Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A sedate and sensible man - Nescio's Amsterdam Stories

I want to jot down some notes on Nescio, now author of a slender NYRB book titled Amsterdam Stories.  Damion Searls is the translator.  The book is new in English, but most of it is close to a century old in Dutch.

Some or all of Joseph O’Neill’s introduction to the book has been archived at  Slate, so no need to repeat all that.  Just a summary:  important Dutch writer; deft touch with the prose; Nescio not his given name (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh).  He wrote three short stories in the 1910s, and then, to his own surprise, another in 1942 as an oblique response to the Nazi occupation of Holland.  And that is almost everything, almost the complete Nescio.  Four stories.  Nescio is an odd case.

Two stories and a few little sketches are about a group of Amsterdam Bohemians, painters and writers and the like, always told in retrospect:

And when, in that short, balmy night, the darkness turned pale above our heads, Bavink sat with his head in his hands and spoke of the sun, almost sentimentally.  And we thought it was a shame to have to go to bed, people should be able to stay up forever.  That was one of the things we’d change.  Kees was asleep.  (“Young Titans,” 36)

I suppose most readers have run across these fellows in other settings.  The narrator, Koekebakker, like the author, Nescio, is looking back on a world he has left behind:

I remember one day when we, Bavink and I, went to the seaside and half the sun lay big and cold and red on the horizon.  Bavink hit his forehead with his fist and said, “God, God, I’ll never paint that.  I’ll never be able to paint that.”  Now he’s in a mental hospital.  (36-7)

The artists mostly work in offices, resenting their jobs, yearning for something meaningful, a few of them working to create meaning (“No, we didn’t actually do anything”).  The narrator writes, and even publishes, but it does not amount to much:

And old Koekebakker has turned into a sedate and sensible man.  He just writes, receives his humble wages, and doesn’t cause trouble. (62)

Kinda sad.  And this is before the Nazis invade!  The 1942 story is on the same theme, a tussle with the meaningfulness of the past, but now in a world that has become worse in every way.  Nescio sets the story in midwinter (“A gray, icy day”) to rub it in.  All that is important is “ration cards, food, fuel.  And: ‘How much longer”’ (131).  The narrator meets an old friend who is trying to keep hold of, or perhaps re-create, the meaning of his youth, of ideas, literature, and beauty.  It is not clear that he succeeds.  The Nazis are not mentioned until the last line, almost the last words:

When I’m back outside I see, across the street, next to the fence, here in this slum, in the grimy slush, two German naval officers.  (154)

I need to return to this character tomorrow, and to Nescio’s most famous creation, and to the genre of clerk literature, and to Fernando Pessoa.

For real reviews of Amsterdam Stories, please see Trevor Mookse Gripes and The Complete Review.  I believe Nescio was also covered recently in The New York Times Book Review, which is almost shocking.  Good for them.


  1. I thought your Dutch clerk might be from Nescio. Don't ask me why - I haven't read him, but the book is up to bat one of these days.

    Re: your last two lines, and apropos of your post on magazines yesterday: can't someone at the NYT do something about that book review section? I now read it faster than I can read the entire San Francisco Chronicle, and usually with less interest. And if you've ever read the Chronicle, you know that is not a good thing.

  2. Nescio plays with some deeply Pessoan ideas. We shall see if I can pull that post together sensibly.

    As for the NYT Book Review, "das ist ein zu weites Feld," as Papa Briest says at the end of Effi Briest. That is too big a subject, that is too wide a field.

  3. Four stories? Over a lifetime? There's obviously hope for me yet...

  4. Tony, his collected works are "two substantial volumes," but one of them is his 1946-55 "Nature Diary" which "was a revelation to Dutch readers."

    So, yes, hope. One volume is your blog, the other your four best stories, To Be Written.