the guardian Fri 22 July 2011
We have no patience with death these days. The idea of letting our every third thought be the grave seems inadmissible in a society that values above all a paradoxical mixture of speed and immortality. The stories we prefer must be told quickly, and allow for little pause and less reflection. Our preferred condition is foolishness.
Cees Nooteboom, one of the most remarkable writers of our time, doesn't suffer fools gladly. The outstanding characteristic of his writing is its elegant intelligence. Nooteboom is not interested in the contented roundness of a plot, in the rehashing of commonplaces, in facile wordplay. "Our chaos makes for stories lacking form and clarity," one of his narrators explains. Nooteboom's stories have a particular brand of form and clarity, demanding our persistent attention, in the sense that Simone Weil meant when she spoke of culture as "the development of attention". Nooteboom forces his readers to reflect on what is being said, and to take up their part in the work: for him, literature is a collaborative effort.
The Foxes Come At Night, admirably translated by Ina Rilke, is a collection of short stories (for want of a better term) that can be read either as a coda to Nooteboom's previous work, or as an introduction. Novels such as The Following Story or In the Dutch Mountains, travel books such as Roads to Santiago and Nomad's Hotel, even Nooteboom's ascetic poetry and incisive critical essays, all seem to centre on language's courageous attempt (and inability) to grasp the essential human experiences: self-consciousness, the relationship with others, survival in a bewildering universe, the growing intuition of our end. The world, for Nooteboom, offers us stories halfway through the plot, stories whose sense we, as readers, must at the same time make up and decipher, and this in spite of knowing that events in themselves have no meaning and that it is pointless to lend them one. "We will not pretend that something has happened when nothing has," reads part of the epigraph, taken from Ivy Compton-Burnett, that precedes "Heinz", one of the best stories in the collection. But, of course, we do. And Nooteboom counts on our anxiety to interpret.
"Collection" implies a grouping of disparate pieces: this is wrong. The Foxes Come at Night is a full-bodied meditation on the end of things, broken into eight parts that essentially explore one single final experience. All the pieces show the author as observer: of landscapes, of the weather, of uneasy human activity, of slow places such as Venice, Minorca and Sardinia, of slow Mediterranean coastlines where history itself is old, of remembered individuals in the flesh and in the insidious memory of photographs. The narrator of "Gondolas" reminisces on a doomed love affair; the one in "Thunderstorm" observes the witness of a terrible incident, who herself cannot understand what she has seen; "Heinz" and the two pieces called "Paula" are fragmentary portraits that seem to suggest more about the person in question than the narrator knows or is capable of knowing. "Late September", "Last Afternoon" and "The Furthermost Point" are stories or reflections about death.
The Foxes Come at Night is a phrase pronounced by the grandmother of the narrator's lover in "Paula II". The words haunt him, as they haunt the reader. "Foxes," he says. "When you had gone back to sleep I saw them. I could hear them sniffing and scrabbling about the tent, panting softly, their nails on the canvas." And he adds: "I could hear them talk." Notoriously, in several mythologies, foxes are the spirits of the dead come to haunt the living, and their voices echo through this dialogue between our present selves and the ones we will become.
Studying a photograph in "Heinz", the narrator says: "Language is something you inherit, it's never just you doing the talking, which helps when you're pretending." Because telling stories is, after all, pretence, wishful thinking, "invention", as the same narrator observes. "We are our secrets, and, if all goes well, we will take them with us where no one can touch them." Except that, in reading Nooteboom, we too become party to those secrets, even though they belong to the realm of the dead and cannot be put into words.
Alberto Manguel's A Reader on Reading is published by Yale University Press.