In his latest novel, Het lichaam van Clara (Clara’s Body), Jan Siebelink returns to the enchanting, dark atmosphere of his 1975 debut Nachtschade (Nightshade). During his early career as a writer, Siebelink translated Huysmans’s A rebours and the ‘dazzling style, religious preoccupation and glorification of evil’ in this ‘bible of decadence’ made an overwhelming impression on him. Writing took hold of Siebelink – and that black romanticism has never left his work.
In Het lichaam van Clara, Siebelink has chosen a woman as his protagonist. He has done so on previous occasions, as in his 1997 novel Vera, the portrait of a strong and aloof lady from The Hague. Siebelink became so close to this character while he was writing that he found it very difficult to distance himself from her. When he had finished Vera and delivered the book to his publisher, he went to Kijkduin and visited Klein Seinpost, the restaurant that was the setting for the final scene of his novel. ‘I was certain,’ Siebelink said, ‘that I would find Vera there. I had fallen in love with her.’
In Het lichaam van Clara, the opposite happens: sixtytwo- year-old Clara Hofstede, a beautiful woman for her age, with dark eyes in a pale face, is under the impression that Clara, a novel by well-known author Oscar Sprenger, portrays her own life in minute detail. Following a meeting with Sprenger, she develops a romantic obsession with the author.
The novel makes Clara’s susceptibility to delusions all too understandable. She lost a young daughter under strange circumstances. And, little by little, the awful facts of her own childhood seep through. Clara is the daughter of two parents who were both plagued by anxiety, neurosis and obsessions and who inflicted their problems on their little girl. The reader can see why she pushes the boundaries of her personality so far. Clara is promiscuous from a young age, apparently without any guilt, loses herself and starts self-harming. ‘Who am I? All I know is that I cut.’
The beauty of Het lichaam van Clara is that, however far Siebelink might descend into the depths of Clara’s troubled soul, the reader always retains sympathy for her actions and behaviour. You understand her manic counting as an attempt to keep a hold on reality and you follow the twists and turns of her thoughts. And it is not always clear what is delusion and what is truth. The voice of the writer Oscar Sprenger is heard in brief intermezzi and the reader senses a mutual unrequited desire in his words: ‘From an early age, I have observed Clara, spied upon her.’ Clara is a dream woman in the tradition of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Louis Couperus’s Eline Vere, often referred to in this novel. Like these writers, Siebelink has taken care not to make his Clara completely transparent, no matter how clear and bright her name might appear. He makes her tragedy palpable and immerses his readers in Clara’s demise, but he leaves her mystery intact.