BY SADI RANSON-POLIZZOTTI, tant mieux project (2004)
12 July 1921—13 April 2007
Author extraordinaire Hans Koning was born in Amsterdam and remembers being in high school when the Germans invaded his country on May 10, 1940. Koning, thankfully, managed to escape, and in 1942, he fled to England where he enlisted in The British Army (7 Troop, 4 Commando). After the stint, Koning attended The University of Amsterdam and The Sorbonne. A quick review: after university, Koning was invited to Indonesia to take part in a radio program on western arts and literature. When his contract was up, Koning decided to go back to Holland and saw his way back through his homeland by way of Los Angeles. After some time, Koning returned to America and boarded a Greyhound bus to New York City where he found a job in publicity at the Dutch cultural attaché’s office. Ever the traveler, Koning moved yet again, this time to Mexico where he wrote his first novel, the one that would Koning’s career as a great writer of great fiction that was always on the cutting edge, always unexpected and original and always well-received. The book was “The Affair.”
Like so many foreign authors in the United States, Koning initially found it difficult to find an American base audience. Sadly, this is not uncommon. Many great foreign writers do not get published in the U.S. for some time and often, it is a younger editor who spots the talent and is willing to take the chance. What’s more, as more and more sales people are driving editorial decisions at the big houses, it becomes even harder for literature, let alone foreign literature or any work in translation, to find a home, regardless of how worthy or wonderful the book, a fact many foreign writers, including the late and great Marguerite Duras also came up against before her book The Lover was finally published to great acclaim (the book was initially rejected by many houses who felt the book “too foreign” for American audiences).
In Koning’s case, it took two years before “The Affair” found a good home with the excellent publisher Alfred A. Knopf where, after publication, the book won Koning considerable success and excellent reviews and set Koning on course as a writer of great fiction. Since then, Koning has established himself as one of the foremost writers today, having written thirteen novels as well as numerous works of nonfiction that cover topics as broad ranging as China, Che Guevara, Russia, and so much more.
It’s likely you’ve seen Koning’s work many times in The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly I had the great honor of publishing Koning’s novel Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History when I was running my own imprint – Lumen Editions. “Pursuit” not only garnered great critical success with reviews from The New York Times and all the big nationals, but also had tremendous attention in general and demand. When Koning writes, as I knew when I bought the book, people will stop and they will read and they will listen to what he has to say. They do this because he is established but more, because Koning delivers the unexpected. His novels, while similar in that they all bear the Koning style and grace of writing, manage to be remarkably different. Like the author himself, the books keep us thinking, keep us on our toes, and always until the last page, keep us guessing and wanting more.
In short, Hans Koning is anything but predictable and this may be but one of the keys to his great success as a writer and a journalist. And speaking of unpredictable on the day of our interview, we get a glimpse into classic Koning, quick, witty and fierce a radical as ever and always, carrying with him a sincere empathy and ferocity that seem at once contradictory and yet, coming from Koning, complimentary. At last, we have a rebel with a cause. Here is Hans Koning:
Hans, your first book, The Affair took two years to find a good home, where it finally found a good home and considerable success with Knopf. I know you and I have discussed this, but why do you think foreign or European writers have such a hard time getting published in America? Is there just a different sentiment? OR do you think that publishing has fundamentally changed?
A: Knopf was not a good home for Alfred hated The Affair; he was chagrined at is success and when I heard this, I decided to leave him (proud but stupid) Then he wouldn’t let me go and we had to appeal with the Guild. About “foreign writers”: well, the US is parochial, and of course publishing has changed drastically, the marketing director vetoes the editors. Literature is largely a dirty word. But Europe is hardly better, France is (still) different, translating is still a risk taken. (5 of my novels were published in France
Hans, I know you were for a time, Stokeley Carmichael’s pistol-carrying bodyguard. Where you the only white member of the Black Panthers? What drew you to that group specifically? Where you politically aligned and if so, in what way… what were you politics at the time… it sounds like you were a bit of a radical to say the least. Tell me about that…
A: I wasn’t a “member” of the Panthers, no such thing. I, and other “honkies” (as sixties slang had it), were simply, on their side; justice, anti- Vietwar, and so on… Of course I was, and am, a radical (and paid for it; this didn’t make you popular with publishers and critics).
I know you have written a great deal for The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly. What is the nature of the articles you write for them?
A: Mostly, reports from other places on the globe, the kind of reporting which The New Yorker did so well with its “Letters from –” A different approach than found in the NY Times. I (we) saw farther, weren’t believers in “The US is the most moral country” as was basic then *(and will be again under Bush.)
At one time, I believe you were a foreign correspondent, is that right?
A: I was “Reporter-at-Large” for The New Yorker.
Which agency, if any one particular, did you work for? Tell me briefly or in depth, whichever you prefer, where you went, what sorts of things you reported on. It sounds like a dangerous job, but an interesting one. Tell me about that.
A: China, Russia, Egypt, East Germany, Cuba, World War I and II, Mexico, Argentina, a.o. No agency, just directly for the magazines (note: as above question).
Did you ever fear for your life on such assignments?
A: In China and Indonesia I’ve been in tight spots. But “fear for my life” is too strong.
You’ve done so much nonfiction and yet you are a prolific fiction writer as well. That’s hard to do – most people are good at one, not both. How do you reconcile your fiction with your nonfiction? is there any intersection of the two works – i.e., examples or events that you experienced that you then fictionalize, or is it all purely made up?
A: I hardly see an intersection. The subject of fiction, for me, is the human condition, “love and death”. Non-fiction is concerned with human action-reaction in history. But clear writing is clear writing.
That makes me wonder, do you believe that fiction is ever truly made up? Or do you think that all fiction writers tend to draw on their own lives and their own experience and then gussy it up, fictionalize it a bit?
A: Some do, some don’t; a novel “is” a man or a woman, but the “it really happened” label is stupid and assuredly not something that makes a book literature.
Of your own fiction – then apply the last question – is most of it fantasy, made up? or is Hans Koning in there in some ways? I mean, isn’t that unavoidable to some extent?
A: Of course I am in there (see above) but this is not something to “avoid.” What happens in a novel is secondary. Primary is that the ideas and actions ring true, throw light on la condition humaine.
You’ve lived in the states for a long time now. Do you go to Europe for part of the year or head home just to touch bas with your roots, or do you live in the states year round?
A: I go to Europe as much as feasible, just to stay sane. Not to Holland necessarily or in the first place.
You have been in your life and extremely political person, yet I see a balance there. At one time, I know you still carried a pistol – was that a lay-over from the Black Panther days, or do you and did you then, still fear that living in this climate, one needs to carry a weapon, that one is safer? I know you’ve had some real personal hardships, and we don’t need to go there, but you must have your reasons — tell me about that.
A: I still have one (little) pistol. It would make things more equal if I had to protect myself or a daughter of mine or whomever against an eighteen year old mugger. I was in a rifle and fence club as a student, those were Olympic sports, a very diff. atmosphere than the Am Rifle guys. And then also of course “my” war. I had a Luger with a swastika on it that was taken from a German sergeant.
Would you say that any writer’s have influenced your work? i.e., who did you read and admire when you were just starting out and do you see parts of that author in the work that you’ve produced?
A: Perhaps, to a degree. Stendhal, Giovanni Verga, Joyce Joyce Joyce, other Russians, Djuna Barnes, a.o.
Any young writers that you admire now or that you see mimicking your style?
A: Not really, but I read little modern writers, lack of time mostly.
What books are you reading at the moment?
A: Only 1812 by Paul Britten Austin.
How many books have you written now, Hans – divided into fiction and nonfiction?
A: Fourteen novels so far and six non-fiction books, give or take one or to.
Of the two categories, would you say one is closer to your heart – fiction or nonfiction?
A: I would say fiction. At its best, literature is more revealing to the human condition than any non-fiction.
And in that category, do you have a particular or sentimental favorite of all time, or do you value each of your books for different reasons. So many writers I interview value different books for different reasons or times in their life. What about you? Which book, if there is a favorite and why that one?
A: Perhaps — “perhaps” because I don’t usually think in these terms, “I Know what I’m doing” and” The Kleber Flight” because rereading some of that I am surprised at myself that I got it just right.
You mentioned in an earlier question that you had been in some tricky situations while working as a foreign correspondent, though you hadn’t feared for your life. I think that must take incredible bravery. Do you think it’s that, or is it more that you just got wrapped up in what you were doing and so it wasn’t an issue for you?
A: No bravery involved, just a certain laissez-faire shrug.
What advice would you give any young radicals today? Say, those who are looking to change the world in some way and still have that youthful optimism and belief?
A: I would perhaps call it a 19th century optimism – youthfulness doesn’t enter into it. “Keep going,” I’d say, don’t take yourself too seriously, take the world very seriously.
In your own words, what would you say makes someone a true revolutionary as you certainly have been and continue to be?
A: I cannot answer that, it is all much more iffy and changing. A belief in human justice, perhaps; finding in the fearful mystery of life a reason to make people’s lives in general, and esp. children’s lives as good as can be.
I know you once ran for office — which office was it? If after reading this, people want to vote for Hans Koning, what office would you fill?
A: I was running for Conn. state senator on a Green Party ticket. I came out second: the district was 80 % black-demo. (But then the Gov of CT put number 1 in his cabinet and I could have made it on the repeat election but decided time was better spent on writing.)
You’ve had so many amazing experiences in your life and at one time, I believe you were an attaché with the Dutch consulate, is that right?
A: Yes, after arriving in NY from Indonesia with a dollar in my pocket, the Dutch Embassy gave me a publicity job -diplomatic, no work permit needed, and tax-free Scotch at a dollar a bottle.
It’s easy to see given how you’ve lived your life, with your foreign correspondent days, the books you write and their themes, that you sort of seem like a secret agent in some ways. Does that seem strange to you? Why do you think people view you that way, or do you not see it?
A: No, I don’t see that. A crypto-commie or an anarchist maybe, but not a secret agent. But make me an offer!
Tell me what is on your desk at the moment?
2. Discarded pages from novel I am writing
3. First 60 pp of that novel
4. Bose ear stops
5. Pens and pencils
6. Webster’s New World Dictionary
If you had a mantra that you could have the whole world repeat every day, a simple phrase to help us all have some hope for the future, what would it be?
A: Nul n’est besoin d’esperer pour entreprendre; that was William of Orange’s mantra. (16th century Holland). (*You don’t need to hope in order to do)
I’d like to thank Hans Koning for the sit-down and for his usual frankness and generosity of time. To find out more, you can Google Koning, or check out his work on Amazon or begin with any of his books – they’re all good. Other work can be found in The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and many other publications.
NOTE: Word reached us a bit late about Hans’ departure from this world, on 13 April 2007, at his home in Easton, Conn., not too far from where Cyrano’s main office is located. Impeccably urbane, the epitome of a cosmopolitan, civilized human being, Hans had no difficulty casting a romantic and influential shadow among many intellectuals of his time, not to mention younger generations, this writer included. It is a reflection of his character that, despite a sad malentendu between us at the personal level, our tacit attitude toward each other remained one of mutual respect and genuine affection for a comrade. His passing is a loss to us all, but we are comforted that he left a rich harvest of visions and carefully marshalled moral facts, and a fine example for those serious in the pursuit of justice. —Patrice Greanville