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the Complete Review
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533 Days

Cees Nooteboom

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To purchase 533 Days

Title: 533 Days
Author: Cees Nooteboom
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 218 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: 533 Days - US
533 - UK
533 Days - Canada
533 - France
533 Tage - Deutschland
533. Il libro dei giorni - Italia
533 días - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Dutch title: 533
  • US title: 533 Days
  • UK title: 533
  • UK subtitle: A Book of Days
  • Translated by Laura Watkinson
  • With photographer Simone Sassen

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 29/11/2021 Boyd Tonkin
Le Monde . 9/6/2019 Florence Noiville
TLS . 3/12/2021 Nat Segnit
Wall St. Journal . 18/3/2022 Danny Heitman
The Washington Post . 1/6/2022 Michael Dirda
Die Welt . 15/10/2016 Marko Martin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nooteboom’s is a lyrical, meditative “book of days” inspired by the house and garden he has lovingly tended over decades on the island of Menorca, with excursions to the snowbound German village where he spends the winter months." - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "The digressiveness of Nooteboom's method owes a good deal to W. G. Sebald, even if, largely because of the rapidity of Nooteboom's transitions -- the constant flitting from nature observation to reflections on literature, language and politics -- it lacks the gravity of Sebald's reveries, the sense that the present, even in its most seemingly inconsequential detail, is inescapably freighted by history. (...) (W)hat prevents 533 from disappearing into its own digressiveness is Nooteboom's appealing habit of introducing, very casually, the sort of weighty idea another writer might have treated with more fanfare. (...) The aim, then, is a hodgepodge, if not at Leopardi's length then in his spirit" - Nat Segnit, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(O)ne gathers that Mr. Nooteboom, now 88, is connecting more these days with the pleasures of staying put. (...) 533 Days doesn't style itself as a repository of seasoned wisdom. Mr. Nooteboom's real subject is the one that's defined his career -- mainly, the persistent strangeness of existence and its refusal to be fully resolved by religion, philosophy or science." - Danny Heitman, Wall Street Journal

  • "Nooteboom divides his attention between the horticultural -- there's a lot about cactus -- and the cultural, but I like him best when he reflects on writers and writing" - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "(E)r schreitet eben nicht, wird bei keinem Schritt und in keinem Notat zum eisigen Kategorisierer à la Ernst Jünger, sondern bleibt – bei aller Belesenheit, bei allen im Laufe der Jahrzehnte geschriebenen und hochgelobten eigenen Büchern, bei aller Lebenserfahrung -- jener weltzutrauliche große Junge, den bereits ein frühes Foto aus den Fünfzigern zeigte: Cees Nooteboom und sein lebenslanger Schriftsteller-Freund Harry Mulisch Arm in Arm vor einer Sanddüne." - Marko Martin, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Halfway through 533 Days Cees Nooteboom actually dates one of the book's eighty chapters -- and reveals that:

When I began these notes, without thinking too much about it, I came up with the working title Diario Novo. That is not Spanish (nuevo) and not Italian (nuovo), maybe I was secretly hoping it would be Portuguese.
       It's an amusing admission in a work that is, as is clear from much else he writes about here, so attentive to language -- by an author who moves freely among several.
       533 days is the span of time presented here, chronologically, but it's not a day-by-day diary. [The dates Nooteboom gives at the conclusion -- 1 August 2014 to 5 January 2016 -- also don't actually span 533 days; I only count 523 (start- and end-date inclusive); I'm not sure what exactly happened there .....] Still, it's only at that midpoint that Nooteboom comes to admit what's become fairly obvious:
     It is even doubtful whether this is in fact a diary, perhaps it is more like a book of days, something to help you preserve the occasional something from the stream of what you think, what you read, what you see, certainly not a book for confessions. The theme was il faut cultiver notre jardin until I realized it was more a case of my garden teaching me
       (The original Dutch title of the volume is 533: Een dagenboek -- captured then also in the way the UK edition is presented: 533: A Book of Days.)
       So also then, nearing the conclusion, he considers again what his intentions had been: "I never meant for this to become a diary, I wanted to go inwards, and to stop going outwards. I had been out there for so long, and so often".
       533 Days is a book of meandering reflections, many occasioned by the locales -- much of the time spent on the familiar retreat of Menorca ("For more than half a century, I have been migrating to this island"), with some winter months spent in another retreat, in Germany (where: "everything is the German antithesis of my Spanish summers"). As he notes repeatedly, he's getting on in years, and he's been most everywhere; he takes comfort in being able to (or at least trying to) retreat to these places. If he can't exactly get away from it all, he can still at least withdraw to a fair extent.
       Nooteboom may not have done and seen it all, but he certainly has a long lifetime's worth of experiences to look back on, ranging very far across the globe -- as he also reminds readers. He gets amusingly pissy in noting that:
Last year, I read a piece by a Flemish reviewer. Apparently I pondered too much. That could be right. And I did not pay attention to the world. That happens when you get to my age. I think the writer was young. I did not meet him in Budapest in 1956, or in Bolivia in 1968, or in Tehran in 1976, or in Berlin in 1989
       He's certainly earned the right to lean back and adopt an (even) more reflective pose -- but in fact it's his keen, continuing interest in and deep knowledge of past and present, far beyond his garden's reaches, that makes his writing so interesting. Current events only intrude slightly here -- Greece, Ukraine, a few other odds and ends -- but he ranges far and wide otherwise. Mostly, word- and literature-related, but also beyond that.
       Nature, close at hand, is one of his preöccupations -- especially the cacti on his Menorcan property. Part of their appeal is the mystery they remain -- "I know nothing about cactuses", he admits at the outset -- and he observes more than once: "what if it were the garden that was cultivating me ? Teaching me unexpected forms of attention ?" These are enjoyable bits -- and there are several photographs, giving the reader a closer look at the unusual plants -- and it fits in with his larger theme of aging and time passing, as he's also been able to observe over the more than forty years he's been coming to this island.
       If close to nature, Nooteboom is also very much a word-person, and much here is also about language and literature. Among others, he mentions reading Elias Canetti, Philip Roth's Sabbath Theater, and a trio of Hungarians: Bánffy, Esterházy, and Towards the One & Only Metaphor-author Miklós Szentkuthy ("something like a volcano in constant eruption"), noting also the different languages he reads the latter three in: Dutch, German, French, and English. He consults a whole batch of diaries -- Max Frisch's and Gombrowicz's, Julien Green, Michel Leiris, and André Gide's.
       He wonders: "what could you go on to do after Finnegans Wake ?" -- asking:
So is that it, then ? The end of the novel ? No. There is still an undiscovered realm of possible variants. And perhaps the metamorphosis of reality, captured in a metamorphosis of the way of dealing with that change. But what is most likely is in fact what you see around you all the time, the apotheosis of the manufactured novel, fiction as a product, respectable enough to fill the increasingly slim literary supplements, which also turns them into an extension of the industry.
       He notes that after writing his first novel, Philip and the Others, in 1954: "I did not write fiction for another seventeen years, because I had realised I had not yet lived enough to do so". By this point, as he writes these words, he's certainly had a very full lifetime worth of experience -- quite a few bits of which are also related along the way here -- but, interestingly, he sticks to reflection, rather than turning again to fiction .....
       Language at its most basic continues to interest him -- "Language, words, style" --, and he devotes some space to dictionaries -- which, he points out: "are not only treasuries, they are also graveyards" (which certainly seems to be part of their appeal to him). He also writes about acquiring a second-hand set of the Dutch OED, the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal with its "endless number of volumes" (forty-three, apparently) -- so enormous that: "In my house in Amsterdam it stands on the floor -- there is nowhere else that can accommodate it" -- and how he can: "spend hours reading it", feeling: "as if I am descending in a bathyscaphe, where words dwell that I have never seen or read before".
       533 Days is an agreeably rambling piece of work, a man with a great deal of knowledge and experience weaving some of that together with a very practiced hand in these reflections on art, life, nature, aging, and death. It's a charming and enjoyable work, with many very good and clever observations -- some borrowed from elsewhere (he quotes and refers to numerous others' works, from Max Frisch on Bertolt Brecht to a riff that skips from Albert Samain to Gertrude Stein to Kant and Kleist), but all nicely put together.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 May 2022

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533 Days: Reviews: Cees Nooteboom:
  • Other books by Cees Nooteboom under review: Other books of interest under review:

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    About the Author:

           Dutch author Cees Nooteboom was born in 1933. He is a poet, novelist, and travel writer.

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    © 2022 the complete review

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