As a child he often felt ‘a scab’: something out of place, which everyone wants to get rid of as quickly as possible. What helped against that? Read above all, and dear teachers. The heat fortress, the essay for the Boekenweek 2022 by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (1991), is not an essay, but rather a small piece of autobiography, smoothly written, entertaining to read. It’s not much, but it’s a tasty snack.
Anyone who associates Rijneveld’s prose with the meandering, charged, impassioned and oppressive sentences from his International Booker Prize-winning debut The evening is inconvenience or with his second, recently rewarded with a double Flemish Boon My dear favorite, looks a little surprised. Rijneveld taps into a different register, more accessible, smoother. It is still associative, substantively, but stylistically it is different. The sentences are shorter and clearer. More witty, too. And ultimately less captivating, that is.
Rijneveld looks back on his youth and on the history of the village school he attended in Nieuwendijk. Several species of bats have recently been found there. Thanks to their presence, the school cannot be demolished immediately. That’s a relief, because Rijneveld is afraid of ‘bulldozing away’. He felt cherished at school. He also learned to read there and, thanks to books, discovered how more people can feel a scab, which was close.
A large part of The heat fortress consists of the retelling of Matilda, one of Roald Dahl’s great children’s books. It was known that Rijneveld loves Jan Wolkers’ oeuvre, but the love for Dahl, or at least for this one book by Dahl, is new. Both this book and its film adaptation made a great impression on the young Rijneveld.
Also read the review of My dear favorite† The new Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: highly exceptional literature
That is quite right, completely understandable, and moreover appealing, yet it is wonderful to devote so much space to this. Matilda’s teacher reminds Rijneveld of his own sweet teachers, each and every one different, but fused together to form the ‘fortress of warmth’ from the title of the essay.
He could turn to them after the sudden death of his older brother. The teachers saw him standing there. After the loss of their other child, their own parents were no longer able to see through the fog of lack. The link with Matilda is clear and understandable, but Rijneveld goes into detail about the precise content of Dahl’s children’s book, and also gives a lot of quotes, that it is really better to read the book yourself.
What does show, however, is how easily Rijneveld can put himself in the shoes of the child he was. ‘I feel like a newcomer everywhere I go’, he says. And that he prefers to be ‘a progeny of life’, which helps: he keeps his eyes fresh. In striking comparisons he describes what the world was like as a child. In church he hears that the Lord wanted to live in his heart, but he preferred the teacher there. What now? Blowing up an ‘air mattress’, but is that appropriate? You understand the worry, and see it before you. Until now, Rijneveld has excelled in poetry and prose for adults. The unexpected conclusion after reading The heat fortress is that there is undoubtedly also a very good writer for children lurking in him.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of April 8, 2022