Netherlands | 2004
Hans Maarten Van den Brink was born in 1956 in Holland. He worked as an editor and reporter, as well as the special envoy to China during the Tiananmen Square crisis. He has written four non-fiction books and the novels
Hart van Glas and
Over het Water, which was shortlisted for the Prix Femina and Prix Medicis, and The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and was a Los Angeles Times Book of the Year. He lives in Holland.
The Back Up
One night in January of this year, shortly before midnight, a stranger entered my house by wriggling open the lock of the front door. Quietly and systematically, or so it seems, he searched various rooms. In my study he opened cupboards and drawers and thus found my laptop, the computer that contained the work I had done the previous spring at Santa Maddalena. He emptied the contents of my briefcase on my desk and put the computer inside, then took one of my coats from a hanger next to the front door, put it on, I suppose, and quietly left the house again, without my wife noticing anything or disturbing the children in their sleep.
One tries to make sense of one’s life, as if it were a story. So after the first moments of mindless grief on discovering that my work had been stolen I tried to convince myself that it was proof that it hadn’t been any good. Talent is not a potentiality, but the ability to realize it. It means making the circumstances bow to your will instead of falling victim to them. Briefly, the thought even crossed my mind that the burglar would be finishing my book now and making a masterpiece of it, somewhere in the seedy den where he would be living, covered against the cold by my nice leather coat. But I refused to acknowledge that his talent would be of that magnitude, even when I was doubting mine. And gradually I was able to see past and through my vanished text, back to where it was conceived, back to Santa Maddalena, back to circumstances that can only be described as ideal. And then I realized that nothing of that was lost, that it was all still there, in my mind, and in the physical reality as well, and that it was not such a bad thing to think that they were maybe even much more valuable than anything that I could have written. The circumstances, I mean. So let’s go back to them.
We were a curious lot, the four writers that were guests of the Baronessa that chilly spring. The scruffy Englishman who wrote the most astonishing poetic prose. The glamorous readhead from the West Coast, who incorporated all the promises a young American writer can hold. The former tennis champion from Paris who made the most complicated breakfasts for himself at the tower and told the longest jokes you can imagine while chuckling in such an infectious way that you just had to laugh as well. And the Dutchman who wrote fifty lines per day and then struck a hundred. There was a fifth one present, all the time. I don’t mean Bruce Chatwin, although I must have slept in his bed and worked at the table he used. I already knew him, he had been one of my heroes since the eighties and the ghost of his presence added to the magic of the place. I mean Gregor von Rezzori, whose complete or nearly complete works I read in the evenings after dinner and whose grave with the small pyramid I saw each morning when I stuck my head out of the window to see what the weather would be like – ah, that white mist over the hills of Tuscany! I read and made notes, inspired by his work, about the Buchovina, about Germany just after the war, about clothing and eating and television, about journalism and literature, about Lolita and being a man who is getting older, about being here and being a true cosmopolite – and what I read was supplemented continuously by the stories that Beatrice told and the mementoes that where everywhere in the house. What a combination of writers and of characters and of roles that man must have been – a whole writers’ colony unto himself and the author of a fabulous life to boot. Because yes, not only books but also lives have authors. And houses can be their reflection. But in the case of Santa Maddalena it was not Gregor von Rezzori who seemed to have been the main creative force in blending all those cultures – Italian, German, Hungaro-Austrian, American, Armenian, Greek – into one organic whole, a concept that breathed the spirit of true art, complex of objects of stone surrounded by green hills and forests. That role was unmistakenly reserved for the Baronessa, the one with the cruel mouth – dixit her late husband – and the boundless energy. If proof was needed that circumstances can be created and that it might even require more talent than simply writing a book, then Beatrice is such living proof. Every writer that has been her guest has probably told her that she should write her memoires. She should. But if she doesn’t, we will all do it for her, in one way or the other, in our way. I guess she knows. I guess she knows what she is creating.
After our stay Maile Meloy sent me a copy of Liars and Saints in the Dutch translation and some of the stretching bands we used to work out with. Jon McGregor kept us informed about his arctic voyage via internet; I think I also own a pair of his socks. Denis Grozdanovitch had bought a chateau where I visited him and he showed me his new book, in which I figured, taking an afternoon stroll with him and visiting a magically lit cemetery near Donnini. I was working in contemporary art and got myself robbed. We were a curious lot indeed. With only one thing in common: those weeks at Santa Maddalena. ‘You should have made a back-up’ my wife told me, every time I reproach her, completely unjustified, for not having better locks on the door. It has taken me some time to realize that she is wrong about that, too. Because I do. As I said: it is all still there. I should only begin. Where? One of the stories Beatrice told me keeps coming back to me lately. It is about the carpenter who takes all the chairs she has bought for Santa Maddalena to repair them but then falls victim to depression and never brings them back. So there he is, sad and lonely, in his white house somewhere in Donnini, weeping in a house full of broken chairs. And there is Beatrice in Santa Maddalena, without the chairs, but trusting that the man will somehow pick himself up and one day show up at her door to present them, shining, impeccable, a pleasure to sit in. She is right of course. She is the author.