Intimations of Death (1910)
New translation by Paul Vincent
Introduction by John Howard
Kudos to Valancourt for what must be the first-ever English translation of these powerful stories. This brief collection is a fascinating and too-brief reminder of a lost world of European cosmopolitan culture innocent of trench warfare, only a generation removed from rural life.
The intensity, the key and pitch of these tales, epitomizes the weird sublime. Each embodies a strange and uncanny perfection.
....In these stories he portrays and defines his native region with the skill of an author who saw and observed with the eye of an artist. And so it is perhaps not surprising that as well as being a prolific writer, Timmermans also drew and painted. In the stories, words substitute for, and take on, a painting's lines and masses of colour and gloom; and if the illustrations that accompany the stories comprising Intimations of Death are also by their author, as is possible, nothing could be more appropriate. In their stark and brutal simplicity they have a Gothic intensity, matching that of the stories, recalling those series of woodcuts depicting the Dance of Death....
....what had a particularly frightening effect on my mind in this thickly overarched lane was that right opposite our house there rose a white wall, above which an army of black poplars raised their black crowns, which in their thick green foliage hid a deserted convent. The rooms and the church were empty, but owls and ravens, rats and bats let their swift shadows glide across the white walls.
....Our house, built centuries ago in Kempen stone, which has the colour of congealed blood, was outlined in black against the bare horizon, along which the evening twilight died out. Oh! it stood there so mysteriously, our house, in the endless space and the silence, like a dark hovel erected to contain the dark mystery of life . . . A deep black moat, covered in green scum, enclosed the thick damp walls. One misty morning a tramp had stumbled into it and drowned....
The most shattering story in a collection of emotionally desolating stories. Herman and Mina are wed; but Herman finds his dream, a life of the mind spent pouring over occult books with titles like
The Key to the Dark Chamber Called the Future, thwarted.
....She surveyed me for a long time. It made me feel uncomfortable, and to make the look stop, I asked her: 'Mina, what's wrong?'
'Oh! . . .' she cried sighing, suddenly jumped on me, threw her arms round my neck and pulled me towards her with masculine strength, began to kiss me, my eyes, mouth and ears, on my forehead, chin and neck, pressing her head against mine, in wild rapture.
Suddenly the truth hit me on the head like a stone. My wife was sensual. I tore her off me and she fell like a broken woman onto a chair, crying loudly. She did not dare look up, sensing that I had guessed. It was as if my heart had been kicked out of my body, for suddenly I saw all my happiness, my love, life, and future collapse. I felt acutely the futility of our marriage, the mistake I had made by taking her as my wife....
THE SEVENTH GRAVE
A gravedigger in a town beset by cholera and plague makes a terrible error in judgment while trying to keep up with the number of burials needed each day.
....I hurried up and soon finished the seventh grave. I was about to start on an eighth one, but a pilgrimage to the St Rochus chapel was just going past. Everyone not hit by the scourge stumbled along in the foul weather and carried fear and wretchedness on their broken backs. I heard how their prayers choked as they approached this place and how a fearful mumbling rolled over their heads. I saw how they retreated from me into the fields, hastened their step and then continued on their weary way on the white path through the distant plain. The sound of the alarm bell boomed out through the quiet air. I thought how one of them shortly or tomorrow would be here under the ground, in the grave I had just dug. Then it struck my heart like a cold iron fist that I had made a grave not ordered for anyone! I went pale. Was this not a challenge to Death to fetch someone? . . .
THE WHITE VASE
The narrator escapes the oppressive intensity of urban life to some much needed quiet as a guest at a monastery.
....Had these two days of prayer and silence freed my soul of its worldly burden, so that it only now made itself felt?
A strange, nameless feeling had arisen in me, a kind of unconscious terror of something far away, whose tangible presence I nevertheless felt in myself and all around me. I tried to push it away, but I was fooling myself, because the thing was lodged in my body like the blood in my heart, and it began to spread, like the mist that rises from the meadows at evening. I became afraid of what surrounded me. I suddenly felt the dreariness of the country in which I stood so utterly lost and alone. The bare sandy heath, dotted only sparsely with wild cypress trees, stretched endlessly into the distance, far, far away until it stood out dark and sharp as gorse against the pale sky. Neither woods nor towers awakened any hope of continuing human habitation; it was as if the world ended right there and I myself became the boundary of human life....
'If it were me, oh I would not leave you alone, Begga,' he said with conviction. 'When I think how we came together, what we have been through and suffered, then I feel we cannot be separated, that is why no rope is necessary here. There is an unbreakable rope joining you and me, which we cannot shake off. Do you know what I sometimes think? . . . That we have only one heart.'
'I sometimes think that too,' she said. 'There is something in us that draws us together . . . I feel this better than I can say it. And I think, Hendrik, that if I had to lie alone in this water, that I would rise up and get you. Oh, because I love you so much.'
'And I too,' he sobbed . . . And they wept.
'We shouldn't have met each other,' she said.
He said: 'It is as if we already knew each other when we came out of God's hands. We had to know each other.'
'We must die together too. We shall be so happy there. Let's do it now,' she sobbed.
'Yes,' he decided....
14 July 2019