Birth, School, Work, Death

For my job, they have obliged me to participate in a master course. About finance, business administration, innovative marketing strategies, corporate economics, and how to use your inner child to be more creative in commercial enterprises. Seriously, I even had to participate in some kind of creativity workshop, full of coloured paper, lumps of clay, brainstorming and whatnot. People still have not realised that people work at their best on their own, without other people around to bother them. As everyone who knows me would imagine: this master is just the most perfect thing for me. It is exactly why I studied physics: so I could calculate the financial balance and solvency of companies. Really.

When I talked about this master, a few days later, in my favourite bar in Barcelona, my friends told me I should enjoy this opportunity. That working is something one should enjoy and life is all about making work as pleasurable as possible. And they are absolutely right, of course, when you look at it their way because, in fact, you spend most hours of your life at work. But no! I won´t agree! I won´t give up! I´ll stick to my principles. I am rather unhappy than a traitor. And to show I am not alone in this, there are Voskuil, Nescio and The Godfathers.

1. Voskuil

In 1962, Voskuil published “Bij Nader Inzien” (“On Second Thoughts“), a book of about 1200 pages about his student life. He could have just written: “I thought I could avoid living in adult society, with some help from my friends, but then I found out friends are useless and cannot help me“. Instead, he wrote 1200 pages in which, instead of writing opinions, feelings or thoughts, he only describes, as coldly and objectively as possible, conversations and actions of a group of students and what the weather was like on a particular day, just to show that friends are useless if you need their help in living outside of society’s grip.

In the nineties, Voskuil published “Het Bureau” (“The Office“), a book of about 5000 pages published in 7 parts, about his 40 years of work in an office. He could have just written: “A job will never fulfill you inner needs, instead it will suck you dry and empty. You may think that other people think the same way, and working with them will make things easier, but in fact, it will only make things worse“. Instead, he wrote 5000 pages which, apart from rudimentary descriptions of what his alter ego thinks and feels, for a large part consist of plain and simple descriptions of conversations, actions, and what the weather was like on any particular day, just to show that a job will suck you dry and your colleagues can never be trusted.

Whether readers will remain interested during 5500 pages doesn´t bother me,” Voskuil said once in an interview. “That is not what it is written for. I wanted to give account and I that´s what I did.

Apart from maybe Salinger, I don´t know of any other non-Dutch writer who can write so cleanly and without decoration, so accurately precise, and at the same time, say so much. (Other Dutch writers who write like that include Nescio, Elsschot (well, he was Flemish, really), Reve, Jan Cremer, Arends).

When the above appeals to you, you´ll have to pick up Dutch language courses in order to read his books. The same goes for the following lines (clumsily translated by myself). Either you´ll like them and understand what he is on about. Or you do not, in which case you better stop reading and go on with your work.

From “Bij Nader Inzien“:

“It is all rotten,” Maarten agreed with Hans. “Skipper or ferryman, those are the only decent jobs.”
Hans nodded. Klaas grinned.
“But then, why are you studying?” asked Flap.
“Because they fooled us,” said Maarten.
“Absolutely!” added Hans.

From “Bij Nader Inzien“:

“I still see us all together on the corner of the playground at school,” recalled Hans. “Whatever bullshit they will tell us, we said, we think this is damn rotten. We all said that in unison. “

From “Het Bureau“:

He considered resigning, but he was too emotional to think it through. Hours later, as he walked home, he was still so furious that his stomach squeezed like a car horn. The thought of resigning filled him with grim joy.

From “Het Bureau“:

He raised his arms on the armrests of his chair, with his hands held together, and looked mindlessly at what he had just typed. Involuntarily his eyes wandered off. The tops of the trees in the garden swayed to and fro in the storm. It was already dusk. He saw it, but without seeing it, sad, as a monkey in the corner of his cage.

From “Het Bureau“:

“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
He jumped. “About the Office”, he said guilty.
“Could you try not to think about the Office for once?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Always the Office. It´s getting to me.”
“But I do not think about anything in particular,” he apologized. “It’s more like a general feeling.”
“As if that is any better,” she said unhappily. “When you are home, the Office should not exist at all.”
“No,” he agreed.

From “Het Bureau“:

“Why do you really care about what these people have been thinking?”
“Of course I care about that! I have to deal with them half of my life, haven´t I?”
“Yes, and that is already bad enough! You should not want to deal with them at home too. ”
He smiled.
“Sometimes it is better to imagine that you go crazy among people like that than to stay healthy,” he said, more to himself.

From “Het Bureau“:

Sitting on the couch, listening to the music, his thoughts wandered away. He wondered what had changed. When and why had everything lost its luster? And then, as so often, he came to the conclusion that in contrast to the past he no longer had a grain of faith in mankind. It was what he had always said, even when he had still believed the contrary. Man is a beast. But it was much worse than he had known. He had not seen then how the whole mess was going to hell because of a boundless egoism and that that egoism was so big that it was impossible to connect to any other person. Instead of safer, he felt more and more threatened and suspicious. Walking down the street he found himself surrounded by criminals. And he understood that that was because he was getting older and began to see that his time was finite.

2. Nescio

Nescio published the short novels “De Uitvreter” (“The Moocher“) and “Titaantjes” (“Little Titans“) and the very short story “Mene Tekel“, at the beginning of the 20th century. He could have written large works about the futility of adolescent dreams, aspirations and friendships. Instead, he wrote those two short stories and one extremely short story (less than 5 pages) in which he gives a dry, ironic summary of how he and his friends don’t really want to grow up and become responsible members of society but unfortunately they all have to, except for one friend who steps from a bridge and dies, and another friend who goes mad and ends up in an asylum.

When the above appeals to you, you´ll have to pick up Dutch language courses in order to read his books. The same goes for the following lines (clumsily translated by myself). Either you´ll like them and understand what he is on about. Or you do not, in which case you better stop reading and go on with your work.

From “De Uitvreter“:

Smoking a little cigar, chatting a little, looking around a bit, enjoying the sun when it was shining and the rain when it didn’t, and not thinking of tomorrow, not wanting to be anything, not desiring anything except for now and then a bit of nice weather.

From “De Uitvreter“:

What could ‘e do? What did they all achieve together? He had been too busy with too much monkey business, had imagined bright speeches and wild articles, while ‘e sat in the office working for the trade of his boss, ‘e had worked hard and everyone had marveled at the loads of work that he had managed. The world had continued to turn around, it turned around as always, would be turning around without him. Too much monkey business. He was wiser now. He turned away from it all. There were plenty of merchants and writers and talkers and people who were all up for it, more than enough.

From “Titaantjes“:

I sit aimlessly, God’s purpose is aimlessness. But no one has been given the ability to realize this continuously.

From “Titaantjes“:

God’s throne is still unshaken. His world goes on ahead. Occasionally God smiles about the important men who think that they mean something. New little Titans are already busy piling up small rocks to make him collapse from his majestic throne and then rearrange the world according to their views. He just laughs and thinks: “Well done guys, as silly as you are, I love you better than those nice wise gentlemen. I’m sorry that you must break your neck and let those gentlemen flourish, but I am only God.” And so everything runs its course and woe to him who asks: Why?

From “Mene Tekel“:

And we were quiet again and thought about how we had no reason to exist.

3. The Godfathers

Who wrote the following song: Birth School Work Death.


12 thoughts on “Birth, School, Work, Death

  1. Pingback: Keep the change « DINZO!

  2. matxil

    I didn’t want to work. It was as simple as that. I distrusted work, disliked it. I thought it was a very bad thing that the human race had unfortunately invented for itself.
    — Agatha Christie (1890-1976)

  3. Joost Michielsen

    Nou, da’s ook toevallig: ik heb net op een ander forum aangekondigd dat er op 20 maart een engelse vertaling van De Uitvreter verschijnt. Zat effe te googelen met welke Amerikaanse schrijver ik hem zou kunnen vergelijken (dacht aan Salinger), en waar kom ik terecht? Bij Machiel!

    Gegroet, Joost

    1. matxil

      Dat is goed om te weten. Maar ook niet zo heel gek. Toch eens proberen welke combinatie van een willekeurige greep uit mijn obsessies me het snelst hier brengt. (Blake’s 7, Rolling Stones, Salinger, Voskuil. Nescio, David Lynch, Skins, …)
      Hoe gaat het verder in Wormerveer? Zit jij op een Nescio forum? Ben wel benieuwd naar die Engelse vertaling eigenlijk. “”Apart from the man who thought that…” En hoe is de titel in het Engels? “The Moocher”? (Ik heb dat woord ergens gegoogled, ik weet niet meer hoe).

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