Trapped Behind a Desk
Nescio, the frustrated shipping clerk who became a beloved Dutch literary hero.
To recap: in his early 20s, he is pulled under, into the bourgeoisie; he writes, de profundis, about such pulling under; he secretively publishes a book of these underwater writings in 1918; he then succumbs fully to his bourgeois fate. Either he has no more writing in him or he must suppress that writing—suppress Nescio. In any case, Nescio can no longer be.
It’s true that, after a rumor that someone else was the author of his book, Nescio’s actual identity emerged; but he was able or willing only to write a few, bitty things. His life’s largest undertakings remained, it seems, walking and working. He became, it has been reported, a notably demanding and severe boss, and eventually a director of the company. Then, in 1937, he retired. “I’m free,” he later wrote, “after forty years I’m free, and I can cut my hair whenever I feel like it and let it grow too if I want.”
Yet still Nescio did not write much, which is consistent with the notion that his impulse to write was essentially hobbyistic—which is to say, profoundly voluntary. Writing not actuated by pleasure or self-realization would have been Nescio’s idea of “doing.” Nescio was not a doer. As one of his narrators states, “I want to be, and for me to do is: not to be.”
But over the course of a few February days in 1942, in the midst of the Occupation, Nescio did get onto paper the remarkable “Insula Dei.” It is winter, and the narrator, an Amsterdam journal-keeper of sorts, records “A hostile world, a world in tatters. A world of cold and poverty.” He runs into Flip, an impoverished friend, and, puffing on precious cigars, they mull over old towns, old rivers, old vistas. (Flip remarks of the Occupation, “How could someone occupy me? That has nothing to do with me. Being poor has nothing to do with me either.”) The friends have further meetings. The narrator, a walker of course, discovers, while strolling, mystical inklings of contentment. The snow thaws, turns to slush.
Nescio’s second book was published in 1946. Further sketches and stories appeared in 1961, the year of his death. Only posthumously did his work become so known and esteemed that it is now part of the modern Dutch canon. The work is also popular: Nescio is beloved in Holland. This is partly on account of the gentle, humorous mischief he makes, a favorite joke being his fear of scandalizing his buttoned-up Dutch reader. In “Little Poet,” the hero
sees all the women sitting at the outdoor tables and walks past them to the street. “Oh God,” he thinks, “what if you performed a miracle now, what if all their clothes suddenly fell off?” A nearly mad little poet thinks the strangest things. You and I, dear reader, never think such things. And my lady readers… Mercy me, perish the thought.
The comic note is an element of the famous Nescionic voice, which has within it wryness, lightness, simplicity, and daring vulnerability. The desire to read Nescio (especially in the marvelous Dutch, of course) is the desire to be in the presence of that voice, whatever it may be saying to us. “Us,” here, refers not only to the familiar aggregate of readers. It refers also to the single reader, because one reads Nescio in the first person plural. His voice speaks to all our selves and most keenly to those which, unless we are not human, we must keep secret.
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