When he has dropped out of high school, lost his first love, watched his father die after a protracted illness, developed an unhealthy fascination with prostitutes and failed in his attempts to start a publishing company — all at the tender age of 21 — what is a young Dutch man to do? In Arnon Grunberg’s case, the answer was to write a novel, “Blue Mondays,” that is based in part on his life and that became a cause célèbre and runaway bestseller in Holland. Mr. Grunberg is now 25 and has been living in New York City for the last two years. His first book is about to be released in America by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, while his second book, about young actors in Amsterdam, is soon to be published in Holland. He has also written a screenplay for “Blue Mondays,” which is being made into a film by a Dutch production company.
“In my novel, I tried to copy the spoken language,” says Mr. Grunberg, who is thin and slight in person, his most impressive feature the mass of curly blond hair fluttering atop his head. “I wanted the book to have the feeling that the reader was like some people I met in a bar that I was telling my story to.”
Like a life story recounted in a bar, Mr. Grunberg’s novel (translated by Arnold and Erica Pomerans) allows itself to be somewhat disjointed. Sections about the narrator’s high school years and his father’s decline are followed by a litany of encounters with bored and sad prostitutes that take place several years later. “There was less and less time between one face and the next,” the narrator writes, “for no matter whose bed I lay in, each of them made me want to fly to the next.” The protagonist of “Blue Mondays” is also named Arnon, although it remains unclear how much of the book is based on memoir and how much is invented.
“The book is not a memoir, although the narrator and I share a lot of things in common,” says Mr. Grunberg. Among the elements that unite them is the fact that Arnon’s parents in the book are German Jews, survivors of the Holocaust. “My father left Berlin in 1934. He hid out in Holland, pretending he was an escaped German soldier. Over the war years, he had 64 different addresses.” Like the mother of the character in the book, Mr. Grunberg’s mother is a survivor of the concentration camps. “I felt allowed to make up a lot of things, but I would have had a hard time making that up,” he says.
In “Blue Mondays,” Arnon’s mother is presented as somewhat dour and histrionic, given to little speeches such as this: “Death is just as boring as life, but I don’t want to die just yet, because I begrudge you both the pleasure.” When Mr. Grunberg’s mother read the novel after it came out, “She was shocked and angry at first. Thought it was the worst I ever could have done to her and the whole family. But now she has accepted it and follows the literature, the articles and book reviews. Now, I have no more fights with my mother. It’s said — it’s over.”
When an interviewer tries to draw out possible connections between the death of Arnon’s father, his mother’s lugubrious outlook and the narrator’s eventual escape into the emotionally barren world of prostitutes and johns, Mr. Grunberg demurs. “There are a lot of answers I could give to that but they all seem cheap. If you try to understand `Why did I do that?’ — I don’t know — it is a lot of circumstance and luck.”
“Circumstance and luck” were the determining factors that led Mr. Grunberg to writing. He had wanted to be an actor, but failed to get accepted in any one of the three important Dutch theater academies. “As part of the audition process for one of the schools, I had to jump up and down. They told me my physical gifts were not enough to be an actor,” he recalls. The first piece he wrote was a monologue to perform. Happenstance later led him into a brief career in publishing, after he was mistaken for a Dutch publisher at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. “A German editor gave me a novel to read, and I loved it, so I bluffed my way into buying the rights. From there, it was very logical what to do from one step to the other.”
Mr. Grunberg founded Kasimir Press, and published five novels, all translations from German or Polish, before his small company went bankrupt. With the end of his press, Mr. Grundberg, desperate for money, found himself subletting an apartment with “about 200 mice. The mice were not afraid anymore.” He only started writing his own novel on a dare, when an established Dutch publisher, Vic Vandereyt, offered to buy a book from him, chapter by chapter. The first printing of the book sold out in a week, and eventually 70,000 copies were distributed in Holland. “I was just hoping for some good reviews. I had no expectations for sales,” Mr. Grunberg recalls. The book’s popularity eventually drove him out of Amsterdam. “People want to talk about your novel,” he explains. “It is nice at first, but eventually you want to go into a bar and be a complete stranger.” He moved to New York, where he lives with his girlfriend, an art therapist who works with schizophrenics.
Mr. Grunberg thinks the popularity of his book in Holland is due to its dissimilarity from most of the novels published there. “A lot of Dutch writers try to write more philosophical novels. I just wanted to write a novel I would love to read. My thing is, if you want to write philosophy, write philosophy, not a novel. Mixing the two is like mixing a strawberry tart with tomato soup.”
In New York, Mr. Grunberg writes a column for a Dutch newspaper. As part of his explorations of the city, he has taken up temporary jobs as a waiter at an Italian restaurant, a chess tutor for an old lady he met at a coffee shop and a real estate broker. “Sitting behind a desk waiting for ideas is the worst thing you can do as a writer,” he says. “Sitting behind a desk, nothing is happening.” He is happy to have defied the odds in Holland, where 80% of high school dropouts remain permanently unemployed. “At the time, I had to break off from the high expectations that my parents and my teachers had for me,” he says, with the poise of someone who has survived a vertiginous drop to the bottom and an equally quick rise.