It’s not surprising that it took more than 50 years after his death, for the works of the Dutch writer Nescio to be translated and published in America. It wasn’t until after WWII that he gained any notoriety in the Netherlands and he only became a beloved member of the Dutch canon posthumously. As Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, writes in his introduction to Amsterdam Stories, the first collection of Nescio’s work to appear in America, “[Nescio] wrote very little, and he wrote small.” His longest work is 42 pages long. His entire published oeuvre, including editor’s notes and some unpublished fragments, fits in this 161 page volume. Nescio wrote in a handful of years between 1909 and 1942 and almost nothing in the 1920s and 1930s.
Nescio (Latin for “I don’t know”) was the pen name of Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh. After briefly falling in with a circle of ambitious artistic youths and applying to join a colony in the Dutch countryside founded by psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, Grönloh committed himself to a business career in 1904. He married in 1906 and immediately began fathering children, eventually having four daughters. After a series of minor office jobs, he ended up working for the Holland-Bombay Trading company, becoming its director in 1926 and, O’Neill points out, “a notably demanding and severe boss.” Grönloh was as bourgeoisie as could be. What little he published, he published under a pen name to protect his career as a proper Dutch businessman.
Conventional Dutch life wasn’t the only drain on Nescio’s writing time. His first love was not writing, but walking. O’Neill writes, “At a very early age he fell in love with taking walks and as a nine-year old began to go on solitary outings, making written records of his impressions.” In 1899 alone, he walked 522 kilometers. He maintained this relationship with the Dutch landscape for the rest of his life and it became a center of gravity in his work. Remove the time at the office, on a walk, attending one of the social engagements directors of major trading firms were expected to attend, and fulfilling familial obligations, and there just wasn’t much time to write. That J.H.F. Grönloh, the successful businessman, had a writing hobby is not surprising; that Nescio is a brilliant writer is shocking. As O’Neill asks, “How many important artists have been such slight practitioners?” Given how few works in translation are read in America, in general, it is a miracle Nescio got here at all.
Nescio should have gotten here long ago. His work converged with many aspects of American literature and culture. The ragtag circle of artists at the center of his stories could have hung out with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. His eco-spirituality could have inspired the hippies and early environmentalists. Fans of our great walker Thoreau would have found a kindred spirit. Whenever Rimbaud showed up in coffee shops, clubs, and cocktail parties, Nescio could have been his shadow. But Nescio’s absence from our literature is most surprising because of the crushing beauty of his work.
Many of you have been waiting for Amsterdam Stories; those of you who reread “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” who had (or have) world changing dreams and no longer know what to do or believe or feel about them, who aren’t sure what to think when sitting in coffee shops watching people walk by, who don’t know what to say when you see an old friend for the first time in years and realize how much you have changed by how much your friend has changed. Who love long walks. Who love sitting by lakes, ponds, and rivers. Who want brave and beautiful stories. Who want fiction to remind us why this is important.
Nescio examines painters, writers, poets, and thinkers at various stages of their lives. We see them full of the irrational passion of youth, crippled by the frustration of middle age in a world that refused to change, conflicted about the success of their bitterest work, and settling into the spiritual acceptance only available to those who can reflect on an entire life. Though there is a sense of longing when he looks back on youth, Nescio celebrates the exuberance and naïveté without being nostalgic. He is Romantic without romanticizing. And even as daily life slowly squeezes the revolution from these characters, even as they give up painting and writing, even as some fall away to madness or complacency, Nescio argues for the artist’s perspective, for the idea that even if you are unable to create, you can still see the world as an endless source of potential.
For me, reading Amsterdam Stories was like watching Casablanca. Much of Casablanca has become cliché. The famous lines are quoted so often, and the famous scenes are such a part of our culture, we’ve seen the movie before we’ve actually seen it. And yet, even though we’ve heard them a hundred times, even though we know they’re coming, the famous lines are still powerful. They are surrounded by such inherent and integral beauty, that what should make us roll our eyes, takes our breath away. In Casablanca we hear “a hill of beans” and “here’s looking at you, kid.” In Amsterdam Stories we read “And I puff on my pipe in all humility, and feel like God himself, who is infinity itself. I sit there aimlessly. God’s aim is aimlessness. But to keep this awareness always is granted to no man.” — from the story “Young Titans.” “Then she stretched out her arms but there was no one to answer her. Then she didn’t know if she wanted to live or die and she slowly rode her bike home, where Mother sat yawning over her Daily News under the gas lamp with her glasses on the tip of her nose,” from “The Little Poet.” “But the Lord is in the great silence and emptiness and in this wondrous end to a monumental day. The day has become mine once more and mine the enchanted world. The sun stands still, there will be no night. Time stands still; pitiless eternity takes pity,” from “Insula Dei.” In other contexts, these passages with their “God” and “live or die” and “eternity” might be overwrought bombast, but, as in Casablanca, the beauty in the fabric of the stories makes the passages transcendent.
Amsterdam Stories is a book of landscape. It is about what words the mind hears when the eyes are truly open, seeing the world as a reason to create. “And the sky got bluer and bluer and the sun shone until it seemed like flowers would have to start sprouting out of the country bumpkins. And the red roofs in the villages and the black trees and the fields…And the road lay there, white and smarting, it couldn’t bear the sunlight, and the glass panes of the village streetlamps flashed, they had trouble withstanding the glare too,” from “Young Titans.” “A stately row of Canadian poplars, a copse here and there. A striking emptiness and silence…And then there’s a fantastic golden cloud above the grain fields, climbing up out of the grain fields, shining and spreading up and to the right…And then something looms up out of the golden matter…And a moment later it’s a wagon piled high with hay,” from “Insula Dei.” It makes me feel the time has come to set out on my “journey westward.”
Finally, Nescio is not afraid to be vague. He lets moments for which language is an ineffective communicator hang on the thinnest scaffolding of words. In “Out Along the Ij,” “[h]is world came in through our eyes and lived in our heads, and our thoughts went wordlessly out across the world, far beyond the horizon they went.” In “Insula Dei,” we see Flip smile “not pathetically anymore but the way you smile at someone who has done you a real favor.” As readers and writers we are taught to seek and strive for precision; an exactness from which individual interpretations can flow. But much of life is vague, inexact, and diffuse. Like the indistinct details in a Van Gogh landscape, Nescio can be meaningful and beautiful without being specific.
Amsterdam Stories easily merged with my own canon, like a flood born stream joining the river. I’ve mentioned “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” but Nescio also reminded me of “The Hunger Artist,” “White Nights,” and the last few pages of The Great Gatsby. Stories like epic landscape paintings. Stories like a quiet chat on a river bank with a confidant. Stories like the foggy joyous hangover after a long night of tobacco-infused, coffee-fueled poetry. Beautiful stories. Love poems to life. Grönloh did not live the life of an artist, but Nescio has written one of the great apologies for art. We all struggle through the challenges of life; all the good mothers and fathers, all the diligent businessmen, all the fastidious bureaucrats, all the revolutionaries, all the mainstream politicians, all the over-read students, all the exhausted laborers, all of us. We rely on artists to remind us why that struggle is worth it.