Tag Archives: Cees Nooteboom

Of Nooteboom, Jünger, Céline, and assorted literary gossip

13 Dec

I can confess without shame that occasionally I am persuaded to buy a book on the strength of the cover, and it was certainly a factor in selecting Cees Nooteboom’s collection of stories, published by the superb Maclehose Press. This was before I met Nooteboom and, since I was told I would be doing an event with him at the Translator’s Club in Buenos Aires, thought I had better read at least something by the man, who is very highly regarded in continental Europe and elsewhere, if not in the United Kingdom. Not that this counts for much, as there are many writers who are well-known in the rest of the world but are far less well-known in Britain than our own great authors like Katie Price or Russell Brand, to name but two, or say, more realistically, than Geoff Dyer or Tom Raworth, but hell, who cares. In the end I never got around to reading the book until the weekend just past, and can reveal that – unless I missed something important – none of the stories has anything to do with foxes or with Gauguin (from whose painting the cover picture is taken).

But back to my main gripe, our misguided isolationism, which is reflected in the inability of publishers to translate great works of literature what are writ in the foreign, and that most hideous of ailments, little-Englandism.

Since David Cameron has now put the interests of his chums in the City of London ahead of anyone or anything else, and has decided that the bankers are so good at making things happen that they might as well be given a free hand; and since the rest of Europe is, sensibly, in disagreement, it seems likely that within a couple of decades, our islands will be floundering in mid-Atlantic, spurned both by Europe and our North American cousins (what special relationship?), a non-productive, antisocial wasteland, with a tiny privileged elite and a humungus underclass of the poor and unskilled, and little in between. A bit like Latin America in the seventies. Britain will then have to re-invent itself as a ‘developing country’.

Ernst Jünger

Now where was I? Nooteboom told me he once met (or rather crept up on) Ernst Jünger in the Prado, and introduced himself, at which Jünger made a joke about his (Nooteboom’s) surname. The joke was in German though, and involved wordplay which I, as a non-German-speaking non-Dutch-speaker, did not understand. Such trifles do not concern Nooteboom however, who continued with his story regardless. If you speak six or more languages with apparent ease, as Nooteboom does, you tend to get flippant. Ernst Jünger: a truly fascinating character, who has a cameo role in both Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, thus I have been reminded of his existence twice in recent times. Is that a sign? (Normally I would interpret that as a message that I need to look him up and read something by him, but since I am not reading novels right now will have to hang on, unless I want to read his essay on On Pain, which I don’t fancy. Or perhaps I will, pain being quite a salient topic.) Needless to say his work is pitifully hard to find in English, considering he is rated as one of the most important German authors of the 20th century. Nearly all of his 52 books are available in French, but only five could I find in English translation. Apparently this is largely to do with the fact that Jünger – although not a member of the Nazi party, and peripherally involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 – served as an officer in the German army, held strongly Nietzschean views promoting the model of an heroic masculinity, and was an anti-semite, at least during the 1930s. I’m not saying he was a good person; undoubtedly he had issues, don’t we all, but he was not half as bad as the Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for example, an out-and-out Jew-hating fascist maniac, and yet Céline is held in high regard as a literary figure – by those who have read him – in both Britain and the USA, in spite of his despicable opinions, and much of his work is translated

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline was definitely a prize shit, and no doubt deserves our opprobrium, but less specifically I often wonder how come we are so ready to condemn how others behaved in times that we cannot begin to understand, when, as we have seen before on Blanco’s Blog, complicity is just another way of getting on with life, and avoiding persecution? We might perhaps take the trouble to ask ourselves just how we would have behaved. It is easy to bask in the safety of the present and cast aspersions on those who came before.

So, where were we? Is digression really such a good thing, when you lose your place so frequently, and so thoroughly? I was going to write about Nooteboom’s collection of stories. So here we go. He is superb at evoking the peculiar world of northern European expats (Dutch and British) living out their blinkered lives under the Spanish or Italian sun. He writes with an understated, poetic prose, that suits the topic which surfaces at some point in most or all of these stories, which is that of a lost and, at times barely remembered love. The theme is addressed in soft focus in nearly all these stories, and present through its absence in the longest one, ‘Heinz’, which accounts for a third of the pages in the book, and describes the slow alcoholic decrement of its eponymous protagonist. Heinz was once married to Arielle, whose flower-adorned grave the narrator discovers one day, four decades after her death. Apart from learning that Arielle died in 1962 at the age of 22, we know practically nothing about her, yet she inhabits the centre of the story with a stubborn grace, unavoidable in her absence. This is pretty masterfully achieved by Nooteboom, and I was impressed by the fluency of Ina Rilke’s translation, but nonetheless, despite the dictum that less is more and Hemingway’s iceberg theory, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have liked to get to know Arielle a bit, as she could not have been less interesting than the other members of the cast.

Nooteboom at the Dutch Embassy, Buenos Aires, September 2011

My two favourite stories were ‘Thunderstorm’, set on an out-of-season Spanish island (perhaps Menorca, as that is where Nooteboom lives), in which a couple are having a spectacular row in a café: the man walks out in a strop and is struck by lightning; and ‘Late September’ – another story set in a windswept rainy resort on a Spanish island – in which Suzy, a 79-year old British widow (smokes Dunhill, drives into town every day for the Daily Mail) has a desultory, what shall we call it, affair, with a 63 year old waiter, Luis, for whom she always leaves something out for him to ‘find’ on his nocturnal visits, except on this night, when:

All that remained was to wait for the creak of the door, the smell of whisky on his breath, those strange, halting grunts accompanied by sudden thrusts of astonishing vigour, which had more to do with rage and endemic disappointment than with anything else.

Christ. An afterthought. As life expectancy continues to grow, and third-age sex lives thrive, can we expect an upsurge in geriatric porn? Does it already exist? Do I want to find out?

The strange and displaced lives of Brits in exile under the sun has been explored in different ways by Graham Greene, J.G Ballard (in Cocaine Nights) and now Nooteboom, a non-Brit but most astute observer, makes a valid contribution. It is a world that no doubt contains untold fictional riches, but first, I guess, you have to do the fieldwork.

 

 

 

 

The Thousand Yawns of Ricardo Blanco

27 Oct

It doesn’t give me any kind of pleasure to give a book a poor review, but having spent an awfully long time reading something, and trying to engage with it as a work of art, I do feel a bit pissed off if the thing is getting tons of media attention when more modest, but far more skilfully written works are passed over by the monolithic media machine of our publishing culture.

I started reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on my summer holidays, was interrupted, picked it up and got rather bored, was convinced by Cees Nooteboom (who I see is credited in the acknowledgements) to give it another try; and finally yesterday, after a six-hour stint of compulsory bed rest in Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital, I managed to get to the end.

Really, I don’t know what all the fuss is about. Mitchell doesn’t write many duff sentences, at least compared with the trashier writers of the day, but then neither are there many great passages of the kind that I enjoyed in Cloud Atlas. However, like the earlier novel, The Thousand Autumns is filled with too many set pieces, and they always, but always sound like set pieces. That’s the price you pay for padding out a longer novel, I guess.

The title is mildly irritating, following as it does the clichéd formula of concept plus OF plus name (preferably an odd-sounding name). But more tiresome is the tedium of the truncated sentence formula alternating with the capacity of all the characters (but particularly de Zoet himself) to think out loud in italics.

 

It is dear Anna whom I love, Jacob recites, and I whom Anna loves.

Beneath his glaze of sweat he sweats. His bed linen is sodden.

Miss Aibagawa is as untouchable, he thinks, as a woman in a picture . . .

Jacob imagines he can hear a harpsichord.

. . . spied through a keyhole in a cottage happened upon once in a lifetime . . .

The notes are spidery and starlit and spun from glass.

Jacob can hear a harpsichord: it is the doctor, playing in his long attic.

 

(The doctor, incidentally is one Marinus, who has all the sensibilities of a late 20th century liberal haphazardly dumped into the late eighteenth).

This is not bad writing: it just isn’t much good, and I certainly don’t see why all the leading newspapers’ reviewers swooned over it (and they all did). “I doubt there is another living English writer who is capable of such traversals of worlds and consciousness,” trilled The Guardian. But, reader, I was bored.  I yawned a thousand yawns. I kept thinking I was being uncharitable towards Mr Mitchell and should give it a few more pages, but as I drew towards page five hundred and fifty, I felt that I’d been had, and that this was just a bestseller bandwagon book.

I should follow my gut instinct in future and refrain from buying books in airports simply because they have a bunch of rave reviews, but I probably won’t, as from time to time curiosity wins out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Villa Ocampo

14 Sep

Victoria Ocampo was one of the great patrons of the arts of the first half of the twentieth century. She first published Borges in her magazine Sur and she hosted and promoted writers and artists from around the world on their visits to South America. Among others Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Indira Gandhi, Drieu La Rochelle, Antoine de Saint Exupéry,  Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Camus and Graham Greene were guests at the Villa Ocampo, and Lorca’s Romancero Gitano was published by her.

 

Yesterday, along with Cees Nooteboom and his wife Simone, Minae Mizumura, and the Argentinian novelist Inés Garland (who kindly drove us there), I was a guest at the Villa Ocampo. We had lunch, and then received a guide from the house manager, the exteremely well-informed Nicolás Helft, who presented me with a 1961 issue of Sur that contains the Spanish translation of a short story by Nabokov ‘Scenes from the life of a double monster’ (which appears, in English, in Nabokov’s Dozen) as well as poems by Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

 

The piano that Stravinsky played, with his picture

The house itself is spectacularly lovely, even if the interior veers towards the state of a mausoleum, with rooms kept intact from the era in which they enjoyed their greatest glory. The grounds, filled with great trees and green lawns, once spread down to the River Plate, several blocks away, but is now considerably smaller (though still ample). The odour of privilege wafts around the corridors and up the stairwells. I would not have liked to have got the wrong side of Victoria (and those who crossed her often lived to regret it). So I sat in her chair and meditated on the state of being Victoria Ocampo for a minute or two, and for a brief moment felt the thrill of something like victory. This was quite alarming, although not unpleasant.

Blanco tries out Victoria Ocampo's chair (photo by Simone Sassen)

 

For those who understand Spanish, here is a link that connects to Jorge Fondebrider’s website Club de Traductores de Buenos Aires and a video of my interview and reading from Monday evening.

 

 

 

 

Good things about being Welsh: No. 3

11 Sep

We are so kind and noble we allow other teams to beat us at our national sport. I am not absolutely certain this is an asset, but it indicates true strength of character and I am sure the Japanese have a word for this kind of motiveless self-sacrifice.

In today’s Rugby match against South Africa (which I watched at 5.30 a.m. local time despite only returning to my hotel at 2.oo following a reception at the Dutch Embassy in honour of the novelist Cees Nooteboom), the Welsh team played with a conviction and courage that was barely recognizable, and they probably deserved to win, whatever that means. (It means nothing in sport actually, which is the whole point). Ych a fi.

On another note, I was chatting with the Dutch ambassador’s wife last night (I really wanted to use that line, please forgive me) and it seems the British Ambassador is a Welsh woman.That must surely count for something, honouring the bardic tradition etc.  However nothing at all has been set up at the fabulously impressive British Embassy to celebrate Blanco’s arrival in Buenos Aires,  which Blanco feels is rather remiss.

British Embassy, Buenos Aires

But then Cees Nooteboom is famous (as well as seeming a very nice man) and Blanco is not. Apparently when Hanif Kureishi came over they gave him a proper bean feast. Blanco is clearly not important enough. I am not sure how I feel about this, but probably it doesn’t compare with what our national Rugby team will be feeling today

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