Serge van Duijnhoven
“After more than 60 years of EU integration, 200,000 pages of legislation, and a hefty – and still growing – stack of treaties, we have succeeded in building a European Union without Europeans,” said writer and journalist Gareth Harding in an essay called The Myth of Europe. In a series of interviews with expats called ‘What is a EUROPEAN?‘, we are trying to find out who these Europeans are and what they are doing in Europe. This time we talk to DUTCH poet and historian Serge van Duijnhoven.
For writer, poet, historian and singer Serge van Duijnhoven, the question of when and why he took up his multifaceted career doesn’t make any sense. “It’s not a matter of when I began writing, but a question of when and why the other people stopped being the writers and painters and singers they were when they were children,” he says.
The 39-year-old Dutch author has already published fiction, history and poetry in several languages, as well as launched an art magazine in the Netherlands called MillenniuM. He is a philosopher and a journalist, too, but his overriding passion is, he maintains, music. But where does music fit into all of this?
Van Duijnhoven recites his poems accompanied either by his own band or a jazz artist. His band, Dichters Dansen Niet (Poets Don’t Dance), took off in the late ’90s in The Netherlands and, even though the music may only have a narrow appeal, is still going strong. A fifth album will be out this autumn and there’s no sign of their stopping. “It’s an ongoing process. Through perfect coordination, we manage to put a spell on our audience and captivate them.”
All of which comes very easily to Van Duijnhoven. He unpretentiously weighs his every word, because, just as in his poems, his ideas are loaded with meaning, experience and knowledge. He lives in a house in the Marolles, with a wild, almost exotic garden. He shows me his huge collection of books. “Here,” he says, picking out a volume. “This is one I wrote just after I came back from the Bosnian war [where he was embedded in the army as a war journalist].” He also owns a vast number of CDs and records, because for him, literature needs music to be complete. “I use music because I want to express myself. I realised that words have limits and feelings are deeper than words, because feelings are endless,” he says.
Although he gives concerts and writes as a journalist in both the Netherlands and Belgium, Van Duijnhoven says he lives a “secluded” life – a way of life which he prefers. “I live as an outcast, but the peacefulness that this gives me is essential for my writing.” When he wants to put his pen down and go out, he heads to Recyclart on Rue des Ursulines (www.recyclart.be), Café Lord Byron (8 Rue des Chartreux), whose owner has got “a great sense of aesthetics” or the South Station market, where he “smells all the fragrances of the Mediterranean”. His favourite place, however, is the Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Tervuren (www.africamuseum.be). “I take tram 44 to get there and feel like I’m in a short story by Emile Zola. It’s like stepping into a time machine.”
But these are Van Duijnhovens’s only distractions. He tries not to clutter up his life with humdrum routine. “In Amsterdam my diary was too packed, to the point that I needed to escape and gasp for air, I wanted some time to reflect.” He has now spent half his life in Brussels. “This city is wonderful, but there’s also plenty of grim poverty and there are many people who don’t care about anyone else except themselves. Ugliness and beauty live side by side here.”
However, he still prefers Brussels to The Netherlands, because here he can lose his identity and become just the writer and performing poet that he is. He also likes Brussels for its very individualistic kind of beauty: “If you agree with Lautréamont’s Surrealist definition of beauty as ‘the chance coming together of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table’, then you will find Brussels a very fine city to live in.”
(by: Ana-Maria Tolbaru)
…an opportunity to encounter new ideas
Olga Lawson[right] argues that Europe was created 70 years ago during the siege of Volvograd
The coffee house
Resurrecting the coffee house tradition to bring together Europeans and shape a better future
informal coffee house talks on Europe
Throughout Europe’s history, cafes have been a breeding ground of ideas. Some of the great artistic and intellectual movements started in the cafes of Paris, Vienna, London, Amsterdam, Lisbon or Berlin. For many centuries the coffee houses of Europe have served as places for discussing ideas and promoting human progress. Whether in the mirrored cafés of fin-de-siècle Vienna or the smoky coffee houses of 18th century London, people have regularly gathered in Europe’s cafes to discuss new ideas on politics, literature, art and science.
Our aim is to revive the coffee house discussion at a crucial moment in Europe’s history when, because of the financial crisis, the very idea of European identity is faltering. Our aim is not to deliver lectures or fixed solutions, but to encourage the people of Europe to discuss issues and develop ideas in a relaxed setting.
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