May 2011

Kevin McNeer


“I am nothing and I do nothing”: On the Untranslated Nescio

For years, my entire knowledge of the Dutch writer Nescio was limited to the title of one of his stories, “The Mooch,” and that was enough, just knowing that a story with a name like that existed and that it was near the top of the canon of Dutch literature. There was something slightly brazen about the title that appealed to me, as with The Idiot or The Dwarf; and the Dutch word, uitvreter (pronounced “out-freighter”), had a pleasingly harsh ring to it -- someone who would unload all your stuff. The verb vreten behind the noun uitvreter means “to eat, feed, stuff, gorge, devour,” thus my preferred translation is “leech.” My Dutch friends and I used the word uitvreter quite a lot, classifying one another or this or that hanger-on as one, relishing a word no one else could understand outside of Holland.

This February when I came to Amsterdam because my wife received a fellowship from a historical institute here, I renewed my efforts to penetrate “The Leech.” I was now armed with a crib, an old English translation by Felix Douma placed in my PO Box one day by a sympathetic Nescio-kenner (Dutch for “cognoscente”), Maurits Verhoeff, who’s written several books about Nescio.

What began to take shape in the space between the original, the English translation and the dictionaries spread out on my desk was a strange mix of romantic melancholy, satire, and nihilism written in lapidary prose-poetry. The theme is hardly new: grandiose youthful dreams and rebelliousness beaten down by an indifferent, pragmatic world, what the Flemish writer Willem Elsschot, born in the same year as Nescio, called the contrast between “drom en daad” -- “dream and deed.” But the the imagery and the writing have a startling immediacy even after a century.

Although the Nescio corpus includes other stories, many unfinished compositions, a nature diary and correspondence, the works for which Nescio is remembered fit into your pocket, essentially the three prose-poems: “The Leech” (1911), “The Tiny Titans” (1915) and “The Little Poet” (1918) (my translations of the titles). He had to fight to get them published at all; and in the end, it was an art dealer who sold Van Goghs, Rodins, Gauguins and Picassos, not a literary agent who published them. They were hardly read except by a small literary circle, and he only gained recognition toward the end of his life. Later he told his family, “They don’t recognize me now. But we must be patient. You’ll see that I’m right.” ("Nice Boys in a Cold World: The Literary Works of Nescio," Lieneke Frerichs (translated by Nancy Forester-Flier). The Low Countries, Vol. 13, 2005, p. 221)

This year is the 50th anniversary of his death, a fitting time to celebrate a great author unread and unknown in the English-speaking world. What’s more, next March Nescio’s inaccessibility to English speakers (although perversely refreshing while it lasted) will come to an end with the release of a new English translation of his core works courtesy of the New York Review of Books with the assistance of a grant from the PEN American Center translation fund.

Stanley Fish has a new book out, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, with an entire chapter on remarkable opening sentences in English. If he re-published the book in Dutch (a language his hero Milton studied), he would certainly have included the first sentence of “The Leech,” perhaps the most famous sentence in Dutch prose. It announces the author’s wholly unique style, the idiosyncratic but careful gait of an experienced polder-walker: "Except for the man who found Sarphatis Street the most beautiful place in Europe, I’ve never known a stranger character than the leech." (All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.)

The fact that the reference to Amsterdam’s Sarphatis Street -- Sarphistraat in Dutch, still so named today -- is a coded backhand slap to a fallen idol that is lost on us today (as it was on many in Nescio’s day) is not as important as the fact that Sarphatis Street is, well, an ordinary Amsterdam street.

The narrator proceeds to enumerate the leech’s very un-self-reliant habits, especially for uptight Protestant middle class Amsterdam at the time. The list of sins is also a wonderful catalogue of the daily reality of early 20th century northern Europe, where coal and nice collars were indispensable:

The leech, who you’d find lying in your bed in his filthy shoes when you came late at night. The leech, who smoked up your cigars, who used up your tobacco and burnt all your coal and went through your cupboard and borrowed your money and wore your shoes and put on your jacket when he had to walk home in the rain. The leech, who was always borrowing something under someone else’s name; who like a prince drank jenever on the terrace of the “Hollandais” on other people’s money; who borrowed umbrellas and never brought them back; who stoked a hole in Bavink’s second-hand stove; who wore his brother’s double collars and lent out Appi’s books, and made trips abroad whenever he could wrangle money out of his old man, and wore suits he’d never paid for.

The leech’s name is Japi, and Japi offers a succinct curriculum vitae for himself early on in the story:

I don’t write poetry and I’m not a friend of nature and I’m not an anarchist. Thank God, I’m nothing… I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually, I do much too much. I am busy dying away. The best is just sitting; moving and thinking is for dumb men. Nor do I think. It’s unfortunate that I have to eat and sleep. I would rather be sitting all through the day and night.

This monologue is delivered to the other main character, Bavink, an aspiring, obsessive landscape painter who becomes infatuated with Japi. He first sees him while on a painting trip in Zeeland, a picturesque group of islands in the southwest of the Netherlands: a strange fellow who sits on at the edge of the water staring for hours and days on end. The two develop a real friendship despite Japi’s shameless mooching off of Bavink; and Nescio’s descriptions of their wanderings, mockery of the uptight Dutch provincials, discussions of art, and watching sunsets from rooftops set my mind spinning with similar memories of carefree romps with friends and our own naïve dreams every time I read them. The acrid tone that began the story, the first person narrator’s enumeration of the leech’s revolting habits, slips into the background as we (and it would seem, the narrator) enjoy the romance of the Dutch landscape with the two young nonconformists.

But in beginning of the third chapter we are roughly awoken from this reverie. The narrator, who turns out to have the silly name of Koekebakker (something like “cookie baker,” Dutch slang for “dork”), jarringly reasserts himself with one italicized word:

And so they [Bavink and Japi] came with the winter to Amsterdam, and one evening Japi sat in my room, smoking one after another of the cigars that lay on my table for the taking, my cigars.

Here is Nescio’s laconic poetry at its best: what better word to juxtapose with “leech” -- one who does not recognize the boundaries of possession -- but “mine.” The petty possessiveness of Koekebakker, and of bourgeois Holland, comes to back the surface in this one word. The disgruntled tightwad condemning the mooch.  

Koekebakker’s descriptions of Japi are marvelous, and he provides a perceptive analysis of the leech-host dynamic between Japi and Bavink. Reading it for the first time, I felt a tinge of pride at how closely it matched up with the criteria that I and my Dutch friends had conceived for an uitvreter: The principle is that a true leech does not hide his freeloading, but relies on his charm or amusement value to justify it, a bit like the dervish or travelling player who dispenses wisdom or entertainment in exchange for room and board:

From nobody else would Bavink ever have tolerated anything remotely like it [i.e., such freeloading]. But nobody else understood the art of keeping Bavink alive, as Bavink said. Japi’s conversation was inexhaustible. And he had a memory for landscapes that bordered on the wondrous… he knew everything, each field, each ditch, each house, each lane, each copse of trees, each little patch of Brabant heather…

Yet Koekebakker himself is not to be exempted from Japi’s mooching. The following episode may also prove instructive to aspiring mooches, who should note how Japi takes care to provide his host, in an act of pseudo generosity, with some of the host’s own sausage. Note the fusillade of four “my”s in the middle of the passage, as the narrator pines for his disappearing sausage:

“I would like a little sandwich now,” he said. “Don’t mind me. I do believe I already know the way.” He had been eyeing my cupboard. “Hey man, did you know that there was sausage in the house?” Of course I knew. He was already setting it out. “Butter and sausage on bread, the common food of the people.” My sausage, my riches, so lately the subject of my musings over my plenty; the sausage I had wanted to save for tomorrow. Japi knew what to do. And I must say he didn’t forget me. He put two slices on each of my sandwiches.

But there is more here than a portrait of a clever freeloader. The narrator’s next thought is “There was enough in any case… I started to find it amusing.” Koekebakker turns out to have some sympathy in addition to his clearly expressed cynicism, a mix that reflects the dual identity of the author, who was both a successful businessmen and the founder of a commune.

Nescio is a pseudonym for Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh, Fritz to his friends, who made a fine career for himself at the Holland-Bombay Trade Company in Amsterdam and also founded the commune “Thames” on a plot of land not far from the city. In other words, he both understood and made good use of what “mine” means and -- at one point in his life at least -- sought to abolish the boundaries of “mine.” That he chose the Latin for “I do not know” as his nom de plume is not surprising. Damion Searls, the translator of the upcoming English version of Nescio, put it to me quite well: “I think of Nescio as being very particularly Dutch -- a country of stolid boring businessmen and visionaries like van Gogh: it's always hard to see how those two sides go together. Nescio is the missing link, he embodies and describes both sides from each other's perspective.”

Gronloh was careful to keep his stolid-boring-businessman and visionary identities separate at work. In one of his rare interviews, he said, “I always keep as quiet as possible about my writing because I spent my entire life in an office, and in places like that if they find out that you have such inclinations they think you’ll be no good at work.” He only revealed the true identity behind Nescio in 1933, over 20 years after the publication of “The Leech,” and only because his work was continually being attributed to the art dealer who published his stories (whose connection with Van Gogh may have made him a more likely candidate as visionary author).

In life, Nescio’s commune did not last long, from 1901-1903; and in art, Japi is also destined for an early death. Something occurs midway through the story that serves, in hindsight at least, as a death knell for the hero. After one of Japi’s frequent disappearances, Koekebakker recounts how he ran into him in Brussels, strolling the boulevards and dressed to kill in a little grey hat and a yellow silk tie. After having a few beers with Koekebakker, Japi suddenly announced he had to go home, and then: “…he paid the bill and left me sitting there astonished.” Koekebakker does not break the reserve of his narration to draw any conclusions -- the shocking fact of Japi picking up the tab speaks for itself -- but as a reader I sense a loss here, and I imagine that Nescio and even Koekebakker feel it too, between the lines, like the chaplain in “A Clockwork Orange” protesting the defanging of Alex using the Ludovico Technique. It’s unnatural, after all, for the mooch not to mooch. Japi is changing.

Japi’s father finds him a job at a trade company, like the one where Gronloh worked, although Japi’s behavior -- “I made animal noises and sang funny songs” -- bears no similarity to anything recorded about Gronloh’s at the office. The employment is soon ended by mutual agreement between Japi and his employer, after an embarrassing foul-up involving a sensitive letter sent by the new clerk to a competitor’s address.

But the leech’s humiliated father finds his son a second job, and this one changes him. Bavink visits Japi’s workplace one evening to find his once-effusive sidekick alone, hunched over his desk and preoccupied with work. After wandering around the office picking at books and fruitlessly trying to make conversation, Bavink opens the windows to let in some fresh air. Japi curtly asks for them to be closed, and Bavink leaves.

Soon Japi’s diligence at work fades as did his friendship with Bavink. There are a few other developments, abortive attempts to find some meaning: He falls in love with a French girl and flirts with socialism, but they flounder as well. He tries to return to his old habits, but it’s not the same: “He rummaged around in places where he’d once amused himself. He kept himself especially busy staring at rivers.” Although there are intermittent flare-ups of his old hilarity: Japi leaps onto a chair to deliver a crazed speech at a friend’s dinner party, the general trend is toward a “dying away” -- what Japi claimed he was doing at the beginning of the story, when in fact he was full of life. After the party incident -- and the following sentence is a classic gem of a Nesci’s minimalism -- “Japi spent some more months staring.”

One of the beauties of this portrait miniature is that despite the satirical critique of both bourgeois Dutch society (or perhaps society in general) and the unrealistic dreams of youth, the cause of Japi’s withdrawal from life remains largely undetermined. One gets the sense that it is an unavoidable natural process, like the rising and setting of the sun or the flowing of rivers to which Japi continually refers.  


On a summer morning at four thirty, during a magnificent sunrise, he stepped off the Waal Bridge. The bridge keeper had spotted him too late. “Don’t get worked up, old boy,” Japi had said to him, and then he had stepped off with his face toward the northeast. You couldn’t call it jumping, the man had said, he just stepped off.

If a Dostoevsky mooch had jumped, we readers would have been overwhelmed with sympathy, but such rushes of emotion are rarely encouraged in Koekebakker’s staid, middle-class narrative world, which primarily comes to life emotionally when it is infected by its romantic subjects, Japi and Bavink. He only remarks that since Japi stepped out of life, “the river continues to flow to the West and men continue their toils. And the sun also comes up, and every evening Japi’s folks still receive the Daily News.” The story ends with the bizarre statement that a spontaneous trip Japi had once taken to the north of Holland remains unexplained.  


Nescio’s is a small stage, not Proust’s or Joyce’s, and the characters and images are few. Maurits Verhoeff sees it as classic Dutch “kleinkunst.” But what there is, is dealt with exquisitely. Without going into detail about the next two stories in the trilogy, “The Tiny Titans,” and “The Little Poet,” it’s worth nothing some of the recurring, contradictory images that bind the three stories together into one aesthetic whole, such as “the huge sun, red and cold,” and “the darkness that once more crept out from the Earth”: the sun is fiery red but cold; darkness comes not from the sky but rises out of the Earth. Nescio plants these near oxymorons everywhere: In “The Tiny Titans,” Koekebakker says, “We were above the world and the world was above us and weighed heavily on us.” Like so many Dutch painters and filmmakers, Nescio is fascinated by the water. Some of his descriptions are like haikus embroidered into the text, calling to our attention water’s property of reflection what otherwise might not be seen (“’Look over there, a rainbow in the water [Japi says].’ You could see the end of a rainbow in the water; in the air there was nothing.”); or calling our attention to water’s ability to change and stay the same (Japi: “A lake has it good: it undulates and just reflects the clouds, is always different and yet the same.”).

I was interested in how my secret book, hitherto the province of me and my Dutch friends, had been leaked to the outside world, and I traced the breach back to the translator Damion Searls, who has done celebrated translations from German, French, Norwegian and Dutch -- including a recent translation of Rilke. He told me how he was introduced to Nescio: “I was at a writer's residency in Belgium and on my last day a Dutch writer came (Tommy Wieringa, ‘Joe Speedboat’). I asked him if there were any Dutch writers I should know about, and he said Nescio is ‘the greatest prose writer in the Dutch language.’”

While Nescio’s writing reminds me of Joyce’s Dubliners, with its carefully cut prose, hard-to-pin-down narrative voice, and sense of yearning, Searls associates him unexpectedly with Twain: “sweeping out the cobwebs of 19th-century ‘literary’ language and bringing in a spoken-seeming voice,” and with Fitzgerald: “with the beautiful, aching melancholy. And he's about as well known in Holland as Gatsby is here -- everyone's read it, at least in school, or at least was supposed to read it in school and knows what it is.”

I asked Edwin Frank, Editor of NYRB Classics, what sold him on bringing out the book:  

… the melancholy of young men as well as the melancholy of an older man looking back on his melancholy youth, which seems a time of immense opportunity even if earlier it seemed a time of constraint -- that interesting and familiar loop in human experience. The beautiful descriptions of the Dutch landscape. It’s really a wonderfully lyrical work. There’s also an interesting satirical component, and there’s also a certain sense of the morays of the Dutch in a way. I mean being torn between business and dreaming. All of this adds up to a rich, suggestive and evocative mix.

“Why,” I asked, “do you think there is not an English language translation already available, especially since the PEN translation fund has been recommending Nescio for years? Translations already exist in German, French, Swedish, Polish, Slovakian, Indonesian… but not in today’s global lingua franca.” He replied:

Something that is a familiar story, that comes along with English being the global lingua franca, is that both the English and the Americans are extraordinarily uninterested in works in translation. So whereas most Eastern European countries translate a very high percentage of literature; notoriously, in England and America only 3 percent of books published are books that are in translation. So I think it is our vast indifference that accounts for that.   

I wondered though, what the situation was with Nescio is his own country, whether people knew quotes from his books, whether they thought of Nescio when calling someone an uitvreter. “We are not a very literary nation,” a Dutch friend explained to me once when I asked about Nescio’s place in Dutch literature and language today. A Dutch historian elucidated to me that, unlike in the home of an educated English family, you didn’t necessarily find literature in a Dutch home, even more rarely did you find Dutch literature. And I still remember how on a tour of “Old Amsterdam,” in front of the spot where the Dutch poet Vondel once lived -- “the Dutch Shakespeare” -- the guide informed us that, “We don’t torture our schoolchildren by making them read Vondel the way the English torture theirs with Shakespeare.”

So even though this year is the anniversary of Nescio’s death, and several new books have appeared about him in the Amsterdam bookstores, I had begun to curtail my hopes of anything like a Bloomsday celebration, public readings, a symposium, cheesy reenactments in period costumes -- anything.

But then came “Boekennacht” (“Book Night”), on April 15, a night of literary events, walks, and readings that clearly demonstrated Dutch literature is alive and well.    

A fellow Nescio fan and I sign up for a walking tour of Nescio’s Amsterdam during Boekennacht. On this literary Walpurgisnacht, Spui Square in the old center of Amsterdam is teeming with people -- many of whom have a silk scarf thrown loosely around the neck, the telltale sign of the Dutch intellectual. They are browsing an outdoor book market and listening to live poetry pouring forth from tinny speakers, while Friday drinkers at the Café Luxembourg are kept at bay at the edge of the square.

True fanatics, we arrive far too early at the Bas Lubberhuizen boekhandel (“bookstore”), whence the literary walking tour “In the Steps of Nescio” is to begin. We are given free “Amsterdam Bookstore Book” guidebooks and coffee and beer while we wait (“Mooches” my friend whispers with a smile).

The Nescio tour starts with about 25 people, a non-descript crowd of seemingly outstanding citizens whom you wouldn’t pick as fans of an author whose most famous character’s credo is “I am nothing and I do nothing.” We get off to an inauspicious beginning. Just as our guide, Maurits Verhoeff -- author of several books on Nescio and a walking encyclopedia of Nescio lore, begins to speak, his voice is drowned out by thunderous rap music. A silver Mercedes convertible is trying to park, lurching forward and backwards beside our group, unable to navigate the narrow street along the canal.

We see the house Nescio was born in -- a traditional Amsterdam home with a Baroque gable opposite the Tushinsky art deco movie palace and now housing an Asian massage parlor downstairs. Then we press into the less touristy rings of hell, to use Camus’s analogy for Amsterdam’s canals. These streets are darker and less populated. We stand and pay homage to the Holland Bombay Trading Company, a dark stone building on the still waters of a canal where Gronloh made a career for himself, working his way up from clerk to director. Maurits read 40,000 letters and telegrams from the company’s archive in The Hague and discovered that Gronloh was often ill, suffering from what a doctor in 1900 diagnosed as nerveuze prikkelbaarheid, an outdated phrase roughly equivalent to the neurasthenia of Victorian English. Maurits discovered a telling correlation: that the businessmen’s illnesses corresponded to the author’s periods of literary composition, one lengthy absence continuing just up to the point where Nescio’s most famous story, “The Leech,” was rejected by a literary magazine. The son of Nescio's co-director at the Holland-Bombay told Maurits that Gronloh’s “heart was not really in the Holland-Bombay Company, but he did his work conscientiously, knowing full well that he had to in order to put bread on the table.”

Now we go to Rembrandt Square at the heart of tourist Amsterdam, overcrowded and all aglow in neon. Our small band gathers around Maurits, who points to the ultra-hip Kroon Café looking out over the square from the second floor and explains that Nescio sat the devil there in his novella “The Little Poet.” Maurits reads a passage from Chapter XI, the climactic moment when the little poet commits adultery. Flashing light from a bar called “Nasty” catches my eye from across the square. Tourists are staring at us. Rap music thumps nearby. A pinkish, soft, satanic light, bathes one side of Maurits’s face as he reads:

The Devil sat in “The Kroon,” in the middle by a pillar. He placed his thin golden watch before him on the little table. The two knobs on his forehead were greater than ever. Quarter to eight. Consummatum est.

Someone tapped him on the shoulder.

The God of Heaven and Earth stood behind him. “Consummatum est. Go along and see.”

With special thanks to Maurits Verhoeff and Renger van den Heuvel