Nescio, Koekebakker, J.H.F. Grönloh. Writing only in his spare time, he was known to most of the world as a respectable and prominent businessman, the director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company: exactly the kind of man whom his early protagonists would scorn, and at whom his later protagonists would smile grimly, knowing that “respectability” is society’s code-word for “half-stifled misery.” Producing only a few short stories, he went largely unnoticed during his lifetime, only posthumously gaining a place in the canon of Dutch literature. Now, his poignant and subtly humorous Amsterdam Stories have finally been brought to an English-speaking audience by Damion Searls, an award-winning translator who works with German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch texts.
The nine stories and novellas of this collection, arranged in chronological order of their writing, come together to form a composite portrait of a single life — quite transparently a version of Nescio’s own. In his early stories, such as “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans,” the narrator is Koekebakker, who is idealistic, poor, and (mostly) happy, confident as he is “going to do something_” with his life. A vague, beautiful something that animates him and his group of four like-minded friends. The narrator looks back on this youth with jaded wistfulness: “We were kids — but good kids . . . We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic.” But in spite of this cynicism, it is surprisingly easy to get caught up in the half-baked ideas and humorous antics of Koekebakker & Co. They are a bit ridiculous, especially seen from the narrator’s half-bitter, half-indulgent viewpoint, but they are sincere, delightful, and recognizably _real. The exception of course is Japi, the exasperating but fascinating “freeloader” of the collection’s first story, who is more allegory than man. He observes, he sits, he walks. He borrows money, smokes other people’s cigars, and takes his friend’s cloak when they are walking in the rain. And, when the world catches up with him and tries to pin him down into a job, he quietly and almost cheerfully steps off a bridge. A simple (even silly) story, but Nescio pulls it off with grace and warmth.
By “Little Poet,” written when Nescio was thirty-five, the narrator begins to lose his wistful nature and takes a more openly mocking stance toward his protagonist, and possibly against poetry in general. He leaves Koekebakker and his group behind, moving on to a nameless, doomed young poet, whom he pokes fun at mercilessly. One of the conduits of this fun-poking is the God of the Netherlands, who can’t seem to understand why he bothers to keep creating poets, particularly the meek, boyish breed like the Little Poet in question:
Twice the God of the Netherlands shook his venerable head and twice his long venerable muttonchops slid back and forth across his vest.
bq. It didn’t add up. There must be a mistake somewhere. A poet with no hair, that was very strange. The God of the Netherlands hadn’t cared much for poets for thirty years. You could no longer tell what to make of them. Respectable or disrespectable? Impossible to say . . .
God sighed. He’d have to talk it over with a real poet tomorrow. Maybe Potgieter . . .
Look, there goes the little poet. A handsome young man, you have to admit: thin, with a nicely shaved boyish face except for a pair of flying buttresses in front of his years, and so suntanned. He greets someone, tilting his straw hat a fraction about his close-cut hair.
Bizarre—so little hair—but it definitely was a little poet because God couldn’t figure him out, or Potgieter either. And Professor Volmer wanted nothing to do with him.
At one point, the Little Poet is walking down the street when he sees a group of women sitting outside a cafe and prays silently, “Oh God . . . what if you performed a miracle now, what if all their clothes suddenly fell off?” The narrator hedges this oh-so-scandalous thought playfully, writing in an aside: “You and I, dear reader, never think such things. And my dear lady readers . . . Mercy me, perish the thought.”
In his later stories, his writing begins to take on a different character. By “Insula Dei,” written twenty-five years and two World Wars later, his tone is bitter, though not unsentimental: Nescio has become an old man who cannot understand how his life — the shining promise he saw in his youth — has blinked past him. His nostalgia is more morbid now, colored as it is by war, hunger, and age. Reminiscing with the narrator about their youth, his friend Flip laments: “Back then we died of consumption, not tuberculosis.” Nescio’s skill lies in his ability to make even this macabre thought a thing of beauty.
As the title suggests, this is, in a sense, also a “city book” after the fashion of Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (New York) and Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (St. Petersburg). These authors live and breathe their cities, and these works draw their readers onto the streets, into their cafes and parks and back alleys. Nescio accomplishes this with beautiful subtleness; Amsterdam is never the focus of his tales, but remains an unobtrusive but constant and compelling presence.
All in all, Nescio’s stories — often tragic but always beautiful — linger in the mind. They do not seem to have been composed; rather, they unfold with the grace of inevitability. Their melancholy weight means that they are best consumed slowly, leaving time between the stories to allow them to settle and be absorbed. At only 155 pages, this slim volume has a quiet power to match that of the most sweeping of Great Novels.