Damion Searls, trans
New York Review of Books, 161 pg.
The Dutch author Nescio wrote little over his 79 years, publishing what amounts to a small collection of short stories and a fragment of a novel, itself published as a story. The paucity of his work is both refreshing (no late career disappointments here) and disappointing, for the brilliance of his writing, rendered in Damion Searls excellent translation, leaves one asking, what if there were more? Or maybe its best he left us with his indelible poets and dreamers who are forever watching the colors of the countryside from a Dutch dike.
His reputation rests on three short stories: The Freeloader, Young Titans, and Little Poet. All were written during the 1910-19 and describe the lives of bohemian young me living on the margin and dreaming of become an artistic success. It may sound like well trod ground, but the quality of his writing, almost elegiac, less interested in the physical life, and focused on the spiritual, gives his work a transcendent quality, one that puts you in the same melancholic longing that is part of his reoccurring characters. In The Freeloader, Japi, a man who tries his best to do nothing, lives from friend to friend, handout to handout, trying to do as little as possible. This isn’t the pose of the idle rich who go from event to event, but say they do nothing. Japi just sits and does nothing. Early on he describes himself:
“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. I don’t think either. It’s too bad I have to eat and sleep. I’d rather spend all day and all night just sitting.”
In Japi’s case its something he does rather well. But in Necio’s stories it isn’t something glamours. There’s always the physical realities that impinge on his characters: the weather, the lack of food, the lack of sleep. The only thing that allows a freeloader to survive is exactly what they eschew: money. Nevertheless, Japi’s strange appearances and disappearances, his selfish finishing of the narrator’s last bit of food, tea, or tobacco, all have a certain strange charm. But like most of Nescio’s characters, that freedom is short lived. The narrator notes, Japi wanted to “[s]moke a couple cigars, chat a little…enjoy the sunshine,” but the narrator also knows
You can’t sustain that. He knew [Japi] that. It couldn’t last, it was impossible, you’d need a mountain of money. And he didn’t have one. What his old man might leave him wasn’t worth the trouble. And he, Japi, thought that was just fine. Now he spent his time staring. It’s not like it’s possible to accomplish anything anyway.
The same sense of hopeful youth meeting an indifferent reality permeates The Young Titans. In this story, the narrator, Koekebakker (Cookie Baker), the same narrator through most of the stories, describes the excitement and slow disillusion of hope as he and his friends see their great plans come to nothing.
We were kids-but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic…Was there anything we didn’t want to set to rights? We would show them how it should be.
But life doesn’t go as the men want and they slowly disappear into lives of seeming respectability, their art and works abandoned. Its a melancholy that is pitted against an empty and yet beautiful natural world. If society with its rich men and poor artists is a given, then the cruelest of all things is the countryside.
Every day we longed for something, without knowing what. It got monotonous. Sunrise ans sunset and sunlight on the water and behind the drifting while clouds-monotonous-and the darker skies too, the leaves turning brown and yellow, the bare treetops and poor-soggy fields in the winter-all the things I had seen so many times and though about so many times while I was gone and would see again so many more times, as long as I didn’t die. Who can spend his life watching all these things that constantly repeat themselves, who can keep longing for nothing? Trusting in a God who isn’t there?
The search for a meaning is always there. The search for God, or the seeing of God in little things is a constant refrain. In this sense Nescio’s work reflects back on the romantics who saw something divine in the natural. With Nescio its more of a loss, then a discovery. But when God is revealed in a beautiful sunshine there is a sense of animation in the characters, it is what gives them the spark. Only when they return to the city does that spark dull, grow grey, covered in mud, and diminished to the imperatives to find a cigar or a lump of coal for the fireplace. Ultimately, it is that constant battle rendered in careful prose that makes Nescio’s stories so beautiful.
Perhaps brevity is best, but I can’t help but wish that Nescio published a little more.