A View of the Ocean, a memoir by Jan de Hartog (Pantheon)

In The Art of Time in Memoir, Sven Birkerts names three approaches to discovering “a dramatic explanatory narrative” in memoir: “For some the event-based story of the past may be paramount … for others it may be the process of discovering that there is a story … and for still others the main incentive might be to connect with the elusive feelings and associations of what happened long ago.” The more the emphasis moves from story to discovery and elusive feelings, the more Birkerts points to the writer called the “lyrical memoirist” who experiences a “primal amazement” in the act of assembly.

dehartog.jpgThis makes Jan de Hartog the unlyrical memoirist of A View of the Ocean, written in 1943, just after he arrived in England as an exile from Holland. His attention is fixed on two main characters. His father, a Protestant theologian, and his mother. “My mother died at the age of seventy-nine,” the first sentence reads. “She was a gentle, saintly woman who had always seemed somewhat intimidated by her husband and her two sons.” The narrative moves toward the circumstances of her death as toward a target, a clean cut toward the hard truth. Discussing memoirs by Nabakov and Dillard, Birkerts speaks of “the collision of original perception and hindsight realization: the revision of the then by the >em>now.” This apt description of the memoir in general is qualified by de Hartog’s approach in which the narrator charms us into believing that there is no “now,” that everything he brings to the story was predetermined by a personality and outlook long ago formed and closed. The charm derives from the clarity of the writing, the selection of spare, critical detail, and a frankness of emotional statement that demands no deeper consideration than any other element of the story. In other words, he creates a world in which no epiphany seems either appropriate or forthcoming. Yet a realization does arrive, and when it does, the impact has a warm, diffuse effect in keeping with the overall narrative tone, as if spreading back to everything one has just read.

I notice that Pantheon categorizes the book as “inspirational; memoir” on its back cover. A slim volume of 102 pages, A View of the Ocean may ultimately meet the needs of the inspiration seeker at Barnes and Noble, but not before delivering an actual world, almost entirely stripped clean of the sentimental. The first part of the memoir looks at how the father’s dominant presence, religious preoccupations, and eccentricities shaped the family’s life. To Jan and his brother, the father “seemed at times a monster of egocentricity, a tyrant, a blustering bully; to her he was always a sensitive, shy, and helpless man with a mission.” His habitual attachment to certain belongings, even when on holiday, included “his silverware, his tea service, his books, his plaster bust of Schopenhauer, to say nothing of the hip bath, which my brother and I remember vividly because of the hippopotamic sounds that came from the bathroom as my mother poured water over him and they both scrubbed away at his huge body with long-handled brushes.”

De Hartog selects just a few situations to color his parents; there is no pretense to deep psychology. This is a world one simply accepts and strives within, starting with the First World War, moving through the Second, sensing all along that these violent upheavals have wounded life everywhere. In a riveting episode, de Hartog accompanies his father to a pre-war rally against Germany’s anti-semitic policies. Arnold de Hartog challenged the Dutch fascists and delivered his most memorable speech. (Just a few years later, Jan de Hartog would be pursued by the Gestapo for rescuing babies from Dutch Jews bound for Auschwitz. This does not come up in the memoir. A View of the Ocean has another singleminded agenda.)

When the father died, Lucretia de Hartog began the second phase of her adult life. She traveled to the Dutch East Indies in August, 1939 to visit de Hartog’s brother and lived there until 1942 when the Japanese invaded. The brother became a prisoner-of-war and Lucretia was interned in a grim prison camp. In the fall of 1945, she returned to Europe, having spent three years in horrific conditions, surviving through an inner strength. De Hartog elevates her profile through courage and her concern for others – in order to set us up for the second half of the book, the harrowing story of her death and his role in caring for her.

Lucretia de Hartog’s religiosity embraced the mystical beliefs and communal customs of many types of spirituality. Arnold de Hartog’s library included several books on the Kaballah and the Zohar of Jewish mysticism. In her later life, Lucretia regularly attended Quaker meetings. Although it is not mentioned in the memoir, de Hartog became a Quaker after his second marriage, in 1961, to Marjorie Mein. But A View of the Ocean is not interested in creating an arc from cynical worldliness to traditional religiosity, even though the narrator speaks from a blighted view of the world. He says, “Until the end of his days, my father lived in the unshakable belief that Mankind was striding forcefully and purposefully ahead on the spiral road of evolution, led by Heroes, temporal and spiritual. His sons saw Mankind fall into a snake pit of murderous insanity, where the Sermon on the Mount was read aloud to bomber crews about to take off to obliterate Berlin.” Arnold de Hartog never forced his sons to surrender to a system of belief. He told them that had it not been for religion, he would have been a pirate.

To the final sentences of A View of the Ocean, de Hartog maintains a singular narrative voice, seasoned by tough experience. The suffering of his mother could only darken a tragic vision. But this is a memoir, after all; the shape of the story, in the end, offers balance, an integrative gesture. The graceful, candid simplicity of the telling is itself a measure of how to regard adversity. Commenting on Forster and Shaw, Cyril Connolly wrote, “The parable form of Forster’s novels may survive the pamphlet form of Shaw’s plays, despite their vigorous thinking, because Forster is an artist and Shaw is not. Much of his art consists in the plainness of his writing for he is certain of the truth of his convictions and the force of his emotions. It is the writer who is not sure what to say or how he feels who is apt to overwrite either to conceal his ignorance or to come unexpectedly on an answer.” In our latest romance with the memoir, we often allow the writer to overwrite or write with less selectivity or applied intention as long as he comes unexpectedly on an answer. This simply would not have worked for de Hartog. He not only knew exactly what he wanted to say, but artfully employed the memoirist’s double-view to lead us to an unsuspected insight.

dehartog2.jpgBackground: Jan de Hartog (1914-2002) was a Dutch novelist and playwright whose life was shaped and propelled by the circumstances of World War II. He ran away from home at the age of ten to sail with a fishing boat on the Zuider Zee, and started writing at eighteen while working as a brass polisher with the Amsterdam Harbor Police. He attended the Amsterdam Naval Academy and worked as a sailor. After producing five detective novels in the 1930s, he published Holland’s Glory, just as the Nazis occupied the Netherlands. Selling over 1,000,000 copies, the novel likened the lives of tugboat sailors to the famous mariners of the old Dutch commercial empire, and was taken up as a proud statement of Dutch independence. Displeased with the notoriety of his book, his war correspondence, and his stand against anti-semitism, the Gestapo took an interest in him. De Hartog hid in the Netherlands for three years, then fled to England where joined the community of exiled Dutch sailors, an experience that inspired several keenly observed and suspenseful war novels, such as The Distant Shore and The Captain, written in English, as was everything he produced from that time forward. My copy of The Distant Shore was published by Harper & Brothers in 1952. It is told in an uninflected voice about the challenges and terrors of submarine warfare and mine removal in the North Sea. He lived in England for 10 years, marrying the eldest daughter of J.B. Priestley. His play, The Fourposter, won a Tony for best play of 1952, and later was produced as a movie by Columbia, starring Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer, and as the musical “I Do, I Do” in 1966, starring Carol Burnett and Rock Hudson in its national tour. His novel, Stella (1951), was adapted for the screen with Sophia Loren and William Holden, as was The Spiral Road (1957), starring Rock Hudson. Other notable works included novels The Commodore (1986), a trilogy fictionalizing the history of the Society of Friends, The Centurion (1989), and The Outer Buoy (1994). De Hartog moved to the US in 1963. In 1964, then living in Houston, he wrote The Hospital, a critique of the city’s healthcare services for the poor. He and his second wife remained active in progressive social causes, using the proceeds from The Hospital to fund local programs. Their peace and social justice efforts lead to their advocacy of charity to Korean and Vietnamese war orphans; they adopted two Korean children. These events were chronicled in The Children (1969). He wrote 27 works in all.

[Published 11/27/07, 102 pp., $17.95 hardcover.]
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