The Rumpus Interview with Damion Searls
To say that Amsterdam Stories is a pleasure to read is a vast understatement. This pearl of a book, containing all of the Dutch author Nescio’s greatest stories, evoked in me a joy I seldom receive: the jolt of clarity and wistful understanding that comes from reading a truly remarkable prose stylist. In my case, this book allowed me the added pleasure of evoking the country I lived and wandered in not that long ago. While the city of Amsterdam has changed since the first half of the twentieth century, when Nescio was writing, the Dutch character I remember so well from my time in the Netherlands comes through in this book on practically every page.
Amsterdam Stories was ably translated by Damion Searls, a translator of works from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch, and a fine writer in his own right and recent recipient of a Guggenheim. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Searls about his work as a translator and writer and his encounter with and translation of Nescio’s stories.
The Rumpus: When/how did you first hear about Nescio? When/how did you decide to translate these stories?
Damion Searls: I was at a writer’s residence in Belgium, and my last day there was the first day of the new resident, a Dutch writer named Tommy Wieringa, very striking guy—tall, bald, Zen sandals—and he gave me two great gifts. The first is, I was upset at myself for not getting everything I had wanted to done at this great residency—which is so wonderful for any writer, time to do nothing except what you’re theoretically supposed to do. Even in my last days, I wasn’t getting things done. And he told me that this is a common mistake: everyone thinks they’ll “hit the ground running” at the beginning or get through everything at the end, but, he said, arriving and departing are jobs of their own. They take work. I wasn’t slacking off, I was doing the work of departing.
The second was, when I asked him if there were any Dutch writers I should know about, he told me that Nescio is the greatest prose writer in the language, and had I ever heard of him. I hadn’t. He had been translated into German so I ordered and read the German first, and it was great—I tried the Dutch to see if I was up for it, and decided I was.
Rumpus: You have translated works from German, Norwegian, French and Dutch. Talk to me a little about your relationship with language(s).
Searls: German is my main second language, which I learned in college and a year abroad after college; that’s the one I can converse in, interpret conversations, and so on. French, I never really studied, but I knew Latin and had watched a lot of French movies and when I started to learn it I found that I knew it pretty well. I lived in France for five months too; my spoken French is poor but I read it well. Norwegian and Dutch are similar to German—I lived in Amsterdam for a year and so I saw a lot of ads, packaging, and so on, and most Dutch words are either German words spelled funny or English words spelled funny, so if you know those two languages and can decode “uit” = “aus” or “het” = “the” then you can get by, at least reading.
All these languages are more for reading than for speaking, for me. I don’t pick it up by going to a country and trying to get a taxi or a date, I learn by reading things I want to read, no matter how slow it is at first with a dictionary. The same with English, actually.
Rumpus: You are both a writer of fiction and a translator. Tell me a little about the translation process versus the creative writing process.
Searls: I’ve written about this elsewhere—my first book of stories, for example, is re-writings or “translations” of other stories of the past. Not as academic exercises, but because my creativity is one of wanting to share with people what has already come in to me as a reader. I take great comfort that Borges said of himself he was not a great writer but he was a great reader—and that what you read is more important than what you write, because you read what you love, but you write what you can.
On a literal level, translation—at least of artistic, literary work—is nice because you never have to face a blank page, or a full page where you don’t know whether or not it’s worthless. You know it’s good because it has already moved at least one reader, you. As a writer starting out, translation also had the practical advantage for me of putting me in touch with editors and the publishing world, etc. It’s easier to interest someone in Rilke or Thomas Bernhard than in Joe Unknown, on a certain level, then when I was ready to try to make a little money with my writing, I already knew people. (Literary translation is in the labor-of-love category, at least it was for me for the first ten or twelve years.)
Rumpus: Did you choose which of Nescio’s stories to publish? If so, how did you choose these stories? The stories, especially the pre-World War I stories, seem to me to exude a sort of beautifully naïve innocence. Comparing the first story in the collection, “The Freeloader,” with the final story, “Insula Dei,” one feels not necessarily (although possibly) a loss of hope, but certainly a loss of innocence. Do you feel that the stories contain any natural progression? That Nescio became a more pessimistic writer as the years went by?
Searls: I did—the editing process is another side of the reading process, along with writing and translating. (Something I learned in selecting and translating a new grouping of poetry and prose by Rilke, and in abridging Thoreau’s 7,000-page Journal down to a one-volume edition.) The three long stories “The Freeloader,” “Young Titans,” and “Little Poet” are obviously the core of his work—his first and for decades only book, and by far the most widely read stories today. “Writing on the Wall” and “Out Along the IJ” revisit the great characters from the first two stories, and “Insula Dei” is his only other long story. The other, short pieces I chose because of their beautiful Amsterdam atmosphere, and to give English-language readers a sense of the shape of his career. He hardly wrote anything after the first three big stories—”Insula Dei” came to him as a great surprise—and some of the material from his decades of blockage seemed important.
Rumpus: “The Freeloader” read to me almost like a Dutch version of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” In a fantastic twist, though, Japi, the Freeloader, who spends the bulk of the story doing nothing of consequence, becomes a “clean shaven and nattily dressed” businessman, before jumping off a bridge, his final messages as incomprehensible as Bartleby’s mail in the dead-letter office. I wonder what you make of the character of Japi?
Searls: Japi is one of the most iconic characters in Dutch literature, up there with Huck Finn (Google Translate, which replaces words with the other language’s words in similar contexts, currently converts “Nescio” to “Mark Twain”). Bartleby is a great connection, though—the differences as well as the similarities. Japi is so Dutch—his blunt humor, no-nonsense modest hedonism if I can put it that way. The structures of the stories are similar, too: narrated by a more normal onlooker, and bemused victim, of the main character’s refusals to play along.
One of the things I like about Nescio is that our sense of the Dutch character is so split: there are all these stereotypical boring, badly dressed businessmen and then the occasional flamboyant utter genius: Van Gogh, Rembrandt. How could Dutch culture produce both? I feel like Nescio is the missing link—he shows us both the bohemian visionaries and plodding bourgeoisie, each turning into the other, each from the other one’s point of view.
Rumpus: Many of these stories follow the same cast of characters, struggling artists and writers, the bulk of whom succumb (like Nescio himself) to more or less all-consuming day jobs. How do you think Nescio’s day job influenced his writing life?
Searls: As Joseph O’Neill discusses in the excellent “Introduction” to the book, his career is crucial, even more to his life than to his writing life. His three great stories were published when he was already “middle aged”—in his late thirties and forties, well established in the Holland-Bombay Trading Company (which he would eventually direct), and with four young children; he used a pen name so as not to risk offending his colleagues, and wrote little until his retirement clearly because of his professional duties. He didn’t find the trick that Wallace Stevens or T.S. Eliot did, of separating out a writing life from his professional life. O’Neill connects him to his clerkly contemporaries, Robert Walser and Franz Kafka; I would add Fernando Pessoa.