You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Cees Nooteboom is the author of 14 novels, 14 collections of poetry and, because symmetries and parallels run throughout his work, 14 travel books. Then there are the four anthologies of essays and reportage, the 18 literary prizes and two honorary doctorates. By this point it must be clear that Nooteboom is hugely popular and highly thought of in northern Europe.
Yet the Dutch-born Nooteboom wonders if he is paying enough attention to the world. In 533: A book of days, the 88-year-old author recalls reading an article by a Flemish reviewer in which the reviewer complains that Nooteboom “pondered too much.” This could be right, Nooteboom admits. It is probably a condition of age. He wonders if the reviewer is young. He wonders this because he did not meet the reviewer in Budapest in 1956, or in Bolivia in 1968, or in Tehran in 1976, or in Berlin in 1989, or in fact, at any point in history when Nooteboom was fully present in the world, observing and recording events that shaped “the world.”
He then wonders if his young critic ever looks at cacti, because he himself spends an awful lot of time pondering the life force of his prickly friends in his Menorcan garden. Finally, he wonders what the Flemish critic might mean when he speaks about the “world.” “Which world?” The world he has been watching for sixty years, or the world the critic has been reading about or perhaps writing about more recently for his newspaper?
To read Cees Nooteboom is to be introduced to a rarefied and stately European sensibility: classically educated, receptive, lyrical, a little wounded by contemporary mores, definitively masculine, privileged and rooted in literature and history. This is a book that sits oddly on the shelf alongside other books seeking answers on pronouns, protocols and shifts in power, or books that offer alternatives to the status quo. At the same time, although 533 was composed before the outbreak of covid-19, Nooteboom has given us a meditation that would read perfectly in lockdown.
It is a Book of Days – 533 days – in which passages of time move both quickly and pass slowly, when Nooteboom’s world is consumed by absurd details and his mind is engaged in entering the deepest of spiritual spaces. If any of us should have the luxury to be in this position, we would hope to be sitting by a mountain lake or a pool in a forest, our attention riveted and simultaneously free-floating. Unfortunately, for most of us, we will be in a crowded apartment or on the tenth floor of a tower block, where trees are a distant memory and the weather is something that happens outside.
In Cees Nooteboom’s case, he is in his garden on the Spanish island of Menorca. It is five o’clock in the morning. Above him, and to the left of the palm trees, Orion and Sirius sparkle. He sits on the terrace, listening to nothing. Over the next hour, it begins: the morning concert that comprises roosters, dogs, pigeons, geese, goats, and with the most “unrelenting pathos,” a neighbour’s donkey. This same donkey will reappear at 8pm, braying for a carrot. But this re-appearance takes place a hundred days later when Nooteboom has considered all the dissonant notes and lonely singers, the rooster with “a breath-taking Neapolitan tenor,” and the sudden silences. One hundred days later, Nooteboom tells us, he will take the sound of a donkey chomping on a carrot to his grave. In the meantime, “words are his profession” and on day 23 he brings our attention to Marcel Proust. More specifically, he is reminded of his French publisher who asked him in which language he had read Proust.
“French, of course,” Nooteboom responded.
“But that’s ridiculous,” his editor says. In French, he points out, Proust’s style is outdated, “with all those antiquarian forms of the subjonctif.” Since Proust’s death, the English have had three new translations, and each one reflects the movement of style away from the original. What Nooteboom is constructing is passage between written conservation and historical erasure. Those shifts away from the original; changes in time; the days turn over like the leaves of the book we are reading. Fast forward, summer lurches by in a month.
The heat presses down from the mountains, ironing the landscape, the drought bearing down hard on his garden. Details emblazon a paragraph, multiplying meanings that fly out of his study like a moth. This is a book to read in the long shadows of an afternoon fading into evening. At which point, Nooteboom picks up his Van Dale Dutch dictionary. It is newly restored by a local bookbinder. The first word he looks up is a species of mot, “moth,” because the Oruga barrenadora is threatening his palm trees.
“Van Dale knows him,” says Nooteboom. One of the features of his life in Menorca is that books, insects and plants become characters, anthropomorphised by Nooteboom’s persistent gaze. This persistence allows him to drift between poetry and prose, moments of being and periods of boredom. Each day is personal, intimate and revealing to a point because it is Cees Nooteboom the author who is composing this Book of Days. He confides the simple events, daily routines, inspiring and uninspiring conversations with neighbours or with himself, private feelings – for example, with the young Flemish reviewer – fears and worries – usually about his garden in his absence. It is as if we become his dependable friend always read to lend an ear. But we are not bothered with the workings of his conscience or the committal of his soul, if only because “shame and/or calculation” would undermine the book’s authenticity. Mostly we get the rhythm of an elderly writer’s life.
It revolves around books. At least five days are devoted to the study of Hungarian modernist novelists. We venture into the territory of “a man who wanted to write a book about everything and who, in a room in Budapest, took his heroic quest to the bitter end.” The parallels exist in almost everything Nooteboom states because, if only by sheer dint of time, he has accrued so many impressions that meanings proliferate whenever he puts pen to page. The novelist Miklόs Szentkuthy appears in Hapsburgian profile in one of the photographs that dot Nooteboom’s pages. They are mostly of cacti so Szentkuthy must be pretty special to gain his place in the parade. He is, in fact, “a magician, who will surprise you again and again with … a manner of thinking you have encountered nowhere before, one that will not let you go.” Once more, the parallel is noted.
There are many unexpected insights provoked by the spine of a forgotten book, or associations that spiral from a series published by Actes Sud, arranged alphabetically by concept. It is as though by capturing ideas for a moment he wants to catch language as it moves away from him. He also wants to commune with his cacti, namely The Soldier, The Mexican and The Martyr. But they are enigmas. His contemporaries have Facebook and Twitter, but Nooteboom’s companions stand still and say nothing.
The old Dutch dictionary, however, has plenty to say. When an old Dutchman has lived outside his country for a long time, his mother tongue can become a puzzle. Filled with doubt, he will head for Van Dale and find answers that trigger memories that unfurl into stories and out of the chaos comes what Simone Weil called “the development of attention.” Nooteboom forces his readers to reflect on what is being said, and to take up their part in the work: for him, literature is a collaborative effort.
The reader as well as the author becomes observer: of landscapes, of perplexing behaviour, of insects and flowers, and of, in my case, a pet cat, the sound of rain, and the reddening leaves of autumn. The pace is slow and memories pile up, most especially the suggestive memory of photographs. Close-ups of the Mexican, the Soldier and the dastardly moth, as well as a view of Mahon’s port, provide a sepia strain of melancholy. Occasionally current events come clashing in: the soft-soaping of government and the protests of unruly parliamentarians. They sing their arias, lamenting sovereignty and heralding a possible Grexit (at the time of writing). The cracks that run through Europe must be heard. The loss of a real community is the true lament.
“Il faut cultiver notre jardin” is the theme of this book, says Nooteboom, quoting Voltaire’s Candide. This reference to an 18th-century philosophical recommendation to revolutionize philosophy and transform it from abstraction to a world-encountering enterprise, is the rallying cry that that hums through Nooteboom’s days. He is a verbal colourist with a yen for the stillness of landscape. In all his wanderings, from the Cold War divisions of Germany, the canals of Venice to the edge of the Sahara, he manages to bring back to us epiphanic moments in companionable prose. He brings with him the assurance that he rests on a bedrock of tradition. I would suggest this tradition has an earlier flowering in H. D. Thoreau who says in his 1854 Walden: or, Life in the Woods:
“There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers…. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
In his modest way, with this book, this is precisely what Nooteboom does.
With a background in teaching and journalism, Lilian Pizzichini is the author of Dead Men’s Wages (winner of 2002 Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction) published by Picador. In 2009 Bloomsbury published The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys (BBC Radio Four Book of the Week) and in 2014, Music Night at the Apollo: A Memoir of Drifting, a Spectator Book of the Year. Her fourth book, The Novotny Papers, was published by Amberley in May 2021, and featured in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror's "Big Read".