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Bert Schierbeek

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28 June 1918 – 9 June 199

There was a ‘dichterskooi’ (‘poets cage’ or ‘poet’s cage’) at the (in)famous Cobra exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1949. The poets in the cage read their poems to the visitors. These poets were members of the Vijftigers, the Dutch-speaking group of poets affiliated with Cobra. Although Bert Schierbeek was one of the central Vijftigers, he is best known for his prose. Most of his oeuvre consists of prose, which was anything but traditional – Schierbeek himself spoke of ‘proëzie’ (‘proetry’).

Schierbeek was born in 1918 in Glanerbrug, near Enschede. Because his mother died of maternity fever, he grew up with his grandparents in the countryside of the northern province of Groningen. When he was eleven, he moved back in with his father, who had since remarried. His lifelong interest in literature and politics began at his secondary school, the Enschedees Lyceum. In 1941 he moved to Amsterdam, where he wanted to study social geography (against the will of his father, who hoped that the enthusiastic reader would become a minister), but he was never to enrol. For Schierbeek refused to sign the declaration of loyalty: a declaration that all prospective students had to sign, in order to pledge that they would ‘refrain from any action directed against the German Reich […]’. This refusal was Schierbeek’s first act of resistance.

De Vijftigers: V.l.n.r. Gerrit Kouwenaar, Remco Campert, Simon Vinkenoog, Jan G. Elburg, Bert Schierbeek en Hugo Claus

His following acts of resistance included illegal courier campaigns and finding hiding addresses. He thus came into contact with the resistance group CS-6, which, among other things, planned (but never carried out) an attempt on the life of the leader of the Dutch fascists, Anton Mussert. The horrors that Schierbeek encountered inspired him to write his first book: Terreur tegen terreur (Terror against terror, 1945). This was followed by Gebroken horizon (Broken horizon, 1946) fuelled by his abhorrence of the Dutch police actions in Sulawesi. Both novels are seen as atypical for his oeuvre, because they are traditional in form. At most, a few surrealistic features can be noted in Gebroken horizon

Bert Schierbeek(links) en kunstenaar Jan Sierhuis 1974

He broke with this traditional form in 1951, when the book was published with which Schierbeek made a name for himself: Het boek ik (The book I), which is regarded as the first experimental novel in the Netherlands. He abandoned a storyline in favour of wordplay and wild images. This was more or less comparable to what Schierbeek’s fellow Vijftigers were doing in poetry (or Cobra in the visual arts), but Schierbeek chose the novel as a medium for his innovative experiments. His political resistance turned into rebellion against fixed frameworks and forms. The great names in Dutch literature at the time were very much in disagreement about this book. He was heavily criticized by Gerard Reve, who dismissed the book as ‘word crapping’, but he was also praised by W.F. Hermans, who was notoriously stingy with compliments. To give an impression, this is a translation of the first paragraph of Het boek ik:

…, because times had become full and the few gods that remained built their shelters in cellars. the great splitting has begun and the splitsomachic continues in us and for years the beds have been too narrow and broadened to encourage broadening in own heart… great are the dams that raise life and death in us and high and thick… and very many.

 

Several genre- and form-breaking books of ‘proetry’ were to follow. He worked with (former) Cobra painters, such as Karel Appel, who was so full of praise about Schierbeek’s Ezel mijn bewoner (Donkey my resident) that he decided to illustrate the book. In 1972, after the death of his second wife Margreetje van Zutphen, the ‘thoroughbred’ volume of poetry De deur (The door) was published. A few decades after the poet’s cage, Schierbeek seemed to fully embrace his inner poet, and collections of Schierbeek’s poems appeared alongside his experimental prose.

Schierbeek continued to write poetry until his death in 1996. Unlike fellow Vijftigers Lucebert and Kouwenaar, Schierbeek has not turned out to be a writer who is still widely read. Yet his name still comes up regularly, for example with the young poet Radna Fabias (1983). She starts her award-winning debut collection Habitus (2018) with a long quotation from Schierbeek:

I had a dream in which I saw myself again
in the dark, as I often see myself now
in the dark, moving and searching
the warm hands, the concave mirror
in which I was blindly myself
a ball was my house and she surrounded me
made me form, but I did not know that
because I did not see my form
blind you are with your mother, says the policeman

 

Fabias was praised for her ‘subversive voice that takes on origin, destination, body and perspective, while not sparing herself and others. […] This poetry is fleshy, at times divinely filthy – and breaks open Dutch poetry in an unparalleled way, does away with the safe verse.’ Schierbeek – a resistance fighter in various ways – would have been proud.

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