I have been lucky in literature. In my late teens it only took a climb up two steep staircases to the top of a Dutch canal house to reach the temple of my true passion: a small library filled with beautifully bound books, greater and lesser classics and obscure editions.
From the black and gold eighteenth-century bookcases I could take books in six or seven languages, enjoy their powdery paper smell and plough through the writings of such authors as Heinrich Heine or Theodore Dreiser. Soon I began to abandon my friends, ignoring the proffered joints, skipping parties, in order to be able to read through the nights in my library.
With my head resting on the reliable pillow of my fat cat, I started reading what is still one of the strongest influences on my literary consciousness: Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal. It contained all the elements that I was then starting to live for and now still believe in. Julien Sorel was in search of, and living through, what I aimed for in life: a sophisticated adventure.
The book also gave me a feeling of homecoming as I had been raised in the French countryside, and Stendhal’s descriptions of rural France and later on in the book, Paris, made me pick up my pen and attempt to write about my own nostalgic impressions, how I liked to remember the decors of my early youth. Also, Julien Sorel was passionate about love, physically as well as spiritually. But, and that was what fascinated me most, the sharp intelligence and analytic mind that led him to taste and understand all too well the bitter cynicism of society did not distract him from his most fundamental passion for justice, which ultimately led to his execution. I wanted to drain the marrow of society and describe the dry bones of its structure as well. And then there was the fact that Mathilde de la Mole, Julien Sorel’s beloved, would mourn one day in the year for her ancestor, the Marquis De La Mole who had given his life in love and his head to the executioner for Queen Margot. I liked the idea of time-distortion a lot: here was a Queen who had stepped out of my French school history book and back into my life, through Stendhal.
A few years later I breathed the thick, hot air of the Caribbean with the young Mrs Rochester when I read Wide Sargossa Sea by Jean Rhys. Again, a figure from another book had been brought to life, a life of wild feelings and bitter misunderstanding. The fact that a writer could move people around like puppets in time, people from other books or real historical figures, made me want to write. It encouraged me in my convictions that for me the way forward in my own work was to follow a baroque path, first in Dutch and then in English prose, to try and portray some wild and foolishly passionate people in an ever-cynical society.