March 2011

Matt McGregor

fiction

A Posthumous Confession by Marcellus Emants, translated by J. M. Coetzee

Two centuries of inquiry have given us roughly three schools of thought on the question of the unconscious: those who believe it exists; those who don't; and those who don't really give a shit either way. Marcellus Emants's wondrous A Posthumous Confession is a sustained, possibly unintentional argument in favor of the latter. After throwing us into the mind of awkward misanthrope and failed hedonist Willem Termeer, Emants shuts us in for two hundred airless pages, where we are made to watch the wounds of Termeer’s mind bring him to murder. We watch as he nibbles at the fortune left by his father, never studying, never working -- just trying, like the generic fifteen year old poet, “to feel” -- so that much of A Posthumous Confession reads as the obsessive and lucid self-analysis of a privileged madman.

To put it another way, Termeer is a bit of a dick. And like comparable dicks, he is obsessed with his own dickishness. “My nature craves for pleasure at the expense of others,” he tells us, “and in place of joyous fulfillment derives listless fatigue.” This narcissistic dialectic of pride and self-abuse is Termeer’s inward motor: it governs all of his actions, all of his thoughts. Beginning with the titular confession (“My wife is dead and buried”), the novel pushes us through his childhood, the death of his parents, his horny failures at manipulating young women out of their clothes, and ends with his marriage to Anna, whom he kills. His pretentious philosophizing, limp social critique, and claims to self-knowledge circle every scene, underlining the tragedy of just being Termeer. Every passage seems to plead with us: See? Now do you get it?  

If Termeer were to describe his mind, he would probably see it as a dark, wet cave in the wilderness, remote from civilization, forbidding and dangerous. After a few days in his company, it seems more like an adolescent’s bedroom. For example, after his thirtieth birthday, Termeer decides to give up the social game, and marry “a pretty little shop-girl” -- someone simple, an easy catch, who will “feel honored by the proposal of a ‘gentleman’ and will look up to me.” Going into the nearest cigar shop, Termeer does his best, confident in his “social superiority and by an awareness of the propriety of my intentions.” He returns later to find the shop-girl’s father standing at the counter and is told to buy his cigars elsewhere, at which the unnamed “girl,” his would-be fiancée, “burst out laughing.” Termeer, adding one more humiliation to the pile, slinks away.

He believes that he is out of step with his society; but he displays, again and again, just how poorly he understands what society is. While presenting himself like a simpler Adorno, he gives us the usual clichés of modernist ennui, where the urban life of monopoly capitalism is felt as the “gray tedium of the everyday.” Social rituals are torturous hypocrisies; dinner with his wife’s family eats at his soul. Other people are “power-hungry fools or like-minded swindlers”; and if they are ever happy or nice, this is because they are idiots, for, as he tells his wife and his neighbor, “Whoever reflects can never be happy.”

At the same time, Termeer is always troubled by the knowledge that he is also nothing special. Self-knowledge does not mean self-creation. Midway through the book, he laments that he is not even an artist, describing his first attempts at writing a memoir as “imitations of noble metal… I stood lower than the public, while an artist should stand higher.” While attempting to reveal the fire of inner demons, he admits he feels “no interest in any person, any work, even any book.” This is the sad contradiction of Termeer: he believes he is tragic and knows he is not. Or, if he is tragic, this is a tragedy of boredom and under-employment, the self-loathing that can build from isolation and free-time. Sometimes, we pity Termeer; at other times, we want him to get a fucking job.

As in all confessions, this performance of self-knowledge is itself the problem: unlike a memoir, the confession presumes to approach what Temeer describes as his “shadowy inmost self.” The constant references to his own immorality and his mad absence of human feeling quickly become desperate: I’m so immoral, he tells us, again and again, I really don’t fit in -- giving us the usual bourgeois rejection of bourgeois morality. From the first line, he wishes to confess his interior darkness and the seedy murk of his unconscious. Soon, however, we see that the real subject of A Posthumous Confession is this desire to confess at all: the subject of the novel is not the darkness and depths of the soul, as Termeer wishes it to be, but the vain and narcissistic search for inner truth itself.

The singularity of Marcellus Emants’s novel is astounding and strange: it doesn’t seem like such a book, with its obsessive closure around a single mind, would be written today. J. M. Coetzee, the novel’s translator, rightly compares Emants to Rousseau and Dostoyevsky. Emants’s rough contemporary, Knut Hamsun, also gives us similarly strange dramas of self-consciousness and isolation, as does, in a radically different form, Alain Robbe-Grillet. In A Posthumous Confession, Termeer constantly declares his fierce anti-sentimentality; but, from the suffocating heat of these declarations, we see past his all-too-lucid voice to Marcellus Emants, a less hostile presence, and feel his pity for those trapped in false privilege of utter freedom. At the same time, finishing A Posthumous Confession is like opening the window after months of cold weather: it’s nice to be in the world again.

A Posthumous Confession by Marcellus Emants, translated by J. M. Coetzee
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 1590173473
208 Pages