Category Archives: Emants Marcellus

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.

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