Back to Their Desks

Benjamin Moser

  • Amsterdam Stories by Nescio, translated by Damion Searls
    NYRB, 161 pp, £7.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 1 59017 492 0

After publishing a handful of stories around the time of the First World War, Fritz Grönloh, an Amsterdam businessman, wrote almost nothing until his death in 1961. His small body of work is about artistic abortion and the frivolity of writerly dreams. And his pseudonym with its built-in negative contained this resignation. Nescio is Latin for ‘I don’t know’; and in his stories not-knowing, not-doing approaches a metaphysical ideal. ‘I’m not a poet and I’m not a nature-lover and I’m not an anarchist,’ says Japi, whose nickname gives the title to ‘The Freeloader’, the first of the Nescio stories published in Amsterdam Stories. ‘I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually I do much too much. I’m busy overcoming the body. The best thing is to just sit still; going places and thinking are only for stupid people.’

Japi’s friends, struggling painters and writers, are bemused by his unapologetic way of munching on their last piece of sausage or puffing on their last cigar; his lack of ambition seems a commentary on the vanity of theirs. They must succeed, because a windowless bureaucratic existence is their only alternative. Here is Japi on his education:

Then your old man sticks you in an office. And you realise that the reason you learned all those things was so that you could wet slips of paper with a little brush. And it’s always the same old routine, be there nine o’clock sharp, sit there quietly for hours and hours. I realised I couldn’t do it. I was always late, I really tried to get there on time but it never happened, it had been going on too long. And so boring. They said I did everything wrong and I’m sure they were right about that. I wanted to but I couldn’t do it.

But Japi hasn’t renounced this death-in-life for the soulful existence of the artist: that is just as blank and hopeless. His friends know it, but they persevere, not only for lack of better options but because they feel an inner necessity. Bavink, a painter, ‘wished he could just give up painting, but that wasn’t so simple either: what’s inside you wants to come out.’

The downfall of these would-be artists is money. As Koekebakker, the narrator of ‘Young Titans’, says: ‘There’s a lot a person needs.’ Attempts to avoid those needs fail, one after another. Some characters try a bucolic life on the heath. Some dream of a better life in America, or of socialism; some of the fulfilment of love and sex; some of a life of writing and painting and poetry; others of a life of wandering and walking. All, eventually, succumb to their boring, unavoidable needs.

Far better, Nescio suggests, quietly to take up the yoke. His backward glances at the age of youthful dreams made his work a staple in Dutch secondary schools, in part because he dramatises the questions that emerge most painfully in adolescence, but never entirely disappear. What, his characters ask, am I supposed to do with myself? The answer for Nescio was to disappear into the office. Born in Amsterdam in 1882, he floated around various world-improving organisations until, in 1904, he found a respectable job at the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In Dutch literary studies, this firm has a status something like that of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company that employed Wallace Stevens. Like Stevens, who remained at the company for 39 years and eventually rose to become its vice-president, Nescio was not a mere clerk: in 1926, he became co-director, and remained a director until 1937, when, tormented by chronic headaches, he took a less arduous position. He finally retired 44 years after joining the company.

In his early years in the office, he managed to continue writing and publishing. ‘The Freeloader’ appeared in a literary magazine in 1911, and ‘Young Titans’ followed in 1915. Together with a third, ‘Little Poet’, these stories were published as a book in 1918. In a few days in 1942 he wrote ‘Insula Dei’, and in 1946 published a fragment, ‘The Writing on the Wall’.

Despite attempts to discover more work, nothing much surfaced after his death in 1961 except an extraordinary Nature Diary, published in 1996, which makes clear that Nescio shared with his characters a passion for wandering. The scholar Paul Eyckens has d0cumented Nescio’s obsession: in 1899, the year he finished his commercial qualification, he walked 522 kilometres. He seems to have escaped his cares as a husband and father of four this way. After his death, a friend wrote:

I wonder whether Nescio ever really realised how much support and dedication he received from Aagje Tiket, his wife, who, in a long marriage, let him – with his inborn compulsion to restless wandering – go free, keeping herself modestly in the background. Nescio accepted her dedication as something that went without saying. On holidays and Sundays he went off by himself, out of a need for solitude.

By the time he was 20, Nescio had already written a story called ‘Longing’. All his work would have an elegiac tone, but he mocks youthful idealism as much as he mourns it. ‘It was a strange time,’ Koekebakker says in ‘Young Titans’. ‘And when I think about it, I realise that that time must still be happening now, it will last as long as there are young men of 19 or 20 running around. It’s only for us that the time is long since past.’

These young men – Bekker, who ‘would translate Dante as he had never been translated before’; Bavink, obsessively working on a landscape painting called View of Rhenen; Hoyer, who was ‘going to work on his social duty’ – were burning with ambition, ‘doing our best to believe that we would still manage to accomplish something, really something’, Koekebakker says. ‘We would shock the world, unimpressive as we were.’ The society they live in isn’t conducive to their ambitions. Their Amsterdam, a city long associated in the foreign mind with the well-padded bourgeoisie, is as shabby as the Paris of Lost Illusions, the St Petersburg of Crime and Punishment, or the London of Oliver Twist: ‘I had no stove and my summer coat was still at the pawnshop,’ Koekebakker says. ‘I had never owned a winter coat. The frost was a problem; you had to stay in bed out of poverty.’ No stoves, no coats, taking turns ‘drinking jenever out of the one beer glass Bavink had left’: in this world, the boast that ‘an artist belongs at the centre of modern life’ is a sad delusion.

Holland’s Golden Age is dimly reflected in the tin of the present. Bekker tells Koekebakker ‘about The Arrival of Queen Wilhelmina at Frederiksplein, Eerelman’s painting, the one with the ad for ODOL mouthwash painted on it so naturally. Wouldn’t that be a lovely painting to hang in a fancy pharmacy, he said.’ To stand out in this society wasn’t much to boast about: the little poet, ‘grim as the title of his book, Genghis Khan’, could look forward at best to ‘circulating among the library subscribers in Velp’.

Even the God of this world is small scale. ‘Little Poet’ is told from his perspective, as he regards the silly goings-on of the Dutch with a jaded eye, and then, ‘with a sigh, turned back to the manuscript of a thick book about Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management and started reading’.

Your God, your boss’s God and your father-in-law’s God and your boss’s accountant’s God … The God who resents that you have Saturday afternoons off, the God of Professor Volmer, lecturer in accounting and business, who thinks you spend too much time looking up at the sky. The God of everyone who has no other option besides work or boredom. The God of the Netherlands, of all of the Netherlands, from Surhuis moor down to Spekholz heath, the patron and benefactor of the League of Heads of Large Families and of the Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women.

Nescio’s stories involve suicides, fallen women and artists who end up in madhouses, yet the experience of reading them is anything but gloomy. And credit for this belongs nearly as much to the translator, Damion Searls, as to Nescio himself. Partly this has to do with a historical peculiarity of the Dutch language. Nescio, according to Eyckens, bore ‘the heavy influence of his Dutch teacher, Mr R.A. Kollewijn, founder of simplified spelling’. The apparently laudable movement to reform Dutch spelling – never particularly complicated, compared to English or French – resulted in chaos that continues to this day. There were official language reforms in 1934, 1947, 1955, 1996 and 2006, along with all kinds of minor alterations: by socialists, by Belgians, by South Africans, by the Association for Scientific Spelling. The reasons for these reforms are complex, but their results have been straightforward. It’s far harder for a Dutch-speaker today to read a book written a hundred years ago than it is for us to read T.S. Eliot or Henry James. This is particularly the case with a writer like Nescio, who was committed to reformed spelling, including reforms that never took root. To take a sentence at random from ‘Little Poet’:

En toen werti zoo kwaad op alle levende en doode dingen, datti z’n eindelooze erotiek onderbrak en een grimmig boek schreef, dat ‘m in eens beroemd maakte.

In Searls’s translation:

And then he got so enraged at everything, living and dead, that he interrupted his endless eroticism and wrote a grim and bitter little book that made him famous right away.

The Dutch presents two problems. The first is to do with words whose then standard spellings have been reformed: zoo, doode and eindelooze. The second is the deliberate misspelling that is a hallmark of Nescio’s style: werti and datti, ‘he became’ and ‘that he’. These would normally be written werd hij and dat hij but pronounced as Nescio writes them. Today, informally, they could be written werd-ie and dat-ie. The sentence is entirely comprehensible, especially when read aloud. But, on the page, the presence of five irregularly spelled words in a single sentence – a typical number – is distracting, and Nescio’s updates, daring in 1909, seem tiresome.

The cumulative effect of a century’s reforms has been to cut the Dutch off from their literature. Outside schools, the most commonly read book is probably Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, published in 1860, the same year as The Woman in White. Beyond that is the realm of specialists. Except for the most hardily aspirational reader, literature begins in the second third of the 20th century. As Searls shows, however, Dutch writers are as much part of the canon of modernism as figures whose work did not rely on translators: Rietveld in architecture, Van Doesburg and De Stijl in design, Mondrian in painting. They share an affection for the imperfect and the unpolished, a hallmark, in all the arts, of the early 20th century.

‘The only work which succeeds,’ Cocteau wrote, ‘is that which fails.’ The dictum is literally true for Nescio’s characters. Bavink, having cut his View of Rhenen to pieces, is committed to an institution. ‘His paintings fetch a high price nowadays,’ the dry-eyed author tells us. The little poet dies. ‘The people in Delft or Oldenzaal were proven gloriously correct. He was definitely never quite right in the head.’ Yet, though it means nothing to him, he too succeeds by failing. ‘His book is in its fourth printing and his collected poems have been published too, with an introduction by Professor Scharten.’

Nescio’s contempt for Oldenzaal and Professor Scharten and the library subscribers in Velp – complaining about the smallness of Holland is a trope in Dutch literature – also masks frustration at his own failure. ‘It’s not like it’s possible to accomplish anything anyway,’ Japi the freeloader shrugs. And Nescio begins an unfinished novel with a declaration of the work’s impossibility:

It was back when I was still planning to write the big thick book that I’ll never write and that you have to have written to become famous, or so they say. A big novel made of reinforced concrete, two volumes if possible, and epic, really epic – the epic saga is the highest genre of literature, I read that somewhere too, more than once.

Needless to say, this book never gets off the ground. The fragment – all of two pages long – leaves the reader to wonder what Nescio might have achieved had he overcome his sense of futility and written his ‘big thick book’. Reading what he did produce is like looking at The Potato Eaters, the moody, dark picture that launched Van Gogh’s career. In both, a depiction of Dutch misery announces a great talent. Nescio’s, however, apparently leads nowhere. Van Gogh’s is a 19th-century life. It would fit an opera: struggle, disease, death, apotheosis. Nescio’s – fragments, failures, long stints in the office – belongs to the 20th. Kafka, born a year after Nescio in 1883, was an insurance company employee whose literary work consists mostly of fragments; Fernando Pessoa, born in 1888, was a translator of commercial correspondence for an import-export house, whose literary legacy came in the form of snippets of paper stuffed in a chest. In the visual arts, the scrap of paper would make the collages of Kurt Schwitters, born 1887; in dance, the broken gesture would be the signature of Nijinsky, born 1889; in music, of Stravinsky, born five days before Nescio.

Where Wallace Stevens’s devotion to his day job seems touchingly American, the exit Nescio suggests from this broken world is almost stereotypically Dutch. He sees no better solution for most of these dreamers than getting back to their desks. For a lucky few, there is the death of a rich relative: ‘Only Hoyer’ – he of the ‘social duty’ – ‘knows what it all adds up to. He inherited some money, now he’s loaded. He’s a member of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party, and he reads the People.’

Rent subsidies, health insurance and Sundays off guaranteed that Nescio’s grandchildren in Holland would not have to stay in bed because of the cold; and that the little poets among them would enjoy generous scholarships to creative writing programmes. Would Nescio, thus encouraged, have persevered? Perhaps, but if he had he would have belonged to an entirely different age, and not been an emblematic modernist. Today his book’s very incompleteness makes it seem whole, and his ambiguity about ‘the life of the mind’ all the more poignant. He knew just how pointless it was. Or did he? ‘A figment of the imagination?’ one of his narrators wonders. ‘Is there anything else in life?’