Source of book: I own this.
Believe it or not, I think this was one of the very first books that I put on my “library reading list”: the books that I want to read, but do not own at the time. I have ended up purchasing some of these for various reasons. Obviously, if I really love a book and want to make it part of my collection, I will purchase it. For others, however, I end up purchasing them because I get tired of waiting for our local library system to add it to their collection. Unfortunately, libraries tend to be low priorities for local government. They aren’t as sexy as sports arenas, or as necessary to keep white people from freaking out, like law enforcement. (In fact, only the court system seems more underfunded locally than our libraries.) Kern County is one of the worst in California in library funding. While the greater San Joaquin Valley library system is a bit better - and you can order books from all of them - it still has some puzzling omissions. I don’t mean to throw shade at our local librarians, who I think do the best they can with their resources and the constraints of public preference for boilerplate dreck. But I still can’t figure out why this book never did get purchased in the nine years since it was republished in English.
So, who was Nescio? (Pronounced NES-kio) Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh was born in 1882 in Amsterdam, and lived in relative obscurity most of his life. He worked his way up from a clerk position to eventually become a director of an export firm that sold Dutch goods in India. He lived nearly all his life in Amsterdam, although he was a legendary walker, logging hundreds of kilometers a year on foot. By all the usual standards, he was a successful and boring petit bourgeoise, lived to nearly 80, yet was unremarkable. But, he also wrote. A little. Not much, but some. It didn’t make a huge splash at the time. In fact, his reputation as a writer really only took off after his death.
Not wishing to mix his writing with his career in trade, he took on the pseudonym “Nescio,” Latin for “I don’t know.” Most of his writing was done in the 1910s, when he was middle aged. He then had two decades of nothing, then a few more in the late 1930s and early 40s, when he was about to retire. This second burst was smaller than the first. All told, he left behind fewer than 200 pages of works, but these works are now considered to be some of the finest the Netherlands have produced.
Nescio was a contemporary of Kafka and Joyce, and there are definitely some commonalities, although Nescio’s voice is distinctive.
The book I have collects the major works, with a few short and minor omissions. Damion Searls translated them into English. It was the introduction by Joseph O’Neill, however, that first brought this book to my attention when Slate.com published it back in 2012. I put it on my list, hoping that the library would get it. No such luck. So, instead, I kept my eyes open for an inexpensive used copy and added it to the library.
This edition contains the four longer short stories, a handful of vignettes, and a short passage from an unfinished novel.
The first two longer works, “The Freeloader,” and “Young Titans,” and the shorter “The Writing on the Wall,” and “Out Along the Ij,” are all part of a single story, so to speak. They feature the narrator, Koekebakker (cookie-baker), a stand-in for Nescio, and his young friends, back in the glory days before they had to settle down to desk jobs. Nescio was at best ambivalent about his desk job, and let his ennui out in his writing. He never did go so far as to join the Anarchists, but he was fascinated with the Fabian societies of his day. He actually applied to join a colony, but was rejected.
“The Freeloader” is about a feckless young man, Japi, who wishes to do absolutely nothing. He descends on Koekebakker and his friends, and sponges, yet provides a verve that they can’t resist. Here is the opening:
Except for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I’ve never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader.
The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal and peered into your cupboards and borrowed your money and wore out your shoes and took your coat when he had to go home in the rain. The freeloader who always ordered in someone else’s name, who sat and drank jenever like a prince at the outdoor tables of the Hollandais on other people’s tabs, who borrowed umbrellas and never brought them back, who heated Bavink’s secondhand stove until it cracked, who wore his brother’s double collars and loaned out Appi’s books, and took trips abroad whenever he’d hit up his old man for money again, and wore suits he never paid for.
Japi, to his credit, is perfectly up front about his lack of ambition. After the aspiring painter Bavink asks him if he paints, he replies.
“No, thank God. And I’m not a potent and I’m not a nature-lover and I’m not an anarchist. I am, thank God, absolutely nothing.”
“No, Japi said, “I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually, I do too much. I am busy overcoming the body. The best thing is to 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.”
Eventually, financial necessity forces Japi to try a desk job, but he botches it so badly that when he finally quits, everyone is relieved. He has some money, though, so he takes a trip.
“I’m going to Friesland.” “In the middle of winter?” Japi nodded. “To do what?” He shrugged his shoulders. “Do? Nothing. All you people are so pathetically sensible: everything needs a reason and a purpose. I’m going to Friesland, not to do anything, not for anything. No reason. Because I feel like it.”
I’m afraid I am one of those pathetically sensible sorts who plans to do things. Oh well. Japi doesn’t end well, I’m afraid. Feckless young men eventually have to adapt or they become pathetic old men.
The next longer story, “Young Titans,” is also about the same group (minus Japi.) Koekebakker and Bavink and Kees and Bekker and Hoyer are on the cusp of becoming respectable, getting jobs, and so on. They aren’t taking it terribly well, though, and the tension between idealistic and unfocused youth, and taking a place in the societal machine is palpable. It’s not so much a story with a plot as a moment in time, and a beautifully represented one too.
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.
Man, I have been feeling that way lately, as my older kids prepare to go to college, and even my youngest is in double digits. That time is theirs now, not mine. (Although my present time isn’t bad - I’m definitely not as listless in a desk job as many, and I really do have a good life.) It’s just seeing the next generation at that magical and fragile time. Nescio also makes a great description of being the new guy in an office.
But we were poor. Bekker and I had to spend most of our time at the office and do whatever those gentlemen said, and listen to their ridiculous opinions when they talked to each other, and put up with the fact that they thought they were much more clever and capable than we were. And when they thought it was cold then all the windows had to be shut and in the winter the lights had to come on much too early and the curtains had to be pulled shut so we couldn’t see the red sky and the twilight in the streets and we had no say in it at all.
And we had to live on streets that were too narrow, with a view of the oilcloth curtains across the street and the tasseled fringe and the potted aspidistra with an impossible flower on top.
Oh, we took our revenge, we learned languages they had never even heard of and we read books they couldn’t even begin to understand, we experienced feelings they never knew existed. On Sundays we walked for hours on paths where they never went, and at the office we thought about the canals and the meadows we had seen and while they ordered us to do things that we didn’t see the point of we thought about how the sun had set behind Abcoude on Sunday evening. And how we had thought our way through the whole universe, without words; and how God had filled our head, our heart, and our spine, and how stark raving mad they would look if we told them about it.
The other two very short stories I mentioned above also concern the same characters. I particularly loved “Out Along the Ij,” about a walk with Hoyer along the river. The descriptions are magic, and very much in line with my own hiking and wandering experiences.
Then Hoyer, sitting across from me, said, “Look at that sky.”
To the southwest the whole sky was yellow. And I turned to sit sideways on my chair and look, and I saw that it was good, everything was good as it was and there was nothing left to conquer, and I was alive.
“Little Poet” is a somewhat different kind of story. It is told from the third person, not first person; and, while the titular protagonist is a writer stuck in a desk job with a family, he doesn’t seem so much like Nescio (who was, to all appearances happily married), but instead pines after his wife’s younger sister - also an aspiring poet, unlike his prosaic wife. The story is about their attraction and eventual affair. Of all the stories, I think this is the best written. It has an arc and a plot and gets into the heads of both of the characters pretty well.
One interesting moment comes about a third of the way through, when the author breaks the Fourth Wall and addresses the reader. Nescio confesses that his wife recopies his stories and isn’t always happy with what he writes. Later, at the end, the postscript includes his wife’s pointed (yet rather clueless) comment on the ending. I won’t quote from this one, but I did enjoy it.
After this, with the exception of the final story, there are mostly short bits, including the brief excerpt from an unfinished novel that never got off the ground. My favorite of the short vignettes is this one:
“The Valley of Obligations”
I sit on the hill and look down into the valley of obligations. It is barren, there is no water, there are no flowers or trees in the valley. A lot of people are milling around, most of them drooping and misshapen and constantly looking down at the ground. Some of them look up every once in a while and then they scream. They all die sooner or later but I don’t see their numbers decrease, the valley always looks the same. Do they deserve something better?
I stretch and look up past my arms at the blue sky.
I stand in the valley on a slag heap next to a small pile of scrap wood and a broken wash kettle. And I look up and see myself sitting up there, and I howl like a dog in the night.
In an earlier version, after “scream,” he adds “and those are the lucky ones.”
“The End” is also interesting. It is both a vignette and a reflection on his retirement. One passage particularly spoke to me.
Everything went so differently from how we thought. That the world didn’t care much about us - we all understood that a long time ago. But we still thought, for a while longer, that it was up to us to make the silent course of things take their course.
Looking back now, my life has definitely gone differently than I had expected. I certainly didn’t expect my faith tradition to bow down to an orange idol, openly embrace white christian nationalism, and force people like me out for pointing out how opposite all this was from the teachings and example of Christ. I didn’t expect my family to reject and antagonize my wife. I didn’t know I would live through a disruptive pandemic. And there are other things too, of course, that I didn’t anticipate and cannot possibly control even if I thought I should.
The collection ends with a truly haunting longer short story. “Insula Dei” was written and was set during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In this day and age when the far right seems increasingly fascinated with fascism, it is important to remember that fascism hurt everybody. Not just minorities, not just the ostensible “enemies.” The countries Germany invaded or annexed tended to starve too. (Many of us grew up reading The Hiding Place and God’s Smuggler, both of which tell of the starvation and privation that the Dutch underwent under the Nazis.) This story follows the narrator, who, like Nescio, was relatively well off - although not rich by any stretch - as he reconnects with an old friend who is struggling to survive having been laid off and unable to find work during the occupation. Oh, and his wife and kids already died of tuberculosis some years back. It’s a harrowing story, but one that is amazing in its attention to details, both physical and emotional. And the narrator, even as he and others survive, after a fashion, struggles to find meaning in all of this. He knows - or at least hopes - that better days are ahead. But - the story was written during the occupation, remember - he can’t really know for sure. Will his life end under the Nazis, watching the poor starve and freeze? Will war ever end?
It’s clear I’m not up to it. It wouldn’t be enough for me. “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Do I want to be satisfied? Yes. And no. There is no answer.
And suddenly I am at peace with it. There is no answer. That’s good too. In a month the crocuses will be in bloom again. It’s barely started thawing and already the women are look around. There is still something to hold on to in this time of war: the thought of peace and the feeling for “that which is not of this earth.” That doesn’t sound bad, it even sounds a bit sublime.
So then: Insula Dei?
My only regret about this book is one which must have occurred to many readers: it is too short. Nescio wrote too little. (Is that better than writing too much? I’m not sure.) Perhaps (to borrow from P.G. Wodehouse) if he hadn’t wasted his live in trade, he might have gotten his golf handicap down below...I mean written more stories.
This slender little volume is easy to find, and not particularly expensive. It’s worth seeking out and reading. It really isn’t like anything else, and captures that brief fragile glow of youth and idealism.