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How do you write the biography of a person who tried with all his might to escape a recorded life story? Gerrit Komrij (1944-2012) was a true escape artist. For him, poetry, novels, essays and even interviews and autobiographies were a means of masquerade, ridicule and concealment. Maybe not to have to live a normal life, with a well-defined personality.

It seems to me very difficult to write Komrij’s biography. Someone like him is not easy to catch. He was a poet who hated spontaneous outpourings of emotion and felt that literature was not for that purpose. Homosexuality was an artistic attitude to life for him; he did not adhere to any ideology. He chose form and tradition over experimentation, freedom over commitment, razor-sharp humor and deadly mockery over group formation and slime. A loner who first and foremost felt like a poet – even though the public meant something else; who walked away with his buzzing literature and television criticism. Precisely the fact that Komrij so demonstratively turned out not to be an emotionally charged poet and cultivated an angry public personality, aroused suspicion that his work was a shield against being hurt.

A crucial year

Five years ago, a wonderful book was published that shed new light on Komrij’s early years: King Midas’ long ears, his first, unpublished novel, which he wrote in Crete in 1965. Or rather: Fragments from the typography of a youth work, which stylistically certainly was not a masterpiece. The novel takes place in Crete, in a circle of friends who drink a lot, cheat and quarrel, and who constantly need money. What made the number interesting was the excellent and revealing introduction of Arie Pos, which was already promisingly dubbed ‘Komrij’s cinema’. Pos, known as a literary translator from Portuguese, quotes from diaries and notebooks with notes by Komrij found in the estate.

The year in Crete was crucial, writes Pos. It ‘robbed him of his last illusions and, in his own words, also the naive dreamer’s view of the world’. After Crete, Komrij finally chooses to write and for his homosexuality. The latter seems strange. Pos describes how the young Dutch student throws himself into ‘homosexuality’ in Amsterdam. He walks around eccentrically dressed, in dresses and with make-up and attracts many lovers. Still, at some point, he gets a girlfriend, with whom he also shares a bed: the five-year-old Ellen Jonker.

He leaves for Crete with her, ‘too good’ is the meaning, for life was cheap there, and he could live there from his translations and novels. The relationship ends quickly: Ellen is unfaithful to him with a Greek, and Gerrit seeks refuge with the boys again. Before traveling to Crete, he had fallen in love with Charles Hofman, whom he visited again in Amsterdam in 1966. They would stay together until Komrij’s death. After returning home, Komrij gets a lot of translation work, especially for De Arbeiderspers. In 1968 he made his debut with Magdeburg hemispheres and other poems.

A couple of chapters

It was a beautiful, curious start to a biography. The book that has now been published Gerrit Komrij’s creation, it’s not a biography. It is a ‘biographical portrait’ in which Pos describes exactly the years he spent in the introduction to King Midas’ long ears already highlighted, from Komrij’s arrival in Amsterdam in 1963 to his debut in 1968. It’s disappointing. Not because the book itself is not worth reading, it is for sure, it is well written and entertaining and gives a nice picture of the confusing sixties. Still, in the end, it’s not much more than a few chapters from what could have been a biography, an expanded version of the preface from 2017. Much more we do not get to know.

It would have made a big difference if Pos had now described Komrij’s childhood. Who was the dreamy boy who came to the big city full of anticipation? What kind of family did he come from, was he a happy child? How was his school days? Pos’ book begins with a letter from Komrij to his parents from 1963, a sweet letter in which he comforts his mother, who is sad about his departure. He also appears to have a brother, Piet. Pos writes that Gerrit had recently completed her high school diploma at Rijks Hogere Burgerschool in Winterswijk. High school final exam on an HBS? You need to know other sources to understand that 16-year-old Gerrit made the entire Latin and Greek high school on her own in two years.

Komrij himself wrote about this in Destroyed Arcadia, at least about the character of Jacob Witsen’s youth. But we should not take that story too literally, and certainly not see it as a confession. It also applies to Jacob that he does not want his buttocks bare: ‘If only he always made sure to have a few fake buttocks in his pocket.’

Pos also had new sources: conversations with Komrijs publishers, friends. This shows how incredibly hard Komrij worked on his translations, too little money, and how bad his life situation was. Pos had ‘many dozens of conversations’ with Komrij’s widower Charles Hofman. Even after all these conversations, much remained apparently unclear. Why did Komrij choose a woman when he and Hofman were already ‘real friends’? Was he afraid of an ‘underground’ life? Why did he, a diligent student, suddenly stop studying? What exactly was he running from?

Hopefully the complete biography will be published one day, although Pos does not write anything about this in his short afterword. This book makes you want more.

Arie Pos: The Creation of Gerrit Komrijs – A Biographical Portrait. The busy bee; 272 pages; € 29.99.

Arie Pos - Gerrit Komrijs birth Sculpture rv

Arie Pos – Gerrit Komrij’s creationpicture rv

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