PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

A View of the Ocean by Jan de Hartog

Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

With any luck, this deeply affecting posthumous memoir, centered on the awful process of watching his elderly mother die, will expose de Hartog to at least a few more American readers.


A View of the Ocean

Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 9780375424700
Author: Jan de Hartog
Price: $17.95
Length: 102
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-11
Amazon

The Dutch novelist and playwright Jan de Hartog is too little known in the United States, even though he lived and worked here continuously from the early 1960s until his death in 2002 at the age of 88. With any luck, this deeply affecting posthumous memoir, centered on the awful process of watching his elderly mother die, will expose him to at least a few more American readers.

For de Hartog was not only a major world writer of his century, the author of more than 20 books and the Tony Award-winning play The Fourposter, (1952) but also a hero of the Dutch resistance whose first significant novel, Holland's Glory (1940), so incensed the Nazis that he was forced to make a dangerous escape to England.

As related in this skillfully rendered brief memoir, de Hartog came from a prominent Dutch family, his father an influential and admired theologian and preacher who criticized the Nazis and defended Jews in a risky and dramatic speech in 1933.

"That night," de Hartog writes, "I discovered that his courage was real, and the episode became linked in my memory with the sight of him praying behind the shed in the garden. I realized for the second time that he meant what he said: To be a Christian indeed meant to be a hero, at least in his case."

Partly in response to their father's forceful personality, partly as a reaction to the suffering they witnessed and experienced during World War II, both de Hartog and his brother rejected the family faith.

De Hartog writes that his mother "came into her own" after the death of her husband in 1939. Traveling in the Dutch East Indies to visit his brother, she was trapped behind enemy lines after the Japanese invaded in 1942. She was placed in a prison camp, where "her inner strength, that hitherto unsuspected power, revealed itself. Scores of women, old and young, wrote to me after her death to tell me how much she had meant to them during those years."

Meeting his mother, as she came off the boat returning with bedraggled Dutch women after the armistice, de Hartog is shocked: "She was, like all of them, gaunt and emaciated; the only difference was that her eyes were not haunted by horror, but radiant with love."

When he asks how she had managed, his mother says that when you need it, you get help from "a strength, a power, that enables you to forget about yourself."

De Hartog muses: "I thought she put it cannily, aware as she was of my suspicion of religious phrases. But I could not bring myself, not even under the pressure of that irrefutable evidence, to accept the reality of the `help' she had received."

Years later, when de Hartog Hartog is struggling to cope with his mother's last illness, he comes to learn about that kind of "help" firsthand. While she lies stripped of all dignity by an agonizing cancer, and by the indifference of the Dutch medical institutions meant to care for her, he is pushed beyond his natural inner resources, exhausted, stressed past endurance, past even the bonds of familial devotion.

The crisis comes in the middle of a night in which the pain of her dying renders his mother into a wailing animal, her room reeking not only of the stench of human excrement, but also of the putrefaction of death. "I could not go in, I could not, I knew I would be unable to face it, I knew I would be unable to stand that terrible odor, I knew I would give up the moment I opened the door."

Despite his lack of belief, de Hartog retreated to the hospital chapel to kneel in desperate prayer, feeling like an "interloper." Yet when he finally opened the door to his mother's room, and confronted all the horror he had expected, he found a strength outside himself that enabled him to calm and comfort his suffering mother.

"As I sat there, motionless, I felt that peace and serenity fill her with stillness, flowing through me, as through a conduit. What was it that was using me in this way? I had no idea, and I was not going to give it a name. All I knew at that moment was that it was as real and as mysterious as the rising sun, the summer air, and the song of the birds hailing the new day."

A more sentimental man might have turned from this experience directly back to the God of his parents, but de Hartog was a sterner sort, unwilling to set aside his conception of the world or himself, even on such evidence as this. All that can be said is that he ends the book more open to the notion of spiritual reality, whatever its source -- the human mind, God, or something else, less definable.

It's a conclusion neither believers nor apostates will find satisfactory, but A View of the Ocean is immensely moving. In the words of the contemporary American folk singer Iris Demet, addressing precisely these matters, sometimes it is best to let the mystery be.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.