31 July 2015
Cees Nooteboom’s 1991 novella Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story) attempts to narrate death as a process of becoming imperceptible, and the action in the novel takes place when the narrator is neither alive nor dead but somewhere in-between. The novel ends at the beginning: it is a story within a story, a cyclical narrative that does not have a clear-cut beginning or end. It portrays a world in which the states of life and death are not limited or quantifiable. Instead, the normally measurable dimensions of time and space become stretched and malleable in the strange and endless moment between living and dying.
Cees Nooteboom in 2007 (Photo by HPSchaefer via Wikimedia Commons)
The philosopher Rosi Braidotti has strong words regarding the foregrounding of death as the ultimate other that has haunted much postmodern theory, writing that it “fuels an affective political economy of loss and melancholia at the heart of the subject”. She offers an alternative, freeing death from its anthropocentric perspective by conceptualising it as the experience of “becoming-imperceptible”. Rather than remaining in a static state of being, the subject is always undertaking a series of processural changes and is thus always becoming. A focus on the in-between spaces between one thing and another means, that the boundary between life and death itself becomes blurred.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari write that a writer must “become a nomad and an immigrant and a gypsy in relation to one's own language”. Nooteboom’s works do this: they are widely available in translation, which is relatively unusual for the often domestic world of Dutch literature. Dutch is sometimes perceived as a small language and culture occupying a minority position within the majoritarian location of the European Union and its hegemonic languages. The Netherlands even has a difficult relationship with its own writing: a 2008 study of Dutch reading habits revealed that over half of books read in the Dutch language were translations, suggesting that Dutch literature had become minoritarian even in its country of origin. As a successful travel writer as well as novelist, Nooteboom has escaped these intimate national, linguistic, and canonical borders.
In Het volgende verhaal, systems of naming are playfully sabotaged. The self is no longer fixed and static; instead, identities become multiple and nomadic. The novella’s narrator has three names: his legal name, Herman Mussert, his pen name, Dr Strabo, and his nickname, Socrates. In all cases, the names do not singularly refer to the one bounded body of the narrator. Nooteboom shares Strabo’s occupation of a travel writer: nebulous identities can be passed from organic to literary body and exist within and without each other.
Even something as seemingly empirically stable as physical matter becomes open-endedly fluid in the novella. Herman remembers a pillar in a Spanish cathedral on which the touch of many pilgrims over many years had eroded the shape of a hand. The resulting relief in the marble is sculpted not by a sculptor but through the differing repetitions of a gesture, making imperceptible changes perceptible. The hand is perceptible despite it being “not there” from Herman’s perspective. It is both there and not there, remaining in a fixed state only until another pilgrim places their hand on it: human affective connective potential.
The dissolving matter and fragmented identities are part of Herman’s process of death, although it only becomes evident later in the narrative. Herman leaves his physical body in Amsterdam and embarks on a journey of becoming-imperceptible, eventually finding himself on a boat with other passengers who share their story of dying. Finally, Herman has to share “the following story”, bringing the reader back to the start of the book. Herman says that this is what remains of his subjectivity after it leaves his body: it exists as a story, or different stories to be told by the people he connected with. In Braidotti’s words, even though our nebulous selves die “we will have been and nothing can change that”, the present perfect continuous asserting the enduring continuum of life beyond the “I”.
Cees Nooteboom, Het volgende verhaal : roman (Amsterdam, 2011) YF.2013.a.986 (English translation by Ina Rilke: The Following Story (London, 2014). H.2014/.7727)
Rosi Braidotti, , ‘The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible’, in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas (Edinburgh, 2006) pp. 133-159. YC.2007.a.12470
Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge, 2013) YC.2013.a.7861
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka : pour une littérature mineure (Paris, 1975) X.900/17435 (English translation by Dana Polan: Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (Minneapolis, 1986) 8814.628200)
Marc Verboord and Susan Janssen, ‘Informatieuitwisseling in het huidige Nederlandse en Vlaamse literaire veld. Mediagebruik en gelezen boeken door literaire lezers en bemiddelaars’, in Ralf Grüttermeier and Jan Oosterholt (eds.), Een of twee Nederlandse literaturen? Contacten tussen de Nederlandse en Vlaamse literatuur sinds 1830 (Leuven, 2008). Awaiting shelfmark
Ruth Clemens is a Postgraduate student in Comparative Literature at University College London. She won the Essay prize in the category Post Graduates, awarded by the Association for Low Countries Studies for her essay ‘Becoming-Imperceptible in Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story and Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.