Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Three, nay four! books and the city of my heart

As usual many winter resolutions have fallen by the wayside, but some were kept. I am actually studying acupressure, which includes giving practice sessions, and doing some serious reading.

I was not planning to spend a literary month in the city of my youth, but that is what happened. Pictures are random. Earlier I did a blog about places Old Dutch and I used to live. 

The road to Amsterdam started in Oran. I read La Peste because I wanted to catch up on some classics, revive my French, Camus had been discussed on CBC, and Ebola was happening. There were some good, even haunting parts in it. How could it be otherwise with that topic, a city isolated from the world by an outbreak of the Black Plague. However, as a novel I found the structure pretentious, needlessly laborious, and detracting from the powerful narrative. I did not see why Camus had earned a Nobel for literature. Maybe he had earned it through another book, supposedly a master work. On we went to La Chute, The Fall. La Peste was still on the shelf as a memento from a previous life, but the internet delivered La Chute for a few bucks. I may get to do some more non English reading.

The Fall is set in Amsterdam in 1953, long before the hippie invasion that started in 1970, before the red light district spilled out into Damrak, the street leading from Central station to Dam square. Background music: Jacques Brel's "Dans le port d'Amsterdam". 
I wasn't crazy about the unlikely frame for the story. An expat French lawyer  meets a country man in a bar in the red light district. Ancient mariner style, expat supposedly keeps fellow French man spellbound night after night with the story of his life and his moral dilemmas. Yeah, right. There is nothing else to do in Amsterdam. There were some interesting ideas and I enjoyed Camus' observations on the Dutch. But I wish Camus had simply written some essays and reportages. Marcel Proust would have agreed. He once said that a novel with 'ideas' was like a gift with the price tag attached. 

Nevertheless, I enjoyed walking along for those few scenes when the narrator and his guest step outside into the fog or walk along the quay in the drizzle. When the narrator leaves his guest at the edge of the red light district to cross a bridge to his hotel on Damrak, I am there. That never happens to me with fiction taking place in London or New York. 

The next book, Cees Nooteboom's "Rituelen", (Rituals),  also takes place mainly in Amsterdam. It was part of the Dutch collection transfered from my brother's Kobo. I have still not decided if I love it or hate it. It is beautifully written but somehow it lacks heart, at least to me. Perhaps that was intended. It is not a long novel and I may well reread it in order to understand what everyone sees in it. It has been widely translated and won awards. The three sections of the book take place in 1963, 1953, and 1973, in that order.
I don't feel like reviewing it here except to repeat how much I loved walking along the streets of a city that will always be in my heart. An important scene takes place in the Spiegelstraat, home of antique and art dealers. Again, I am standing right there, looking through the window at a single raku bowl.

Finally, I just finished listening to the audio version of "The anatomy lesson" by Nina Siegal. It tells the story of the origin of Rembrandt's famous painting. 
It takes place in one single day, January 16 1632, the day the lesson takes place. By necessity this is also the day the man whose body is being dissected has been hanged. The book is historical fiction at its best, a brilliant mix of invention and research. The fictional character of Flora, pregnant lover to the dead man, adds heart and drama. Through flashbacks we get to meet the dead criminal, a mere career thief, not a murderer. Rembrandt's thought processes as he reflects on how to compose this important commission are of course imagined, but not unlikely. We get a wonderful sense of time and place. The city, a boom town with all its brash nouveau riche glory and teeming smelly humanity, is like an extra  character. I loved it. Five stars.
Addendum. After this, alerted to it by a reader of this blog (Thanks Christa!) I read The miniaturist, set in Amsterdam in 1686/87. I felt mixed about it. I found the writing good in places but pretentious in others. Above all, the characters don't convince. Is there such a thing as psychological anachronism? 
Anyway, the Guardian said it already, here is their review.