A Heart-Rending Remembrance, Delivered Posthumously

David L. Ulin in The Los Angeles Times:

Book_2 Jan de Hartog’s A View of the Ocean is very much in keeping with a sub-tradition in modern European literature: the small, spare memoir of a parent’s death. “During the thirty years of their married life, she had been a silent, accommodating, self-effacing woman,” De Hartog writes, who suddenly revealed “a core of drop-forged steel.” Caught in the Dutch East Indies when World War II broke out, she spent three years in a Japanese prison camp, where, it is said, she functioned as a “mischievous saint.” She gave “Bible classes to Chinese children, [ran] a hospital for the aged, taught classes in philosophy, medieval mysticism, astrology, and the history of English gardens to women on the brink of breakdown.” More important, she subtly influenced the camp commandant, arranging for a convoy of sick prisoners to be taken to a Red Cross post. After the war, she gave comfort to an “unending stream of women, girls, men, young students, children, grandchildren” who visited her in Amsterdam; De Hartog admits having been astonished by just how many lives she had touched.

Knowing all this about De Hartog’s mother only makes it harder to watch her decline. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, she grows diminished, until her humanity is nearly stripped away. Here, De Hartog is at his finest as a writer — sharply detailed, tender but not sentimental, even clinical at times. In the end, De Hartog stares down his “childish grief and horror…not by thinking of other things…but by focusing on and identifying with her….I could help her only as long as I completely forgot about myself.” Here we have the key to this profoundly moving memoir — the author’s unflinching directness in the face of his mother’s dying, his refusal to look away from the thing itself.

More here.