Amsterdam Storiesby Nescio
No one has written more feelingly and more beautifully than Nescio about the madness and sadness, courage and vulnerability of youth: its big plans and vague longings, not to mention the binges, crashes, and marathon walks and talks. No one, for that matter, has written with such pristine clarity about the radiating canals of Amsterdam and the cloud-swept landscape of the Netherlands.
Who was Nescio? Nescio—Latin for “I don’t know”—was the pen name of J.H.F. Grönloh, the highly successful director of the Holland–Bombay Trading Company and a father of four—someone who knew more than enough about respectable maturity. Only in his spare time and under the cover of a pseudonym, as if commemorating a lost self, did he let himself go, producing over the course of his lifetime a handful of utterly original stories that contain some of the most luminous pages in modern literature.
This is the first English translation of Nescio’s stories.
“In every respect the work of Nescio represents an exception to the calm, bourgeois realism of the early twentieth century. . . . He was arguably the most non-conformist writer of his time. . . . In his stories Nescio created a number of extraordinary characters, who have become legendary in Dutch culture.” —Theo Hermans, A Literary History of the Low Countries
“Though he published few stories, his position in Dutch literature is a very special one.” —Cassell’s Encyclopedia of World Literature
“Nescio’s utter simplicity goes hand-in-hand with a great command of humour, irony, matter-of-factness, understatement and sentiment (never sentimentality or self-pity), all of which miraculously balance each other out. He is essentially a lyricist, a poet writing in prose.” —Dutch Foundation for Literature
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NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Joseph O'Neill
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Chapter OneTHE FREELOADER
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.
His first name was Japi. I never knew his last name. Bavink showed up with him when he came back from Veere.
All summer long Bavink had been painting in Zeeland and it was in Veere that he saw Japi for the first time. Japi was just sitting there. Bavink wondered once or twice: Now what kind of guy is that? No one knew. He was always sitting by the water somewhere, just sitring, hour after hour, not moving. At noon and at six he went inside for an hour, to eat; the rest of the day he sat. That lasted about three weeks, then Bavink didn't see him anymore.
A couple of days later, Bavink was coming back from Rotterdam. Every now and then Bavink needed to have a lot of people around; he tromped along the Rotterdam harbor for a few days, then he'd had enough. On board the ship from Numansdorp to de Zijpe, there was Japi again, sitting. A stiff, cold wind was blowing pretty hard that morning and there were whitecaps on the water. Every now and then spray splashed up over the railing at the bow of the ship. The glass doors on the foredeck were closed; there was no one at the bow. Just Japi, peering out over the rail and getting completely drenched. "Look at that," Bavink thought, "if it isn't that same guy." He went and stood next to him. The boat pitched and rolled. Japi sat on his little bench, held on tight to his cap, and let himself get soaked. This lasted quite a while, until he noticed that someone was standing next to him. "Nice weather we're having," Bavink said. Japi looked at Bavink with his big blue eyes and kept a tight hold on his cap. Just then a big wave splashed on board. There were drops of water on Japi's face.
"It's all right," Japi said. The front of the ship crashed down onto the water with a jolt. Someone was trying to open the glass door of the salon, but the wind held it shut. "We're making good time," Bavink said, just to have something to say. "Well," Japi said. "Time doesn't mean much to me."
The conversation stalled. Japi looked at the waves. Bavink looked at Japi's gray cap and thought: Who is this guy? Suddenly Japi said, "Look, there's a rainbow in the water." There was part of the arc of a rainbow in the water, but nothing in the sky. Japi looked at Bavink again with his big blue eyes and was talkative all of a sudden.
"Damn pretty here, if you ask me," he said. "It's too bad it can't always be like this." "In an hour we'll be there," Bavink said.
"You going to Zierikzee?" Japi asked.
"Actually, I'm continuing on to Veere tonight," Bavink said. "I see," Japi said. "You're staying there?"
"Yes, I'm staying there and aren't you the gentleman from Amsterdam who always sits by the water?" 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. That's why I go to Zeeland. I still let the pressure get to me sometimes. Last week I went to Amsterdam. I had to, I was out of money."
"You're from Amsterdam?" Bavink asked. "I am, thank God," Japi said. "Me too," Bavink said. "You don't paint?" Bavink asked. It was a bizarre question to just ask someone, but Bavink was still trying to figure out what kind of guy this was. "No, thank God," said Japi, "and I'm not a poet and I'm not a nature-lover and I'm not an anarchist. I am, thank God, absolutely nothing."
That definitely appealed to Bavink.
The ship pitched, crashed, rolled, and swung from side to side; the water sprayed and poured over the rail; there was no one else to be seen on deck. Up ahead was an endless expanse of water, full of whitecaps; the shadow of a large cloud was a drifting island; far in the distance a black freighter pushed on, pitching wildly. "Look," said Japi, "the City of Ghent." You could see in the distance the water spraying up on either side of the bow; water churned and foamed and frothed around the propeller. The waves leapt with sharp crests in the hollow sea, green and blue and yellow and gray and white, depending on the depth and on the reflections of the clouds, nowhere and not for one single moment the same. A little tugboat was towing a barge and two tjalks.
"No," Japi said, "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."
This, Bavink started to think, was an interesting case. He nodded. Japi was holding his cap on his head with his right hand the whole time, his right arm propped up on the rail. The wind was blowing so hard that Bavink had to cover his nose with his hand to be able to breathe. Japi just sat there like he was sitting at home. Then Japi said that his plan was to stay in Veere for another few weeks, until his cash ran out.
Painting seemed nice enough to him, if you could do it. He couldn't do anything, so he didn't do anything. And after all, you can't express things the way you feel them. He had just one wish: to overcome the body, to no longer feel hunger or exhaustion, cold or rain. Those were the great enemies. You always had to eat and sleep, over and over again, you had to get out of the cold, you got wet and tired or miserable. Now look at that water. It has it good: it just ripples and reflects the clouds, it's always changing and yet always stays the same too. Has no problems at all.
All this time Bavink stood bracing himself with his walking stick, leaning into the wind, and nodding at Japi. He's onto something there, Bavink thought. And he drily asked if Japi was also going on to Veere. So the conversation turned to Zierikzee, Middelburg, Arnemuiden, and all the places where they had both done plenty of walking and standing and sitting around. For Japi had in fact done quite a bit more in his life than just sit by the water in Veere. And Bavink realized before long that Japi could not only walk and stand and sit, he could see too. And talk about it for hours. And when they stepped onto land again at de Zijpe, Japi pointed southwest, at the wide tower of Zierikzee, dimly visible on the horizon, and said, "Fat Jan, patient old Fat Jan, he's still standing. I thought so. Sure, he's still standing." And then Bavink asked if Japi was always in such a good mood and then Japi said "I am," nothing more. And when they got to Zierikzee and stepped off the streetcar Japi flapped the soles of his shoes on the hot cobblestones of some unshaded little street that was just baking in the sun, and stretched, and said that life really was devilishly funny. And then he shook his walking stick threateningly at the sun and said, "Still, this sun! It shines but then it starts to go down, it doesn't go back up again, when it's after noon it has to set. It'll be cool again tonight. Everyone's eyes would pop out of their heads if it didn't go down one day. Nice and warm, huh? My things are sticking to my body. The sea air is steaming out of my collar."
So clearly this "overcoming the body" stuff wasn't meant quite as literally as all that.
At the table, Japi was more than talkative. He talked enough for three, and ate enough for six. "The sea air digs a hole in you," they say in Veere. He drank enough for six more and sang the whole shanty of the Nancy Brick. In short, he was bustling and boisterous and Bavink thought a guy like this is worth his weight in gold.
That he was. In the afternoon he took Bavink to the canal ring and walked him three times around Zierikzee. His mouth never stopped moving and his walking stick kept pointing and when the Zierikzeers stopped and stared he walked up to them and called them "young man" and asked after their health and clapped them on the shoulder. Bavink doubled over from laughing so hard. Japi was good at getting even with those well-disposed cultured Dutchmen who have no patience for anyone who doesn't look at least as stupid and tasteless as they do, and who scoff at you and say things about you to your face, in public, as though pastors and priests in even the tiniest villages hadn't been trying to raise people properly for centuries. Japi was a workhorse and he could lay into people, if needed, with such skill and force that even the most brutish lout had to knuckle under. Things didn't go that far in Zierikzee. People in Zeeland are actually pretty nice. Japi liked to say, "The one thing I'm sorry about is that there isn't a brawl in Walcheren every now and then."
For two days Bavink and Japi tromped around Veere and already they were thick as thieves. They sat together for hours on the roof of the Hospitaal and looked out over Walcheren and de Kreek and Veergat and the mouth of the Oosterschelde and the dunes on Schouwen. There was Fat Jan again, the Zierikzee tower, now to the north. And there was Goes, and Tall Jan, the Middelburg tower, the spire around which Walcheren turned, the heart of this world. And the tide came in and the tide went out; the water rose and fell. Every night the limping harbormaster came and first he lit the green light on Noorderhoofd, the breakwater, then he came back down and then he had to go around the whole harbor and then you saw him by the tower again and then he opened the wooden gate and climbed the wooden steps and lit the light in that tower too. And then Japi said "Another day, boss," and the limping harbormaster said "Yes, sir, another day." And then when you looked toward Schouwen, you saw the light blinking on and off as it turned. And an hour out to sea the buoy floated and its light shone and went out, shone and went out. And the water sloshed up and down and all through the night the sun that you couldn't see slid past in the north and the last light of day that you could see slid past in the north along with it and turned into the first light of the new morning. One day touched the next, the way they always do in June.
For the earth everything was simple enough. It just turned on its axis and followed its course around the sun and had nothing to worry about. But the people on it fretted out their days with troubles and cares and endless worries, as though without these troubles, these cares, and these worries, the day wouldn't turn into night.
Japi knew better. The sun went down into the ocean by the Walcheren dunes on its own. But Bavink was in a bad way sometimes.
Bavink was someone who usually worked hard. People thought he was pretty good. He had a good laugh about that. He didn't sell anything when he didn't have to; he put aside his best work and never looked at it again, always dissatisfied. As long as he was working everything went fine, as soon as he stopped he suffered; sometimes he was half dead with fatigue. If people knew how he really saw things, how things gripped him, they would laugh at his bungling, his dismally botched attempts to reproduce that majesty. There were times when Bavink did nothing, just let himself go, neglected everything, looked lazily at everything and thought it was "nice" that things were "so damn beautiful," as he put it. Times when he felt a pain in his skull thinking about all his futile efforts, his "admirable work." Admirable work! It made him want to throw up just thinking about it. "Admirable work," they said. They didn't know the first thing about it. God obviously hadn't kicked them around like Bavink.
He wished he could just give up painting, but that wasn't so simple either: what's inside you wants to come out. And so the torture started up again: work, work, work day and night, paint all day and fret all night, stay with it, work through it, worry about whether you've really got hold of the things this time. He didn't sleep or eat much; at the beginning he would smoke an enormous number of cigars, one after the other, but after the first day he stopped doing that too. He had moments of the greatest bliss, a joy that all his languid submersion in that "delicious beauty" couldn't give him. And then they came to look, this person, that person, they stood behind him in twos and threes and fours and they looked and nodded and pointed. And suddenly it was over. Then he said "Dammit" and went and lay down on his cot and sent someone out for a flask of jenever and he was done. After a few days he put the canvas away with the rest. In the days that followed he was wretched, tired, miserable, numb, and sick, and he started "shuffling around" again, as he put it: doing nothing, loafing, walking around. If he needed money he dragged something out of his "garbage heap," looked for a "scrap" that "somebody would give something for," and sold it. Nobody could change his ways—that's just how he was. His strengths and weaknesses were one. When he sold something, he stuffed the money into his pocket and clinked with guilders and rijksdollars and walked down Kalverstraat whistling a tune. He said a friendly hello and waved happily whenever you ran into him.
Then he came up and stood next to you and slyly showed you all the "coppers" in his pocket, and laughed out loud, and said, "Can you believe those suckers?" He never accepted paper money: you can't clink bills in your pocket. He had to have gold and silver, and when it was too much for him to carry he said he'd "come by to get the rest later."
That was Bavink. Clearly someone in a constant state of overcoming the body would be thoroughly interesting to him. He could learn something from a man like that. Someone who thought it was fine just to let the wind blow through his hair, let the cold, wet wind soak his clothes and his body, who ran his tongue over his lips because the taste of the ocean was so "goddamn delicious," who sniffed his hands at night to smell the sea. Someone who thought it was enough to be alive and in good health, who went on his joyful way between God's heaven and God's earth and thought it was idiotic that people caused themselves so much trouble, and laughed out loud at them, and sat there eternally with his beatific smile, quietly enjoying the water and the sky and the clouds and the fields, and let the rain soak him through without noticing it and then said "I think I'm wet" and laughed. Someone who could eat an expensive meal and drink expensive jenever better than anyone in Holland and then, at other times, on his long walks (because he didn't always sit around, every so often he spent days at a time on his feet), he'd eat dry rolls day in and day out and be moved to tears because out in the open "a piece of bread like this can taste so good."
And when Bavink was working, Japi sat nearby on the grass or back-to-front on a chair inside, smoking. When they were both inside, Japi kept another chair nearby with a little glass of liquor on it, and reached out his hand for it every now and then. And he kept Bavink on track. Bavink had never spoken a word to anyone when he was working but he talked with Japi.
"The hell with it," Japi said, "what does it matter if it's good or not! You do what you can, you're just a poor bastard like everyone else. You have to paint. You can't stop, can you? The things don't care if you don't get them down exactly how you see them. And other people don't understand anything anyway, not the things and not your work and not you. As for me, I could spend my time in a lot more interesting ways than sitting here boozing and eyeballing that mess of paint. You think I'd be any worse off?
"No, that's all wrong," he said then, "much too blue—don't you remember what we talked about yesterday? Much too blue. Please. You think it would have grabbed you the way it did if it was that weird blue color?"
Excerpted from AMSTERDAM STORIES by NESCIO Copyright © 2012 by Joseph O'Neill . Excerpted by permission of NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh (1882–1961) was born in Amsterdam, the oldest of four children. After an idealistic youth, he joined the Holland–Bombay Trading Company in 1904, becoming director in 1926, suffering a nervous breakdown leading to a short hospitalization in 1927, and retiring at age fifty-five, on December 31, 1937; he married Aagje Tiket (b. 1883) in 1906 and had four daughters with her, born in 1907, 1908, 1909, and 1912. Meanwhile, as Nescio (Latin for “I don’t know”; he adopted a pseudonym so as not to jeopardize his business career, acknowledging his authorship publicly only in 1929), he wrote what is now considered perhaps the best prose in the Dutch language.
Damion Searls is a writer and a translator of many classic twentieth-century authors, including Proust, Rilke, Robert Walser, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Thomas Bernhard. His translation of Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key was a New York Times Notable Book of 2010 and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. He also edited Henry David Thoreau’s The Journal: 1837–1861, available as an NYRB Classic.
Joseph O’NeilL is the author of three novels, most recently Netherland (2008), and of Blood-Dark Track: A Family History (2001). Born in Ireland, he spent most of his childhood in the
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