I have to thank MacLehose Press here for sending me copies of their latest Cees Noteboom reissues. Noteboom is (or was until recently) on the long list of “authors I have heard of, but don’t know much about and have never actually read” – I knew he was one of the Netherlands’ most celebrated writers, but that was about it. The writer I’ve now found in these books is one concerned with the thoughts and habits that hold us back, or keep us going.
Rituals (1980; translated by Adrienne Dixon, 1983), which begins in 1963, when Inni Wintrop is coasting through life, picking up women and making money by trading art and shares. When his wife Zita leaves him, Inni tries and fails to commit suicide – then Noteboom takes us back and forward, to encounter other characters who are stuck in their own behaviour patterns.
In 1955, Inni meets Arnold Taads, a former ski champion who now lives his days according to a precise and regimented schedule of his own devising. Arnold describes how he ceased to believe in God when he saw a priest collapse dead in the midst of conducting Mass; and there’s a scene in which Taads forcefully argues with a priest about theology. So Arnold Taads is dismissive of Catholic rituals; but he has his own in the shape of his daily timetable.
In 1973, Inni Wintrop is in his forties, and feeling somewhat more at peace with life. Now he meets Philip Taads, a son of Arnold’s about whom he’d previously known nothing. Philip lives by the tea ceremony and other Japanese rituals, but Inni sees these to be as empty as anything Arnold Taads followed or derided. But each of Noteboom’s three main characters has his own rituals for coping with/shielding himself from life – and it seems that letting go of those rituals is the only thing that allows any of them to move on.
Perhaps more optimistic is In the Dutch Mountains (1984; translated by Adrienne Dixon, 1987), which sees an Aragonese road inspector named Alfonso Tiborón de Mendoza write his own interpretation of The Snow Queen. Throughout this book, there’s a sense of reality and story being pulled and stretched; quite literally so in the way that Tiborón sets his tale in a much larger – and mountainous! – version of the Netherlands; but also in the subtleties of how his adapts and references Andersen’s original (Kai and Lucia are circus performers, who are sent away by their impresario to find work in the south; when the world starts to look more dismal, Kai imagines that a sliver of glass or ice has entered his eye; and so on).
Going beyond this kind of surface playfulness, though, there’s a deeper consideration of how stories relate to – perhaps how they parody – life. Tiborón constantly interjects (though he keeps promising not to) to remind us that a fairy tale is very much a fixed version of reality. Sure enough, Kai & Lucia become limited by their story – they have a happy ending, but that’s because they are in a fairy tale, and needs must. Tiborón is the one who is ultimately freed by the telling of stories, his tale allowing him to look at life differently. Maybe he’s not so different from Inni Wintrop, then, as all either of them needed was a little jolt from life to allow themselves to change.