Student - November 4, 2009

Taking stock

Arnon Grunberg was the writer-in-residence at Wageningen University from early September to mid-October. For Resource, he looks back at and compares the guest writer roles which he has held in different universities throughout the years. 'The number of students (in Wageningen) was low compared to Budapest, Delft and Leiden, but I don't take that personally.

 Being writer-in-residence is remarkable. This is a writer and for a period of several weeks, he lectures in a university, even though he is not qualified for the job; my university experience has taught me, however, that qualifications aren't sacred either.
A friend made a fitting remark recently that as far as certificates are concerned, I have just about a primary school certifcate to show. Well, at about the time I left the primary school, I did also obtain my cycling diplomas (and swimming diplomas A and B were already in my hands) and years later, I obtained a property broker's certificate in New York (see my short stories Amuse-Gueule), but I shouldn't flirt with my incompetence any further. 
But now - five guest writer residencies richer - the time is right for me to look back and take stock of my experiences.
My very first guest writer residency was at the City College in London, in the autumn of 1997. In the NRC Handelsblad (the article was later included in Grunberg rond de wereld), I wrote: 'No-one should expect too much from my appointment. A letter from the professor read: "Take everything in your stride and join the discussions. I hope that you will like this perspective." '
In retrospect, the perspective was somewhat more pleasant than the confrontation.
My class was small, with nine students and the professor. In the second story dedicated to my guest writer residency at the City College, I wrote: ' "Let us carry on," says the professor. "Perhaps it's a good idea to include the writer in the discussion now." '
It could be called a little miracle that my experiences in London had not put me off from being writer-in-residence for the rest of my life.
To complete the picture, I should mention that all my students in London study Dutch and a few of them are in fact Dutch.
One of the students had discreetly accused me of being a woman hater during a presentation of my work. But I did what the professor prescribed: took it all in my stride.
After London, there was nothing for a long time until the autumn of 2004 when I was the writer-in-residence at the ELTE university in Budapest. There too, all my students studied Dutch, but not everyone majored in it. Although Dutch was the language of instruction, not every student had a good command of the language, making it necessary for us to divert to German and English sometimes.
During a discussion about esthetics, I asked the students if they could perhaps give an example of bad taste. One of them raised her finger and said 'Homosexuality', without any tinge of irony.
Later, this student sent me a mail, from which I quote: 'Dear Arnon, perhaps you can still remember me. I am Gabriella, the girl who, during your lectures at the ELTE and Károli University, made comments considered by you to be provocative, while I had completely no intention of doing so. (...) Do you know a certain Harry Tel Balk? It seems that he is a Dutch poet but honestly, I haven't heard of him before. A friend of mine asked me for materials or translations of his work but I don't have a clue where to find these, as I can't find anything about him on the internet.'
I went out to eat with this student during my stay in Budapest. What happened to her and the poet 'Harry Tel Balk', whose name is actually H.H. ter Balkt, I cannot remember, alas.  
In the spring of 2005, I began as the writer-in-residence at the Delft University of Technology, and here began the accounts of more serious guest writer residencies.
I had chosen as the theme of my stay in Delft: 'the technique of suffering'.
The rector of TU Delft was a little taken aback. But in a telephone conversation several months before the residency, I explained to him that I had no intentions to torture students or to carry out other irresponsible psychological experiments on them. He felt assured.
Since too many students had signed up and we did not want to disappoint anyone, we divided them into two groups. One group had to build a machine which experienced sufferings itself; the other group had to build a machine which made the user suffer but tempting enough that it would be used. (See too De techniek van het lijden.) The climax of this guest writer residency was an excursion to Neurenberg, during which we, among other activities, examined the architecture of Speer. The disadvantage of such an excursion is that the guest writer comes down to the level of the students, thus losing the last remnants of respect that they have for him..
This account should not go without mentioning that the rector kept on calling me Arnold at formal occasions, and once, he stated that I knew next-to-nothing about science. I have forgiven him for all these, but I'll plaque him about them his entire life. Don't get me wrong; we've become friends in the meantime.
It has to be mentioned too that it was at a party organized by my Delft students to thank me for my efforts that I met the woman with whom I would develop a relationship.
In the autumn of 2008, I started my writer-in-residency in Leiden. I was into truth and war literature, especially prison camp literature. (See also Het verraad van de tekst.) Compared to Delft, the students were very courteous; no such thing as first name basis, while 'Mr. Grunberg, may I go to the toilet?' was the order of the day.
Most of my students studied Dutch or literary sciences. To my surprise, the average literary sciences student posed more thought-provoking questions than the average student of Dutch. One of the students sent me a mail with the request to be the guru of a small group of students. I turned that down; you mustn't be over zealous in the heat of your writer-in-residency.
And this autumn was Wageningen's turn. My suggestion to focus on masculinity was turned down by the university, which brought us to my second choice: manipulation.
The number of students was small, compared to Budapest, Delft and Leiden, but I don't take that personally.
Gone was the courtesy tending-towards-submissiveness of Leiden, but luck had it that I wasn't confronted again with the brutality of Delft either, which, I have to admit, was somewhat of my own doing. You shouldn't be eating bratworst and drinking beer with your students in Neurenberg.
I was quite sure that many students, unlike those in Delft and in Leiden, had not turned up for my work or for me, but for the subject matter.
What also struck me was the earnestness, an earnest involvement. It does make a difference, I think, whether you read a text with Dutch language experts to-be or with future biologists and animal scientists; the frame of reference is just different.
My guest writer residency in Wageningen was my most ambitious so far, as the reading materials testified: from Machiavelli to Hitler and Elsschot to Houellebecq. I will never forget that a student indignantly announced that she almost threw up during the reading of Sade.
I found that very promising and touching at the same time.
My guest writer residency in Wageningen has also taught me, more than those in Delft and Leiden have, that quiet students are not always less good students.
My lectures had all taken place in an isolated corner of the university where no other students seemed to come by; that did make me feel like a sect leader sometimes. /Arnon Grunberg