Reviewed by David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times
Jan de Hartog's A View of the Ocean is very much in keeping with a sub-tradition in modern European literature: the small, spare memoir of a parent's death. In that sense, it's reminiscent of Annie Ernaux's A Man's Place and A Woman's Story, or Simone de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death.
But De Hartog's elegant account of his mother's dying is different from those books too, not least because it's being published posthumously, which adds a layer to the question of what remains. (De Hartog, who wrote more than 20 novels, as well as the Tony Award-winning play The Fourposter, died in 2002 at age 88.)
For Ernaux or De Beauvoir, part of the point of memoir was to investigate the process of survival, to preserve the past in an act of memory. Here, that issue gets complicated, since the rememberer himself has been obscured by the grave. What, then, do we make of De Hartog's loss and longing? How do we contextualize the immediacy of his grief?
The answer, perhaps, is that it doesn't matter, that grief provides its own context. Certainly, that's the idea behind A View of the Ocean, which offers a perspective on De Hartog's mourning by opening with an impressionistic re-creation of family life. Such a strategy also brings to mind Ernaux and De Beauvoir, who peppered their memoirs with mundane daily details.
What sets De Hartog apart, though, is that he came from a prominent family; his father was a noted Dutch theologian, a professor at the University of Amsterdam and an early critic of the Nazis.
In 1933, while addressing an anti-fascist rally, the elder De Hartog raised his right arm, as if in a Nazi salute, and declared, "This is the way the heathens salute you: 'Heil Hitler.'" Then, as the crowd fell into astonished silence, De Hartog writes, his father slowly raised his left arm in a gesture of benediction and said, "But this is the way we Christians bless you: 'Heil Israel!'"
That incident suggests just how dominating a personality De Hartog's father was.
And yet, his mother also was a remarkable figure who "came into her own" after her husband's death in 1939.
"During the thirty years of their married life, she had been a silent, accommodating, self-effacing woman," De Hartog writes, who suddenly revealed "a core of drop-forged steel."
Caught in the Dutch East Indies when World War II broke out, she spent three years in a Japanese prison camp, where, it is said, she functioned as a "mischievous saint."
She gave "Bible classes to Chinese children, [ran] a hospital for the aged, taught classes in philosophy, medieval mysticism, astrology, and the history of English gardens to women on the brink of breakdown."
More important, she subtly influenced the camp commandant, arranging for a convoy of sick prisoners to be taken to a Red Cross post.
After the war, she gave comfort to an "unending stream of women, girls, men, young students, children, grandchildren" who visited her in Amsterdam; De Hartog admits having been astonished by just how many lives she had touched.
Knowing all this about De Hartog's mother only makes it harder to watch her decline. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, she grows diminished, until her humanity is nearly stripped away.
Here, De Hartog is at his finest as a writer -- sharply detailed, tender but not sentimental, even clinical at times.
To mask the odor of her vomit, he takes to bringing her a fresh rose cut from his brother's garden. "The way she drank in the scent of the flower," he writes, "her eyes closed, her face harrowed and tragic with uncounted memories and associations known only to her and to God, was almost unbearable to watch."
He describes his growing reluctance to visit, of standing "for minutes outside her door with my hand on the knob, trying to conjure up the strength to go in there and face with a smile the pointless, cruel, obscene destruction of this little body, this great spirit."
In the end, De Hartog stares down his "childish grief and horror...not by thinking of other things...but by focusing on and identifying with her....I could help her only as long as I completely forgot about myself." Here we have the key to this profoundly moving memoir -- the author's unflinching directness in the face of his mother's dying, his refusal to look away from the thing itself.
For all that, it remains impossible to read A View of the Ocean without experiencing a peculiar double vision, brought on by our knowledge of De Hartog's death. It is an indication of the book's power that this adds to its poignancy, its sense of our evanescence, the way even the most potent voices and connections eventually grow fleeting, disappear.
For De Hartog, there is no real solace, although there is acceptance; loss is something to be endured.
Still, that endurance is suffused with what can only be described as a profound yearning: "If only," he writes, "I could believe the rhyme I had once found scribbled on the inside of a wardrobe in wartime England when I was billeted there during the war: There is an old belief that on some distant shore, far from despair and grief, old friends shall meet once more. But I could not believe it. She was gone, forever."
David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.
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