The Following Story (Harvill Panther S.) (英語) ペーパーバック – 2003/10/23
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Winner of the 1993 European Literary Prize, this strikingly original novel is textured with the humour, pathos and expansive knowledge that have become the hallmark of Holland’s most popular writer.
"Nooteboom is one of the greatest modern novelists" (A.S. Byatt)
"The prose has such clarity, charm and lightness that you take to disorientation with pleasure" (Michael Ignatieff Sunday Times)
"Sharp, elegant prose... It recalls, in tone, Vladimir Nabokov. The language is, by turns, delicately allusive and rich, even ripely comic" (D. J. Enright Times Literary Supplement)
"Nooteboom has shown himself a master of ironic wisdom, but also of elated, elegiac feeling. Intricately composed and finely translated, The Following Story will still be delivering after many readings" (Ben Rogers Independent on Sunday)
"Nooteboom writes beautifully. His prose is clean and precise without feeling sparse, and he manages to combine clarity with intense lyricism - Part travelogue, part love story, this is an exquisite novel" (Rebecca Abrams Guardian)
Herman harbors regrets. An episode in his past ended badly. Even under the best of circumstances, he is not comfortable in the present. He finds refuge in the classics, where he finds more companionable associations than he does in the present.
His death presents an opportunity to revisit the past. Alas, he is merely an observer, doomed to relive the events, powerless to change them. In the end, he realizes recounting events, rather than revising them, is sufficient to ensure passage to the other side. Yet it remains a story tinged with regret.
This cyclical nature forms the basis of The Following Story and Nooteboom use it to deftly fashion a satisfying novel.
He falls asleep one night in his home in Amsterdam, and awakens in Lisbon, twenty years previous. He is unsure if he is dead, or has been transported back through time, or whether he is hallucinating. Or, maybe, some other possibility that he cannot imagine. All he knows is that the room he woke up in, the room in Lisbon, is the very same place where he slept with another man's wife.
In waking up in this room, he remembers the actions of all those years ago and the people that were affected. Lisa d'India, a talented, beautiful student, he remembers the best. She was loved by all for her intelligence, loved by Herman for the ideal she represented. He admired her, appreciated her skill with Greek, but he did not love her in the carnal sense, the way every else seemed to. For Herman, sexual love '[has] more to do with the animal kingdom than with human beings, who concern themselves with the less tangible aspects of existence.'
Lisa d'India is loved, most especially, by Arend Herfst, a poet and basketball teacher. He begins a relationship with the girl, and it seems that everyone but Herman is aware of this. Arend's wife, Maria Zeinstra, begins an affair with Herman, an affair of revenge, not love or lust, and Herman is completely unaware of this fact. Happily, the plot never moves into confusing betrayals or empty, 'romantic' gestures. Instead, we follow the events through the absent-minded, bewildered eyes of Herman. His affair with Maria Zeinstra, an affair that he did not plan and did not really want, is somewhat beyond his talents in people interaction. He does not know how to handle her, and luckily, does not have to. Herman is used merely as a piece in the strategy game that husband and wife are playing. Yet, Maria's relationship with Herman is not malicious, as far as we can tell, and is oftentimes quite gentle.
The clandestine cum love story plot is one that can easily be ignored, and indeed is for most of the novel. The true focus is Herman. He is an amazing character, a learned, intelligent, gentle man, who is 'as ugly as Socrates'. He quotes Ovid, Tacitus and Shakespeare in his meandering confessions, he considers this philosophy or that author, wonders about the state of art and culture, comments on everything with a wry wink to the reader. Herman is a man who enjoys words more than anything else in this world, he enjoys reading them and - while he considers his own talents to be of a poor quality, and useless when compared to the Latin and Greek greats - he loves writing down his thoughts. Through the sarcasm and the negativity towards popular culture, there is a timid yet kind man who just wants to love his books in peace.
An explanation for Herman's sleeping in Amsterdam and awakening in Lisbon twenty years earlier is given, but I will not reveal it. Towards the end of the novel, when Herman has relived the most vivid, alive experience of his life, when he has finished recounting an episode when the real world intrudes on his careful, closed existence of words and rhyme, he boards a ship, travelling with six other people, swapping dream-like stories of time and reality. In this section, the sardonic, witty narrator - Herman - all but disappears, replaced with a lazily beautiful chronicler of events of the mind. The transition is seamless and works very well, building up a sort of confused, dreamy tension until the last two amazing pages, and then the final, perfect sentence when the cloud of unanswered questions are blown away and we are left with a brilliant clarity and understanding.
In the very first line of this short novel, Herman Mussert, the narrator and main character, tells us, "I have never had an exaggerated interest in my own person, but unfortunately that did not imply I could stop thinking about myself at will, from one moment to the next." Indeed, Mussert is not interested in himself as a flesh-and-blood man of action; quite the opposite, he surrounds himself with books and reads all the time. Within the first few pages, it becomes clear Mussert's world is the world of words. We read: "Words of polished marble drive out the most evil fumes." And to have such polish, Musset's words can't be the modern words ordinary people use in day-to-day conversation; rather, he goes on to tell us, "Our modern languages are altogether too wordy, look at any bilingual edition: on the left the spare, measured Latin phrases, the sculptured lines, on the right the full page, the traffic jam, the jumble of words, blathering chaos."
Let's pause and reflect on how such a life relates to Schopenhauer's aesthetics. For Schopenhauer, aesthetic experience happens when we rise above our preoccupation with our own will, our own individual survival, and, using art as a medium, observe the material, mundane world from a conceptual distance. For example: instead of participating in an actual love affair, we go to an art museum and stand before a painting of two people in love and behold the ideas (love, passion, yearning, attraction) the artist is portraying, and thus, as objective observers, we develop a clear, painless understanding of the dynamics of human emotion.
Of course, such objective observation is precisely what Herman Mussert experiences with his immersion in Ovid, Tacitus, Cicero and other ancient writers. At one point he reflects: "Whenever (I take off my glasses) I feel like a tortoise without a shell. That is to say, in the intimate proximity of the female body I am the most defenseless of creatures. Which explains why I kept largely aloof from those activities which everyone is always going on about and which, to me, have more to do with the animal kingdom than with human beings who concern themselves with less tangible aspects of existence."
However, Mussert tells us he lost his objectivity once when he was thirty years old in Lisbon. "Now for once I belonged to the ranks of ordinary people, the mortals, the rest, because I was in love with Maria Zeinstra." A married woman driven to avenge her husband's infidelity, Maria pulls Herman down from his aesthetic observation post and thrusts him into the nitty-gritty of a passionate affair. "And so now I was in love, and thus a member of the same weak, glutinous fraternity of one-track-minded automatons which I have always claimed to despise." Schopenhauer would nod his head, understanding how the raw forces of the universe are too powerful for us to escape completely; aesthetic distance happens at points in our lives, it is not a permanent state.
And Mussert's passionate affair has dire consequences. He relays how on one sunny afternoon he was dragged out to the playground by Maria's enraged husband and became a public spectacle, beaten up and humiliated in plain sight of everyone - students, teachers, administrators. For a man who lives his life at an aesthetic distance, a distance he creates through his books and ancient literature, this is a complete role reversal. For once Mussert is the actor on life's stage and all those ordinary mortals he despises get to be the spectators. Is it any wonder years later he wakes up in Lisbon having gone to bed the night before in Amsterdam? Such an experience would certainly make a deep impression on a sensitive man of letters predisposed to live his life in solitude, reading, surrounded by his books.
According to Schopenhauer, drama, being a superb reflection of human existence, can show life unfolding in three ways: what is merely interesting, what is sentimental, and what is tragic -- specifically on the tragic, Schopenhauer's words are: "At the highest and hardest stage the tragic is aimed at: grievous suffering, the misery of existence is brought before us, and the final outcome is here the vanity of all human striving." Cess Nooteboom echoes Schopenhauer's tragic sense when he has Mussert reflect on a photograph taken by the Voyager at six billion kilometers away from the earth, "That sort of thing does not impress me. My tiny lifespan, the utter insignificance of my existence, they are no more microscopic for being viewed from such a distance."
Respecting the writing of novels, here is a Schopenhauer quote: "A novel will be the higher and nobler the more inner and less outer life it depicts . . . The art lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life; for it is the inner life which is the real object of our interest - The task of the novelist is not to narrate great events but to make small ones interesting." The Following Story is a tour de force of the inner life. And Mr. Nooteboom makes the small events in Mussert's life not only interesting for the reader but deeply probing and profound.
*The above Schopenhauer quotes are from `Arthur Schopenhauer - Essays and Aphorisms' published by Penguin Books and translated by R.J. Hollingdale.