Laan van Nieuw Oost-Indië 275, The Hague, The Netherlands +31(0)70 365 46 77

Word of the Day: levensverhaal (life story, vertellen part 3)

Today’s musing on a Dutch word is my hundredth VERHAAL (story) since I begun in December 2012. It also happens to be my sixtieth birthday. So my LEVENSVERHAAL (life story) counts sixty years so far, over half a million hours in total. Were I to tell the story of my life in detail, I would need a lot of leisure time. How many hours would it take? Where would I begin? At the hour of my birth? The hour of my conception? The hour my parents met? A tall order.

levensverhaal 3

VERHAAL (story) and VERTELLEN (tell, recount) disguise their secret natures in the words themselves. VERHAAL comes from the verb VERHALEN which is synonymous with VERTELLEN. VERHALEN, literally means ‘retrieve’, ‘call back’, ‘get back’, ‘recall’. A VERHAAL is the retrieval in speech of a series of events from the past.

VERTELLEN is the twin of TELLEN (count). In English the verb ‘to tell’ originally meant to count. A ‘teller’ can still mean either a ‘cashier’ or a ‘storyteller’. ‘To recount’ is another word for ‘to tell’ and is unmistakably family of French ‘raconter’. French ‘counting’ is ‘compter’. German ‘erzählen’ (to tell) contains ‘zählen’ meaning to count.

It is a striking fact that in all European languages VERTELLEN (tell) and TELLEN (count) are inseparably bonded. Strange! What have words and letters to do with numbers and numerals? TAAL (speech, language) and GETAL (number), ‘tale’ and ‘tell’. At first sight they move around in parallel universes.

The first recorded texts were accounts marked on clay tablets. Counting cattle and cereals must have inspired people to account for their actions almost immediately. The rest is history. Three millennia of accounts of events and actions. Stories true and false. Beowulf and Wrawrafru by Ann Harris. The Dutch word OPSOMMING (enumeration) sums it up. Once upon a time…First this happened. Then this caused… Which led to… And eventually … End of a long story…

The Old Testament of the Bible is a case in point. This life story of the Jews starts off with: ‘In the beginning…’ and then there are endless lists of who begot whom. Scores of generations from Adam and Eve as the earliest lawbreakers in history.

A LEVENSVERHAAL (life story) can never be more than a mere shadow of the numerous events happening in real life.

In the thirteenth century the Latin word ‘storia’ referred to the narrative of important events or celebrated persons of the past. So at first a story was about true events and around 1500 it started to mean a narrative of fictitious events. True stories eventually became esteemed lies. The story of ‘story’ in a nutshell is as follows: true life story turned into fiction of life which then became ‘Ah, it’s the story of my life’, ain’t that sad.

One of my favourite novels is Laurence Sterne’s ‘Tristram Shandy’. The official title of this humorous novel from the 18th century is ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. The title reveals that it is the main character’s ambition to collect all his memoires. The book, however, contains little of his gentlemanly life. Let alone his opinions.

Tristram is forced to make so many explanatory diversions that he has to go back to events long before his birth. As a result Tristram’s own birth is not even reached until the third volume. And the account of his life stops after the painful accident when the sash fell on his willy while the toddler was peeing out of the window.

What if I were to start on my life story? What would I recount and what would I leave out? Sterne pokes fun at autobiographies, saying: forget it, Ruud, for it is pointless. Perhaps the best and most succinct life story of all is Beckett’s opening of ‘A Piece of Monologue’: ‘Birth was the death of him.’

Photo by Gustaaf Hisgen (1888-1957) of Jules Hisgen (born 1921) telling his son Ruud Hisgen (born 1953) a story on 2 October 1954