Storytelling Creates Solidarity – On Vonne van der Meer

Community through storytelling

Stories play an important part in the work of Vonne van der Meer. Strictly speaking, it is true that she has published only two story collections – Het limonadegevoel (‘The Lemonade Feeling’) in 1985 and Nachtgoed (‘Nightclothes’) in 1993 – but her novels and novellas are also remarkably often composed around a collection of stories. The novella Spookliefde (1995) (‘Phantom Love’) has the subtitle ‘An Irish Story’, and was conceived as a frame story: most of the book is taken up with the story told by forty-year-old woman Phil to a young tourist. The same goes for the trilogy Eilandgasten (‘Island Guests’), De avondboot (‘The Evening Boat’) and Laatste seizoen (“Last Season”), whose stories might very well have been devised, and have even perhaps been written down in the guest book by the scrubwoman whose thoughts and observations close and open each of the island books. And Van der Meer’s most recent novel, Ik verbind u door (‘I’ll Put You Through’) may not be a frame story, but storytelling is certainly of importance: the angel who follows the various characters, repeatedly addresses the reader directly. She tells us what she sees.
    This is not merely a question of talent, which makes someone better perhaps at short stories than substantial novels. It also has something to do with the fact that storytelling in itself is significant in Vonne van der Meer’s poetics – something she herself has pointed out in an interview. It is precisely because stories are relatively short that they can essentially be repeated. And storytelling creates solidarity, unity: an effect fiction writers often aim for, despite the fact that in practice reading happens in isolation, is intimate and private. Storytelling can have a collective, even ritualistic function, and as such it also plays a part in the history of the novel, as Bronzwaer explains using Thomas Mann’s novels Der Zauberberg (‘The Magic Mountain’) and Joseph und seine Brüder (‘Joseph and His Brothers’). [1] Telling stories has, to use a more Catholic term in this context, an important community-building function. Storytelling connects the listeners or readers with the characters, with the narrator and with each other. [2] Storytelling is, in other words, inclusive.
    It should perhaps not be surprising that Van der Meer’s work brings about such a community in the work of an author for whom solidarity is an important theme. ‘You don’t live outside the world, not in any way. There is no ‘me here, the world there (…). The more you try to reduce the separation between yourself and others, the more you try to find common ground, the more you narrow that gap on a wider scale’, the writer says herself. The fact that this also takes place on a narratological level, the level of storytelling, says something about the skill with which Van der Meer has managed to transform her world view into an imaginary world.

Solidarity through everyday objects

Aside from storytelling, communities are created in other ways. In her novels, in the last four in particular, everyday objects such as a feather, a shell, a bead and the guestbook play a prominent part. Via these objects a connection arises between people who would otherwise barely know of each other’s existence, if at all. The guests at the holiday home Duinroos are touched or feel comforted by the other visitors’ stories. In Eilandgasten Simone, who is on holiday for a fortnight with her husband and children, reads the jottings of one of the regular guests in the guestbook, Betty Slaghek:

With the guestbook in her hand Simone went upstairs, to the blue room. She had probably sat here, on this chair, at this very table. (…) She had perhaps also seen a man of around thirty from this window who reminded her of her son, but was not. [3]

Now a recognition of this sort goes without saying in the case of a guestbook; after all, it is here that you find things out about the other visitors to Duinroos. But more ‘banal’ things, such as a packet of elbow macaroni of which a few pieces are later found, bring about a similar connection. This happens throughout the three island books.
    This is not an innovative literary technique in itself. In the short novel Denier du rêve (1971) (‘A Coin in Nine Hands’) by Marguerite Yourcenar, for example, a lira coin which passes from hand to hand counters the isolation between people. And in the film Magnolia (2000) by Paul Thomas Anderson – to cite an example from film – the characters are linked to each other by the way they all at some point sing the same song. Vonne van der Meer, however, manages to breathe new life into this technique and take it to a higher level. [4] The objects in the island books are not there by chance. The guest book is put down by the scrubwoman, and the shells are collected by Walter (in Eilandgasten). In these acts – putting down the guest book, displaying the shells – we see a writer at work who keeps everything carefully in hand, a director who wants the characters to meet each other. Van der Meer makes everyday objects into worldly metaphors, as it were, for solidarity, a form of building community, analogous to the way the celebration of the Eucharist does this, but in this case using ancient liturgical symbols and rituals.
    This forming of communities is not confined to the novel, but affects the reader. In reading Vonne van der Meer’s novels the reader becomes part of one and the same body, of which the writer, the narrator and the characters are also part. The reader’s isolation is lifted, and he or she feels absorbed in a wider connection in the community of characters, narrator and readers.
    This is a special sensation. And rather unique, too, which in my opinion partly explains the novels’ success among the public. (I myself, for that matter, am ambivalent about this; the reading experience I seek takes place more in isolation and seclusion, where you do not sense that all other readers are reading with you at the same time).

Compassion

In the essay ‘Graham Greene: De emancipatie van de katholieke roman’ (‘Graham Greene: The Emancipation of the Catholic Novel’) [5], W.J.M. Bronzwaer examines the idea of creative compassion. [6] This term is, as we have seen before in literary theory, almost too good to be true. Yet it is still worth examining more closely. The concept of creative compassion is not simple; it consists of two parts which are actually at odds with each other. The second part, compassion, concerns the position of the author towards his or her characters. As Bronzwaer shows, the position is one of identification. ‘The novelist’s position is essentially the position of man towards fellow man. The model of this position is Christ’ [7], writes Bronzwaer. A position he specifies as follows:

In this way the novelist becomes a creator in the theological sense of the word, and his problem becomes the problem that is embodied in Christ. Christian compassion, interpreted as pity, but also as Christ incarnate literally sharing man’s suffering, removes the paradox: Christ saves man by giving him back his freedom. He gives man the opportunity to be himself in freedom, yet at the same time admits him into the dimension of salvation. [8]

The risk of this attitude in the novelist is that he or she may identify too much with his or her characters, which may endanger ‘the objectivity of the artwork’ as Bronzwaer terms it. The artistic value of the literary work depends on the extent to which the writer succeeds in making the novel not just a vehicle for his or her – in this case Christian Catholic-inspired – ideas, but in creating an independent work of art. This is obviously the ultimate pitfall for any author with a definite world view. And it is also right that literary criticism is keen on precisely this potentially weak point.
    Graham Greene has managed to dissolve this tension between compassion and creativity. In his work, creative compassion relates both to the positions that the characters in the books occupy towards each other, and the writer’s position towards the fictional world in his or her novel, whereby the latter becomes increasingly important in his later work, according to Bronzwaer, with the story ‘May we borrow your husband?’ being the climax.

Bronzwaer’s findings, even though he wrote his essay in 1969, about an author who was published halfway through the last century, throw interesting light on the novels of Vonne van der Meer. In her work we see a similar creative compassion in action. An example of compassion between the characters can be found, for instance, in Ik verbind u door, where Edith is moved by the vulnerability of a woman who had earlier snubbed her:

Edith let her glance linger on the woman’s dyed red hair; the scalp was faintly visible through it. Thin, dull hair which she had tried to make something of with bow-shaped pins. (…) Instead of a domineering creature with a big bag there was suddenly a person beside her. Someone who could barely stay standing. [9]

Such moments are frequent. For a moment chagrin, anger or irritation give way to a benevolence which makes room for the vulnerability of the other.
    We also see the compassion of the writer or narrator for the characters again and again in the novels. The scrubwoman in the island books is an obvious example. Or the angel in Ik verbind u door, who cannot intervene, it is true, but who is extremely sympathetic towards the characters and whispers good advice in their ears. ‘Silence, that’s what’s essential to me… Be careful, Jaap, I whispered in his ear, don’t turn the splinter in your heart into a dagger.’ [10] This compassion is not confined just to the goodness in man, but extends to his weaknesses and faults, as the angel’s reaction when the gardener Tycho attacks an older woman reveals: ‘Then I hurried after the gardener, for his story will also go on. A murder can never be the final word, is never the end, rather the beginning.’ [11]
    The idea of auctorial compassion sheds light not only on certain aspects of Van der Meer’s narrative style, but may well also explain the difficulty that some critics have with her work. In my opinion this cannot be explained by differing world views, or the obvious presence of belief in God in her work. Nor does it even have anything to do with the extent to which Van der Meer succeeds in allowing her characters to stand on their own two feet. [12] It arises specifically from precisely this auctorial compassion.
    As Bronzwaer demonstrates, the compassion of the creator, who gives his or her creatures freedom and saves them at the same time by admitting it in a higher understanding, has a different status in the different national literary traditions. [13] This is why the sympathetic narrator is highly esteemed in English literature, while the narrator in the French novel, I paraphrase, is said to be more clinical, objective and unfeeling. He does not mention the Dutch novel in this quotation, but as has already been observed, the narrative style of the realistic novel has a firm foothold here, both with novelists and critics. [14] And to this dogma belongs a neutral, detached (!) narrator. Could the irritation that Vonne van der Meer’s work arouses among certain Dutch critics be explained as a result of this tradition? In other words: Vonne van der Meer is, as an author – just like Graham Greene – anything but neutral and detached, but on the contrary sympathetic towards her characters. ‘(A) morally indifferent, exclusively naturalistic attitude towards the created world’ is unsustainable for her. [15] This auctorial involvement is at odds with the poetics of the detached, sometimes even cruel narrator, which is much more familiar to us – and more highly valued.
    ‘Proof’ for my hypothesis is provided inadvertently by Elsbeth Etty in her review of De avondboot. While her opinion of Eilandgasten was favourable because she attributed the stories and the compassion related in it to the scrubwoman, she changes her mind about this interpretation with regard to De avondboot: ‘the thought processes harking from the 1950s (…) are no reconstruction of what the cleaner inspires. It is the writer herself who devises the problems and presumes that these will engage her readers.’ This analysis leads to a negative verdict: ‘However fine and sensual Van der Meer’s prose may be (…), behind the apparent naivety of the writer and her characters hides a considerable dose of humourless dogmatism.’ In other words: the compassion that comes to the fore in the novels is acceptable to the critic Elsbeth Etty insofar as it can be attributed to a character. As soon as the suspicion arises that the creative compassion in the work could well be the compassion of the writer Vonne van der Meer herself, the reviewer pulls back.
    From this viewpoint Van der Meer occupies a rather unique position in Dutch literature, owing not so much to the fact that the (Catholic) faith and world view is present in her world, but owing to the way this takes shape in storytelling itself.

 

Notes
1. ‘At two or three points in the book [Der Zauerberg, L.E.] a situation is even evoked where there is the strong suggestion that the ‘wir’ denotes a group of listeners gathered round a narrator, thereby giving the narration its collective and ritualistic function which will later be developed in Joseph und seine Brüder’, W.J.M. Bronzwaer, ‘Dialogen op de Toverberg’, in: De echo van het ego. Over het meerstemmige zelf, Ambo, Baarn, 1995, p. 113
2. Narrator and writer do not correspond in narratological theory; the narrator is the organ of narration in the book, which can take different forms – present or, on the contrary, invisible, omniscient or from a character’s perspective. The writer is the subject of the biography.
3. Vonne van der Meer, Ik verbind u door, Uitgeverij Contact, Amsterdam, 2004, p. 145
4. . In my opinion Vonne van der Meer handles the Catholic tradition in a far more unorthodox way than one is inclined to think on the basis of her – benevolent – world view and careful, subdued writing style. A good example of this is the last story in De avondboot. In the woman who takes a passenger’s finger in her mouth in order to stem the blood you can discern the story of the men of Emmaus; Jesus unrecognised – this time in the guise of a woman. (With thanks to Joke Litjens, who led me to this idea).
5. W.J.M. Bronzwaer, ‘Graham Greene: De emancipatie van de katholieke roman’, in: Vormen van imitatie. Opstellen over Engelse en Amerikaanse literatuur, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam 1969, p. 158-173.
6. Bronzwaer, who in turn derives the concept of creative compassion from Philip Stratford, also uses the Dutch equivalents ‘creatieve compassie’, ‘creatief medelijden’ and ‘auctoriële compassie’ for this term.
7. Ibid, p. 167.
8. Ibid, p. 162.
9. Vonne van der Meer, Ik verbind u door, Uitgeverij Contact, Amsterdam, 2004, p. 86.
10. Ibid, p. 39.
11. Ibid, p. 151.
12. Yet in my opinion in Ik verbind u door she has found, from a literary perspective, a more creative solution to this than in the island books. In the former book the characters are freer, and it is more up to them whether they are led by the angel’s suggestions, or by chagrin, which from anger leads to worse things.
13. W.J.M. Bronzwaer, ‘Graham Greene: De emancipatie van de katholieke roman’, in: Vormen van imitatie. Opstellen over Engelse en Amerikaanse literatuur, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam 1969, p. 166 + 168.
14. See, among others, Thomas Vaessens, De verstoorde lezer. Over de onbegrijpelijke poëzie van Lucebert, Uitgeverij Vantilt, Nijmegen, 2001.
15. W.J.M. Bronzwaer, ‘Graham Greene: De emancipatie van de katholieke roman’, in: Vormen van imitatie. Opstellen over Engelse en Amerikaanse literatuur, Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam 1969, p. 170.

Liesbeth Eugelink | Translated by Alexander Smith