Marsh Hawk Review is an online poetry journal sponsored by the Marsh Hawk Press collective. Marsh Hawk Review will appear twice a year, under the revolving editorship of collective members. Each issue will offer a selection of poems solicited by the editor, in addition to new work posted by poets in the collective.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

An Interview with Jaap Van Der Bent

An Interview with Jaap Van Der Bent

By Daniel Morris.

Jaap Van Der Bent is a professor in the Department of English and American Studies at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He is regarded as a leading authority on Beat culture in Europe and has published and lectured widely in this area. This interview, which took place via email in the late summer of 2009, was the culmination of a series of less formal discussions about Beat culture in Europe held between Van Der Bent and Morris on the Radboud campus, where Morris taught as a Fulbright professor in Spring 2009.

1. Morris: I was struck in reading your work about the influence World War Two had on the reception -- both positive and negative -- of Beat writing in Europe in the 1950s. Why was World War Two and its aftermath so important to the reception of Beat writing in Europe? It sounds like for German writers the Beats represented a kind of "return of repressed" kinds of writings during Hitlerism. Did the Beats represent a break from a past that Europe was attempting to work through as Europeans sought the kind of liveliness and immediacy we associate with Beat writing? Were some European countries resistant to the Beats because of their own national pride and desire to develop their own literary directions?

Van Der Bent: To some extent the influence of the Beats in Europe can be compared to what happened in the United States in the 1950s. The general idea, with which not everyone agrees, is that on the whole the fifties in America were a period of consolidation and conformity, when most people tended to "toe the line." The same is true for Europe, where after the war most people also wanted to play it safe and to enjoy the comfort which peace had brought. There were of course rebellious writers, in Europe and also in the Netherlands, who were dissatisfied with what they thought was a rather tame state of affairs, also as far as literature and the arts were concerned, and who wanted to break free. In the Netherlands already shortly after the war there were both artists and writers, especially poets but some prose writers as well, who did not want to continue where the fairly conventional ways of writing and painting had left off when the war broke out in 1940, and who wanted a new beginning, influenced by earlier post-war movements which had also broken new ground. In the Netherlands before the war Surrealism had never been taken seriously by writers and artists of influence, so after the war this was one particular movement which was used as a source of inspiration, especially by the poets.

2. Morris: Why were Beat writers drawn to Europe? Was there a sense that gay writers, blacks, women, and non-conformists could have a better shake in Europe than in the U.S. during what Lowell called the "tranquillized Fifties"? Was it cheaper for the Beats to live in Europe than in the U.S.? Were the Beats looking to spread the word about their revolution of the word?

Van Der Bent: It seems as if the Beats had various reasons for wanting to go to Europe, and in some cases one wonders whether they really wanted to go. Kerouac had already been to Europe during the war, but that was when he was in the merchant marine and at the time he only got to see a little bit of England. Although, if I remember correctly, in Vanity of Duluoz, his last full-fledged novel, he writes about taking a brief trip to London when his ship had docked at Liverpool. At the end of the war, when the Americans were liberating Europe, he and some of his friends dreamt about sneaking off to Europe, if necessary as stowaways, so they could witness the liberation of Paris. But he did not go at the time, and when he ended up in Europe in 1957 he was no longer in the mood to enjoy Europe and its culture. Kerouac's later visits to Europe were also failures and usually short. A typical example of such a visit would be the description Kerouac gives of a confused and drunken stay in Paris and Brittany sometime in 1965, in the novel he wrote before Vanity of Duluoz, Satori in Paris. As far as Burroughs is concerned, at a conference about Naked Lunch in Paris which I recently attended, I heard someone remark that Burroughs did not like it anywhere, whether he was living in the U.S., in Mexico, Tangier, or Europe. When he was living in Paris at the end of the 1950s he liked the fact that the costs of living were low compared with the U.S., but he was hardly interested in what was going on around him. He never visited museums, and the only people he communicated with were other Americans or English-speaking Europeans. On the whole that is true for Ginsberg, too, although he was aware of the strong and beneficial influence which European art and writing had on his work. One only has to think of the influence of Cézanne's technique and of Apollinaire's poetry on “Howl”. Perhaps in the end Europe agreed best with Gregory Corso, even though one tends to overlook him when one thinks about the Beats in Europe. Perhaps to some extent because of his Italian background he was interested in the time of the Romans and the Greeks, and he ended up living long periods in Europe, first in France, but later also in Germany and Greece. And of course he was buried in Rome, close to the grave of his hero, Shelley. And to briefly comment on some other aspects of your question, the fact that the use of drugs was probably somewhat more condoned in Europe than in the U.S. may have had some appeal for the Beats, but on the whole I don't think they fled the U.S. because they were repressed because of their color or their sexual preference, like Richard Wright or James Baldwin. And if one thinks of the Beats being holed up in their cubicles in the Beat hotel in Paris or venturing out for a quick coffee or a croissant, it seems clear that at least in the fifties the Beats were not really in Europe to spread the word about their revolution. Perhaps that changes in the mid-Fifties, when Ginsberg becomes an increasingly visible cultural presence, for instance in London during the Albert Hall reading in mid-1965. He then clearly begins to spread his message of love and peace, and my putting it like that does not mean that I am making fun of him or of his ideas. I think that for instance a poem like "Who Be Kind To," which Ginsberg read at the Albert Hall, is a strong and moving poem, full of striking images.

3. Morris: How influential were French writers such as Genet and Beckett to Beat writers? In general, do you feel the Beats learned from various European writers and artists?

Van Der Bent: I wonder whether Beckett really was an influence on the Beats. I am sure they would have and probably did admire and identify with his dedicated attitude towards writing. But Beckett seems too staunch and bare and down to earth to be put on one line with the Beats. They clearly saw more in the free-flowing, poetical and highly personal prose of Genet, who of course also writes about spiritual matters in which the Beats were interested, and which Beckett does not seem to care for. Anyway, one can find quite a few references to Genet in Kerouac's work: in a novel like The Subterraneans, but he also discusses him at some length in his interview with the Paris Review. On the whole I think European writing, and art, has played an important role in the work of the Beats. Even in Burroughs' work, because his use of the cut-up technique and the montage was to a large extent a European invention, practiced by Tristan Trzara and the dadaïsts, among others. I have already mentioned some of the European influences on Ginsberg, and I am sure there are more. In his own notes to "Howl" he himself also mentions Mayakovsky, Lorca and others.

4. Morris: Can you discuss the role anthologies such as Donald Allen's, publishers such as Olympia, and little magazines such as Merlin, and scholars such as Eric Mottram, played in the dissemination of the Beat style in Europe?

Van Der Bent: I have my doubts whether a magazine like Merlin, which was published in Paris in the early 50s and which had relatively few readers, actually had a Dutch audience. It is possible that some of the Dutch writers who were living in Paris at the time, came across an issue of the magazine from time to time. But then, although Merlin published quite a lot of avant-garde writing, both original British and American material and work that had been translated from the French and other European languages, its focus was rather sociological and political, and I would say that the true “Beat spirit” is not yet to be found in Merlin. That also goes for the Olympia Press publications. The Olympia Press was primarily interested in bringing out books, in English, which were concerned with the erotic and – what was especially important to the owner of the press, Maurice Girodias – that would bring in money. On the whole Girodias seems to have been more interested in financial gain than in literature, although he himself from time to time claimed that literature was very important to him, and that his publications illustrated the importance of the freedom of the press. And it is true of course that he published quite a few books with a lot of literary interest, including books by Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Genet and Nabokov. His press became more geared to the work of the Beats after some of the Beat writers, including Corso, Burroughs and Ginsberg, had settled in Paris in the second half of the 1950s. It is then that he publishes not only Naked Lunch and two other novels by Burroughs, but also Gregory Corso’s only novel, The American Express, in 1961, as well as a literary magazine called Olympia. Only four issues of that magazine saw the light, which appears to have been modeled on Grove Press’s Evergreen Review and which did pay quite a lot of attention to Beat and Beat related writing. By that time, the early sixties, the publications of the Olympia Press were somewhat more easily available also in other parts of Europe, so as far as spreading the Beat style is concerned, yes, I think the Olympia Press played a minor role in that. That role was also rather short-lived, because in the course of the 1960s Girodias ran into all kinds of trouble, financial and otherwise, and in the end he had to close down his Paris operations and move to the U.S. There he continued to do what he had been doing in Paris: to try to make money by selling pornography, but from time to time he would publish a book with a Beat interest. As far as that is concerned, among his American publications Diane di Prima’s novel Memoirs of a Beatnik stands out, as well as the first novel that was written by William Burroughs Jr., Burroughs’s son, a book called Speed.

5. Morris: One thinks of Gregory Corso as something of a wildman, but you show him to have been involved in creating the "infrastructure" for the reception of the Beats. Can you discuss the Beats as promoters in Europe through the contacts they made, the reviews they encouraged to have written about them, the readings and jazz events they helped create?

Van Der Bent: Yes, Corso of course often was a wildman, especially in the 80s and 90s and perhaps even earlier. There are many stories around about his destructive behavior and anyone who has attended a conference or poetry reading at which Corso was also present will probably remember how he would often try to disrupt the proceedings by shouting whatever came into his head and by always saying or doing what one did not expect. I have witnessed how his close friend Ginsberg, who in a way kept him alive, had to beg him to please “shut up.” On the other hand, when one reads the collection of Corso’s letters that was published by New Directions in 2003 it is striking to see how seriously involved Corso is in his own work, but also in that of others. It is quite impressive how, when he trying to put together an anthology of Beat poetry that will be published in Germany, he keeps on goading poets in America to send him work, and it is also interesting to see the dedication he has for this particular project. At that time he is also very much concerned with his own poetry, giving a lot of thought not only to the individual poems, but also to the structure of the volumes of poems he is trying to put together. In other words, in the late fifties and early sixties he knows very much what he wants as a poet. Unfortunately at a certain moment he becomes addicted to drugs and that is where things begin to go wrong for him. He seems to become less interested in his own work and in that of others, and that dwindling off of genuine interest is illustrated in the collection of letters by the fact that most of the substantial and relevant letters in the book are from the fifties and early sixties; the later ones of course still have a human interest but they are rather rambling and self-centered. Still, I think a project like the one in which Corso was involved, the German anthology, is a good example of how the Beat poets themselves made Beat writing better known in Europe. And as far as this is concerned one can and should mention Corso a few more times. Actually, in the 50s he was the first of the major Beats to travel to Europe, and he is also the one who establishes the first contacts with European writers that will lead to the Beats becoming better known in Europe. In Paris he became a good friend of the French writer Jean-Jaques Lebel, who would go on to pay attention to the Beats in the form of readings, translations and publications. And another illustration of Corso’s importance in the European contacts is that in 1957 he was the first Beat poet to travel to Amsterdam, where he almost immediately got in touch with the Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog, who has played an essential role in making the Beats better know in Holland. After Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had joined Corso in Amsterdam, those first contacts made by Corso led to the three of them writing an essay about recent developments in American literature for a Dutch magazine devoted to foreign literature, Litterair Paspoort. In that article, “The Literary Revolution in America”, which was mainly written by Corso, a lot of attention is paid to the Beats and to the fact that Kerouac’s On the Road is about to be published in the U.S., but as in the case of the German anthology, Corso does not only mention himself and his friends, but also some of the Black Mountain Poets and poets of the New York School, including John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara.

6. Morris: You mention that the mid-60s were a highpoint for Beat writing in Europe. Ginsberg in 1965 was crowned King of the May festival in Prague. Now you were born in 1948 (in The Hague). So you would have been a teenager at that point. Can you reflect on your fascination with the Beats? Were you already aware of the Beats at that point? Were you interested in rock and roll? If so, did that interest in pop music influence your later studies on the Beats?

Van Der Bent: The story of how I discovered the Beats, in the first place Jack Kerouac, is a story which can, and has, been told by dozens and probably hundreds of young people who at a certain moment developed an interest in reading literature. I am not that special. When I was 12, 13 years old I was not really much of a reader yet, although I had always read “real” books instead of some of my friends whose parents – unlike mine – allowed them to read comics. One hobby I shared with some of those friends was listening to pop music: first the kind of rather sentimental American and British pop songs that were popular at the beginning of the 1960s, for instance the hits of singers like Bobby Vee, Bobby Rydell and all those other Bobbies and Connies, whose music I still appreciate, by the way. But we also listened to somewhat stronger stuff, like Jerry Lee Lewis and other rock and rollers, and at a certain moment of course the Beatles and the Rolling Stones appeared more or less out of the blue, at least that is how it seemed to young listeners like us. Actually, it was one of my friends with whom a shared a passion for pop music who got me interested in literature. This friend was somewhat older than I was and consequently somewhat ahead of me in the development of his interests and tastes. At a certain moment he sold his Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley records and he would sometimes appear in school with a novel or a volume of poetry in which he would point out passages which had been in the news because they were considered to be offensive or obscene. There was one poem by a very famous Dutch writer, and a friend of Simon Vinkenoog, called Remco Campert, which described Europe after the war as “one large mattress” on which everyone was “boozing and fucking.” This poem was going to be featured in a television program about Remco Campert, which at the very last moment was cancelled, because of those few lines about Europe. Anyway, these were the kind of things my friend pointed out to me and soon I was borrowing books from him which opened a completely new world for me. Soon I started buying books myself and in the summer of 1965 for one reason or another I bought a copy of the Dutch translation of On the Road, which was called Op Weg. Like other young readers who picked up the book – then, earlier or later – I was captivated by the sense of freedom which is expressed by the story which is being told, but also by Kerouac’s style. I could also relate to Kerouac’s sense of humor, but at the same time I realized that the book also had a strong emotional, almost tragic quality: the main characters in the end of course do not find what they are looking for. Anyway, I was immediately captivated by Kerouac, I wanted to find out more about him and about the real-life characters he wrote about, ánd about those other writers and artists he refers to in the book. In that way On the Road became a source of education for me, because after having found out that Carlo Marx in the novel was actually a poet called Allen Ginsberg, I of course wanted to read poems written by the man. And although I still like to listen to pop music, On the Road opened my eyes and ears to jazz music, especially because of the exciting way in which Kerouac writes about jazz performances and jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Lester Young and all those others I was now eager to hear and find out about. At the time I found it difficult to see a connection between Kerouac’s writing and the kind of pop music I had been listening to for so many years. And Kerouac of course did not take pop music, apart from singers like Frank Sinatra, quite seriously, if you think of the way he puts down Elvis Presley in The Dharma Bums. It is only later that I began to see a connection between the Beats and popular music, especially when Bob Dylan suggested that a connection could be made between what he was doing and the work of Beat writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg. Nowadays of course it’s easy to establish connections between the Beats and any number of progressive rock groups or singer-songwriters, but those connections have never played an important role in my studies on the Beats.

7. Morris: Can you discuss your dissertation and its reception in the Dutch academic community? Was writing about the Beats considered to be something of a radical act? What was the academic climate in which you wrote your thesis? Did your advisor show an interest in alternative American poetries? How did you conduct research? Did you travel to America to look at archives? Conduct interviews?

Van Der Bent: I wrote my dissertation on the work of John Clellon Holmes, who is considered to be a Beat writer, but who was somewhat on the fringe of the movement and who still is not widely known, at least not to people who are not familiar with the Beats. Still, he was part of the Beat scene almost from the very beginning. He met Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1948 and especially he and Kerouac got on quite well. But he was much less exuberant and outgoing both as a man and as a writer than Kerouac was, and that gives his work a somewhat cerebral and sometimes rather strained quality, which is rather unlike the kind of writing one expects from the Beats. Perhaps the fact that there is this cerebral quality to Holmes's work made it more acceptable as a subject for a dissertation when I was looking around for a subject to write on at the beginning of the 1980s. It ís true that at most Dutch universities around that time the Beats were not yet taken seriously and I distinctly remember the professor of English literature we had in Nijmegen making fun of the Beats and a title like "Howl": a poem with a title like that could never stand in the shadow of anything by Eliot or any of the other writers of the "Great Tradition." Fortunately, at Nijmegen one could also specialize in American literature and the professor who was in charge of that particular direction, Ger Janssens, was much more open to new developments. I don't think he really liked writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg that much, but he was definitely not averse to them, the way many academics were, and he saw how a writer like Kerouac was part of a larger American tradition. So towards the end of the 1970s he allowed me to write my MA-thesis on Kerouac's complete output, and a few years later he was willing to supervise my dissertation on Holmes. He also saw to it that, shortly after I had started work on the dissertation, I was able to go to the U.S. to do research at Boston University, where a large part of Holmes's archive was to be found. This was in the second half of 1983, when I lived in Cambridge for about six months. During that period I was also able to pay a two-day visit to Holmes in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where he had lived since the early fifties. There too I was able to look at unpublished material, such as Holmes's diaries, but he had also kept copies of everything he had published in magazines, newspapers and anthologies and I was able make photocopies of that material, which was quite helpful. At a certain moment I did interview Allen Ginsberg about his relation with Holmes, a relation which was rather complicated, partly because Ginsberg had never liked the way Holmes had depicted him and his work in his first novel, Go, which was published in 1952 and which is usually seen as the first published novel to give a description of the Beat Generation and some of the writers and personalities associated with the movement, like Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke. Apart from Ginsberg I tried to get in touch with a few of the people Holmes knew when he wrote Go, like Alan Harrington and Edward Stringham. But Harrington let me know that he was fed up with the whole Beat movement and Stringham did not respond to the note I put in his mailbox. In general, however, I did not go out of my way to get in touch with people who knew or had known Holmes, mainly because my dissertation was about the work and not about the man.

8. Morris: Have Beat writers been translated into Dutch? If so, how are these translations in your opinion?

Van Der Bent: Yes, quite a few Beat writers have been translated into Dutch. As far as that is concerned Holland is not that different from other European countries, although for instance in Germany and France, as soon as the decision is made to publish a foreign writer in translation, one tends to translate most and sometimes even all of those writer’s books. That is not the case in Holland, probably because the readership for those translations is relatively limited: it cannot be helped that there are simply less Dutchmen than there are Germans and Frenchmen, and there is also the fact that many Dutch readers are able to read English or American books in the original, and that also limits the market for translations. But, as also happened in Germany and France, Dutch publishers were eager to publish Kerouac in translation as soon as he had become famous in the U.S., with the publication of On the Road. Strangely enough, but perhaps this has to do with the fact that it is a shorter book, the first book by Kerouac to be translated into Dutch was The Subterraneans, and not On the Road. The translation of The Subterraneans came out in 1959, and it was followed by the translation of On the Road in 1961, which is fairly late, come to think of it. Then there was a translation of The Dharma Bums, which came out in 1963, and then for a long time no other books by Kerouac were translated into Dutch. This probably has to do with the fact that interest in the Beats, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe, dwindled off in the course of the 1960s. It is only around 1970, so after Kerouac’s death, that another publisher started to bring out translations of some of Kerouac’s other novels, including also a lesser known one like Tristessa. The first three translations I mentioned were all made by a translator called John Vandenbergh, who also translated Faulkner, Henry Miller and James Joyce’s Ulysses. At the time his translations were on the whole well-received, but in recent years people have become increasingly critical of his translations, with the result that some of them have been redone. Already in the 1980s a new translation of On the Road came out, and Ulysses has also been translated all over again; in fact, two Dutch translators are now busy translating Ulysses into Dutch for the third time, after having produced a striking Dutch version of Finnegan’s Wake, a book which one would think can hardly be translated. As I said earlier, when I first read On the Road I read the Dutch translation by John Vandenbergh, and that worked quite well for me. But at the time I was 16 years old and probably not too critical as far as translations were concerned. At a certain moment I did begin to wonder whether Vandenbergh always had it right. For instance, there is a scene in the book when Sal Paradise and Carlo Marx say goodbye to Dean Moriarty, who in the book is very much associated with the American West. Kerouac then writes: “There went our wrangler,” which was translated by Vandenbergh as “Daar ging onze polemist,” which means: “There went our polemist.” I remember being puzzled by this phrase, until quite a few years later I found out that “to wrangle” can also mean “to argue” or “to quarrel”. So here Vandenbergh clearly did not realize what Kerouac had in mind, and I am sure that if one takes a close look at the translation one can find more mistakes of this kind. But on the whole I think Vandenbergh captured the tone and the speed of the book very well. And then, there is something strange about translations. If you are really used to an early one which worked for you, you never become entirely familiar with a later one, even if objectively speaking that may be a better translation. So I never really got to enjoy the later translation of On the Road, especially because the tone of that was quite different from that of the first one. Kerouac, by the way, is definitely not the only Beat writer to have been translated into Dutch. Simon Vinkenoog, who got to know the Beats as early as 1957, in 1966 published a substantial selection of Ginsberg’s poems in Dutch translation, including “Howl” and poems from Kaddish and Reality Sandwiches. In this case too, I think that Vinkenoog was very good at capturing the tone and spirit of Ginsberg’s poetry, but from time to time he was wrong as far as some of the more typical American references were concerned. In “Howl” Ginsberg at a certain moment refers to the Southern Pacific railroad, and Vinkenoog for one reason or another here thinks of, and mentions, the South Pacific, so the railroad becomes an ocean. But perhaps I should not have mentioned this, because - as I’ve said - on the whole Vinkenoog’s translations of Ginsberg’s poetry work very well. Moreover, that 1966 anthology of Ginsberg’s poetry in Dutch contains an essay by Vinkenoog on Ginsberg and the Beats which is still one of the most well-informed and stirring pieces of writing on the Beats which has ever been published in Dutch. And although a later translation of “Howl” has been published, Vinkenoog has always been Ginsberg’s main translator in Holland. Whenever Ginsberg would visit Holland and read from his work in public, Vinkenoog would usually be there on stage with him, waiting for the moment when Ginsberg would say to him, “Translate, Simon!” And the last major project Vinkenoog was involved in at the time of his death, in July 2009, was a compilation of the Dutch translations of Ginsberg’s poems which he had made during the last few decades. Apart from Kerouac and Ginsberg, other Beat writers have been translated into Dutch as well: Burroughs, of course, and not only Naked Lunch, but also some of his more experimental and not very readable “cut-up” novels from the early 60s: The Soft Machine and The Ticket that Exploded. These translations came out in the 70s, and I think that’s quite striking, because at the time there just wasn’t that much interest in the Beats and in Burroughs. Moreover, one wonders whether nowadays publishers would risk bringing out translation which would probably not sell in large numbers. Publishing, also in Holland, has become much more commercial and dependent on what is “in the news.” As a consequence, one can now read a Dutch translation of the book which Kerouac and Burroughs wrote together during the Second World War, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, because this was a much-discussed publication some time ago, but a major work by Kerouac like Visions of Cody has never been translated into Dutch, and one wonders whether it ever will be.

9. Morris: Can you tell us more about the Dutch poet Simon Vinkenoog? My understanding is that he became quite friendly with several ex-pats associated with Beat and other alternative writings.

Van Der Bent: It’s sad, but since you asked me about Vinkenoog, Simon has died, in July 2009. On the other hand he did have a long and fruitful life; he lived to be almost 81 and, a little bit like Henry Miller, it seems as if he was not afraid of death and could look upon it as another exciting new experience, which was how he had been viewing life for a very long time. He was born in 1928, so he grew up during the war, after which he was one of those young Dutch - and European - budding writers and artists who wanted to experience more freedom and life than they could in their home countries, and who all moved to Paris, sometimes for a few weeks or months, but sometimes also for longer periods. Vinkenoog was in Paris from 1949 until 1956 or 1957. He had a not too tiring and time-consuming job at the UNESCO, but he was mainly busy writing and meeting fellow writers and artists. At the time there were quite a few connections between the Dutch poets and painters in Paris, and Vinkenoog for instance ended up writing the first longer book on the Dutch COBRA-painter Karel Appel, a book with a very personal touch, like almost all his books. In the early fifties he was part of a group of experimental poets who in Dutch literature came to be known as the Fiftiers; they were all poets who - each in his own way (there were hardly any female Fiftiers, just like there were not that many women Beats) - tried to break free from the conventional kind of writing that was still being done by the older poets, the ones who had made their mark before the war. One of Vinkenoog’s first major activities as a writer was to put together an early anthology of work by some of the Fiftiers, a book called Atonaal. But he himself also wrote a lot of poetry, to a large extent influenced by French poets like Artaud and Henri Michaux, but early on he was also influenced by Ezra Pound and Cummings, to mention just two American poets. There were not that many connections between the Dutch poets in Paris and the American expatriates, who all more or less formed individual groups, so Vinkenoog and other Dutch writers only found out about the Beat Generation and other kinds of alternative American writing when Corso, Ginsberg and Orlovsky came to Amsterdam in 1957. Vinkenoog was always open to what was new and exciting, and he immediately hit it off with Ginsberg, whose work also began to influence Vinkenoog’s own poetry. That doesn’t become obvious immediately, but in the early 60s it is clear that Vinkenoog is the best Dutch representative of the Beats in Holland. That does not mean that he produces slave-like imitations of what the Beats were doing, but one of his novels, a book called Hoogseizoen, is clearly about Dutch beatniks and other young rebels, who experience Kerouac-like adventures in Amsterdam, enjoying sex and drugs and jazz. But I want to stress that Vinkenoog was very much his own man, someone who was very much aware of what was happening in society and in world-wide culture in general. One only has to think of the fact that he wrote a huge book simply called Love in 1965, and that during the famous Albert Hall reading in the summer of 1965 he stood up, waving his arms and shouting the word “love” over and over again to pacify what he experienced as an angry mood among the participants. By stressing the importance of love, Vinkenoog was clearly ahead of developments that would place later in the decade. What some people have come to regret, and to some extent I am one of them, is that Vinkenog from the mid-60s on increasingly became someone who in an enthusiastic way commented on what he saw as positive social and cultural changes, but who no longer took the time to write a substantial piece of prose, a novel or - and that would have been fascinating - a memoir about all the people he got to know in the 50s and 60s, including the Ginsberg and some of the other Beats. But that was just something in which he himself was not interested. Living in the moment, and enjoying what life had to give him, simply seemed more important to him, and one can only repect that choice and that attitude.

10. Morris: Can you tell us more about Alfred Chester? He sounds like a fascinating figure, but one not nearly as well known as Burroughs, Kesey, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso?

Van Der Bent: Chester is a fascinating figure who died relatively young, but he is not really a Beat writer. In fact, he did not think highly of what the Beats were doing, and he was for instance highly critical of a Beat-influenced novel like John Rechy’s City of Night, a book that was praised highly by someone like Frank O’Hara. But then Chester could be very criticical and incisive about many writers. There is a telling anecdote about him, which tells us how at a certain moment he met Norman Mailer, not too long after he had published The Naked and the Dead. Mailer told Chester that one of his goals was to write the quientessential war novel, and must have been taken aback somewhat when Chester said to him, “Maybe one day you will, Norman,” which illustrates either that he really did not like The Naked and the Dead, or that he wanted to get Mailer’s goat. Chester did have a very complicated personality, as a result of which he antagonized even the people who cared for him and who were aware of his immense talents. Chester wrote some very original novels and very good short stories, but he never really broke through, in spite of the fact he had some staunch supporters, like Cythia Ozeck and especially the poet Edward Field. His shorter prose was republished by Black Sparrow Press in the 1980s, and one of novels has also been reprinted a number of times, but he is still usually seen as being part of the coterie around Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangiers, and it is no surprise that he got into trouble with them as well. At a certain moment he left them behind and Tangiers and moved on to Jerusalem, where he hoped his Jewish background would make him feel more at home, but that did not happen and apparently his behaviour became more and more erratic, maybe because he also used drugs, and he ended up being found dead at the age of 42. Earlier, in the 1950s, when he was still sharp and going strong, he had been one of the more prominent American expatriates in Paris, where he also got in touch with some of the Dutch writers who either lived in Paris or who were frequent visitors. In fact, he is even a minor character in one of the two novels that were written by one of Holland’s most distinguished post-World War II poets, Hans Andreus.

11. Morris: You have described to me your childhood in The Hague. I understand your dad was a kind of businessman and you lived quite a conventional middle-class life in post-war Holland. You have described yourself as a rather reserved, quiet person, not exactly a "rebel without a cause." And yet you were drawn to the Beats, the ultimate literary rebels. Can you reflect on why you were drawn to them and how learning about them has changed or informed your identity?

Van Der Bent: In this case your own question already gives you the answer, I think. Yes, I did grow up in a fairly conventional Dutch family in a rather conservative period, the 50s and early 60s. And my father was not even a businessman, which could suggest a sense of adventure and being on the road, but he spent most of his life in an office; in fact, he only had two positions in the course of his life, and both were in administration. In some ways I think I was, and probably am, rather like him, but unlike him at a certain moment I began to feel the need for a little more excitement and freedom, even if I could only read about that. So that’s I think where the Beats and later a writer like Charles Bukowski came in. In some ways I could identify with their spontaneity and their need for transcendence and liberation. But I am still playing it rather safe, and in that respect I am much closer to someone like John Clellon Holmes than to figures I admire from a somewhat longer distance, like Kerouac or Corso.

No comments: