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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

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.


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