Arresting from its first stark sentence (“My wife is dead and buried”), nearly relentless in its catch-all combo of misanthropy and self-loathing, yet consistently compelling and perversely insightful, A Posthumous Confession (NYRB Classics, $16), Dutch author Marcellus Emants’ 1894 novel, newly back in print, translated and with an introduction by J.M. Coetzee, with a perfectly chosen detail from Edvard Munch’s Self-portrait in Hell as its cover art, is as elegantly wrought as it is deeply repulsive. So, in other words, a must-read.
By the time he finally sets down to write about his life—to confess, as it were—Willem Termeer (a name that fittingly prompts images of termites) is 35, friendless, and, having been recently widowed, “free again.” But free to do what? He says he’s killed his wife, Anna, though the circumstances are unclear. By his own claims Termeer, a man without profession, whose biography is encrusted with botched attempts at hedonism, is hopelessly apathetic. How did he manage to become a murderer? Until we reach the final pages, all we’re given to speculate upon are cryptic summaries: “one thing followed from another far too gradually.”
Termeer’s chronically mistrustful, solipsistic, a compulsive liar. His sense of inferiority, even to those whom he despises, is paralyzing. In one especially memorable anecdote, he meets a student who he instantly dislikes, only to realize that they’re exactly alike, and Termeer befriends the younger man so as to enjoy feeling superior on account of his elder status. In another episode he develops a middling interest in a Swedish pianist (Anna also would play the piano) that becomes a blazing desire only with the appearance of a rival. He gradually resolves that the only way for him to function socially is to perform: “if it was impossible for me to become a good man I would at least aspire to live like a good man.”
Emants worked predominantly as a playwright, and part of what makes A Posthumous Confession so readable is the momentum and intimacy of its monologue. Termeer’s vulnerability sometimes yields emotional colours he might not even be cognizant of. His descriptions of fumbling teenage courtship are surprisingly tender, even sweet. Perhaps this sweetness helped to facilitate the profound sourness to come: “my love disappeared like a raindrop in hot sand: all that was left was a dirty brown spot.” Elsewhere, his wild pessimism is conveyed with such throttle that it actually becomes really funny: “O death, death—how frightened I have always been of it! Yet I have so often asked myself, ‘Were you unhappy before you were born?’”
Coetzee notes that A Posthumous Confession is a singularly pure example of the confessional genre, and Emants indeed invests an unusual degree of attention to developing Termeer’s distinctive literary voice and approach to self-analysis. His reasons for wanting to write become incrementally lucid and may even represent the most altruistic impulse Termeer is capable of feeling. “Who knows how many there are who are just like me,” he wonders, “yet will realize it only when they have seen themselves mirrored in me.” Yet there is also a sly bit of preternatural postmodernism emerging here. Termeer goes to see a play entitled Artist by one Marcellus Emants. It “made a deep impression on me because of the many features of resemblance between the artist and myself.” He even goes on to critique Emants’ play.
A Posthumous Confession’s most obvious antecedents are Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground and certain tales of psychological frailty by Poe. The novel also bears a certain likeness to early work by Emants’ Norwegian contemporary Knut Hamsun. But where do we find this underground figure in more recent decades? Perhaps in the work of Thomas Bernhard. Or perhaps we need to go to the movies. “I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention,” Travis Bickle confesses in Taxi Driver. “I believe that someone should become a person like other people.” If only becoming “a person” were that simple.