Diary: A. L. Snijders in the country

Translated by Lydia Davis

I buy a heavy coal stove from a wine grower in France and transport it to Holland on a heavy trailer. There I build a chimney against the house that reaches above the ridge and in this way I heat the house for ten years. After that some reconstructions make the stove superfluous and the chimney must be taken down. If I fully extend the three-part ladder and stand on one of the highest rungs, if I then don’t look down too often, my balance secured in a self-conceived but Zen Buddhist-derived manner—the stone chisel carefully in my left hand, the hammer in my right—I can break apart my construction stone by stone. But only if nothing goes wrong. I have laid an old mattress down below me, I want to keep the falling stones intact as much as possible. It is going well, sometimes a stone slips from under my chisel, falls on the roof, breaks a tile, but eventually lands where I intend it to, down below.

Yet an incident occurs after a short time of hacking. I am still standing very high up, well above the bravery limit. Out of a crack appears a living creature, we are eye to eye, I don’t have much chance of dodging him. It’s a bat. For an hour the little animal must have found itself in uncertainty and distress. Indeterminate violence, hellish noise, steel on steel. If I move, I will fall and be smashed, while he can move comfortably off on his wings. I stay still, I don’t have the Medieval fear of bats, he buzzes into the air past my face, I imagine that he touches my eyebrows, but it could also be the vibrating air. I watch him go, for a moment he continues to fly among the trees at my height. What is going to happen to him, is he blind, can he find a new shelter by day?

Feral Cat
For the last forty years I have had pets. I could give an enumeration, but I won’t do that, I’ll leave it to your imagination. Now I no longer have a single pet, but there are still many animals in the house and on the land — mice, titmice, foxes, rabbits, deer, owls. I see them sometimes, they see me, we have an understanding, but we are separate from one another, I don’t feel responsible, and they have no obligation. So much for the tranquil, rural picture. Now comes the unrest, the mental rooting, the churning of the spirit, the abyss, the feeling of guilt, the feral cat. For years there has been a feral cat here in this area, I see it sometimes in the woods, but more often in the mown fields, it catches mice and birds, it is a pitiful, tough survivor. About a month ago I saw it with kittens, I must therefore say that I saw her with kittens. I remained strong and firm in my principles, but when I saw that there were fewer and fewer, I could no longer resist my feeling of guilt. I broke the code and every evening set a little container of food in the barn. Every morning it is empty.

In the Elm Trees
After the storm I cycle through the woods to see if the Vrauwdeunt family is still in the land of the living. I’m friends with this couple, Janus and Emilie Vrauwdeunt. Their humble little house lies deep in the woods, reachable only by those who know the way. So many trees have blown down that after a hundred meters I can no longer get through with my bicycle. I leave it behind and go scrambling on. The house was not struck, but it was a close call, Janus and Emilie are already sawing with a large two-person saw dating from World War II. They were in fact born before the war, Janus in 1935, Emilie in 1936. They are sober people, they are old but do not yet make use of the neighborhood care system. I would like to congratulate them, but I don’t do that, it is not for nothing that they have lived more than half a century in great solitude. They nod to me and continue sawing. Later, when weariness has won out, they invite me into the kitchen after all, to have a cup of coffee. What kind of tree are you sawing, I ask. An elm, says Emilie, but we call it an olm. An owl appears in my brain: “The owl was in the elm trees …” My memory refuses to cooperate any further, Emilie helps me: “ … as the night was falling, and back of yonder hills came soft the cuckoo calling.” After the coffee they continue sawing, but I am left with the sudden mystery of yonder hills.

A. L. Snijders was a teacher at a Dutch police academy when he developed his own particular literary form, the zkv (for zeer korte verhalen, or “very short story”) out of the informal columns he wrote for Dutch newspapers, and began sending them daily to an email list. Translator and fellow author of very short stories Lydia Davis discovered them when she took an interest in translating from the Dutch on a trip to Amsterdam. In a volume of Snijders’ zkv’s coming out this fall from New Directions, Night Train: Very Short Stories, she describes how she began translating the zkv’s she received from Snijders’ list, drawing on her nascent knowledge of Dutch, her very long experience as a translator, and her deep acquaintance with the form, avoiding looking up words until she had exhausted her store of intuitions about them. She says she learned a few things about the stories that surprised her: that Snijders placed as much importance on placing them in local papers as in major outlets; that he rarely revised them after writing; that he collected all his stories in his books of them; and that they are often made up. He died at his converted farm in Klein Dochteren, Holland, in June, at the age of eighty-three, having cut down from writing four or so a week for different outlets to one every other Saturday, which he read at 8:45 the following morning on the radio to approximately 70,000 listeners. He told her that “most of his listeners set their alarm clocks for 8:45, listen to the story, and go back to sleep.”

Lydia Davis’s own stories are gathered in The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, and her second volume of essays, Essays Two, will appear this fall.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture. Or sign up for our free posts, like this one, about the world of books. Among our recent reviews: Classical historian and Rome denizen Ingrid Rowland takes us on a journey to Ravenna with Judith Herrin; Black Is the Body author Emily Bernard considers Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.

Print: A Bookstore is Book Post’s Summer 2021 partner bookstore! We partner with independent booksellers to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.

Follow us: FacebookTwitterInstagram

If you liked this piece, please share and tell the author with a “like”

“Bat” first appeared in The Coffin Factory and “Feral Cat” first appeared in Washington Square.
Image: Wooded Landscape, Jacob Jacobsz van Geel, c. 1633. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands