Nescio’s stories are moving and, in fact, tragic in their content but are told lightly, almost offhandedly. They are about a few young friends who are inevitably headed for bourgeois adulthood. Two figures stand out from the others in their group: the painter Bavink and Koekebakker, the narrator.
The Freeloader begins with the memorable sentence: “Aside from the man who thought that Sarphatistraat in Amsterdam was the most beautiful place in Europe, I never knew a more wonderful fellow than this freeloader”. The “freeloader” is called Japi. Upon being asked by Bavink if he also paints, Japi replies ‘No, thank God, (…) and I’m not a poet either, or a nature lover and I’m no anarchist. I am, thanks be to God, absolutely nothing.” Japi visits Bavink and Koekebakker to eat, drink and sleep, then disappears and then returns again… The bohemian life of the young friends, before the horrors of the First World War, is very visually told and laced with irony and humour.
In Little Titans, the tone becomes more sombre and the nostalgia for “the old days” is sometimes painfully palpable:
It was a wonderful time. If I think about it, then that time must still exist, as it will last as long as there are boys of 19, 20 years old. But for us, it is long gone.
The time when the illusion was (for a while) strong that “we can still achieve a lot” is irrevocably gone. For now they lead civilian lives, as a clerk, as the “companion” of a rich widow, or for the least fortunate, as an exploited worker in the gasworks, or even sadder: “Bavink has given up the fight against those Goddamned things” and ends up in an “institute for nervous disorders”. The final paragraph is wry but also poetic and reassuring:
New Little Titans are busily stacking little stones to knock him off his throne and then arrange the world to their own liking. He laughs and thinks: ‘Well done, boys, I’m fonder of you than of those nice wise gentlemen, however foolish you are. I’m sorry you have to break your necks and that I have to let those gentlemen thrive, but I’m only God’.
Little Poet is a grim story, separate from the previous one. It was written during WWI and it does have an ominous ring: “For thirty years, the God of the Netherlands did not like poets”. And this shows. Little Poet is married to the good Coba, the mother of his daughter, who dutifully transcribes her husband’s manuscripts. When she becomes a little worried that the stories are becoming erotic and rebellious, her husband utters the immortal words: “She should be able to distinguish the author from mister Nescio”. But Little Poet rebels against God and decency and his downfall is inevitable.
Nescio’s stories are gems that have not lost their shine. It seems incredible that they were written nearly a century ago, as both the themes and language remain startlingly fresh and modern. Nescio is still a wonderful writer to discover.