Monday, December 6, 2010

Dutch master

By Nick Foster

Newly built accommodation in Utrecht contrasts with the medieval structure of the city centre
Benjamin Moser, 34, is an American writer, book reviewer and biographer. A native of Houston, Texas, he has lived in Utrecht in the Netherlands since 2002, following spells in London, France and New York. Moser’s biography of the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, ‘Why This World’, was published in the US and the UK in 2009. It was released in Brazil – a country which he visits frequently – in a Portuguese language translation earlier this year.

“Being constantly on the move starts to feel quite natural when you’ve already lived in a few different countries,” says Benjamin Moser.
Moser lives with his partner Arthur Japin, a Dutch novelist, and publisher Lex Jansen in a narrow, five-storey townhouse in the Dutch city of Utrecht, some 20 miles south-east of Amsterdam. The house’s gabled and shuttered 19th-century facade hides a structure that dates back to the first years of the 17th century. The trio bought the solid-brick property in 2001, aware that as a listed building no root-and-branch renovations would be permitted. Moser – who was living in London at the time and working as an editor at Harvill Press – moved to the Netherlands the following year. Among the first things they did was to convert the top floor of the house into a library and the basement kitchen, with its old Delft tiles, into a bedroom.
Utrecht has a population of 300,000 and is the fourth-largest city in the Netherlands. But, although it has grown considerably since the second world war, the medieval structure of the city centre, with its canals and graceful townhouses, has been largely preserved. It’s a nice balance between old and new: two minutes walk from Utrecht’s town hall and gothic St Martin’s Cathedral, Moser, Japin and Jansen also have a wealth of specialised food and one-off designer stores and bookshops on their doorstep.
The trio are inveterate collectors and make space in their house to display the whimsical – a nutcracker sculpted in the shape of the head of Otto von Bismarck, for instance, with the cracking device hidden beneath his moustache. But, unsurprisingly, books dominate their home (Moser’s include a collection of works on the early history of Texas and another of volumes published in Latin America in Yiddish). “I couldn’t even begin to count how many books – or even bookshelves – we have,” he says.
The writer was in Utrecht in 2005 reading up on Clarice Lispector and “trying to imagine how I could get her out into the wider world” when a friend mentioned that Lispector’s work would be the focus of the second Paraty International Literary Festival in Brazil – better known by its Portuguese acronym, Flip – which was just about to start. “I had a matter of hours to book a flight and pack. I flew to São Paulo the next day, then travelled on by bus to Paraty on the coast. It was crazy,” recalls Moser.
Crazy or not, the decision was to change his life. After the Flip event, his daily programme of book reviews for Harper’s Magazine and essays had to make space for the biography he had decided to write, and also for regular trips to Brazil for research and interviews.
A famous beauty, Lispector’s debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart fired her into Rio de Janeiro’s 1940s literary set. She died of cancer in 1977, having published a score of novels and collections of stories.
Moser’s biography places Lispector within the context of the experience of a Jewish refugee from eastern Europe. His research also took him to the village in Ukraine where the writer was born in 1920.
“Clarice was the great Portuguese language writer of the 20th century, and the most important Jewish writer since Kafka. Brazilians are justifiably proud of her,” says Moser,
Moser also appeared at the London Literature Festival in July to promote his book and received an unexpected lesson in cultural globalisation. “I got my shoes shined in Burlington Arcade before going to the venue. To my amazement, the same shoe-shine man was waiting in line for the session on Clarice.”
The Netherlands and Brazil might, superficially, appear to have little in common but Moser says that in both countries it is relatively easy to make a life as a foreigner. “They share an easy-going, non-judgmental approach,” says Moser. “Some countries exclude outsiders, particularly if they receive a lot of foreign tourists. But that is not generally the case in the Netherlands or Brazil.”
But life is certainly easier in the Netherlands: “Brazil takes a toll on you, because getting things done is sometimes so difficult and bureaucratic.”
Cosmopolitan Amsterdam and under-visited Utrecht throw up differences, too: “In Amsterdam, if you have even a tiny accent when you speak Dutch, the reflex is to switch to English. This doesn’t tend to happen in Utrecht, so it has been easier to learn the language here.” It is also easier to get out into the Dutch countryside. “We basically live in the city centre but I can put on my running shoes and be in beautiful pasturelands in about 15 minutes,” says Moser.
As a writer, Moser is free to live just about anywhere with an internet connection. But it is the strength of the link to the past in the Netherlands that trumps other potential locations: “I like how the Dutch cherish their common past, their great painters, for instance. But it’s also easy to find reminders of a personal past: in used bookstores, for example, I’ve often found flowers pressed in books. It gives you a feeling of connection to the people who read them before you.”

Publicado en el Financial Times, Londres, 4/12/2010

Imagen: Vista de Utrecht

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