I can confess without shame that occasionally I am persuaded to buy a book on the strength of the cover, and it was certainly a factor in selecting Cees Nooteboom’s collection of stories, published by the superb Maclehose Press. This was before I met Nooteboom and, since I was told I would be doing an event with him at the Translator’s Club in Buenos Aires, thought I had better read at least something by the man, who is very highly regarded in continental Europe and elsewhere, if not in the United Kingdom. Not that this counts for much, as there are many writers who are well-known in the rest of the world but are far less well-known in Britain than our own great authors like Katie Price or Russell Brand, to name but two, or say, more realistically, than Geoff Dyer or Tom Raworth, but hell, who cares. In the end I never got around to reading the book until the weekend just past, and can reveal that – unless I missed something important – none of the stories has anything to do with foxes or with Gauguin (from whose painting the cover picture is taken).
But back to my main gripe, our misguided isolationism, which is reflected in the inability of publishers to translate great works of literature what are writ in the foreign, and that most hideous of ailments, little-Englandism.
Since David Cameron has now put the interests of his chums in the City of London ahead of anyone or anything else, and has decided that the bankers are so good at making things happen that they might as well be given a free hand; and since the rest of Europe is, sensibly, in disagreement, it seems likely that within a couple of decades, our islands will be floundering in mid-Atlantic, spurned both by Europe and our North American cousins (what special relationship?), a non-productive, antisocial wasteland, with a tiny privileged elite and a humungus underclass of the poor and unskilled, and little in between. A bit like Latin America in the seventies. Britain will then have to re-invent itself as a ‘developing country’.
Now where was I? Nooteboom told me he once met (or rather crept up on) Ernst Jünger in the Prado, and introduced himself, at which Jünger made a joke about his (Nooteboom’s) surname. The joke was in German though, and involved wordplay which I, as a non-German-speaking non-Dutch-speaker, did not understand. Such trifles do not concern Nooteboom however, who continued with his story regardless. If you speak six or more languages with apparent ease, as Nooteboom does, you tend to get flippant. Ernst Jünger: a truly fascinating character, who has a cameo role in both Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, thus I have been reminded of his existence twice in recent times. Is that a sign? (Normally I would interpret that as a message that I need to look him up and read something by him, but since I am not reading novels right now will have to hang on, unless I want to read his essay on On Pain, which I don’t fancy. Or perhaps I will, pain being quite a salient topic.) Needless to say his work is pitifully hard to find in English, considering he is rated as one of the most important German authors of the 20th century. Nearly all of his 52 books are available in French, but only five could I find in English translation. Apparently this is largely to do with the fact that Jünger – although not a member of the Nazi party, and peripherally involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 – served as an officer in the German army, held strongly Nietzschean views promoting the model of an heroic masculinity, and was an anti-semite, at least during the 1930s. I’m not saying he was a good person; undoubtedly he had issues, don’t we all, but he was not half as bad as the Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for example, an out-and-out Jew-hating fascist maniac, and yet Céline is held in high regard as a literary figure – by those who have read him – in both Britain and the USA, in spite of his despicable opinions, and much of his work is translated
Céline was definitely a prize shit, and no doubt deserves our opprobrium, but less specifically I often wonder how come we are so ready to condemn how others behaved in times that we cannot begin to understand, when, as we have seen before on Blanco’s Blog, complicity is just another way of getting on with life, and avoiding persecution? We might perhaps take the trouble to ask ourselves just how we would have behaved. It is easy to bask in the safety of the present and cast aspersions on those who came before.
So, where were we? Is digression really such a good thing, when you lose your place so frequently, and so thoroughly? I was going to write about Nooteboom’s collection of stories. So here we go. He is superb at evoking the peculiar world of northern European expats (Dutch and British) living out their blinkered lives under the Spanish or Italian sun. He writes with an understated, poetic prose, that suits the topic which surfaces at some point in most or all of these stories, which is that of a lost and, at times barely remembered love. The theme is addressed in soft focus in nearly all these stories, and present through its absence in the longest one, ‘Heinz’, which accounts for a third of the pages in the book, and describes the slow alcoholic decrement of its eponymous protagonist. Heinz was once married to Arielle, whose flower-adorned grave the narrator discovers one day, four decades after her death. Apart from learning that Arielle died in 1962 at the age of 22, we know practically nothing about her, yet she inhabits the centre of the story with a stubborn grace, unavoidable in her absence. This is pretty masterfully achieved by Nooteboom, and I was impressed by the fluency of Ina Rilke’s translation, but nonetheless, despite the dictum that less is more and Hemingway’s iceberg theory, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have liked to get to know Arielle a bit, as she could not have been less interesting than the other members of the cast.
Nooteboom at the Dutch Embassy, Buenos Aires, September 2011
My two favourite stories were ‘Thunderstorm’, set on an out-of-season Spanish island (perhaps Menorca, as that is where Nooteboom lives), in which a couple are having a spectacular row in a café: the man walks out in a strop and is struck by lightning; and ‘Late September’ – another story set in a windswept rainy resort on a Spanish island – in which Suzy, a 79-year old British widow (smokes Dunhill, drives into town every day for the Daily Mail) has a desultory, what shall we call it, affair, with a 63 year old waiter, Luis, for whom she always leaves something out for him to ‘find’ on his nocturnal visits, except on this night, when:
All that remained was to wait for the creak of the door, the smell of whisky on his breath, those strange, halting grunts accompanied by sudden thrusts of astonishing vigour, which had more to do with rage and endemic disappointment than with anything else.
Christ. An afterthought. As life expectancy continues to grow, and third-age sex lives thrive, can we expect an upsurge in geriatric porn? Does it already exist? Do I want to find out?
The strange and displaced lives of Brits in exile under the sun has been explored in different ways by Graham Greene, J.G Ballard (in Cocaine Nights) and now Nooteboom, a non-Brit but most astute observer, makes a valid contribution. It is a world that no doubt contains untold fictional riches, but first, I guess, you have to do the fieldwork.