A Dutch sculptor reminisces about the love of his life in this new translation of a 1969 novel.
In the tradition of Nabokov’s Lolita or Breton’s Nadja, Wolkers’ novel tells the story of a man whose obsession with a woman consumes him. In this case, the woman is Olga, whom the artist meets when she picks him up hitchhiking. When the novel begins, their relationship is already over. We start with a portrait of the artist in his studio, masturbating to her memory and tormenting the American coeds who rent rooms from him. Interweaving vignettes of the love affair with its aftermath, in which Olga reappears and disappears at intervals, the artist must come to terms with what it's like to live and make art under the powerful spell of memory. Although the novel must have been a great deal of fun to translate—Garrett brings its lyricism to life as well as its sexuality and scatology—it makes for a disturbing read. In 1969, it may have been brave or even revolutionary for a male protagonist to admit his most erotic or disgusting thoughts or allow himself cleareyed moments of self-awareness. But at a time when the phrase “toxic masculinity” is in common parlance, it’s extra painful to see Olga (whom the artist calls his “sweet, red animal”) alternately brutalized and idealized by a narrator whose honesty, at least, seems meant to be admired. For all that, Wolkers is a lovely stylist, and the images of the memories that obsess the artist here—like Olga throwing her old dolls over a bridge into the water—don’t erase the bad taste of Olga’s powerlessness but do introduce some surprising notes of sweetness.
An unsettling juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness.