The Lydia Davis Symposium, Spring 2014
Lydia Davis’ translations of A.L. Snijders from the Dutch
Appearing in NOON, Two Lines, Asymptote, and others
Imagine a literary genre much like a diary but composed for immediate consumption. A genre part commonplace book, part Blue Octavo Notebooks, part Twitter stream. Imagine something like a blog but written by public intellectuals and printed in major newspapers, or read out on national radio or television. Imagine a column in a newspaper that is too short to make a rigorous political argument, but that isn’t necessarily aiming to either. Imagine its strong social-democratic values, often only implied and somehow still rooted in the country’s liberation from the Nazi occupation in 1945.
This kind of writing is observational, street sketching really, and even though it isn’t beholden to any significant journalistic accountability, it still affects through the instant recognizability of the moments it relates. It works cumulatively, layering these observations to create something more, something bigger. Reading these small pieces day in day out, they slowly give you a glimpse into the mind of the author, plus a better sense of just what your country is. Or rather, what it could be.
This is the best way I can describe the Dutch genre that has found a home for people like Simon Carmiggelt (man-on-the-street portraiture), Arnon Grunberg (political footnotes), and A.L. Snijders (autobiographical fables). The country has many more such writers, each with their own twist, some more comical (Sylvia Witteman), others provocatively philosophical (Maxime Februari). The Dutch rely on these writers to come to terms with the day-to-day onslaught of news. These, for lack of a better term, Dutch columns (picture them like Doric columns, but soberly designed and built to withstand the rising tides) form a collective conscience that holds up a mirror of our better, more observant selves.
The Netherlands has a culture of chatter that is relentless, each opinion heard at all times, and at full volume. It’s not quite the one-way stream of consciousness of U.S. talk radio or FOX News, but it would be a mistake to think that our much-vaunted democracy lacks an equivalent to the Tea Party’s mad hatters, and the country’s now decades-long struggle with racism and right-wing extremism has been well documented. For me, someone who left the Netherlands to move to equally complicated nations years ago, these Dutch columns often remain my strongest foothold, my clearest connection to a pervasive Dutch chauvinism that, at its deepest, seems grounded in a compassionate democracy. This might be a false memory, a nostalgia for a land that was never actually fully reclaimed from the sea of stupidity, but it is a longed-for land I recognize in the work of the best of the aforementioned Dutch columnists.
* * * *
When I first learned that Asymptote, the online quarterly where I now work as its senior editor, was to publish some of Lydia Davis’ translations of A.L. Snijders, I was understandably excited, then also puzzled: I’d never necessarily thought of his pieces as individual stories. What he calls “zkv’s” (short for “zeer korte verhalen,” or very short stories), to me seemed part of one very long column. Though he also published columns—and his stories sometimes are hazier, more pared-down—both stories and columns are very much of a piece. He started writing them in 2001 (one a day, written in half an hour, no editing necessary, is what he says), and immediately sent them out via email to a growing list of friends, family, and fans.
While they have been published in book form in the Netherlands, these seem to function differently than, for instance, traditional American short story collections would. And Snijders isn’t the only one to whose work this applies. While Carmiggelt’s pieces have been collected in books (Wikipedia lists 70 different collections), these stacks themselves form their own columns, sturdy and interchangeable, but full of delights. And though our best living writer, the prolific Arnon Grunberg, has collected his daily newspaper pieces in two print volumes, these footnotes seem to be vitally connected to the front-page stories they accompany.
I don’t mean to disparage the Dutch columnists, surely Snijders’ pieces work as short stories, but they also become a different thing in translation, especially, perhaps, in the hands of a translator so razor-sharp but also previously unfamiliar with Dutch daily life as Lydia Davis. As she writes in her translator’s note for Asymptote, she first attempted to read and translate Dutch after a particularly agreeable visit to Amsterdam in 2010. Using a travel dictionary, “some German,” and the final proofreading touches of a Dutch friend and Snijders himself, Davis created wonderful miniatures that tease out the wonder and dry humor of Snijders’ work. They also add some slight estranging effects, with Snijders’ well-placed colloquialisms sometimes substituted for more literal translations that reveal the embedded metaphors and images in Dutch words and phrases.
Snijders himself also often interrogates his own language. In “Ox,” which we published in Asymptote, the narrator goes to buy some sandwiches at an Amsterdam butcher’s shop. His chosen spread is called ossenworst, which literally means “ox sausage” (despite the fact that this 17th-century raw smoked delicacy is now most often made from beef), only the butcher’s sign has it spelled as “ossoworst.” The man behind the counter isn’t of Dutch descent: “there is an air of refinement about him. I’m guessing that he’s from Egypt.” The narrator, whom we always understand to be Snijders, wonders if he should, no, if he could, say something about the spelling mistake, if it’s not too condescending. When he does, apologetically, the butcher responds that he thinks it’s nice when the Dutch concern themselves with him. “The sentence is like a sharp knife,” writes Snijders, delicately avoiding whether that means incisively or bitingly. To answer the butcher’s counter question, What is an ox?, Snijders is reduced to miming a bull being castrated, and the two men seem back in balance, living proof that Dutch society needn’t be afraid of immigrant influence, at least not if it also doesn’t see its own culture as too self-evident (or self-important).
The pieces we ran in Asymptote all feature animals in one way or another, and Snijders knows better than to anthropomorphize them. Instead, their unknowable experience and nigh-universal symbolism become parallel ways to enter into a dialogue with nature, and with Snijders’ day-to-day. When he finds his chickens in his neighbor’s meadow, he might be resentful, but it’s not as if he was expecting them to play by human rules:
They run free, their surroundings are varied, I give them an abundance of food, I don’t mistreat them, but they offer nothing in return. That is ungrateful. I could also deceive them with lifelong imprisonment, a light-clock and artificial warmth, . . . and then they would thank me with a daily egg. But now I treat them well, I suffer for it. The source of my resentment is my thoroughly humanistic outlook on nature.
In fact, the point of these beasts’ appearances in Snijders’ stories is often that animals give us ways to look at our world from a different, less self-centered perspective. Here’s why Snijders doesn’t want to drive out the moles from his long-suffering yard, for instance: “The mole has probably come to symbolize, for me, what can never be understood—and what you therefore do not have to attempt to trap.”
Davis has made her own foray into the fundamentally unknowable world of animals in The Cows, a chapbook published in 2011 by Sarabande, in which she tracks the movements of the three cows pasturing across the street from her house. Here too animals are mysteries, and not in any spiritual sense; it is their simple life, and the way their ruminant domestic movements show and mirror our own lives, that captivates through its very unknowability. The way their appearance in the field, and in our field of vision, can be poetic or lyrical in ways that are unintentional but not without intention. They can only ever be a mirror of our own imaginations.
“Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play.” That’s the first line of this little illustrated book, and the rest of its isolated lines and short paragraphs will try to parse this bovine choreography. Or calligraphy, as the case may be: “Against the snow, in the distance, coming head-on this way, separately, spaced far apart, they are like wide black strokes of a pen.”
* * * *
Snijders observes more than just his animal surroundings: there are birdwatchers, people passing by his farm, friends, and his family of course. Reading these pieces is to collect Snijders’ observations and slowly piece them together like pixels forming an image of the writer’s life. In interviews he affirms this: If you’ve read his columns, you already know who he is. A now-retired teacher, he originally left art school to get a degree in Dutch and began his career as a teacher soon afterwards. Snijders (actually the pen name of Peter Müller) ended his pedagogical career at the police academy, an unlikely position only if you equate one’s job with one’s vocation. His career was never a passion of his. His passion would be language, and writing, of course.
Leaving his native Amsterdam in 1970, Snijders took residence in the eastern Netherlands, near the German border, settling with his family (five children) in a self-described hippie menagerie full of animals (including one mummified cat) and books. His writer nemesis would be the showy Harry Mulisch, his heroes Isaac Babel, Gerard Reve, and of course Nescio, that Dutch realist master of the smallest gesture, the tiniest point.
With him teaching Dutch, it’s no surprise that Snijders’ writing is full of writers, making appearances either as Snijders’ friends or in quoted cameos. The most telling of these in Davis’ translations comes in “The Note” (NOON, 2012), which sees Snijders find an undated note in his own handwriting:
It’s odd that almost everything you may communicate about someone is more interesting than his face. Take a complete enumeration of someone’s wardrobe. . . . Or an inventory of someone’s possessions. . . . This is when a person appears to you distinctly.
On turning over the note, Snijders learns that it’s not something he wrote but a quote from Dutch essayist Karel van het Reve (the brother of the aforementioned Gerard Reve). The story then suddenly turns elsewhere: “I thought about the Turkish boys, two of them—students, I was their teacher. They wanted to see my house. I said no.” When he declines the young police trainees’ offer to come visit their family homes in Turkey, the reason he gives them is that you shouldn’t “go looking for reality, that as much as possible you should leave room for imagination.” He prefers to fantasize about these faraway places; his “feet and eyes and nose were marvelous pieces of equipment but stood in the shadow of [his] imagination.” But still, at the very end of the story, a line or two later, the young men do show up, one summer evening, in uniform. Snijders closes with: “Why I think about this after reading the note by Karel van het Reve, I don’t know.”
This of course is symptomatic of Snijders’ persistent playing with irony. The police trainees simply wanted to get to know the man who was their teacher. They too thought watching his face in class was not enough, they needed to see the mummified cat to see Snijders (or rather, Müller) distinctly.
They’d have gotten an even better picture of him had they read his work, as that is where Snijders’ artful blend of observation and imagination accumulates into a distinct style, a distinct inventory of himself and of his country. It is to Davis’s credit that now, with each additional publication of her Snijders translations, people outside the Lowlands can get to know this lovable grouch, and the nation of lovable grouches of and for whom he writes.
Florian Duijsens teaches at Bard College Berlin, is the senior editor of Asymptote, fiction editor of SAND Journal, and contributes to Askmen.com and Stil in Berlin.
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