Amsterdam Stories

by JDP

What begins as a collection of nostalgic tales of youth ends in a rather beautifully-rendered meditation on the place of humanity in a broader constellation of forces that are out of its control; this slim volume is well-written throughout, but sometimes tends toward the eccentric.

Nescio (or J. H. F. Grönloh) / Dutch / 1909-42 / 155 pages
Translated from the Dutch by Damion Searls

I’m by no means an inherently nostalgic person, but I’ll grant that there are some periods of my life that I wouldn’t mind revisiting for a handful of days. Specifically my undergraduate years, where my friends and I trucked and bartered in big (and admittedly poorly specified) ideas, where I could wander out of a philosophy class and into a class on evolutionary biology, where I had not yet boxed myself into a career as an academic and where my future prospects were hopelessly vague and uncertain. There’s a charming innocence to that period of life where your thoughts and your aspirations are cosmic in their character; I’m not talking about the trite invincibility of youth so much as I am the enrapturing experience of engaging in a broad set of new ideas with new friends. Later down the line, it gets harder to awaken these feelings. Even those of us who strive to stay intellectually awake and curious have to come to terms with the reality of jobs, families, and, despite our best efforts to resist, the homogenizing dynamics that attend our passage into adulthood.

The Dutch author Nescio understood this rather well, it seems. Not only do his stories realistically capture the grown man’s longing for the days of late-night poetry readings, long meditative walks, and the initial brushstrokes of art instruction; his work also charts in rather thorough detail the process by which most of us awake from this utopian existence and gradually come to terms with the day-to-day pressures of adulthood. In his short stories, poets become businessmen, painters turn into shop owners, and deadbeat adolescents who daily live on the largesse of others are eventually turfed out onto the curb and left to fend for themselves. His youths are also put to the task of confronting much broader forces such as death, the passage of time, foreign occupation during war, and the ever-consistent sunrise that marks the beginning of each day. There is a deep sadness in the growing-up process, but Nescio’s pen is light; indeed, there were many points in this short story collection where I found myself laughing. There were other points at which I silently shook my head in admiration of Nescio’s terse-but-well-honed prose. At times, I must admit, I also arched an eyebrow in befuddlement. Amsterdam Stories is a unique and eccentric addition to one’s library, a work that I would highly recommend to readers looking to get outside of the standard Western European canon. Considering the fact that this collection was heretofore untranslated in English until last month, interested parties can definitely get the drop on the rest of the English-speaking world if they rush to their local bookseller today.      

Amsterdam Stories includes many shorter, fragmentary works, but the main bulk of the material is confined in four longer pieces. The first two (“The Freeloader”  and “Young Titans”) focus on a group of young men (writers, painters, poets, and mooches) living in and around Amsterdam in the early 1900s. The narration is written in retrospective, which allows the narrator to interject insights that seem wise beyond the years of the characters. Their plights are typical, I suppose, for their age. They are excited about the future, they want to usurp the system of their parents that relegates them to workers without time to spend thinking about big ideas and abstract concepts. In the first story, the freeloader is the purest incarnation of this idea. He is someone who, while exceedingly conversant in many things, is completely unable to provide for himself. He looks for handouts from his friends and, in the worst times, begs for money from his wealthy parents (who presumably got that way by working the sorts of jobs he so ardently despises). The second story revisits many of these same characters as they age. The narrator is forced into a series of awkward interactions with his old friends as they move into adulthood.  He discovers that their previous meditations on time, nature, and art have been replaced by significantly more circumscribed concerns about business relationships, hourly wages, and providing for their families. He is ultimately left to conclude that these mellowing and maturing processes run much deeper in the human mind than the fleeting ideals of youth. He ends the story by posing to the reader this observation: “And so everything takes its little course, and woe to those who ask: Why?”

Nescio’s writing in these stories is occasionally sublime. He opens “The Freeloader” with a line that, from what I can gather in the introductory material to the book, has become one of the most famous lines in all of Dutch literature: “Except for the man who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful place in Europe, I’ve never met anyone more peculiar than the freeloader.” You don’t have to know anything about Sarphatistraat to realize that Nescio is poking fun at the limited perspective of his textbook “peculiar” person. And you don’t have to read much further into the story before you realize that this type of well-crafted line is a dime-a-dozen in Nescio’s prose. In this sense, he reminded me a bit of Lovers or Something Like It by Florian Zeller or even the best that Hemingway had to offer: these are writers that tend toward the pithy and insightful. It’s a bit of a high wire act, but Nescio (and Zeller) pull it off more frequently (and more convincingly) than did Hemingway.

I would venture to say that the third story — “The Little Poet” — is almost a disaster, however. There are some bizarre magical realist tendencies in the story (both God and the devil put in personified appearances) and the narrative itself wanders back and forth thematically. Initially, the story appears to explore the same thematic material as the ones that precede it, just with a different cast and time period. As it progresses, however, it turns into a heartwarming story about the love that emerges between a man and the sister of his wife (a bit weird, but whatever). At the end, the story runs off the rails and terminates in a fit of dementia, the birth of an illegitimate child, and the destruction of a young woman’s artistic ambitions. The treatment here is light, as it is everywhere throughout Amsterdam Stories, but the substance of the story is dark to the core.

Nescio returns to his otherwise fine form in the fourth story, “Insula Dei.” Here the two main characters are older men residing in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II. Damaged supply lines and wartime shortages have created an environment of illness, hunger, and extreme poverty. The story picks up with two older friends as they meet for (imitation, rationed) coffee at one of the few coffeehouses in the city that has not been forced to close its doors. Over the course of multiple conversations, they talk about their shared past, the bleak prospects of their future, and the seemingly unshakable presence of a foreign army. Nescio, who was born in 1882 and died in the 1960s, lived through both world wars and his rendering of the wartime civilian environment is moving. The story is also a profound exploration of how one person can leave his or her mark in a world shaped by much, much broader and more powerful forces. The two men, who are writers, thought that they would have left their mark on society after their death; in an era where it was too expensive to simply print new books, however, they are forced to examine their contributions in different areas of their lives. Their reminisces are both entertaining and sad.

Nescio was never a professional writer and this short story collection encapsulates every “major” work he ever finished. To an extent, the fact that he was effectively a hobbyist lends the book a fresh air; this is a man who only wrote when he felt truly compelled to say something important. Many of the shorter and more fragmentary contributions aren’t great, but they are so short that readers can easily pass through them in minutes. And the thrill of reading “The Freeloader” and “Young Titans” — two truly great pieces — should not be missed.

Rating: 8 / 10

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