Good Reading : November 2007
the other children, completely immersed in Catholicism, so it left me without traumas.’ Rather than going to university, he found work as a bank clerk – an experience that made him determined never again to work for a boss. For intellectual stimulation, he wrote the first chapter of his debut novel, Philip and the Others (1955), which a publisher paid him a handsome advance to complete. He never intended to be a writer. ‘I had written that book in absolute innocence, like water comes up in a well.Then you are a writer because everybody tells you so.’ The novel was a coming-of-age story – ‘a sort of On the Road before On the Road’ – based on the teenage Nooteboom’s hitchhiking adventures through Spain, Portugal, Scandinavia and Italy. Although the novel was well received, at 21 Nooteboom thought he needed more life experience before writing fur- ther novels. So he travelled to Surinam and French and British Guyana, earning his passage by doing odd jobs on the ship. His next novel, The Knight Has Died (1963), was a Borgesian tale about a novelist living on an island off Spain who commits suicide and leaves behind a novel about a writer who commits suicide. ‘I used him in order not to have to do it myself ’ It was then seventeen years before he wrote his third novel, Rituals (1980) – an absurdist comedy about one man unfailingly governed by rules, and an impulsive man who, by contrast, has no self- regulation. In the intervening years, Nooteboom wrote ten travel books, of which only Roads to Santiago (1992), about his travels in Spain, has passed into English. After Rituals, which won the prestigious Pegasus Prize for Literature, Nooteboom’s fears about writing fiction disappeared. He has since produced seven phil- osophical, fable-like novels, which rarely extend far beyond 100 pages. Nooteboom’s reputation as one of Europe’s leading fiction writers was clinched when his 1991 novella The Following Story was commissioned by the jury of Holland’s yearly Book Week, where each year a short book is published which all participating bookstores give away free with any significant purchase. Thus The Following Story, in which a classics teacher goes to sleep in Amsterdam and wakes up confused in Lisbon, had an initial Dutch print-run of 540,000, despite a population of just 16 million. Nooteboom remembers as a young t was then seventeen years before he wrote his third novel, Rituals (1980), an absurdist comedy.
December January 2008