Diary note 15: Mata Hari and the Jews

5 January 2018

I have been falling asleep all day over unread newspapers, letters, books, over teacups and spectacles, returning to the stillness of the house now that I am alone. KS has just phoned me from snowy New York, brilliant with its usual yet uncommon sunshine. He told me that he had placed my recent book of Slow Stories on his hotel table as a gage of security.

I now find time to return to my diary.

After two weeks together he had started to deplete my energy with his flow of words, he already being distracted by alternative visions as I was just getting acquainted with his last  subject. Walking the streets with him I seem constantly catching up. I may be deep, he certainly is not slow. He speaks to you as if he speaks to himself, whether in hearing distance or not. I sometimes hear him conversing with me on another floor. On the screen composing a text he wipes out sentences as easily as he writes them. I rather pause and consider. When looking at a rehearsal writing notes for his actors he writes them with sprawling hand on many pages. He is structurally double-tasking. I am a meditator of one point. He may wear people out but is also enchanting. He is time and space consuming creativity in action. Till he collapses or falls asleep in midsentence.

After Christmas we had gone to Leeuwarden to see Mata Hari. I mention her name without intermediate terms like exhibition or museum, as if she were still alive. This was certainly a result of the choice of the museum to make the facts, objects, document of her life speak for themselves. But also resulted from her being a human example. Her life was both a failure and a triumph. The Frisians by presenting mementos of her life made one aware that every individual life is a challenge. She challenges you. Her life by chance could also be yours.

She was born in a well to do family providing comfort and playthings, but failed at school. After her father lost his fortune she moved to Amsterdam on her own to find a new foothold in life. Having seen the announcement of a colonial officer looking for a wife she married him and went East. The marriage was a disaster and so was her divorce. She had to provide for her surviving child. She ran aground in the Netherlands again and tried her chance in Paris. Having expressive dark eyes and a voluptuous body she discovered her mundane value as a variety artist. She exploited her Asian memories. Like Isadora Duncan she expressed herself freely in dancing. She became a European celebrity.

Then the European world in which she flourished collapsed into a suicidal war and nationalism rose. Coming from a neutral country she still moved freely between Paris , Berlin and London. Her cosmopolitan contacts raised suspicions. The French secret service framed her and she was shot as a spy by firing squad before the war ended. The newspapers were jubilant. No information of importance had been passed, but she became the symbol of the untrustworthy woman, like Dreyfus of the untrustworthy Jew. A phase in European civilisation had ended.

Many letters we saw and I was struck by the freedom and ease and self assurance of her bold handwriting. She expressed herself without any withholding, as other singular women of fate in the past have done, launching themselves with complete self-confidence into the world of men. One thinks of Madame de Stael or lady Montague. But also in a way of Oscar Wilde. It is not so much  the stubbornness that strikes one as the naive unwillingness to be common. And  with bad luck  this brings victimhood.

Even without my Frisian roots it would appear surprising that I never had visited Leeuwarden before. The city seemed to me a microcosm of European history on a small and particular scale. One could understand better that the graphic artist M. C. Escher had been born there,  him being  fascinated by the reflections and perspectives of a larger world.

For me a reversal of perspectives was most present in the fate of the Jewish minority. Their imprint on the small city had been considerable. In a city obsessed by its history the signs were manifold. One of the first buildings I noticed as standing out was a self-confident synagogue, now turned into a municipal dance centre. In the thirties, when I was born, there would have lived some 600 Hebrews there. Only 105, I learnt from a memorial, survived the German murder project. The head rabbi died as late as 1945, the year the war ended. The sacred utensils of the synagogue now enhance a place of prayer and study in Israel.