cover image Amsterdam Stories

Amsterdam Stories

Nescio, trans. from the Dutch by Damion Searls, intro. by Joseph O’Neill. New York Review Books, $14 trade paper (184p) ISBN 978-1-59017-492-0

It’s little wonder that J.H.F. Grönlöh (1882–1961) wrote these biting and perceptive stories under the pseudonym Nescio (Latin for “I don’t know”). In most of them a sensitive artist mocks businessmen who slave away in offices and fail to contemplate the beautiful natural world. Grönlöh himself was an executive of a trading company in Amsterdam, apparently the very embodiment of the middle-class rectitude his characters despise. In this first English translation of his work, impoverished artists and writers seek to escape stifling bourgeois culture. Looking back with nostalgia at the idealism of their youth, these young men are generally regarded by Nescio with a bemused sympathy that can acquire a mocking edge. He trades wit for sensuousness, however, when his characters contemplate the inspiring Dutch landscape. In the best offering, “Little Poet,” the God of the Netherlands is a befuddled old man in a “shabby coat [with] dandruff on his collar.” He is the custodian of business, propriety, and smug respectability, and he and the devil both observe a man realize his desire to “be a great poet, and to fall” from grace. Five of the collected stories, many published in Holland in 1918, are considered Nescio’s major work; the remaining four are inchoate fragments. While his distinctive voice is absorbing, readers who are not familiar with Amsterdam may find the mention of streets, rivers, neighborhoods, canals, and dikes confusing. Yet this is a valuable introduction to a significant Dutch writer. (Apr.)