The World as an Institute

In August 1990, the recently retired Dutch ethnologist Johannes Jacobus Voskuil had a dream: he lay in his coffin and was carried to his grave while a song he had heard hundreds of times — Sidney Bechet’s rendition of “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out” — played in the background. He heard the crunch of gravel under the pallbearers’ feet. After a while, the soft swaying over others’ shoulders stopped, and he felt himself being lowered to the ground. As faint murmurs arose, and the footfalls died away, he lifted the lid of his coffin and sat up to watch the attendees depart. Those at the tail of the funeral train he didn’t know; those at the head were now too far away to recognize. Lying back, letting the lid settle over him again, he remained awake, “overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless sorrow.”  A month later, Voskuil began work on Meneer Beerta (Mister Beerta) an autobiographical novel chronicling eight years in the life of his alter ego, Maarten Koning, at the Bureau for Dialectology, Folklore, and Onomastics in Amsterdam. By July 1991 he had moved onto a sequel, Vuile Handen (Dirty Hands). He would continue writing at an average pace of around four pages a day, until by 1995 he had finished the longest novel written in Dutch, and one of the longest novels ever written, entitled Het Bureau (The Office or The Institute) which appeared in seven volumes from 1996 to 2000. On its surface, the premise is anything but promising: a not-quite-young man in need of work looks up a former professor, who offers him a job as a researcher for an Atlas for Folk Culture, investigating such topics as beliefs about the kabouter, a sort of leprechaun or gnome. Maarten accepts the post against the

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