My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"She became the shadow and the quivering of the silver spruce that grew there and the aged, cracked crimson of the dried-up riverbed."
"Magical" is the word that best describes Cees Nooteboom's novella Philip and the Others (1954). Trying to grasp the word's entire spectrum of meaning I looked it up in several dictionaries: excluding the denotation that refers to magic I found two nice definitions: "mysteriously enchanting, bewitching" and "describing something with a special and exciting quality". While these are adequate, the definition from The Oxford Dictionary best captures my impression of the novella: "beautiful or delightful in such a way as to seem removed from everyday life." This is exactly how I felt reading Philip. Let me continue the quote from the epigraph, the quote that epitomizes Mr. Nooteboom's magical prose:
"That evening the valley was created afresh with the hands of a lunatic who had come into possession of the moon and who painted and struck the rocks and the trees with the light of the moon until an unbearable madness seized control of the landscape, and all things began to breathe and live together with her, unbearably."
Mr. Nooteboom, whose work I had not known until about half a year ago, has quickly become one of my favorite authors and I would probably call his The Following Story the best book I have ever read (with
Lost Paradise not so far from the top of my choices). Philip and the Others is his first published book, and its beginning chapter is a literary tour de force, a beautifully told account of events from Philip's childhood and youth. I will never forget the passages about a bus ride at night, walking just around the corner to Africa, the uncle's secret from the distant past, and, particularly, a girl in a red coat, whom Philip saw at a bus stop and who was not there six years later. The evocation of childhood memories is so powerful and the prose so vivid in its magical intensity that Philip's childhood could well be my own.
The remainder of the novella relates Philip's search for a beautiful Chinese girl. He hitchhikes through France: Provence, Paris, Calais, then farther, through Europe. This reads almost like a fairy tale, a tale that contains episodes featuring different characters in changing locales. One can find some rather incongruously included autobiographical elements - the passages about a Carmelite school that likely reflect Mr. Nooteboom's Catholic education. I do not much like this part of the novella, finding it unfocused, somewhat contrived, and overwrought. I am aware how presumptuous of me is to quibble about this author's prose, but I think at the time of writing Philip he was still learning to become the great writer he is now, a writer of ethereally beautiful yet lean and economical prose. While I do not believe there are many sentences that could be cut from The Following Story without diminishing its impact, about a half of text in Philip could be deleted, without much harm to the book's significance. True, one can find passages of beauty in the main part of the novella, for instance the fragment about buying a bird of paradise, named Janet, or the one about the chorus of people seated on park benches in Luxembourg, but on the whole the reader will likely find the book aimless and meandering.
I also do not particularly like the Preface, in which Mr. Nooteboom writes about the reception of Philip in mid-1980s by students at Berkeley, although it has a great fragment about the young man who wrote this book in 1954 and then went "on his way to becoming the unavoidable me that I am [...] the mystery of time's passage has become too perplexing." While this mystery is a central theme in Mr. Nooteboom's books, I much prefer when the author speaks to me through his work rather than directly.
Two and three quarter stars.
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