Elegiac elegance

A profile of celebrated Dutch writer Anna Enquist.

Anna Enquist (photo credit: BERT NIENHUIS)
Anna Enquist
(photo credit: BERT NIENHUIS)
Reading Anna Enquist’s novels is a powerful, demanding and enriching experience.
The celebrated Dutch writer was here recently to give a lecture about her fifth novel, Contrapunt (Counterpoint), at Tel Aviv University, and to meet some of the leading members of our own literary crowd, such as Dorit Rabinyan, author of the 2014 controversial novel All The Rivers.
Contrapunt came out in Dutch in 2008, in English in 2010 and in Hebrew in 2015. The basic storyline is almost achingly tragic and, sadly, largely biographical.
Enquist – nom de plume of Christa Widlund-Broer – is popular in her own country, both for her novels and her poetry. Indeed, she has had her able fingers in several artistic pies over the years.
Her first love was music. “I wanted to be a classical pianist, but I was born just after the Second World War and, at that time in the Netherlands, after the war no one thought that music could be treated as a serious profession,” Enquist explains.
And so the young Dutch woman took a degree in psychology, only turning to her first artistic love after completing her psychology studies, whereupon she promptly enrolled at the music conservatory in The Hague and was finally able to do something about developing her musical talents.
After finishing her music degree, she was asked to join the conservatory staff as a psychologist, and she was able to combine her then-two principal areas of skill.
The literary aspect of her daytime endeavors evolved almost unwittingly, as Enquist began creating poems, and it was only at the prompting of her Swedish husband – whose nationality, apropos, influenced her choice of professional moniker – that she submitted a handful of poems to a Dutch magazine.
To her great surprise, the editor responded enthusiastically, and asked her to send in some more poems, and they duly appeared in the publication. At the time, Enquist was earning a crust as a psychoanalyst but she soon began devoting most of her waking hours to writing.
In music, it is always fascinating to see how a musician’s skill and experience on one instrument can inform his or her approach to a subsequent new choice of instrumental expression.
Sticking with the musical frame of reference, Enquist feels her love of classical piano colors her literary mind-set. “Yes, I think there is something musical about the rhythm of my writing,” she notes. “Musical training is the only artistic training I ever got – how to structure a piece and how to think about consonants and about rhythm, that’s how I construct a poem.”
With the absence of requisite formal instruction, does she feel her writing can be likened to jazz, in terms of the ability to improvise, to find an idea and run with it?
She is a little ambivalent about that. “Perhaps, in that sense, my writing is a little like jazz. But in music, I am a classically trained pianist and I can’t improvise at all.”
Would she agree to being termed a “jazz writer”? “I’m not sure about that,” she laughs.
Then again, Bach is considered by many mavens as the original jazz musician. That is a pertinent observation in the context of Contrapunt, both in terms of Enquist’s autodidactic approach to wordsmithery, and one of the book’s thematic linchpins.
The moving novel follows a pianist who is trying to get a precise handle on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The story is based on the author’s tragic loss of her daughter, who died in 2001 in a cycling accident at the age of 27, and the fact that the German composer began writing the Variations following the death of one of his sons.
The lauded classical work provides the book with a physical and technical format, as the pianist works her way through the 30 variations, plus the aria which is incorporated in the Goldberg Variations. The heroine shares her thoughts about the music and her own life – which includes her daughter, who constantly hovers nearby.
Part of Enquist’s purview, as the music conservatory’s psychologist, included helping students deal with composer’s block, and also with their fear of taking the stage. As a writer, and a musician, she is keenly aware of the demons that can beset any creative process.
But, perhaps, obstacles are a necessary part of the artistic gestation stage. Enquist is not so sure. “There are a lot of unnecessary demons also,” she says. “Sometimes things are so big that they are not a help at all.”
For Enquist, as probably for many artists, there is something cathartic about the creative continuum. For her, it was initially a premeditated attempt at getting back to the ivories.
Her first two prose works, Het meesterstuk (The Masterpiece), which came out in 1995, and Het geheim (The Secret), from 1997, are psychological novels that have a strong accent on classical music, thereby spanning two of her professional artistic interests.
Het meesterstuk was produced at a time when Enquist’s hands-on musicianship had lapsed. “I thought if I write a book about piano playing, I’ll start playing again,” she recalls. “That didn’t happen at the time, but it was my secret wish.”
Eventually, she was able to, once again, put her love for music into practice. “I began playing again about 15 years ago. That was nice,” she says.
Naturally, however, it took some time to come back from the hiatus, and some of her life experiences, including the most painful of all, also came across in her playing. “All that came out too.”
Contrapunt is shot through with powerful emotions, as the unnamed heroine constantly flits between her inner thoughts and feelings, and the physical reality of her surroundings.
Enquist says that runs parallel to her own life, and that she is wary of delving too deeply into her own psyche and making sure she comes up for air.
“Now I am able to be outside, and to like it there,” she observes, adding that art must feed off real life. “If you don’t live, you have nothing to write about.”
While she says she has no propensity for on-the-fly musical expression, she does manage that, to a degree, with her writing. “Writing a poem you have a kind of freedom which you don’t have when you’re playing a Beethoven sonata, or a Bach fugue. It is you who decides how long the poem will be, and what kind of rhythm it has, and the content and everything. That is a kind of euphoric feeling.”
Euphoric is not an epithet one would associate with, for instance, Contrapunt, but Enquist clearly has mastery over emotive description.
“I would say that death is an ever-present element of her writing since Anna’s daughter died,” notes Ran Hacohen, who has translated all of the Dutch writer’s books into Hebrew. “And I think that Contrapunt is her most intimate novel.”
Hacohen also feels that Enquist is particularly adept at conveying quotidian minutiae. “She is very good at describing the drama of the finer details. She doesn’t write about philosophical things. She writes about the mundane, in her poetry too. She writes about family settings, and suchlike, and she manages to generate powerful dramas into these situations. And there is a musical aspect to her work, with the intonation and color she gives her writing.”