Netherlands' Novelists Descend Upon New York

I. The poet David Lehman, who will help introduce the novelist Cees Nooteboom on February 28 at the New School's Tishman Auditorium, notes a nomenclatural gray area. "I recently talked to John Ashbery, Paul Auster, Richard Howard," he says. "All of them know him, and all of them give a different pronunciation of his name: Kees, Seess, Jess, Cess." The reading, he jokes, "will finally give me a chance to resolve a major literary dispute." As for the last name, his guess is "Not-a-boom"—a rendering to make even a bullish publisher wince. Tiziano Perez, of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, clarifies: "Cees is pronounced sace as in face. The double o's in Nooteboom are pronounced as the Oh in 'Oh my God.' "

This mild confusion, complete with divine overtones, seems appropriate for a writer whose intensely mysterious novels are as much about silence as words, false names as eternal ones. The narrator of The Following Story (1991) shares his surname with a notorious Nazi, and thus publishes his facile travel writing under a pseudonym. In the prose-poem sequence "Self-Portrait of an Other" (1999), an anonymous figure roams a barren landscape, imagining "Things bereft of their names and unmade, the words erased until even the first had never been said." The signature resides in the number of poems, 33: Nooteboom was born, in the Hague, in 1933.

In All Souls Day, which Harcourt published stateside in November, a character tries to guess the author of a book his companion has hidden from view. "Do I know the name?"

33 ways of looking at a novelist: Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom
photo: Simone Sassen
33 ways of looking at a novelist: Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom

"I don't know, but he knows yours."

The book is the Bible; the chorus that gradually takes over the novel's narration is composed of the voices of the dead—or perhaps, as Nooteboom confides to me, it is a stand-in for himself, "the writing instance commenting on the very moment of writing."

"But," he adds, "whether that is totally true, I don't know!"

At 68, Nooteboom belongs to the pantheon of Dutch writers who came of age after the war (the others include Harry Mulisch and the Belgian Hugo Claus, who reads with him on Thursday). Short-listed for the Nobel, he has a wide audience on his home continent, particularly Germany; a collection of essays is entitled How to Become a European. He finds his memory bound in Europe's history: His father was killed in the war by an English bombardment, and (as he wrote in Grand Street) "something was radically and permanently erased by an annihilating power from outside, leaving me empty-handed, but with a fascination for the past."

In this country, he remains something of a writer's writer, whose books seem metaphors for art itself. Lehman speaks of how Nooteboom's sentences seem to expand in the mind, a flowering that inspired one of his own poems; Sarah Rothenberg, who has performed with Nooteboom in a program matching his texts to music by Shostakovich and others, describes his work as a decoction of silence, time, and memory—something in the manner of a rest in music.

II. When, in the last week of February, Nooteboom and eight other Dutch authors visit the metropolis formerly known as New Amsterdam for a series of readings and discussions, we might well wonder about the timing. Will shell-shocked New Yorkers embrace the novelizing Netherlanders, with their serious, even bleak fictions—or is it too much, too soon? In Maya Rasker's debut novel, Unknown Destination, a husband reels from his wife's sudden disappearance, while Oscar van den Boogaard's forthrightly titled Love's Death starts with a child's drowning and swiftly brings into its vortex adultery, abandonment, and quasi-incest.

Absence casts its shadow across Nooteboom's All Souls Day, but the actual descriptions of the loss are as minimal as its effects are ubiquitous. The setting is post-Wall, pre-euro Berlin, where Arthur Daane, a Dutch cameraman, lives, works, and—especially—thinks. His musings are political, philological (French and German words "become transsexuals the minute they cross the Rhine"), aesthetic, historical, and are challenged and refined in the polyglot chatter of his surrogate family of intellectuals and artists.

Surrogate, because Daane's wife and son were killed in a plane crash 10 years prior. The loss silently informs his private passion: filming the moments between day and night—meditations on the coming and fading of light. He hopes that his "fragments . . . one day would all come together like a summa."

Is All Souls Day Nooteboom's summa? The relative heft is suggestive. At 340 pages, it's at least double the length of any of his previous novels; an amplified rumination on the wreckage not just of a life, but of a continent and a century. With a history-scarred city like Berlin (where, "more than anywhere else, Europe's fate stood simmering on the burner"), the themes "asked for more," Nooteboom says. He lived there in 1989, when the Wall came down, and had been a frequent visitor in the past—most memorably as a journalist in 1963. When the Wall fell, Nooteboom thought most piercingly of the failed Hungarian uprising of 1956 (which he had reported on) and the sense of a betrayal by the West: "They, and all the others, had to wait 33 years." For this world citizen, class of '33, history is personal and patterned.

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