that flawed autobiography was all he had left and to which he clung.
It was a theme that reflected Brouwers’s view of literature: he wrote autobiographical novels that had the essential feature that they were both truthful and untruthful. They captured the memory and distorted it. “Everything is autobiographical,” he noted in his novel winter light (1984). That ‘everything’ also encompassed that which had not happened, but still existed. So: fears, memories, desires, “that which takes place on the night side of existence.” Abandonment, death, lost love.
Jeroen Brouwers was born on April 30, 1940 in Batavia, present-day Jakarta, as the son of an architect. During the Japanese occupation he ended up in an internment camp, without his father, with his mother and sister. After the war, he ended up in Dutch boarding schools, in Zeist and in South Limburg, which were certainly not a warm or safe environment. He completed his military service, in the navy, and ended up in journalism, which led to his first book publication: a modest biography of Edith Piaf. He later worked as a publishing assistant for some time, but also wrote himself – which he would do full-time from the mid-1970s.
“I really existed,” he noted when his first words came into print: writing was a fulfillment. Influenced by his example Harry Mulisch and his mentor Herman Teirlinck, he published the collection of short stories at the age of 24 The knife to the throat† His first novel followed in 1965, Joris Ockeloen and the waiting† Fear, transience, desolation: themes that always fascinated him were already present in it.
Literature that is more real than (volatile) reality would always remain the point of departure, but also a paradox that critics did not always appreciate. Brouwers wrote the novel about his period in the internment camp sunken red (1980) – has become a classic with fifty printings. The condensation he applied resulted in one of the biggest riots in his writing career: the novel was slammed in the critics because Brouwers allegedly distorted the facts and proclaimed ‘lies’. Brouwers did not deny this – but that the novel would lay claim to historical reality, in sunken red he had made things up “for novel technical reasons, or exaggerated them.” Precisely the unreliability of the autobiography was always a theme in his work.
Also read the review of ‘Client E. Busken: Jeroen Brouwers’ final chord is grand and phenomenally fiery
“I am an ignorant antisocial person, wholly literary, relating everything he experiences, thinks and feels to literature and makes literature of everything he has to do with and especially himself,” he once wrote. Yet his prose is not the raw confessional prose associated with autobiography: it was material, but Brouwers turned it into art. His prose went through experimental phases, in highly symbolic novels in which everything is intertwined with everything – but telling a ‘story’ took priority again in his later work, starting with Secret rooms (2000). It was widely regarded as a masterpiece and received five prizes, including the AKO Literature Prize. He also wrote, based on his incidental experience, The wood (2014), about abuse at a Catholic boys’ boarding school – that book also won prizes.
A constant, and Brouwers’ main quality, was the style, which was always the main attraction – although the content was not separate from that. Brouwers wanted to ‘transmit a message’, and he did so through that style: the increasingly impotent account of old age in Client E. Busken is an example of this.
Brouwers won, with the Libris Literature Prize last year as the highlight, almost all the literary prizes he could receive, in all the decades in which he was active. Brouwers’ relationship with oeuvre prizes was more difficult: he received the Constantijn Huygens Prize in 1993, but probably lost his chance at the PC Hooft Prize after he was awarded the Prize of Dutch Literature in 2007, but he declined it. He thought the amount of money was a mockery, the organization was substandard; all this showed the institutional disregard for literature, which he did not want to get involved in. He did write about it: in Sisyphus’ beacons, which became one of the highlights of the literary polemic of recent decades. That was not an outing for Brouwers: he was one of the most gifted and merciless polemicists of his time.
His polemics were just as important to Brouwers as his novels – the same was true for his essayistic approach, which, in addition to the novel the deluge produced his most extensive work: the book The last door, in which Brouwers portrayed writers who had committed suicide. In 2017 he expanded that work with another 700 new pages. It was also part of his oeuvre, Brouwers wrote: “Their death has been part of my life, – by writing their death histories, I am writing my life history: everything must be ‘immortalized’.”
Jeroen Brouwers married and divorced twice, had two sons and a daughter, and lived the last five years of his life in Lanaken, just across the Belgian-Limburg border. “What people call inspiration, I no longer have it. I’m just dead from above. In a creative sense,” he said during an interview, in April 2021. “There will be nothing more.” In The Fly Book (1991) Brouwers already wrote: “I don’t want to ‘survive’ myself, I would like my books to survive me: this is the only reason why I write.”