In Conversation with Manon Uphoff and Rosemarie Buikema
To try the accepted forms, to discard the unfit, to create others which are more fitting, is a task that must be accomplished before there is freedom or achievement.
(Virginia Woolf, Books and Portraits (1977:30)
If anything becomes clear in Falling Is Like Flying (Pushkin Press 2021) , it is the fact that the horror that took place behind the closed doors of the crowded home of “yours truly” (MM) was entirely sanctioned and supported by the icons and symbols of post-war Dutch society. To this very day, the familiar images and scenarios of a safe and well-ordered post-war world continue to dominate—so much so that many a counternarrative threatens to be completely overshadowed. Those experiences and events that fall outside the set frames of meaning are inevitably obscured, falling beyond the realm of expression. It is widely acknowledged that it is the ability to recognise and express oneself through the arsenal of words and images that surround us, that makes us human. However, at the same time, perhaps the most quintessentially human experience is the fact that what truly moves us forever evades language. This is the condition humaine that, to a certain extent, we all experience. Language produces a silence, says Wytske Versteeg, explaining her struggle with the unspeakable in her non-fictional quest Verdwijnpunt (Vanishing Point). Yet this is a silence that evades recognition as such, stealthily disrupting the functioning of the social machine instead.
However, no two silences are the same—something that becomes only too painfully clear in Falling Is Like Flying. Precisely for this reason Manon Uphoff’s thoroughly stylised magnum opus also functions as a political statement, if not a feminist manifesto. The Jesus figurines, the Christmas trees, the art books, the paintings, the deep-blue Parker fountain pen, the Success planner, the silver-grey dust cover on the typewriter, the hoover that drags the mother through the house “like an armadillo on a leash”, the busily talking and smoking half-sisters in the back room, the baby in the playpen, the toddler in a high chair—they are the widely recognised paraphernalia of an orderly and recognisable world in which white-collar masculinity rules. Indoors, the exemplary “she” sulks, smokes, and polishes whilst looking after her offspring; outdoors, the exemplary “he” is busy doing important things. Both inside and outside, this standard man makes the law, restores order, and reaps prestige and authority.
In the history of “yours truly”, the position of this apparently amiable and respectable post-war standard man is occupied by her father, Henri Elias Henrikus Holbein (HEHH). House Holbein is the place to which “Henri Elias Henrikus Holbein betook himself at the end of each day from the outside world, fog and rain still clinging to his coat”, whereupon he is welcomed by his wife and children “in a state of enthralled anticipation”. Within the walls of house Holbein, HEHH imagines himself lord and master over the thoughts and actions of his wife and daughters, undisturbed and with impunity, precisely and specifically because the words and images that normalise his behaviour are there for the taking. For example, one of the most striking features of the house of this post-war composite family is the abundant presence of oil paintings made by HEHH, most of them copies of great masters adorned by naked women, alternately bearing the heads of the mother or daughters Holbein. According to “yours truly”, MM, no one considered it odd to grow up amongst walls papered with sumptuous nudity. After all, HEHH “was a man of the era of mastery and belief in the free state known as genius”.
Uphoff shows how the post-war myth of the Holbein house as a safe and proper haven is upheld by a historically embedded network of institutions, narratives, and ideologies. Meanwhile, she simultaneously enters a shadowy realm filled with grotesque images that starts to impose itself on MM at the turn of the century as the result of the death of her then 70-year-old half-sister. Sister Henne is a daughter from mother Alida’s first marriage. Her sudden death from an unfortunate fall down the stairs stirs in MM an unstoppable explosion of memories of their shared fate as Holbein daughters. Precisely because Henne managed to erase herself from the family history by starving herself, by becoming invisible, by dying, something bursts from the seams of MM’s memory. Falling is like flying. Descending is like ascending. “Planets are not born, they burst violently into being.”
Like their other sisters, Henne and MM have been scarred and shaped by the nocturnal visits of HEHH in his inimitable guise as the Minotaur. Under the cover of darkness, the artful, well-groomed father of the house, HEHH, miraculously transforms into the bull-headed man. By day, he restores order, brings to life the world of knowledge and culture for the girls, and does all those things that are desired of a father. By night, HEHH embodies the otherworldly symbol of lust. As unreconcilable as these two different manifestations of white-collar masculinity and citizenship may seem, both are linked to the same lived reality. Both manifestations are equally true. This must be seen, said, and known. This is why MM considers herself inescapably faced with the task of transforming her sister and fellow sufferer’s fall into a free flight. Descent must be transformed into ascent.
What follows is a courageous journey through the labyrinthine house Holbein. “Reader, I did not want to tell this story”, reads the novel’s opening line. Precisely why it would have been preferable for this story not to be told, has already been made clear a page earlier from the Faustian motto: “We must grasp things in the highest sense; And let what may come, come, with confidence. You’ve shown the highest courage once before. So now too what is fearful, we must try it: World, and posterity, will stubbornly deny it: So pen it faithfully in your report.”
The Personal Is Political
It is no secret that the subject matter that is being worked towards its proper form in Falling Is like Flying is closely intertwined with the author’s own autobiographical history. In interviews, Uphoff has alluded to this fact several times, for example in an interview with Thomas de Veen, published in the Dutch newspaper NRC, 21 March 2019:
Yes, it was an enormous struggle to find an imagination for this topic that is powerful enough to transcend the personal, in which there is a richness of language, forms and images. But I thought: if I still want to be something as a writer, I have to accept that quest. Otherwise, there are no appropriate words for my experiences. Otherwise, if there are no appropriate words, it is as if those experiences do not exist. Then there is no language for what I am. (NRC interview with Thomas de Veen, 21 March 2019)
Both in this interview and through the narrator of Falling is like Flying, Uphoff is adamant that, whilst faced with the task of lifting an unspeakable story from the shadow realm of memory, it was not necessarily a unique or exclusively personal quest. Her goal has always been to lift the experience of sexual abuse beyond the personal, precisely through that quest for adequate images and language forms. By travelling to the dark side of the moon and extracting knowledge from that darkness, she contributes forms and images to the limited archive that is available to us—an archive that reveals sexual abuse to be an experience that cannot be communicated and that plunges its victims into a pit from which they can seldom escape. Victims are and remain forever humiliated and dishonoured. Uphoff’s individual search for language, image, and form breaks open this narrative and makes new links possible between the visible and the invisible, the spoken and the unspeakable. Yet this is not merely a personal act; it is also profoundly political. It is an intervention into the organisation of collective memory. It is thinking about how the capillaries of a society function in their cohesion. Her research is an attempt to make visible and tangible how damaging it can be to use clearly demarcated oppositions (us-they, guilt-innocence, perpetrator-victim, etc.) as an organising principle in society. For only when everything is already fixed—white or black, good or bad—is an unbridgeable schism created between the imaginable and the unimaginable.
In Uphoff’s work, however, it is never a question of either-or, but always of and-and. In her essay in De Revisor 33, Maaike Meijer very aptly traces that process by following the stylistic figure of the oxymoron in Uphoff’s earlier work. Falling is Like Flying too, is motivated by the simultaneous truth of opposites. Being shaped by the experience of sexual abuse makes it necessary, if not vital, that light and dark can be rendered present simultaneously. The same Holbein girls who, during the day, are able to cry about a scraped knee, during the night are crushed and pulled apart, compressed into a heavy planet, without making a sound. The next morning, they happily sing Hosanna with kindergarten teacher Van Veen, cut out colourful paper flowers, and pin cardboard donkeys onto a felt mat. This is one and the same child’s life. Whilst something is unquestionably destroyed in the existence of this toddler, something else, equally undeniably, bursts into bloom. It is precisely this process of simultaneous destruction and construction, annihilation and creation, that is worked through so brilliantly in Falling Is Like Flying.
The most impressive and groundbreaking aspect of that search for forms that are able to make visible this paradoxical process of a simultaneous winning and losing, is the hitherto underexposed relationship between Uphoff’s literary and visual work. In 2016, three years before the publication of Falling Is Like Flying, Uphoff made an installation entitled Room with Minotaur as part of the exhibition What Remains at museum CODA in Apeldoorn. I watched a recording of that installation after reading the novel and was severely struck by the way in which Uphoff follows the same logic of the oxymoron in her words and images. It is fabulous to witness how, in her work, she manages not only to articulate, but also to visualise the simultaneous truth of opposites in her work. Moreover, considering the publication dates of both works—first the installation and then the book—it seems that the horrors first had to be materialised in space, made tangible, so that they might subsequently be put into words.
Dissecting and Rearranging
Room with Minotaur comprises a closed, dark room that you can enter. There is a door with a keyhole, and there is a window. The black walls are adorned with Minotaur and Anubis heads painted with white paint. Against that black and white background, an array of multicoloured and grotesque shapes are draped around the room. Thus, an environment is evoked in which grotesque baroque shapes and colours traverse the darkness.
Whilst this may have alienated the spectators of the exhibition at the time, it should seem familiar to the readers of Uphoff’s novel. Indeed, as mentioned above, I observed a striking continuity between the affect produced by reading the novel and that of (virtually) entering the room. Like the residues of a bygone story, art books hang suspended in the room, their pages partly cut to slithers. The mutilated pages protrude from the books’ covers like colourful, circular garlands. Scattered across a black bed, these same compilations of multicoloured baroque and grotesque paper shapes lay splayed. Some of the clippings are draped around plaster props of the Catholic church. The somewhat disconcerting interior is illuminated by two 1950s table lamps, also papered with colourful cuttings of organically intertwining shapes. Here, the images burst from the confinement of their frames uncontrollably. They tumble over each other, falling and flying, like a revolt of that which has been held captive and has been for centuries obscured between the rules of culture. Those who have entered Room with Minotaur have irreversibly witnessed a literally screwed-up history, from which, at the same time, something new, something very beautiful, has sprung. The abused Holbein girl, who as a toddler learned to cut out paper flowers so cheerfully and skilfully, has taken up her scissors once more here as an adult artist—this time to rigorously attack the paraphernalia of a well-ordered middle-class existence.
An Imposing Form
During a conversation, in which we try to figure out how word and form relate to one another in the sublimation of her family history, Uphoff explains how exactly that process of falling and flying took place:
“When my father died, I inherited his paintings and his art books. My first impulse was to burn the whole lot and throw it away, starting from the idea that total destruction was the only option. And in part, that is indeed what I did. However, in the second instance, I came to consider another part of that legacy and used it as material for my work. I painted the backs of the remaining paintings black, cut them into cubes, and inscribed them with the signs of the formula of light. Whilst doing so, I came to experience how all of those cubes could be laid out into endless new relationships of meaning. If you saw XX cubes from the back of one and the same painting, and you paint each one with part of a formula, the number of possible new patterns is almost infinite. From those sawn-up paintings, Room with Minotaur was created. One and the same thing has many possible appearances.”
So, rather than burning the remains of her private hell, Uphoff decided to make the historical material both harmless and productive by taking it apart, rearranging it, and giving it a new shape. The old thing in its new form can subsequently be viewed and discussed by the spectator. The legacy is given a will. In this way, new interpretations of old material can emerge and new possible relationships between cause and effect can be traced.
For me, that process of dissecting and rearranging visually comes to the fore most significantly in the art books that Uphoff transformed into a whirlwind of new images and colours with the aid of a pair of nail clippers:
“Nail clippers are bent. You cannot steer them, the scissors are somehow always ahead of you. In this way, grotesque organic shapes naturally sprouted from the book. Figurations arose that initially also surprised me in their self-evidence, and sometimes I thought: oh look, two little snips here and then it is a flower, two little snips there and then that stamen transforms into an insect. Without any major interventions into the creation of the form, the substance of the lush closely approximated the uncanny. By letting go of thinking and simply following the rhythm of the language of form, the fearful touched the beautiful. Writing, of course, is always a construction, something that never happens by itself. Yet at the same time, writing is not that far removed from a form that imposes itself and that is related to the very workings of life. It is not alien to human beings to be able to deal with grotesque forms and fear-inspiring things, nor is that indeterminacy ever very far removed from us. On the contrary, it is very close. You can see that when you glance at the back of the familiar image.”
When we revisit the text from this perspective, we arrive at a crucial moment in the novel—at what could be called an ekphrasis of Uphoff’s earlier visual work. Precisely halfway through her literary tour de force, the reader is admitted, albeit reluctantly, into the room with Minotaur:
“And here am I, crawling to towards the spot that to this day exudes its fear-musk of yellow orchid, passion flower, and dung, trying to catch sight of what I was there: the final doll in the matryoshka, its slanted eyes painted on like comma’s. The doll you cannot open.”
Now, by re-entering the darkness of the room with Minotaur through language, and by guiding us as spectators and witnesses past the intoxicating scent of fear and desire, a new image, a new metaphor, unfolds—that of the last figure in the matryoshka. A peeled-off and relatively unambiguous figure. The only figure in the series that stands on its own. The figure into which you can no longer intrude. The figure in which the endless repetition of the same has come to an end. The figure with its own identity.
What becomes tangible in Room with Minotaur, and what is subsequently articulated through the ekphrasis, is how a repetition of the same can be reversed, how the fall can simultaneously become a flight. The most formative events in a human life often take place at a time when language itself does not yet play a major role. Precisely because the smell of fear is a familiar companion, victims of abuse often seek comfort precisely with those who have wounded them most. In the room with Minotaur, of course, there is the all-consuming god of lust, who during daytime transmits valuable knowledge and culture. However, there are also manifestations of how that history has repeated itself in the family in sometimes intensified forms—for instance, in the partner choices of MM’s older sisters. Sister Toddiewoddie, whose house little MM often visits, falls prey to a known criminal: the later convicted rapist and murderer of the girl Digna van der Roest, a case that gripped half the Netherlands in the 1980s. In 1984, AJMP would receive eighteen years in prison with provision for compulsory treatment. When this man makes his appearance in MM’s history in 1972—straight from Utrecht prison—he not only abuses Toddiewoddie’s daughters, but also MM, who experiences something both familiar and fascinating in her sister’s family: the smell of fear.
Toddiewoddie’s children inescapably befall the same fate, which will continue to repeat itself for as long as the familiar forms have not managed to burst out of their frames. As long as the pages of fairy tales and myths remain neatly contained within the book of culture, it is Toddiewoddie who comes to be seen as bringing this new history of violence upon herself. After all, had she not always been impossible to deal with, and had she not always behaved like a cat on heat? Such will continue to be the structure of the narrative of abuse, for as long as the old forms cannot transform themselves into something new. One is dishonoured and doomed, and there is nothing that can be done about it. “This narrative that, as a victim of abuse, you are lost to the world, doomed to forever spin around in your own circles, that is the most damaging thing of all”, says Uphoff, “that is almost more damaging than the abuse itself”.
Uphoff has managed to single-handedly work through that tough narrative, to rework it, and to provide it with an alternative. This testifies to an epic and authentic imagination, as well an almost unimaginable power of thought, in which the personal has inevitably become political. This is especially true at a moment in time when the age of genius has given way to the age of #MeToo. Hence, it is a mystery to me why, until now, Uphoff has been denied any major literary prizes—an omission, however, that can still be rectified.
Even the cover of the Dutch edition of the book testifies to the fact that any movement can be steered in a different direction. On the dark cover, we see a swirling, self-repeating, circle-like shape that fans upwards. It is a drawing that Uphoff made with a Bic pen and projected into a negative, transforming the dark ink into light, giving rise to explosive circular shapes that light up in the dark. Those luminous, self-repeating lines—which, in that very repetition simultaneously and rhythmically renew themselves—prelude a novel brimming with swirling language, from which the reader cannot help but emerge transformed. Falling is like flying. Darkness can sparkle like light.