Alec Marsh dines with the recent winner of the Costa Book of the Year
Bart Van Es sees me arrive in the Green Room at the Wigmore and shoots me a broad, familiar smile: we were at school together, and his younger brother is one of my oldest pals. Since we shared a dorm, this once bookish teenager has risen to become professor of English at Oxford and written a good book on Shakespeare – that much I could have guessed.
What I didn’t know was that he had a secret adopted aunt named Lien (‘pronounced lean, like lean in’) that his grandparents in the Netherlands sheltered from the Nazis during the war – and saved from the Holocaust. His book, The Cut Out Girl, which scooped the Costa Book of the Year prize in January, is the story of Lien’s life.
So it’s a story of survival and then surviving the survival (making for a compelling study of trauma), running up to the present day – all hinging on a personal mystery: why, decades later, did the van Es family suddenly turn their backs on the girl they had saved. Why was she cut out?
Categorised as ‘creative non-fiction’, the story is a compelling triptych: Lien’s adventure, Dutch history, and Bart’s personal journey. It’s all bundled up with searing documentary detail – family letters, death, betrayal, prejudice and separation – and turbocharged with the pace and psychological traction of a thriller.
An infinite distance from this dystopia, we order the cod. I tell Bart that I’m struggling to read his astonishing book because of the tears in my eyes. What I don’t say is that page 25 made me sob so much my face hurt. ‘I definitely cried as I was writing it,’ he confirms.
‘Just to imagine yourself in the position of a child who’s suddenly in a world which is terrible…’ His words drift off. ‘It is ultimately an uplifting story.’ Which is important: ‘One of the problems with Holocaust memoirs is that you’re just caught in an inevitable pre-known track,’ he says, recalling meeting another Holocaust survivor – a boy put on a train in Hungary in 1942 by parents he never saw again – at the Jewish Centre in Oxford.
‘He held my hand for about five minutes, which was incredibly moving. “I’m a second Lien,” he said. This book is different because it is about survival as well. All the earlier books concentrate on Auschwitz, and are basically about “do you physically” get to the end of the war. This is about right from the beginning, sets off that question: how do we end up here?’
That’s part of what makes it so compelling: ‘Lien’s psychology is at the heart of the book,’ says Bart.’ And Bart doesn’t spare the details, which means it must have been a hard book to write. The process began in late December 2014 with a month-long visit to Holland and 40 hours of interviews with Lien.
The task of writing it he describes as a form of ‘method acting’ – thinking his way With into Lien’s mind aged eight and beyond and reliving it on the page. This is what makes this biography different: it’s a ‘documentary novel’. Among influences he cites Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, which won the Costa in 2014.
Is his book literature? ‘Yeah,’ he says casually, swallowing a forkload of cabbage. I ask how his parents feel about it all. ‘They’re very happy about the book now – they obviously were pretty worried about it, but reactions have been so positive about the bravery of my grandparents and have not been so judgemental about what happened after the war.’
Aside from the family history, The Cut Out Girl aims ‘to reconstruct what happened in the Netherlands – and ask questions about why this apparently tolerant country would become so compliant with the Nazis’.
He notes that 80 per cent of Jews in Holland died in the war – far higher than in other Nazi-occupied countries. Turns out the law-abiding, efficient Dutch went along with it in ways that the French, Belgians and Norwegians just didn’t.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Dutch reception to the book has been ‘incredibly good’. ‘The country had this total denial after the war,’ says Bart. There was, he says, ‘the bizarre lack of justice at the end of the war, the collaborators just waved back into society, and the heroes of the resistance, especially the early resistance – those people were not acknowledged. But now there’s been a real sense that this is a timely book and that the country is kind of ready to confront those things.’
The Germans aren’t afraid to do that either, notes Bart, who is looking forward to launching the book there, with Lien, shortly after we meet. ‘Lien’s particularly excited about the German edition. She says she has a lot of admiration for Germany in the way that it’s actually confronted its past.’ In this way books have a special place in our world.
They are, he says, ‘ultimately very brilliant contraptions that force you to see the world a different way by layering things’. The Dutch are interested in the idea of him as an external observer. ‘I’ve got the luck really of being a foreigner everywhere,’ says Bart, who was born in Holland and came to the UK in 1986, ‘which gives you this slightly more self-aware perspective on the world that you’re looking at.’
If there are wisdoms to be drawn from The Cut Out Girl, they include the fragility of democracy – as well as the hazards of the ‘world of half-truths’. ‘When you’re in this world where facts don’t matter any more, that really worries me – and there is a sense that the facts of the Holocaust are in danger in the world beyond print. There are lessons about that in the book.’
It’s pretty clear that he thinks these are lessons the Labour Party can learn, too. ‘I’ve been quite shocked by the stuff on the left – the anti-Semitism in the last year,’ he says. The Dutch experience in the 1940s shows that ‘anti-Semitism can sit untapped’.
‘It was this outwardly very tolerant society, but actually it was this very pillarised society where people didn’t interact with each other at any deep level, and you can regard people as less human than you and still politely sit with them on the train.’
Does he think Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite? ‘I don’t think he thinks he’s an anti-Semite, but if he used the sorts of phrases he uses about Israel about… if you put a black community in that category, he would say, “That is racist.” So his lack of compassion for a group that feels itself to be threatened is to me essentially anti-Semitism.’
Bart adds: ‘Clearly he’s failing to confront anti-Semitism. There seems to be this treatment of the Jews – because they’re white and on the whole rich and articulate, there’s a significant wealthy banker group – that they have no claim to being victims. People are terrified. I went to the Jewish Centre in Oxford – it’s behind double bars and gates.’
Lien, now 85, lives in Amsterdam and joined Bart at the Costa ceremony in London where he won the £30,000 overall prize. ‘I’m so grateful to the Costa,’ he says, citing the publicity it’s brought the book.
‘I do hope it makes people think about what you need to do to keep societies healthy, morally.’ Morally, I ask? ‘People are too nervous of those categories,’ he declares. ‘You have to stand up for things. I’m quite in favour of citizenship classes – of saying, “What are our values?”’ What indeed? If you’re in any doubt, read The Cut Out Girl.
Alec Marsh is editor of Spear’s
This was first published in issue 67 of Spear’s magazine, available on newstands now. Click here to subscribe