Book Review: The Following Story (Cees Nooteboom)

Herman Mussert, Nooteboom’s first person narrator, is an academic, ‘a classical scholar, one-time teacher of Latin and Greek’, and he wakes one morning in a room in Lisbon having gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam. So far so good is the feeling as we settle down to the potential unwinding of this mystery. It is, Mussert goes on to say about this strange predicament, a room in which he slept ‘twenty years ago with another man’s wife’. The scene is set for an explanation and exploration of time, perhaps. However, Nooteboom’s story is soon cluttered with irritating pretensions of cleverness and, half-way through, a disorientating shift in scene altogether. What transpires is the feeling of being cheated, not of the ‘Aha!’ smile that might have been the aim. Like Nooteboom’s writing though, this review already threatens to get ahead of itself.

Having struggled to complete Ben Okri’s Starbook, and still wading through the stage of bloodymindedness in order to get to that tome’s final page, it seemed a blessing to find by chance this slim book just slightly fewer than one hundred pages in length. These review pages have already suffered in the waiting for Okri to reveal himself: so finding Nooteboom (and the promise of intrigue as set up, by and large, by the overview above) appeared to be the kick-start a latent reviewer needed.

The Following Story (English version translated from the original Dutch — Het volgende Verhaal, 1991 — by Ina Rilke, Harvill Press 1996) was, apparently, the 1993 European Literary Prize winner. The criteria for the award of this prize would be of interest to this reader. Nooteboom’s Herman Mussert is written well enough, but he soon presents as a pretentious scholarly bore. Perhaps this is more accurately descriptive of Nooteboom himself though: the character and the author seem to share some aspects of their existence, such as the travel writing personas of both. Either way, Nooteboom soon has Mussert referencing all manner of classical characters and inserting Latin phrases with footnotes of explanation. Mussert’s alter ego persona is the author known as Dr Strabo, a travel writer creation, as a result of Mussert’s unseemly departure from his job at a Dutch grammar school. Strabo’s superficial writing for the masses, as it were, is not enough to allow the crusty pretentious edges of Mussert (or, indeed, Nooteboom himself) to be flaked away.

At its simplest level, The Following Story is a tale of Mussert’s affair with a fellow teacher, Maria Zeinstra, whose husband — Arend Herfst — is equally enwrapped with one of the students, Lisa d’India. Zeinstra is painted in fiery tones, red-headed tempest as she is; Herfst is a basketball coach and author of poor poetry, according to Mussert; d’India is the almost divine beauty, adored by all, though Mussert claims not to have been bewitched himself. If Mussert has been thrown back in time when he wakes in Lisbon, having gone to bed in Amsterdam, we (and Nooteboom) wonder if the unrequited potential of Lisa d’India has anything to do with it.

Having reached the half-way stage of the book, still so far so possible. However, here Nooteboom throws the reader completely. Now, at the start of the second half of the book, we find that Mussert is on a boat somewhere and somewhen. It isn’t at all clear what is going on. Perhaps Nooteboom intended it this way, but a reader doesn’t often like to be taken from one story and placed in the middle of another without forewarning. It isn’t entirely fair to say this is another story completely because, as it transpires, things do become clearer. There are clues on the opening page, but those clues are washed over in the reading because they come too soon.

What Nooteboom does at the start of the second half of the book is lands his lead character on a ship which, it turns out, is sailing up the wide estuary of the Amazon. He surrounds Mussert with a series of flimsily sketched other characters who mope about on deck and stare off into the evening sky. Those characters are reminiscent, perhaps, of beginner writers’ early attempts at creating believable people: stereotypical, paper-thin, verging on archetypal. Nooteboom’s narrative flips between tenses and his attempts at cleverness in this knitting process sometimes fall short. By this time though the reader is urging the writer to proceed quickly to the denouement.

There are two writerly points of positive note that can be offered up here, however (one of subtlety, and one which almost works, in context). In the first instance, and with self-conscious regard to the flipping between points of view tenses, perhaps, allied to the nature of an affair, Nooteboom writes: ‘Arend Herfst. Third person.’ In the second instance, as a means of drawing a narrative digression back to an earlier observation of a character trait, Nooteboom writes that ‘the world is a never-ending cross-reference’. The attempt is noted, but it falls just short of its mark.

Mussert’s fall from grace at the school builds in slow exposition until the telling scene in which Herfst assaults him in the playground. Mussert is disgraced, and Herfst also loses his job, but not before the single line that pinpoints Lisa d’India’s fate is thrown out abruptly. Mussert narrates several excruciating pages of pretentious classical-mythological analogy to account for his final lesson, citing d’India as his Crito in his rendering of Plato’s Phaedo, Mussert being cast as Socrates about to take the poison that would end his life. Nooteboom writes:

‘Now I am about to die. I gaze into the eyes of my pupils just as he must have gazed into the eyes of his, I know exactly who is Simmias and who Cebes, and all the time Lisa d’India had assuredly been Crito who, at the bottom of his heart, does not believe in immortality.’

Nooteboom’s tenses continue to shift, and he returns late on in an attempt at point of view shift: that is, trying to draw the reader into the tale, as he also attempts early on (which is washed over because the reference is unintelligible: ‘At this point I would like to be still, to wash away all those words. You have not told me how much time I have for my story.’) As the flimsy paper-thin ship passengers tell their tales one by one, then depart late on, Nooteboom writes: ‘Only Deng is left . . . the two of you are already there when I arrive. I will have to tell my story to you alone.’

As far as can be made out, Nooteboom seems to base his entire tale on the following premise: ‘It was not my soul that would set out on a journey, as the real Socrates had imagined, it was my body that would embark on endless wanderings . . .’ If this is the constituent matter of European Literary Prize winners, there may well be a very long long-list every year. Perhaps the criteria also took into account the clever clumsiness of reference lines such as ‘The Lost World — had I ever read that book by Conan Doyle, there was a ship in it sailing up the Amazon, too, the Esmeralda?’ Or perhaps the following quip is of note: ‘I would like to hear a madrigal right now, by Sigismundo d’India.’ Nooteboom’s characterisation overspills into shedding light on the potential of his own pretension.

What begins as a promising intrigue, when Mussert awakes to find himself in a Lisbon bedroom having gone to bed the previous night in Amsterdam, dissolves into a contorted affair. It ends with a return to the intrigue, though the reader is, by now, somewhat weary and wary of the enforced ‘cleverness’ at play, even in fewer than a hundred pages. Suffice is to say that Nooteboom’s tale ‘ends’ with the unpunctuated line that is ‘the following story’, insinuating the reader’s continuing circular journey. This reader finished at the insertion of his own final full-stop.

Philosophical Asides on Themes

In laying down the bare molecules of a book that’s forming, I found myself immersed in the idea of ‘theme’. That is to say, in the first instance this ‘laying down’ isn’t a physical act of writing at all (rather, it’s a coercion of various strands of thoughts into something that might later become more coherent); in the latter instance, the theme is the continuing saga of what runs through this writer (rather than, necessarily, the development of the theme of the book).

The more we write the more we can come to be aware of that which pulls at us (by way of what others write about what they’ve read in our work). It’s a sort of ‘making visible’ process of what once was completely invisible, or at least translucent to us. It’s a ‘presence-at-hand’, of which I find myself reminded of a paper I wrote a few years back on philosophical matters of being (here).

By way of a quick preamble, regarding the word ‘stage’ from two angles ‘[i] as in movement, as in a step, progression of sorts; [ii] stage as in a platform, dais, where we present’, I added the following:

In this discerning of the stage we inhabit, I reflect on Barton’s (2011) review of Heidegger’s (1927, 1962) tool analysis. To paraphrase, when an object/tool is operating normally (readiness-to-hand) it essentially recedes into the background, is taken for granted; when in disrepair (presence-at-hand) we notice it, and it becomes present to us.

It is towards this idea of presence-at-hand that I now gravitate with regards to the developing theme that is any given writer, i.e. all that coalesces into who that writer is. In being made aware of the things I write about, having those things made more visible, are they — in effect — in disrepair? That is, recurrences and recurrences are wooden wheels on a bumpy track, and the more they go round the more the sound suggests that all is not well.

Some writers take years to develop their themes and thus the theme of themselves. The question asked is ‘at which point should we jump tracks in order for that overall ‘theme’ to be all the richer?’

Perhaps I’m confusing matters with my two uses of the word ‘theme’. Just as the word ‘stage’ can be seen in different lights, and to clarify, ‘theme’ here is in terms of ‘individual strand’ and ‘overall rope’ of that which is written and of he or she who writes it. If what we write continues to follow the same idea explorations, are we broken, in disrepair as writers?

There may be some relief in the following (ibid):

Barton presents that objects oscillate between these two modes [operating normally, readiness-at-hand; disrepair, presence-at-hand] and further refers to Latour’s notions of space as a network of objects in relation. Space is something experienced and lived, rather than something we merely move through.

That is, in the analogy, this space of the writer’s inner realm is a network of objects (themes) in relation. Our visible themes and those that vibrate invisibly in the background have sinewed connection with one another. That others may discern the repetitions of our current themes doesn’t therefore suggest that other themes aren’t possible. At which point should we jump tracks? Perhaps we have less choice in the matter than we think. Perhaps our invisible themes, vibrating gently in the background, manifest in us when they need to. They are written, and it sometimes takes readers’ perspectives to make us more aware of them.

Of course, as writers, we know what we write and why we do this, but we’re immersed in that writer’s realm, experiencing the space which has its own internal logic. The reader often has clearer eyes.

Barton, F. (2011), A twist on Heidegger: the ambiguous ontology of playspace. Cheltenham: Philosophy at Play Conference.

Heidegger, M. (1927), Sein und zeit. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag.

Heidegger, M. (1962), Being and time (English translation). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Of Ordinary Magic and Magnetic Filings

Amazing things often happen when we don’t look out for them. By ‘amazing’ I mean to focus on the tiny details of interactions and other instances of a day. Do you believe in magic? This is not the grand Fantasia magic or the wizardry of epics I’m talking about here: this is the ordinary magic of the world.

Artists gather other artists about them. They just can’t help it. There is Artist A, minding his or her own business, just taking a coffee or a beer or reading, when Artist B’s magnetic filings align. This happens too often to be co-incidence. I meet other writers, designers, poets, and singers this way. Beware, however, because trying to force such links will only repel them from you (or so I find). What happens, happens, or so we could believe. When the time is right, because of magnets, a gathering for some readings might take place . . .

Odd other instances take place which are unexpected, and which ordinarily may just seem matter-of-fact: I take three years to write thirty stories and find, somehow, that they all connect (other than the connections I’ve also engineered). This isn’t just a way of saying that themes run through; this is a way of saying that stories connect in unexpected ways. Magic has a way of being stealthy.

What of the great and unexpected occurrences though? What of the fabulous and weird and strange? Meteors land on Earth all the time, and what if one should come rolling down the hill outside my street? What if a plane should crash land, carving up the houses on either side, leaving mine unscathed? I’m on the flight path after all. One night, the moon shone in through my window, bright as day: I woke up to darkness. What happens, happens, or so we could believe.

I’ve been nominated for a writer’s award, apparently, out there in ‘meatspace’ (I do like that phrase!). It happens, though it was unexpected, like crash landings and light. What shall happen, shall happen.

I trust my words, my books, will find their magnetic filing others and — if they do, whoever they find — they will be the right people to have found them.

(Now, that writer I was talking to for several hours the other day — you know who you are — you seem to have crystallised some thoughts in me).

A Philosophical Perspective on Words

I come back to notebooks, from time to time, because therein lie truths and other scraps sometimes forgotten. If there are things we lose in the fire, these must not be the books. They line the shelves and accumulate. Buried on page dot dot dot (un-numbered) of one such notebook in a series, I read the correspondence of my editorial eye in this literary world. Sonam wrote, once:

‘It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find someone who is willing to listen and, indeed, able to grasp our spiritual (you call it ‘love’ or perhaps ‘art’) dream and aspiration. Therefore, the themes we address at the expense of our private spiritual/creative dreams — political, economic, and environmental — are jarring and discordant.’

I come back to this time and again. I dig down and see how we all coat our world-views in otherly-honeyed words: we treat our common experiences with differing words. Your spirit is my love. My dream is your ‘any other word’ for this. The writer and the reader are divided by the same language: words of written intention and words of read interpretation.

Can we ever truly connect our words? If my theme happens — one book, one story, one scene, once — to be love fallen away, will you ever read the words as anything like they were intended?

Of course, you’ll read them differently. You will colour them. You may even heighten them from the intention, which may have failed, to more than this. Perhaps then the themes we do address, which are more universal, are not the themes we might need to address: those themes that cannot be fully expressed because it may just be impossible for another to read/interpret just as the words were written/intended.

Drawing from phenomenological thinking, and in particular from intentionality (that is, whatever the object of consciousness is), words written/read are experienced in certain ways. I think of the words of this book, and that is my experience of them; you think of the words of this book, and that is your experience of them. We see them from different sides, say, as we see a cube each from our own side.

All we can do, as writers, is let this be. We cannot change the way the words are read. How do other writers view their words?

I come back to my notebook, and I think of yours.

A Manifesto for Writing

So you write? What is it that you write? By this I don’t mean simply ‘which genre?’ or ‘which story lines or characters?’ I mean to ask what is it that you write into everything? You are your words and your words are you. What’s your philosophy?

A few years ago, I was reading Jack Kerouac and came across his Belief & Technique For Modern Prose: List of Essentials. I was inspired. Love him or hate him, Kerouac pressed my buttons enough for me to want to write down myself, my processes, my thinking on writing, what I write (or try to write) in everything I produce.

So, a simple question to you: what’s your writing manifesto, your technique? Inspire yourself, my fellow writer. You are stardust.
From Manifesto One (2002) — the  elements that, I find, are still true for me today. (Frankly, I’m surprised and pleased that there are so many that still drive my thinking and writing):

Be mindful of the moments: like atoms, they make up everything
A kiss is never to be taken lightly — so write it in everything
Take space to breathe
Writing is a rush
All words are right, in some way
Never let those dreams go — dreams make us sad and whole, broken and missing, lost
Be in love with love
All love is valid — it all weighs in the same: bank it
Let your lostloves and neverfounds sink you somedays — it’s OK
Read and re-read your words; love them and cherish them like gems of light
Never, on no account, ever burn or throw away your words
All words are right — know this
You are an artist — despite what may be said
Art is a way of living
Treat your notebooks like relics
Write your words in any manner that suits your mood
Be confident in knowing what illuminates you
Share your moments of beauty with those who know what moments of beauty are
Manifesto Two (2012 additions)

Beauty is in ache and stretch, in lament and love
Nothing is ever finished
We, and our stories, are comprised of layers and glass
Everything connects
All stories are true
Note: this article was first published at under a pen name.