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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Amsterdam Stories


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Amsterdam Stories

Title: Amsterdam Stories
Author: Nescio
Genre: Novel
Written: (1942) (Eng. 2012)
Length: 129 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Amsterdam Stories - US
Amsterdam Stories - UK
Amsterdam Stories - Canada
Amsterdam Stories - India
  • Stories first published between 1918 and 1942
  • Translated by Damion Searls
  • With an Introduction by Joseph OíNeill

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing small collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 15/5/2012 Nicholas Lezard
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/4/2012 Richard Mason
Publishers Weekly . 20/2/2012 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's all rather like La Bohème, but more realistic, with penniless artists and a lot of smoking and talking and drinking of Dutch gin late into the night. (...) Some speech has been translated into rather odd-sounding American slang of uncertain period. This grates on me -- and I'm half-American. It is a testament to the strength of Nescio's writing that mostly it survives its rough passage into English." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "The bookís most enduring effect is of color, as Nescio attempts to do with words what the Impressionists did with paints -- to record the play of light on water, the beauties of a sunset. (...) Damion Searlsís translation is very good. But the gulf between a good translation and a great one is wide. Great translations require the translatorís total ownership of a text. As I made my way through Amsterdam Stories, I rarely forgot that I was reading a translation. Slips of register kept on breaking the spell" - Richard Mason, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While his distinctive voice is absorbing, readers who are not familiar with Amsterdam may find the mention of streets, rivers, neighborhoods, canals, and dikes confusing. Yet this is a valuable introduction to a significant Dutch writer." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Nescio -- a pen name meaning 'I don't know' -- was anything but prolific; as translator Damion Searls notes, this volume of Amsterdam Stories: "contains all of Nescio's major work and a representative selection of his other fiction" -- and that in barely 150 pages. It's not as if he seems to have had a terrible case of writer's block, however; rather, like many of his characters, he seems to have been an inveterate dawdler.
       Among the pieces included here is a draft 'From an Unfinished Novel' (all three pages of it ...), which begins:

     My life is too short, I can't go any faster, my work is a cathedral and I need a long time, centuries.
       Nescio's may well have imagined a cathedral, but he never got beyond a few bricks -- a few short stories that don't even suggest the outlines of any sort of massive novel. Several of the stories here do overlap, with a circle of friends who are recurring characters and lots of meandering through Amsterdam (and occasionally farther afield), but one would be hard pressed to say they are part of some larger design. Rather, as he also writes in 'From an Unfinished Novel':
     The novel, my dear sir ! We are in the middle of it.
       Life trumps and overwhelms art: Nescio and his characters wander through it, but it proves too much to contain on the page.
       Yet Nescio does offer a few glimpses and slices of these lives. The most representative figure is certainly Japi, the title-character of 'The Freeloader' -- who proudly proclaims:
I'm not a poet and I'm not a nature-lover and I'm not an anarchist. I am, thank God, absolutely nothing.
       And -- as also his chosen pseudonym suggests -- much of Nescio's writing tends towards this ideal (which, despite some of the other characters' (and the narrator's own) ambitions is indeed seen as a sort of ideal).
       'Young Titans' best conveys those years of youth which are marked by both a carefree aimlessness and great -- if often completely starry-eyed -- ambition that so appeals to Nescio, even as he reflects upon having moved beyond that stage in life. He puts it beautifully:
     It was a strange time. And when I think about it, I realize that that time must still be happening now, it will last as long as there are young men of nineteen or twenty running around. It's only for us that time is long since past.
     We were on top of the world and the world was on top of us, weighing down heavily. Far below us we saw the world full of activity and industry and we despised those people, especially the important gentlemen, and the ones who were always so busy and so sure they'd gotten pretty far in the world.
       In 'Little Poet' Nescio takes a more creative leap, as he offers a variation on the artist's life, a portrait of the little poet who "poetized away at his never-ending poem". Yes, eventually his book: "is in its fourth printing and his collected poems have been published too" -- but the chasm between how he sees himself ("I am greater than God") and reality (as he stands there, literally an emperor poet without clothes) is overwhelming -- and eventually:
The people in Delft or Oldenzaal were proven gloriously correct. He was definitely never quite right in the head.
       The final story, 'Insula Dei', written decades after most of the others, in 1942, during the German occupation, isn't so much a return to the same old streets and subjects as a brief venturing out into: "A hostile world, a world in tatters". Yet even here his narrator still embraces the same philosophy as his younger self (though his earlier variations did not put it as bluntly):
     "A figment of the imagination ?" I say. "Is there anything else in life ?"
       With several excellent stories, Amsterdam Stories is a fine small collection, and well worthwhile; too bad there aren't more pieces of his cathedral to be translated.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 March 2012

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Amsterdam Stories: Reviews: Nescio: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch writer Nescio (actually: Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh) lived 1882 to 1961.

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© 2012-2021 the complete review

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