Damion Searls and Joseph O’Neill Discuss Amsterdam Stories

On Monday, I had the pleasure of attending a reading–at my local lit hub, Greenlight Bookstore–of selections from Dutch author Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories, followed by a talk between translator Damion Searls and author Joseph O’Neill (Netherland), who lived in The Netherlands as a child and also wrote the collection’s introduction. Preceded by a casual jenever tasting (jenever being the ‘whiskey of The Netherlands,’ but certainly an aquired taste…)  it was a really animated and interesting talk with lots of great anecdotes and insights about the Dutch cultural imagination, translation practice, and Nescio.

I wanted to share some of the highlights that I scribbled down in a notebook during the event, and also encourage New Yorkers with an interest in any of the above topics to attend Searls and O’Neill’s upcoming reading and talk at 192 Books next Tuesday, April 24, at 7:00 PM. 192 Books is a great shop, but it’s tiny, so if you plan on attending, take the advice on the website and RSVP for the reading at 212.255.4022. (Any of you Dutch-lit enthusiasts in Boston and the San Francisco Bay area should also check the NYRB Events calendar–there will be a number of events promoting Amsterdam Stories in both places over the next month or so.)

For reference, I reviewed Amsterdam Stories for The L Magazine recently. My review is here.

On to the talk highlights:

Nescio and His Counterparts

Joseph O’Neill read from what is, as far as I can tell, Nescio’s most famous story, “The Freeloader,” after which Damion Searls nominated him to narrate any forthcoming audio versions. (I can confirm: O’Neill does have a very soothing reading voice.) Searls then read a few pages of “Young Titans,” which is about many of the same characters (and is one of my personal favorites in the collection).

Both selections inspired their readers to make some contextual comparisons between Nescio and some of his “accidental contemporaries” (as O’Neill put it). For his part, O’Neill evoked Kafka, discussing the “existential dilemma of the clerical worker” that permeates both Kafka and Nescio’s work (although Nescio was more successful actually holding down such a job), as well as Robert Walser (which Searls seconded). O’Neill cited (the freeloader) Japi’s famous line–“I am, thank god, absolutely nothing”–as being a classic Walser statement; that line made me and probably many others think of Melville’s Bartelby (“I prefer not to.”) Searls made comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald and more notably, Mark Twain.

The Twain comparison was particularly interesting, for one, because the frequently held Dutch opinion that Nescio’s work is “untranslatable” is derived in great part from its colloquial style and phrasing–its “Amsterdam-style of Dutch.” Searls said that, in Dutch, Nescio’s writing reads a lot like Huck Finn.

The ‘Untranslatability’ of Nescio (and the concept of untranslatability in general…)

As I mentioned above, there has been a sense among many Dutch readers that Nescio was somehow ‘untranslatable,’ that his prose and stylistic qualities simply could not be replicated in another language. Searls took a very practical stance on this (much like that of David Bellos, in his recent book on translation, I might add). “The thing about translating, Joe,” he quipped to O’Neill, “is that nothing is untranslatable–you just have to decide what you care about and what you don’t.” He continued, saying that when he spent time and ‘read into’ Nescio’s work, he concluded that in one example, “contractions–not so important,” but rather, for the purposes of the English translation, the overall tone was what mattered most.

(For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly subscribe to this perspective. )

Searl’s Involvement in the Nescio Translation

Although Nescio is still a huge deal in The Netherlands–someone pointed out that if every Dutch person hasn’t read his stories, it’s probably the case that they were assigned to read him in school, but skipped it–his work has never been translated into English before. There was some speculation that the Nescio estate was extremely cautious (‘maybe too cautious’) in allowing an English translation because it would likely be the source text–rather than the original Dutch–from which further translations into Chinese or other languages would be made.

Searls was introduced to Nescio while at a writing retreat in a Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. Since his primary second language (get that?) is German, he found a copy of Nescio’s stories in German and read that first. He loved it, and so decided to pick up the Dutch original to “see if [he] could handle it.”

Alongside his German translations, Searls has also translated from French and Norwegian (the latter of which he said–delightfully–that he learned basically just so that he could translate the author Jon Fosse, who he “thinks is really great.”) Amsterdam Stories is Searls’ first translation from Dutch, and while he doesn’t have speaking fluency in the language, his grounding in German allowed him to develop a comfort in written Dutch with relative ease.

Nescio in the Dutch Cultural Imagination

Image of De Titaantjes (sculptor: Hans Baayens) via Akbar Sim on Flickr.

The point that Nescio’s characters and writing still hold a place in the Dutch imagination came up several times. A couple notable examples of this:

  • A sculpture of his ‘young titans,’ in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark (see above image).
  • A Dutch pop band called The Nits had their biggest hit with the 1983 song “Nescio” (NYRB’s Tumblr has a video of the band performing the song here.)
  • [This didn’t come up during the talk, but is worth mentioning…] As recently as 2007, a newspaper survey of Dutch readers included his major short story collection in list of the ten Best Dutch Novels of all time

Searls noted that every Dutch person he’s ever met has known Nescio’s writing. Toward the end of the short Q&A that closed the event, he also related the best anecdote of the evening–a recent episode in which a Dutch man living in New York told him that “there is a bench in Red Hook that feels like Nescio!” that the man took took his father to visit  when he was in town.

Which, after reading Amsterdam Stories, I can totally understand. I might have to make a pilgrimage myself one of these days.