Amsterdam, city of canals, bicycles and Anne Frank. I love it. In 2014 I visited twice, seduced by flights from Exeter Airport and by the reopening of the Rijksmusem. On both occasions I spent a whole day in the museum. Before the second visit I found a list of the ten best books set in Amsterdam, compiled by Malcolm Burgess. I chose two to read while I was there.
The book that dominates Amsterdam is The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. But I’m going to sidestep it. I don’t underestimate its significance, charm and poignancy but Amsterdam is much more than the city where Anne Frank lived, hid, wrote and died.
Rituals by Cees Nooteboom
Translated from the Dutch by Adrienne Dixon.
Cees Nooteboom is, according to Malcolm Burgess, the greatest living Dutch novelist and Rituals is his masterpiece. It won the Pegasus Prize in 1981, having been published the previous year. I have to admit that I had not heard of Cees Nooteboom before. I think that this is because I am out of touch with European literature.
I found this a very interesting but troubling book. The Amsterdam setting is without special significance, although it had to be ituated somewhere and I did enjoy recognising some of the places mentioned in the novel.
I found time in the novel was a challenging aspect. There are three episodes related in Rituals, associated with three different people, the narrator, Inni Wintrop, and Arnold and Philip Taads. The Intermezzo is the first movement, set in 1963, the father Arnold Taads in 1953 and then the son leapfrogging ahead to 1973. It is an interesting approach for a novelist and highlighted dimensions of the relationships between the three men in an unsettling way.
The three men have some things in common, all attempt suicide; all try to find answers to the question of how to live by adopting the rituals of the title. Some rituals are formal or recognised: the Roman Catholic Church, Japanese aestheticism and tea rituals, Hari Krishna and nihilism. Others are rituals placed on life by the individuals to give it form: chasing women, selling art, organisation of time, daily rituals and so forth.
Cees Nooteboom appears to be asking how we make meaning from being alive, and how some attempts to understand life are flawed, meaningless and lead to nothing. He is also examining how time affects our understanding. I find this description of the older Tadd’s routines to be nightmarish.
Time, Inni learned that day, was the father of all things in Arnold Taad’s life. He had divided the empty, dangerous expanse of the day into a number of precisely measured parts, and the boundary posts at the beginning and end of each part determined his day with unrelenting sternness. Had he been older, Inni would have known the fear that dominated Arnold Taads demanded its tithes in hours, half hours, and quarter hours, randomly applied points of fracture in the invisible element through which we must wade as long as we live. It was as if, in an endless desert, someone had singled out a particular grain of sand and decided that only there could he eat and read. Each of these preappointed grains of sand called forth, with compelling force, its own complementary activity. A mere ten millimetres further and fate would strike. Someone arriving ten or fifteen minutes early or late was not welcome. The maniacal second hand turned the first page, played the first note on the piano, or, as now, put a pan of goulash on the stove on the last stroke of seven. (84)
This kind of philosophising seems to me to be a European phenomenon. Think of Meursault in Camus’s L’Etranger, dealing with the nothingness of life by committing a random murder.
Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton
Translated from the French by Tamsin Black.
The narrator is Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s mistress after the death of his wife Saskia. As the title indicates she is condemned by the elders of Amsterdam. Her story begins when she arrives in Rembrandt’s house as an illiterate maid, and takes us through the birth to her daughter to her death. She addresses Rembrandt much of the time. It’s an intimate account of the domestic life of the great master, his business arrangements and financial difficulties, his social relations and daily life in Amsterdam in the mid seventeenth century. Here’s an example taken from her early days in the house.
I always used to look down when I went in to see you. Even when Geertje sent me to your studio in her place with the herrings and the beer. I’d knock gently, three little taps at the door. Come in, you said, and I’d go in. And I’d wait, holding the plate and pitcher, and behind your back I’d watch the picture emerge from your painting. I could see that great greasy crust on the palette of nameless colours, and bladders of paints and pots of oil that smelled of garlic, the hen’s feathers, and lavender. I’d learnt to breathe slowly with my mouth open, and my eyes no longer stung.
Barent Fabritius had given me his hand and brought me right into the pupils’ studio, where the artist who crushes the paint watches the oils heat until they become clear; then he can break up the colour into them. Not too hot, make sure the hen’s feather doesn’t fry in the turpentine. Beside him, an apprentice is stirring the bones and the skin of a rabbit till they melt in a bain-marie – the steam coming off it’s disgusting. If they’re mixed with powdered chalk they’ll turn into skin glue. (19-20)
The research is used to make clear the concreteness of painting and etching, and a visit to the Rembrandtshuis makes clear the physical effort, the smells, textures, shapes and colours with which Rembrandt spent his days. In this way the novel drew me into the life of old Amsterdam and its people. And it was authentic enough to add to the enjoyment of my visit.
The novel’s theme is the importance of art and love over form and narrow-mindedness. But we are reminded that in the end even fate, death, will get you – for some in the form of the plague.
And I will also enjoy the National Gallery exhibition, Rembrandt: The Late Works (until 18th January and later in Amsterdam at the Rijksmuseum).
I may have started a new series of books and cities. The first two posts were
I’m planning a trip to Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg) next year. Any suggestions for related reading? Or any other books set in Amsterdam that you would recommend?
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