An Extract from Nescio’s Little Poet
The little poet had never fallen.
To be a great poet and then to fall. When the little poet thought of what he wanted most, that was it. To amaze the world just once and just once have a fling with a poetess. He had had these thoughts repeatedly for years, naïve as he was.
The little poet was respectably married to a sweet, lively, spontaneous young wife. Of course he’d fallen in love at once, as soon as he began to notice the world. He’d see her in the mornings as he was going to the office and she to school, and at a quarter past one, during the ‘stock-exchange hour’ when share-prices were published and he was allowed out of the office and she was emerging from the dairy shop where she ate her sandwiches with a glass of milk and sometimes a cream horn or a tart with whipped cream, her sandwiches.
And she was so angry with him, always standing there, quite ridiculous. The other girls dubbed him ‘Little Prince Charming’ because he wore a cape and had such beautiful black hair (he didn’t have it cropped then). And they looked at him, as they walked past, the three of them arm in arm, just a quick glance, and giggled among themselves, the two on the outside bending their heads towards the one on the inside, who also giggled and looked at the ground. But she swept past regally without seeing him and said to her friend Mien Bus that he came on her, Mien’s, account, and they all laughed, because she knew better. She stamped her seventeen-year-old schoolgirl’s foot. ‘To see me? That creep?’, and stuck her nose in the air.
And he was unhappy and counted the hours. At eleven at night he’d look at the sky, midway between half past one in the afternoon and half past eight in the morning. And he’d write poems.
He’d write poems in the style of Heine, in Dutch and German, and in imitation of modern writers like Hélène Swarth and Kloos and Van Eeden. 2
‘Oh how the hours toil on with sluggish step.’
‘Down below lay the Holy City in all her glory’.
That was her. But the gates were shut. And he wondered why he went on living. And he rebelled against God.
‘Dear God, shall then my torment never end?’
And he couldn’t stand the sight or sound of the people at the office. When he got into work at a quarter past nine he could have hit one of them, for no good reason. And his mood swung from sombre to ecstatic. And he wrote more poems.
‘My Sacred Love.’
‘Now all the world is one great summer land.’
‘God opened wide the heavenly portals,
And my sweet love sat on a golden throne.’
It continued like this for eleven months. And besides that he was out of town for three months, in a modest position in a small town where they still talk about the crazy fellow.
Then he won her. He was nineteen. He wrote her a letter to say he was in Amsterdam for two days and would like to speak to her. They knew each other’s names – Amsterdam’s only a village, after all. She’d missed him badly for those hundred days and she came. Her mother approved, ‘provided he was a nice respectable boy and she loved him… but no hanky-panky, mind.’ She came to Muiden Gate in the evening and he said he was sure she would understand what he wanted to ask her. It was so odd, so ordinary, he couldn’t write poems at all. And she said that she didn’t understand of course, but still they walked down Sarphatistraat together. The conversation was rather halting: what could you talk about, when you scarcely knew each other yet? He had imagined that all sorts of wonderful things would pour from his lips, that a torrent of words would flow, just as the broad River Waal rushes past the pontoons of the floating jetty near Nijmegen.
And now they talked about his job in the small town and about their parents. And they said goodbye in front of her house and he kissed her, very awkwardly, on the forehead. And she was ever so pleased, to have a suitor and such a handsome one, what would Lou say to that? Pity he lived out of town. Such a bore, especially on Sunday afternoons, because if he didn’t come over, you had to stay at home.
The second evening he was allowed to come up, things had to move fast because he had only two days off.
His dad had paid a visit to her father and now he was allowed to come up. Her father and his were sitting there, and her mother and a grandmother and an aunt. Her two younger sisters had been sent to bed early. And then she was his and the aunt said later, ‘What a nice respectable boy’.
On Sunday afternoon it was her turn to visit him, of course, and a cousin with lop-sided shoulders wearing an alternative lop-sided green dress and a pince-nez, who drank beer, just happened to be there, and Coba was as sweet as could be to her future mother-in-law, who was as sweet as could be to Coba.
‘Oh, isn’t that a cute bag. Did you get it from City?’
‘No, it’s a Liberty.’
‘Those bags with a pouch on top are all the rage these days.’
‘No, I don’t like those very much, to tell you the truth.’
‘Oh well, to each his own. Our Riek’s got one and I quite like it too.’
And he sat there listening and didn’t have a clue what they were on about. Was he the one who’d walked the streets at night and said that God had opened wide the heavenly portals? How odd.
But she was very sweet, young, lively and spontaneous and kissed him not on the forehead but full on the lips and the side of his neck, in the hallway before they went into the room. She had to stand on tiptoe and grab hold of his shoulders. And she would grow to love him very much, and he loved her very much too and hugged her tight.
But he was still in the dark about the whole business and he didn’t write any more poems till he was married.
And now they’d been married for six years and had a child, a five-year-old girl, a sweetie who was hugged to death by all the aunts. She had some money and he had some money and he’d found a modest job in Amsterdam in which he did reasonably well and they were more or less happy.
But since he was a true little poet, something had to be missing. What good is having something to a little poet? Having something day in, day out. All those days. And forever is such a long time to be married. And a really sweet, lively and spontaneous young wife that loves her husband very much and makes fair copies of his manuscripts, but has slept next to him for two thousand nights and knows he can’t stand draughts and can’t get out of bed in the mornings and can’t keep his hands off the jam, even if he is a poet – now that’s fertile ground for the Devil.
From The Little Poet (Dichtertje, 1918)
Translated by Paul Vincent
First published in The Low Countries, 2008
1. Nescio, or Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh (1882-1961), is – as Lieneke Frerichs wrote in The Low Countries no. 13 (pp. 218-226) – the Dutch Master of the unfinished, and first and foremost ‘a lyricist, a poet who writes prose’.
2. Hélène Swarth (1859-1941), Willem Kloos (1859-1938), Frederik van Eeden (1860-1932): Dutch poets of the Movement of 1880.
This translation originated in a workshop chaired by myself and held at the British Centre for Literary Translation, University of East Anglia in Autumn 1997 under the auspices of the Dutch Language Union. I am most grateful for the enthusiasm, acuity and flair of the participants: Matthijs Bakker, Sheila Dale, Marijke Emeis, Deborah ffoulkes, Katheryn Ronnau-Bradbeer, Diane Webb and Suzanne Walters, and for their ongoing input. At a later stage Lieneke Frerichs, the foremost authority on Nescio, gave invaluable advice that saved me from many blunders. Remaining imperfections are my own responsibility.