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Nescio (JHF Grönloh)

Titaantjes (Young Titans)

Category: Fiction | Published: 1915 | Review Added: 05-01-2019

Rating: 4 - A top read

JHF Grönloh was a Dutch businessman who secretly wrote short works of fiction and published them under the pen name of Nescio (Latin: "I don't know"). He is famous in the Netherlands, but virtually unknown in the English-speaking world - hardly surprising since no English translations of his work existed until 2012.

On the evidence of this longish short story, this was a travesty of literary justice. Titaantjes is the poignant narrative of the lives of a group of friends, barely out of adolescence when the story begins, in the early years of the Twentieth Century. They are intellectuals, painters and - they believe - visionaries, intuiting the existence of great truths that they intend one day to understand and to express artistically. Though not conventionally religious, they await the coming of God's kingdom - "the end that will also be the beginning," as Bavink puts it, the most romantic of them all.

The boys talk in each others' rooms, below the dykes around Amsterdam, and on visits to the coast. A recurring motif of the story is the setting sun as embodying the hidden meaning of existence, always perceived but its essence intangible.

As the years pass, the great truths steadfastly evade the idealists. One by one they lapse into bourgeois life and see less of each other. The narrator, Koekebakker, looks back nostalgically:

It was a strange time. When I think about it, that time must still be happening now, and will continue to happen for as long as there are youths of nineteen and twenty around. But for us it is long gone.

The only one of the five friends who stays true to his youthful self, in his way, is Bavink. Obsessed with capturing divine insight in his paintings, he ultimately despairs of his task, takes to drink, and finishes up in a mental institution - mad but at peace. Shortly before his incarceration he says to Koekebakker,

What do you think the sun wants from me? I have thirty-four sunsets leaning against my wall, one behind the other, turned to face the wall. And yet every evening, the sun is back there in the sky.

Art can never capture truth, and we had better accept that. That doesn't mean we should give up on art as a pointer to truth, though - as this unassuming and beautifully written story illustrates.

Note on the translation by Damion Searls: This is a straightforward and diligent translation that favours semantic accuracy over nuance and rhythm. I used it alongside the Dutch original to check my understanding. For that purpose it was ideal. However, it didn't seem to me to capture the flow and poetry of the Dutch. Some renderings were over-literal ("run around" for "rondlopen"), and others were anachronistic ("Hi"; "so smart it's pathetic"). I spotted one full-blown howler: "berg" translated as "mountain" rather than "hill". Searls, an American, cannot even have glanced at a map of Europe, to observe that there are no mountains within several hundred kilometres of the Dutch city of Rhenen.

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