A Posthumous Confession by Marcellus Emants

Whenever I look in the mirror–still a habit of mine–I am astounded that such a pale, delicate insignificant little man with dull gaze and weak, slack mouth ( a nasty piece of work, some people would say) should have been capable of murdering his wife, a wife whom, after all, in his own way, he had loved.”

I bought a copy of A Posthumous Confession (1894) by Marcellus Emants for 3 reasons:

1) It’s from New York Review Books Classics (and I’ve had great luck with this publisher)

2) The blurb on the back cover (more of that later)

3) The writer was Dutch and I can’t remember ever reading anything Dutch before.

Good enough reasons, right?

The blurb on the back cover sealed the deal:

Marcellus Emants’s grueling and gripping novel–a late-nineteeth-century tour de force of psychological penetration-is a lacerating exposition of the logic of identity that looks backward to Dostoevsky, forward to Simenon, and beyond to the confessional literature whether fiction or fact, of our own day.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am a fanatic when it comes to Simenon and I’m intrigued by Dostoevsky, so I began the book with high expectations.

Termeer, the thirty-five-year-old narrator begins the story with the confession that he’s murdered his wife. While he is “free again,” at the same time he ponders what to do with that freedom as all the joy seems to have leaked out of his life:

To feel no interest–no interest in any person, any work, even any book–to roam without aim or will through any empty house in which only the indifferent guarded whispering of two maids drifts about like the far-off warders around the cell of a sequestered madman, to be able to think, with the last snatch of desire in an extinct nervous life, about one thing, and to tremble before that one thing like a squirrel in the hypnotic gaze of a snake–how can I persevere to the end, day in, day out, in such an abominable existence?

At the point of this early passage, it’s easy to imagine that Termeer feels guilt or perhaps regret for his act, but Termeer is much more complex than that. That shouldn’t be too surprising as this is, after all, a psychological novel. Basically Termeer spends almost two hundred pages explaining why he’s the victim.

As the narrative continues, Termeer takes us back to his childhood and his friendless adolescence. While he loathes his father, Termeer is much more like him than he realises–we make the connection but Termeer–who spends most of time “inwards” thinking of himself, misses the similarities.  His parents die while he is young, and his fortune is managed by a guardian.

Termeer thinks he’s always been “different” from other people, and he’s probably right–but for all the wrong reasons. Gradually as Termeer narrates the story of his life, a portrait of an egoist is revealed. He has a number of adventures–a failed romance with a woman he meets in an Interlaken hotel, a stint as a petty civil servant, a failed attempt at a literary career (his rejected work is returned “on the grounds of triviality” ), and then a period as a roué in Amsterdam. In his desire to fit into society, he makes the sudden decision, after turning 30, that it would be an excellent idea to get married. In spite of the fact that he admires big women, he proposes to Anna, his guardian’s daughter.

Things go sour on the honeymoon, and then Termeer meets the avaricious Caroline….

Termeer is a repulsive character. Because he’s so ineffectual, at times he’s darkly comic, but as it turns out, he’s also dangerously toxic.

After concluding the book, I’ll return to the blurb on the back cover. For its depiction of a male in bourgeois society, yes, the novel reminds me of Simenon, but not nearly as good. For Termeer’s unhealthy and feeble introspection, I can see the Dostoevsky connection. The blurb also states that the book is “grueling and gripping.” For this reader, A Posthumous Confession was not gripping at all–grueling yes as it is a slow build up to the events that concern the murder.

My copy is translated by J.M. Coetzee (a hidden talent). In his introduction, Coetzee notes that Emants endured a “singularly wretched” marriage, and he argues that Emants belongs more to the School of Realism than Naturalism. I’d agree with that. Coetzee also terms Emants as a “lesser thinker, a lesser artist” than Dostoevsky, and again I’d agree.

In spite of the fact that I wasn’t awed by the novel, I’m glad I read A Posthumous Confession. After all I can now claim I’ve read one Dutch book, but beyond that, Termeer’s self-gnawing plea for understanding from his reader most certainly slips alongside other novels I’ve read very nicely indeed.


Filed under Emants Marcellus, Fiction

43 responses to “A Posthumous Confession by Marcellus Emants

  1. True, according to the blurb, this book was meant for you. (I love your tag “miserable marriages”)
    Now I think I’ve never read any Dutch book either.
    Btw, what’s a “roué”?

  2. This sounds worth a look, but if you’re going to read one (more) Dutch author, read Harry Mulisch – The Assault is a fine novel, but The Discovery of Heaven is something else altogether – an extraordinary work, and utterly original.

  3. The Assault sounds more up my alley as the religious bits of The Discovery of Heaven are worrying to this atheist. BTW, have you seen the cover of Siegfried? I had a quick glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye and thought Hilter has a ventriloquist doll on his knee.

    • Believe me, being an atheist won’t interfere with your pleasure! It certainly didn’t affect mine. It’s a bit like being put off The Name of the Rose because it’s full of monks….

      Yes, that sounds like Siegfried (though the cover of my edition is a bit more sedate, and less of a spoiler)… It doesn’t quite work, but the attempt’s well worth a look…

  4. leroyhunter

    Always a pity when something you think should be great turns into a slog. Anyway, it sounds like it has some merit…they might want to get the Trades Description people to look into that blurb though.

    Trevor at Mookse had recommended Mulisch in the past.
    My only experience with Dutch fiction was the IMPAC winner The Twin, which had some nice moments.

    • I’m glad I read it as it does slot into other things I’ve read, but it’s slow going. Or at least it was for me. We know right away he’s killed his wife, so the WHY becomes the thing. But then he backs right up to his childhood, so it’s a slow build. Others have loved the book, so it comes down to a matter of taste. Perhaps the fact that it was compared to Simenon did it no favours.

    • Leroy: I should add that I liked the book, but my expectations were really, really high.

  5. There are many Dutch writers worth reading, I even learned Dutch to read them in the original. The problem is most of them, apart from Harry Mulisch maybe, haven’t been translated into English. Cees Nooteboom is great and so is Connie Palmen, Maarten t’Hart and many more.

    • Thanks Caroline. That’s determination to learn a language in order to read books in the original state.

      I’m going to try a Mulisch. That way I boast that I’ve read TWO Dutch books.

    • Caroline, can you give book titles recommendations? There are many Cees Nooteboom, Connie Palmen and Harry Mulnish translated into French.

      • Sorry, didn’t see comment. I like all the Connie Plamen books and equally all books by Cees Nooteboom. My favourtite palmen was De Vriendschap/Friendship, I suppose. Nooteboom’s biggest success was Rituelen. I’ve only read Mulisch’s short stories. How about Maarten t’Hart? He should be available in French. He writes crime (very quirky) and memoirs. There are others but I need to digg in my book shelves. Jessica Durlacher (WWII is important in her novels) comes to mind although I did only browse her but it looked very good.

        • Thanks. I’ll have a closer look in a bookstore.
          There’s only one Maarten t’Hart (L’échelle de Jacob)
          Connie Plamen : only 2 books are available, not in paperback
          Vriendshap must have another title in French. Rituelen in available in paperback. No Jessica Durlacher in French.
          Not surprisingly, all these are mostly published by Actes Sud and Gallimard.
          I should make a EU book tour: one novel per country. Doesn’t this sound interesting and fun? I’ll try to make a list. If anyone has suggestions, I’m interested. Particulartly for the writer from Luxemburg…

          • I just said on your blog, I already had a tour like that established all ready to publish. 12 books/12 countries. I’m doing this anyway, as I change countries as much as possible. Europe is too limited for me right now. I attached a link to Gu’ys post (in moderation, don’t know why). Crime around the world. Sounds good too.

          • A literal European tour.

            • I can’t find an author from Luxembourg.

              • Same problem for Malte and Cyprus.
                Well, I guess I’d have to visit a bookstore in Luxembourg next time I go to my parents’ or find a online bookstore.
                If it’s in their German dialect, that won’t help.
                This is more tricky than it appears.
                I think I’m going to write a post about this to collect ideas. Hopefully I’ll get comments with lists of writers.

            • By literal you mean “in translation” ?
              Well yes, except for France, Belgium, UK, Ireland and maybe Luxemburg if I find a Francophone writer.

  6. leroyhunter

    Geert Mak comes to mind as well, although he’s more non-fiction travelogue / essays I think.

  7. How about finding your second Dutch novel here:

  8. I thought you should know it. I had checked before posting it. They have a Dutch writer, Saskia Noort. I read one of her novels but it was not bad but not fantastic either.

    • Caroline and Book Around the Corner: In my blogroll in the sidebar, there’s a blog “Seeing the World Through Books.” There might be some suggestions there as the books are sorted by country.

      • Am I blind? I can’t find Seeing the World Through Books.
        I have another Dutch book for you, Guy : In Lucia’s Eyes by Arthur Japin. It is based on Casanova’s life, the episode with Lucia. I think you talked about her in your post about his memoirs.

        PS : sorry for all the comments that have nothing to do with A Posthumous Confession.

        • No, my fault. I wrote the name of the blog which is different from the name in my sidebar.

          I didn’t see an entry for Luxemburg

          Thanks for the suggestion as it falls into my Casanova interest.

          • Thanks, it’s a great blog. But no writer from Malta, Solvenia, Slovakia, Cyprus and Luxembourg. This is going to be a challenge.
            btw, there are many many ideas in “1001 books you must read before you die.” (I can’t help mentionning that 2 Romain Gary are among the 1001: The Roots of Heaven and Promise at Dawn)

  9. That blurb really was written for you wasn’t it?

    It doesn’t sound quite interesting enough for me at the moment. You don’t make it sound bad, just not quite good enough given the backlog.

    Comparisons are very double edged things. They can set up quite unfair expectations.

    • Yes Max the blurb and the publisher…an inevitable purchase and read. Oddly enough though that blurb backfired in a way as I’ve read so much Simenon, and the novel doesn’t quite stand up to that standard–although at the same time it did slot into my reading nicely.

      No not bad at all. I liked it and I’m glad I read it.

  10. Hmm. Now I’m trying to think if I’ve ever read a Dutch book. I think I haven’t. That’s strange… and somewhat disappointing to realize.

    I think I’d have a very difficult time reading a book like A Posthumous Confession. It doesn’t seem like the kind of book that one can seriously enjoy. Or even like. Maybe that’s just my personal taste…? Psychological novels have the potential to be fascinating but can often go too far for me.

    • I really like getting into people’s heads and if they’re a bit wacko, then so much the better. In my opinion, the book lacked tension. It was interesting to read the narrator’s warped view (it’s ok for him to commit adultery but woe betide the mrs if she even looks at another man), but in these cases (of the warped view) humour is to be found in the clash with reality. In this case those clashes didn’t really exist, so the narrator never faced any challenge to his ideas. Dostoevsky would have had those challenges, or confrontations if you like, on every page.

  11. Pingback: Dutch Literature Recommendations and TBR Pile « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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