"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 19, 2012

"A Posthumous Confession" (1894) by Marcellus Emants (Book Review)

When South-African/Australian Noble Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee takes the trouble to translate a book, there must be something good about it... and indeed, A Posthumous Confession by Emants is one of the best Dutch novels I know. It is also a very bleak story - something it has in common with the oeuvre of Coetzee.

The Dutch writer Marcellus Emants (1848-1923) belonged to the group of writers who came up in the eighties of the 19th c. and who modernized Dutch literature - for the first 80 years of the century, Dutch literature (and for that matter, all of society) had been in the deadening, small-minded grip of pastors, preachers and grocers. That changed in the 1880s, when Holland also underwent a rather belated industrial revolution.

Many of the new authors were influenced by naturalism (Zola); Emants also admired Turgenev, but A Posthumous Confession has in the first place been influenced by Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864). It is also very much a fin de siècle novel, encased in a suffocating web of guilt and fear.

The plot is simple. When the novel opens, a man of independent means called Termeer has just murdered his wife. The novel is his confession of how this came about. Termeer is a despicable man, full of self-loathing. He is pathologically introverted, indolent and unable to take any action, uninterested in society, and without a shred of empathy for his fellow humans.

He feels that everything in his life has gone wrong: he had a terrible childhood, as he was treated as an outsider by other children; after he grew up, he became very much interested in women, but was to shy to approach them, so he had to satisfy his urge with prostitutes. After a particularly wild period, he decides to straighten out his life by marrying. He knows no suitable partner, but notices that the man who has been his former guardian has an unmarried daughter. This daughter accepts him, as he is the first to propose to her and she is already thirty - in the 19th c. women were expected to marry.

Although they spend a few quiet years together, the loveless marriage is unhappy, especially after the death of a girl baby (Termeer is relieved as he hates children). Termeer seeks his pleasure outside the house, he becomes infatuated with a dancing girl and needs money for her upkeep. His wife in her turn  becomes close friends with their neighbor, a former pastor with a sickly little daughter. They have many soulful talks, making Termeer madly jealous. He wants to separate and marry the dancing girl, but his wife rejects this - she will do her duty to him, she says.

Termeer works himself into a mad frenzy - when he happens to notice that in her nervous state his wife has had recourse to a sleeping potion, he pours another bottle of the stuff down her throat. The coroner decides it is inadvertent death by an overdosis of the potion. Here the story ends, but... it is a "posthumous" confession, so what happened to him? Did guilt after all overtake him, or was he jilted by his dancing girl and did he kill himself out of spite?

A Posthumous Confession reminded me somewhat of the early stories of Arthur Schnitzel, where we find the same type of introspection brought about by new notions of psychology. It is a pessimistic story, as were most novels by Emants; he also wrote interesting travelogues.
The Dutch version of the novel is online here. Coetzee's English translation is available from NYRB Books. Coetzee has also written an interesting essay about the novel in his Stranger Shores.

December 5, 2012

"Roads to Berlin" (2012) by Cees Nooteboom (Non-Fiction)

Cees Nooteboom (1933) is a Dutch poet, novelist and above all, writer about travel and culture, whose name regularly turns up on those mysterious short lists of Nobel Prize contenders. Nooteboom has written impressive novels as Rituals (1980), All Souls Day (1998) and Lost Paradise (2004). His travel writing is always of a philosophical and historical bent and has appeared in such collections as Roads to Santiago (1997) and Nomad's Hotel (2009).

Nooteboom's work has been extensively translated into English, Spanish (the country of his residence), and above all, German - in Germany, even his collected works have been published and one could safely say that he is more popular in that country than in The Netherlands. The reason is probably that Nooteboom's work has an "idealistic" bent, it is full of whirling thoughts, and his sentences also are rather long - general characteristics of German prose. The display of erudition one finds in his work is probably another element that puts off some Dutch readers.

That doesn't mean in the least Nooteboom is German - he is much more than Dutch or German or Spanish or whatever nationality, he is an all too rare example of a pan-European intellectual. Nooteboom is a modern Renaissance man, with a huge field of interests ranging from philosophy and political thought, to contemporary art, literature, music, architecture and almost anything else. I always feel envious when in his essays he casually scatters names of famous thinkers and writers, while it is clear that he has also actually found the time to read and study them.

[Cees Nooteboom - photo Wikipedia]

Roads to Berlin (subtitle: "Detours & Riddles in the Lands & History of Germany") is a collection of various pieces written about Germany between 1963 and 2012, with an emphasis on 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and a period when Nooteboom actually was living in that city. In this way he became witness to one of the most significant turning points in 20th century history, mapping the changing moods of the country, describing the pivotal events of Germany's difficult passage to reunification. We are lucky with this observer, the most informed and perceptive one you could wish for.

[The end of the Wall in 1989 - photo Wikipedia]

Nooteboom always sees present events through the lens of history. He writes a beautiful prose, poetical and whimsical. He is both personal and objective. Besides the Wall which is viewed from countless perspectives (including that of the Wall which is no longer there), there are long discussions about Germany's history, its influence on its neighbors, and the question which was deliberated in 1989 whether the Germans themselves or its neighbors wanted Germany to be again reunited and become a large force in Europe. Of course this is what has happened, and now Europe itself is unthinkable without Germany.

But Nooteboom also shows us other interesting vistas: mythical, such as the huge statue of the legendary German tribal leader Hermann in the Teutoburg Forest, or  the grotto of Emperor Barbarossa; political, as Nuremberg with Hitler's Walhalla and Nazi Party rally grounds, or the bridge into Poland over the Oder; literary, as the Brocken of Walpurgisnacht fame in the Harz mountains and Goethe's Weimar; weird, as the East-German Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany, or an exhibition of the disintegrating aeroplanes built by the artist Anselm Kiefer, or a rhapsody on German eagles.

Most impressive, too, are the two intermezzo's about Munich, where the author falls in love with "Justice," a stone woman holding a Sword and a Book on the Max II monument, and later experiences an apocalyptic Liebestraum about a golden angel...
Published in English by Maclehose Press, London. Website of Cees Nooteboom (in English).

Best Non-Fiction

Art

(Auto-) Biography

Culture



Essays





Food & Drink


Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

History



Literature





Memoirs


The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



Music





Philosophy



Religion
The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering



Science





Travel


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom


This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

December 4, 2012

"Travels with Charley in Search of America" by John Steinbeck (Best Non-Fiction)

It was an impossible endeavor. In 1960 the writer John Steinbeck, then living in New York and Sag Harbor, set out with a camper on a 10,000 mile journey around the U.S. He had been cooped up for long years in his apartment in New York and wanted to meet "ordinary Americans" again - the kind of people he had so vividly written about in his great novels of the 1930s like Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck thought he could have deep conversations with them about the state of America, while camping out.

A second reason for the trip was Steinbeck's "macho fixation" - he believed a man should "do things with his own hands" and "live violently" - now at age 58 he wanted to test what was left of his physical powers. As the book tells, already before the trip he could prove his toughness: when a hurricane hits Long Island the day before he plans to leave, he wades out into the stormy harbor to save his boat.

So just after Labor Day 1960 Steinbeck sets out in his green GMC truck, fitted with a custom built camper. He calls it Rosinante after the horse of Don Quixote - he probably knew he was setting out on a Quixotic trip himself. He was accompanied by his sprightly dog, a French poodle called Charley, middle-aged like himself. Starting in Long Island, the fateful journey of one man, one dog and a truck would follow the border of the United States, going all throughout the North, through the Pacific Northwest, down into Steinbeck's native Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, then through the Deep South, and finally back to New York. Two years later he would publish the book about the trip as Travels with Charley in Search of America, and it would become an instant bestseller.

Steinbeck's original plans were just too megalomaniacal. How much of the country can you see when the landscape just flashes by on such a long trek by car? How many interesting people can you meet when you sit all day long behind the wheel? The first part of the trip, through New England is still fairly detailed and takes up half of the book, but after the Mid-West Steinbeck starts to jump, with bigger and bigger leaps. He must have been driving like mad for days on end, just to complete the journey... Unfortunately, that doesn't leave much of the story.

Despite the intention to test his toughness and loneliness, as we now know, the journey was not at all so hard. Steinbeck broke the trip several times for lengthy stays with his wife - who flew in from New York - in luxury hotels (Chicago, San Francisco) or at the ranch of Texas millionaires. The times he camped out, made his own food and washed his own clothes, were in fact far and few between: most of the time he slept in motels. And during the last part his wife was riding with him in the cabin.

It doesn't matter, unless you are interested in macho stories. What Steinbeck gives us in full is the view of America from the windows of his truck, and that view is authentic.

The same can be said about the meetings Steinbeck describes - we know from his letters that these, too, did not really take place as he writes about them. And again, it doesn't matter. All travel writing contains fictional elements (take the famous In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin!) - authors have to select things, leave out things, and to make the book readable they will reorganize events and discussions. Travel literature is not journalism. By the use of his imagination Steinbeck gives us humor in the portrait of his dog Charley (and his talks with the dog), and he lets us meet several rare characters, as a New Yorker-reading aspiring hairdresser living in the middle of nowhere, or a traveling Shakespearean actor camping out near a river in North-Dakota. Even though Steinbeck has reorganized ("massaged") his impressions, they are not less true.

Steinbeck shows us the America of the early 1960s, a view in kaleidoscopic images of a "new America" that did not live up to his expectations. He is appalled by the sameness he finds everywhere, for example of food and of lodgings, by the loss of dialect, by the environmental destruction. He wonders about the large number of people living in campers, as if Americans have no roots. But there are also beautiful descriptions of landscapes, of Montana that he loves, of California and the giant sequoias, of Texas. There are funny scenes such as when he is advised not to enter Canada as on reentering the U.S. his dog will have to be quarantined, or when almost home he looses his way in New York. And, finally, there is great and justified anger, too, when in New Orleans he observes how black children need police protection to commute to one of the first mixed schools, and how a group of white women ("Cheerleaders") everyday comes to the school gate to shout the basest obscenities at the colored kids. When on top of that a taxi driver tells him "Them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up," he is so disgusted with the America he encounters, that he cancels the further trip and just rushes home.

Travels with Charley is great travel literature, an impression of America in 1960 enhanced by the pen of a consummate author. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I read the Penguin Classics edition. A recent voice accusing Steinbeck of "fraud" is journalist Bill Steigerwald (article in NYTimes, website); a counter-voice can be found here. My answer is, as I have written above, that literature is not journalism and that also travel writing is never a fact-by-fact account.