Our book today is H.M. van den Brink's 1998 novella Over het water, here in Paul Vincent's 2001 English translation On the Water. The book came out in America to modest sales and some good critical notices and then was heard no more – a better-than-average career for a short, impressionistic work of fiction (that must sound a very paltry return, for a work that no doubt took its author years of effort to produce, but such is the way of things in the 'contemporary literary fiction' world … books are expensive; audiences mostly can't be tempted away from the safe shallows they know they like, etc). Many thousands of books have similar careers – I read as many of them as I can and then sprint on, always trying to keep abreast of their endless numbers while still keeping an open mind (closing the reading mind, locking things into a rigid little set of 'qualifications' for what constitutes good reading, saying “it has to do this, and this, and it can't ever do that, or that,” is a natural temptation all voracious readers feel, but it's to be avoided at all costs – giving in to it, much less braying about giving in to it, makes a parody of a reader in about five seconds).
Inevitably, in all this hurly-burly, there emerges an odd but accurate yardstick: nagging recall. In addition to all the calipers used on a work at the time of reading – is the plot consistent, are the characters well-drawn, is the prose expert or interesting, etc. - there's one other that cannot be hurried or predicted: does the book stick in your mind, long after you've finished it and dozens or hundreds more besides?
I listen carefully for nagging recall, and I trust it. If I find myself periodically recalling some book from years ago, without an obvious present-day trigger, I know to find and revisit that book. The nagging recall is my brain's way of saying, “there was something in the book that you really liked, something you don't find nearly often enough – go back and enjoy it again.”
So I recently went back to On the Water, and I did indeed enjoy it again. On the surface it's a simple story in the Brideshead Revisited mode: an adult narrator in the midst of the Second World War returns to the location of an idyll from his youth and spends the bulk of the book reliving that idyll for us (it's curious that the implication of an unbridgeable gulf between two worlds is far more persistent in WWII fiction than WWI fiction, considering the fact that the latter war created far more real and permanent gulfs than the latter).
As with Brideshead and so many other such works, the idyll has a few simplistically homoerotic overtones to it: Anton, the narrator, stands at the riverbank in war-torn Holland and recalls a time just five or six years earlier when he had been an introverted boy brought out of himself by rowing sessions on the river, under the tutelage of the strident, enigmatic coach Mr. Schneiderhahn – and in the constant company of fellow crew member David, who (like Sebastian Flyte) comes from money and possesses an oddly compelling charisma.
Over the course of a summer and autumn, Anton and David are paired in their “impossibly narrow” craft, and the narrative quickly, deftly entwines them:
The only thing we heard was the all-penetraing rush of the rain and through it, in the foreground, the violent crack with which we hit the water and the deeper, rather hollow sound with which our blades left it perfectly in time. Or was it not the rain that was rushing around us, but my own blood, our own breathing? I couldn't hear David panting behind me. That must mean that our breath had the same cadence, that his heartbeat was in sync with mine. I imagined how the pointed, brass-covered bow of our boat was shooting through the water, dipping for an instant as we engaged our blades and then moving forwards in an upward diagonal, diving, accelerating.
This is the novella's strongest current, this subtle creation of an oddly impersonal intimacy between Anton and David. But it's almost equally good at evoking the giddy, almost masochistic galvanic charge that accompanies athletic competitions such as those in which the boys are soon competing:
You twist your hips carefully to keep the boat balanced, the boat turns with you and behind you you feel another pair of hips moving. All the strength suddenly flows out of you. In the middle of your limp body a hole has appeared where a moment ago your stomach was. You haven't slept and your bowels have emptied themselves twice or three times that morning until it hurt and now they're filled with nothing but sun and fear. You'd like only one thing: to get away from here. But not straight ahead, into the race. No, away, as in: disappear. If necessary into the pit of that stomach of yours filled with sun and fear. So even the sun can hold its breath. If you get out of this alive, if you reach the finish, it'll be the last time you do it, the very last time. What are you frightened of? Not the opposition, not of the other boats. The fear is about your own plan, the task of surpassing yourself, of reaching deeper and further than you think you can, in order to inflict pain on yourself. You're frightened to live.
Naturally, the aftertaste of On the Water is bittersweet – in this case sentimentally so; the adult Anton never allows his story to progress far enough for us to see any irrefutable ruin to the paradise he's described (indeed, unlike Charles Ryder, he hasn't yet lived long enough to experience such a ruin). The book has two parallel endings, one in the past (a rowing event just finished, the flush of victory or defeat, the promise of more such events, no hint – or perhaps only the hints embodied in Mr. Schneiderhahn, which remain unreadable to the boys), and one in the present:
Even tonight, while the skeleton of what was once the fortress of this club creaks and the last remaining doors of the hollow shed swing and slam on their hinges, even while the river has put on a cold, angry face with rolling waves and white crests of foam and fists of wind and water, water that now and then hits the planks like a whiplash, even now I perceive the river more as an ally than as a foe. Because that cold, angry face is mine too and, like mine, it is still in motion …
It's a quick reading experience (if memory serves, I read the whole thing during the afternoon nap of an elderly beagle), but it sticks with you. It hints at so much and excludes so little, and its beauties nag to be recalled. I like that process; I always wonder which of the books I'm reading lately will prompt it.