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Arnon Grunberg: Blauwe maandagen (Blue Mondays)

Grunberg allegedly wrote this book for a bet. It amazingly sold 70,000 copies on in its first print run in the Netherlands, a very large amount for a first novel in a small country. The blurb on my copy compares it to Goodbye Columbus. Apart from the fact that it is about a young Jew growing up and is about the sexual desires of its hero (not actually an unusual topic), it has little similar with Roth’s novel. Neil Klugman, hero of Roth’s novel, is a university graduate; Arnon Grunberg, the hero of this novel, is a high school drop-out. Klugman dates a Jewish girl whose parents are trying to assimilate while Grunberg’s girlfriend is not Jewish.

Grunberg tells his presumably highly autobiographical story in a very matter-of-fact way, recounting two periods in his life. The first period is about his later school years. He lives with his parents, his sister having moved to Israel. His parents are Jewish of German origin. While his mother is an observant Jew, Arnon and his father are not, his father, for example, enjoying pork sausages. Much of the story is the simple account of his parents and their activities, which involves a certain amount of travelling, going to Israel for example, and his school days. He does not fit in at school, misbehaving, though not necessarily too aggressively and, more and more playing truant. Things liven up somewhat when he meets Rosie. They play truant together, drinking, smoking and generally drifting around. Amazingly, the teachers, while occasionally suspending him, do not seem to want to come down too hard on him and give him a lot of leeway. Though sex is obviously key, it is not passionate, at least not as described. He and Rosie even set a date five days into the future when they are first going to have intercourse. He looks forward to that date, even if the actual day turns out not to be exactly as planned.

Inevitably, he does get thrown out of school, despite the best efforts of the teachers. The second part of the book describes his life at that time. His father gets ill and dies. He works at a variety of odd jobs, including working for a telephone directory company, reading and reporting on books and, finally, as a male escort. Rosie has moved on, so much of the rest of his time is spent with prostitutes. His dealings with the various prostitutes he uses is conducted in a very business-like manner. Financial arrangements are made and the technical aspects of the activity are described in a straightforward manner, almost as though he were buying his groceries in a shop. Apart from his relationship with his mother – she is lonely and needs him more than he needs her – there really is not much more.

It is a mystery to me why this book did so well. It is not unpleasant reading and fairly interesting to follow the life of a high school dropout but it certainly is not great literature. Perhaps, the Dutch liked it just because it is not the same as other Dutch works, telling the story exactly as a boy/young man would see life, without embellishment or flourish. But it is not for me.

Publishing history

First published in 1994 by Nijgh & Van Ditmar
First published in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1997
Translated by Arnold Pomerans and Erica Pomerans