Fiction · review · Translated work · translations

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio

12035807

Paperback, NYRB Classics, 176 pages
Published March 20th 2012 by NYRB Classics

Amsterdam Stories is a collection of stories which mainly focus on the same group of young men who think and grow in Amsterdam. The official summary is:

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.

The collection has a timelessness to it that appealed to me. The writing is beautiful and Damion Searls’s translation is superlative. I cannot really review it in the normal way. The primary reason I speak about it is to bring the book to your attention. It should be enjoyed slowly, a couple of pages every day to soak in the brilliance of the writing. Here are some excerpts.

“…Can you stay out of it?”

“Out of What?”

“Out of the ocean?”

I nodded yes, I certainly could.

“I can’t, or just barely,” Bavink said. “It’s so strange, having that melancholy sound behind you. It’s like the ocean wants from from me, that’s what it’s like. God is in there too. God is calling. It’s really not a walk in the park, he is everywhere, and everywhere he is he’s calling Bavink. You get sick of your name when it’s called so much. And then Bavink has to paint. Has to get God on canvas, with paint. Then it’s Bavink who is calling ‘God.’ So there they are, calling each other. It’s just a game to God, he is everywhere without end. He just calls. But Bavink has only one stupid head and one stupid right hand and can work at one stupid painting at a time. And when he thinks he has God, all he has is paint and canvas. It turns out God is everywhere except where Bavink wants him to be.

(Young Titans, 48)

The next one is from a story called “Insula Dei” which was both heartbreaking and hopeful.

A hostile world, a world in tatters. A world of cold and poverty. Poverty in the many think wrinkled faces, in the closed shutters of many shops, in frosted-over shop windows, poverty in the streetcar rails where no streetcars were driving even though the snow had been cleared off somewhat, poverty in the little line of people by the corner of the old Jamin candy store, next to a pile of snow six feet high, poverty in the stands selling frozen fish that no one is buying, in the snatches of conversation you overhear.

(Insula Dei, 131)

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