Toward the end of Cees Nooteboom’s novel In the Dutch Mountains, the novelist-narrator—by this point all but indistinguishable from Nooteboom himself—gets into a debate about truth and fiction with the shades of Plato, Milan Kundera, and Hans Christian Andersen. Why, asks the Nooteboom figure, do I have this irrepressible desire to fictionalize, to tell lies? (Adrienne Dixon mistranslates this as an “irresponsible” desire.) “From unhappiness,” answers Andersen. “But you are not unhappy enough. That’s why you can’t bring it off.” (“That’s why you can’t do it,” translates Dixon.)
This is the most penetrating of the self-insights in a novel which—like the rest of Nooteboom’s fiction—is as much about its own processes and raisons d’être as it is about the fictitious activities of its personages. For despite contortions of self-reflexiveness that in another writer (Samuel Beckett, for instance) might give rise to agonies of the spirit, Nooteboom and his narrator-avatars strike one as too urbane, too much at home in the world, to genuinely suffer. This—as his Hans Christian Andersen suggests—is Nooteboom’s peculiar misfortune as writer: that he is too intelligent, too sophisticated, too cool, to be able to commit himself to the grand illusioneering of realism, yet too little anguished by this fate—this expulsion from the imaginative world of the heartfelt—to work it up into a tragedy of its own.
At one of its reflexive levels, Nooteboom’s fiction has of necessity been about a search for a level of feeling that can be carried over undiminished into literary creativity. In one novel, The Following Story (1991; English translation 1993), an account of the love of the bumbling classics teacher Herman Mussert, a.k.a. Dr. Strabo the travel-guide writer, for his student Lisa d’India, he has been able to tap into feeling that is both passionate and creative. In the novella A Song of Truth and Semblance (1981; English translation 1984) the writer-hero and his nineteenth-century characters inhabit the same rooms and even the same emotional space: life, eros, and fiction seem to be on the brink of interpenetrating when Nooteboom falters, terminating what had promised to be the most eerily Jamesian of his tales with a trick ending. And in In the Dutch Mountains, Andersen’s diagnosis turns out to be right: for all the wit, for all the insight into the self and its fictions, for all the elegance of style, there is finally not enough feeling to drive the story forward.
In the Dutch Mountains began as a story under the title “The Snow Queen.” It was intended to be filmed, but the film was never made. Based on the Andersen story, it plays on its debt to Andersen quite openly.
“The Snow Queen” is one of Andersen’s most remarkable tales, a plea for the precious uniqueness of childhood, an appeal against the premature induction of the child into rationality. Little Kai is stolen by the Snow Queen …