Two Debuts of One Author. Arnon Grunberg Talking to Justyna Górniak on His Visit to Lublin.

I think after my visit to Lublin I will write something melancholic. Melancholy will really convey the atmosphere of the city, says Arnon Grunberg after his two-week stay in Lublin as part of the citybooks project.
Perhaps the reason for his perception of Lublin as a melancholic city is the gloomy weather he experienced for almost the entire stay.

Justyna Górniak: Your career started with writing letters.

- Arnon Grunberg: I’d never considered becoming a writer. I had a go at being an actor, then I took up playwriting, but I never thought of writing a book. I opened my own publishing house, which, unfortunately, went bankrupt. That wasn’t the best time in my life. I started writing letters to my friends. I’ve always preferred letters to phone calls and, in fact, it stayed this way until today, only now instead of writing letters, I write e-mails or text messages. The letters were becoming longer and longer and one day a Dutch publisher asked me to write a book based on the stories I described in my letters. That was the origin of my debut novel “Blue Mondays” that I wrote when I was twenty-three. The book won the award for best debut in the Netherlands.

How did it happen that your next book, published a couple of years later, also received an award for best debut?

- A couple of years after publishing “Blue Mondays” I wrote “The Story of My Baldness” under the pseudonym Marek van der Jagt. I wanted to find out how the readers would react to a novel without knowing who the author was. What is more, I wanted to collaborate with one editor whom I’d always admired, but he was working for another publishing house at that time. I thought: “If I use another name my publisher would never find out.” Plus creating a non-existent author was an interesting game I got to play with my readers. The book won the award for best debut novel. Of course, there was a big scandal when everyone realised that Marek van der Jagt didn’t exist. I was even accused of publishing the book under the pseudonym just to earn money for the prize, which is pure nonsense.

Did the pseudonym you used have anything to do with the Polish writer Marek Hłasko?

- It did. His works had a great influence on me. I read my first book by Hłasko when I was 17 or 18. That was the time when I met two Polish girls who had moved to the Netherlands. One of them was a sculptor, Ewa Mehl and the other a choreographer, Jolanta Zalewska. They told me about Hłasko, he wasn’t at all popular in the Netherlands. Van Jagt, on the other hand, is the name of a girl, my school love. So the pseudonym combined two important figures from my life.

Apart from novels you’ve also written several plays. Is there a chance we will see “Our Pope” onstage in Poland?

I wrote “Our Pope” in 2007. The play was commissioned by Teatr Współczesny in Wrocław, but it was never put onstage. First of all, the translation of the play into Polish wasn’t the best, plus, I think, that the final play wasn’t something the director of the theatre expected at that time. I received a letter informing me that the play would not be staged in Wrocław and that was it. The play had its premiere at the Wunderbaum Theatre in Belgium in October 2011. After my arrival in Lublin I met with Witold Mazurkiewicz, a theatre director, who told me about his plans to stage the play here. We’ve only had one meeting so far, but he seems to be determined to do it, which makes me happy. If everything goes well, you will be able to see “Our Pope” in Lublin already in October.

Critics describe “Our Pope” as a comedy written in Kafka’s style.

- The protagonist Wilhelm van Rompuy is a teacher from Flanders having difficulties finding a job. His mother persuades him to look for work abroad, so he comes to Poland with his girlfriend and starts teaching at the University of Wrocław. I spent a month in Wrocław before writing the play, so I had some time to look closely at Polish society. The play describes my observations. I noticed that while Polish people are happy to use all of the benefits of capitalism, they still feel sentimental about the times of communism. The play touches also the problem of nationalism rooted in your society. I think “Our Pope” is funny, but it is also quite bitter. As a foreigner I cannot foresee how it will be received by the Polish audience, if we manage to present it onstage. It will arise some controversy, that’s for sure.

Is two weeks enough to get inspired by a city?

- The idea of the citybooks project is that the artists spend only two weeks in a given city and after this time they publish a work inspired by that place online. I must admit that my time in Lublin passed very quickly and I feel like two weeks is a bit to short. I wish I could stay a bit longer, meet more people. I had no idea what to expect when I was coming to Lublin. There is something really charming about this city. Wrocław is also very beautiful, but I would say it is more aware of it. I visited most “must-see” places from the guide, I went to the Museum at Majdanek twice. I tried to find the Hangman’s House to no avail, unfortunately. Buildings, architecture, the landscape, all this is very interesting, but to me the most interesting aspect of a place are the people who live there. They inspire me, the way they look, talk and behave. I have been posting my impressions from Lublin on by blog. I think that after my visit I will create something melancholic. Yes, melancholy conveys the atmosphere of this city really well.

Arnon Grunberg
Was born in Amsterdam in 1971, currently lives and works in New York. At the age of seventeen, after being expelled from school, he opened his own publishing house Kasimir specialising in non-Aryan German literature. His first novel “Blue Mondays” won an award for best debut and was translated into thirteen languages. Author of several novels, he also collaborates with Dutch newspapers and magazines, writes theatre plays. In 2009 he received the Constantijn Huygens Prize for his entire body of works.
So far only one of his books, “Phantom Pain”, was translated into Polish. He visited Lublin as part of the citybooks project coordinated by the Flemish institution Vlaams-Nederlands Huis deBuren which aim is to promote small towns with cultural potential.

Source: Gazeta Wyborcza Lublin, 29.02.2012, (original source)