J. Bernlef


Ingenious and moving novel on loss of language written from the perspective of an Alzheimer’s disease patient

The boundaries of reality are tested in Out of Mind, a tender and almost microscopical examination of senility, written from the perspective of an Alzheimer’s patient. The novel, originally published in 1983, was the breakthrough of J. Bernlef, author of more than 50 works of fiction, poetry, nonfiction and drama, and is still one of the most-read novels in Dutch literature with its unique and fascinating narrative.

Bernlef’s most important themes – forgetting, vanishing, remembering – have an important place in the novel that marked his 1984 breakthrough to a broad readership. Out of Mind is the first-person account of a Dutch immigrant in the snowy landscape of North America whose dementia is steadily worsening. ‘Memories can sometimes be temporarily out of reach, just like words,’ thinks Maarten Klein at the beginning of the story, ‘but surely they can’t disappear completely while you’re alive.’

It is of course a vain hope. Alzheimer’s disease is inexorable, even if it rarely takes effect so rapidly as in Bernlef’s central character and even if few patients remain so eloquent. His illness takes him into a swift descent that begins with ordinary moments of forgetfulness – the time of day, someone’s name, a misplaced item – and spirals into the ultimate terror where he cannot trust his perceptions any longer and is left spinning in a whirlpool of fragmented images.

He tries to fight his disorientation by seeing it as normal for his age, tries to link it to childhood experiences of waking up when ‘the walls of your room were all wrong around you. In your mind you had to swivel the room around…’ Though his link to his world has been severed, he survives on internal monologues that are fed by surprisingly rich images.

In his effective choice of Maarten’s present-tense perspective, Bernlef forces his readers to participate in Maarten’s terrifying journey through an unfamiliar landscape. Maarten’s bewilderment mirrors the confusion he felt when he and his wife, Vera, first arrived in Gloucester (Mass.). Like all immigrants, they were confronted by the different language, the unknown region. But in this internal terrain of chaos, any adaptation is deceptive: moments shift, rules change and language ultimately fails. ‘I seem to lose words like another person loses blood.’

Bernlef has written a dark book about irreversible loss – loss of self, of language, of relationships, of memories. Although the voice at the end of the novel suggests hope, the situation is bleak: Maarten is removed from his home and taken to a hospital where he lies nearly incoherent, ‘hidden from the eye of the world.’

Mr. Bernlef brings such intensity to the telling of this horribly fascinating tale that we have a sense of accompanying Maarten in his descent, not as observers but as participants in his tragedy.

The New York Times

Inch by inch, Maarten’s mind is slowly leaking away, until it’s gone. Bernlef’s account of that torture is poignant and daring.

Harold Pinter

Memory and forgetting, loss and decay – those are the themes in Out of Mind and also in the larger body of Mr Bernlef’s work.

NRC Handelsblad

Maybe it is on the account of the snow that I feel so tired. Even in the morning. Vera doesn’t, she likes snow. To her there is nothing better than a snowy landscape. When the traces of man vanish from nature, when everything turns into one immaculate white plain: how beautiful! She says it almost in rapture. But this state of affairs never lasts long here. Even after a few hours you see footprints and tire tracks everywhere and the main roads are cleared by snow plows.

I hear her in the kitchen, making coffee. Only the ochre-colored post at the school bus stop indicates where Field Road passes our house. Actually, I don’t understand what has happened to the children today. I stand here by the window every morning. First I check the temperature and then I wait until they turn up everywhere from among the trees in the early morning, with their schoolbags on their backs, their colorful hats and scarves and their shrill American voices. The bright colors make me feel cheerful. Flaming red, cobalt blue. One boy wears a egg-yolk-yellow parka with a peacock embroidered on the back, a boy with a slight limp who is always the last to climb into the school bus. It is Richard, son of Tom the lighthouse keeper, born with one leg shorter than the other. A skyblue, fan-shaped peacock tail studded with darkly staring eyes. I don’t know where they can all be today.

(The house creaks on its joists like an old cutter. Outside the wind rolls through the crowns of the otherwise bare, bending pines. And at fixed moments, the dull, lowing cry of the foghorn beside the lighthouse on the last rocky spur of Eastern Point. At fixed moments. You can set the clock by it.)

Excerpt translated by Adrienne Dixon


J. Bernlef

Bernlef (1937-2012) schreef een groot aantal gedichten, verhalen, romans en essays. Van zijn vele romans zijn Hersenschimmen (1984, verfilmd en in vele talen vertaald) en Publiek geheim (AKO Literatuurprijs, 1987) het bekendst. Hij ontving voor zijn grote oeuvre vele prijzen waaronder de P.C.…

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Hersenschimmen (1984). Fictie, 166 pagina's.
Oplage: 750.000

Thema's: klassiek geheugen dementie


More Dutch Classics



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