Young Titans trudge from idealism to apathy
SHORT STORIES: Amsterdam Stories By Nescio, translated by Damion Searls New York Review Books Classics, 161pp. £7.99
CHARLES DICKENS made effective use of Latin when naming a doomed character Nemo, meaning Nobody, in Bleak House (1852-53). The Dutch writer Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh did likewise when adopting Nescio, or I Don’t Know, as his pen name.
He was born into a lower-middle-class family in 1882, the year that James Joyce and Franz Kafka were also born, and it has been claimed that Nescio is their literary equal. Whatever about a similarity to Kafka, which is not that obvious, there is in Nescio’s work a sense of the subtle, wafting melancholy of Dubliners. Nescio is best compared, though, to a much earlier observer of human nature, the Brazilian master Machado de Assis (1839-1908). Unlike most successful writers, Nescio, in common with Machado, managed a career in business along with his writing. In 1904 he joined the Holland-Bombay Trading Company, of which he ultimately became director. Apparently he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1927, yet he returned to his office, retiring 10 years later at the age of 55.
His preferred theme was a universal one, that of young men whose aspirations come to nothing. At his best, as in one of his finest stories, The Sponger, published here as The Freeloader (1909-10), he is pitch perfect. “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 . . . the freeloader who always ordered in someone else’s name . . .”
The narrator, a journalist and writer, introduces us to Nescio’s most memorable character: “His first name was Japi. I never knew his last name.” The enigmatic Japi seems to know everything, or at least enough to impress Bavink, an artist who, when in need of inspiration, enjoys having company. The pair meet on a boat. Bavink has previously noticed Japi sitting by water and becomes besotted when he hears his personal routine: “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.”
All of the main characters are young men who drift along together, talking big, empty talk. The story is a vivid study of youthful idealism giving way to apathy. Japi moves through phases of prosperity and desperation, and nothing prepares the reader for the conclusion. Suffice it to say that it could be read as a variation of Puccini’s La Bohème.
Several of the characters do reappear in The Young Titans (1914), by which time much of the idealistic dreaming has yielded to menial employment. “Looking back, I think we were a magnificent bunch of young men, we deserved a fortune but despised having lots of money.”
A wry humour is at work. Nescio clearly listened well. The young men walk a tightrope between ego and vulnerability. The painter Bavink stands out as the artistic consciousness, the one who sees the things that become art: “You just have to sit quietly and stay like that . . . without knowing what for.” There is an immediacy to the telling and an awareness of the years that have passed. “It was a strange time,” reflects the narrator, Nescio’s alter ego. “And when I think about it, I realise that that time must still be happening now, it will last as long as there are young men of 19 or 20 running around. It’s only for us that the time is long since past.”
There is a powerful and profound sense of the ending of things, not only of youth but of a specific innocence that was destroyed by the Great War.
The story that most echoes Joyce is Little Poet (1917). It is gentle, slow-moving and rather lovely, if not quite as accessible as The Freeloader and Young Titans. Lacking the same vivid characterisation and dialogue, it is more of a mood piece. The poet is an aspiring writer and is married. One day he arrives at his wife’s family home and notices, as if for the first time, her younger sister, whom he remembers as a little girl: “She was bareheaded and playing on the grass in front of the house like a child, playing diabolo, for the last time, though she didn’t know it.”
The girl realises that she loves him. It is a story written in layers, and, whereas his other pieces suggest that they were written on the strength of memory, there is a deliberate if tentative art about Little Poet. Nescio once wrote: “Life has taught me hardly anything, thank God.” This may be true, but he knew a great deal about it. The three main stories in this book deliver riches that defy their brevity. Nescio is revered in the Netherlands and Germany, and this generous little book shows why.