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J. Bernlef

Bernlef is the literary pseudonym adopted by Henrik Jan Marsman from an 8th century blind Fresian poet. Born in 1937 in Sint Pancras, a village north of Alkmaar, after graduation from high school in 1955 Bernlef worked in a bookshop until he was drafted for military service. He lived in Sweden between 1958 and 1960 where he started his writing career.

Upon returning to the Netherlands, he published his first collection of poetry ‘Kokkels’ (Shells) and a collection of short stories ‘Stenen spoelen’ (Stone Rinsing). In 1965 he published his first novel ‘Stukjes en beetjes’ (Bits and Pieces). As well as publishing his own work, as a translator he introduced Dutch readers to the poetry of several Swedish and American poets.

Language experiments
Bernlef’s experimental investigations into language and text have exerted a decisive influence on Dutch literature. Declaring any existing text to be literature, the avant-garde magazine Barbarber became the platform for him and co-founders Karl Schippers and Gerard Brands. The group experimented with literary forms, drawing inspirations from Dada to everyday speech.

In 1984 Bernlef published his most popular novel ‘Hersenschimmen’ (Out of Mind). It followed the gradual memory decline of an Alzheimer patient. The factual, even detached style offered a precise insight into the process of losing coherence until disconnected perceptions can no longer be translated into words and end in total alienation. The book was translated into numerous languages, including English, and has been adapted for both stage and film. It has also been widely read in medical circles whose professional concerns are dementia and aphasia.




Vlaams Nederlands Huis de Buren Radio Netherlands The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature

This author's Radio Book:

J. Bernlef
La Promesse

For Radiobooks, Bernlef introduces us to the owner of a small down-and-out hotel which she inherited from her parents.

“In order to fool myself into thinking that the hotel was still in use, I slept in a different room every night… I tried to imprint myself on the hotel, to live in it as if it was an ordinary house. A house with numbered rooms. But a hotel is not a home. It only prospers in an atmosphere of the temporary, of suitcases being brought back and forth, of keys handed in, a register full of names and dates of arrival and departure. There was never enough time to really get to know guests. A hotel is a temporary refuge, and exciting as that had seemed to me as a child, it made me sad now that I was an adult and was alone with all those empty rooms, without any guests to look after.”

‘La Promesse’ by Bernlef was translated by Michael O’Loughlin. The story is read by Jacky Spears.

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