Like all books written in remembrance of youth, Amsterdam Stories has a plaintive, haunted feel to it. The characters in the stories are a group of dreamers and drifters, artists and idealists, whose devotion to the Dutch countryside is coupled with abhorrence for the trappings of adulthood. Their author, Nescio (real name: Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh), was not a full-time writer, but a businessman employed by the Holland-Bombay Trading Company, which provides one explanation for the sparseness of his output (at one-hundred and sixty-two pages, this slight volume collects most of the published work). Introducing the book, Joseph O’Neill suggests that Nescio’s attitude to writing ‘was essentially hobbyistic—which is to say, profoundly voluntary.’ Do not be mistaken, however, in thinking that this attitude implies a heedlessness. Nescio was a slow writer with exacting aesthetic standards. Only the first two short stories in the collection – ‘The Freeloader’ and ‘Young Titans’ – are masterpieces, but even in the lesser stories, every sentence bears the touch of a patent professional.
When you are young, you regard yourself as people used to regard the natural world – inviolate and everlasting. What’s that quote by Larkin? ‘Chuck filth in the sea if you must / The tides will be clear beyond.’ Except that the sea, these days, is nothing but filth. The narrator of ‘Young Titans’ may refer to his ambitious young friends as ‘the immortals’, but by the end of the story, time has treated these characters with equal ruthlessness to everyone else. After years of travelling, the narrator returns to Amsterdam to discover that his friends have shelved their ambitions and started families, are working dull jobs at which they do not rebel. A friend who was once committed to translating Dante is now bent over an office desk. A friend who wanted to be a painter has accomplished this, but it has been at the cost of his sanity. He no longer paints; he has been immured in a mental institution where he ‘sits staring into the sun until his eyes hurt.’
For Nescio, contact with the natural world is never without melancholy. Rejoicing in its beauty, his characters are also reminded of their own evanescence, how they will be outlived by the sights they treasure. In ‘The Freeloader’, the titular character, Japi, is obsessed by the Waal River. How many people, he asks our narrator, have ‘seen that water flowing by and seen the sun shining in it and seen all the stars on the nights as cold as this? How many people who are dead now?’ And even the river, Japi realises, is destined to someday disappear, along with the stars that shine on it. We are not separate from nature; we are part of the same process, stampeding towards the same conclusion. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote: ‘Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.’ You do not have to take this insight as Japi does, nihilistically, as evidence for the futility of existence. I myself subscribe to another view, which holds that a universe in which nothing dies would itself be lifeless. Jacob John Shale