Remco Campert was born in The Hague, 1929, son of poet Jan Campert and actress Joekie Broedelet. His father, who was active against the Nazi occupation, was arrested and died in the concentration camp of Neuengamme. After the war, Campert moved with his mother to Amsterdam. As a teenager there he played truant, spending time in jazz clubs and cinemas – media that would both be influential in his verse. By the time he dropped out, aged 17, he had already begun to write. In 1950 at 21, he and the essayist Rudy Kousbroek founded the literary journal Braak, and a year later, in 1951, his debut volume of poetry, Vogels vliegen toch (Birds Fly, Don’t They?) was published. Like a number of other Dutch artists and writers, he spent some time in Paris in the early 1950s. With peace, the city was enjoying an avant-garde resurgence and the experience of being at the heart of post-war European culture was crucial in his work.
Campert was one of the group of Dutch poets known as the Vijftigers or ‘Fifties’ poets. Coming to adulthood under the shadow of the war, they felt the need for a poetry that took nothing for granted, in terms of form or content. Beyond their ties of friendship, what united this rather varied group was their opposition to a literary tradition that in the aftermath of the occupation felt outmoded. Instead they chose for experiment and, in Campert’s case, for a language closer to common speech. He was the most accessible of his contemporaries and, perhaps because of this, his work has always appealed to a broad public.
As someone who has always lived by the pen, Remco Campert has worked in various genres. He is not only a poet, but has published a wide range of fiction. He has been particularly successful in the novella form. For years too he wrote a column for the Dutch daily, De Volkskrant that formed a highly amusing commentary on topical issues, political and otherwise. He has won many awards, including the most famous, the PC Hooft Prize, for his complete poetic oeuvre (1979), ironically at the end of a period of drought in his poetry.
That Campert has always been associated with the name of a decade is nonetheless somewhat misleading. Although the 1950s – jazz and Paris, the special atmosphere of the post-war period with its combination of hope and cynicism – have remained a vital reference point for him he has always moved with the times. His work as a columnist has fed his poetry, and in any case, his interest in everything that is topical – he has always been a voracious reader of newspapers – has ensured that the date stamp of the 1950s was anything but an expiry date. Since the 1990s his poetry has taken a new turn, becoming more reflective, even elegiac in tone. While his new work also begins in the everyday and the incidental, it often takes off from these to air more universal questions. His themes have changed; the rebellious tone of the writer of the 1950s and 1960s has been replaced by a more intimate and lyrical quest. The irony and humour remain however, together with a refreshing lack of solemnity.
Now in his seventies, Campert continues to write both poetry and fiction. His most recent works are the novellas, Een liefde in Parijs (A Romance in Paris; 2004) and Het satijnen hart (Heart of Satin; 2006). These two novellas read like a diptych – two variations on a similar theme. In the former a writer of 60 is confronted with his past in the form of a forgotten sweetheart; in the latter an aged painter suddenly finds a second wind in his work. Currently he is preparing a new volume of poetry, Nieuwe herinneringen (New Memories) to be published this autumn, 2007.
In an interview with Eveline Brandt ten years ago in the Dutch weekly, De Groene Amsterdammer (2-12-98) he said, “I’m not someone who’s interested in building an oeuvre. I just write about what I come across. And I only write out of a love of writing... It’s a life necessity for me and I can’t imagine ever losing that. If you think of writing as a career, then some day you’ll say, I’m old enough now, I’ve done my bit, from now on I’ll spend my time fishing. As for me, I’ll never stop writing. If I go on living and I definitely hope I do, then I have to write.”
As for Campert’s manner, his poet’s signature as it were, the critic Xandra Schutte puts it in a nutshell: writing in the Dutch weekly, Vrij Nederland, she says, “His great gift is that he writes largely about himself, but does so with so great a distance that it never feels like navel-gazing and so little that he never falls into facile irony. If you want to describe his tone, however, you are chasing a soap bubble.”
Translations of Campert’s poetry have been widely published in France, Italy and Germany but his work has remained little known in the English-speaking world. In the United States he was included in the City Lights Anthology, Nine Dutch Poets. In 1997, This Happened Everywhere, a selection of translations largely of earlier poems by Manfred Wolf, was published Androgyne Books, San Francisco. The last book of his poems to appear in the United Kingdom was in 1968 – The Year of the Strike with translations by John Scott and Graham Martin, published by Rapp and Whiting. This situation was rectified in February 2007 with the appearance of I Dreamed in the Cities at Night, a bilingual collection of largely more recent work in translations by Donald Gardner, published by Arc Publications.
Poetry (a selection)
Vogels vliegen toch, Holland, Haarlem, 1951
Berchtesgaden, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1953
Bij hoog en bij laag, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1959
Dit gebeurde overal, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1962
Hoera hoera, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1965
Betere tijden, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1970
Theater, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1979
Scènes in Hotel Morandi, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1983
Rechterschoenen, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1992
Dichter (Collected Works), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1995
Ode aan mijn jas, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1997
Kus zoekt mond (Selected Works), Maarten Muntinga, Amsterdam, 2000
Over en weer (with Cees Nooteboom), Atlas, Amsterdam, 2004
Nieuwe herinneringen (New Memories), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2007
Een oud geluid (An old story), De Bezige Bij / Poetry International, Amsterdam, 2011
Licht van mijn leven, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2014
Prose (a selection)
Eendjes voeren (stories), De Arbeiderspers/De Boekvink, Amsterdam, 1953
Alle dagen feest (stories), De Arbeiderspers/De Boekvink, Amsterdam, 1955
Een ellendige nietsnut en andere verhalen (stories), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1960
Het leven is vurrukkulluk (novel), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1961
Liefdes schijnbewegingen (novel), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1963
Het gangstermeisje (novel). De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1965
Tjeempie! of Liesje in Luiletterland (novel), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1968
De Harm & Miepje Kurk Story (novel)m, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1983
Somberman's actie (novella). CPNB/De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1985
Eetlezen (columns), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1987
Gouden dagen (novel), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1990
Vele kleintjes (columns), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1994
Ohi, hoho, bang, bang, of Het lied van de vrijheid (novella). De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 1995
Als in een droom (novella), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2000
Beschreven blad (novella), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2002
Een liefde in Parijs (novella), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2004
Het satijnen hart (novella), De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2006
Hôtel du Nord, De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam, 2013
Published translations (a selection; poetry)
In: Cormoran y delfin: revista internacional de poesia (Spanish), translated by Francisco Carrasquer, volume 3, number 9, 1966
In the year of the strike (English), translated by Graham Martin and John Scott. London: Rapp & Whiting, 1968
In: Akzente, Zeitschrift für Literatur (German), translated by Heinz Schneeweiß, volume 21, number 5, 1974
In: Die Horen: Zeitschrift für Literatur, Kunst und Kritik (German), translated by Gregor Laschen, volume 3, number 175, 1994
Städer om aftonen (Swedish), translated by Per Holmer and Lasse Söderberg. Lund: Ellerströms, 1997.
This happened everywhere (English), translated by Manfred Wolf. San Francisco: Androgyne Books, 1997
In: Prometeo. Memorias del IX Festival Internacional de poesía en Medellín (Spanish), translated by Jorge Heredia and Heleen Sittig, volume17, number 54-55, 1999
In: Ars: casopis za knjizevnost, kulturu i drustvena pitanja (Servo Croatian), translated by Ljubomir Durkovic, 2000
In: Ambit (English), translated by Donald Gardner, number181, Summer 2005
I Dreamed in the Cities at Night (English), translated by Donald Gardner. Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2007
Campert’s poems have also been translated into Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Danish, Esperanto, Farsi, French, Greek, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Welsh.
I Dreamed in the Cities at Night at Arc Publications
On Campert as a prose author
Campert at the international Literature Festival Berlin
In Dutch and Spanish
Youtube recording of Campert reading a poem, with Spanish subtitles
De Bezige Bij
Campert’s Publisher: De Bezige Bij