I like to think that all of us here at Writer’s Block – editors, writers and readers – are lovers of the written word. It seems that for most people nowadays words only truly speak to them when they are uttered by actors, singers or public speakers, or when they’re set against the backdrop of a motivational video. Words on a page never seem to leave their paper for those people. But, as a lover of the written word writing for lovers of the same kind, I’d like to introduce you to a writer whose words not only transcend their paper constraints, but inhabit, engage and touch the deepest being of their readers; I’d like to introduce you to Nescio.
The name is derived from ‘nomen nescio’, the phrase atop a text if the author is unknown. Nescio, Latin for “I don’t know,” is the pseudonym of Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh (1882 – 1961). He was a succesful businessman in the early years of the twentieth century, and he wrote under a different name because he felt that a respectable man would not write stories. And if such a man would, then he would certainly not write the way he did.
His writings were not very popular during his lifetime. He published three stories in the nineteen-tens in a magazine, and those would be bundled together and sold with a few other writings throughout the years. Only late in his life and after his death would the value and power of his work be recognised. Nowadays, his collection of stories, Den uitvreter (The Freeloader); Titaantjes (Young Titans); Dichtertje (Little Poet) and Mene Tekel (Insula Dei, which is included since 1956) is seen as one of the most important Dutch literary works. In 2012 these stories were translated into English and bundled under the name Amsterdam Stories.
To me, Nescio has no equal. His short stories are human tragedies of the most ordinary and touching kind, and they are written in the simplest manners. He describes the lives of men who live normal lives, but harbour ideals, hopes and desires that they have long resigned. While they were busy living, time has passed and it has taken their dreams along with it. Who can’t recognise that?
My favourite writings of his are a passage from Titaantjes, in which he ponders on God and his aim, a piece called Het dal der plichten (The valley of obligations in English), and Dichtertje. The plight of Nescio’s little poet is that he wants to write one grand poem and then ‘fall’ after some scandalous affair. It doesn’t end well, but it is heart-wrenchingly beautiful nonetheless. The inspiration for the story is mentioned at its close, and it tugs the heartstrings like no other piece of writing does.
Nescio’s power lies in his words: instead of using fancy terms or complicated structures, he writes in a clear and terse manner. With very little, he says all he needs to say and more, and in a very special and unique way, he is lyrical and poetic, and brusque at the same time. He was a poet who wrote the most gorgeous and elegant prose. Do you know the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Well, in Nescio’s case, a word is worth a thousand pictures.
As far as I know, no writer has written as beautifully and powerfully about growing out of youthfulness and naivety. No writer has said so much with so few and such simple words. And no writer has ever conveyed human tragedy as convincingly and honestly. Nescio was a writer like no other. I hope, my fellow lovers of the written word, that you will read his works on paper, and that you discover their beauty for your own.
Header image courtesy of Theater Zeelandia.