Nice Boys in a Cold World

The Literary Works of Nescio

‘Nescio’: who on earth would hide behind a peculiar name like that? But that’s just what the businessman Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh did in 1911. ‘Nescio’ is a Latin verb form that literally means ‘I don’t know’. It’s my guess that in choosing the name he meant to say, ‘Reader, don’t expect any certainties from me. I hold everything in doubt.’ I also think he chose his pseudonym in imitation of the author he so admired, Multatuli, who in real life was the civil servant Eduard Douwes Dekker. Dekker published the novel Max Havelaar in 1860 under the pen name ‘Multatuli’, Latin for ‘I have suffered much’. Multatuli’s book is now one of the classics of Dutch literature. It has been translated into many languages and in 1987 was given the honour of being included in the Penguin Classics series. The other Dutch author with a similarly strange pseudonym, Nescio, produced a small and very Dutch oeuvre whose subtle irony and finely tuned style is also fully deserving of a place in the literature of Europe.

God’s throne, little boulders and great nostalgia

For many years Nescio was the author of only one book: the collection of stories entitled Little Poet, The Sponger, Young Titans (Dichtertje, De uitvreter, Titaantjes), first published in 1918 by the Haarlem art dealer J.H. de Bois. The Sponger and Young Titans (both previously published in magazines) are set within a circle of young bohemians in the years leading up to the First World War. The Sponger is the story of Japi, a likeable bon vivant whose goal is ‘to wither away, to become indifferent to hunger and sleep, to cold and damp’, but who is also quite capable of fully enjoying the good things of life, especially if somebody else is footing the bill. A quote: ‘Painting was all right, he thought, if you were good at it. He wasn’t good at anything, and that’s why he didn’t do anything. You couldn’t reproduce things as you experienced them anyway. He had only one wish: to wither away, to become indifferent to hunger and sleep, to cold and damp. Those were your great enemies. You were forever having to eat and sleep, to get out of the cold, forever getting wet and miserable or tired. A stretch of water like this has it easy. It throws up a few waves and reflects the clouds, it’s always different and yet it’s always the same. Not bothered by anything.’

The painter Bavink introduces him to his Amsterdam friends, where Japi, because of his idiosyncrasies, soon acquires the nickname ‘sponger’ which he manages to twist into a title of honour. But he can’t keep up that free life. He develops socialist sympathies and does his best to change the world. But the world had kept on turning, it turned just as it always had. It would probably keep on turning without him. (…) He was wiser now. He washed his hands of it all.’ The story ends in a mood of resignation with the sponger’s suicide. ‘His journey to Friesland was never fully explained’ reads the last sentence of the story. It seems to be saying: you may know what the outcome is, but that doesn’t tell you everything.

Young Titans is about the same circle of friends minus Japi: five young men of nineteen or twenty fired by a vague idealism. All the introductions are swallowed up in the opening sentence: ‘Boys we were – but nice boys. Even if I do say so myself We’re much wiser now, wise and pathetic, that’s what we are – except for Bavink, who’s gone crazy. Didn’t we want to make something of the world, though. We were going to show them how things ought to be done. We, that’s who we were, the five of us. Everybody else was -them -. -Them -, who didn’t understand anything and didn’t see anything. “What?” said Bavink, “God? You’re talking about God? Their next hot meal is their God. – In scene after scene we watch what happens to these ‘nice boys’. They dream of accomplishing ‘great things’, but after a couple of years it is clear they have had to abandon their ideals. Only Bavink is ‘defeated by those “God damned things”’ and goes insane. The last paragraph of Young Titans raises the story to a higher plane and gives us a clear idea of Nescio’s philosophical take on life and of his masterly style: ‘God’s throne remains unshaken. His world just goes its own way. Every now and then God smiles a little at the gentlemen of consequence, who think they’re so important. New Young Titans are already at work, stacking up little boulders to knock him from his exalted position and then organise the world to their own liking. He just laughs and thinks, “Very good, boys, crazy as you are, you’re still dearer to me than all those fine men of wisdom. Sorry that you’ve got to break your necks and that I’ve got to let the fine gentlemen prosper. I’m only God, after all. – And everything just keeps on going, and woe to him who asks the question: Why?’

The story Little Poet takes place mainly in the year 1917 and has to do with the same problems, but this time within the context of marriage. The little poet is happily married, but ‘if you’re a poet, the prettiest girls are always on the other side of the canal’, and you keep longing irrationally for things you don’t know. ‘And being married forever is such a long time.’ He falls under the spell of his sister-in-law, who reciprocates his love. This story, too, has a dramatic conclusion and ends with the death of the little poet. It is the most literary story of the three because – as in Goethe’s Faust – God and the Devil both become involved in the little poet’s life. At the same time there’s also a God of the Netherlands walking around representing middle-class Respectability: ‘The God of your auntie who said you must always tip your hat whenever you go past your boss’s house, in Delft or Oldenzaal (where was it again?), even if nobody saw you. You never knew who was watching.’

The ‘plot’ of the stories is compelling. The writer shows that sensitive young people are no match for the world they face (especially if they don’t have any money), and any attempt to resist or to ponder the great existential questions will only destroy them, for ‘woe to him who asks the question: Why?’ The stories also provide a splendid glimpse of life in Amsterdam at the beginning of the twentieth century, and they testify to a great love for the Dutch landscape. But the most extraordinary aspect of the work is Nescio’s writing style. It is a miracle that this voice, from the years before the First World War, still strikes us as so human and modern. The transcendent simplicity and the originality of his way of writing go hand in hand with a great mastery of such literary conventions as humour, irony, understatement, sentiment (never sentimentality or self-pity), all marvellously held in balance. Nescio’s world view is complicated, and as a true romantic he prefers to express it by means of opposites: freedom versus constraint, longing for eternity versus the awareness of mortality. The characters’ vicissitudes are both humorous and tragic; they themselves are both great and small. In Nescio’s hand this almost principled dualism results in sentences such as ‘We were above the world and the world was above us and weighed heavy on us’. This is the voice of someone who can assume different points of view, someone who chooses ‘Nescio’, ‘I don’t know’, as a pseudonym, which does not alter the fact that he has more sympathy for one point of view than another. And all this is permeated by a nostalgia for the irretrievable past.

Recognition takes patience

The writer who chose the unusual pseudonym Nescio in 1911 was in everyday life Mr J.H.F. Grönloh, ‘Frits’ to his family and friends. He was born in Amsterdam in 1882 and spent practically his entire life in that city (‘You an Amsterdammer?’ is a question Japi the sponger is asked, and he answers from the bottom of his heart, ‘Yes, thank God’). The young Grönloh was the eldest son of a plumber-shopkeeper, which means he grew up in the milieu of the lower middle class. He was allowed to continue his studies at the three-year non-classical secondary school and the two-year business college, but when school was over it meant his freedom was over as well, just as it was for Japi the sponger: ‘Then your old man sticks you in some office. Then you discover that you learned all that stuff at school to spend your time dampening paper with a wet brush.’ During those years, he and a few friends bought a small piece of property with the idea of starting an agricultural colony – an idealistic enterprise that quickly failed due to lack of money and experience. Later he gave a sympathetic account of this period of his life in Young Titans.

In 1904 Grönloh took a job with the Holland-Bombay Trading Company in Amsterdam. He was promoted to deputy manager and then to joint manager. He married and became the father of a lively family of four daughters. Running a trading company during the Depression was not easy and in 1937 he stepped down for health reasons, but continued to work for the company as an advisor until he reached pensionable age. It was then that he rediscovered the freedom to do whatever he wanted (‘I’m free. After forty years I’m free. And I can get my hair cut whenever I feel like it and then just let it grow,’ thinks one of his characters). He made regular trips to the Dutch landscapes of which he was so fond, as he had in his youth: het Gooi, Waterland, the rivers, Limburg, Zeeland. But in 1956 he suffered a stroke, which put an end to his expeditions. He died in 1961.

Only a few people knew he had written a book, and Gronlöh himself kept his distance from the literary world. ‘I always kept as quiet as possible about my writing,’ he said one of the few times anyone ever came to interview him, ‘because I spent my entire life in an office, and in places like that if they find out that you have such inclinations they think you’ll be no good at your work.’ But he was grateful that he had had the chance to say what he wanted to say, and he knew that his work was worth something. They don’t recognise me now,’ he told his family when he was getting on in years. ‘But we must be patient. You’ll see that I’m right.’ During his lifetime his work was mainly valued and admired by other authors, so he can rightly be called a ‘writer’s writer’. In articles about his work he was characterised as ‘the most re-read writer around’ and ‘the writer of whom it is most often said that he doesn’t get enough attention’.

The writer Nescio and his book Little Poet, The Sponger, Young Titans were favourably received by the critics in 1918, but the print run of five hundred copies did not sell quickly. It was not reprinted until 1933. Because his work was being persistently attributed to someone else, J.H.F. Grönloh felt compelled to reveal himself formally as the work’s author. In 1956, when the fourth printing came out, a slim bundle of sketches entitled Mene Tekel was added to the three stories, so in some sense Nescio remained a one-book-author. That did not change until 1961, which saw the publication of Above the Valley, and Other Stories (Boven het dal, en andere verhalen), a collection of mainly unfinished stories, thanks to the efforts of family and friends. Fifty years after his first volume, and just before his death at the age of 79, Nescio had become the author of an oeuvre. The new book, and the writer’s death, produced a torrent of articles, most of which dealt with the entire oeuvre. Interest in his work went up, and reprints followed each other with increasing speed. The collection The Sponger, Young Titans, Little Poet, Mene Tekel is now in its 35th impression, and the collection Above the Valley in its 24th.

Master of the unfinished

The long-awaited Collected Works – which I had the pleasure of editing – appeared in 1996 in two volumes and received a great deal of media attention. This edition, too, has already been reprinted several times. The first volume contains the works published during the writer’s lifetime, together with a great deal of unfinished work from the author’s literary estate. In a writer like Nescio, however, for whom literally every sentence is of value to the reader for its own sake, being unfinished is totally irrelevant. The second volume, Nature Diary (Natuurdagboek), was a big surprise. It contains notes from the journeys that Nescio took between 1946 and 1955, mostly in the immediate vicinity of Amsterdam. The notes begin as a perfunctory record, but as time passes they take on a more personal and sometimes distinctly lyrical character. At such times the diary becomes a hymn, with almost every page glorifying the Dutch landscape, lovingly observed in the ever-changing Dutch light. The observations sometimes border on the mystical as Nescio applies himself to creating an immaterial world from the things he sees, where time, place and name lose their meaning (‘The landscape lay beyond all place and time’).

In the introduction to Above the Valley Nescio wrote that he wanted to tell ‘a simple story’ in his work, thus ‘capturing in passing some clouds etc. for a couple of centuries, which is what it’s all about to me.’ The story’s sole purpose is to ‘capture readers’. This is such an evocation: ‘And the many gilded tips of the summer trees and the autumn trees, and all those clouds. I wish they were alive, that this transience lived as long as thoughts do, all this fragility, that I myself would live as long as Dutch was being read, a simple little man like me, that’s what I wish. Or perhaps it should be translated into a language that will be read longer, and so on, as far as I can think. In the same way I see a woman, living, and I see her eyes. She’s already been dead for maybe five hundred years, but I stand before the painting and her smile lives. And the grass lives and the little leaves on the willows and the little flowing river and the beeches on the grass in front of the white house, and the clouds live, and I’m standing beside the same water that happened to be flowing there and reflecting the sun, just as the painter stood there, in England, let’s say in June 1750, and I am that painter. Who still remembers the wars that were waged in all those centuries?’

Nescio’s small, nostalgic voice will soon make its way to the body of European literature. Gallimard is including the work in the series Du monde entier. The website of the Pen American Center is also recommending Young Titans and The Sponger for translation; Nescio is the only Dutch candidate: ‘These two long stories detail the minor victories and defeats that make Dutch middle-class life so bleak and comical. The details are all tiny, exquisitely understated and dry’. And indeed there is much to experience in this highly original work. Nescio is essentially a lyricist, a poet writing in prose. He’s a cynic too, as well as a mystic in his own way. Like Chekhov and Turgenev, he is able to say complicated things with simple words. That for all that his work is so light and playful, so tender, moving and witty, is nothing short of miraculous.

By Lieneke Frerichs
Translated by Nancy Forest-Flier

First published in The Low Countries, 2005