Interview with Bart van Es

The Oxford professor and Costa Book of the Year award-winner on bringing a Holocaust survivor’s story into the present through ‘documentary novelisation’

February 28, 2019
Bart van Es and Lien de Jong

Bart van Es is professor of English literature at the University of Oxford. He recently won the Costa Book of the Year award for The Cut Out Girl, which tells the story of Lien de Jong. As a young Jewish girl during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, her parents put her into the care of Professor van Es’ grandparents to save her. Many years later, a rift emerged and his grandmother cut off all contact with Ms de Jong. The book interweaves Ms de Jong’s story with that of Professor van Es’ travels through the Netherlands researching what happened to her, and with his reflections on how the nation’s past is felt in its present.

When and where were you born?
In 1972 in Ede, the Netherlands [and then left the country aged three].

How has this shaped who you are?
In a good way, it has always made me a little bit of an outsider in every country I have lived in. We lived in Norway, we lived in Dubai, we lived in Indonesia and we went back to the Netherlands every summer and didn’t come to live in the UK until 1986. So I think that “between nations” position is something I exploit in The Cut Out Girl. There’s that sense of looking at the Netherlands as somebody who is a little bit of a naive observer.

What made you decide to contact Lien de Jong?
I was doing a series of academic articles on children who were [forced] to perform on the Elizabethan stage. That meant I was thinking about issues of child safety. At the same time I was very conscious, in family terms, that my eldest uncle had died and that if I didn’t record what I knew to be a family story at this point, it would disappear. Finally, there was a larger political sense that a lot of the certainties that the West had after 1945 were being challenged: the rise of far right parties, simplistic post-truth politics, antisemitism more conspicuous in British society. Those things made this story feel more relevant than it might have done 15 years earlier.

Why did you choose to tell the story in this particular way?
I met Lien and she was immediately very emphatic that we should do this [write the book], which was a wonderful challenge. I managed to find a month in January 2015 to interview her intensely and visit all the places [where] she had lived in hiding and conduct the beginnings of my archival research. I came away with this incredibly intense sense of almost having lived a book. I had immersed myself in the experience of first a little girl, then a young woman and now finally an old lady, and had her whole life in front of me. But at the same time I had this very current experience visiting houses where there were now predominantly immigrant communities; suddenly coming upon a whole buried history in the one Dutch village that I knew well, [that] of my grandmother, where it turned out there was a vast programme of hiding and saving Jews. Simultaneously, that sense of hard-right politics. Plus, the fact I was also suddenly forced to reflect on my own family, my relationship with my children. I was buzzing with that set of experiences. I knew what I fundamentally wanted to do in the book was reflect that experience.

What did you learn about the way Dutch people responded to the Nazi occupation?
I hadn’t really been aware of the fact that survival rates [for Jews] in the Netherlands were twice as bad as those anywhere else in western Europe. I hadn’t known that the Netherlands, uniquely, set up a bounty system, hunting down Jews for money. The extent of national collaboration came as a shock to me. One of the reasons why the level of resistance in the Netherlands was weak was because the society was quite tolerant, but it was 'pillarised' – people didn’t really mix with each other. There wasn’t deep integration, which meant it was relatively easy to create that culture of otherness around the Jews, which was done with devilish precision and cleverness. It felt relevant to the present, where I think there’s a danger, through the internet, of people speaking only to their own communities and of any sense of national moral consensus being threatened.

How has your family responded to the book?
[The public reception] has been universally positive, which has been really great. My parents had been very concerned that this would end up exposing my grandparents to criticism, that it would make the family look bad. I think it’s done the opposite. At its heart, it’s a story of intense bravery on their part. Definitely during the writing of it there were moments where the van Es family was cross about the idea of the book. I felt quite an intense sense of responsibility for that. There were anxieties around the level of autobiography I was bringing to the work, because it did include elements of me talking my own experience as a father. But that anxiety has proved unfounded, I’m glad to say.

What are your plans for your next book?
The book I am most actively working on is a Shakespeare book that is really about the life of [actor] Robert Armin, who was the first fool in King Lear. I want to use some of the techniques of The Cut Out Girl, sort of documentary novelisation combined with an academic voice, to do that. [This technique] is interested in the literariness of literature, the involvedness – inevitably – of any investigator of literature…a tendency to put yourself into the picture, which used to be an undoable thing in academic writing.

Can a book like that still be received as scholarly?
Yes, I think it can, particularly in English, where I think creative writing is part of what the discipline should be about. The book I am working on will be fundamentally rooted in research, just as The Cut Out Girl is, but it’s got to be able to reach a wider audience than the increasingly tiny audiences that a lot of academic monographs are getting.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Martha Whitehead has been named university librarian at Harvard University, overseeing the largest academic library in the world. Ms Whitehead has been librarian at Queen’s University in Ontario since 2011 and vice-provost since 2014. At Harvard, she will oversee 25 separate libraries containing 20 million volumes, 400 million manuscripts and 10 million photographs. Alan Garber, Harvard’s provost, said he was “delighted” that Ms Whitehead would be running what he called “one of Harvard’s greatest jewels”. “Martha recognises that it is a uniquely valuable resource to our students, researchers, other members of the Harvard community, and to the world,” said Professor Garber, adding that she was “singularly qualified to take this institution to the next level”.

Nick Zwar has been appointed Bond University’s new executive dean (health sciences and medicine). Professor Zwar, who has previously served as dean of medicine at the University of Wollongong and deputy dean (education) at the University of New South Wales, will lead the Queensland institution’s research and education activities in medicine, health and sports science. He has continued to work part-time as a family doctor during his academic career. Tim Brailsford, Bond’s vice-chancellor, said that Professor Zwar was “a particularly good fit for Bond given his background in general practice, synergies with our research strengths and his experience and focus on education”.

Jon Timmis has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor (commercial) at the University of Sunderland, where he will have responsibility for recruitment, marketing and communications, knowledge transfer and exchange, and international activity.

Martin Gillie, former professor of civil engineering at the University of Warwick, is to be provost and chief academic officer at the New Model in Technology & Engineering, which will take its first students in Hereford in September.

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