God, Fear and the Sea
‘Not many readers may have noticed that deep down I’m a writer of sea stories,’ J.M.A. Biesheuvel wrote in the preface to Zeeverhalen (Sea Tales). As usual, it is not clear whether the author is entirely serious, as the majority of his work is set near the water or at sea. One of his most famous stories is the beautiful ‘Moped at Sea’, about a sailor who meets a man with a moped at sea, at night. This anthology of maritime stories, collected from his entire body of work, however, is the best proof that he is indeed ‘a writer of sea stories’.
There is no writer in Dutch literature who can mix the personal and the fantastical as well as he does. The themes that Biesheuvel uses are always the same: God, fear, the sea, and his fictional or non-fictional memories. Furthermore, he regularly refers to authors he admires, such as Melville, Chekov, Conrad, Nabokov, Kafka and, from his own region, Willem Elsschot and Karel van het Reve.
Biesheuvel grew up near the Rotterdam Harbour and, as a boy, was fascinated by the ocean steamers and oil tankers that he saw there. At the age of six, the sea terrified him when his grandfather took him to the beach for the first time. As a school boy, he hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, a naval archivist. Without any experience, he signed on as a tank cleaner on an oil ship and, in the hot darkness, he had long conversations with the crew in Russian and Hebrew about the meaning of the Bible.
In his most recent stories from Sea Tales, the protagonist is forty years older. His wife Eva sits by the fireplace, and he lights a cigar and begins to reread his favourite novel, Moby Dick. In bed at night, he imagines his bedroom is a ship’s cabin while a storm brews outside. ‘And I’m looking for that damned White Whale that devoured my right leg! I have books in my cabin, a few hundred books. Why wouldn’t a captain read books?’ There is no captain, however, who dives into literature and surfaces as gloriously the way J.M.A. Biesheuvel does.