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Autumn

lijn

...our heart cannot be quieted
till it may find repose in thee.

I

Janus sits quietly in his quiet office. Four o'clock, the sixth of November, 1922.

Janus looks through his window, another very yellow leaf falls slowly from a branch at the quiet close of the November day.

'Sixth of November, 1922,' Janus thinks, 'so did a leaf fall on the sixth of November, 1898, when I was a boy. So did a leaf fall on the sixth of November, 1784. Then Goethe saw it fall, and so it goes on.

'I watch it and I do nothing. Others write novels made of reinforced concrete, I do nothing. Things are going too well for me, my daughters are turning pretty and elegant and amusing. That bodes no good.

'Meanwhile, people can see something in Querido and The Olde Worlde with a final e, and they are building the KLM office where my statue ought to go.'

Now there was a soft twilight about the trees, and the houses on the other side of the canal were as still as if they were about to melt into the blue light and asced to the good Lord, so that he might have a Keizersgracht in his heaven. But they never did, and the next year again it would not get beyond lights going on in offices here and there, after which it would be night.

Smart fellows, the ones who didn't look at the falling leaves. And you've not achieved anything. You thought once you could be something, that you could let such a falling leaf fall until long after 1972. Just picture yourself: a young man of twenty-five who suddenly reads in 1972 the name of Deterding.

On the far side of the canal was a great, high, uncurtained window, and there was a chandelier suffused by a golden glow. Somebody sat writing, somebody came out of the dark into the light and went back into the dark again. The man who was writing turned a page; it was very white in the light.

Janus turned on the lamp. With the light on, everything looked different again.

Janus laughed: 'We will just light up another cigar. A poet with a bald patch at the back of his head and a paunch is the most ludicrous creature of all.'

He hadn't yet started to bulge out of his trousers, thank God, and he still had all his hair. But if you went round writing sonnets about everything, in a waistcoat that started flat and bulged out at the third button - then rather Mr Deterding.

At the door of the room he turned out the light.

'So you die, he composes a sonnet about you and recites it, with everyone present, staring at your coffin. And no one says jack-be-nimble.'
   Janus stood in the street. 'Thank God.' It was night again, it was raining, the cobblestones shone. On the other side the passage to an office stood open, beneath some stairs, brightly lit. A young woman with an umbrella walked quickly past the light and disappeared into the dark.

'So we all love and die, Mr Deterding and the corpulent poet who "sings" about love (God preserve me), and Querido with his fat book and other muddy prose, but perhaps he can't help it, he does his best, and I.'

 

II

He was the man who lacked something and didn't know what, the man who wanted something and didn't know what, the man who wanted to say something and didn't know what to say.

   In the evenings he walked home from the office and looked at the lights and the people, without really seeing any of them, and at the bright streets, and felt a foolish joy, as if something were about to happen, as if he would suddenly recognize one of those strangers and as if everything would then be forever clear and good. It was a foolish happiness and he knew it, it was childish and nothing would ever really happen. And yet he felt every day anew that irrational joy, during that half hour when he was alone and didn't need to think of anything. At home he sometimes found the same happiness when he looked into the big eyes of his children. When the youngest squatted on her pillow in her nightdress, and sang a little song with great staring eyes, he thought: 'That is myself, she is waiting with confidence, everything will be clear to her.' There on her bed she could see a white house with glass doors and broad, low steps the width of the house and a pool in front with a drive on either side and white chickens pecking in the gravel and 'flowers everywhere.' And she waved at grandpa, who stood with a red face and white hair in the middle of the steps before the open doors, between two of those blue pillars, just like the ones they make the paving of porches from, from that kind of stone, you understand, two of those pillars with a balcony above, a large balcony.

'And in the autumn, you see, all the leaves float in the pond. But now it's still summer, you understand, that's only my game.'

What was lacking in him? He said he had a broken heart and that the pieces were scattered through his system and had to fester out. And his oldest daughter said: 'Heh, Dad, you can't have a broken heart; I protest. Mum, do you hear? We are the ones who have the right to say we have a broken heart.' And then they cried: 'Dad is ill again. Dad has swallowed the world and can't get rid of it' (they had got that from Dad himself), and they all laughed and he joined in. They held up their arms to defend their faces, because he made as if to strike them, and then he repeated: 'We will just smoke another cigar, I don't understand myself how such a madman gets through the world. But you are stupid children, you don't understand your father.' 'No, we don't understand our father, girls, hurray!'

What was lacking in him, when he thought back on all those days that had begun so full of promise as he rode on the ferry in the morning and the sun shone on the IJ and he thought so deliciously of nothing and yet everything seemed so clear to him?

'I should like to be everywhere, I should like to be a thousand me's,' his daughter had once said to him. Heredity.

When he was a poor young man, newly married, he paid the rent, the baker, the butcher, and the milkman at the end of the month and had twenty guilders left, apart from the money for the vegetables (which you always had to pay on the nail). Then he couldn't have his shoes repaired on the twentieth, that was how things were then. And all that time something ought to have happened, but it never did happen.

He had got little wrinkles around his eyes, he couldn't say when they came, but he had them now and the sun shone just the same.

It was a morbid thought for a gentleman who worked in an office, but when he said, 'Yes, I am ill,' they laughed at him. He suspected that he really was one of the maddest people.

He said he was a poet. He said so at home and among his friends. In business he took good care not to mention it. He had never yet composed a poem. At home they said, 'Quite so, Dad, you are a poet. Your tie is crooked. Dad, when you cross the street take care not to fall under a tram.'

His friends said nothing at all. Klaas Schrijver, the forty-year-old chap who was growing bold and getting a paunch, never thought of anything but a sonnet to himself and Mina, who always made things difficult for him. And Eeuwe, who had never written anything either, but who was certain that if he only wanted...He would reform the theatre or something. He despised Querido, because he had written such fat books, which was not sufficient reason in itself, and because he was always talking about a 'creator of people,' by which Querido meant that you should think of Querido...Eeuwe thought only of Eeuwe and Querido.

And Janus looked at the third button of Schrijver's hunting jacket and at the bags under his eyes and his flabby cheeks and his double chin, and imagined what that Mina looked like and whether she closed her eyes when Klaas made love to her. And at the reflection of the light in Eeuwe's pince-nez and the beer froth on his moustache.

He did have something to say, but he didn't know what. No doubt it was incurable.

 

III

What could it be? The time that he had wanted to reform the world was so long ago that he no longer thought about it.

He still sometimes saw the eyes of women grow larger, but he also knew that that came to nothing. Every spring was followed after a while by the winter, the red sky of the evening was followed by an ordinary day. Year in, year out, the waves of the North Sea beat stupidly on. Everything went endlessly on and if something did come to an end, things were even more miserable. He had seen big, expectant eyes looking, and the had had children with dummies and wet nappies who had become eighteen and looked with big, expectant eyes as if, with them, something else began. And so the blackbirds sang in the early spring and so the birch trees stood ever anew with small, pale-green leaves, and the trees on the canals and the great red and white blossoms of the apple trees. And so one slowly died, life declined imperceptibly within one.

He had wanted to write a book. Others had written books, all rubbish. They were going to write a book that would make the sun rise, something else would begin. But everything went on as usual. And then they wrote more, they became writers, as another man marries and doesn't know any better, and they didn't die from it. And their pictures appeared in weeklies like De Prins en Het Leven and lay on the edge of billiard tables in Winschoten, Zevenaar, and Sluis, and copies of their books were even bought by people in Roermond and Heerlen, where Dutch literature is virtually forbidden. They no longer thought that the sun would rise, they just wrote and thought about themselves and their pictures.

He had also wanted to be free, no job, no business, no family, no friends, free forever, face to face with God. But those who are filled with God are destroyed by his terrible infinitude. And this is the worst thing of all. That we die from our longing and cannot do otherwise. Tartarin de Tarascon: 'Rien, toujours rien.'

And so we just work in an office and think of the shadow of the dunes on the foaming seas in the early morning, after the gale. The girl bends forward, her blouse parts. You would imagine that she was wholly innocent and unaware, that she doesn't know she is a young woman and that her body is very white.

There must be something. There is still something to be said. There is something stronger than the horror of God's eternity and infinitude. He had overlooked something, there was something that he had to make good.

 

IV

Janus looked at a puddle, in it were a bit of blue sky and a bit of white cloud. When he was a boy there were such puddles on the Mauritskade. He walked to the High School, a man with strawberries cried: 'Six cents the lovely strawb'ries.' Where were now the white clouds that there were then?

The girl from the office was not born yet.

How long ago was that?

'And meanwhile the young people still think they have a future.

'And yet. The lambs Ichnaton saw skipping on their thin legs in the spring live still. The sun sparkled on the sea and the ships sailed into the sun. That day in Egypt still lives in my head here in Amsterdam after so many thousands of years.

A smile passes over the terrible eternity and infinitude of God. The child plays.

 

It is the end of August, 1937. In the garden at Sichem red apples hang on the trees in the light morning mist. The garden with the sheep, with the white berries on the bushes. A ladder stands against the apple-tree; in the silence an apple falls onto the grass with a plop.

In the church at Sichem, Augustine stands life-size. He is made of stone and holds up an opened stone book.

My days are many and it is not merely thus I would wish them to pass.

Four thousand years later. In the silence my apple falls onto the grass with a plop.

 

November, 1922; conclusion May, 1940

Ook verschenen in: 'Delta', winternummer 1962-1963, p. 74-80. Gepubliceerd met de toelating van de auteur. Alle rechten blijven bij hem.

 

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