I’d only heard the name Nescio whispered here and there over the past few years (and I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of him at all before that). A Dutch master, well-known in his own country, 2012 marks the first time any of Nescio’s work is available in English, even though three of his major works were written before 1920. Then again, as Joseph O’Neill points out in his introduction to this edition, “It seems extraordinary that Nescio should have any reputation.” That’s because this short book (155 pages) contains all of his major work, published and unpublished. Amsterdam Stories (tr. from the Dutch by Damion Searls, 2012) is all we’re going to get, and knowing that this slim collection is the foundation for Nescio’s huge reputation set my expectations pretty high.
Nescio means “I dont’ know” in Latin, and it’s as if this is the response to all of the questions raised in his work (“And so everything takes its little course, and woe to those who ask: Why?”). Nescio is the pseudonym of Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönlof, a very successful director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. From the stories, I’d never guess Grönlof and Nescio were the same person; I would rather suspect that Nescio was one of Grönlof’s employees and that Grönlof was the model for one of the despised bosses in Nescio’s stories, one of those “important gentlemen” who knocks the youth right out of you.
And for much of his life, Grönlof may indeed have been that boss. He wrote so little one can hardly say he lived the life of a writer. His four major works — major both because they form the basis of his reputation and because they are the longest pieces he published — are short stories: “The Freeloader” (thirty-one pages in this edition), “Young Titans” (twenty-eight pages), “Little Poet” (forty-two pages), and “Insula Dei” (twenty-five pages). The remaining five pieces in this collection are tiny, ranging from a paragraph to a couple of pages; some are just excerpts of works in progress that never moved beyond the first burst of inspiration (but the burst is impressive). Though not voluminous, what Nescio did put on paper are some beautiful passages about that brief period in life when one arrives at the threshold of adulthood, filled with vague dreams and hopes for the future, that time when one realizes time is suddenly running out. This is a favorite theme of mine, nicely expressed recently by Steven Millhauser in “Getting Closer” (though there the unfortunate epiphany strikes a boy of only eleven) (my thoughts on “Getting Closer” here).
As fondly as Nescio looks back on this time period when one can still put up a decent, if illusory, fight against the future, Nescio doesn’t romanticize it as we might expect. It was beautiful, sure, but a life spent dreaming by the sea or chatting the evening away with friends in coffee shops, waiting to change the world, is untenable. For one thing, there’s the need for money. And vague dreams cease to fulfill (“Who can spend his life watching these things that constantly repeat themselves, who can keep longing for nothing?”). Of course, the tragedy of it all is that when we do start working to realize our dreams, time continues to move forward and runs out; furthermore, perhaps the very effort we expend to realize our hopes becomes toxic to the dream itself.
The first stories in this collection — “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans” — are my two favorites. They were finished in 1910 and 1914, respectively, when Nescio himself was passing into his early thirties. He had begun working at the Holland-Bombay Trading Company in 1904, was married in 1906, and already had three of his four daughters by 1910 (the fourth came along in 1912). This is the atmosphere in which he ruminated on the never-to-return carefree days of early adulthood (or late childhood). These two stories are narrated by Koekebakker (“cookie baker”), which was apparently Nescio’s first choice as a pseudonym, but it looks like the first magazine he published in objected (the notes say that in Dutch, cookie baker is synonymous with ineptitude).
In “The Freeloader” Koekebakker tells about the most peculiar person he’s ever met (well, “[e]xcept for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe.”), a freeloader named Japi. Koekebakker has a small group of young friends who, like him, are just starting out. They have little money and are already taking life seriously. But into their midst comes Japi, whom one of the friends met by the sea, having seen Japi sitting by the sea so much, it didn’t seem he ever left:
Then Japi had to laugh and he said, “I do sit by the water a lot, but ‘always’ is a bit much. At night I lie in bed, I need an hour to get dressed and eat breakfast, I eat lunch for half an hour and at six I have to eat again. But I do sit by the water a lot.”
Japi refuses the world of responsibility. His goal is to be nothing (“going places and thinking are only for stupid people”). Of course, the only way Japi can survive is by taking whatever he needs from others. He has tried work himself, but he’s not very good at it. Indeed, once when thinking about applying for work Japi even says that he thinks his soul is too big (Koekebakker thinks to himself “Can you believe it? That sponger!”). Yet, though selfish and naïve, what Jopi says is probably true — for all of us, but we shrink into routine office jobs anyway.
The story takes us through the years, and we see these boys turn into relatively successful men, no longer struggling to make money, but no longer certain they’ve ever done anything worth doing. Japi himself becomes, for a time, a very hard worker. There’s simply no other way around this life. But, though Koekebakker recognizes this tragedy, it hits Japi most severely, and later in life he reflects on the passage of time and — why?
And then, with a few variations, he repeated his old reverie about the water, how it flowed eternally to the west, out toward the sun every night. In Nijmegen there was a doctor who had taken the same walk at the same time every morning for fifty-three years — over the Valkhof hill and down the north side and up the Waalkade to the railroad bridge. That’s more than 19,300 times. And always the water flowed to the west. And it didn’t mean anything. It must have flowed like that for a hundred times fifty-three years. Longer. Now there’s a bridge over it. Every year is 365 day; ten years is 3,650 sunrises. Every day is 24 hours, and every hour more goes through the heads of all those constantly worrying people than you could set down in a thousand books. Thousands of worriers who saw that bridge are dead now. And still, it’s only been there a short time.
“Young Titans” goes over similar ground, but it still felt fresh to me (I read it right when I finished “The Freeloader”). Here’s how it begins; Koekebakker (or a version of him) is still our narrator:
We were kids — but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic. Except for Bavink, who went crazy. Was there anything we didn’t want to set to rights? We would show them how it should be. “We”: that meant the five of us. Everyone else was “them,” the ones who didn’t see it, didn’t get it. “What?” Bavink said. “God?” You want to talk about God? Their pot roast is their God.” Other than a few “decent fellows” we despised everyone — and secretly, I still think we were right. But I can’t say that out loud to anyone. I’m not a hero anymore.
Here are five friends we met in “The Freeloader,” but they are either slightly varied or this is before Japi came along (he never shows in “Young Titans”) because when “Young Titans” begins the five young men are still in the early phase of the transition to responsibility, still fairly certain the pathway they’d take through life would somehow stay as free as they then felt. Not that they understood that freedom.
No, we didn’t actually do anything. We did our work at the office, not all that well, for bosses we despised — except Bavink and Hoyer, who had no bosses, and who didn’t understand why we went in to see ours every day.
But we were waiting. For what? We never knew.
“Young Titans” again move us through the years. Some of the friends become very successful “important gentlemen,” running offices now. Koekebakker may be the only one aware enough to see the transition occur and who looks back on that time with what might be suspicion as much as longing. The seaside where they watched the waves is still there, the waves still coming to shore. The hope and contentment they felt was theirs seems to be just an illusion that many had before and many will yet have:
It was a strange time. And when I think about it, I realize that that time must still be happening now, it will last as long as there are young men of nineteen or twenty running around. It’s only for us that the time is long since past.
And if the peace and contentment of youth passes away time and time again, and the world doesn’t do anything about it — indeed, doesn’t seem to notice (“We were gloomy about all the things that had passed, and about our lives, which would end while these things continued to exist.”) — then what is it all for?
Amsterdam Stories is organized chronologically, and “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans” are the earliest works. There are a few short segments before we get to his next major work (and his longest), “Little Poet,” written in 1917. While I missed Koekebakker and his friends, it was also nice to see Nescio move to a different cast of characters to work out his themes, this time including love and lust. It felt darker and a bit more sinister than his earlier work, but it also had some moments of brilliant levity, such as the time when Nescio addresses the reader directly. See, the Little Poet’s wife recopies his work, as did Nescio’s, but the Little Poet’s mind has become unfaithful:
It’s strange, in other stories she reads she doesn’t think things along these lines are that bad. I think it’s because I’m the one who wrote this story. Of course, she knows there’s a difference between the author and Mr. Nescio himself, but to her that’s splitting hairs. It’s a difficult situation. My domestic bliss is somewhat troubled — but still I’ll keep going.
There are a few more short pieces between “Little Poet” and Nescio’s final major work “Insula Dei,” which he wrote in 1942. But for the most part, the 1920s and 1930s were fallow years. Nescio became director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company in 1926 and retired in 1937 (“I’m free, after forty years I’m free, and I can cut my hair whenever I feel like it and let it grow too if I want”). Certainly if at nineteen or twenty Nescio had the dream to live the life of the mind, he recognized what it was like to sacrifice that for a life of making money for a family, though he lamented this fact later in life:
My life is too short, I can’t go any faster, my work is a cathedral and I need a long time, centuries. And how much longer do I have?
It’s as if Nescio himself ran out of time, as if he thought he’d be able to write plenty through life but work came. Then death put a stop to it all. Fortunately for us, his work is available, and though the water is still flowing to the west, we can remember the work Nescio did.