The Books Interview: Cees Nooteboom

Your latest novel, The Foxes Come At Night, is preoccupied with memory, death and loss. What inspired you to write about these themes?
It must have to do with age. So many people die around you, when you're almost 78. Death belongs to life's experiences. It's not so much a book about mourning; it's about how to deal, in writing, with death. You're confronted with loss and it's really like this.

People start dying, people who are much younger than you. In the last 20 years of your life, you lose a lot of friends and colleagues. It would be strange if you didn't set your mind to trying to somehow account for that. I hope that it has not become, in that sense, a sad book. It's more about learning to live with certain facts. For me, that has always been the function of writing.

Was writing it cathartic?
I do feel clearer now. There is a mystery about death, with people no long being there. Writing is about questions, rather than answers. To formulate the questions is, in my fiction, important.

Do you find writing fiction easy?
No, I never find it easy - alas. Once I am writing, I think it is very pleasurable, but there has to be an enormous tension.

How do you think your work has evolved since you wrote your first novel at the age of 22?
I am sometimes surprised when I look at that very first book. You are often forced to look at it, after so many years, when it is translated into another language. You are sometimes surprised. I am not talking about quality, but you sometimes think: "Where did I get that from?"

So, how does it feel having your work translated from the Dutch? Does it still feel wholly your own?
I must say, yes. I am extremely lucky with my translators. We foreigners all think that we speak English, but it is not always English English. I could never write in English. I can't write in German, either. I can write letters in those languages, but not a book. Never, not with the kind of thing I want from style. The great thing about good translation is when they get your rhythm. To me, language is very important. In a certain way, a small country is like a prison - you will never get outside unless you are translated.

Between 1963 and 1980, you wrote no fiction at all. What was that like?
Terrible, terrible. I saw my friends producing one huge novel after another. I started early and said more or less everything I knew. Then the book is published and your name is on it, and suddenly you're a writer and people expect another book.Being very young, I went to South America working as a sailor, because I had fallen in love with somebody and I wanted to go there. That was another experience - but the problem was: what do you want to write about?

Do you find travel writing satisfying?
I love movement. I am a curious person, going here, there and everywhere. I find it satisfying.

Which do you like best - poetry, travel writing or fiction?
Poetry above all. I reckon that poetry is in everything I do, although it's not in the form of poems, always.

Do you see yourself as part of the Dutch literary establishment?
Yes, I suppose I am.

Do you want to be?
Not really. You get your important prizes. They came late for me. All of my friends had them a lot earlier. And then you start getting prizes from abroad. I got the Austrian State Prize for Literature, and only then was I given major Dutch prizes. This is how things work.

Is being mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate a blessing or a curse?
Ultimately, neither. People don't often ask me this question in England, but southern Europe is extremely interested in it, and so you end up with titles such as "the eternal candidate". But there is only one prize, once a year.

Interview by Duncan Robinson
Cees Nooteboom's "The Foxes Come At Night" is published by MacLehose Press (£12). He will take part in the World Literature Weekend in London on 17 June. For further details and tickets, go to: lrbshop.co.uk/wlw2011