by Nescio (1882 – 1961)
161 pgs. New York Review Books, 2012
Trans. by Damion Searls
What a joy to discover the Dutch author known as Nescio and this little book of stories that has just been translated into English for the first time. Nescio wrote only sparsely between the years of 1909 and 1942, but the gems he left behind are darkly charming and richly sensuous accounts of artistically inclined young men who live among the canals of Amsterdam and explore the fields and byways of the Netherlands. The artistic idealism of these young narrators, however, is gradually tempered by the necessity of making a living and the fickle ministrations of the muse. And though Nescio’s characters favor reverie over activity, they know that time marches on, and that their youthful pleasures will be as fleeting as the seasons. Even their stronger passions rarely spur them to action but instead smolder in their imaginations with the allure of things unfulfilled. The stories also touch on poverty and small pleasures, friendship and remembrance, war and gratitude, desire and the beauty of the human form.
Nescio creates and sustains a curious tension in his writing. The keen, lyrical, and passionate sensibilities of his characters contrast with the rigid demands of social respectability, and are movingly highlighted against nature’s cyclical, elusive beauty in the blustery and watery Netherlands. Nescio’s writing is filled with longing and resignation, deliciously detailed and lustrously described.
Nescio (Latin for “I don’t know”) is the pseudonym of J. H. F. Grönloh, who as a young man was not unlike his idealistic characters. Later, he worked for the Holland-Bombay Trading Company, and eventually became its director. Though his work was slow to catch on, he is now much loved by the Dutch people.