Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer: ‘Perhaps it is best not to be an old-fashioned man’

There he is, the arrogant jellyfish. Or not? The rings are missing! Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer (1968) sits at a royal desk in Genoa, fountain pen and Moleskine notebook at hand. In a suit, but the fingers with which he picks tobacco from a metal box to run a check with it, are missing the rings, part of his regular equipment during performances. Unlike the writer who will travel to bookstores and libraries in the coming Book Week, the man in the Zoom screen is not yet in full uniform.

Chuckling: “My fountain pen happens to be here – I actually write with it. The Moleskine, it’s all true. I also have a computer, but it is out of sight for a while.”

This is the real writer, just different from ‘the writer with the unlikely name Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’, like the zooming Pfeijffer the character from his Boekenweekgift, the novella Monterosso mon amour, calls. He performs in the library where he is invited by Carmen, the narrator of the story. With a combination of admiration and sharpness she describes him, the author of Grand Hotel Europea book which ‘like its author, is a striking example of it’ [is] that thickness and vanity sometimes go together in surprising ways’. She sees that during the lecture he ‘meets all expectations unapproachably and confidently’, and observes: ‘With feigned modesty and a few masterfully timed belches of self-irony, he camouflages his hyper-conscious self-promotion. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He speaks as he writes.’

The intrigue of the Boekenweekgift is fueled by that meeting: Carmen and the famous writer share a past. They were in class together. He once wrote about ‘the proverbial prettiest girl in the class’ with whom he was in love – who, although given a different name than hers, lived on her street. “She made school swimming sense.”

He doesn’t recognize her – and Carmen realizes that her life, as a nondescript, now old, somewhat run-down librarian, is a ‘vicarious life’. Things could have turned out differently if she had pursued her first love, a holiday sweetheart in Monterosso, Italy – about which the writer makes her realize that it ‘is not an enchanted past’, but simply exists. She decides to go there. To regain something.

The story idea came in a detour, says Pfeijffer via Zoom. “I was thinking of a topical story that is a commentary on the woke movement and the cancel culture – bearing in mind the protests when a white man was chosen as the author of the Boekenweekgift again. I thought: then we can also thematize that. But that would only become interesting if you look up the nuance in it, and then I would need much more space than 96 pages. Then I quickly flipped to another idea, to make a timeless story about the importance of stories. As the main character I would then take one of the thousands of people I always meet at literary evenings, who anonymously make those kinds of events possible in the background – with the emphatic aim of making it an ode to them. That’s how Carmen was born.”

Although it does not immediately read as an ode to people like Carmen: her life comes out insignificant, contrasting with the grand and compelling life of the performing writer Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.

“She’s a bit unlucky that she just met Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, an arrogant jellyfish – I did have some satanic pleasure in describing myself like that, from Carmen’s point of view. But: this is a story that starts from a problem, and with Carmen it is precisely that she feels the lack of a story. That she wouldn’t be able to tell her life as a fascinating story.”

It clearly contrasts with that of the author.

“It contrasts especially with the lives she takes in through books. She is aware that part of her reading may be escapism, and compensation, as she finds the stories she does not experience as she reads. Carmen says it herself: she sees that there are no books about women like her. She reads all other lives and that is an enrichment, but she finds no mirror in literature.”

So you do want to give that with this novella. What interested you in that?

“What I think is the main theme of this novella is the idea of ​​stories as models for life. People tend to think narratively, to structure their lives by adding a story structure. Problem definition, intrigue, denouement – ​​if you can retell it in that form, you can also have the illusion that it made sense. The way Oprah Winfrey treated guests on her show was a prime example of this. Think of a woman who got drunk behind the wheel, caused an accident, lost her children – and talked about it in tears. Finally, Oprah pointed out that it was good that she had had the courage to tell that story, because that way she could have warned others and it all still made sense. A cathartic model – by pasting it into that story form.

“As Oscar Wilde has already said, it is not art that imitates true life, but vice versa. People find something to hold on to in stories. That is of all times, whether it was the exploits of Achilles or Christian saints’ stories in the Middle Ages, or movies and series today, which provide templates for relationships and reactions. From that interaction, with fiction as a model for life, it follows that something only exists if it can be told. And the fact that there are hardly any books about someone like Carmen, she feels like a loss. This makes her feel that her life is not worth living.”

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer plays an ambiguous role in this: he was the writer who had no eyes for her and her story. Do you mean that as self-criticism?

“Or self-irony, I don’t know if there is a fundamental difference between self-criticism and self-irony…”

The verdict, I guess. Why do you play with your own image in this book?

“It plays on several levels: my cameo is the trigger for Carmen to go to Monterosso and produces a quite satisfying kind of ring composition, because the denouement of the book allows us to explain why we have this booklet in our hands. And I thought it was attractive to theme the Boekenweek, as a nice mirror effect – because I will actually be myself on evenings, with my rings and my suit.”

Or should we say: the writer is playing?

“While I’m playing the writer, we’re going to talk about a book where I’m ironizing myself that the writer is playing. So it becomes a kind of performance art.”

Interesting term – because in recent years your appearance seems to have increasingly become a performance, a game.

“You can’t say it’s just a game, it’s kind of a weird mix. If it’s a game, it’s a game that needs to be played very seriously. Putting on a good suit is a sign of respect and professionalism, of doing my best. I believe it is right to do that.”

Carmen sees someone who keeps making the same jokes.

“Because that works – and because all those interviewers ask the same questions in front of halls. Then I, as Hugo Claus, can always come up with a new answer, or you will get the same answer.”

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer in Genoa, Italy. April 2022. Photo Silvia Mazzella Photo Silvia Mazzella

But that’s how you become an act, of which you can wonder how sincere it still is, and whether you might become a fictitious version of yourself. Doesn’t that make you uncomfortable?

“Yes. It’s double. It’s not faked, but at the same time I’m aware that it’s a public version of me, and that I’m repeating myself. But I do my best, because that helps my book, I want as many readers as possible, every writer wants that. But because I find that game important and somewhat uncomfortable, I also thematize it in my books. It’s ambiguous, so it’s interesting.”

And that thematization offers the opportunity to put yourself into perspective. That was something you hardly ever did on tour as a writer of ‘Grand Hotel Europa’, the irony was kind of gone, right?

“Some self-irony was also reflected in it, but it was perhaps a little less thick on top. But in Monterosso mon amour Isn’t that the main thing after all – it is not a novella in which we are going to put the writer Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer into perspective.”

I don’t actually agree with you.

“It’s a side effect. Furthermore, it is a serious story about Carmen.”

Therefore! It is emphatically not about a character like Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.

“But La Superba and Grand Hotel Europe neither, there the narrator is primarily a vehicle. The difference in perspective is the main distinction with Monterosso mon amour

And perspective is a hot topic these days, especially the perspective of the dominant white man. Your recent adaptation of Chekhov’s ‘Een seagull’ for Toneelgroep Maastricht contains a monologue by actress Jouman Fattal, in which she deals with classical art forms and stories, and with the old white man as the norm. You are already very busy with woke thinking and cancel culture, I gather from that.

“Those things come up indirectly, yes. Chekhov’s original contains a monologue about the future of the stage, which is hardly comprehensible by all the symbolism, which was modern and provocative in its time. If you translate that insistence on new forms and a new generation on stage to this time, you quickly arrive at an argument like this.”

Also read: Pfeijffer wrote the novel of the year with ‘Grand Hotel Europa’

Is that a comment?

“No, my challenge was to make a text that Jouman could really get behind – and she is very woke, very busy with it. And I also think it’s important that that sound is heard. I understand very well the need for the woke movement, for emancipation, the need to raise that awareness. There’s no irony in that, even if what she says isn’t 100 percent my opinion.”

In fact, if she attacks the classical male artist, it is contrary to the continuation of your writing…

“If we interpret it to the extreme, I should keep my mouth shut. I have to disappoint you: I don’t intend to. But I do want to talk about things like this, I’m aware of the inconvenience that my position entails. Let’s talk about that then.”

You also have Carmen criticize the sex scenes from ‘Grand Hotel Europa’. They have also been honored by you, whereby you, as a writer, and the novel’s character Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer were identified with each other. Sex scenes that were clearly written by an old white man.

“I also theme that old-fashioned man there. He was being gallant in a Sean Connery-esque way and that was misunderstood – but it was indeed meant to portray him as an old-fashioned man, that’s right.”

That’s why I thought, through the perspective of ‘Monterosso mon amour’, through the desire to offer a ‘mirror’ and that flaming monologue in ‘A seagull’: Pfeijffer comments on himself and the act he has been playing so effectively for years. is.

“Yes. Well, maybe the best thing is not to be an old-fashioned man, but if that’s not in your scope, the next best thing might be to be an old-fashioned man who is aware of that.”

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