Nescio, a Great Author of a Small Oeuvre

‘His work constitutes the greatest small oeuvre in Dutch literature,’ Reinder P. Meijer said in his Literature of the Low Countries – and rightly so. In fact, in this respect Nescio (‘I don’t know’ – pen name of J.H.F. Grönloh, 1882-1961) can be compared to Emily Brontë in Britain and Alain-Fournier in France. For most of his life he was completely neglected by the reading public, though admired and loved by a few discerning colleagues as the author of a single book of 128 pages, containing three stories: ‘Little Poet’ (‘Dichtertje’), ‘The Sponger’ (‘De Uitvreter’) and ‘Young Titans’ (‘Titaantjes’), published in 1918 in an edition of 500 copies and not sold out till fifteen years afterwards. And hardly anybody knew who was the man behind these novellas. Only in 1929, four years before a second edition appeared, which did not sell either, was he obliged to reveal his name because his book had been wrongly attributed to another man in a dictionary of pseudonyms. In spite of this disclosure Grönloh was and remained a maverick: he never mixed in literary circles. Nor in any other circles for that matter.

In the course of the late forties, however, after a second publication, Mene Tekel, an even tinier book than its predecessor, he became somewhat better-known. And in 1961, just before he died, a third book, Above the Valley (Boven het dal) appeared, thanks to the efforts of some relatives and friends. Since that time Nescio’s reputation as well as his popularity have increased steadily: by now more than thirty editions of his first three stories have been published and more than twenty of Above the Valley: the Netherlands had at long last discovered one of its outstanding authors. Some of his sentences, such as ‘Boys we were, but nice boys’, have even become proverbial.

One might wonder why it has taken such a long time for one of our most distinguished and original authors to get through to the general reader. It can certainly not have been on account of his style. On the contrary: his style is deceptively realistic and simple, often near-colloquial, free from any attempt at literary finesse, but nevertheless subtle and remarkably effective. Although more than eighty-five years have elapsed since his first story was published (‘The Sponger’ in 1911) his way of writing has suffered very little from the passage of time and the changing language. And one might say that, although the world around us has altered almost beyond recognition, the world evoked in Nescio’s stories has remained intact. In ‘Young Titans’ he writes about a band of five young friends, nineteen or twenty years old: two painters, two aspiring writers and one man with no special artistic ambitions, who dream of changing the world utterly, although they have no idea in which way and into what. Of course they are cheated and defeated by the harsh realities of life: ‘Wise men we have become, pitiably wise. Except for Bavink [one of the painters], who has gone crazy’.

The exceptional merit of Nescio’s stories is not to be found in their plots, but in their empathy and in their style, in the fusion of (self)irony, mockery and sarcasm with vague longings and melancholy. Most probably it was this blend which proved too heady for most of his contemporaries, who were accustomed to downright realism or romantic aestheticism.

Moreover, his stories were thought irreverent if not sacrilegious. A highly respectable literary journal refused to publish ‘Young Titans’ because of its unconventional representation of God’s way with the world and with new generations of young Titans who ‘will always keep trying to thrust Him from His elevated position’ and who, of course, will be defeated and put in their place in the same way as their predecessors. And what were the high-priests of literature to think of the opening passage of ‘Little Poet’, where ‘the God of the Netherlands’ – ‘your God, the God of your boss and of your father-in-law and of your boss’ bookkeeper and of the restaurant manager of The New Cherry Tree. The God of your aunt’ – is strolling about in Amsterdam. But of course ‘religious projection’ was only discovered some decades after Nescio wrote his tale. One might say that nowadays ‘the God of your aunt’ has become as popular as His creator.

Few people seem to have noticed at the time that Nescio was a mystic at heart. His sensitive awareness of nature in all its manifestions is virtually unique. He looked at everything around him with an unequalled intensity. Some of his characters may say that ‘God is eternally repeating Himself’, but the reader is made intensely aware of the life-long fascination that God’s world with its endless variety of ever-changing shapes must have had for Nescio. No author I know has evoked the changes of His light on sea, rivers and trees, on cities, villages and meadows, so convincingly.

Now, at last, Nescio’s Collected Work has appeared in an exemplary edition and all these qualities are exhibited once more. The editor, Dr Lieneke Frerichs, who had already written a thesis on the genesis of ‘The Sponger’, was allowed access to the whole of Nescio’s literary heritage and compiled two volumes of 700 and 400 pages, together with 300 pages of commentary. The first volume contains the stories we already knew, some 200 pages altogether, plus 500 pages of sketches – for the most part unfinished stories. Nescio had a curious way of working: unlike most authors he didn’t start from a more or less general scheme which he gradually developed and rewrote. He started writing a story with both feet forward as it were, and when he got stuck he left it as it was, using parts of it later, sometimes in a wholly different context. And as the plot is only of secondary interest in his work, these unfinished sketches are often as fascinating as the stories he succeeded in rounding off. The second volume contains his ‘Nature diary’. From 1945 till 1955 Nescio made notes of his regular walking or cycling tours, mostly in the vicinity of Amsterdam. At first these notes are purely matter of fact, but gradually they become more and more ‘subjective’: he writes down his sensations and his so to say mystical experience of the countryside in a way that will not fail to leave a deep impression on the sensitive reader. It is a telling fact that the first edition (6,000 copies) of Nescio’s Collected Work, sold out, despite its price, within three months.

By A.L. Sötemann

First published in The Low Countries, 1997

Further Reading

Nescio, Verzameld werk (2 vols.) Amsterdam, 1996.