Esau and Jacob
The Garden Where the Brass Band Played
Not all great literature is written in the major European languages; but when it isn’t, we stand a very good chance of never hearing about it. Only chance and the dedication of unusually equipped translators can make available to the English-speaking reader languages, even such venerable ones as Portuguese and Dutch, in which these two novels were written. Joaquim Machado de Assis died in 1908 and has long been regarded as Brazil’s greatest novelist, but it was only in the 1950s that his books began to be translated into English. Simon Vestdijk, who was born in 1898 and is a prominent Dutch man of letters, has fared rather better. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played appeared in Holland in 1950, and this translation is part of the Bibliotheca Neerlandica series, which aims to present the classics of Dutch and Flemish literature to the English-speaking world. Both his novel and Esau and Jacob are well worth having, though Machado seems to me the finer and more interesting writer.
Simon Vestdijk’s book can best be described as a curiously late example of the naturalistic novel at its most painstaking. It is a Bildungsroman, narrated in the first person by Nol Rieske, a judge’s son growing up in a small Dutch town in the early years of this century, and it rather reminded me of Arnold Bennett in, say, the sober, earnest vein of Clayhanger. The formative experience in Nol’s early life is his friendship with the eccentric music teacher Cuperus, an alcoholic who drinks his way to failure and death, but who inspires in Nol a deep affection and respect. Later, Nol, who grows up into a rather Prufrockian figure, falls ineffectually in love with Cuperus’s daughter Trix, a tall, difficult, edgy girl. She loves him too, but the relationship ends grimly. Many other novels have been made out of similar material, but Vestdik gives it a very personal impress; there are some wellhandled dramatic climaxes, and some good though hysterical comedy, particularly in the account of a disastrous amateur performance of Carmen. Vestdijk renders skillfully the boy’s strong but confused responses, first to nature and then to music; and he gives us a powerful sense of the stifling quality of Dutch bourgeois life. There are moments of poetic concentration in the writing, but the relentless and generally unselective piling up of physical detail palls over long stretches. It is possible that Mr. Vestdijk was aiming at something more conscious than the simple cataloguing of the earlier naturalists, an anticipation, perhaps, of Robbe-Grillet’s Chosiste approach, but the result is frequently tedious.
Although Machado de Assis died when Simon Vestdijk was only ten years old, he seems, in essentials, a far more “modern” writer. This fact is all the more striking when one recalls that there was nothing in his origins to point to an inheritance of literary sophistication. Machado was born in 1839, the son of a mulatto house painter and a white Portuguese woman; he had only a sketchy formal…
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