Cees (Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria) Nooteboom was born on 31 July 1933 as the second child of Hubertus Nooteboom and Johanna Pessers (this surname would later feature frequently in his fiction), with an elder sister, Hanneke, born in 1932, and a younger brother, Huub, born in 1940. Nooteboom has spoken out about his early years, ‘Other people can trot out their entire childhood, complete with dates, schools and events, as though they were their own computer, but I can’t do that. Sometimes I wonder whether I was ever really there.’ Yet vivid memories often feature in his work: the march of the invading Germans and the bombing of the airfield at Ypenburg, which he watched with his father from the balcony of the family home. His father left the family during the war and remarried in 1944. A son from this second marriage, Hugo, was born that year. Nooteboom’s father died in spring 1945 of the injuries that he suffered during the bombing of the Bezuidenhout area of The Hague. After the war, Nooteboom’s mother took the family to live in Tilburg, where she originally came from.
After completing his first year at the Sint Odulphus Lyceum in Tilburg, Nooteboom was sent to a Catholic boarding school, the Gymnasium Immaculatae Conceptionis in Venray, which was run by Franciscan friars. He studied at the school for two years. Then he moved to Hilversum with his mother, where he completed the fourth year of senior school at the Roman Catholic Lyceum voor het Gooi. His stepfather then sent him to another priory school: the Augustinianum in Eindhoven. Nooteboom owes his often expressed love of reading and his studious inclination to the time spent at these religious schools. ‘I can’t imagine my life without Greek and Latin; I would have become someone else.’
After leaving school, Nooteboom had a number of office jobs, including one at the Rotterdamsche bank in Hilversum. In the early 1950s, he went on his first major trips abroad, hitchhiking to Scandinavia and Provence. He wrote about some of his experiences in his first novel, Philip en de anderen (Philip and the Others), which has become a classic of Dutch literature, not least because of its melancholy tone. In 1954, he moved to Amsterdam, where he has lived ever since; since 1970, his home has been an early-eighteenth-century house in the old city centre. In 1956, he wrote his first major newspaper report for Het Parool, about the Russians entering Budapest. In the following years, he wrote reports and stories for Elseviers Weekblad, which were often about the Caribbean. In 1957, he married Fanny Lichtveld in New York, with Leo Vroman as one of the witnesses. The marriage was annulled in 1964.
Cees Nooteboom had a regular column in de Volkskrant in the 1960s. These were impressions, and also reports, of major developments in society, with the highpoint being the May 1968 workers’ and students’ revolution in Paris. Nooteboom, who followed Philip en de anderen with a number of poetry collections and, in 1963, the novel De ridder is gestorven (The Knight Has Died), has this to say about the ‘craft’ of journalism, ‘My work had to lose its overdone lyricism. A certain connaissance du monde is required for writing. That’s why I started travelling.’ His great travel stories about regions and countries on every continent have been published since August 1968, mainly in the monthly magazine Avenue, which has also published many of his translations of poetry by internationally renowned poets. Nooteboom lived with singer Liesbeth List for a number of years, and also wrote lyrics for her. He often travels alone, but sometimes with photographer Eddy Posthuma de Boer, or his partner, photographer Simone Sassen, whom he met in 1979.
In 1980, the very successful novel Rituelen (Rituals) was published, which was later made into a film. That book, the subject of numerous studies both in the Netherlands and abroad, marked the beginning of the second phase in Cees Nooteboom’s career as a writer. He was more productive than ever: at a rapid pace, he published poems, novels, novellas and anthologies of pieces on travel and art, which had an increasingly contemplative slant. In 1987, Nooteboom taught for six months at the University of California at Berkeley, and in 1989 the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) invited him to live for a year in Berlin. He witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, writing many incisive reports on the subject, which appeared in a large number of European newspapers. In Berlin he became friends with philosopher Rüdiger Safranski, who was greatly impressed by Nooteboom’s work, and also with a number of artists, including painter Max Neumann, who later created covers for the new editions of Nooteboom’s work published by De Bezige Bij.
In 1991, his novel Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story) was published as the free gift title for Dutch Book Week. This book was a huge hit in Germany after critic Marcel Reich Ranicki praised it highly on television. Het volgende verhaal became a bestseller and Nooteboom’s other books were also received enthusiastically by German critics and readers. ‘To think you Dutch people have such a great writer!’ The following years saw the publication of translations of Nooteboom’s work in increasing numbers of countries all over the world. By this time, he was viewed as a leading European writer, partly because of the philosophical opinions he expressed about European history and the future of the continent in newspapers and magazines and at symposia. The continuing importance of Berlin and the Berlin atmosphere for Nooteboom is also apparent in his great novel Allerzielen (All Souls’ Day), published in 1998.
From his earliest days as a writer, Cees Nooteboom has received numerous awards. Since the publication of Rituelen, this has included major international literary prizes, such as the European Aristeion prize for Het volgende verhaal in 1993. Not only has he received royal recognition in the Netherlands, but he has also been awarded distinctions by the French, German, Chilean and Spanish governments. As well as his time in the United States, Nooteboom has also studied in Australia, the country that forms part of the setting for his novel Paradijs verloren (Lost Paradise). Nooteboom has received honorary doctorates from the universities of Brussels, Nijmegen and Berlin.
In 2009, De Bezige Bij published the anniversary edition of De omweg naar Santiago (Roads to Santiago), the result of the many journeys that Nooteboom and his wife Simone Sassen have taken over the course of the years through what he has called his ‘second fatherland’. With Sassen, he also created the monumental Tumbas, penetrating portraits accompanying photographs of the graves of poets and writers. Since the1960s, Cees Nooteboom has spent the summer and early autumn on the Balearic island of Menorca, where he has created novels, such as Allerzielen, and collections of poetry such as Zo kon het zijn. Reflections on his Menorcan house and garden and the residents of the island appeared in the collection Rode regen. In spring 2009, De Bezige Bij published the impressive short-story collection ’s Nachts komen de vossen, for which the island often forms the backdrop.
Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren
Following the Constantijn Huygens Prijs and the P.C. Hooft Prijs, two major oeuvre awards, Cees Nooteboom won the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the most important literary award in the Dutch-speaking world, awarded by Albert II, the King of the Belgians, at the royal palace in Brussels on 18 November 2009.