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?”
“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.
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).
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.