A truly wonderful collection by a gifted short story writer and life chronicler who is sadly unknown outside of his native Holland. Even this collection, superbly selected and translated by Damion Searls for NYRB Classics, is the first of Nescio’s works to be available in English.
Nescio’s gift is for focusing on the city as a living, breathing, and sometimes temperamental character in its own right. He also has a fine touch for characterization and interior conflict; many characters recur in the tales collected here, and the Künstlerroman themes are evident in nearly all of the stories. Nescio’s focus on youth, on freedom, and on dreams is idyllic at times and then crushed by the harsh realities of maturation, external factors, and the world at large.One of his strongest stories, “Little Poet,” handles all of his usual themes with a highly nuanced awareness of war, infidelity, and the diminishing role of the artist in modern life. Nescio’s increased attention to issues of gender and how these relate to his concerns from this story onward show an immense shift in his treatment, widening the scope, and leaving at least this reader hungry for more of his stories to be translated into English.“The Freeloader” and “Young Titans”—which, along with “Little Poet,” are the longest of Nescio’s tales—are also remarkable, the first being stronger for its Melvillean misanthropy. Of the other tales collected here, only “The Writing on the Wall” and “Out Along the IJ” are weak; whether this is due to their rather short length (Nescio appears to need much longer canvases to unfold his narratives, except for two I'll mention below) or merely because they were sketches for other work, I can’t say. What I can say is that his extremely short “The Valley of Obligations” is the closest to modernist prose poetry Nescio comes in a prescient way, and “The End” is apocalyptic in its Künstlerroman pessimism, its antebellum anxieties, and its aesthetic simplicity, both stories proving that Nescio worked brilliantly in shorter forms as well as longer novella-length tales.Youth, dreams, life, love, loss, and the unrelenting realities of the world at large. All of this and the shifting, sometimes alien and sometimes intimate city of Amsterdam as a backdrop—Nescio’s tales are timeless and all too ready for a new generation of readers.