In memory of the Dutch writer Michaël Zeeman, by Steve Austen and Dragan Klaic

5 August 2009

Michaël Zeeman, Dutch journalist, writer and literary critic, died on 27 July 2009 in Rotterdam aged 50. Dragan Klaic, theater scholar and cultural analyst, and Steve Austen, permanent fellow of the Felix Meritis Foundation, cultural entrepreneur, consultant, publicist and active member of the initiative “A Soul for Europe”, share their thoughts. Michaël Zeeman: an avid reader, a vehement critic by Dragan Klaic As a cultural and literary critic, Michaël Zeeman, who died of brain tumor on July 27, aged 50, was more well known than well liked in the Dutch cultural circles, but such is the fate of critics: creation of enemies is their professional hazard. He was a very tall Dutchman, of intimidating posture and well projected voice. In his writing, he was also often intimidating and ruthless. As many Dutch public figures of strong conviction, Zeeman was also a son of a Calvinist pastor who moved his family often from one village parish to another, making Michaël detached from boyhood friends and more attached to books. He lost his faith early and when he dared to question it, his father made him leave home. As a 17 years old, he started working in Leeuwarden in a bookstore, his natural habitat, where he began to amass a personal library of over 20,000 books, later subject of a long court suit of the bookshop owner who accused him of theft. He started writing poems and book reviews, worked for the Rotterdam Cultural Foundation under the legendary Paul Noorman, then became the editor of the cultural pages of the leading Dutch daily de Volkskrant in 1991, later editor of its Friday book section ”Cicero”. He was an erudite and voracious reader who wrote often about Central and Eastern European letters and helped establish its prominent authors, classics such as Bruno Schultz and Sándor Márai, and contemporaries as Győrgy Konrad and Aleksandar Tišma, in the Dutch book market. For several years he had his television program on books at the Dutch VPRO network. Since 2002 he lived as a free-lance correspondent and cultural commentator in Rome, contributing each week to de Volkskrant a book review, a column and often additional articles. He was also publishing in the German and French press. By coincidence, my whole immersion in the Dutch culture and language in the last 18 years is much linked from the very beginning to Michaël Zeeman because he was the member of a small search committee, led again by Paul Noorman, that had the audacity to get me from Belgrade in 1991 to take over the Dutch Theater Institute in Amsterdam. I learned a great deal from Michaël in my cultural integration, both from our talks and his articles, which I read regularly and with relish, but with dictionary at hand. Over the years I got often irritated by de Volkskrant, even considered cancelling my subscription but did not want to miss Michaël's writing. When we would meet, I'd pull out the last juicy phrase from his recent articles for further exegesis. He introduced me to Multatuli, the maverick critic of Dutch colonialism, by giving me a Pinguin edition of Max Havelaar in English and surprised me with the travelogue of Edmondo de Amicis through the Netherlands at the end of 19th century, not knowing that De Amicis' Il Cuore was one of the key books of my childhood. Our first shared trip was just days after I moved to Amsterdam in December 1991, to Romania, an expedition of the informal cultural network Gulliver, set up by Steve Austen. I described this bizarre journey in more detail in my exilic memoir, how we moved in a freezing winter with the composer Peter Schat, playwright Heiner Mueller, historian Karl Schloegel and others, among the glaciers of the Romanian cultural landscape, left over by Ceausescu, chaperoned by Securitate veterans, now in service of the new regime. Other Gulliver adventures we shared in Istanbul and Paris and later also in Berlin, Belgrade, Vilnius and Skopje, sometimes under the auspices of Soul for Europe cultural initiative, thanks to Steve Austen's stubborn cultural mapping and connecting strategies. Even after Michaël moved to Rome, he was several times a month in the Netherlands as a much demanded moderator of public debates. I got used to bumping into him at Schiphol and other airports. Despite his frequent travels across Europe, he kept inserting himself in the Dutch debates and fought vehemently the anti-European sentiments and provincial self-pity about the supposedly endangered Dutch identity that have been plaguing the public life in the country in the last 7-8 years. As a polyglot, Michaël held the Dutch language in high esteem and handled it with much respect. As a cosmopolitan, he took it for his duty to point out with pride the peculiarities and specific values of the Dutch culture and letters to his fellow Europeans. As a public intellectual, he was a vehement critic of cultural nationalism, Dutch or any other. As a convinced European, he followed the twists and hiccups of the European integration process and its cultural aspects with much critical scrutiny and sarcasm. Inevitably, Dutch cultural life will become much more dry without Michaël Zeeman. Michaël Zeeman, literary critic, poet and columnist, born 12 September 1958, died 27 July 2009 in Rotterdam. In memoriam Michaël Zeeman by Steve Austen, Amsterdam, 29 July 2009 Michael Zeeman passed away at the age of 50 in Rotterdam on Monday 27 July. Michael Zeeman, who has been a member of the permanent cast of A Soul for Europe for several years, will no longer be able to see the results of the successful rejuvenation process that this pan-European civil initiative has undergone. Right from the start, he closely followed this process, which has taken less than two years, with great enthusiasm and interest. As a representative of the in-between generation, he felt completely at home in the conferences, forums, brains trusts and closed consultations in which it was not uncommon for major writers, intellectuals and well-known politicians in their seventies to engage in discussion with young cultural types in their early twenties and everything in between. It soon became clear that Michael had an insatiable hunger for meetings of this kind, especially when he was given a free rein to chair the debates. His first appearance for ASfE was at Forum Belgrado in 2007. It was to a certain extent a reunion of old friends. It was not just the first of a growing number of similar meetings, all modeled on Forum Belgrado; it was in a certain sense a follow-up to earlier activities that Felix Meritis had been organising all over Europe under the name Gulliver since 1987. It was thus hardly surprising that Michael, who had been involved in Gulliver from the first, clearly enjoyed seeing so many old and new friends again – not just Nele Hertling, who with the present writer launched Gulliver (based on an idea and with the full cooperation of Günter Grass), but also the Amsterdam ‘partners in crime’ Linda Bouws and Joanneke Lootsma from Felix Meritis, the international centre which had been his second home for years. Others, especially the younger generation, such as Levan Kethaguri, director of the Caucasus Foundation in Tbilisi, had already met Michael in connection with the Gulliver Connect placement and training programme for young cultural professionals. As a result of these and similar contacts, Michael knew the centre of Tbilisi like the back of his hand. The same is true of St Petersburg, Budapest, Istanbul and Bucharest, to mention just a few of the cities to which the Gulliver caravan travelled. From 2001 on this touring circus more or less tread water in Amsterdam. You can imagine with what enthusiasm old and young members of Gulliver reacted when Richard von Weizsäcker, Volker Hassemer and Nele Hertling launched their ideas for a new European platform during the Berlin Conference in 2004. The idea of regarding the European unification process first and foremost as a cultural process was so successful that A Soul for Europe was born on the spot. It was very encouraging for me to observe that the critical and versatile talent Michael Zeeman immediately grasped its significance. That sums up in a sentence what Michael has meant, at least to me. I came to know him as the personification of the archangel whose name he bore. I realised intuitively that a person who fulfils such an important role between the higher and the mundane regions should not be bothered with insignificant trivialities On the other hand, you can rest assured that he was always there when necessary. For someone like me with a Catholic upbringing, his physical appearance was completely what one would expect. Granted, the archangel in my Catholic children’s bible had big feathery wings, but I understood that Michael could not take those everywhere with him. As long as he did what was expected of him it did not really bother me. Looking back, it has to be acknowledged that his view of his task was beyond reproach. The archangel Michael performs a sacred role in every monotheistic religion; for Muslims, Jews and Christians, he is the one who weighs souls in the balance, combats chaos, and conquers the forces of evil. Regrettably, there are not so many archangels and, as we are now forced to admit, they are less immortal than we supposed. His passing will not fail to leave its mark. I would not be surprised if, after the funeral on Saturday, a woodland giant of the forest crashes inexorably to the ground somewhere in Europe. The moaning and rustling sound of the young branches in its crown will be heard as far away as Rustavelli Boulevard in Tbilisi. In the heart of Europe, in the triangle between Berlin, Amsterdam and Rome, the trunk wrenched violently from the ground will leave a big hole behind. Fortunately, the Soul is alive and kicking. Michael was there in Lyon when, after an intensive foundation meeting, the young dogs of ASfE meeting for the first time in the Strategy Group invited him to join them. He declined the offer. After all, the culture of meetings and implementing plans was not his metier. It was best to leave him up to his own thing. That was a wise decision. He wished everyone success and hoped to be able to participate often in the months and years ahead. But now he really had to leave to catch his plane. So off he went and he saw that it was good…