notes on dutch literature

The crushing beauty of Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories

In Review on November 1, 2012 at 10:13 PM

It took more than 50 years after his death, before the works of the Dutch writer Nescio were translated and published in America. Nescio wrote in a handful of years between 1909 and 1942 and almost nothing in the 1920s and 1930’s, but it  wasn’t until after World War II that he gained any notoriety in the Netherlands and he only became a beloved member of the Dutch canon posthumously. As Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, writes in his introduction to Amsterdam Stories, the first collection of Nescio’s work to appear in America, “[Nescio] wrote very little, and he wrote small.” His longest work is 42 pages long. His entire published oeuvre, including editor’s notes and some unpublished fragments, fits in this 161 page volume.

For me, reading Amsterdam Stories was like watching Casablanca. Much of Casablanca has become cliché. The famous lines are quoted so often, and the famous scenes are such a part of our culture, we’ve seen the movie before we’ve actually seen it. And yet, even though we’ve heard them a hundred times, even though we know they’re coming, the famous lines are still powerful. They are surrounded by such inherent and integral beauty, that what should make us roll our eyes, takes our breath away. InCasablanca we hear “a hill of beans” and “here’s looking at you, kid.” InAmsterdam Stories we read “And I puff on my pipe in all humility, and feel like God himself, who is infinity itself. I sit there aimlessly. God’s aim is aimlessness. But to keep this awareness always is granted to no man.” — from the story “Young Titans.”

Josh Cook, review in The Millions

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