• Email
  • Print

Bend Sinister in Wales

Ten White Geese

by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer
Penguin, 231 pp., $15.00 (paper)
benefy_1-081513.jpg
Tate, London
Samuel Palmer: The Bright Cloud, circa 1833–1834

Getting lost appears to be a major theme in European literature. From Odysseus’ long detour home, to Dante’s midlife crisis in the selva oscura, to the abandoned children of the Brothers Grimm, it would seem that the “straight way” is rarely the best way to make an interesting story. “As you set out on the way to Ithaca,” C.P. Cavafy wrote, offering advice to both storytellers and ordinary folk, “hope that the road is a long one,/filled with adventures, filled with discoveries. The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,/Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them.”*

The woman who calls herself “Emilie” in the Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker’s evocative and unsettling short novel Ten White Geese has gone astray in various ways. Her disorientation is both geographical and psychological; it may also turn out to be, as we increasingly suspect, fatal. After an affair with one of her first-year students, she has left her teaching position, as a lecturer in “translation studies,” and her husband in Amsterdam to hole up secretly—with her “books, quite a bit of bedding,” and a single mattress—on an unkempt rural farm in Wales, with an occasional view of the distant sea “over the tops of the now almost leafless trees” in one direction and Mount Snowdon in another.

Emilie—the name she’s assumed in Wales to preserve her anonymity—has made a decisive detour in her life (the Dutch title of the novel is De Omweg, “The Detour”). She seems to have chosen Wales as a secluded place sealed off from urban Amsterdam, and because she speaks excellent English, a language that figures in her professional work as a translator of poetry. And yet she can’t quite tell, as she contemplates “the path you could find only by looking into the distance,” where she stands in her small adopted world. Her new neighbors, especially the local sheep farmer Rhys Jones, seem furtive and predatory, more interested in her money or her body than in her companionship. The work she has brought along with her—an unfinished dissertation on the inferior poems of Emily Dickinson—seems remote and irrelevant to her present circumstances. Increasingly her thoughts stray, alarmingly, to a beloved uncle, who filled his pockets with heavy objects from the kitchen of the hotel he worked at and walked out into a pond, only to find that “hip-deep water wasn’t enough to drown in.” Immured alone in her dilapidated farmhouse during the lengthening winter nights, Emilie comes to feel that she “inhabited this house the way he’d stood in that pond.”

Immobilized in her life, she is intensely aware of the passage of time. Everything around her seems to amplify the ticking clock in the kitchen: the days counting down relentlessly to Christmas; the throbbing, intensifying pain “like toothache through my whole body”; even the rhythmic ticking of a dog’s nails on the wooden stairs. Witnessing “time passing in the rotation of the long shadows of the trees,” she is reminded of a quatrain of Dickinson’s, rife with foreboding:

Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn,
Indicative that suns go down;
The notice to the startled grass
That darkness is about to pass.

Most alarming of all, because least explicable, is the diminishing flock of first ten, then seven, then five, then four white geese on her property, like the corpses gradually accumulating in an Agatha Christie novel—except that nothing is left of the vanished geese but a stray feather or a severed foot.

In Bakker’s absorbing previous novel, The Twin, which won the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the plot tightened around the intimate give-and-take of people and animals on a traditional dairy farm in Holland menaced by a hooded crow. Emilie’s ties to the geese and sheep and the wild animals around her in Wales are even more intense. As though following the directions prescribed by some ancient rite, she follows a partially marked hiking path, around noon, to a prehistoric stone circle near her house. She takes off her clothes, lies down on “the largest boulder like a cold-blooded animal,” and falls asleep.

When she first woke she didn’t understand what was happening down at her feet. She thought of the wind and gorse bushes. Whatever it was touching the soles of her feet, it wasn’t sharp. Very carefully she raised her head from the stone. First she saw a white stripe, a stripe through black patches to either side of it—she immediately thought of the heads of the black sheep. Small dark eyes peered up from between her feet. The badger was staring straight at her groin.

As she tries to shield herself, the badger, trying to escape from between her legs, bites her foot. “Let it bleed for now,” she thinks, with an odd contentment. “She let one hand rest on her groin; her body seemed to have come back to her.” This Leda-and-the-Swan encounter, almost comically sexual amid its fraught violence, will reverberate throughout the book, as skeptical locals—the chain-smoking doctor who treats her, the nosy hairdresser, the wily Rhys Jones—assure her that an attack at midday by nocturnal badgers is impossible. “Badgers are shy animals,” Jones insists. “Shy.”

And then another character makes a detour, leaping over the garden wall into her small world: a teenager named Bradwen, accompanied by a dog, who is “mapping a new long-distance path” in the region as a service for hikers. He too has momentarily lost his way. “At a certain point the path suddenly appeared and was easy to follow,” he tells her, “but before that I kept losing my way.” She opens a convivial bottle of red wine. “The clock ticked sharply, the geese clucked softly.” Over the next few days, the two of them set up an uneasily shared life in the old farmhouse, with Bradwen cooking and making repairs to the buildings, and Emilie trying hard not to be reminded of the student of her previous transgression. “Not again,” she admonishes herself. “And definitely not now.”

It is the Christmas season after all, time to get a tree for the living room and decorations for its branches. Bradwen turns Emilie’s portrait of Dickinson—specified as the “controversial portrait…that had been listed for sale on eBay” (purchased by the scholar Philip Gura, with much attendant publicity, in 2000)—to the wall, maybe because it shows an older Dickinson, a reminder of the years that separate these temporary housemates. Emilie smells an “old woman smell” in the house, left over, she hopes, from the previous owner, but perhaps, she is terrified to think, her own invasive mortality.

Like other recent novels it slightly resembles, such as Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, Ten White Geese has the laconic texture and angular plotting of a thriller, with shifting points of view that keep the reader guessing about what surprise is lurking around the corner. When Emilie’s husband hires a policeman in Amsterdam—not a detective, as he insists, but armed with the usual tools, the GPS and the databases, of a private eye—to track down his estranged wife in Wales, the ensuing investigation by the two men sharpens our sense that a crime either has been or soon will be committed.

The hiring of this particular policeman is an odd one, however. The husband, enraged at his wife’s affair, had set a pile of books on fire in her office in Amsterdam, then alerted the authorities. Instead of arresting the husband, the policeman offers him a cup of coffee and they get to talking. They find they get along. On their mission—part holiday frolic, part grim business—to track down Emilie, they develop a strangely intimate relationship. Navigating the labyrinthine Welsh countryside, the policeman takes his hand from the wheel and places it on the husband’s leg. “He didn’t move it away because the policeman was the driver.”

The decision of the estimable translator, David Colmer, to change the title from The Detour to the faintly japoniste-sounding Ten White Geese confers added weight and menace to the vanishing geese, as though the solution to that mystery—a fox, a winged raptor, Rhys Jones himself?—might also reveal the many other things we want to know about the enigmatic Emilie: the nature of her illness, details of her affair with her student, what went wrong in her marriage, her real first name, and so on.

But it becomes increasingly clear that Bakker’s interests lie elsewhere, and involve deeper, more existential mysteries. So many of the characters are involved with finding their way—the policeman’s GPS with its Dutch name “Bram,” Bradwen’s overlapping hiking paths, the ever-present maps, the puzzling Welsh roundabouts—that we come to realize that the book is somehow about the ways in which people thread their meandering path (including their omweg, literally “roundabout way”) through their baffling lives.

Dickinson’s poetry has become, for Emilie, another way to orient herself in her surroundings. The thesis she has all but abandoned was based on her conviction that many of Dickinson’s poems were “overrated,” and that much of her prolific output consisted of inferior poems, “doggerel as far as she was concerned.” She has taken a particular dislike to Alfred Habegger’s “indigestible biography” of Dickinson, with its (in her view) unconvincing connections of stray details from Dickinson’s life to her poetry. When Bradwen cooks up a lamb stew with tainted anchovies from the late owner’s pantry, Emilie unceremoniously tosses Habegger’s book into the trash over the discarded tin.

But working with Bradwen to get the grounds of the farmhouse in order—cutting back vines, laying out rose beds, clearing paths—has apparently given her a new appreciation for Dickinson’s well-ordered life and work. In a sudden vision, she imagines Dickinson “walking through her autumn garden, a first line in her head—The murmuring of bees has ceased—and trying to think how to help the poem along.” (It may be of interest that Bakker, according to his laconic author’s note, “worked as a subtitler for nature films before becoming a gardener.”)

One of Dickinson’s poems in particular has taken obsessive hold of Emilie’s imagination, as a kind of mirror or even an explicit directive for her own life:

Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

While accorded little attention by recent critics—Habegger’s “much-too-thick book didn’t even mention the poem,” Emilie notes scornfully, and it is not included in Helen Vendler’s recent selection and commentary—the poem, with its austere geometry of phrasing and subject, its arresting synesthetic phrase “Sunrise’ yellow noise,” and its puns on “fair” and “ground,” has nonetheless been among Dickinson’s most popular, and William Styron used it to memorable effect in Sophie’s Choice.

As she works on her own translation of “Ample make this bed” into Dutch, a language with similar meters and stanza shapes, Emilie (or rather Agnes, for we have, in the meantime, learned her real name from a postcard sent to her by her husband) notes the peculiarities of Dickinson’s imperatives, especially the use of “be” in the second quatrain. “It was a subjunctive,” she tells herself. “Just as Dickinson didn’t write Make this bed ample, she didn’t write Its mattress be straight/ Its pillow be round.” As she assembles a mattress and cushions for her own final resting place, as though performing a ritual that corresponds, in some obscure way, with lying down in the stone circle amid the badgers, Agnes seems to assume that Dickinson’s imperatives are addressed directly to her.

“Ample make this bed” is so deeply intermeshed with the narrative and themes of Ten White Geese that the novel can be read, among other things, as a sophisticated commentary on the poem. Agnes’s first inkling of a possible new understanding of Dickinson comes when she contemplates the land adjacent to the farmhouse and notices the signs of human intention: the branches that form a border, the grassy field that was once a lawn, and the cows that were there when she looked before and are now gone:

When she stood up, she discovered that they were quite far away. She hadn’t noticed that at all, their walking away. A beautiful way of measuring the passing time: the sun that had suddenly leapt forward and was already quite low, a herd of cows that had silently and serenely relocated. She saw this for the first time and thought of her thesis.

The discarded thesis about the “plethora of lesser poems” in Dickinson’s oeuvre, her “lazy rhyming quatrains” and her “all-too-eager canonization,” yields to a more profound awareness of Dickinson as a poet of space and time, a Proustian connoisseur of recovered moments. “Was this it,” she wonders, “what Emily Dickinson had done for almost her entire adult life? Had she tried to hold back time, making it bearable and less lonely too perhaps, by capturing it in hundreds of poems?”

Agnes’s hostility to Dickinson scholars may explain an oddity in the book. The version of the poem she has chosen is from the edited versions of Dickinson’s work first published during the 1890s, when editors regularized Dickinson’s spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and sometimes even her rhymes, eliminating whole stanzas in certain cases and adjusting phrasing. These versions are now entirely discredited by scholars. In Dickinson’s manuscript version, “Ample make this Bed—” is full of capitalized nouns (Mattress and Pillow, Awe and Ground), dashes rather than commas or semicolons, and “it’s” rather than “its.”

Editors also added titles to the poems. “Ample make this bed” was given the title “A Country Burial,” a title of some significance for Agnes, since it chimes with the Welsh name for Mount Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa, or “Burial Place.” But Agnes is not wrong in her sense that the poem is multifaceted and “ample” in its meanings. She has, in a sense, amplified it by associating it with a particular place and time, and with a detour in a contemporary woman’s life.

How easy it is to lose one’s bearings, Ten White Geese seems intent on telling us, to go too far or, as we sometimes say, to go around the bend. At the end of the novel, Agnes, as the reader has long surmised, has reached the end of the road. She takes pain pills and lies down, for the last time, on her carefully arranged single mattress, in a shed where the surviving geese took shelter. “I’ve turned into a goose,” she tells herself, as one of the geese joins her on the mattress, and then, like a final prayer, “Let no sunrise’ yellow noise/Interrupt this ground.”

The point of view shifts abruptly, and for the first time, to Bradwen, the first to find her body, as he takes stock of his surroundings yet again, and decides to resume charting the path that had led him, weeks earlier, to the farmhouse where Emilie-Agnes was living, or hiding. Bradwen is determined to make another detour, canceling out the earlier one and righting himself, like one of the Grimms’ lost children:

He crosses the stream. He hasn’t decided yet whether to stay on the path or walk parallel to it, on the other side of the thick wooded bank. He knows he has to hike back a full day. He simply took the wrong direction.
  1. *

    “Ithaca,” Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (Knopf, 2009). 

  • Email
  • Print