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A masterpiece of character

For author Cees Nooteboom, Ferdinand Bordewijk's novel "Character" is a timeless masterpiece of cold fire.

Histories of Dutch literature identify the novel "Character" as a work of the New Objectivity, a movement from the first half of the twentieth century that came as a reaction to the lyrical and symbolist prose that preceded it. Reading the book again after so many years, I am struck mainly by the emotional, dramatic undertone, which is amplified by a style you could call notarial, as if the book has been written with a cold etching needle. This contrast between legalistic prose and dramatic themes has an extraordinary effect; perhaps best described as "cold fire."

The story has three main characters: the father, the mother and the son. In a sense, all other characters, no matter how important, serve to accentuate the granite unidimensionality of these three. This gives the novel a mythic air: each of the three is essentially incapable of communicating with the others; they are locked in their own nature and unable to escape.

I know of no other book whose characters keep each other in such a stranglehold of withheld information, until it seems as if the story itself is being played out in a cocoon of silence, a mute struggle between father and son, with the mother, who refused to marry the father, as the unspeaking third person. Appropriately the other two refer to this third person as "her" and "she" – the quotation marks are not mine, but the author's. Father and son think of the mother as a woman in quotation marks. Even when they speak, the reader hears the quotation marks around those possessive and personal pronouns. The father is a monster from a Greek tragedy, the mother a saint of almost terrifying proportions, and the son must defeat the father who tries to destroy him, even if that last bit is cast in doubt by the novel’s conclusion.

Did such people really exist? Ferdinand Bordewijk, a lawyer himself, has done his utmost to give his story the semblance of reality, undermined at most by the mannerism with which he names his characters, although this effect is possibly lost on foreigners. German readers might find all Dutch names somewhat peculiar, but here, and in his other books, Bordewijk has found names that sound bizarre to Dutch ears and make his characters, whether they are called Countryside or Hieperboree, somehow unreal after all, actors in a malicious fairy tale that turns a law firm into a collection of strange marionettes: hilarious and fascinating.

There is another factor. Two years after the book’s publication, the city of Rotterdam, which is present in the story almost as a character, was wiped away by a German bombing raid, which I saw as a red glow on the distant horizon as a child. The old city with its alleys and hovels, where much of the action takes place, has been erased so thoroughly that it might never have existed, and this reinforces the alienation, as if we are dealing not only with a lost city, but also with a lost species of human that embraces an ethos which, for better or worse, can no longer exist.

The father’s monstrously antisocial bailiff's practice would no longer be tolerated in any way; the author's constant emphasis on and clear endorsement of irreconcilable and generally accepted class differences belong to a long-gone era; as does the almost frightening integrity of the son, who melodramatically refuses to accept gifts from anyone at all and experiences debt as physical pain.

Does this make the book itself outdated? For me, not at all. Instead these anachronistic qualities intensify the mythic element; the author tightens the screws and the reader is at his mercy. And meanwhile he admits enough recognisable reality to make the main characters larger than life: a communist friend who takes mother and son to see Eisenstein’s films or the son’s hopeless love for a Miss Te George, a name that would probably be peculiar in any language. Women fall in love with him, but he remains immune, as if sexuality would have detracted from the unidimensionality of his character.

The 40th (!) edition of the Dutch novel shows a shaved male neck with an impeccable collar (in the book there is much talk of purity and chastity –terms that are seldom heard in today's Netherlands), a respectable overcoat and an old-fashioned hat, probably from the period in which the book was written. The designer clearly hoped to express the character of the father. That is a legitimate aim, but for me it misses the quintessence of the book, which is not about a single character, but about the quality of character itself, in its original Greek meaning of charatto, charaxo, to cut, to cut out, to engrave, a mark carved in stone or metal, and hence the "the peculiar quality, or the sum of qualities, by which a person or a thing is distinguished from others; the stamp impressed by nature, education, or habit" (Webster). It is this character which is the actual theme of the book. Inescapably imprisoned in their characters, father, mother and son are cut off from each other’s love and, ultimately, hate.

Willem Frederik Hermans, who as an author was certainly indebted to Bordewijk’s more bizarre qualities, described his appearance as "typically Dutch, that is to say, in this case, inconspicuous, somewhat drab, modest, distant and discreet." Adding: "never have I seen the look in his eye that can be seen in his boyhood portrait or in the eyes of numerous Bordewijkian characters described with unusual passion by Bordewijk, who was known for portraying eyes (and ears) as if they were exotic jewels." Bordewijk was a lawyer; the much younger Hermans, whose behaviour sometimes resembled that of one of Bordewijk's fictional characters, was a geologist, and it was Hermans who opposed the prevailing view of "Character" by concluding at the end of his short essay that the father, who has done everything in his power to frustrate the career of his illegitimate son and tries "in the face of all evidence to convince that same son that he has helped him, becomes enigmatic as a result: enigmatic in his impotent viciousness. It is questionable whether this was the author’s intention."

In my opinion this only means that Hermans was more merciless than his predecessor. For the remorselessly consistent Hermans, secretly forming his son’s character by placing obstacles in his path would have detracted from the father’s own mythic character. And ultimately it is not so much the father in "Character" who becomes enigmatic, but the author.

Hermans writes: "Bordewijk was often reproached for sadistic and fascist tendencies. Once, in a letter he wrote at the age of eighty, four months before his death, he expressed his opinion on this and it was the only time he raised this point in his correspondence with me: ,…it's true, there are traces of sadism: respect for the cruel and perfect crime, for inhuman discipline. But I always objectify it by writing more."

One can read the books of both Bordewijk and Hermans, the two Dutch masters of the unpredictable and the inescapable, with this quote in the back of one's mind. Both "The Darkroom of Damocles" and "Character" have been turned into fascinating films (more here and here), with "Character" even winning an Oscar in 1998, proof that the Rotterdam drama from the thirties – aided perhaps by the exoticism of a bygone era – has lost none of its essential validity, even in modern-day Hollywood.


This article originally appeared in Die Welt on July 28, 2007.

Cees Nooteboom, born 1933, is a novelist, travel writer and poet who has won multiple awards and been discussed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Translation: David Colmer

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