Friday, December 28, 2018

Gripping Jan Yoors Biography

“Without judgment, Dean describes how the polygamous relationship of Jan, Annabert, and Marianne developed and evolved.”

Perfect for a long bus ride to visit my family for the holidays, the memoir, Hidden Tapestry: Jan Yoors, His Two Wives, and the War that Made Them One (Northwestern University Press, 2018) contains corroborated tales that the author, novelist Debra Dean, acknowledges sound improbable. And she’s not even referring to the trio’s unorthodox living arrangement.

Frankly, the first mystery is not how bigamy comes to pass among the bourgeoisie in the Netherlands, but how the friendship of Annabert van Wettum and Jan Yoors that forms at summer camp blossoms into romance after 12 years of separation. Their initial meeting, when Annabert is 7 years old and Jan is 12, is told from Annabert’s point of view although Dean’s source material comes from both parties. As a result, Annabert seems more invested in the relationship. However, one detail tips the scale slightly: after pretending to be married to a fellow camper, Jan assures Annabert that he will marry her one day for real. Later in the biography, the dynamic continues to feel unbalanced: Annabert kept Jan’s photo beside her bed, while Jan called her his “little sister” (p. 101). As Annabert matures, though, the scale tips yet again. After not hearing from Jan for some time because of World War II, Annabert receives a brief update from him and from a friend of his; to the friend, she admits that having met when they were “tiny children,” they “don’t know each other” (p. 103), seeming wise beyond her years. When Annabert and Jan meet again in 1945, she is 18 and he is 23. A delayed reunion makes for a more enticing story, as it allows for a tryst at minimum.

The passage of time before the couple reconnects is not just because of limited travel stemming from the youngsters’ lack of financial independence or from WWII, but also because Jan has a secret life. Captivated when his artist father told him about the Romanji (commonly called ‘gypsies,’ a term contested by some for its arguable racism), Jan sets out to see them with his own eyes near his native Antwerp. He bonds with boys from the Lowara tribe, and a dinner invitation extends to a sleepover. The next morning, in the chaos of a police raid—common for breaking up the congregation of nomadic peoples—Jan is still inside their covered wagon when it takes off. Dean captures the local color of the Lowara, from their feasts to their fortune telling, allowing the reader to appreciate why Jan embraces adventure with them.

Curiously, Jan’s relationship with the Romanji formed outside of his own culture feels more reciprocal than his fauxmance within his culture. His bond with the Lowara tribe deepens when a violent altercation puts Jan at risk and causes the death of one of their own. That the father of the tribe gives Jan a gypsy name and selects a bride for him proves their acceptance of the outsider; Jan declines the latter offer, realizing that he isn’t fully committed to the Romanji lifestyle. Though he leaves the tribe for a while, he crosses paths intentionally with the Lowari and the Romanji more broadly several times throughout the rest of his life. He also writes professionally about their customs to correct existing accounts of the Romanji.

When Jan first parts ways with the Romanji within a year because of harsh winter conditions, his parents, who are described as bohemian (itself coincidentally a pejorative term for the Romanji at one point in time), are startlingly calm to see him return home. They even agree to keep up his ruse by sending Annabert’s letters to Jan to various European locations and by sending his replies out of Antwerp while he travels with the Lowara during the warm months over the next seven years. There is yet another noteworthy tipping of the scale: Annabert records in her diary that Jan was molested by a school priest, which Dean speculates could have spurred Jan to seek escape by following the Romanji. This anecdote suggests that Annabert knows Jan on a deep level, even if clueless about how he spends the majority of each year.

When Marianne Citroen, the third member of the love triangle and Annabert’s childhood friend from school, is introduced, she—like Annabert—appears simple in relation to Jan, whom she does not meet until the couple is engaged. Dean’s writing style changes with the two chapters that introduce Marianne by more than just name, with shorter sentences that feel jarringly abrupt. For example, when her sister died suddenly, Marianne conveyed the news to the maid. Dean writes, “And that was that” (p. 29). At Marianne’s mother’s funeral, she is criticized for crying and Dean writes, “She stopped” (p. 35). A footnote justifies this shift, underscoring its value in evoking childlike simplicity, but it would be helpful to convey the following content within the prose so it isn’t missed: Marianne reveals in an interview that in that era, children were separated from death. “And because you are kept away…” she noted, “you don’t internally grow…I think there was a plug on top of me: nothing drained, nothing grew” (p. 271). In addition to dealing with grief twice in her childhood, Marianne is separated from her Jewish father, when he goes into hiding. A small consolation is that she is surrounded by her original bedroom furniture in two temporary homes. Marianne is reunited with her father but his fate seemed sealed when he is sent to Auschwitz. Miraculously, he survives by doing laundry and being overlooked by guards at the end of the war. As with the local color of the Romanji, Dean conveys the wartime atmosphere effectively. For example, she lists the ingredients Marianne uses to cobble together a birthday dessert for herself during a time of rationing, and she describes people blinking as they emerge after months or years of hiding when liberation is expected from the Allied troops.

Jan also has a difficult wartime experience, which bonds him to Marianne. Because of his connection with the Romanji, he is approached by the British intelligence to encourage the participation of his adopted family in the Nazi resistance. It begins on a small scale, with the Romanji providing food stamps to those in hiding. Then, their involvement expands to blowing up bridges and derailing trains. Jan is devastated by the widespread beatings and deaths of the Romanji when they are caught. Jan, meanwhile, is captured by the Gestapo in Antwerp and imprisoned for six months. His anticipation of torture is as painful to read about as his actual account of torture, which ranges from waterboarding to solitary confinement. In prison, his imagination brings solace as he pictures specific colors of things with a degree of differentiation and reverence that eventually inform his artistic exploration in textiles. Jan is sentenced to death but inexplicably, he is kept alive and permitted to write friends and family. Equally strange, he is released in what may be a case of mistaken identity. He sends a reassuring note to Annabert, Dean writes, so as to not taint her innocence through concern for him. Jan then connects with the Romanji to acquire fake identification to reach Madrid, where he is pulled into intelligence work once more. His new role is to bring people from occupied France to Spain over the mountains, guiding the final group personally with a stranger he approaches along the way. To survive the severe conditions, again, he wills hallucinations about colors. After feasting in Spain, Jan is arrested and sent to a Spanish concentration camp for five weeks. As per usual, Annabert receives a reassuring piece of mail from Spain. In 1945, when he is free at last, Jan makes his way to Annabert in England. Their first kiss is so intense that Jan has to steady Annabert. He becomes honest about his past, professing that he doesn’t want any secrets between them. During their engagement, they travel around Europe so that Jan can show Annabert the places and people important to him from the war. However, he struggles with depression that is likely PTSD, and eventually, he realizes he cannot confide the horrors of the war to his “starry-eyed bride” (p. 137) because doing so literally makes her sick.

While engaged, Jan attends London University, after telling the admissions office that the majority of his transcripts were destroyed in the war. He studies sculpting, painting, international relations, and anthropology. During his trip with Annabert, he settles on becoming an artist. However, his other studies remain significant, for he has been exposed to the pervasiveness of polygamy through anthropology. After what he has endured in the war, Jan is determined to do only what he wanted. Although Dean shares this detail in relation to him skipping class in favor of art making, that rebellious confidence seems to inform his personal life. Jan “wanted to build a new world…one that would be an affirmation of the joy of life, the beauty of the soul and man’s need for beauty” (p. 124).

Without judgment, Dean describes how the polygamous relationship of Jan, Annabert, and Marianne develops and evolves. She regards the women’s respective childhoods as predisposing them to unconventionality, referencing Marianne’s grief and Annabert’s parents’ broken marriage. She speculates that the war further affects their values. Marianne, who is broken by the war and disappointing romantic encounters, feels Jan is the first person to truly hear her when she models for him at Annabert’s request. Annabert’s grandmother warns her that Marianne is going to steal him away from her. Amazingly, Annabert agrees to share him before anything transpires. When Jan first seduces Marianne, he reveals that Annabert had sent him to comfort Marianne. Annabert and Marianne feel he is a genius artist to whom standard rules didn’t apply. Annabert isn’t above jealousy. Marianne feels conflicted and attempts to run away. Marianne’s expired visa gives the trio an opportunity to reflect on their situation when she is forced to leave England. Dean observes that it was through their letters that Marianne is cast as a second wife. Amid family scrutiny, they reunite in the Netherlands, determined to make their polygamous relationship work. Eventually, Marianne becomes Jan’s legal wife when carrying his child; Annabert divorces Jan but includes a note on the envelope with the divorce papers that she loves him very much and she is only doing it so Marianne could marry him. Dean describes sleeping arrangements, public displays of affection, cover stories, run-ins with the authorities, childcare arrangements (both women bare him children), and ambivalence about two additional live-in Japanese lovers. Buy-in for this blogger was difficult, so Dean is wise to end the biography as she does: after Annabert’s death, she shares Annabert’s recollection of a dream in which she discourages Jan from inviting the first of the live-in Japanese lovers to return, stating, “Can we not stay like we are? We [Jan, Marianne, and Annabert] have it so good together” (p. 256).

Acceptance of their marital union is critical, because as Marianne observes, with weaving—a medium that demands precision—“You cannot have your mind wandering away” (p. 179). Jan designs tapestries with modern figures and patterns reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s work, in brilliant colors that recall Georges Rouault. Annabert and Marianne do the majority of the weaving and offer their opinions, taking on a more active role than the typical technician. Dean points out that the polygamous set-up lends itself to the production of tapestries, as weaving was laborious (taking eight hours for both women to weave a square foot) and the women were willing to work without compensation. The self-taught, resourceful trio scrimps and pinches and take on odd jobs as well as side projects when there isn’t sufficient support for Jan’s work. Ultimately, he has a successful career, starting with a solo show in London when he is a student, and securing a solo show in New York in 1953 three years after Jan moves there and two years after his wives follow him. As Jan hobnobs with the likes of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, Annabert and Marianne remain isolated, not even realizing that the Stonewall riots had occurred nearby until a few years after the fact. Jan dies at age 55 from health complications related to neglect during his incarceration and his travels with the Romanji. After three decades as a trio, Annabert and Marianne remain together for another three decades, with 100 designs in the queue and a shared commitment to bolster Jan’s (read: their) legacy.

Source of image reproduced in 2019 via fair use:

No comments:

Post a Comment