It’s hard to sum up the career of Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg, who has been described as an “international literary man of mystery” and compared to both Saul Bellow and Woody Allen. He won fame throughout Europe for his first novel, Blue Mondays, which appeared in 1994, when he was only twenty-three. Since then, this frenetically prolific writer has published more than a dozen books in nearly every genre, as well as a few more written under the pen name Marek van der Jagt. Along the way, he’s piled up a heap of literary prizes, including a prestigious Dutch award given for first novels—twice. When he’s not traveling the world on newspaper assignments (he was recently embedded with the Dutch army in Afghanistan), Grunberg lives in New York.
In Grunberg’s fiction, there are no unmentionables: Everything is fair game, from penis size to pedophilia, masochism to morality. The Jewish Messiah, his latest novel to appear in English, is exhilarating, bewildering, and throat-clutchingly funny. Xavier Radek, the teenage grandson of an SS officer, decides that his purpose in life is to “comfort the Jews,” and starts taking Yiddish lessons with Awromele, the son of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. As the two work together to translate Mein Kampf into Yiddish, they fall in love. Urged by Awromele to prove his Jewish bona fides, Xavier undergoes a botched circumcision at the hands of a sight-impaired mohel. And then things really start getting crazy.
The biography on your website states—even brags, if I read you correctly—that you were kicked out of high school at age seventeen. Can I ask why?
At the time I wanted to be an actor, and I wanted to show my parents and my teachers that I was serious about not fulfilling their dream—in other words, not going to university and becoming a scientist or a lawyer. I felt very strongly about it at that time, and I still do. But nobody was supportive of my decision. For my parents, having a son who was a dropout was about the worst thing they could think of. My mother told me that it was worse than the Holocaust.
So was that the end of your formal education?
I tried to go to theater school, but I was not accepted. My father told me I should start earning money, so I sent my resume to a publisher of phone books.
The manager was a guy from Cologne, Germany, living in Amsterdam, and he hired me. I was making photocopies, but I was also secretary to the manager, and he would send me out to buy gifts for his mistress.
And a few years later, you started your own publishing company?
That guy fired me after two years. He was seventeen or eighteen when he started the company, and he had been thinking of becoming a poet. He was 50 when I met him. He told me that if I stayed there I would end up like him.
I went to Frankfurt, to the book fair, out of curiosity. I liked reading books—television was not allowed in my parental home, so basically the only entertainment I had as a child was reading books or going to the movies. So I was walking around the Frankfurt Book Fair and I was impressed by the people. It was hard to find new Dutch manuscripts, and I spoke German; it was my second language. So I thought, well, I will specialize in non-Aryan German literature, because it hadn’t been done before. I used the Nuremberg definition.
Were you successful?
I published five books. They got good reviews, although my biggest bestseller wasn’t a very good novel. Eventually I couldn’t continue because of financial problems. But I think it helped me become an author. Maybe I would have become an author anyhow.
I was trying to sell my publishing house to another Dutch publisher. There was one guy who took me out to dinner, and he seemed to be interested in my publishing house, but at the end he said that I should write a novel myself instead of publishing other novels. And this guy became my first publisher.
Was that the first time you had the idea of writing a novel?
I had written for the theater, but I had never thought of writing a novel. And he really encouraged me to do so, because he gave me confidence based on only one chapter. That was Blue Mondays.
Your style, especially in the early novels, can be disjointed, meandering, and superficially light. The books almost don’t seem to take themselves seriously, so the reader isn’t sure how seriously to take them. Did you make a conscious choice to tell these stories this way?
I always took my work very seriously. But at the same time the position of an author is by definition an ironic position. He believes in something, and he wants the reader to believe in something, but it’s fiction. It’s important to make fun of your own construction, because you cannot get rid of the awareness that it’s a construction you built. It’s almost a matter of shame. Because you’re so aware of the limits of it.
I’ve always been allergic to books that took the pain of their characters too seriously. I’m very much afraid of becoming melodramatic.
Let’s talk about the Marek van der Jagt controversy. Why did you decide to start writing under a pseudonym?
When Blue Mondays came out, my life changed in many ways. Suddenly I had money, and suddenly I could start writing for newspapers in the Netherlands. And afterwards, my editor moved to a new publishing house, but he wanted to continue our professional relationship. I came up with the idea of writing a
new book under a different name, so that my old publisher wouldn’t get jealous, basically. That was the beginning of it. But my books were actually quite successful commercially and also critically, and I had developed a fantasy of writing a book without anyone knowing that it was me. Because after a time you develop an image. And then this persona, Marek van der Jagt . . . he became real for me.
How did you get discovered as the author? What was the reaction?
In the beginning it worked very well. The Story of My Baldness came out in 2000 in the Netherlands, and even at the publishing house nobody knew I was the author except for the director and the editor. And the first reviews were exactly what I hoped would happen: I was compared to other Austrian writers, Hungarian writers. . . . I mean, they were very superficial comparisons, but that didn’t matter to me.
But then I won an award that I had already won for Blue Mondays, an award for the best first novel. And that was the turning point, because then suddenly I got extra attention, and newspapers tried to interview the author. He had an address in Vienna—actually it belonged to a woman friend there—and a man working for a newspaper rang the doorbell one morning and she opened the door in her pajamas. He asked, “Where is Marek van der Jagt?” and she was confused.
And I had made a mistake: In the fictional biography on the back of the book, I had written that Marek was four years older than me and he had studied philosophy and he wrote two plays for the Wiener Kammerspiele. And I had just invented “Wiener Kammerspiele,” because it was, after all, for a Dutch audience. It turned out that the Wiener Kammerspiele was real, and someone called them up and wanted to see the plays written by Marek van der Jagt. And of course the Wiener Kammerspiele didn’t know anything about Marek van der Jagt. Then there were some articles about the fact that Marek van der Jagt probably didn’t exist, and people pointed at me. I denied it for two years, and then a professor, a linguist, published an article about the case. He had developed software that could prove the authorship of a text. He scanned The Story of My Baldness and fifty or sixty other novels from the Netherlands after WWII and this computer program said that Marek van der Jagt and Arnon Grunberg are probably the same. And when he wrote about it I decided it was time for me to give it up.
But you’ve continued to write under the name “Marek van der Jagt,” right?
No, he died in 2005. His collected works have just been published.
Too many people thought that it was just a gimmick. But for me it was a little bit more than a gimmick. To me Marek was really a separate entity. His books were different from my own books. At least that was what I aimed for.
You wrote recently on your blog that “we all need a fair amount of private taboos to stay sane.” This phrase strikes me as a good entry point into all your fiction, but especially The Jewish Messiah, which revolves around all kinds of public and private taboos—the Holocaust, incest, masochism, homosexuality. Is it a stretch, though, to say they help keep the characters sane?
Well, it depends how you look at it. I would say that some of the figures in the novel actually have a healthy disrespect for taboos. Awromele, to me, is a character who is completely unaware of many taboos of society, because of his upbringing, which is very protected and traditional. People like that are so unaware of what is going on in the rest of society that they can step on sensitive issues or taboos without realizing that they are doing so.
Some of your earlier work has mentioned the Holocaust obliquely. For instance, there’s a very funny episode in Phantom Pain, in which the main character writes a cookbook called Polish-Jewish Cuisine in 69 Recipes, with the subtitle Cooking After Auschwitz, and it becomes a huge bestseller. I assume this was meant to be a satire of the public appetite, so to speak, for books about the Holocaust?
And also about the images created by popular culture about the Holocaust and the way people react to them. There really is a great appetite for it.
You know, there actually is a Holocaust cookbook.
Yes, the same thing happened to me with The Jewish Messiah. I found out afterward that there really is a Yiddish Mein Kampf.
The Jewish Messiah is really the first of your works—at least of those that have been translated—to engage with Jewish subjects so directly. Were you at all concerned about how the Jewish characters come off? You have a nearsighted mohel, an autistic rabbi—
I wasn’t so concerned about it. Of course, there was some criticism from the Jewish community in the Netherlands after the book came out. A rabbi went on television and denounced the book.
The obvious rejoinder is that your book isn’t meant to be realistic. It can’t be taken as a literal representation.
No. But at the same time I would argue you aim for a certain truth as a novelist. And I think sometimes in the realm of fiction it’s easier to do so. The reminder that it’s not realistic is often just to reassure the reader that they don’t have to be offended, they don’t have to take it personally.
Then what is your response?
The nice thing about a novel is that nobody’s forcing you to read it. It’s a novel, not a statement by a politician. It doesn’t have implications going beyond the novel.
Even when the novel explicitly addresses political issues?
I see what you’re getting at, but of course there’s a difference in form between a novel and an op-ed piece or a politician making remarks. And if a reader changes his mind or questions his opinion because of my novel, well . . . I don’t want to say you can do anything as a novelist, but I think to a certain degree your responsibility is limited. You’re not fully responsible for the interpretation of the reader.
I think of the rabbi in your novel who says, “I’m the one who decides what’s anti-Semitic around here.”
Exactly. How can you argue with that?
The tension between realism and surrealism, which has always existed in your work, seems to me to be even stronger in The Jewish Messiah. Some of the episodes (the relationship between Xavier and Awromele, for instance) are portrayed very realistically, but towards the end the novel veers off into complete fantasy (Xavier becoming the crazed prime minister of Israel who sells nuclear weapons to Hamas). Can you explain what you were trying to do?
To me, Xavier, to a certain degree, is very realistic. I have done many readings in Germany, and there is still this type of often second- or third-generation Germans who seems to be obsessed with Judaism and Jews. Sometimes this obsession can lead into unhealthy territory. I’ve heard of people converting to Judaism and undergoing circumcision. But, more often than not, at the hospital.
Not at the hands of a nearsighted mohel.
In the basement. No.
I see you have a nonfiction book called The Technique of Suffering.
Back in 2005 I was teaching a special course at the Technical University in Leiden, and I was free to do anything connected with technique. So I came up with the idea of the technique of suffering. One group of students had to build machines that could make the user suffer, and the other group built machines that were able to suffer themselves. They came up with highly inventive ideas.
How did the machines work?
Well, some were quite simple. One guy built a teddy bear that would say, when you were holding it, “You are fat. You are ugly. You are a disgrace to humanity.”
In your novel, Xavier says he wants to become a Jew because he wants to learn about suffering.
Some people think about Judaism in this way. I think it’s a false idea. Because many Jews, nowadays, don’t suffer more than any other people. I mean, it’s hard to argue that a Jew in New York is suffering!
In Europe, your work has sold very well and won a lot of prestigious prizes, but in America you’re less well known. Is there something about your work that doesn’t translate well, so to speak?
I have done readings both in the U.S. and in several countries in Europe. There are differences, but in general people react the same to the same piece of text on both sides of the ocean.
Maybe the best answer to your question is bad luck. If the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor had not described Blue Mondays as “pornography” and The New York Times had asked a different reviewer to review it, who knows what would have happened. My publishing story in the U.S. is not the happiest story of my life.
But this might sound like whining and I dislike whining. I guess every author can be inspired by Jesus. Converting people is a slow process; sometimes you have to do it one by one. And writing serious fiction has almost become a religion, or to be more precise, a sect.
Ruth Franklin is a book critic and the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, which has just appeared in paperback.