I see that I am late for Dutch Reading Month. Iris already has a wrap up post! I will try to be more punctual about Spanish Literature Month. Great literature, though, is timeless, or so I have heard, so I will plunge forward.
I had the luck of coming across a book that complemented some earlier reading. In Cees Noteboom’s The Following Story (1991) a Dutch travel writer finds himself magically transported to a Lisbon hotel room, the same one he once shared with a woman he loved: “they were still there, the vapid portrait of that overestimated seventeenth-century poet Camões, and the engraving of the great Lisbon earthquake with minute faceless creatures scattering in all directions to escape the toppling buildings” (19). The narrator, Herman Mussert, is also a classicist – Ovid’s Metamorphoses is his “bible, one that really helps” (18) – so I understand his grotesque error.*
In more than one place Harold Bloom has argued that we read as a way to prepare for death. The Following Story is the most literal novel on that subject that I have ever encountered. The novel is almost entirely about literature (and death), even though the ordinary boundaries of life interfere with literature in all the usual ways. Pessoa is invoked, as is Plato and, over and over, in some detail (“See Book XV, verses 60-64” (18)), Ovid, as the narrator undergoes a metamorphosis of his own.
A particularly ingenious scene near the end interweaves Mussert’s intimate knowledge of Ovid with the names and meaning of the constellations. A scholar of Chinese poetry happens to be present, allowing Noteboom to sidestep the Western canon and Western constellations for a moment. The Charioteer is transformed into the Pool of Heaven, as described, the Chinese professor tells us, by the poet Qu Yuan:
“One of our classics. Earlier than your Ovid.”
He sounded apologetic. (81)
The title of the post also comes from this character (p. 83). It perhaps offers a solution to a common reader’s lament.
Tony, of the Reading List, recently wrote about the bad excuses some readers have cooked up for avoiding translations, a puzzle given the one irrefutable not excuse but reason for not reading a book in translation, or any book at all: “I’m doing something else.”** Noteboom’s novel fails two of Tony’s three arguments in favor of literature in translation, the instrumental reasons (cultural experience – Noteboom actually makes some subtle and amusing criticisms of the act of foreign travel! – and alternative perspectives), but it meets the third – it is a well-written novel.
Ina Rilke is the translator.
* The overestimated sixteenth century poet!
** The conversation was continued by Amanda at Simple Pastimes and by Jillian, who accuses me of making literature less popular and "read[ing] with ego rather than earnestness" – that last word is inaccurate, at least; I read with irony.