"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 15, 2014

Amsterdam Stories (incl. The Freeloader, Young Titans and Little Poet) by Nescio (Best Novellas)

Some of the finest stories in the Dutch language were written by someone who was not a professional writer at all, but a businessman. He used the pseudonym "Nescio" (Latin for "I do not know") so as not to jeopardize his business career. Only in 1929, Nescio acknowledged that he was in fact Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh (1882–1961), director of the Holland–Bombay Trading Company. Grönloh was born in Amsterdam as the son of a shopkeeper and - after an idealistic youth that provided the material for his later stories -, joined the said trading Company in 1904, gradually climbing the ladder of success until his retirement in 1937. Grönloh was married and had four daughters.

It was only in his spare-time that Grönloh let himself go, digging out his youthful artistic ideals, and in the process creating a handful of very original and luminous stories that remain popular in the Netherlands and have in recent years also been translated into English. One of his passionate lifelong pursuits was taking long "marathon" walks, often solitary, through Amsterdam and its outskirts and farther afield.

[Statue "The Reading Nescio (1991) by Ronald Tolman in Ubbergen
- Photo Wikipedia]

Central in Nescio's small oeuvre stand the three novellas "De uitvreter" ("The Freeloader"), "Titaantjes" ("Little Titans") and "Dichtertje" ("Little Poet"). These were published together in 1918, but written gradually from 1911. Another published story is "Mene Tekel" ("The Writing on the Wall"), from 1946. And then there are five unpublished stories - all collected in the English translation called Amsterdam Stories. I will concentrate below on the first three stories, as these are the most famous and often published as a set.

"De uitvreter" ("The Freeloader") is about one of the most interesting characters in Dutch literature: Japi, a man who wants nothing at all to do with life, who just wants to sit down all day long and look at the sea. Japi is the perfect bohemian, he has no possessions, no money, nothing - and lives by sponging off his friends, a would-be author called Koekebakker, who is the narrator, and an unsuccessful painter named Bavinck. They belong to a small group of impecunious but idealistic young men who dream of "astounding the world" as artists.

The narrator starts the tale with a sentence that has become famous:
"Except for the man who thought the Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I've never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader." 
Both Koekebakker and Bavink have a weakness for Japi, as he is such an innocent, even when he sleeps in their beds, borrows their raincoats and walks around in their best shoes. The reason Japi has opted out of the system could not be put better than in this statement:
"First you go to school till you're 18 ... I had to learn the strangest things. [...] Then your old man sticks you in an office. And you realize that the reason you learned all those things was so that you could wet slips of paper with a little brush."
Nescio spent his own life among those slips of paper, trapped behind a desk... but the freeloader has no such ambitions: "I am, thank God, absolutely nothing."

But when Japi's ideals start conflicting with the realities of society and he is no longer able to pursue his ideal of doing absolutely nothing, he quietly commits suicide by stepping off a bridge. Bavink keeps struggling with his art, but the narrator is slowly seduced by material comforts. And so the youthful ideals evaporate...

"Titaantjes" ("Little Titans") is a sort of sequel to "De uitvreter" and again features Koekebakker and Bavink, plus several new characters belonging to the same bohemian group: Hoyer, Bekker, and Kees. The narrator reminiscences about his youth, when he and his friends still had their ideals. Now, several years later, they have all failed their ambition in one way or another. Koekebakker is has become journalist instead of a great writer, and Hoyer, a painter, now makes portraits for money and has forgotten he wanted to shake up the world... and Bavink, the only one who tried to hold on to his artistic ideals, has gone mad after being unable to complete the masterpiece (a view of the town of Rhenen) he had been struggling with for so long.

"Dichtertje" ("Little Poet") brings the "God of the Netherlands" on stage, a kind of "Drystubble" figure (see my post on Max Havelaar) who has no affinity at all with the young man he sees walking around on his earth and who wants to be a great poet. Of course our poet fails, for he marries and becomes a bourgeois family man like Nescio - but he still secretly writes poetry. And then his poetic feelings find release in another way: by his falling in love with the younger sister of his wife. It is a very pure love story that - how could it be otherwise - ends in disaster.

In short, these stories are bittersweet accounts of artistic, idealistic young men, their big plans and mad longings, all ending in sadness and resignation. Nescio writes about our complete insignificance in the grand scheme of things - but also that our insignificance doesn't matter, for there is something wonderful in that, too.

Nescio has created the greatest small oeuvre in Dutch literature.

Translation: Damion Searls, published by NYRB Classics (2012). This book contains an introduction by Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland (2008). 
Originals: De Uitvreter in DBNL; Dichtertje, De Uitvreter & Titaantjes at Gutenberg.

Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau