Self-Portrait of an Other by Cees Nooteboom and Max Neumann (trans. David Colmer). Seagull Books. $25.00, 76 pages.
As hard as you look at it, Max Neumann’s paintings don’t reveal much about his method, but two recent English-language publications imply that he must enjoy collaborating with luminaries of world literature. AnimalInside, reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation’s issue 25 by Christiane Craig, brought Neumann together with László Krasznahorkai, the prestigious Hungarian novelist only now building up a substantial reputation in the Anglosphere. In that book, Neumann’s images, a series built around the silhouette of a jumping dog, entered into a sort of conversation with short pieces by Krasznahorkai. They tag-teamed it, with the artist’s work inspiring the novelist’s work, which would in turn shape the next stage of the artist’s, and so on.
Even if Neumann and Cees Nooteboom didn’t follow the same method in creating Self-Portrait of An Other, they wind up with a book that seems to take the very same form, right down to the Roman numerals marking and separating each chunk of text. Krasznahorkai wrote brief pieces in AnimalInside, but Nooteboom goes even shorter, never exceeding about 230 or 240 words at a stretch, writing texts so isolated on the page that they often feel more like poetry than prose. They might be described as “prose poems,” but I prefer to think of them as ghost stories.
Those who primarily read English might best know Nooteboom as the author of The Following Story, a characteristically short and almost as characteristically prize-winning novel of a benign misanthrope. Voluntarily submerged in Latin and Greek classics, he inexplicably wakes up one morning in a Lisbon hotel room, the site of his near-passive complicity in a fateful act of adultery decades before. Nooteboom makes equally strong use of this narrator’s mundane romantic turbulence, his attempts to distance his mind from this turbulence by living exclusively in the distant past, and an extended experience of death that seamlessly embeds the everyday within the mythical.
I worry that my description of The Following Story won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book, so I can only hope that it comes off like Nooteboom’s contributions to Self-Portrait: spare, evocative, and a generator of far more interesting questions than answers. In David Colmer’s translation Nooteboom writes with a haunting starkness:
He remembered the end of the friend who should have died after him. When he approached the deathbed, the sick man didn’t move, as if he was already tied in to something else forever and no longer expected anyone. His eyes were open though, he was staring out through the window without seeing anything. Only after a while did his friend turn his head toward him—slowly, searchingly. There was something very solemn about that movement. “You, here?” he asked, as if the visitor were lost, trespassing. “Yes,” he answered. The other’s eyes, which were as dark as ever, looked at him slowly, his gaze taking much longer than usual to reach him. The late light made the thin, transparent tube running from his nose to a machine look like a piece of jewelry, something from a world the other would never enter. Then the man in the bed smiled—equally slowly—and said, “You’re the last person I will ever see.” After that, neither of them spoke again.
Similarly eerie vignettes appear in many of the book’s 33 “chapters.” A lone observer receives visitors gripping “suitcases packed with genitals and teeth.” A man spots a girl whose face has disappeared: “She squatted in a hostile, hillside meadow and pissed with her legs spread, her child’s body turned toward him. The eye between her legs moved, looking at him from behind its arc of water.” Another man approaches and retreats from a pair of dogs feasting on a dead donkey: “Still chewing, they looked at each other briefly, then shrugged their shoulders like people who have been disturbed during dinner. That night in the travelling salesman’s hotel he had gazed intently at himself in the mirror, but the light was so dim his face was hard to make out.”
Pinning down the exact source of the fear and tension in each of these miniatures proves difficult. You could say the same about Neumann’s illustrations, which, despite having been drawn and painted on what look like cut-out panels of paper grocery bags, project an amorphous but fascinating menace. At first glance they evoke the clichés of psychologist’s-office doodles of disturbed children, but a deeper look reveals their fine visual control; the bright color and formal steadiness of his work in AnimalInside blend into the nightmarishness of Self-Portrait’s imagery.
Neumann prominently features vaguely humanoid figures in most of his illustrations, though they’re often blindingly white, without pupils, and missing limbs. (Strange as it sounds, one of the most viscerally relevant comparisons would be to the hockey mask worn by Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees.) Ears and knees spout jets of black; heads give way at the crown to primitively industrial-looking tubes; shabby but otherwise normal chairs, crates, and roosters exist alongside blankly staring grotesques with weaponized extremities. “Strange, unprecedented creatures,” Nooteboom calls these in his afterword, “dream figures that resist description.” That’s one way of putting it.
Despite its many small vectors of disturbance, Self-Portrait isn’t an overwhelmingly scary book. Even Neumann’s most malevolent apparitions, when you’ve gazed upon them long enough, become harmless, funny, and—dare I say it?—approach whimsy. Some of Nooteboom’s pieces describe the natural world in a way that brings to mind Borges (to whom critics often compare him) at his most quasi-mythical:
He saw the sea in the distance and then, almost immediately afterwards, the two stones: larger than a man, one dug into the ground and standing upright, the other laid horizontally on top of it. A ring of smaller, much rougher stones had been placed around the monument. He felt the change when he stepped into the circle. Now there was nothing except silence, the forms it adopted in this place. He sat down and thought about the people who lived here thousands of years ago. What were there voices like? No one came this way. The countryside could not have changed. The wind rustled through the holly oaks, making it sound as if someone wanted to say something after all. He laid his hand on the lower stone—a different, broader hand than the one with which he had written that morning—and remembered the name of the man he had buried not far from here, the sorrow, and the word that had existed for it. That night he dreamt of a building he had never see, a man in a blinding haze of light who kept his face hidden.
This contrasts sharply with Nooteboom’s tales of the city, which read like a silent film’s diagnosis of mass urban misery taken to a grimly organic level. Ants gradually strip clean the corpse of a rhinoceros beetle in a passage whose protagonist, observing the spaces emptied of eyes and a horn, “had seen faces like that in big cities, in the evenings when the offices closed and swarms streamed out on their way to distant homes . . . their conversations were about the plague and the cancer of ants, the sudden worthlessness of money.”
The rest of the time, the Dutch writer and German artist conjure up a world leaden with the bleak suspicion and pseudo-institutional terror of wartime Europe. The hairless, opaquely spectacled figure in Neumann’s cover image would make a readily recognizable international symbol of the kind of bureaucrat empowered to send you to death. An animal somewhere between highly trained attack dog and feral mutt bares his teeth under the words “SEMPRE LO STESSO.” Nooteboom writes of a man’s glancing encounter with his father, finding him “wearing a sinister uniform flecked with mold,” revolver in hand. “In the cold of that night that has never ended,” another man “sees the gleaming black car and the boots and peaked caps of the officers who don’t speak his language,” soon realizing that the pair of identical fur-coated women standing nearby have betrayed him: “Without understanding, he knows that this is about fear and flight.”
Limited to forms with little space for detail, Nooteboom and Neumann expend Self-Portrait of Another’s energy crafting the proverbial tips that imply vast icebergs beneath. Are the icebergs, in this case, the “dark sides” of two creators who have shown broader tonal and emotional ranges elsewhere? Or does that assumption come from my particular reading (and viewing) of their collaboration’s highly economical content? The proximity of Neumann’s words to Nooteboom’s images spark the kind of mental interactions the brain goes through at night, fashioning scenarios that seem elaborately amusing, ghastly, or both, out of the unremarkable materials of daily life. When we listened in childhood to campfire stories about phone calls that turn out to come from inside the house, we reacted so strongly to the thousand possibilities, most of them unpleasant, that rushed into our consciousness, produced by the information given us. Nooteboom and Neumann tell their stories in the same way, but with the intellectual and aesthetic richness that comes from a longer reach back into history, down into mythology, and across a wide swath of Europe.
Colin Marshall hosts the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. He also blogs at The War on Mediocrity.
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