The first letter I wrote to Jan Ritsema (1945-2021) dates from February 25, 1991. The first lines of that letter read: ‘Our conversation last week in Scheltema pushed me into the facts, or at least was the catalyst for it. That my texts would be emotional interruptions does not go far enough, they are secretions from a sick person. And if only that illness was something sublime…’
Ritsema had just left Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the time, where he had been artistic director for a short time together with Gerardjan Rijnders – after performances that were less positively received, including Edward II from Christopher Marlowe, he had to leave.
He did not stop directing, for example at the Kaaitheater in Brussels, but he also started a publishing house, Rothschild & Bach. He already had the theater bookshop in the Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg, a bookshop that also specialized in theater texts, but now he also wanted to publish other types of literature.
In the late eighties, Jan had given me a part in a play for children, produced by Huis aan de Amstel, the first time I would be paid for stage work. In the early nineties he appointed me as a setter and jack of all trades in his theater book publishing house. For example, I helped compose Judith Herzberg’s collected plays.
When I let Ritsema read my first own texts, he reacted critically – hardly anyone took my texts seriously at the time, but he did – but about the play The days of Leopold Mangelmann he was enthusiastic, it appeared in 1993 by Rothschild & Bach.
Just before my debut novel, Blue Mondays (1994), I ran into him near the Stedelijk. He said, “It would be nice if that book got good and wasn’t just about whores.”
Bottom out of the can
From the publication of that novel, he was not only a friend, but also my agent. In doing so, he took the position that writers and artists had to make the most of their charm in a charming way, because they never knew when ‘it’ would end.
In 2005 he bought a shelter for unmarried pregnant women in northern France and transformed it into a slightly anarchic residence for artists, scientists and everything in between. He called it PAF, (Performing Arts Forum). He himself preferred to walk around the corridors in a dressing gown and strike up a conversation with the youth here and there. Half patron, half wise from the east.
In 2019, in an email to me, he referred to himself as a hunter who had been cured from hunting. Jan was in love almost all the time and could speak very lyrically about it, so we sometimes had a fight. I doubted, especially as a young man, whether love deserved so much lyricism.
He was one of the few people who knew many of my secrets.
When the people who know your secrets die, a whole new kind of loneliness begins.