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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Posthumous Confession

Marcellus Emants

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To purchase A Posthumous Confession

Title: A Posthumous Confession
Author: Marcellus Emants
Genre: Novel
Written: 1894 (Eng. 1975)
Length: 193 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: A Posthumous Confession - US
A Posthumous Confession - UK
A Posthumous Confession - Canada
A Posthumous Confession - India
Une confession posthume - France
  • Dutch title: Een nagelaten bekentenis
  • Translated and with an Introduction by J.M.Coetzee

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine character study (of a very unpleasant character) -- though eventually veers to the melodramatic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 20/2/2011 Susan Salter Reynolds

  From the Reviews:
  • "Reminiscent also of Poe, A Posthumous Confession illustrates the centrifugal introspection that the advent of psychiatry instilled in so many literary characters: Literature and revelation joined at the hip, till death do them part. And not even then." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Narrated by Willem Termeer, A Posthumous Confession is a scathing and relentless soul-baring story of a very ugly character. This does boil down to an account of justification: as Termeer reveals almost immediately, he has murdered his wife, but he is confessing not so much to the deed and what specifically drove him to it as to what kind of a person he is. A Posthumous Confession is Termeer's life-story, with him veering between acknowledging his weaknesses and faults and him blaming a world in which he has no place.
       Termeer moans: "Little has fallen to my share in life, and this little has always been disappointing"; arguably, however, the fault is generally his own. Indifferent to learning, Termeer abandoned school as soon as he reasonably could -- and even his father expected little better from him; indeed, no one expects much from him. Termeer does not function well within any sorts or segments of society, has essentially no friends, and rarely anyone he can confide in; neither his parents nor then his wife can provide even the sort of intimacy and support that might usually be expected from family. Termeer and his character are certainly also to blame: he is largely unwilling to accept the necessary give and take of human relationships; indeed, he seems congenitally incapable of it. Even where he realizes he would do well to accept the openings that are offered -- the jobs his brother in law nudges him to, the possibility of greater social contact -- he backs away from them.
       From the beginning, it is clear that one of Termeer's greatest problems is his inability to carry through even with the smallest ambitions. He has enough money to live on, so he has no incentive to learn anything and doesn't bother getting a job, and he can focus all his attention on his self -- which is probably the last thing he should be focused on. Theoretically free to do almost whatever he wants, he nevertheless finds himself paralyzed with indecision; he rarely has any specific goals and instead just mopes a great deal. Murdering his wife at least gives him greater freedom yet again, yet practically the first thing he admits in his confession is:

Yet what good is it to me, this freedom ? I am within reach of what I have wanted for the last twenty years (I am thirty-five) but I have not the courage to grasp it, and would anyhow no longer enjoy it very much.
       He hides behind his lack of courage -- going back, in his account, to its roots when he was a cowardly child, running away from confrontation. As to enjoyment: it's hard to imagine he is even capable of it.
       Termeer is one cold, self-obsessed bastard. Any sympathy one might have had for the man is long gone by the time he has a child and admits: "I felt more affection for my cat than for my daughter" (though admittedly he does preface that remark by noting: "However strange it may seem") -- and then his indifference at the infant's death. He is not evil but he is often hurtful, because he is concerned solely with himself and can never make the proper gestures towards others, even (or especially) his wife. He enters into marriage because he thinks it's something he should do; it turns out, of course, to be a disaster.
       Much of the appeal of A Posthumous Confession lies in its brutal honesty. Right down to his first assessment of the woman he decides to marry -- "For my part, I did not find her in the least attractive; but a lover of clear lines would probably have come to a different conclusion" -- Termeer never makes any effort to present himself or his actions in any better light. This self-flagellation is so intense that it actually becomes suspect, Termeer clearly claiming (and playing up) the cloak of victimhood (presented as practically innate) as an excuse for all his failures.
       A neighbor, a widowed minister with a child, is surprisingly able to put up with Termeer for a while: a friendship of sorts does develop, and Termeer engages with him in a nearly normal manner, as they spend time together walking and talking. But Termeer isn't willing to embrace any sort of happiness or even mere normalcy over any longer term, and his wife's relationship with the man and the motherless child gives him enough reason to sabotage everything.
       It is this minister who observes that Termeer is cerebral -- "a man of intellect rather than a man of feeling". This is part of what makes Termeer compelling -- and Emants handles it particularly well by making Termeer the rare such 'man of intellect' who does not withdraw into books or other academic activity. Yet ultimately feeling bubbles over and bursts forth, and it is feeling that undoes what little there is left to Termeer.
       Emants turns to the staples of melodrama, and has his protagonist fall in love with a fairly loose woman who is willing to be his -- if he supports her financially. Suddenly Termeer finds marriage is even more constraining, and then Termeer has to deal with jealousy both at home (as he becomes suspicious of his wife and the neighbor) and with his mistress. It's fitting, too that he is reduced to melodramatic murder (there's nothing honorable or brave about what he does, or how he goes about it -- and nothing cerebral, either).
       It's an appropriate almost petty end to this sad sack's story, though his impulsiveness undermines some of the character-portrait that had been built up. Ultimately, his existential self-flagellation sits uncomfortably at odds with the melodramatic turn of events, and the powerful (if almost unbearably ugly) story winds up a bit too simply resolved.
       A Posthumous Confession has as unsympathetic a narrator as one can imagine, and that's part of it's odd power. Therein, too, lies one of the reasons this work continues to be of interest: it was translated by J.M.Coetzee, and its narrator could, indeed, be straight out of a Coetzee-novel; the congruity is absolutely striking. (There is even a Coetzee-like bit where Termeer describes seeing a play, Artists, by Marcellus Emants -- which his wife finds "revolting" but which makes a deep impression on him "because of the many features of resemblance between the artist and myself".)
       A Posthumous Confession is not a pleasant novel, but much of it is, in its ugliness, compelling, and if one can get beyond the loathing for its protagonist (and he is difficult not to loathe -- as even the narrator seems to loathe himself ...) a strangely captivating tale. And it is of obvious interest and appeal to anyone who enjoys Coetzee's self-reflexive fictions.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 February 2011

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A Posthumous Confession: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Marcellus Emants lived 1848 to 1923.

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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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