We Were Kids

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In English for the first time, Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories retrace timeless youthful abandon with mature yet doleful emotional detachment.

When so-called grownups retrace their younger days, they sometimes realize they might not have been so naive after all. Everything they once believed and lived, everything they once felt, was authentic and perhaps even correct. The abandonment of youthful notions was inevitable and necessary. In that, there is sadness, but also memories that are not nostalgic but hard-won and very real. The Dutch fiction writer Nescio presents readers with this human experience, in lyric prose and simple tales, told through his mostly male characters—writers, poets, painters, layabouts, drifters, low-level office workers—as well as his impressionistic descriptions of long-ago Amsterdam, which he clearly loved. A selection of his work is now being offered for the first time in English, translated from the Dutch by Damion Searls and published by New York Review Books under the title Amsterdam Stories.

Nescio’s real name was Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh, and he was born in 1882. His life story can be summarized this way: a young writer and idealist, son of a shopkeeper/blacksmith, quickly relegates himself to a life of striving businessman. Supporting a young family, he spends his early and middle years in artistic obscurity, employing a pen name that means “I don’t know” in Latin, in part to protect an executive position at the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. He writes very little. Stories are published pseudonymously in his native the Netherlands, but “success” eludes him on the literary front. After retiring as company director in 1937, due to a nervous condition, he still doesn’t write very much. Instead he pursues other activities, including long walks around Amsterdam and its surrounding countryside. He dies in 1961, near the time that a compilation of his work, Above the Valley, is published in Holland. His stature in his homeland grows steadily afterward. In 1996 his collected works are published, in two volumes, one of which is a nature diary he kept during excursions around the Netherlands during the years 1946 through 1955—to the delight of his newly adoring native audience.

And now the English-reading world has Amsterdam Stories, a very slim book of fiction, mostly because Nescio’s oeuvre is very slight. He is best known for a mere three “major” short works: “Dichtertje,” “De uitvreter,” and “Titaantjes.” These stories—sometimes referred to as novellas—are translated to the English here as “Little Poet,” “The Freeloader,” and “Young Titans.” There are six additional pieces in the volume, as well as fragments and unfinished work; the most notable of these is “Insula Dei,” which takes place in the Netherlands during World War II, and is the only longer piece Nescio completed during his lifetime besides his three “major” ones.

Despite a limited output, Nescio is revered in Holland today, and he rests firmly in the modern Dutch canon. Overall, the pieces included here vary in efficacy but each entry in Amsterdam Stories contains mad bursts of poetry and bitterness. These are works of knowing resignation, driven by an open resentment at indifferent gods and class and social restrictions, as well as keen observation and a love for nature and the friendships of young men, and an acknowledgement of time’s continuum and its great limitations.

Nescio’s stories are loosely linked, and characters appear and reappear, including the five friends who debut as a group in “Young Titans”: Hoyer and Bavink, aspiring painters and unapologetic loafers; Bekker, who dreams of a life on the heath outside Amsterdam where he plans to not “do anything”; Kees Ploeger who hangs around aimlessly with the guys; and lastly, Koekebakker—narrator, budding writer, Nescio/Grönloh stand-in.

These young men spend their idle time smoking cigars, drinking Dutch gin, reading Dante, taking excursions to the ring of dikes that surround Amsterdam, and talking to and—mostly—about girls (“And so it was: God showed his face and then hid it again. You never got anywhere, especially if you only looked at the girls from a distance and let other men kiss their pretty faces”). Those with steady jobs have nothing but contempt for their bosses. The “gentlemen of Amsterdam” possess all the power—over society, over their minions, over almost everything—and yet these gentlemen are incapable of feeling what God had deposited only in the heads, hearts and spines of five young Amsterdammers, or so they believed. Koekebakker—writing from an older position—knows better than this, but he dispenses light judgment on his earlier self and on his old friends. “We were kids—but good kids,” he tells the reader at the outset. “We would show them how it should be. ‘We’: that meant the five of us. Everyone else was ‘them,’ the ones who didn’t see it, didn’t get it. ‘What?’ Bavink said. ‘God? You want to talk about God? Their pot roast is their God.’ Other than a few ‘decent fellows’ we despised everyone—and secretly, I still think we were right.”

Very quickly these poor young men are reaching that critical juncture in life that decides everything, though they are heedless to this fact. Divergent paths, almost predetermined, take shape and they follow them obediently, into adulthood, arriving in the bourgeoisie if they’re lucky, embracing marriage and family, and obeying the beckon of a steady paycheck. Simply put, it is a story of where Hoyer, Bekker, Ploeger, Koekebakker and Bavink end up by their middle twenties, and this is all the reader needs to know, because everything important in the lives of these characters happens by that point. Everything after can almost go unsaid. This is particularly true for Bavink, who goes mad (the reader is given this fact in the story’s fourth sentence), though Bavink’s insanity is what leads to his greatest “success.” In the end though, this familiar story—an older man looking back on youth—is not overly judgmental or maudlin. It is also not a valedictory or a postmortem or a celebration. It is clear-eyed and resolute.

Overall, there is a certain density of detached emotion to these Amsterdam stories, but they never smother. They are indeed doleful, but they are also hopeful and in spots, I think, very amusing. Observations on a rigid, pressurized Dutch society are countered by descriptions of the city’s natural and man-made beauty as well as a sharp chronicling of human foibles. These are melancholic stories that are never sentimental, always stoic, and very often poetic (“The Valley of Obligations”—all of 140 words—is essentially a prose poem). There are beautiful paragraphs throughout this volume.

In the “The Freeloader” the reader discovers perhaps Nescio’s greatest invention: the title character, also known as Japi (pronounced “Yoppy”; no surname). The first line of the story is famous, because it is very funny, and if a reader enjoys this sentence, I daresay he or she ought to read every story in this book, because it serves as a litmus test on Nescio (as does the excellent opening to “Little Poet,” for that matter—very funny). The second paragraph in “The Freeloader”—shifting suddenly from first-person to second—grabs the reader’s attention; after the third, with Koekebakker again as narrator, Japi does the rest of the work.

“Little Poet” is quite different from Nescio’s other stories. It is an odd tale of courtship and marriage and the little poet’s scandalous affair with his sister-in-law, observed by god and devil alike. But “Little Poet” is more than its plot: it is lyrical and satirical, the funniest of the three majors, and the most developed. It was also the final one to be written. Just as his Greek counterparts might, the “God of the Netherlands” in this story looks down on the little poet, literally and figuratively, and as the little poet’s predetermined comic tragedy plays out, Nescio joins the fun as well, inserting himself into the story to mock and satirize little poets everywhere, and this one specifically (“Why did God ever make anyone a little poet?”). Years and events pass and what happens to a little poet doesn’t seem very consequential at the end, but of course it is.

In Nescio’s Amsterdam stories the concept of time is important, and its passage is marked by transitory changes in fashion, technology, landscapes, and language use, as duly noted by the narrator. The reader is informed that “consumption” has become “tuberculosis”; a tinsmithing business is now known as an “enterprise.” Cars appear suddenly in Amsterdam. Women’s dress changes; men’s, not as much. But Nescio’s underlying universal themes remain intact; his marvelous, century-old stories seemingly continue to the present day. As Koekebakker reports in “Young Titans”: “It was a strange time. And when I think about it, I realize that that time must still be happening now, it will last as long as there are young men of nineteen or twenty running around. It’s only for us that the time is long since past.”

Kevin Nolan writes essays and fiction. More from this author →