On Border-Crossings, Bicycles, and Appearing Naked on Your Book
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer Discusses His Newly Translated Novel, La Superba
When I interviewed him over a crisp skype connection, it surprised me that Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer was so precise in his speaking, so careful in qualifying his statements, and so terribly polite and modest in describing his work. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me: he is a Dutch writer, and these are some of the classic stereotypes about the Dutch, or about Northern Europeans more generally. I don’t know how he feels about tulips, wooden shoes, or the color orange—perhaps I should have asked—but the fact that he rode his bicycle across Europe, eventually settling in Genoa, strikes me as an extremely Dutch thing to do. I can only assume that he also smokes in coffee-shops, is thrifty with money, and, I don’t know, loves cheese. If I found out that he did all of these things, I would not be surprised.
This is what stereotypes do: they protect us from having to be surprised. We know what to expect, and because we look for it, we find it. But if you go to the Netherlands, and you find orange entrepreneurial tulips riding bicycles, wooden shoes, and coffee shops, then have you really traveled? Will anything surprise you?
This is what Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s newly-translated novel, La Superba, is all about. A writer with the improbable name “Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer” is in flight from the Netherlands—from a country whose order, reliability, standardization, and predictable schedules have come to horrify him—and he burrows deep into the labyrinthine city of old Genoa, struggling to lose himself. He does, a version of la dolce vita italiana that’s about dissolution and pleasure, but also the hedonism that becomes loss of control and identity. And so, he is drunk most of the time, fascinated by the sex trade and by the bodies it consumes. It should be no surprise—though it still was—that he ends the novel being consumed, himself, by all of it. He becomes so thoroughly absorbed by the fantasies he brings with him to Southern Europe—to Genoa, the city whose haughty nickname gives the book its title, but also opens up Europe to points farther south—that in the end, he too is absorbed.
When I spoke to him over skype, I didn’t find the Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer of the novel. Instead of a dissolute ne’er-do-well drinking endless negronis and sinking into his dreams, I found a poet obsessed with form, a meticulous thinker who hesitated long moments before each careful answer and took pains to explain as precisely as he could exactly what he was trying to achieve (and who thanked me, scrupulously and punctually, for any compliment I gave him). Somewhere in there, we might also find his fictional persona, the wild-man locked inside the poet; he did, after all, write the novel. But maybe you need the locked doors before you can throw them open, before you can unscrew the locks from the doors and the doors themselves from their jambs. You need form and constriction before you can free the verse…
Aaron Bady: I’m very curious about your relationship to this character in the novel, that has the same name as you, the author, and lives in the same city, but is not the same person as you are. What is between you and this character named… [hesitating] Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer?
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer: Yes, the protagonist has this rather improbable name [pronounces his name correctly] “Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer.” But it isn’t me. It’s a fictional character. I adopted that strategy to involve the reader, because the protagonist is, in many ways, not the most sympathetic person. I thought it would be good to keep him as close to me as possible. Actually, I started to write the novel with a third-person protagonist, but I abandoned that quite quickly, because it created too much distance, and I didn’t want that. I wanted the protagonist as close as possible.
AB: It worked for me; the narrator says things and does unattractive things, but you can’t push him away. The intimacy of the first-person narrative draws you in, sometimes in uncomfortable ways.
IJP: I’m very happy you say that. I take that as a compliment. I worked very hard to create a contrast between the beginning of the story, when he is quite full of himself, quite self-secure, and his downfall at the end of the story. I worked very hard to involve the reader so that he can also identify with his downfall at the end.
AB: Do you identify with the protagonist?
IJP: Well… in many respects I do. As a reader, I identify with him. But as a writer, I must emphasize that he is not me.
I’m glad you asked these questions about how much is real and how much is fiction, because that’s what the book is about, the relationship between reality and fantasy. All the characters in the book share this fantasy of living in a better place elsewhere, and they get lost in this fantasy. So when you’re wondering whether it’s fact or fantasy, then I have you where I wanted to have you.
AB: But the novel is very careful about naming and describing specific and real places, giving such detailed descriptions of a place that you have no doubt it’s real.
IJP: I wanted to be precise, yes. I am very fortunate that I ended up in this wonderful city of Genoa, with this labyrinth that is the medieval city-center. But in the book, it’s almost a metaphor, a labyrinth that is more than… it’s almost a protagonist in itself. It becomes a metaphor for all these persons who are getting lost in the fantasy. It’s not so much… well, it is very much a portrait of the real city of Genoa, but even if it were a fictional city, it would still work, because it’s a metaphor for losing oneself.
AB: Is that still a trick? To lull you into thinking that you’re seeing the real city, and treating the book as a travel guide, and imagine that you’re seeing it as it really is?
IJP: I’m happy when it works like that; I want you to wonder if it’s a real city, because that’s really the theme of the book. Actually, it’s been used as a travel guide. Some of my Dutch readers took the book to Genoa, and took the book around, and it works like that. I was very careful to be very precise, with all the little streets just right. When you talk about the relationship between fiction and reality, well, there must be some reality, otherwise it doesn’t work. So I chose to be extremely precise in describing the city.
AB: How strict were you about that? Did you also make things up?
IJP: No, no, about places, there’s no fictional element in it. The people that are walking through the streets are all fiction, and there I made up a lot of things. But I wanted to be very factual about the city itself.
AB: The protagonist in the novel has his own reasons for leaving the Netherlands and coming to Genoa; what brought you to this city, to Genoa?
IJP: Well, my motivation was very similar. I had this very vague idea… this fantasy of finding a better life elsewhere, finding la dolce vita italiana, you know? Every northerner in Europe dreams of going over the Alps to the country where the lemons are blossoming, as Goethe puts it. It’s a very old North European dream, since the Renaissance: everybody wants to go to Italy, to the south. In that respect, I’m awfully unoriginal. I’ve always had this dream of going south.
The only thing that’s original, perhaps, is the way in which I did it. It’s not important for the book, but it may interest you that I went there by bicycle.
AB: All the way?
IJP: All the way. It was a very stupid thing to do. It was in the summer of 2008, and I decided to cycle from my house, in Holland, to Rome, which is—well, perhaps for Americans it’s not such a great distance…
AB: No, that’s quite far!
IJP: I was totally unprepared, totally overweight. It was 2,600 kilometers, and after 41 days, I arrived in Rome. But on this journey, I crossed through Genoa and spent three days off there. For lack of a better word, I fell in love with the city. After I reached Rome, I returned to Genoa, and I decided to stay there, just for a bit. I thought it would be good for me to take some time there, in that city, and I remember I was looking for a little apartment, and in the beginning I rented it for two months. Then I prolonged that, and then I prolonged that. And now it’s been eight years.
AB: Are you still thinking you’ll stay for a while?
IJP: I stopped thinking about how long I was staying there, because it wasn’t really my idea to go there in the first place. I like it. I’ll stay as long as I like it, and I like it more and more. But what defines the place is the people that live there, more than the stones of the buildings. And many of these characters in the book are more or less based on true characters. It’s very much so for the two intermezzi in the book.
AB: The English guy and the Senegalese guy?
IJP: With the Senegalese guy, it’s a very true story, or many true stories projected onto one fictional character. The person “Djibi” doesn’t exist, but I spoke to many Senegalese characters. I wanted to be very factual; in that part of the book, any kind of fiction would detract from the force of the story.
The English guy, Don, is also based on a true character. There, I didn’t need to invent anything because he was so colorful. I could do with embellishing the stories he was really telling.
AB: Could you tell me a bit about your career as a writer outside of this novel?
IJP: I started as a poet, with a collection of poems in 1998. They were very unfashionable poems. At the time, the fashion in Dutch poetry was very minimalistic, and I didn’t like that very much. It was a kind of a statement, very baroque verses. And then, steadily, I went on to venture into different genres. My first novel was 2001, and I also did things for theater, I wrote lyrics for singers, and I write for newspapers. But I think, in the end, if I had to choose, I would define myself still as a poet. In the end, what matters most to me—as a writer, but also as a reader—is not what happens in the story, but how people tell it. I’m very interested in the words and the phrasing, and also the musicality in the language. And I hope that’s also visible in my prose.
AB: It’s interesting, at the beginning of this novel, the prose mirrors the narrator’s life: it seems very shapeless and formless, and just flowing along. He’s just writing letters home, whatever he’s thinking about that day. But that’s misleading, perhaps, because over the course of the novel, you realize that the novel has a very precise shape. Which is the surprise of the character and plot, but it’s also reflected in the prose, which changes by the end of the novel.
IJP: Well, I take it very much as a compliment, when you say it reads like a spontaneous outpouring. But it takes a lot of work to seem spontaneous!
There’s this fictional second person, this good friend who the letters are addressed to, this fiction of the impromptu writing… The idea that what we’re reading is not even the real novel, it’s the original writing that might lead up to the writing of the actual novel is another trick to involve the reader even more.
AB: Could you talk about your attraction to baroque forms?
IJP: In the end it’s very banal, I think. If I have to choose between something empty and something full, I think the full is more interesting. I don’t like this kind of poetry that has a very minimalist way of saying, in the end, nothing. It’s not the kind of poetry that interests me very much. I like it when I can have a lot of different styles at my disposal, and can use the style that’s apt for the story I’m writing at the moment. I like to explore the possibilities the language gives me, instead of giving myself strict artistic rules of minimalizing everything.
AB: Are you also trying to innovate within the form of the novels?
IJP: Yes and no. When I’m writing it, I’m following the necessity of the story. When I’m finished, I think, well, this is the sort of thing at least that I haven’t done before. I have to have, at least, the illusion that I’m doing something completely new. As soon as I get a hint that I’m repeating myself, I fall asleep in my papers. I have to create new challenges for myself, even if they are formal challenges. With poetry, one of the things I did was using these ancient forms, the sonnet, the alexandrines, and that’s a formal challenge that doesn’t have much to do with the content. That’s the kind of experiment that keeps me awake. So when you ask me if I was trying to innovative, well, in a way, yes, but I needed that to keep myself awake.
AB: I read that you have another book, in Dutch, that’s also about letters being sent from Genoa? Or it’s also structured in the form of letters?
IJP: That appeared very recently, yes, several weeks ago.
AB: What is it about letters that interests you?
IJP: You get the communicative aspect for free. When you write a letter, or when you address something—like the trick in La Superba, which pretends to be addressed to somebody—it’s a way of involving the reader. Even if the reader is outside of the letter, the reader still feels addressed. I like it when there is a reason for telling a story. With letters, you get that for free. In real life, I find it quite strange when someone sits next to me and starts to begin a story.
AB: The letter-writer in the novel, though, is not sure what he’s writing about yet. So we’re getting the unconscious, unfiltered version, like the draft before the novel is written.
IJP: It’s also a novel about writing a novel. It’s like the Centre de Pompidou, the museum of modern arts in Paris: all the infrastructure of the building—all the sewers and pipes—are very conspicuously on the outside of the building. The architect didn’t want to hide the infrastructure of the building. That interests me; I don’t want to hide the infrastructure from view. I want to do it in full light.
AB: What about the novel’s politics? If it’s a novel about writing a novel, about aesthetics, it’s also a very contemporary work, a novel about Europe, about migration, and about being a European who can cross borders when so many people can’t. La dolce vita italiano is not for everyone.
IJP: It’s very much a comment on the actual situation, the main urgency of writing this novel. But it’s not a political pamphlet; it’s not an analysis of the problem, or the solution. I wanted to show the complexity of the problem, by telling all these different stories, to put them next to each other.
That’s why I created this protagonist, who looks very much like me, a spoiled little artist from the north who goes south. But his fantasies are similar to those who come to the north from the south. It’s a painful contrast, because what the northerner is allowed to do is everything these Africans are not allowed to do. Don, the Englishman, is the only successful migrant. He is loved by everyone. But he does that by not adapting at all, by making a caricature of his own Britishness.
Also, I wanted to show the historical complexity of migration. Genoa gave me this for free: it happens to be the port city from where the mass emigration of Italians to the New World took place, where they boarded the big ships to go to Ellis island. Those mass migration of Italians is very similar—when you talk about the dreams and fantasies of a better life—to the Africans who come to Lampedusa.
AB: You know, I’m suddenly very conscious of the fact that I haven’t mentioned gender or sexuality at all, which—when you finish the novel—you realize it’s been all about sexuality from the beginning.
IJP: Yes, in a way it is. There’s another side of this story about fantasy and reality, you know? The sexuality this novel explores is mostly about fantasized sexuality, of course; in the end, not much happens, to put it bluntly. I wanted to tell an extreme story of migration; when the protagonist becomes a woman, it’s am extreme way of becoming the person he loves. It begins with the very first sentence. But I don’t think, for me, that this is more a comment about gender; it’s a comment about fantasy.
AB: Could you tell me about your book of poetry, in which you pose naked on the back cover?
IJP: I explain that in the introduction to that collection. And the thing is, my poetry, in my first couple of collections, the critics unanimously praised it for its virtuosity. I got very allergic of that praise. Because what they meant by that was that it was very well done, but it was all fireworks, and in the end, there wasn’t anything there, it wasn’t about me.
I got extremely irritated by that criticism of my poetry, because it’s not true. I’m there in every poem. It’s only because I care about form, that they suspect me of caring only about form. And so, just to make a very strong statement, I wrote that from the very beginning I’ve been there, I’ve been naked, but you haven’t seen it. What do I have to do to make you see it? Appear naked on my own cover?
AB: Were you happy with the result?
IJP: Well… I won’t do it again. (laughs) At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do.