A novel of illusion, and an ode to romance and magic
The tenth novel of one of the Netherlands’ finest stylists is about the power of memory. Or rather, the power of memory to deceive. Schröder paints a sensitive, sensual and colourful portrait of a man who is transported back in time to his first love by the smell of a cigarette.
Sebastian Welsend is fired shortly before he is to retire from his job at a bank. He decides to take up smoking again. At an elegant dinner, he finds himself daydreaming about his first love. He comes to a stunning realization: lighting a cigarette is what makes the memory come back— “The smoker awoke the cynic’s nostalgia, so that together they willingly, wistfully, lost themselves in the golden summers of their youth.”
His first love’s name was Henriëtte Clinger, but she preferred to be called Henri. They were childhood friends, hiding from the world among the books in a private library. Sebastian would listen to her playing the piano while lurking in the bushes outside her house. But it took him longer to grow up than it took Henri, so by the time he reached puberty, he had lost her, and life took a different turn. Threaded throughout this book is the realization that when it comes to love, reality doesn’t hold a candle to the memory of it—or the imagined memory of it, since the two are virtually impossible to tell apart.
Schröder skips back and forth between the present and the past, until a brain tumour threatens to erase all of Sebastian’s memories. He nevertheless travels to the American hamlet of Prosperity to look for Henri, only to be told that he has just missed her. In the end, however, as if sent by God at the right time, he winds up being given a role to play in her life after all.