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Amsterdam Stories by Nescio

Amsterdam Stories

by Nescio

Other authors: Joseph O'Neill (Introduction), Damion Searls (Translator)

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Showing 3 of 3
Actually, 4.5 stars...

What a welcome change of pace!

Nescio was the pseudonym of Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh (1882-1961), a pseudonym he felt was necessary to protect his career at an Amsterdam import-export house (at least until 1929), where he spent 33 years of his life and where he rose to be the director of the firm. But this was no life story like that of his contemporary Charles Ives, who was satisfied with his career as insurance executive and used most of his free time to write idiosyncratic music ahead of its time. It is fairly clear that Grönloh did not want his career, but by the age of 30 he had 4 young daughters and a wife to take care of. However, he also didn't really want to be a writer, either, for he published little, even after he retired at the age of 55. Like one of his best known characters, he wanted to be, not to do.

But the little he graced us with leaves me regretting that he didn't feel more strongly the calling to be a writer. For the short stories and sketches selected and translated by Damion Searles for this book, including all of the stories published in his first book (1918) which can be found in the original Dutch on the Project Gutenberg site, are charming, lively, melancholic and wry. With no sign of the drive to impress evinced by some of our contemporary authors, Nescio artfully tells his stories with a light touch. He is regarded as an admirable stylist in the Netherlands, which is why I read De uitvreter (the first story in this collection) in Dutch. I succeeded only in confirming once again that understanding what is written is a long way from grasping literary quality... There is no sign of linguistic fireworks, and it flows very nicely. More than that I can't say at this point.

So back to the translation, which also flows nicely and captures Nescio's wry humor and quiet sadness (which occasionally breaks out into loud despair - see below). What comes through clearly is an unmistakable voice, one you want to hear more of and regret when it stops its amused and sad narration.

About what, you ask.

The collection opens with "The Freeloader" ( uitvreter - loafer, sponger). This tells of the interactions of a group of young men, of which the primary characters are three: a self-tormented painter, the "freeloader" and the first person narrator, who is a writer of sorts. At first irritated by the freeloader's shameless sponging, the other two become fascinated by his free spirit and his manner of living totally in the moment. But the freeloader is ground down, though most of the grinding takes place outside of the view of the narrator. We are left speculating about the details.

In the next story Titaantjes (little titans, translated by Searls as "Young Titans", which, I think, misses some of the irony), the same group of young men appears again, without the freeloader. This time they are a typical bunch of 19-20 year olds, "us against them all", disparaging all they find before them and anxious to change the world, though exactly how and in what manner are not too clear to them. Grönloh aptly sketches this time of life and I, at least, at a safe distance from that period of my life, laughed aloud here. I suspect that those going through that time of life would not crack a smile.

Oh, we took our revenge, we learned languages they had never even heard of and we read books they couldn't even begin to understand, we experienced feelings they never knew existed.

So right! Do you remember? I can't help but contrast these healthy sentiments with the anomie of the young people in Tao Lin's Taipei , to mention but one example.

But life has a way of taking young people and changing them, changing them into something they never dreamed they would become; for the better, for the worse? Often, one really can't judge from the outside. The narrator tells the story 10 years after this time of inchoate hopes and dreams has passed, and sobering glimpses of the eventual outcomes of these people are allowed...

The narrator finds a kind of peace: "God's aim is aimlessness." In the next line: "But to keep this awareness always is granted to no man." His view is anti-modern - life is eternal, unchanging cycle; apparent changes are superficial, negligible. Individual lives go through huge changes; life itself never changes. Grönloh finds consolation there.

Not wanting this review to become all too long, I won't say anything about the remaining stories (not even the nearly perfect "Little Poet") and close, instead, with these remarks:

The strains caused by the disparity between his nature and the demands of his profession were intense enough to cause a nervous breakdown in 1927, resulting in a short hospitalization. But they also manifested themselves in the following brief text, "The Valley of Obligations" (1922):

I sit on the hill and look down into the valley of obligations. It is barren, there is no water, there are no flowers or trees in the valley. A lot of people are milling around, most of them drooping and misshapen and constantly looking down at the ground. Some of them look up every once in a while and then they scream. They all die sooner or later but I don't see their numbers decrease, the valley always looks the same. Do they deserve anything better?

I stand in the valley on a slag heap next to a small pile of scrap wood and a broken wash kettle. And I look up and see myself sitting up there and I howl like a dog in the night.

I've been there, but only as a young man, occasionally; Grönloh was 40 when he wrote this... Well, he had a long, long retirement and spent uncounted hours walking through his beloved Dutch countryside, just looking and being. At his death a journal of his hikes was found and has been published (in fact, nearly every scrap of his writing has been published, because the Dutch have taken him into their hearts), and I am intrigued, because when he described the countryside, the sky and the sea in these stories the intensity of his attention markedly increased. I'm afraid I might just have to hunt down nearly every scrap of his writing, too. ( )
  jonalb | Sep 22, 2013 |
A truly wonderful collection by a gifted short story writer and life chronicler who is sadly unknown outside of his native Holland. Even this collection, superbly selected and translated by Damion Searls for NYRB Classics, is the first of Nescio’s works to be available in English.

Nescio’s gift is for focusing on the city as a living, breathing, and sometimes temperamental character in its own right. He also has a fine touch for characterization and interior conflict; many characters recur in the tales collected here, and the Künstlerroman themes are evident in nearly all of the stories. Nescio’s focus on youth, on freedom, and on dreams is idyllic at times and then crushed by the harsh realities of maturation, external factors, and the world at large.

One of his strongest stories, “Little Poet,” handles all of his usual themes with a highly nuanced awareness of war, infidelity, and the diminishing role of the artist in modern life. Nescio’s increased attention to issues of gender and how these relate to his concerns from this story onward show an immense shift in his treatment, widening the scope, and leaving at least this reader hungry for more of his stories to be translated into English.

“The Freeloader” and “Young Titans”—which, along with “Little Poet,” are the longest of Nescio’s tales—are also remarkable, the first being stronger for its Melvillean misanthropy. Of the other tales collected here, only “The Writing on the Wall” and “Out Along the IJ” are weak; whether this is due to their rather short length (Nescio appears to need much longer canvases to unfold his narratives, except for two I'll mention below) or merely because they were sketches for other work, I can’t say. What I can say is that his extremely short “The Valley of Obligations” is the closest to modernist prose poetry Nescio comes in a prescient way, and “The End” is apocalyptic in its Künstlerroman pessimism, its antebellum anxieties, and its aesthetic simplicity, both stories proving that Nescio worked brilliantly in shorter forms as well as longer novella-length tales.

Youth, dreams, life, love, loss, and the unrelenting realities of the world at large. All of this and the shifting, sometimes alien and sometimes intimate city of Amsterdam as a backdrop—Nescio’s tales are timeless and all too ready for a new generation of readers. ( )
  proustitute | Mar 31, 2013 |
Showing 3 of 3
It’s little wonder that J.H.F. Grönlöh (1882–1961) wrote these biting and perceptive stories under the pseudonym Nescio (Latin for “I don’t know”). In most of them a sensitive artist mocks businessmen who slave away in offices and fail to contemplate the beautiful natural world. Grönlöh himself was an executive of a trading company in Amsterdam, apparently the very embodiment of the middle-class rectitude his characters despise. In this first English translation of his work, impoverished artists and writers seek to escape stifling bourgeois culture. Looking back with nostalgia at the idealism of their youth, these young men are generally regarded by Nescio with a bemused sympathy that can acquire a mocking edge. He trades wit for sensuousness, however, when his characters contemplate the inspiring Dutch landscape. In the best offering, “Little Poet,” the God of the Netherlands is a befuddled old man in a “shabby coat [with] dandruff on his collar.” He is the custodian of business, propriety, and smug respectability, and he and the devil both observe a man realize his desire to “be a great poet, and to fall” from grace. Five of the collected stories, many published in Holland in 1918, are considered Nescio’s major work; the remaining four are inchoate fragments. While his distinctive voice is absorbing, readers who are not familiar with Amsterdam may find the mention of streets, rivers, neighborhoods, canals, and dikes confusing. Yet this is a valuable introduction to a significant Dutch writer.
added by kidzdoc | editPublishers Weekly (Feb 20, 2012)
Note: This is a review and discussion of Nescio's body of work, most of which is included in "Amsterdam Stories", rather than the book itself.

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.”).
added by kidzdoc | editBookslut, Kevin McNeer (May 1, 2011)

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nescioprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
O'Neill, JosephIntroductionsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Searls, DamionTranslatorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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Except for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I've never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader.
But we weren't thinking about reused bags that night. We were doing our best to believe that we would still manage to accomplish something, really somehting. We would shock the world, unimpressive as we were, sitting calmly there with our legs pulled up and our eight hands clasping our eight knees.
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From the New York Review Books website:

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.
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J. H. F. Grnloh was a successful Dutch businessman, executive of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company and father of four, with a secret life: under the pseudonym Nescio (Latin for I don't know ), he wrote a series of short stories that went unrecognized at the time but that are now widely considered the best prose ever written in Dutch.… (more)

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