Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke: Maclehose Press, Quercus, London 2013; first published 2009
Work on the house continues, and we’ve had to travel extensively with work and for social commitments lately, so this will be a hastily-written piece.
I’ve admired the reviews of Jonathan Gibbs for some time, and his debut novel, Randall, was published last month by Galley Beggar Press and was well received. He’s quoted as saying, among the puffs for this book in the preliminary pages, that Nooteboom’s short novels ‘are exquisite toys for the broken-hearted’ – a phrase so impressive the publishers also stuck it on the front cover – ‘erudite tales that revolve around themes of loss and despair but are nevertheless playful.’ Critics have also described the Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn as hilariously funny; both are views I find it hard to share.
These are bleak little sketches about memory, yes, and lost love, but playful they’re surely not. That’s not to say that they aren’t sometimes witty and amusing, but mostly I found them moodily reflective, sad and nostalgic, with that tang of wistful ennui and anomie that’s so prevalent in the bleak fiction that traces its origins in the works of Hamsun and Kafka, continued through Beckett and most commonly found in continental European writers: Bernhard, Sebald, Krasznahorkai…
I bought this slim volume of eight stories in a curious bookshop at the foot of some medieval steps in Exeter; called Book Cycle, it claims to be Britain’s only ‘free bookshop’. You can select up to three books a day and pay what you think is fair. It’s a charity which distributes books in Africa.
I took my purchase to a pub on the Quays overlooking the swan-haunted river. As I ate lunch in bright sunshine I read the opening story, ‘Gondolas’. It’s typical of the collection: a middle-aged narrator, an Amsterdam art journalist, retraces his time in Venice forty years earlier. He finds the very pier where a passer-by took a photo of him and his much younger, teenage American girlfriend – a hippy with home-made tattoos and a penchant for astrology and the occult – the narrator dismissively calls this ‘childish babble’. The melancholy narrative is as much about the man himself now, however, as it is about the woman:
What that snapshot really conveyed, he reflected, more as a statement of fact than out of a sense of tragedy or self-pity, was that it was time he started thinking about his own exit.
Memory, mutability and mortality and related feelings of mourning or despair then are the central themes in these stories, usually sparked off by a picture: they are I suppose examples of a kind of ecphrasis, they are about observed life and its usually impenetrable significance, and our efforts to make sense of what are possibly meaningless events, but those events create absences for us which are troublesome when we recollect what they once represented. The idea of our ‘making our exit’ underpins most of the stories, while ‘trying to feel her absence’, as the narrator does here, running his fingers over the stones on the Venetian pier. The slow meditative voice and haunted tone are complemented by a tendency towards aphorism and poetic philosophising; usually this works well, but sometimes it can seem pretentious:
He was aware that every thought entering the mind under these circumstances would be a cliché, but these riddles had never been solved. By reality and perfection I mean the same thing…Death was a natural given, but it was accompanied by such abysmal sorrow at times that you were almost ready to descend into the abyss yourself, and thereby surrender to the perfect reality of the riddle.
That ‘abyss’ – the mystery at the heart of each individual’s life, and our inability to truly know each other – leads the narrators to ponder, and usually reject, the possibility of making sense of our stories. In ‘Paula’ and ‘Paula II’, for example, the first story about a group of bohemian gamblers is told from the point of view of Paula’s temporary lover; the second, strangely, is from her perspective in a sort of limbo beyond the grave. And it’s clear he knew almost nothing about her.
The ‘arsenal’ of memories begins in ‘Gondolas’, as in many of the stories, in the Mediterranean – the island of Hydra. The narrator doesn’t, on reflection, seem to have much liked this young woman with her banal taste in ‘sorcery’, her kitsch artistic sense (his own is more portentous: Piero della Francesca is mentioned) and dabbling in puerile versions of Buddhism. But his own sombre feelings are clearly very important: ‘Love was the need for love, that much at least he had understood.’
She left that summer to resume her life in the USA and he went on to become important in the world of art journalism. They corresponded, however, and when years later she told him she was very ill he went to visit her in California. The trip was not a success. Now that she’s died he has come on a kind of pilgrimage to the place where he first accosted her and began their affair. At the story’s end when he casts her letters into the water, it’s more with a sense of ridding himself of the memory of this unedifying part of his erotic-artistic life, than as a Keatsian elegy to a doomed lost love.
Other stories are little more than vignettes or snapshots of revealing moments in a person’s life. A mismatched couple go to a cafe in Menorca (where they live) and see a man walk out on his wife after they quarrel and get fried by a lightning bolt in a thunderstorm. The symbolism in this story is a little heavy-handed.
‘Heinz’ is the longest story, and is another sparked off by contemplation of a picture. This is perhaps the most interesting in the collection: the alcoholic Dutch honorary vice consul on the Ligurian coast is richly drawn. It’s another story about the incipherability of a person’s life, yet we feel impelled to try to find out about it. The epigraph by Ivy Compton-Burnett is revealing of Nooteboom’s intentions:
We will not pretend that something has happened when nothing has.
The narrative is again melancholy and elegiac, muted and detached. The theme of drama is expounded upon here and elsewhere in the collection:
Drama in novels or films exists thanks to the denial of duration since it can be compressed into a few evenings of reading or an hour or two of viewing. Things happen in the real world which you can call dramas, and yet, if you want to turn them into art you have no choice but to converge and compress…Our chaos makes for stories lacking in form and clarity.
The stories are about more than nostalgia, then: they’re about the attempt to create art out of the apparently meaningless events we have witnessed and participated in. By narrating these events we perhaps mute the pain. Even though the narrator self-deprecatingly warns his reader not to expect the ‘unities’ or drama in this story; it is artless, with ‘no culmination, no dénouement’. Instead it’s about the incapacity of language to convey meaning or reality; we employ images, as films do, but we can’t shake the wish to
Take [y]our paltry little secrets with you when you depart this life and close the door behind you.
I suppose the stories sound, summarised like this, rather bleak and depressing – they’re not. The language is hypnotic and engaging, and the playfulness mentioned by Gibbs is apparent, now I think of it, in the Beckettian sense of feeling impelled to go on with the telling of the story even when it is hopeless to try to make anything meaningful out of it. Or so the narrators believe; as readers we are required to mistrust this pessimism, see the play beneath the stone surface. Thus in ‘Paula II’ the eponymous woman narrator (who is dead, she died in a hotel fire) observes her erstwhile lover’s ascetic, Zen monastic existence and remarks:
for someone still among the living you make a rather dead impression, as though you have taken an advance on your mortality.