A Posthumous Confession

"My wife is dead and buried," begins A Posthumous Confession unsentimentally, but the opening lines may as well be "I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man." Like his translator J. M. Coetzee, Marcellus Emants owes a great debt to Dostoevsky. Willem Termeer, the narrator of this 1894 Dutch novel, is a familiar type: the fragile narcissist whose misanthropy masks a thwarted humanism. Termeer's compact, self-lacerating tale of how he came to murder his wife casts him, not her, as the victim.

 

Although Termeer's backstory tends toward the facile—an aloof father, an angsty adolescence—the absurdity of his endless self-analysis gives the novel a mordant humor, and rescues what risks becoming a pat psychological portrait. "In only two cases can I bear people who are like me: when they are inferior to me, and when they think they know themselves as well as I know myself and therefore think as little of themselves as I do of myself," Termeer proclaims without evident irony.

 

Termeer is prone to aphorizing, but like the Underground Man before him, is not secure enough in himself to let any statement stand without annotation. "Is everything not illusion, and is illusion not everything?" he wonders ridiculously, only to call out his own nonsense. "In fact, even the word 'illusion' here is too pretty. Illusions too pine and shrivel in a tainted atmosphere, like plants in a hothouse that is overheated." The depths of Termeer's self-doubt often yield Emants's finest prose.

 

While Emants is, as Coetzee notes in his introduction, "a lesser artist, a lesser psychologist" than his Russian forebear, his neurotic paroxysm of a novel is a worthy homage.

July 29: On this day in 1878 Don Marquis was born.

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