Joost de Vries Talks about “The Republic”

Dennis: Thanks very much, Joost, for considering my questions about The Republic. Let’s start with the title. I thought that I had figured it out when I recalled the phrase “the republic of letters”. But you seem to associate “the republic” with something more-perhaps with what was replaced by it, the republic being a sort of jerry-built state of being that follows empire or monarchy-tied up with the great question you have Brik ask Friso-whether he’s Brik’s Dauphin or Robespierre. Is there anything you’d be willing to say about what the title means?

Joost: I think what Brik asks him, is he going to continue what Brik has been doing all along – with other words: as his dauphin – or is he going to tear him down when he gets the chance and start on his own – as Robespierre did with Louis XVI. A monarchy is a continuum through the ages; once it’s gone, it’s gone. But a republic can always redefine and reinvent itself.  Obviously The Republic also signals toThe republic of letters’, but it means more than that. The Republic in the end is also a simple love story, about Friso being in love with the girl he just broke up with (perhaps not realizing how in love he was until they broke up).  I like how when you’re in a love affair, the relationship becomes its own institution, you develop certain traditions, certain words only you know the true meaning of, certain rules and laws  – like your own personal little republic.

Dennis: When I started reading The Republic and came upon the first Hitler jokes, I gave up on the book. I wondered how anyone from the Netherlands would want to tell jokes about Hitler studies. I ended up loving the book. There’s also an oral literacy tone to the novel that I liked, that you’re one of those writers who writes like he talks. Do you like to use humor to explore ideas or people, or undermine them?

Joost: First of all, I’m happy you enjoyed the book. In this case the humor is an interesting point. In The Netherlands we have started to take the Second World War more and more seriously. On May 4th we have our National Remembrance Day, with two minutes of silence throughout the country at 8 pm. 25 years ago, the official events those days drew minor crowds. Today is has become like a national event, the events are crowded. Remembering has become more important; the national debate about the war has changed (in The Netherlands people used to think that just about every other person was in the resistance; in reality the resistance was small, and The Netherlands had the highest percentage of Jews being deported in Europe). The war has always been the main focus point in novels, in movies, in theatre. Even today, whenever there is a political crisis – for example the refugee crisis from a couple of years ago – the knee jerk reaction of most people is ‘What if this was the war? What would we have done then?’ The war is a moral compass. Rudiger Safranski talks about Auschwitz as our ‘ontological point zero’: we measure our civilization and humanity by how far they are removed from Auschwitz.

Yet at the same time we love Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, we laugh about the Hitler jokes in South Park, Timur Vermes’ Er ist wieder da was a bestseller in The Netherlands. Quirky Hitler memes are all over the place. Remember the JC Penney tea kettle that looked like Hitler and was sold out in a matter of hours?  The tension between the historical war and the war as retold in pop culture to me, as a novelist, is fascinating.

I think those jokes are not necessarily about the war itself; they are about the way the war is treated in culture, as this sacrosanct event where are all men were heroes, and all Germans could have starred as bad guys in an Indiana Jones movie. So my characters are extreme versions of this; as academics they don’t care about the war as an historical event. For them the war is only the overly heroic fictional tale. They don’t care about Hitler (Brik is a Hitler professor who keeps forgetting Hitler’s birthday), but only about the way he is portrayed in movies. Their war is just the backdrop to an adventure movie, the way Inglourious Basterds started with ‘Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France..’ as if it were a fairy tale.

Dennis: I saw that The Republic fell into the subgenre of “the charismatic character” story. There’s someone in the plot, Josip Brik, philosopher, intellectual heavyweight and media pundit who’s impact on the other characters, especially Friso de Vries, his sometime Boswell, is overscale. Brik dies in a freak accident, I believe in the novel’s prologue, but is present anyway in flashbacks, reminiscences, and in society’s treatment of his memory. I’m not sure who Brik is anyway. Did you invent the character early? Did you decide to kill him off from the start? Does he remind you of anyone?

Joost: I came up the the name Josip Brik by doodling letters on a page, and by chance spelling out B-R-I-K. I had the typical talking head in mind; somewhat Zizek, somewhat Simon Schama, somewhat several Dutch tv-personalities, who are specialized in one topic and have opinions about all other topics.

The only thing I know when I started the book was that the main character was going to be called Friso – it is a bit of a play on my own name – and I knew he was going to be in mourning. My father died a few years earlier; I don’t necessarily like to write about myself that much (I’m horribly boring), but I wanted to write about grief, about feeling pushed out of  the narrative of your own life as you thought what it was going to be like. I knew I would want to change the names, the locations, the places. You know how you have the ‘five stages of grief’? Anger, denial, bargaining, depression and hopeful acceptance?  I think Friso is still very much stuck in denial. He can’t face the fact that this has happened, and he has this great anger towards reality and sets out to attack it.

In quite a lot of books, the narrator is a camera; he just observes and let other characters do the entertaining heavy lifting. I wanted to have a Nathan Zuckerman-kinda protagonist, who sets out and does all kinds of stupid stuff himself, is funny, is weird, is misguided, is in his way quite brave and adventurous. He does a lot of things I would not dare to do myself.

Dennis: Friso seems to lose himself, doesn’t he, in the aftermath of Brik’s death? He impersonates his perceived rival, up-and-coming grad student Philip de Vries, a character who shares your surname and he loses his longtime love, Pippa. Moreover, both Friso and Philip resemble each other. That’s essential for the plot. And based on the photographs of you that I found online, they both seem to resemble you. Can people forget who they are, or want to forget who they are? Is that true of Friso? Does his admiration of Brik obscure Friso’s own identity or reinforce it?

Joost: A guy walked up to me in the office I work in. ‘I’m Joost de Vries’, he said. ‘No, you mean I’m Joost de Vries’, I said. No, he said. I too am Joost de Vries. The son of bitch even looked like me. There are a lot of Joost de Vrieses in The Netherlands. There is a movie producer, there is a singer, there an accountant with the most horrible art website. I once had to do a book event and there was a huge poster promoting the event – a poster of a different Joost de Vries (they googled my name, took the picture with the highest resolution and printed it). Everyone came up to me: ‘Oh my, you look so much younger in real life.’ 

One of the big inspirations of the book was North by Northwest, were Cary Grant is mistaken for a spy. I love the style of the movie, the sense of humour the movie has about itself. The Nina-character looks precisely like Eva Marie Saint. After meeting the other Joost de Vries I immediately thought; I going to do this inside out, and have a character that actively tries to be mistaken for someone else. I was quite happy with the other Joost de Vries, he was a big help in the plot.

As I said, Friso is very much in denial; he very much has a blind spot for himself. I suppose most people have those blind spots – blind spots make characters more interesting. I’m not talking about unreliable narrators. But most people tend to know what they want, but few people know why they want what they want. We don’t fully comprehend our own ambitions and desires and fears. When I’m writing I try to create characters who might not always understand themselves, or might even misunderstand themselves – it becomes more interesting (hopefully) for the reader to figure them out.

It is true: so much of Friso’s identity is constructed around his relationship with Brik, that he doesn’t really comprehend how he is perceived by the academic community surrounding Brik. He forgets himself. (in the same way he thinks Pippa’s identity is constructed around her relationship with him; so he is quite surprised when she leaves and lands perfectly on her feet)

Dennis: Last question, thinking of the action that takes place in Vienna in The Republic, do you miss the Hapsburgs? It seems that in the late scene at the cocktail party in the palace in Vienna that you are nostalgic for the people who used to live there. Do you harbor any nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Do you miss the history, or does it bother you that some/many people are history-blind? In the Netherlands, which of course is a monarchy, perhaps it’s not possible to forget history-you tell me. In my country, history is optional. I know you have a laugh at the minutiae of scholarly research into the historical record, but it’s a serious matter, isn’t it? Do you want to laugh about it or cry?

Joost: Well, as Don Draper says ‘There is no American history. There is only American frontier.’ We don’t have that in Europe. History is everywhere and history is returning more and more. Throughout the continent populist political parties have become significant by actively promoting a photoshopped picture of the past as roadmap for the future. Quite often history is distorted and misused for political purposes. In The Netherlands for example Geert Wilders’ right wing anti-immigrant Freedom Party called Hitler a socialist. They dropped the adverb ‘national-socialist’ to turn Hitler into a left wing figure. Ridiculous. (Geert Wilders has a cameo in the book for that reason) If more people had a stronger sense of history, this kind of rhetoric would not work.

I spoof the academics and intellectuals in my book, but I admire them as well. It is the same as with journalists in this time of calling everything ‘fake news’: the historians are the remaining brave souls who try to set the historical record straight, while so many other misuse that historical record.

Ha! Unfortunately, the Dutch monarchy was installed after Napoleon, and then managed to miss out on all interesting historical events in Europe since. Our monarchy – unlike the British – is not very much seen as a very historical continuum in The Netherlands.