Make it beautiful is the title of his new novel, but actually it was a book Thomas Verbogt (69) had been carrying around inside for many years. Now that it has finally been written, he feels lighter.
How can you be of essential importance to another person? And what do you have to do to be a good person? Around these questions circles Make it beautiful, the sensitive new book by Thomas Verbogt. A rich novel about time and memories, truth and reality, about connection, loss and farewell, about shame and guilt. The main character is Thomas, a writer in his late sixties, who reflects on the city where he grew up - Nijmegen - and the important moments and people in his life.
There is Jana, the girl with whom he exchanges a look as a child on the day of his communion party that makes him feel like he is being born again. And there is Nienke, a young woman with whom Thomas has a short-lived relationship and who, oddly enough, later turns out to be Jana's sister. Although he promises Jana to keep looking after Nienke, one day she ends her life.
Growing older together
Make it beautiful was a novel that in a way he had carried with him for a long time, says Verbogt, living in Nijmegen since his childhood. 'To my mind, this book already started in that magical park close to our house, the Kronenburgerpark, where I learned to walk. That may be a romantic notion, but I still think it is. This book has grown older with me, and fuller and fuller.
When I cleaned out my study during the lockdown and came across a lot from the past, including old notes and notebooks, I felt: now that book and I have to separate, it has to take on a life of its own, and I'm going to give it that life now. But that doesn't mean it was easy to get it down on paper.'
What made it difficult?
'The story touched me often and deeply. When I finished it, I was really gutted. In the figurative sense, i.e. emotionally upset, but also literally, because I had detached myself from this story. The focal point of the novel was the scene where the protagonist Thomas visits the mental institution where Nienke is staying and he discovers that she took her own life the previous day. A summary of everything that has failed me in life; of everything I had wanted to take responsibility for, yet did not take full responsibility for.
In previous novels - and in this one for the last time - I have written about guilt and shame, feelings I have because I became deathly ill when I was 3. I was in hospital with meningitis and people were afraid I would die. I had a vague sense that I had become a source of worry, sadness and disappointment for my parents, who had been so happy with me up to that point. Although, of course, in later life I understood quite well that I could not do anything about it and therefore was not to blame, that guilt did become deeply embedded in my emotional system.
At the same time, that time spent in hospital by myself, shielded from everyone, also brought something good. Because it made me fantasise: I am not here, I am playing at home. I imagined it so intensely that I simply forgot I was sick in that incubator. When I came home after months and had to learn to walk again because I had been temporarily paralysed, I couldn't stop making up a reality alongside the daily reality in which I had to function.'
Was that the source of your writing?
'I know that for sure. In that fabricated reality, I was in charge myself. At times when something went wrong in my life and I became immersed in dark thoughts, writing always helped me. I still do, for instance in the periods when I have lots of nightmares and wake up dimly, grimly resisting the new day. Then it is always a blessing that I have to write a column every morning, a light-hearted piece about my wonderment at everyday life. In the life I conceive, the darkness disappears.
My book plays with the question of what is true and what is not. Isn't something that is not true but that you believe in very strongly, actually true as well? One of my sisters went to live in Athens 25 years ago. In the letters I wrote her, I told her what I had experienced. Unknowingly, I made up all kinds of things around it. The same happened with the diary I had to keep years ago when I visited a therapist for a while. It happens automatically; what I tell never sticks to the facts. Without my noticing, I make life more intense, intimate and adventurous than it is.'
In your work, not only are reality and truth diffuse, time is also undefined.
'This is how I experience it in ordinary life, but also in writing. When I write about Nienke and Thomas looking at the sea on a windy day in Normandy, I am there myself. And when I meet someone I last saw 30 years ago, I am there again, in that moment. Actually, there is no distinction between past and present. If I remember something that was once important, that importance presents itself again. So memories actually become current events again.'
Or as you write: nothing ever really ends.
'Yes, that's how it is. That is comforting when it comes to loved ones who have died. I regularly hear my late writer friend Frans Kusters or my parents. They are just still there, even though they are no longer physically present. The child in me is never gone either; I am an old man and a boy at the same time. When I write about myself as a 19-year-old, all those days I am 19 again for a moment. That is a great boon of this work, of the life I have chosen. Writing allows me to give myself a timeless life.'
Making life beautiful
Make it beautiful: do you feel that is your mission?
'Yes, by what I write, I have to make life beautiful. The title is taken from a poem by Palestinian poet Hala Alyan, which I read a few years ago in The New Yorker. The content boils down to everything perishing - so make it beautiful. I do that in my novels, by writing lightly, even about serious matters. And I do that in my columns, by writing about small everyday things and making them beautiful, while in the rest of the newspaper, life with all its horrors, war, poverty and natural disasters is upon people. Beauty is comforting and safe. Of course, that too passes; the book is out, the film or CD is over, you walk out of the museum. But you have experienced it, something that felt nurturing.'
For yourself, writing is also healing. Do you feel 'relieved' of your guilt?
'Yes, I feel enlightened and stronger. After I When winter is over, How everything had to start and When you see the silence had written, three personal books, there was room for it. With those novels, I was still lingering against that theme, but now it's really gone. I was able to put the right words to it. It has come full circle.
By writing, finding words for what I have felt and experienced, I have come to understand myself better. I don't think much about the purpose or meaning of life, but it does seem important to me that you know what you are doing in your life, what you have yet to do, what you have left behind and what you should not have left behind. You shouldn't live past that. Some time ago, I realised that I was not giving myself the time and space to dwell on events for a long time. Take the death of my mother, six years ago, when she was 92. Only a few years after her death did I start thinking about the life we shared together after my father's death, the conversations we had. That I didn't think about that until so late, I feel bad. Standing still and thinking about what you experience is important to understand what you need to do to be a good person.'
A great and important question.
'Thank you for saying that. Because there are also people who would immediately be cynical about that. For me, this is a book against cynicism, because I find that a lazy way of life. Cynicism is harsh and honourable, and hinders your freedom to be yourself. Much of what matters in life is vulnerable. That's why tenderness is an essential dynamic; we should be softer with each other.'
Does your conceived world provide protection against that harshness?
'Yes, I don't think I could have lived any other way with my hypersensitivity. I feel what is going to happen before it has happened, what people actually mean while saying something else. That's intense. Aggression, shouting - that bothers me and depresses me. Writing is an bulwark against the harshness of the outside world. In my study, I choose the words, the colours and the tone myself. And vice versa, that also makes me stronger when dealing with the outside world'.