Title: Out of Mind (Hersenschimmen)
Author(s): J. Bernlef
No. of pages: 160
Publication date: 1984
Date read: June 13th 2018
This intimate and affecting story of the dramatic decline suffered by an elderly man afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease draws its strength from the first-person narrative voice of the man himself. Initially lucid, if fatigued, 71-year-old Maarten Klein lives with his wife Vera in Gloucester, Mass. Dutch-born, they endured with difficulty the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands before emigrating to the U.S., where Maarten worked as a secretary for the Intergovernmental Maritime Consultative Organization. While Maarten has long considered himself a socially “marginal figure,” in other respects the Kleins’ lives are unremarkable but for his intensity of perception, sustained in sharply convincing fragments even as his faculties disintegrate. “I seem to lose words like another person loses blood,” he observes helplessly, and resolves to “invent a life for myself from minute to minute,” but ultimately becomes the sole and poignant “survivor of my own language.”
I notice, while trying to come up with words to describe my feelings towards this story, that I just don’t know the words to describe what I felt while reading it. I got goosebumps, that’s for sure, and I felt sad and scared. After I finished it, I just sat with the book in my lap, staring into the void and also at my boyfriend. I can’t imagine losing the memories we built together. I can’t imagine not being able to recognise him anymore. With that I’d kind of lose my whole life. And that’s exactly what this book is about. Maarten slowly loses his grip on reality and on his own life.
Bernlef’s writing style and the way he built the story was perfect for this topic. At the start Maarten still snaps back into reality, but eventually he ends up in Alzheimer’s world for good. Just how small one’s world can get with Alzheimer’s is perfectly displayed in Bernlef’s writing style – the sentences and paragraphs gradually get shorter and more fractured.
I really don’t think my review does this book any justice and I (fortunately) don’t know anyone with dementia/Alzheimer’s. So, if I’ve said anything that’s wrong: please say so. All I know for sure is that Hersenschimmen is a new favourite of mine. Right after finishing it, I wanted to go back to the start and read it all over again. Just like Maarten gets tricked by his mind and Alzheimer’s disease, the reader gets tricked by his story. I definitely recommend that you all read it!