Lecture at Kulturhuset May 22

This year's award week started with Guus Kuijer's public lecture at Kulturhuset (House of Culture) in Stockholm.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to start by reading you a short story. It comes from a book that has not been published in Sweden, which is a pity, but that may yet happen. The book is called De tranen knallen uit mijn kop (The Tears Burst out of My Head) and it is about a boy called Jonathan. Jonathan is about nine years old and he is deeply in love with his schoolteacher, which is a disaster, as I’m sure you can imagine. It’s an impossible love, because his teacher is really nice, but she’s nice to all of the children in her class and, of course, that’s not what Jonathan wants at all.

But Jonathan has come up with a solution. He has a story tree inside his head and a story falls out of it whenever the situation requires. I’m going to read the story in which Miss De Zwaan – that’s her name – finally realises that Jonathan is the most important boy in the world. The story is called:

THE SNAKE

One day, a snake came creeping into the classroom. A bright-yellow snake with black stripes. It was three metres long and as thick as a tree trunk.
The teacher was sitting at her desk, marking the children’s work.
The children were doing sums.
No one noticed a thing.
The snake sneaked as silently as a shadow. Then, slowly, it raised its head. It paused above Tineke Bakker’s desk and its jaw fell open like a suitcase. Right in the middle of a tricky sum, Tineke Bakker disappeared down its throat. Jonathan was the only one who saw what happened, but he couldn’t speak. There was a lump in his throat.
Tineke Bakker was just a big bulge sliding down into the snake’s body. Down and down, all the way to the tip of its tail.
It was a sad sight.
Then the snake started on Astrid Nooitgedacht. It had its work cut out, because Astrid’s bottom was rather big. But nothing was too much for the snake to handle. It gobbled up Astrid like a tasty little sausage.
And then it devoured all of the other children, one by one.
The teacher didn’t notice a thing. ‘The children are so wonderfully calm and quiet today,’ she thought contentedly. ‘I’m such a good teacher.’
Jonathan dropped down beneath his desk. He crawled across the floor to his teacher. ‘Psssst,’ he whispered.
‘Eh?’ the teacher said. She looked down. ‘What are you doing there, Jonathan?’
‘I have some bad news,’ whispered Jonathan. ‘The whole class has been eaten up.’
The teacher’s face turned as white as chalk. It really suited her. Her lips looked redder than blood. She looked around the classroom. ‘Who would do such a thing?’ she cried in despair.
‘That! Over there!’ Jonathan said, pointing at the back of the room.
The snake was curled up in the corner, having a nap. It had grown so fat that it looked like a pile of car tyres. Its tail was on the floor, but its head was touching the ceiling.
The teacher was on the verge of tears. ‘Oh no!’ she cried. ‘Now I don’t have any children in my class! Oh, but thank goodness you’re still here, Jonathan. I always thought you were the most important child in the class. Come on, why don’t you sit on my lap?’
So Jonathan did just that. His teacher held him tightly. She smelled wonderful and she was very soft.
‘We have to get them out of there,’ she whispered in his ear.
‘Oh no, Miss,’ Jonathan replied. ‘Those children are gone. They’re no good to you now. Better just forget about them.’
‘Do you think so, sweetheart?’ asked his teacher.
‘Absolutely, Miss. They’ve already been half digested by now anyway,’ Jonathan said.
‘You’re right,’ his teacher nodded. ‘And they wouldn’t look very nice, would they? Oh well, it can’t be helped. We’ve done our best.’
And then they stopped speaking. The teacher hummed a sad song and rocked Jonathan in her arms.
The end.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I confess: in Jonathan I recognise the little boy I once was myself, the boy who wanted to be seen, not as ‘a’ child, but as that one special child. Fortunately, I quickly learned that this is achieved not by excluding people, but by including them.

Over the past thirty years, I have read many times that ‘being yourself’ is the greatest gift we have to offer both to society and to ourselves. However, the question is whether ‘yourself’ is actually sufficient to be of significance to another person. I strongly suspect that ‘myself’ is an inadequate offering. And so I do my best to incorporate other people into me as much as I can. The process by which we include other people in ourselves is called learning.

When I was about sixteen, my friends and I decided that we were artists. I don’t know why. Maybe we thought that being an artist meant you could grow your hair long without your parents packing you off to the barber’s shop. We had no idea exactly what artists did, so we went out to investigate. Our research was very thorough. We scoured Amsterdam, looking for art. We found ourselves in jazz clubs, museums and cinemas. And it was at the cinema that we made our first major discovery. We watched some films by Ingmar Bergman. Of course we only half understood what we saw, but perhaps the enigma of those films was what we found so fascinating about them. In any case, we discussed them until we were blue in the face. But the door did not start to creak open until one of my friends said, ‘These are films that don’t provide any answers; they ask questions.’

It was what you might call an eye-opener. I grew up in a strict Christian family and so I was raised with answers. The Bible explained everything that a person needed to know. Everyone around me appreciated art only if it confirmed Biblical truths. Bergman’s films allowed me to discover a sort of counter-world, a world that asked questions without knowing the answers. That was very different from the world of the catechism, which did ask questions, but then promptly provided the answers.

A second important discovery came not long after that. I had the impression that Bergman’s films were motivated by a strong need for self-examination. He did so not by putting himself on display, but by delving into other people’s minds. His many portraits of women had a profound impact on me. And this was the lesson that they taught me: the so-called ‘self’ does not exist without others. Self-examination is in fact nothing other than studying the people around you. The artist portrays himself by portraying others. Perhaps the ‘self’ was invented by psychologists, while artists have always known that you have no ‘self’ in the way that you own an object, but that you construct your self by looking around you and discovering who you want to be.

When I was a boy, Erich Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives left a lasting impression on me. Emil fought against injustice – and he won. I wanted to be Emil. The thought of being ‘myself’ did not even occur to me and I don’t believe that any child entertains such thoughts. Children are little artists: they know that they need to search for themselves among all those people to whom they feel drawn. They have to create an image of themselves, as artists do: that’s where I want to go; that’s how I want to be.

In my teens, I wanted to be like Ingmar Bergman: someone who looked at other people and used his observant gaze to create such powerful images. I learned that observing things yourself is important, but not sufficient. You need the gaze of other people, such as Bergman, to learn how to look and how to shape your own conclusions. That is what art does; it teaches you how to form an image of the world and the position that you should occupy in that world in order to mean something to others.

Some years ago, I wrote a series about a girl called Polleke. This series has also been published in Sweden. Throughout the five books, Polleke stubbornly tries to become like her father, who is her hero. As a reader, your heart is in your mouth, because Spiek, her father, is on drugs and has made nothing of his life. But he claims to be a poet. He is a poet who writes no poems. Polleke finds this conundrum irresistible. She wants her father to show the outside world who he really is, and so she tries to get him writing. In order to achieve her goal, she studies her father and tries to understand the strange world he lives in. She doesn’t want to be ‘herself’ for a moment; that thought never even occurs to her. She just wants her father to become who he says he is: a poet. And so she starts writing her own poems to make him realise how important his identity as a poet is to her. She writes poems to encourage him and so that she will matter to him; that is her motivation. And then she discovers, to her surprise, that she is a poet herself. But that is merely incidental. Her desire to mean something to another person, in this case her father, is what gets her moving. She writes the following poem for her father:

Your head is like a kind of cage,
and inside it there’s a silent bird,
its beak shut tight, its song unheard,
because that bird’s too scared to sing.
Oh, what a sorry little thing.

By writing this poem to, and for, her father, Polleke unwittingly begins to form a picture of who she herself wants to be: a poet who writes poems and who does not lock herself away in a cage of drug abuse. As she studies her father, she starts to construct her own self.

Thomas’s family in The Book of Everything is even more extreme. The father is a true despot, who twists his religious beliefs to subjugate his wife and children. Thomas can see that his parents are unhappy. He writes: ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be happy.’ That’s a fine intention, but how do you do that when you see so little happiness around you?

In her book The Transcendent Child, Lilian B. Rubin, an American academic, investigated how some children who had grown up in problem families still managed to develop into healthy, well-balanced adults. She discovered that these children had something in common: they had all found a mentor outside the family. And the remarkable thing is that all of those mentors helped the children through sports or art.

Thomas goes out looking for happiness. ‘Next door to Thomas lived an old lady. All the children in the neighbourhood knew she was a witch.’ So Thomas has every reason to be scared of her, and he is, and yet he still takes the initiative and speaks to her. The unknown, the strange is attractive to him because he suspects that another world might exist, a world where you can be happy. And he’s right. There is another world. And his next-door neighbour, Mrs. Van Amersfoort, shows it to him. She does not do so by presenting herself as a role model, but by introducing him to literature, poetry, music. Thomas suddenly realises that there are other ways of looking at the world and other voices than your father’s that can teach you how to become who you want to be.

When I was writing the Polleke series and The Book of Everything, I wasn’t aware that I was trying to clarify for myself the function of art in the lives of people. It is a strange phenomenon: a writer can make a character do things without himself knowing the reason why, and the characters don’t know either. I don’t wish to compare myself to a great artist like Bergman, but nevertheless I think that the same phenomenon is involved: he wanted to show something, but I am almost certain that he did not know precisely what it was. People who encounter art have exactly the same experience: they feel they have learned something from visiting a museum, reading a good book, listening to music, but they do not know precisely what. It is a very different kind of learning from classroom learning.

I read Astrid Lindgren for the first time as an adult; it was her book The Brothers Lionheart. The story captivated me from start to finish, but although it was presented as a children’s book, I discovered to my surprise that I did not entirely understand it. Then I fell into the trap that reviewers and educationalists all over the world have fallen into a thousand times. I asked myself if The Brothers Lionheart was a children’s book – and my answer was no.

Why did I reach that incorrect conclusion? This is why: adults think that the classroom way of understanding is the only way of understanding. But when you think about it for a moment, you realise that this point of view does not hold water. Do we really understand Dostoyevsky completely? In fact, is there any important work of art that we understand in its entirety?

When my books for children were first published, I came up against this same mistake time and time again. ‘This children’s book is a good book, but it’s not suitable for children.’ How often do children’s writers hear those words? Just imagine someone writing: ‘This book by Dostoyevsky is a good book, but it is not suitable for people.’ If a critic expressed an opinion like that, he would open himself up to eternal ridicule. So why is it that you can say something like that about children’s books?

I should have learned my lesson as a teenager, when I realised that I only half understood Bergman’s films, but still felt drawn in by the puzzles that he set for me. And this is the lesson:
there are different kinds of understanding. Understanding art is a very different thing from understanding that the earth is round. And besides: art is not always suitable for everyone.

To clarify what I mean by this, I’m going to read you another of Jonathan’s stories. I’d like to remind you that these stories are the product of Jonathan’s imagination and not my own.
The story is called:

DYING

One day, the moment came. Miss De Zwaan said in a trembling voice, ‘Jonathan, I need to speak to you. Will you wait for me at four o’clock?’
‘Yes, Miss,’ said Jonathan.
Then it was four o’clock. All of the children had gone home. Except for Jonathan. Miss De Zwaan was sitting at her desk. She gave a deep sigh.
‘Jonathan,’ she said. ‘I can hardly speak. There are so many tears in my throat. Jonathan! I love you so very much, but you’re just a child.’
‘That doesn’t matter, Miss,’ said Jonathan. ‘I’ll grow out of it!’
‘Oh, Jonathan,’ she said. ‘You shouldn’t say such things. You’ll always be twelve years younger than me.’
So his teacher was twenty-one.
‘It could be worse,’ said Jonathan. ‘There are fifteen years between my granny and granddad and they had their fortieth anniversary last month. And it was a really good party, too.’
‘Yes, but...’ said his teacher. ‘Was your granddad in your granny’s class at school?’
‘No,’ said Jonathan. ‘They met at the bank.’
‘That’s allowed!’ his teacher wailed. ‘But I’m not allowed to love you. Because I’m a teacher and you’re a child. Do you understand?’
‘No,’ Jonathan declared. ‘I don’t understand at all. And I don’t want to understand either! Why is my mum allowed to love me, but you’re not? What kind of world is this?’
His teacher shook her head in despair. Tears streamed down her flushed cheeks. ‘Oh, Jonathan,’ she whispered. ‘The only thing we’re allowed to do together is... die.’
‘Well, let’s do that, then,’ said Jonathan. ‘Let’s die together.’
‘Yes,’ his teacher nodded. ‘There’s nothing else for it.’
They headed outside and climbed into Miss De Zwaan’s little red car. It was a really fast four-door car with front-wheel drive.
‘No, in the back,’ she said gently. ‘Children aren’t allowed in the front.’
And they set off.
It was a nice drive. The sun was low in the sky, bleeding like a grazed knee.
They reached the sea. The waves splished and splashed. The seagulls sang a sad song.
‘Watch out for jellyfish,’ said Jonathan’s teacher. ‘Best keep your shoes on.’
They walked out into the sea. Hand in hand. Miss’s skirt billowed out and floated on the water. Then she picked Jonathan up. She squeezed him tightly.
‘I love you so very much,’ she whispered, and she kissed him. It tasted a bit salty.
Step by step, Miss walked deeper into the sea. They both looked straight ahead. The water came up to their chins. Then their noses. Then their foreheads. A big wave washed over them.
The water closed over their heads.
And they were swallowed by the sea.
Two days later, they were washed ashore. They were found lying next to each other, hand in hand.
The newspapers were full of the story.

The end.

Few children or adults will understand why Jonathan believes that dying with his teacher is the height of romance, but many people, both children and adults, will experience an emotion that far surpasses understanding when they hear this story. An impossible love that ends with the death of both lovers is a theme that is perhaps as old as humankind, but do we understand why this theme moves us? Poetry, literature – in short, forms of art – depict phenomena that we recognise as expressions of the human soul without being able to grasp the exact whys and wherefores. Classroom understanding is insufficient for both the artist and the art-lover.

It goes without saying that not all children will like Jonathan’s story. There will be a lot of them who don’t think much of it at all. Writers always write for a minority. Even if I sell 100,000 copies of a book, I have still reached only a minority. Reviewers of literature for adults see this as obvious, but reviewers of children’s books do not. They think that a children’s book must be suitable for all children. This is a foolish demand. Children differ from one another just as much as adults do, and this fact is often forgotten. Not all children’s books are appreciated by all children – that is self-evident.

As I write, I never ask myself whether my audience will appreciate what I am writing. I have never asked myself what children like. I assume that there is always a small minority that will feel what I felt when I was writing. Educationalists and reviewers attacked Astrid Lindgren for her book The Brothers Lionheart. They were, of course, wrong and the reason for this is that the slogan ‘this children’s book is not suitable for children’, which has been repeated a thousand times, is a huge generalisation.

There is not one single art form that reaches all people. Not even the books of Astrid Lindgren or the films of Ingmar Bergman do that. This is why art is often referred to as ‘elitist’ in this age of populism. That doesn’t bother me much; it seems worse to me to be popular with the populists. But still, it is of course a ridiculous point of view. Academics and artists would only be elitist if they deliberately excluded certain groups of people. But no one does that. The point is this: everything, even walking, cycling or driving a car, is elitist if you are not willing to learn. So let us aim to deliver quality, not strive for popularity.

One day, Jonathan met an ancient man. He was so old that he had known the trees when they were just saplings. The man stopped in his tracks when he saw Jonathan.
‘I’ve seen you before,’ he said. ‘You’re that boy who’s so good at thinking. Whenever you walk by, I can hear the cogs in your brain whirring. Could you try to keep the noise down?’
‘No,’ said Jonathan. ‘I can’t. It happens all by itself.’
‘So how’s it going?’ asked the old man. ‘Do you understand a thing or two?’
‘Yes, I understand quite a lot,’ said Jonathan. ‘I understand the stones well. And I’m not too bad on the plants and the animals. But I find people tricky. They’re even more difficult than sums.’
‘Yes, yes,’ muttered the old man. ‘Then I shall tell you something. I am seventy-seven years old, I think. Yes, it must be something like that. But people still baffle me.’
‘Gosh,’ said Jonathan.
‘Before I forget,’ the old man continued. ‘You wouldn’t happen to be in love with your teacher, would you?’
Jonathan turned bright red. He hung his head. ‘Um, er, actually, yes,’ he whispered shyly.
‘Oh!’ the old man exclaimed. ‘Oh dear, oh dear! What a pickle! Oh, my young friend, I pity your poor heart. Does it hurt?’
‘A bit,’ whispered Jonathan.
‘Oh, if only I knew what to do,’ wailed the old man. ‘Can’t you just forget her?’
‘Um, no,’ said Jonathan.
‘Oh dear!’ cried the old man. ‘Ah, it always hits the thinkers hardest. Has she at least noticed you?’
‘Oh, yes ,’ Jonathan nodded. ‘Sometimes she says good morning, Jonathan. Or do you need to go to the toilet, Jonathan. Or don’t you have a handkerchief, Jonathan. That kind of thing.’
‘Good, good,’ said the old man. He leant over to Jonathan. ‘That’s a good start,’ he whispered. ‘But it’s not enough. Anyone who falls in love with his teacher suffers eternal heartache. There’s nothing to be done about it. There’s only one thing that helps…’
The old man paused. He looked around, nervously.
‘Only one thing that helps?’ asked Jonathan.
‘Ssssh,’ said the old man. ‘There is only one thing that teachers cannot resist. And that one thing is: sensitive poetry.’
‘I don’t know if I can do that,’ said Jonathan.
‘You can, you can,’ cried the old man. ‘You can do it just fine. The lines have to rhyme, because that looks really good. And they have to be soaked with tears. It’s your only chance, my boy.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ said Jonathan.
The old man nodded contentedly and vanished into thin air.

The end.

I have to confess something else to you. In a distant past, I was a schoolteacher. In 1972, a new teacher walked into the school and I immediately fell for her. I’d never seen such a dazzling woman.

A week later, I met one of the boys from her class in the corridor. He stopped, pointed his finger at me and shouted: ‘Sir’s in love with Miss!’
 ‘You’re right, Jonathan,’ I said. ‘But I think perhaps I’m not the only one.’
 Jonathan went as red as a beetroot.

To make an impression on Miss De Zwaan, I started writing children’s books for her to read out to her class. I’m not a poet like Polleke or Jonathan, so they were prose, but I think she was happy with them.

That wonderful woman and I have now been together for forty years. I write because I am in love with her and, because of her, in love with life.

But I do not know if I have succeeded in impressing her. On 21 March this year, I said to her, ‘My love, I’ve won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award 2012. Will you take me seriously now?’ ‘Of course not, silly,’ she said. ‘But I do love you.’