The End of the Novel?
An Interview with Philibert Schogt about Einde verhaal/End of Story
© 2015 by Bryan R. Monte and Philibert Schogt. All rights reserved.
On 1 March 2015, Philibert Schogt was interviewed by Amsterdam Quarterly in his Oud-Centrum Amsterdam flat about his new, bilingual novel, Einde verhaal/End of Story. (An earlier interview with Schogt about his background as a writer and his other novels with AQ in 2011 can be found at: www.amsterdamquarterly.nl/issues/aq1-philosophy/philibert-schogt-writing-across-two-cultures/ ). AQ discussed with him this new novel’s unique structure and content including its exploration of the themes of freedom of speech, religious fundamentalism, censorship and the end of the novel. End of Story/Einde verhaal will be published by Amsterdam’s Arbeiderspers at the end of May 2015.
Bryan R. Monte: I’m here today to interview Philibert Schogt about his forthcoming double novel called Einde verhaal in Dutch and End of Story in English. One of the most unusual aspects of this novel is its design. One side is written in English in the first person. The other, when you flip the book over, is written in Dutch in the third person. These narratives, however, are not direct translations. How did you happen to come up with this form for Einde verhaal/End of Story?
Philibert Schogt: I’m a terribly slow writer. Rather than taking forever to write my book in Dutch, and then waiting even longer for an English publisher to be willing to translate it into English, I thought: ‘Why don’t I write two different versions of the same story simultaneously, one in Dutch, one in English?’ But then, the more I worked on both, the more they intermeshed, until they became a single, bilingual monster rather than two independent books.
BM: But there is also a difference in point of view between the two versions of the story….
PS: That’s right. The Dutch version is written in the third person, while the English version is in diary form and written in the first person.
BM: Why the difference?
PS: I started out writing both versions in the first person, but I think the asymmetry of the two perspectives makes the book more interesting. Also, writing the Dutch version in the third person allowed me to include some background information that wouldn’t have seemed natural from a first person perspective. And for a number of technical reasons which I won’t go into now, the contrasting perspectives will make it easier to translate the book into a single language version, whether this is English-English, German-German or French-French.
BM: I was wondering, since I’m trilingual, how you arranged these narratives in your head, if you can imagine where they are and what your brain is doing with them. For example, some bilingual people say everything is in one box, but I know I’m completely different. I’ve got a German box, a Dutch box and an English box. Is that how you organized them in your head and if so, how did that affect the writing?
PS: One of the terms I use in both versions is “personality shift”. I truly believe that my personality shifts depending on the language I am speaking or thinking, and I’ve talked to other bilingual people and they have that same feeling. It’s not just that languages are stored in different boxes, but your entire perspective changes. That can start with any simple object here on this table: “cookie” and “koekje” for example, evoke two completely different universes.
In his teenage years, my main character is worried about having a split personality. As he grows older, he comes across the term “personality shift”, which is a milder way of putting it and doesn’t have the same connotations with mental illness.
BM: Yes, as a teen I was considered a bit weird because I spoke two languages. When I lived in America, I felt incomplete because when I switched on the radio in the ’60s to the ’70s, it was English from one end of the band to the other and one of the wondrous things when I came to Europe, was when I switched on the radio, every time you moved the dial it was a different language. And I thought: ‘Ah, I’m home!’
PS: I know what you mean. That’s one thing my main character learns as he grows older. Both languages comprise part of his personality, maybe even his soul.
BM: What is your motivation for writing novels, in general, and this novel in particular? It’s a very solitary occupation and it pays little financially. Why do you feel the need to do this? Are you driven?
PS: I am always reluctant to consider my writing an inner calling. It sounds a little too melodramatic and self-important. Then again, when I look back and realize I’ve been working non-stop on this novel for almost six years, then I suppose you could call me “driven”. I’ve always found the world an extremely puzzling, bewildering place and people even more so. To make some sort of sense of the world, or at least to translate it into my own nonsense: maybe that’s why I became a writer.
BM: Let’s move on, and talk about the circumstances related to this story—what it’s about. According to your blurb, your main character is a 69-year-old literary translator of English to Dutch, about to settle into a happy retirement just as he receives one final assignment, the translation of a highly controversial American novel. So, my next question is: Why is it controversial?
PS: In his forthcoming novel, the young American writer Toby Quinn portrays God as a contestant in a talent show who doesn’t make it to the finals. When the opening chapter appears as a pre-publication on the Internet, the Christian right in the United States is deeply offended. Quinn even receives death threats, which he and his publisher exploit to generate more publicity for his book.
BM: So is this a theme that is explored in both the Dutch and English versions?
PS: In the English half of my book, Quinn’s purported blasphemy serves as a catalyst to move the plot forward, but in the Dutch half, it plays a more central role. The Dutch publisher in my novel wants to import not only Quinn’s book to Holland, but also the hype surrounding it. In doing so, however, he also imports the death threats.
BM: Was there anything, related to Salman Rushdie’s fatwah when he had to go underground, that you maybe thought about when you were writing your own novel?
PS: Yes, certainly. The Rushdie affair is mentioned in my book several times. We all remember what Rushdie went through and consider him a hero of free speech, but one detail that people tend to forget is that his Japanese translator was stabbed to death. I don’t want to give away too much, of course, but the main character of my novel happens to be a translator, so he might be in danger, too.
BM: Like the guy who was at the show in Denmark. He was just at the show. He wasn’t an actual writer.
BM: So there is collateral damage that results from writers writing something controversial that gets fundamentalist people all riled up.
BM: But this was all before the Charlie Hebdo massacre?
PS: Yes, I wrote this all before the Charlie Hebdo killings took place. I wondered briefly whether I should allude to them in my novel, but decided against it. The events were too fresh in people’s minds for that to be appropriate. Besides, my novel deals with the more specific theme of groups wanting to ban works of fiction, so I stuck to my original plan and limited myself to the Rushdie affair.
BM: So fundamentalism seems to be a rather unexpected theme of the 21st century. How did you decide to write about the Christian right in America? Was it something that was in the Zeitgeist?
PS: Any kind of zealotry is dangerous, so I didn’t want to pin it on Muslim fundamentalism. At the same time, I wanted to explore how freedom of speech is being abused for publicity purposes. As the Dutch publisher in my novel points out, Rushdie’s book wasn’t doing well at all until the fatwah was pronounced. Then it became a mega-bestseller. Now he wants to achieve the same thing with Quinn’s book. That’s how cynical business can be.
BM: Then you’ve really been prescient about what would be on the mark at this moment when you started years ago on this novel. I would be interested to see what the response from critics will be once the book is released and if they make the connection with the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the public discussion about censorship—or self-censorship—that is circulating in the press and among book publishers.
On a slightly different topic, there’s something I want to ask you related to your book’s titles: Einde verhaal/End of Story. Are you one of those people who envisage the end of the novel? Is that why you chose that title?
PS: It was one of the reasons, yes. Sometimes, when I’m in a pessimistic mood, I think the novel as an art form doesn’t have much of a future.
PS: Because people aren’t reading as many books anymore. I think that Internet and computers have a lot to do with it. Attention spans have shortened to the point where people want to move on to the next site rather than read to the end of an article. I’ve heard that online journalists have even adapted their styles because they know after the first two paragraphs, people will just zap, link or click to some other thing. So yes, the title End of Story can be taken to mean that the art of storytelling is coming to an end.
Plus, while I was working on this project, there were many occasions when I was at the end of my tether and thought to myself: “Never again!” So the title is a self-referential joke as well, announcing the end of my career as a novelist.
BM: So do you think people will be able to read these two stories? What about your public, who do you imagine reading it?
PS: Most educated Dutch people are fine with reading English — although those who consider reading a form of relaxation may find it too strenuous to read the English half of my book. But both parts of my book can be read independently, as separate entities. So whether you are a Dutch reader unwilling to tackle the English part, or an English reader unable to read Dutch, you will still be getting an entire novel, albeit a shorter one.
Still, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So I’m hoping that one day, Einde verhaal will be translated into English, so that English-speakers will be able to read the entire book, too. Or that End of Story will be translated into Dutch.
BM: Philibert Schogt, thank you for your time.
PS: Thank you, Bryan.