Tag Archives: Cees Nooteboom

Rituals by Cees Nooteboom

Rituals - Cees NooteboomRituals – Cees Nooteboom
Translated from the Dutch Rituelen by Adrienne Dixon
Maclehose Press, July 2013**
I read the Dutch version (Bezige Bij 2009, first published 1980)
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

After a failed suicide attempt, Inni Winthrop reflects on life in the fifties, sixties and seventies in the Netherlands (mostly Amsterdam). He does so by returning to the life habits of two acquaintances he had: Arnold and Philip Taads. Arnold Taads has organised his life strictly around time: a different activity for each hour. Philip Taads finds meaning in life through Japanese rituals that teach him that he and the world are in essence worthless.

In Rituals, Cees Nooteboom explores the ritualised habits that organise modern life after Christian religion has lost that function. Inni Winthrop grew up in the Catholic south of the Netherlands, and Catholicism reverberates throughout the book, both in the characters’ criticism of belief in a Christian God, the language or metaphors used, and the echoes of rituals in the different lives under discussion.

Obviously, I found this incredibly intriguing. In the postmodern setting of Amsterdam in the latter half of the twentieth century, where the freethinking individual is set forth as the rule, and society is thought of as secularised, how does one find meaning? Nooteboom explicates how this proclamation of personal freedom is often couched in a quest for other organisational principles that “chain” the individual as much as Catholicism is perceived to do. A strict schedule according to time sets the rules for Arnold, and if a visitor arrives 10 minutes before the scheduled appointment, he or she will be ignored or asked to return home. Philip’s interest in Japanese philosophy and ritual seems to originate from an intense self-hatred and loathing of other people, where suicide is the only option but only if that suicide can be made meaningful through terms of the cessation of the self.

From the perspective of religious studies and the rise of the concept of the postsecular, this book is rather interesting. On the one hand it echoes much of these thoughts, in its assertion of the function of rituals and in its use of religious metaphor for example. On the other hand, Rituals also seems to be written with the concept of progressing secularism in mind which is a narrative that is challenged by the idea of the postsecular. Published in 1980, the fact that Rituals does so makes a lot of sense and I had no problems with this understanding that is somewhat inherent to the book. However, it is the manner in which this secularism is integrated in narrator and character Inni Winthrop that bothered me a little, let me explain..

Perhaps the best explanation of what I mean can be found in what the plot summary on the publisher’s website states about Inni:

“An unintentional suicide survivor, the unexpected gift of life returned lends him the curiousity, and impartiality, to survey others’ lives and routines.”

YES. Inni is put forth as an impartial observer. He is detached from life, rather like Arnold and Philips but in a different way.. For, instead of seeking his own rituals, he observes and comments on the need of others to design life around them, as if he is above this tendency, as if he has progressed beyond these needs, which makes him more rational than the others. There is an arrogance around Inni that got on my nerves.

I wonder if we are to take Inni’s position for granted? There are opportunities to read against the grain and capture how Inni might not be as detached as his narration suggests. Which brings me to part II of what made me uncomfortable in reading Rituals: Where are the women? As in, fully developed characters instead of stray figures who figure as extras in Inni’s tale? Part of me thinks that this is just what Rituals is: a male story, where women have “unconsciously” been forgotten. However, you could also read Inni’s own dealings with women as intentionally portrayed the way they are. If Inni in his own perception is a detached observer of the ritualised lifestyles of his friends, he himself is somewhat blind to his own habits: that of finding meaning in sexual encounters with women. Again, the descriptions made me extremely uncomfortable, women as more “sensitive” and “honest”, as “guardians of the world’s secrets” and yet never really persons (my own rather inadequate translations), to which Inni “surrenders” instead of “conquering women” (oh, how emancipated of you!). But again, one wonders if one is supposed to feel this way, to unravel Inni’s own narratives about life?

In conclusion, Cees Nooteboom’s prose is intriguing and beautiful as always. His exploration of life, habits, and the postmodern quest for meaning was interesting. Nevertheless, I did not love this as I had anticipated. I didn’t not enjoy it, I just wasn’t absolutely captivated.

Perhaps it was my establishing this book as the Nooteboom for years in advance, which might have raised my expectations too high. Or perhaps I should just accept that Nooteboom will never be an absolute perfect fit for me. There are always parts of his books that I puzzle over, that make me wonder if he stereotypes too easily, or if we are meant to notice and challenge these ideas? And I am not always comfortable with doing that. Sometimes, I want a little more hints of challenge, a little less essentialism, even if he challenges that very essentialism on other subjects. *sigh* See what I mean about confusion?

Other Opinions: Yours?

* These are affiliate links. If you buy a product through either of them, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.
** I should probably note that I only found out this was being republished after browsing for a cover image. Honestly, I thought this had been released in translation years ago and would be rather difficult to come by now. What intrigues me most about this new release is the fact that it has an introduction by A.S. Byatt – that is bound to be interesting, right?

Library Loot: June 2013

I am trying not to tempt myself with library books, but it is hard! This time I only picked up my holds, most of which I requested for Dutch lit fortnight.

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Boven is het stil - Gerbrand BakkerBoven is het stil (The Twin) by Gerbrand Bakker

This one is for one of the read alongs during Dutch lit fortnight. I started it and am 40 pages in at this point. I wonder how I’ll end up liking this one. It takes some concentration, but does seem to be beautifully written. I cannot decide, even 40 pages in, if “The Twin” is an adequate translation of the title. Actually, it is in no way similar, but I can see how the story is, or is about to turn into one that is, about both things.

De zwarte met het witte hart - Arthur JapinDe zwarte met het witte hart (The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi) by Arthur Japin

Another one for a Dutch lit fortnight read along. I was a little surprised to see the page count on this one (416 pages for my Dutch edition), but I was promised that this is a very interesting book: two West-African princes who are kidnapped and brought to Holland, this book supposedly discusses colonialism in-depth. Perhaps this might explain its Dutch title, which is ‘The black one with the white heart’, literally translated. One does not wonder why it was changed when published in English.

Rituelen - Cees NooteboomRituelen (Rituals) by Cees Nooteboom

Will this be the year I finally read this classic by Nooteboom? I have read a collection of travel stories and a short story collection by him before, but never the book. Or at least, that is how I think of Rituals. I hope I like it! And hey, an actual literal translation of the title for this one! Plus, it is short, so perhaps I might actually get it read before the first half of June. I do hope so as I am hopelessly behind with planning Dutch literature stuff.

Cinder - Marissa MeyerCinder by Marissa Meyer

I put this on hold at the beginning of the Once Upon a Time Challenge. That hold came in now. I hope I will be able to get to this before the OUAT challenge ends, but I do not have complete faith that it’ll actually happen. This is a Dutch translation of the English book, which might explain why it took so long to come in. I was quite surprised to find they had it on order at all.

Alphabet of Thorn - Patricia A McKillipAlphabet of Thorn by Patricia A. McKillip

I was talking to Kailana and Ana on twitter the other day and we suggested reading a Patricia McKillip together. This title came up, but it now turns out that Kailana won’t be able to get her hands on this, so we settled on another title by McKillip. Perhaps I will read this anyway though? I would like to, because it does sound really interesting, but it is the same old issue of time coming up again. I find it so hard to keep on top of my reading lately.

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Library Loot is a weekly meme co-hosted by Claire (The Captive Reader) and Marg (The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader) that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

The Foxes Come at Night by Cees Nooteboom

The Foxes Come At Night - Cees NooteboomThe Foxes Come at Night – Cees Nooteboom
Translated from the Dutch ‘s Nachts Komen de Vossen by Ina Rilke

MacLehose Press, 2011
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository *

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.

Other Opinions: Winstonsdad’s blog, Book Atlas, Lizzy’s Literary Life.
Did I miss yours? Let me know and I will add your review to the list. 

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Interview with Cees Nooteboom

I was going to write a second post highlighting all the wonderful posts you have contributed to Dutch Literature month today, but since there are still posts being published I have decided to wait a few more days before publishing the final wrap-up. I know that means it won’t technically be published in June, but I hope that’s okay.

Instead, I would like to point you to Stu’s blog, where he interviews Cees Nooteboom. I have known that this interview was happening for quite some time and I believe my first reaction was stunned silence followed by an incredibly happy and excited Iris.

Please take the time to follow this link and visit Stu’s blog.

Nomad’s Hotel by Cees Nooteboom

Nomad's Hotel - Cees NooteboomNomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space – Cees Nooteboom
Translated by Ann Kelland
Vintage, 2007

When you first read a well-known author, there is always the question of where you should start: his grand master-piece, his newest novel, or a short story collection? In the case of Nooteboom, the choice was made for me by the fact that this is the only book I own of him at the moment: an anthology of travel stories. And even though that might be an unconventional place to start, I do not regret it one bit.

Nomad’s Hotel is a collection of 14 travel stories, written by Cees Nooteboom through the years. There are stories from 1975 and stories from 2000. There are stories about Munich and stories about Gambia. That might cover why the subtitle was chosen “travels in time and space”, but there is another dimension to these stories that makes the subtitle an even better fit. These travel stories are not just stories of places and people Nooteboom meets, he also addresses grander questions like “What is the perfect hotel” and every place he visits can be associated with different places, different times, different memories and questions. So no, this is no straightforward travel collection, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting.

Of course, there were stories I liked better than others. There were even stories I loved in some parts and didn’t engage with in others. There are also slight changes in style throughout the book. Something that is inevitable, when you collect stories that have been written over several decades. It didn’t bother me, but I did have to adjust at times. It also makes for interesting situations: When Nooteboom talks about Iran, I questioned which Iran he was talking about for a few pages, Iran before or after the revolution. Until it says the story was written before, in 1975. And then I realised that I had never read a Dutch view of Iran before the revolution, which made the story all the more interesting.

Nooteboom also succeeds in making allusions to thinkers and other authors without sounding arrogant. Very refreshing after reading Mulisch, in my opinion. At times, I still felt I couldn’t quite follow where he was taking me (okay, so maybe it happened more than once – and maybe I lost my focus a little during some of the longer stories, some even bored me a little), but the beauty of short stories is that if one doesn’t work for you, the others still can. And by the time I had reached this beautiful passage, all was forgiven:

On my way to Zurich somebody got there ahead of me, a sculptor who also paints and draws. His name is Winter, and he has altered the city I know. His materials are snow, ice, mist, early nightfall, cold, his work takes some getting used to, it is fairly strong stuff. And he must have toiled like one possessed; the faces of the living, the graves of the dead, the colour of the water suddenly so much darker, he has left his mark everywhere, Neither has he spared the efforts of his colleagues, all over the place I see remodelling, additions and corrections.

When he then talks about statues in cities all over the world as his “stone friends”..

I like how Nooteboom moves from the space around him to the very abstract, and then gives the abstract personality. How he confronts the history that chases him when he visits Munich, but honestly considers what and why, without condemnation. How when he visits a country in Africa of which I do not remember the name, and has to stay longer than he intended, he invents projects of his own to keep him entertained: trying to interview the president, for example.

I feel as if I have been permitted a glance at Cees Nooteboom the person, as well as the author, reading this collection. I know, stories are never representations of the personality of the author him or herself, but I couldn’t quite escape the feeling here. Anyway, I liked what I saw. The glimpses of the author made me feel that, when I pick up a different book by him, whether it is his famous Rituals, or another short story collection, I know what to expect a little bit. And honestly? I cannot wait to do so.