Man is a sad mammal that combs its hair….
Recently in a lit forum, a poster started a thread bemoaning the lack of “Existential Novelists” in contemporary world literature. “Where are the new Sartres and Camus?” he asked…
The Dutch Novelist Cees Nooteboom (pronounced Case Note-bom) won the Pegasus Prize for his 1973 novel Rituelen (Rituals in the English version wonderfully rendered by Adrienne Dixon). While I am willing to wager that Nooteboom would not be comfortable in going so far as to call this an ‘existential novel’, it most definitely takes the Big Absence question head on, even having one of the major characters quote the crusty (largely now absent) author of Nausea repeatedly.
Viscera (aka Good Faith/Bad Faith)
Inni Wintrop our hero wanders Amsterdam in the book’s three sections, taking place in the 60’s, 50’s and 70’s. We meet him after his wife Zita has left him for an Italian, and he botches a suicide attempt. The novel’s second section looks back at a younger Inni and his fateful encounter with the first of the two characters (or ‘Others’) that will give the narrative its hinge points: Arnold Taads, one of the more intriguing characters in contemporary literary fiction. The last section’s narrative jumps to the 70’s and is centered around the enigmatic Philip Taads, (unacknowledged) son of Arnold.
Bones (aka Despair and Nausea)
This section was originally intended to be left blank by way of illustration, but I decided that like Inni Wintrop, amusement and distraction is helpful while floating detached above the void that is our existence. The 145 page novel is a condensed three movement work. Nooteboom places the named section Intermezzo first. The third person narrator, though unnamed, relates the story while drawing conclusions and observations in a wry understated voice as a self conscious teller of this tale. The tale teller distances the reader as an observer, which conducts the reader to experience Inni’s story with the same detachment as Inni’s experiences his world;
He refused to allow them in, that’s what it boiled down to. He might be sitting in the audience following the action attentively, certainly if the actors were as fascinating as this one, but really to be a part of it was impossible. He remained, even if he felt sympathy for the actor, an onlooker. If you kept silent, the stories would come all by themselves.
After his wife abandons him and his failure to cease existing, inertia is overcome only by gravity, and Inni’s life somewhat reluctantly rolls along. We are not yet to judge Inni’s unwillingness to be an ‘actor’, to define himself (in the existentialist sense) since it is hinted that one has to allow that Inni is a most willing ‘experiencer’, open to the flux that is the possible. A friend comments to him that he does not so much live, as “allow himself to be distracted”. Time IS a major problem for Inni, more specifically, how he experiences it. As an unengaged reactant, he has little control over the tempo at which he is amused. Since he is open to the whims of chaos and uncertainty, (floating after all, does have its consequences) his attitude to the future is not so much dread as a helpless boredom. In an absurd version of ‘becoming’, Inni’s single ‘ambition’ is to interact, to connect with the sexual feminine. The unnamed narrator associates Inni’s act of climax as a twist on transformation in the spiritual sense. Since this carefully crafted novel explores rituals as a symbol of how three main characters relate to their idea of the world, physically and metaphysically, Inni’s conquests, of his tortured feminine construct is HIS ritual.
The Two Taads: (or East does not meet West)
Meeting Inni as a young man, the Sartre quoting Arnold Taads first trigger’s in our hero the idea of ‘Becoming’, that even the notion that one’s self could change, could transform, was a possibility. Arnold Taads leads a time afflicted monastic existence. He was raised a Catholic but estranged himself from the church after a sojourn into Sartre’s writings.
He has ritualized the basic functions of his existence, his eating sleeping and reading take place to the minute in his self imposed prison of time. Through Arnold Taads, Inni and the reader get a first hand penetrating exploration of one individuals grappling with the question of belief in a Godless universe. In a wonderful scene of dinner conversation between Taads and the Clergyman Monsignor Terrue , the exchange is acutely poignant overcoming its lighthearted tone. Inni distills from this the sense of utter isolation and loneliness of Arnold Taads:
He had discovered from this that a distance can exist between people which expresses such a terrible otherness that anyone witnessing it will almost die of melancholy. Everyone knows these things, but no one has always known them-upright walking creatures of the same species, who moreover use the same language to make it clear to each other that there is an unbridgeable chasm between them.
The last ‘Other’ that Inni’s self is reflected against is Phillip Taads, the estranged son of Arnold Taads who Inni meets by sheer chance when Inni is now a balding 40something dilettante art trader.
Like the father, the son is similarly isolate and lonely, literally a monk in an apartment. Nooteboom works in symbolism of the trinity and transubstantiation, examining the rituals of both Eastern ceremony, and orthodox mysticism in counterpointing the two Taads. Philip is a Japanese student who is a practicing Taoist. Ironically like his father, he embraces the suffering aspect of the self’s coping with the aridity of nonexistence (or existence in a Godless void). The Japanese Ceremony of Tea is compared to the ritual of the Catholic Eucharist. The rituals are an expression of each individual’s belief . They share the idea of transformation. Wine into Blood is compared with the mixing of the tea in the sacred bowl in the eastern thought. This is ironically compared to Inni’s own ritual of transcendence, his epiphany of memory when he first drank malt whisky with Arnold Taads. For Nooteboom, this will to transform, or transcend as exemplified by the trinity of the Taads and the Monsignor are all in essence an expression of escape. Even to the extent of equating it with the absurd escape of this world by suicide. Notably Nooteboom’s Rituals refuses to release Inni into the atmosphere of despair and alienation untethered. The loneliness of Father and Son Taads, itself is absurd:
The universe could do quite well without this world, and the world could do quite well without people, things and Inni Wintrop for a while. But unlike Arnold and Philip Taads, he did not mind waiting for events to take their course. After all, it might take another thousand years. He had a first class seat in the auditorium, and the play was by turns horrific, lyrical, comic, tender, cruel and obscene.
What I Took Away (to the background music of Float On by Modest Mouse)
This novel has been I think rightly referred to as a fable. This maybe be the most thought-provoked-per-page of fiction I have read in recent memory. It contains enough quotable sentences to provide forum signatures for years. The remarkable part is that it manages be profound and penetrating while being accessible and eminently interesting. A lot of this has to do with creating characters as captivating as the protagonist and two major players as potent as the Taads. Certain swedes could do much worse than awarding Cees Nooteboom the holy grail of literary prizes.