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Cees Nooteboom (b. 1933)


Dutch novelist, poet, travel-writer, and essayist. Cees Nooteboom has been frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. Central themes in his work are death, the mystery of the self, and the relationship between reality and imagination. A large part of Nooteboom's books consist of travel literature, but he considers himself foremost a poet.

"It is impossible to prove and yet I believe it: there are some places in the world where one is mysteriously magnified on arrival or departure by the emotions of all those who have arrived and departed before. Anyone possessed of a soul so light feels a gentle tug in the air around the Schreierstoren, the Sorrowers' Tower in Amsterdam, which has to do with the accumulated sadness of those left behind. It is a sadness we do not experience today: our journeys no longer take years to complete, we know exactly where it is we are going, and our changes of coming back are so much greater." (in Roads to Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Through Spain, translated by Ina Rilke, 1992)

Cees Nooteboom was born Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom in the Hague. At an early age, Nooteboom lost his father Hubertus Nooteboom, who died during a bombing raid in World War II. After his mother Johanna Pessers remarried in 1948, he was sent to convent schools run by Franciscan and Augustinian monks. Nooteboom never finished high school. "One fine day, and I know how romantic and old fashioned that sounds, but it was what happened in my case, I packed a rucksack, took leave of my mother, and caught the train to Breda. An hour later . . . I was standing at the side of the road on the Belgian border sticking my thumb in the air, and I have never really stopped since." (in Nomad's Hotel, tr. Ann Kelland, 2006) A long hitchhiking trip through Europe inspired his first novel, Philip and the Others (1955). The book was awarded the Anne Frank Prize.

In 1957, Nooteboom married Fanny Lichtveld; they divorced in 1954. He had a long relationship with the singer and actress Elisabeth Dorathea List; she has collaborated with Mikis Theodorakis on an LP in 1967 and recorded cover versions of songs by such artists Jacquel Brel and Gilbert Bécaud. In 1979 Nooteboom met the photographer Simone Sassen, who became his life companion. She has illustrated several of his books.

From the beginning of his career, Nooteboom has traveled in different parts of the world. His early traveler's tales he wrote in the 1950s, when he was a seaman. These experiences have provided the background for his novels, in which the characters explore the world and their inner self. Since 1963, he has published a number of travel books. Nooteboom visited Spain for the first time in 1953. Eventually he started to divide his time between Amsterdam, Berlin, and the Spanish islands, where he has also written several of his works. A selection of Nooteboom's travel articles were later collected in Roads to Santiago (1992). "Although difficult to categorize," said Richard L. Kagan in his review, "it resembles a classic pilgrim's tale written for purposes of spiritual edification, a kind of Michelin for the soul." (The New York Times, April 6, 1997)

In 1967 Nooteboom became the editor of the travel and poetry sections of Avenue, one of Holland's largest magazines. Nooteboom's later works, such as Berlijnse notities (1990) and Roads to Santiago, have been illustrated by Simone Sassen's photograps. Though Nooteboom has said that he is not religious, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela has fascinated his imagination: "there are some places in the world where one is mysteriously magnified on arrival or departure by the emotions of all those who have arrived and departed before." (in Roads to Santiago, tr. Ina Rilke, 1997) 

Nooteboom's novels are full of literary allusions and he uses conflicting narrative voices, typical postmodern techniques, but his work also has timeless quality outside particular literary fashion trends. In the mirror-like novel The Knight Has Died (1963) Nooteboom played like Jorge Luis Borges with the blurring boundaries between fictional characters and their creators, the authors. The protagonist composes a book about his dead friend, who was writing a novel about a writer, who had died before finishing his work. After The King Has Died Nooteboom did not publish another novel for seventeen years. During this period he focused mostly on travel articles and poetry. He has also translated works by such writers as Sean O'Casey, Brendan Behan, Vladimir Nabokov and Pablo Neruda.

Rituals (1980), which was an immediate success and was later made into a film, contrasted order and chaos, life and nothingness. The hero Inni Wintrop does not follow any rules in his daily life. His friend Arnold Taads lives alone in a house where everything, except the day light, is arranged with mathematical precision. Taads's son Philip, who loves Japanese tea ceremonies, turns his back to the world adopting the lifestyle of an ascetic. Arnold freezes to death, Philip is found drowned. Unpredictability, not the inevitable death, Nooteboom seems to say, is at the core of our life. Transition and healing process are linked with Aboriginal thought systems in Lost Paradise (2004), in which a woman attempts to master a traumatic experience. Eventually she is able to overcome her fear of death by accepting that the Universe has its own intelligence.

Nooteboom has received numerous prizes, including the 1982 Pegasus Prize for Literature, the Multatuli Prize (1985) for the novel In the Dutch Mountains (1984), and the Cristóbal Gabarrón Foundation International Literature Award 2008. He has also been awarded the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the most prestigious literary award in the Dutch-speaking world (2009). He has been named Honorary Doctor by several universities, including the Catholic University of Brussels (1998), the Radboud University Nijmegen (2006), and the Freie Universität Berlin (2008).

Het volgende verhaal (1991, The Following Story) won the prestigious European Literary Prize in 1993 for Best Novel. Basically the work is based on same idea as Ambrose Bierce's short story 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge', in which last moments before death are expanded into a whole life. The narrator, Herman Mussert, a teacher, wakes up in Lisbon, feeling that he might be dead. "Death, I had learned, was nothingness, and if that was the state you were in, as I had also learned, all deliberation ceased. So that was not the state I was in, since I was still full of musings, thoughts, memories." Mussert recalls past memories and at the same time he is dying on his bed in Amsterdam. At the end, he journeys up the Amazon, his river of Styx, toward the unnown.

For further reading: De grenzeloze wereld van Cees Nooteboom, ed. Kees Blom (2006); Laughter among the Ruins: Postmodern Comic Approaches to Suffering by Henry Jansen (2001); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); Zichzelf kan hij niet zien: Een lectuur van de roman Rituelen van Cees Nooteboom by Hilde van Belle (1997); Der Augenmensch by D. Cartens (1995); Andre stemmer by Bo Green Jensen (1995); World Authors 1985-1990, ed. Vineta Colby (1995); Writing on the Threshold by H. Spahr (1988); The Narrative Figure in the Novels of Cees Nooteboom by J. Beukes (1987); De tijd en het labyrint: De poëzie van Cees Nooteboom, 1956-1982 by Roger Rennenberg (1982)

Selected works:

  • Philip en de anderen, 1955
    - Philip and the Others (tr. Adrienne Dixon, 1988)
  • De doden zoeken een huis, 1956
  • De verliefde gevangene, 1958
  • De zwanen van de Theems, 1958
  • Koude gedichten, 1959
  • Het zwarte gedicht, 1960
  • De koning is dood, 1961 (illustrated by Paul Citroen)
  • De ridder is gestorven, 1963
    - The Knight Has Died (tr. Adrienne Dixon, 1990)
  • Een middag in Bruay, 1963
  • Gesloten gedichten, 1964
  • Een nacht in Tunesië, 1965
  • Liesbeth List, 1966 (script; episode in the TV series Septet, dir. Joes Odufré)
  • Een ochtend in Bahia, 1968
  • De Parijse beroerte, 1968
  • Gemaakte gedichten, 1970
  • Bitter Bolivia/Maanland Mali, 1971
  • Een avond in Isfahan, 1978
  • Open als een schelp, dicht als een steen, 1978
  • Nooit gebouwd Nederland, 1980
    - Unbuilt Netherlands: Visionary Projects by Berlage, Ond, Duiker, Van den Brock, Van Eyck, Herzberg, and Others  (tr. 1985)
  • Rituelen, 1980
    - Rituals (tr. A. Dixon, 1983)
    - Rituaaleja (suom. Markku Mannila, 1999)
    - film 1989, prod. Sigma Film Productions, directed by Herbert Curiel, screenplay by Herbert Curiel, starring Derek De Lindt, Thom Hoffman, Ton Lensik, Jerome Reehuis, Johan Ooms 
  • Een lied van schijn en wezen, 1981
    - A Song of Truth and Semblance (tr. Adrienne Dixon, 1984)
  • Voorbije passages, 1981
  • Mokusei!, 1982
    - Mokusei (tr. Adrienne Dixon, 1985) 
  • Gyges en Kandaules, 1982
  • Aas, 1982
  • Waar je gevallen bent, blijf je, 1983
  • Vuurtijd, ijstijd, 1984
  • In Nederland, 1984
    - In the Dutch Mountains (tr. A. Dixon, 1987)
  • De zucht naar het Westen, 1985
  • De brief, 1988
  • Het gezicht van het oog, 1989
  • De wereld een reiziger, 1989
  • Berlijnse notities, 1990
  • Het volgende verhaal, 1991
    - The Following Story (tr. Ins Rilke, 1993)
    - Seuraava tarina (suom. Markku Mannila, 1995)
  • Vreemd water, 1991
  • Zurbarán, 1992
  • De omweg naar Santiago, 1992
    - Roads to Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Through Spain (tr. Ina Rilke, 1997)
  • De koning van Suriname, 1993
  • Zelfportret van een ander, 1993 (illustrated by Max Neumann)
    - Self-Portrait of an Other (tr. David Colmer, 2011)
  • De ontvoering van Europa, 1993
  • Van de lente de dauw, 1995
  • De filosoof zonder ogen, 1997
  • Terugkeer naar Berlijn, 1997
  • The Captain of the Butterflies, 1997 (tr. Leonard Nathan and Herlinde Spahr)
  • Allerzielen, 1999
    - All Souls Day (tr. Susan Massotty, 2001)
  • Zo kon het zijn, 1999
  • Bitterzoet, 2000
  • Nootebooms Hotel, 2002
  • De atlas van Nooteboom, 2003
  • Over Het verdriet van België, 2004
  • Paradijs verlooren, 2004
    - Lost Paradise (tr. Susan Massotty, 2007)
  • Over en weer, 2004 (with Remco Campert)
  • Het geluid van Zijn naam: reizen door de islamitische wereld, 2005
  • Nomad's Hotel: Travels in Time and Space, 2006 (translated by Ann Kelland, introduction by Alberto Manguel)
  • Rode Regen, 2007 (illustrated by Jan Vanriet)
  • Tumbas: graven van dichters en denkers, 2007 (photographs by Simone Sassen)
  • Ultima Thule: een reis naar Spitsbergen, 2008  (photographs by Simone Sassen)
    - Ultima Thule: A Journey to Spitsbergen (tr. 2008)
  • Verleden als eigenschap: kronieken 1961-1968, 2008 (ed. Arjan Peters)
  • Nachts komen de vossen: verhalen, 2009
  • Scheepsjournaal: Een boek van verre reizen, 2010
  • Avontuur Amerika: alle reizen, 2010
  • Labyrint Europa: alle vroege reizen. Deel 1, 1957-1966, 2010
  • De roeiers van Port Dauphin: alle Afrikaanse reizen, 2011
  • The Foxes Come at Night, 2011 (Kindle eBook, tr. Ina Rilke)
  • Labyrint Europa: alle latere reizen. Deel 2, 2011
  • Nachttrein Naar Mandalay: alle Aziatische reizen, 2011
  • Op reis: al zijn stukken uit Elsevier, 2012

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