Do you ever feel that you can talk to your ancestors?
I do. I didn’t think I ever would when I was young. But once your life progresses and you become more aware of life’s fate of family and close friends passing, you begin to think about where they went. They can’t just have gone away when you still feel their presence.
This happens to me with several people who have been instrumental or influential in my life. You still feel their heartbeat, you hear their speech, you know they’re in your room as if listening in, wanting to continue partaking in your life. My grandmother, my mother, Fioen, the girl who gave me my first kiss and died in a dreadful accident when she was 16 years old; and my dear cousin intended co-writer, Anne van der Laan.
It happened again when I dwelled in the library and workroom of my great-uncle Joost, or Joshua van der Poorten Schwartz, alias Maarten Maartens – the once-famous Dutch writer who wrote primarily in English at the turn of the 19th and 20th century – in his splendid house in Doorn, a small town in the Netherlands. I had visited this workroom many times before, always impressed by its serenity and literary wealth, with the many old books in French, English, German and even Latin and Greek, filling the shelves along the walls.
In 2002. I sat at his writing desk and suddenly felt Uncle Joost “speaking” to me. “Pick up your pen and write. Do as I did and feel fulfilled.” To my regret, I did not follow his gentle push right away as I was still fully absorbed by my consulting demands. However, a cousin, who had also been in that room at that time, and felt the same way, agreed with me to outline our first book together, entitling it Some Women We Have Known after the title of our uncle’s first volume of published short stories. Then he passed away before we could finish it and again on my next visit to Maarten Maartens’ desk I felt his strong urge, “John, you go on. Don’t let this fail.”
I started with short stories in English about each woman I had selected for this purpose. Audrey Hepburn, whom I had known when we were kids, she 13 and I 7, was the first. Eventually, these stories became a coming-of-age and early-adult memoir, ending with my marriage, this time keeping the same title as Maarten Maartens’ first short story volume, Some Women I Have Known.
After I climbed that first hurdle – everyone who writes knows that a first book is a hurdle – I wrote my first novel, Enchanting The Swan, about a musician couple whose love goes wrong before it gets right. It’s quite a dramatic tale, starting at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and from there to Brussels, Geneva and New York. Even though it is written in the first person, it is pure fiction, except for the description of the hall of Baron Maconville’s house in Waterloo: as close a description as possible of the antiques in the hall of Uncle Joost’s house. It had to be based on memory: when I went back to the house to verify my memory, all the antiques had disappeared (harnasses, musquet rifles fixed to the ceiling in a perfect circle, little canons, and other collections from North Africa where the Maartens traveled – see the picture below in Th. M. Gorissen’s book Maarten Maartens, 1992). For some sad reason and madness, they had been removed. Nobody could tell me how that happened and where they went, but it had to have had the approval of the then managing committee (including family) responsible for the upkeep of Maartens’ library. Shame. If I had still been in Holland, that would never have occurred.
At the stage of writing Swan, I strongly believed Uncle Joost communicated with me. In 2013, my sister Mary Kranendonk and I and a small group of family members decided to celebrate Maarten Maartens’ one-hundred-year passing in 1915. I heard this voice in me to write a summarization of his 13 novels and his 4 volumes of published short stories. By reading his work, often twice, to enable me to commingle my summarizations with passages of his own writing, I bonded with this long-gone family member-writer and now feel that I’ve known him all my life. When I am in his workroom, I don’t feel like an outsider. I am part of him. Other learned people may have studied his work and life, and analyzed it, but nobody ever made his works available in a contemporary format that allows family and interested readers to enjoy Maarten Maartens’ writing without having to read his sometimes lengthy 19th century style in full, that is, if they can still find them in antique bookstores or libraries.
The One-Hundred-Year Commemoration of Maarten Maartens in September 2015 became a very successful event, thanks to the hard work of a small dedicated group of family members who spent many months preparing it (see a previous blog in November 2015, describing the festivity). It gave us a feeling we had revived his memory and done him right.
Living in the US, I wanted to go back to Uncle Joost’s house once more. My sister and I decided to celebrate our 80th birthday there in July 2017 (she a half-year ahead and I a half-year past). This scribbler went “home” to the Maarten Maartens House to pay his respect and express his gratitude while at the same time celebrating a life with many family members and friends (the subject of a next blog). For me, as a modest scribbler with no fame, it was also a day of reconnecting with an uncle who had instilled in me the joy of authoring stories.
Soon to come:
Francine – Dazzling Daughter of the Mountain State: She rises to the top of a mining conglomerate, demobilizes the anti-mining lobby, but will she save the company and find love in the meantime?
Franz Werfel, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1890 and died in Beverly Hills in 1945, wrote a wonderful book in 1941, entitled The Song of Bernadette, telling the story of a young impoverished peasant girl who, in 1858, is attracted by the apparition of a beautiful lady at a cave at Lourdes in France while gathering wood with her two sisters. The book became a New York Times bestseller for a year and was turned into a movie in 1943, directed by Henry King, for which Jennifer Jones, acting as Bernadette, received an Oscar Award. The beautiful lady does not tell her name, only says she is the Immaculate Conception.
The Immaculate Conception (“free of sin”) of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, and daughter of Joachim and Anna, is a dogma of the Catholic Church that developed over the centuries. It is not to be confused with the conception of her son, Jesus. This occurred after overshadowing of Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit and is celebrated by the “Annunciation” and “Incarnation of Jesus Christ” – on March 25, nine months before December 25. Mary’s immaculate conception appears in the Quran and Muslims also accept the virgin birth of Jesus. This has little to do with radical Islamic elements attacking Christian centers and displays this time of the year, which stems from their hatred of what Christianity represents as opposed to their literal interpretation of Quranic dictums. But the satanic way Christianity is attacked nowadays by fellow citizens in the US and elsewhere in Europe is no less demonic.
I saw the movie about Bernadette first at my Jesuit boarding school in the fifties and remember being moved by it. Lourdes has since been a pilgrims place where miracles took place to “prove” the veracity of Mary’s existence as a critical element of Christian belief. The movie starts with the statement: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.” It’s an appropriate summarization of the state of mind of believers and non-believers on this subject. Personally, I never felt comfortable with the doctrine that virginal conception was identified as “sin,” and that both Mary and her son had, therefore, to be conceived by supranatural means.
I was dismissed from a theology class when at the age of 17 I asked why it was considered “sin” if a man and a woman, even if “holy,” had sex in marriage to conceive children. But then, I was born from a very Protestant family and converted to Catholicism at 10, only because my mother told us to. Martin Luther departed from the Catholic doctrine by stating that Mary was conceived the natural human way (“in sin of sinful parents”), but he also said that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit who “purified [Mary] so that this child was born of flesh and blood, but not with sinful flesh and blood.” Lutherans may adhere to this modified doctrine but, as I understand it, most Protestants do not. I considered it more a mythological concept, as the natural sexual relationship between man and woman remained taboo for so many centuries and a subject one did not “talk or write about.” It remained a matter of utmost hypocrisy until erotic literature exploded in the sixties.
Martin Luther – Credit: law2.umkc.edu
Whatever the doctrine, the birth of Christianity is what is relevant. The world has evolved and Christianity with it, but Christmas remains a central feature of our Western Civilization based on Judeo-Christian principles as expressed in the Ten Commandments. At the later stage in our life, we notice the differences of how we practiced our religion then and now. But the nativity scene is still a pivotal scene of the year. It tends to be overshadowed by the commercialized gifts craze, but in many families, it remains of paramount religious importance and so are the Christmas carols.
Those who minimize that importance or even combat it in the name of “free speech” are the quintessential scrooges and humbugs of the season. On the other hand, I noticed many more people wishing me a “Merry Christmas” this year, seemingly unfazed, which seems to emanate from a ubiquitous relief that a new wind is blowing from Washington D.C.
For this reason, The Song of Bernadette remains a movie befitting the holiness of this season. We should be thankful to Franz Werfel for having written his book, to Henry King for having made a wonderful picture of it, to Turner Classic Movies for showing it again these days, and to the Holy Mary for having brought Jesus Christ to the world, and nursed him to the man who founded our worldwide Christian community.
Merry Christmas to you all! This is Togetherness Time!
PS: A moving story ending at Christmas:
ENCHANTING THE SWAN: Grad students and musicians Paul and Fiona fall in love when they perform The Swan and agree to marry, but paternal evil blocks their love until The Swan chants their blessing at Christmas. A moving story of inspiring love and music you want to read.
To all those who flood my e-mail and FB pages with hateful cries about Donald Trump’s victory election, shed your tears somewhere else. Elections have consequences (a quote from his Excellency Barack Obama). Now, let’s give The Donald a chance to prove that his way is better than Obama’s (1% growth, 98 million out of the workforce, skyrocketing Obamacare premiums, energy blockages, depleted military, 20 trillion national debt, black and white divided, immigration and a foreign policy in shambles). Stop whining and get over it. Take it from a very happy foreigner guest of your Great USA. Feeling safer again… and a lot more hopeful.
We were all seated. I could not see them. They had swoomed in at the last door ring.
They shuffled by, clothed in white garb, and sat down at the dinner table. I saw the chairs moving back and forth and the napkins unfolding. I sat down and welcomed my guests. Did I know who they were?
I soon found out. At my opposite sat Uncle Diederick. He sang his last song in jail. I recognized his drawl. He was accused of unlawful sexual behavior with minors in the stables. I will not draw on this any further because you cannot say anything bad about dead people.
On his left sat Aunt Irma. She always accused me of bedding every girl I could get my hands on and died, disinheriting me from her fortune. She still had this shrill voice, as I’d heard it in our last telephone call when she cursed me in her hospital bed because there was “this child that had to come again.”
Opposite her sat Aunt Ann, also one of those shrill women. She taught me horseback riding and yelled so loud each time when I didn’t sit straight in the saddle that my horse bucked with all fours in the air, me flying out of the saddle.
Next to Aunt Irma sat Willem B. I can’t reveal his last name because his family is so important that they would sue me if I did. He swindled every client on his way to the bank and became so rich that he was unable to count his money on his dead bed. He’d wanted to make me his heir too, but forgot to put it in writing, so the State got all the money. They never said “thanks.”
Opposite him sat the headmaster of my primary school. I couldn’t figure how he would turn up in this illustrious group of noble people, as he was a very ordinary man and a notorious child molester, hitting everyone with his cane who dared to be unruly or contradict him, jumping on our lecterns coming after us.
On the headmaster’s right sat Hans with the long earrings. She had this false smile and mean look and always entered the breakfast room, disturbing my quiet moment with my grandmother, only to gossip about everybody else with a double name in the village.
Opposite her – and next to me – sat Baroness B. whose name I cannot reveal either for the same reason as Willem B’s. She’d kicked me out of her vast apartment where I’d rented a room because the housekeeper had caught me copulating with a girl (the censor board sanitized this part of the sentence). Boy, was she mad.
On my left sat Aunt Phyllis, as an extra punishment. She used to come into the dining room and spat saliva with every word she uttered so that we kids held our hands over our plates whenever she appeared.
So I thanked everyone for coming and invited them to take some food, but nobody did. They chuckled, as they didn’t eat anymore, but they drank the good wine alright, glasses floating in the air.
Baroness B. whispered that she was still waiting for the last month’s rent I hadn’t paid after she’d thrown me out. I asked her where I could send the money, but she didn’t want to reveal her address.
The schoolmaster mumbled he was surprised to find me in a large house with expensive cars and a lot of money because he’d found me the stupidest kid in the class.
Aunt Ann yelled over the table why I wasn’t competing in the national horse shows, as I’d performed so well flying off my horse.
Uncle Diederick told us that his punishment in the afterlife consisted of having to clean stables for the rich, often confronted by beautiful girls he couldn’t like and unable to touch any beautiful boy that came his way.
Aunt Irma inquired if I had birthed any more children out of wedlock, and when I told her I hadn’t as far as I knew, she didn’t believe me and was going to find out about any hidden babies among the women she said she knew I’d known and slept with full force.
Willem B. sort of apologized for his forgetfulness but in revenge he was spooking the lives of the taxmen who’d stolen his money, and they were all going crazy and were being put in madhouses one after the other.
Aunt Hans with the long earrings told us she’d put an earring with a bug in Hillary’s bed to find out about her latest schemes. To my surprise, a lot of that became true after Halloween. Luckily, Aunt Phyllis had no saliva anymore and could not spit on my plate.
When they left cackling through the front door without opening it, I knew they were friendly ghosts now and might turn up again. The dinner was left untouched on the table but the glasses were empty. I went to my drawing room where my wife’s precious dolls occupied a whole sofa. One of them, a blond beauty I’d always hoped would come alive, suddenly started talking, her eyes winking at me. “Hi, Johnny,” she said. “I always wanted to see you again, and now I can. I am Fiona, the girl who gave you your first kiss. Remember?” I sat dumbstruck. Fiona died in a horrible horse-riding accident when she was sixteen. She kissed me in my grandmother’s vegetable garden when we were six. “Yes, of course, I remember. We were going to get married. I was inconsolable for years when you died. How come you are a doll?”
“Only for tonight, Johnny. Just kiss me once more, Johnny, and I go back to heaven.”
I took the doll, and she felt soft, alive, kissed it softly on the mouth, and the eyes winked again. Then it stiffened, and it looked straight ahead as if nothing had happened.
“Why are you kissing that doll?” I heard my wife saying to me. “And why haven’t you cleared the table yet?”
I had no answer.
On July 5, 2016, Dr. Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist of the European Division of the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., received John Schwartz to transmit two recent books with love stories written by Maarten Maartens, a nineteenth-century Dutch author writing in English. Maarten Maartens, alias Joost Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwartz (1858-1915) – a great-uncle of John Schwartz – wrote 13 novels and four volumes of short stories in English and became very famous with it. Ted Roosevelt received him – and his daughter – at the White House in 1907. He received an honorary degree at Western University in Pittsburg in 1907 and a similar award together with Thomas Hardy at Aberdeen University in Scotland in 1905. He lived in Doorn in the center of The Netherlands but frequently traveled to England to mingle with other well-known literary authors and critics, who became close friends.
The books transmitted were entitled “At Home and Abroad – Stories of Love”, a collection of 33 short stories Maarten Maartens published in various reputable magazines and compiled by Dr. Bouwe Postmus on behalf of the Maarten Maartens Foundation in Doorn, and “Maarten Maartens Rediscovered – Part II – His Best Short Stories” by John Schwartz. The latter is a summarization of the four volumes of short stories which Maarten Maartens published with various reputable English, American, and German publishing houses.
In November 2015, the LOC formally received “Maarten Maartens Rediscovered – Part I,” by John Schwartz, which is a summarization of Maarten Maartens’ 13 novels.
These summarizations contain much of Maarten Maartens’ own writing to give readers a flavor of the author’s outstanding talent. The same method was followed in the summarization of the short stories, although a few were so well written that they are fully reproduced. The LOC was particularly pleased to add the book by Bouwe Postmus to their Maarten Maartens collection because it was new material.
Above: Maarten Maartens 13 novels and 4 volumes of short stories, and “Letters by Maarten Maartens,” compiled by his daughter Ada van der Poorten Schwartz. Of course, at the top of the photo, the word “No” is missing from the “Food or Drink permitted.”
The Library of Congress, formally The Thomas Jefferson Building, is a very special place characterized by its famous Dome. First of all, it is the solemn silence that reigns in the reading and working rooms and that constitutes the prominent atmosphere in which researchers and readers can work productively, and “Forgotten Writers” such as Maarten Maartens can be studied and reside in peace. No cell phones, no picture taking, except in the public areas. Here follow a few pictures I could take as a “privileged visitor” of the areas where the public can’t go.
First, a few murals painted by the Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari in the Hispanic Reading Room, showing the arrival of Hispanic peoples in America, and the poster indicating we are in the European Division where Maarten Maartens’ books are kept.
Following are pictures of the main reading room, taken from inside the Valhalla of the LOC through a glass wall looking out.
Below the magnificently sculptured clock “Flight of Time” by John Flanagan that took seven years to complete and was shipped in parts from Paris before being installed in the Library when the reading room was finally finished in 1902. It is not unlikely that Maarten Maartens when visiting the White House in 1907 also visited this building.
Below a few pictures of the Hall of the LOC where tourists dwell and make numerous photographs.
We end with a view of the Washington Monument and the Capitol seen from the LOC.
All in all, a nice place for Maarten Maartens to be interred: in quiet and with friends who appreciate him.