There is something special about the writing of Cees Nooteboom. Something fascinating that pulls me in. But also something quite distant, something that makes me feel that I can never truly grasp his meaning. As if I should, and want to, find something more, and feel something more, than I do.
The Foxes Come at Night is a short story collection that revolves around the common themes of death, loss, and memory. Most stories are set, or partly set, in Mediterranean countries. Most evoke memories of deceased persons through photographs. And there is the constant reflection on people who make worthy stories, stories that perhaps require more of people than they really are, of true life perhaps not always lending itself to great and dramatic storytelling. This is reflected in the two quotes that take a prominent place in the book. One, as an introduction to the book as a whole, taken from The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler:
“You might have got yourself a story.” I said. “Sure. But up here we’re just people.”
And later, at the beginning of ‘Heinz’, one of the longer stories in the collection, a quote from The Last and the First by Ivy Compton-Burnett:
”What an empty episode!” said Eliza. “It seems to have no meaning.”
“It has none,” said Sir Robert. “So we will not give it one. We will not pretend that something has happened when nothing has.”
There is a sense of lost time, of lost friends, of lost opportunities (maybe?) to all the stories. A thread of change through all of them, not always for the better, but not always for the worst either. The collection is not pessimistic, nor bleak, but it is not happy either. I want to say “as always” with Cees Nooteboom, this results in some stunning, direct, and true reflections on life and being human, such as a man who looks back at a photograph, many years later:
The mere fact of being in possession of the same body – that was the true marvel. But of course it was not the same body. The person in possession of the body still went by the same name, that was as much as you could say.
There is something wonderfully philosophical, reflective, and meandering about Nooteboom’s prose. But at the same time he can be very direct, and concise. Perhaps this is why I find it hard to put my finger on Nooteboom’s writing. I wonder if perhaps Nooteboom is really for those who are a little older, who have experienced a little more.
Not all stories were of the same quality. Three stood out to me: ‘Heinz’, ‘Last September’, and ‘Paula’. It is not entirely coincidental that the longer stories in particular spoke to me more. There was more room to discover the setting and the characters, more room to feel empathy. ’Paula’, in particular, was fascinating. It is a story in two parts, one told from the perspective of a man who remembers her, the following told from Paula’s perspective, giving glimpses of the different memories people have, and the difference in meaning they attach to each particular one. It was this story that I loved, and that I will remember for quite a long time. Because, although I think I could safely say that Nooteboom’s writing is of a high quality, and this collection will probably appeal to many, it was only in that one story that all the pieces fell into place in a manner that made it work as more than ‘just’ a story for me.