Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer is a poet and writer. Distinguished in nearly every genre imaginable, he is one of the most celebrated authors of the Dutch language and is recognized as one of the most compelling voices in contemporary Dutch literature. He has more than forty titles to his name, including poetry, novels, short stories, plays, essays, scientific studies, columns, translations and anthologies. Exhibiting a powerful style and classical command of form, his work has contributed to literary revival and growing engagement, both of which are explicitly expressed in his work as a columnist and television documentary maker as well.
Anyone seeking constants in his multifaceted work, apart from the intense imagery and musicality of his sentences and the suppleness of his style, will notice that, in much of his work, he is constantly exploring the tension between fact and fiction. Not only is this a form of literary playfulness, it is also as an investigation into the blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality, a fascinating and alarming sign of the times. For Pfeijffer, the act of writing, storytelling and composing verse is never obscured into something that goes without saying. Like the architect of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, who installed the building’s infrastructure on the outside for all to see, he adheres more often than not to an explicit theme or motivation. This makes his work innovative, layered and treacherous.
Pfeijffer was born in 1968 in Rijswijk, near The Hague. He studied classics at Leiden University, where he earned his PhD in 1996 with a dissertation on the archaic Greek poet Pindar and worked as a researcher and teacher of Ancient Greek until 2004. In 2008, he moved to the northern Italian port city of Genoa, where he has lived and worked ever since.
His poetry debut Van de vierkante man (1998) won the C. Buddingh’ Prize and his debut novel, Rupert, een bekentenis (2002), was awarded the Anton Wachter Prize. He is the only Dutch author who has won major debut prizes for both poetry and prose. Following his third poetry collection, he received the German Bundesland Nordrhein-Westfahlen oeuvre prize in 2002. His third novel, Het grote baggerboek (2004), caused a sensation through its uncompromising experimentation with language. It was nominated for major Dutch and Belgian prizes for the best book of the year and also for the Goeden Doerian prize for the worst book of the year. In the end, he won the Tzum Prize for the year’s best sentence.
Following his complex and polyphonic novel Het ware leven, een roman (2006), he experienced an international breakthrough with La Superba (2013). This novel, centred around the theme of migration in Genoa, won the Libris Literature Prize, a prestigious prize awarded every five years by the Royal Academy of Belgium, as well as the Tzum Prize for the best sentence, making him the only author to have ever won it twice. The book was a bestseller and has been published in several countries, including the United States, Germany and Italy.
While his early poetry is marked by baroque opulence, bravado, free forms and compelling oracular obscurity, his more recent work written under the bright sun of his new home in Genoa is known for the musicality of its rhyme and metre and the monumental eloquence of its classical forms. In 2015, he was featured during poetry week, for which he wrote Giro giro tondo, een obsessie, a classical sonnet cycle about the cynical circle of love. Around the same time, he published another poetry collection, Idyllen, nieuwe poëzie, consisting of fifty long, narrative poems about the sea composed in rhyming alexandrine verse. The collection pairs poetic eloquence with political and social engagement. He won every prize there was to win for this work, including the VSB Poetry Prize, and the collection became a bestseller. Pfeijffer is one of very few authors who have won major annual prizes for both poetry and prose, such as the Libris and the VSB.
His career as a playwright began in 2007 when he wrote two plays in collaboration with the Annette Speelt theatre company. In Genoa, he created two plays in Italian and in the Netherlands, he worked together with Het Nationale Toneel and Toneelgroep Maastricht, where he is currently serving as house playwright. The richness of language and dramatic power of his plays are comparable to those of Shakespeare. He got awarded with the Taalunie Toneelschrijfprijs (National award for best theatre script) for De Advocaat (The Attorney) 2017, with which he is now lauded in all traditional literary genres: prose, poetry as well as drama.
Pfeijffer has also been singer Ellen van Damme’s designated lyricist since 2006. Their joint album Durf jij? became a gold record. He has published essays on poetry, and as an anthologist, he has compiled an overview of modern Dutch poetry: De Nederlandse poëzie van de twintigste en eenentwintigse eeuw in 1000 en enige gedichten (2016).
His work’s characteristic social engagement was recognized in 2015 when he won the E. du Perron Prize for the Idyllen poetry collection, his columns and his compilation of texts on immigration titled Gelukzoekers.
His most recent work includes Brieven uit Genoa (2016), an epistolary autobiography published in a series by Privé Domein, and Peachez, een romance (2017), a novel about the complex relationship between fantasy and reality in love and faith. It has been called the most romantic book of the year. He is currently working on a novel on the theme of tourism under the working title Grand Hotel Europa and on a second Idyllen collection.