Monday, July 2, 2012

He is a great poet; in a future life you should really study him - Cees Noteboom's The Following Story

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.


  1. I like Noteboom ,I had a interview with him last year on the blog ,I not read this so find it hard to comment on other than the fact I ve read a number of his other books and not found a dud one yet and if it wasn't for translation I wouldn't have read as my dutch is limited to a few words ,look forward to your Spanish choices ,all the best stu

  2. AT one point in my life I read piles of books like this one - the Modernist European Calvino Robbe-Grillet Beckett stuff - and I surely would have gotten to Noteboom eventually. Good stuff.

    Spanish will be poetry, all poetry, I think.

  3. This one sounds a little meatier than my choice ('Lost Paradise'), but it's good to know that Nooteboom is worth persevering with. And I am amused to see that the ripples of my little post are still gently expanding to areas of the blogosphere I was unaware existed...

  4. I am truly sorry to say that this book is one that I struggled, and failed, to understand. I wanted to appreciate it and did during the first half. But by the time the narrator is on the boat, I had lost the plot. I know plot is not your thing, Tom, but help me out here. What is happening at the end? I've been longing for someone I know to read it so I could ask.

  5. At the end of the novel, each of the recently deceased tells his story, whatever that story might be, to the angel of death or Persephone - a female representative of the afterlife. The telling of the story releases the person into the next stage of death. The narrator is last, and the book ends as he begins to tell his own story, "the following story," which is the story we just finished.

    Then there's some plotty stuff about an affair and adultery and so on, the usual curse of "significant" plotting. At least no one turned out to be hiding his past as a Nazi collaborator or something equally cheap.

    Speaking of significance - yes, Tony, that was a significant post!

    1. Ohhhhhh....... I see at last! Well yes, thank goodness for no Nazi collaborators. Thank you, AR. Much appreciated. Have a fabulous time in la belle France.

    2. Ah, but did it broaden the horizons and give different cultural perspectives? ;)

    3. Tony - yes, it kinda did.

      litlove - so it helps that I had seen a very similar treatment of the theme, published, come to think of it, around in the same time, in Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics. The female Death who appears differently to each person, etc. Kids - keep reading those comic books! You never know.

  6. After following all the links, I was amused to see the (to my mind) relatively innocuous pebble that started this landslide of translation-angst.

    "that last word is inaccurate, at least; I read with irony" - but is your irony sincere, Tom?

  7. No my irony is also ironic. Or,no, my irony is - I don't even know anymore.

    A lot of unnecessary weight got attached to the word "serious" in that chain. I tried to leave a comment at Jillian's to clear away some of the rubble, but Wordpress must have turned it into lunchmeat.