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.


Amsterdam Stories

My latest review (on The L Magazine website here) is of the Dutch short story collection Amsterdam Stories by Nescio.

Nescio (“I don’t know” in Latin) was the pen name of businessman J.H.F Grönloh, who, born at the end of the 19th century and dying in the 1960s, lived through a rather fascinating time period in the world, which is certainly reflected in his writing. He wasn’t a prolific author by any means, but he is beloved to this day in his home country–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 (“novels” is a bit of a misnomer, but still).

A few reviews/articles of interest related to Nescio:

“I am nothing and I do nothing”: On the Untranslated Nescio
An article on Bookslut written by Kevin McNeer, prior to the NYRB publication of Amsterdam Stories

Amsterdam Stories reviewed on The Complete Review

Amsterdam Stories reviewed in the KGB Bar & Lit Journal

My own review is below.


A slim collection of novellas, short stories, and excerpts from an unfinished novel, Amsterdam Stories introduces English readers to the complete works of Nescio, one of the most beloved Dutch authors. Neither a particularly prolific nor commercially successful author during his lifetime, Nescio’s fiction now resonates as a love song to Amsterdam, a snapshot of The Netherlands in an era of profound change, and a bittersweet reflection on talent and youth fallen short of its promise.

Latin for “I don’t know,” Nescio was the pseudonym of J.H.F Grönloh (1882-1961), a co-director of the Holland-Bombay Trading Company. In his professional life, Nescio embodied the middling bourgeois existence that haunts nearly all of his bohemian characters. Four of the best pieces in Amsterdam Stories explore this tension and follow the lives of a motley group of disaffected artists, including Koekebakker, a struggling journalist, and Bavnik, a self-deprecating painter.

In “The Freeloader,” Bavnik befriends Japi, an echo of Melville’s Bartleby who declares “I am nothing and I do nothing.” This pursuit intrigues as much as irks his acquaintances, each of whom is attempting to evade the numbing grind of office jobs and banal respectability. The story also showcases Nescio’s poetic use of language and lyrical repetitions: “The freeloader you found lying in your bed with his dirty shoes on when you came home late; the freeloader who smoked your cigars and filled his pipe with your tobacco and burned your coal…”

Koekebakker narrates in retrospect, balancing light-hearted nostalgia with loss. “We were on top of the world, and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily,” he sighs in “Young Titans.” And yet, even though these young men were poor, working jobs which “confiscated the better part of our time… [and] kept us out of the sunshine,” even though Bavnik couldn’t paint the world as he really saw it, and their hopes came to nothing—the wonder of this age of possibility is clearly what matters to him in the end.

The romantic undertone of the Koekebakker stories may be attributable to the time of their writing—all between 1909 and 1914, prior to World War I. Contrast this with the “world in tatters” that Nescio describes in the astounding “Insula Dei,” which was written and set in 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Where his young artists spent their days wandering outside Amsterdam, admiring the setting sun “blazing yellow” on the dikes, “Insula Dei” finds its narrator, Dikschei, freezing on a “gray, icy day” waiting for a meager share of milk at the market. Meeting an ailing old friend, Dikschei takes him to a cafe, splurging his ration tickets on bread and ham. “These aren’t the first eventful times I’ve lived through,” he says, resigned. “[A]nd if I’m granted even more years… I will most likely get to my third war.” But in his friend’s declaration that he is “an island,” that no man can himself be occupied, Dikschei recognizes and embraces a quiet self-possession, an internal rebellion against forces beyond one’s control.

Biblio-Touring: The Centrale Bibliotheek, Amsterdam

When traveling, some people want to be sure that they see all of a city’s famous landmarks–centuries-old cathedrals, statues commemorating famous leaders, sites of famous battles, proclamations, or historical moments. Some people want to see great art, take part in the nightlife, or eat local foods. And while these all have some (often great) measure of attraction for me, one thing that I really get a kick out of when traveling is visiting libraries. Whether expansive and sophisticated cultural institutions (like the Black Diamond in Copenhagen), private membership libraries (like Another Country in Berlin–which is also a bookstore), or just really lovely local branch libraries (like the Oro Valley Public Library in Tucson), it’s always interesting–on both a professional and patron level–to see the sheer variety of manifestations that this one institution can claim.

On a recent visit to Amsterdam, I had the chance to go to the Central branch library of the city’s public library system: The Centrale Bibliotheek (the largest public library in Europe, according to Wikipedia). It was amazing–I had been inside for less than 15 minutes when I started envisioning myself dropping everything, moving to Amsterdam, learning Dutch, and pretty much living in this exceedingly spacious, beautifully designed, inviting, and well-organized information temple. It sounds like a lot of hyperbole, but I’m not exaggerating. It is (currently) my favorite library in the world.

So what’s so great about this library, you ask? Short of visiting it in person, the best way to answer that question seems to be through a small photographic tour. (Photos embedded as links.)

Here’s the entrance:

The library is located very near to the Central Train Station on an island–Oosterdokseiland–that is being developed into something of a cultural center.  From the entrance, which faces a harbor, you can see the rather stunning floating Chinese restaurant (The Sea Palace) and the awesome, ship-shaped Nemo Science Museum.

When you enter the library, you find yourself in a lovely, naturally-lit atrium. It’s wonderfully open, but still draws you into the space. And oh, the signage!

As you look up, you can easily read what part of the collection is housed on which floor. Even better, as you go up the escalator, the signs are continued on the underside of the stairs. The excellent signage is continued throughout the library. I particularly liked those on the edges of the stacks.

As the Wikipedia page notes, there are about 600 seats in the library which have internet connections (there are around 1200 seats total). These are spread about comfortably–when I was there, several teens were checking their Facebook pages on couches with computer consuls, and many others were working at computers on small tables near the windows. By far my favorite nooks for research and writing, however, were the study pods: surprisingly cozy-looking fiberglass wombs with small windows on each side. These are set up by the windows facing the harbor and were all filled with students when I visited.

While there was definitely an atmosphere of studiousness, each floor had a really dynamic energy–in part, I think, because people were neither going out of their way to be silent or excessively noisy. The study pods occupied the same floor as the DVD collection and music section. A computer station was set up in the music area playing rotating tracks from several different CDs that users could sort through and listen to like in a music store. The volume wasn’t terribly loud, but you could hear it from the escalators. And from what I could tell, the audible hum of music wasn’t detracting from anyone’s work/study experience. Rather, it made the space feel inviting and casual. Another interesting aspect of this area was that the DVD shelves actually formed the walls of a small viewing room with bean bags spread all over the floor. The stacks curve in on themselves so that the backs form a sort of screen where movies can be shown from a ceiling-mounted projector.

The literature sections were divided by language, with collections in English, Dutch, German, French, and probably more. In keeping with the rest of the library, the stacks were also broken up by visually interesting, multimedia displays–even some with screens playing short movies. The books themselves had library bindings, but original covers had been laminated over the binding, which I thought was a really nice touch.

Some other great aspects to this library (which I don’t really have pictures of):

1. It’s open from 10 AM – 10 PM every day.

2. It has its own cafe on the ground floor, which shares the space with a huge magazine collection.There’s also a restaurant.

3. There’s a 50-seat theater.

So, in summation, this is the library of the future. I don’t know how they fund it, but it is amazing. Anyone want to weigh in on their own favorite libraries?

The Twin

The Twin is currently one of the only Dutch novels I’ve read (although I plan to bone up before my trip to The Netherlands this summer). It was a lovely novel, and was nominated for 2009’s Best Translated Book Award. You can read my original review on Three Percent, here, or the full text is below.


Penetrating, beautifully sparse, and eerie in its stillness, Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin tells the story of Helmer van Wonderen, an aging farmer whose life has been characterized by passivity, inaction, and a profound sense of isolation. Having begrudgingly taken over the family dairy farm after the accidental death of his twin brother Henk, Helmer finds himself, after 55 years, suddenly and unexpectedly the master of his own life—if only he knew what to do with it.

For years, Helmer has been “doing things by halves,” living the life that was intended for his brother, a monotonous existence at the beck and call of his tyrannical father. As the story opens, however, Helmer has moved his father, close to death, to a bedroom upstairs, an act of self-assertion that pushes him to reassess his past and the decisions—or lack thereof—that have left him stagnated and alone. “Why did I let it all happen like this?,” he wonders. “I could have said ‘no’ to Father and ‘do it yourself’ or just ‘sell up.’”

But while Helmer may not be satisfied with the life that he has accepted for himself, it is a routine that if not fulfilling, is at least familiar. “I’ve milked the cows, day after day,” he reflects.

In a way, I curse them, the cows, but they’re also warm and serene when you lean your forehead on their flanks to attach the teat cups. There is nothing as calming, as protected, as a shed full of cows on a winter’s evening. Day in, day out, summer, autumn, winter, spring.

In the absence of any truly meaningful, reciprocative human relationships, Helmer has forged quiet connections with his animals. He finds solace in the ritual of milking his cows, keeps two identical donkeys as pets, and almost drowns himself trying to save a sheep mired in an irrigation ditch. And it is through natural imagery such as this—swallows sleeping on telephone lines, a hooded crow alighting outside the kitchen window, ducks swimming in a pond—that Bakker (a former linguist who has since become a gardener) is able to not only reveal more of his taciturn protagonist’s interiority, but also bring the narrative to a kind of gentle compromise between what should have been and what simply is.

On an unexpected trip to Denmark—his first holiday “in thirty-seven years of milking day and night“—Helmer walks down to a beach at sunset. “The beach is deserted,” he says.

There are no hooded crows in the sky and even the busy grey sandpipers are missing. . . I am the only one for miles around making any noise . . . I know I have to get up. I know the maze of paths and unpaved roads in the shade of the pines, birches and maples will already be dark. But I stay sitting calmly, I am alone.

By the novel’s close, Helmer has found some measure of peace and acceptance in his quiet life—even in his solitude.