Netherlands' Novelists Descend Upon New York

According to Nooteboom, the "Anglo-Saxon" press has given All Souls Day mixed notices; it may, however, prove to be the book that resonates most with American readers. According to Rothenberg, the novel points out how "Europe is very aware of its own mortality—it's something we understand now in a way we could not before."

Though the book unfolds mainly in Germany, it was composed all over the world. Nooteboom's first glimpse of his cameraman in snowy Berlin came to him, improbably enough, in sunny California, where he was a Getty fellow. Unable to finish it there, he froze the image, and let it thaw during an extended stay in Australia. He applied the finishing touches at his usual workplace, his home on the Spanish island of Minorca—with a fountain pen, in huge books bound in red linen, filling the right-hand pages with his miniature handwriting.

III. As Nooteboom describes the smooth transition to the euro, he suddenly stops, explaining, "I'm trying to kill a moth while I'm talking to you—somehow a moth has come in here!"—a decidedly un-Nabokovian (or, given lepidopterology's end, très Nabokovian) activity for this most VN-ese of writers. Indeed, the chorus in All Souls Day recalls the ghostly narration of Transparent Things (a book CN has read several times).

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

Like Nabokov's, Nooteboom's novels teem with allusion, and despite their brevity, some readers may feel the need for a refresher course in the Western (and often Eastern) intellectual and literary tradition. In Rituals, for example, the epigraphs are in French (Stendhal), German (Theodor Fontane), and Latin (from the canon of the Holy Mass); the postscript—a Nooteboomian trademark—is from Okakuro Kakuzo's The Book of Tea.

Despite the pronounced European literary lineage, Nooteboom is quick to cite American favorites: Wallace Stevens, The Great Gatsby, and especially works from the South. As a young writer, he absorbed Faulkner and was captivated by Capote—as much by Other Voices, Other Rooms as by the book's Little Lord Fauntleroy photo ("Immediately I had to have a vest like that"). He published his first novel, Philip and the Others (1954), in his early twenties; it found an audience thanks to its "hitchhiking, romanticism, and all that"—a break from Holland's gloom-laden literary output in the aftermath of World War II. Unprepared for celebrity, Nooteboom hired himself out to a ship bound for South America, an experience that fueled a collection of Maugham-esque stories. His second novel, The Knight Has Died (1963), is about a living writer's attempt to cobble together a book out of a dead writer's notes—with the dawning realization that the posthumous collaboration was part of the deceased's plan. "I had my writer commit suicide, which I think was a very elegant way of not having to do it myself," Nooteboom observes. He didn't write another novel for 17 years.

Feeling that he had "not enough world" in him, and wary of repetition, he immersed himself in travel writing, returning triumphantly with Rituals (1980), a tour-de-force inquiry into destiny, coincidence, and pottery set in '53, '63, and '73. In the book's final section, antihero Inni Wintrop reflects on days when one meets with "a recurrent, fairly absurd phenomenon": After encountering three doves in rapid succession (one of whom has hit a window—a nod to the waxwing slain in Nabokov's Pale Fire), Inni unexpectedly meets the son of a man who had changed his life two decades ago. Lurking behind the limpid prose and world-weary pose is a glimpse of the lethal linkings of fate. In 1982, Rituals won the Pegasus Prize as the best Dutch novel of the past 10 years and was translated into English. Nootebooks old and new appeared in America at a steady clip over the next decade. One happy outcome of his second fame was that his old friend, the critic and novelist Mary McCarthy (who died a few weeks before the Wall fell), could finally read his novels. The prospect made him a bit anxious. "She was a very severe lady, as you know," he says. "It was like an exam." Fortunately, she liked the books—especially their compact size. "She said, 'Cees, you stay small!' "

IV. In 'Roads to Santiago' (1992), a travel book as much about the author as the Spain he describes, Nooteboom describes learning about Borges's death in every newspaper he could find, a maze of languages well suited to that labyrinthine litterateur. He observes of the journalists, "It is always other people who finish the stories, but only when the stories are worth finishing." But what does it mean to finish?

The Following Story belongs to that secret genre of novels (Finnegans Wake, Dhalgren, Robert Kelly's The Scorpions) which end without a period—that is, which do not really end. But unlike those knotty, often infuriating recirculations, Nooteboom's novel invites immediate rereading, partly because of its size, but also for the final, Scheherezade whisper, hinting that revelation is just around the corner.

Repetition can lead to nightmare, of course, but it also has its attractions. Baptized a Catholic, Nooteboom once contemplated joining a monastery, attracted by its rhythm and routine—as he writes, it was "the idea of staying in the same place for ever, stabilitas loci, that convinced me: here was the place for me, this was the life." He soon reconsidered, but monasteries continue to fascinate him, and appear throughout his work. They are "places of silence in the world"—shelters from the force of history. Near the end of All Soul's Day, Arthur Daane leaves Berlin, with its history and its ghosts, to film 88 Japanese monasteries for a documentary. It echoes a pilgrimage Nooteboom himself made to that country. He didn't manage 88—instead settling, "by coincidence," on 33.

For more information about the Dutch writers' reading, see the Short List.

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