Cees Nooteboom

Philip and the Others

Poetic road novel full of longing and literary allusions

What seems most astounding now when rereading this debut novel (first published in 1955), is that, viewed with the knowledge we have today, the complete writer Cees Nooteboom can already be seen in this book. The romantic writer who travels around and around the world, his head brimming with culture, history and literature; someone to whom the right poetic quotes and allusions to classical mythology occur naturally; someone who confers with both the living and the dead – as evidenced by his many visits to the tombs of his admired predecessors.

Nooteboom not only lives for literature, but also seems driven by the beauty of this art, as a writer and as a reader – these two roles are inseparable for him. Memories are his companions and the sense of a parallel reality is always present. These elements can be seen in Philip en de anderen. At the beginning, Philip, the protagonist, remembers going, as a ten-year-old, to visit his eccentric elderly uncle. This lonely, sensitive homosexual makes it clear to Philip that he must steer clear of everyday life.

The title of the novel reveals the importance of other people in the education of the young Philip. Seen in this light, Nooteboom’s debut is both a Bildungsroman and a coming-of-age novel. Philip is shaped by entering the world, by meeting others, by travelling, by reading, by having experiences. This is his quest for perfect happiness, which perhaps does not exist on Earth. Philip hopes, however, to find such happiness by meeting a Chinese girl; this muse is symbolic of that joy. She appears to exist mainly in stories, constantly inventing fictions herself in order to keep ordinary life at bay.

Meanwhile, during his travels around Europe, Philip searches for love in a far more prosaic way, in the arms of a series of different girls and young mothers. Will this nomad find what he is unconsciously seeking? Cees Nooteboom’s rich oeuvre forms a life-long answer.

He is a philosopher, a bon viveur, a rogue, a dreamer, a cosmopolitan and a nomad, a cook, a melancholic. He has something of Pascal about him, and Eulenspiegel, Wolfram Siebeck and Robert Burton. And he is a metaphysician: Cees Nooteboom.

Joachim Sartorius

Nooteboom has told this story from the inside out, exposing the turbulent depths of his characters. His poetic imagery lingers.’

Publishers Weekly


My uncle Antonin Alexander was a strange man. When I saw him for the first time, I was ten years old and he was about seventy. He lived in an ugly, immensely large house in the Gooi, crammed with the most peculiar, useless, and hideous furniture. I was still very small and couldn’t reach the bell. I did not dare to thump on the door or rattle the letter box, as I always did elsewhere. In the end I walked around the house. My uncle Alexander was sitting in a sagging armchair of faded purple plush, with three yellowed antimacassars, and he really was the strangest man I had ever seen. On each hand he wore two rings, and only later, after six years, when I went there for the second time, and then to stay, could I tell that the gold was brass and the red and green stones (“I have an uncle who wears rubies and emeralds”) were colored glass.

“Are you Philip?” he asked.

“Yes, Uncle,” I said to the figure in the chair. I saw only his hands. His head was in the shade.

“Have you brought me anything?” the voice asked again. I hadn’t and I said, “I don’t think so, Uncle.”

“A visitor ought to bring something.”

I don’t think I found that odd at the time. It was true – a visitor ought to bring a present. I put down my suitcase and walked back to the street. In the garden next to my uncle Alexander’s I had seen rhododendrons, and I cautiously entered the gate and cut off a few blooms with my pocketknife.

For the second time I was standing by the terrace. “I brought you some flowers, Uncle,” I said. He stood up and at last I saw his face.

(Excerpt translated by Adrienne Dixon)


Cees Nooteboom

Cees Nooteboom (b. 1933) debuted in 1955 with the novel Philip en de anderen (Philip and the Others) and has since built up an imposing oeuvre of novels, poetry, short stories and travelogues. His work earned him numerous awards, among which the Bordewijk Prize an the (American) Pegasus Prize for…

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Philip en de anderen (1955). Fiction, 160 pages.

Themes: classic


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