Youths big plans and vague longings, the binges, crashes, and marathon walks and talks
April 15, 2012 2:45 AM   Subscribe

Joseph O'Neill on the Dutch literary hero Nescio No one has written more feelingly and more beautifully than Nescio about the madness and sadness, courage and vulnerability of youth: its big plans and vague longings, not to mention the binges, crashes, and marathon walks and talks. No one, for that matter, has written with such pristine clarity about the radiating canals of Amsterdam and the cloud-swept landscape of the Netherlands.

Nescio's De Uitvreter (The Freeloader), Titaantjes (Little Titans) and Dichtertje (Little Poet) have been read by a lot of Dutch people in high school. They're very much part of the top canon lists in the Netherlands.
There are not a lot of resources in English on Nescio. wikipedia.
Joseph O'Neill is known for his novel Netherland. He's an Irishman living in New York who grew up in The Hague.
posted by joost de vries (13 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
It's rather long ago that I read these stories in high school for my final Dutch exam. But I can still recall phrases and scenes. The tone of voice and mentality of the stories spoke to me as a teenager. Despite the fact that The Freeloader f.i. was written in 1910.
It's amazing to me that this very idiosyncratic Dutch author is available in English.
posted by joost de vries at 2:52 AM on April 15, 2012

Joost have you read any of the English passages? Would you say that the translation captures the tone of the original Dutch?
posted by smoke at 3:45 AM on April 15, 2012

Hm. Hard to say from those few short passages.

A few thoughts:
- you tell me! The thought that English speakers would be able to read Nescio somehow astounds me. It feels so very very Dutch.

- I grew up with a middle class snobbery where reading in the original language was deemed the only way to experience the original tone. For us that meant reading English, German and French literature in the original language. Of course that position doesn't scale; you can't know all languages sufficiently. Also when you're reading a work in the original language, what to you is a second language, you probably are missing subtle cues as well.

- I read it when I was 17 or so. The experience of having a job was to me still in the future. So how how having to have a job pulls you into the square bourgeoisie was not a visceral insight to me. Maybe it's a work that particularly suits teenagers. That's how I see Kerouacs books f.i. And of course both Kerouac and Nescio write about bohémiens. The quote I pulled about 'vague longings and marathon walk and talks' also points to that aspect. So if you're let's say 30 your experience of Nescio will probably not match my experience at age 17.

- Nescio is in my mind very much part of the Dutch literary canon. And as such it filled for me a role in defining literary Dutch with iconic passages. It won't have that role in English literature obviously.

- since The Freeloader has been written in 1910 the Dutch is rather archaic. At the same time Nescio makes an effort to match spoken language. Which makes for a quaint charming effect. The translator seems to have chosen, understandably, to translate into modern English. So that's an aspect that's missing from the translation.

- See this Dutch page for a few iconic passages. Only one of those is quoted in the article. I wouldn't say that last passage shows particularly the tone of Nescio in Dutch. But I would have to read more of the translation to have a founded opinion.
posted by joost de vries at 4:50 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I found a small excerpt from the Freeloader here, the title translated as "The Sponger" in this case.

In looking up the famous first sentence of the Freeloader (translation mine, so possibly not so good): "Apart from the man who thought the Sarphatistraat the most beautiful place in Europe, I never knew a more peculiar man than the freeloader."
I was a little disappointed this was apparently written about Dutch author Frederik van Eeden, who was miffed about alterations made to that street. I always found it such a wonderful sentence as it suggested that Nescio could have written an even more interesting book about that person, but chose to just write this book, which is already wonderful in its own right. A bit of the mystery has disappeared now...
posted by charles kaapjes at 5:04 AM on April 15, 2012

Damion Searls, who's the translator of the NYRB Nescio, and Joseph O'Neill are going to be talking about the book at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn tomorrow night; Searls is also at 192 Books in Chelsea on April 24. I haven't read the Nescio, but Searls is always worth following; he's responsible, among other things, for the re-edited version of Moby-Dick from a couple years ago, and has a fantastic book of short stories out from Dalkey Archive.
posted by with hidden noise at 7:55 AM on April 15, 2012

I hope some NY mefite will go and report his or her findings.
posted by joost de vries at 8:15 AM on April 15, 2012

"Lads we were, but nice lads"

Since charles already quoted my favourite sentence of Nescio, one I can't help but quote whenever I pass through the Sarphatistraat.

Nescio is one of the very few Dutch writers that I had to read in secondary school that I actually liked enough to keep reading (the other being Multatuli; Max Havelaar being quite probably the best Dutch novel ever written); if you look at that Wikipedia entry, there's a link to my old review of Uitvreter/Titaantjes/Dichtertje.

What Nescio captured so very well is that sense of bourgeois ennui that intelligent young lads (women very much not featuring in these stories) must've felt in the Holland of before the Great War, a country that Heinrich Heine had said about would be the best place to be if the end of the world would come, because everything there happens fifty years later... Holland was smug, self satisfied, inward looking and petty minded, not inclined towards self criticism, especially then. Some of that has been knocked off us in the past century, but that Nescio still is read so eagerly even now shows the country really hasn't changed that much.

Or perhaps it's just that these stories are quite short and easily read and understood by high school students not inclined to like reading Dutch literature all that much.

Oh, and if we're talking about Nescio, then a link to De Nits single is mandatory.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:55 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Regarding translating Nescio, it must be difficult, as translating from Dutch to English is hard enough as it is already (very different word order from English; otherwise said[1], you have to rewrite almost each sentence), but that archaic Dutch of Nescio, to translate that so that it has the same feel, that must be almost impossible.

To take one example, how to translate uitvreter? Both sponger and freeloader don't quite cover it. I used loafer myself, which is also not quite right, but does get at the other aspect of uitvreter: it's not just somebody who eats your food and smokes your cigar, it's somebody who does nothing. The way Nescio uses uitvreter is a pune, or play on words: he does nothing -- "vreet niks uit" -- and he eats everything you got --"vreet je uit" -- where "vreten" is a vulgar synonim of "eten", to eat. Usually you use this when you suspect somebody of doing something naughty: "hij vreet iets uit".

[1] and we tend to be a bit too literal in our translations too -- one Dutch prime minister once said that Holland was a nation of undertakers ("ondernemers") meaning entrepreneurs, but at least we didn't borrow that word from a foreign language[2]
[2] Quick bonus fact: Dutch is one of the few European languages whose word for maths doesn't derive ultimately from the Latin, but uses a neologism invented by Simon Stevin in the 17th century, wiskunde.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:12 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm terribly late and I'm afraid I have little of substance to add, but I'd just like to say thanks to Joost for this post on the iconic Dutch author. I kind of "missed" Nescio during my own formative years, but this might be as good a prompt as any to try and catch up. To the e-readers! Thank you Joost.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 3:06 PM on April 16, 2012

If any non-Dutch mefites end up reading this translation I hope they'll report back their findings in this thread.
posted by joost de vries at 10:19 PM on April 17, 2012

I'm reading it now, and enjoying it very much. I don't know if it's too healthy for a midlife person with a desk job to be reading this, however -- much of what he describes hits a little too close to home, particularly the idea of "why did I go to school for all those years just for this?"

I love the attention to details, especially in the outdoors. (Apparently Nescio also spent years writing a nature diary; what I wouldn't give to be able to read that!) I'm not so sure that some of the word choices are that great -- not from a speaking Dutch perspective, since my Dutch pretty much stops at "tot ziens" -- but occasional words and phrases feel very awkward. For example, "Little poet" -- "little" in English has a connotation of cuteness that I'm not sure is what's really meant here. But there are not many instances where I notice that sort of thing.
posted by JanetLand at 3:54 PM on May 2, 2012

I'm glad you liked it.
With respect to word choice and "little poet": in Dutch the word "dichtertje" ends in a diminutive. So literally that does mean 'little poet'.
The way I see it this epithet is meant as describing the opposite of a grand poet in the expressionist tradition of that era. The cuteness that that phrase also has in Dutch can be seen as part of a certain self-deprecation.
posted by joost de vries at 6:45 AM on May 4, 2012

Yeah, there are notes at the back of the book that talk about "dichtertje," and I get the point, but I still don't quite like it -- the poet isn't the narrator of the story, after all, so I'm not sure that it feels like self-deprecation so much as condescension. I think "minor poet" might work better, especially in the sense of the opposite of a grand poet. Or maybe it was the repetition that bothered me -- "little poet" over and over and over. Even if the translator left the title as "Little Poet," that doesn't mean that adjective "little" has to be used every single time with the word "poet" in the story. Or maybe I just have a personal problem with that word in English. :-)
posted by JanetLand at 7:27 AM on May 4, 2012

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