Eleven hundred pages of sharp, subdued, ironic prose
F. Springer, pseudonym for Carel Jan Schneider, was an administrative officer and diplomat who travelled the world in the service of the Dutch State. He lived and worked in New Guinea, New York, Bangkok, Brussels, Dhaka, Luanda and Teheran, all of which have served as locations for the novels and stories which he has published since his debut, Bericht uit Hollandia (Message from Hollandia) in 1962.
These places are all settings which appeal to the imagination, particularly as Springer, now seventy years old, was often there at a time of great upheaval. As he describes in Bericht uit Hollandia, he lived in New Guinea shortly before its independence from The Netherlands. In Teheran, een zwanenzang (Teheran, A Swan Song), he witnesses the last, terrifying days of the Shah’s reign. Several spectacular episodes from Springer’s real ‘life in a suitcase’ are reflected in the fictitious lives of his characters, now collected in the beautiful tome Verzameld werk (Collected Works).
Although Springer prefers stories with a plot – he claims to have learnt the trade from Somerset Maugham and F.Scott Fitzgerald – his aren’t heroic dramas. On the contrary, quite a few machos and braggarts meet a terrible death. For all his bravado, Tommie Vaulant from the novel Bougainville (Bougainville) drowns in the sea, and in the collection Schimmen rond de Parula (Shadows around the Parula) a na?ve and over-confident missionary on ‘Leech Island’ is nailed to a cross by natives due to his own stupidity. Therefore, Springer’s narrators are not crude, but rather, observant characters looking at the world in wonder. In Bougainville, Tommie Vaulant calls his friend Bo (like Springer a writer and a diplomat), ‘the secretary’. He is one of those people who always thinks of everything, notices everything. This is also how Springer’s stories should be read; as if he himself is entirely uninvolved which, of course, he isn’t. Near yet far, involved but at a distance – these are the paradoxes that Springer’s work evolves around.
Springer’s style, too, is ambiguous. He is a master of understatement. His description of the events in those dark, enchanting places is laconic; he uses both humour and irony to describe how the diplomats attempt to save themselves – often without success – from hopeless situations. The novels are also steeped in melancholy and longing, including the most recent two titles, Bandoeng-Bandung and Kandy, in which the author returns to his lost childhood. In short, Springer doesn’t use impressive words, doesn’t shout blue murder, but instead writes in a clear, quiet voice, which is why his novels are so well received.