Sartre, intellectual speed-freak, and therefore generally fizzing with energy, proclaimed that \"to do is to be\", inverting Socrates\'s \"to be is to do\". Both these quotes persist in the collective mind because Kurt Vonnegut added: \"\'Do be do be do\' – Sinatra\". But I have always reserved my greatest sympathy for those, both in real life and in books, who have, through their very actions, or rather inactions, found Sartre\'s attitude profoundly questionable. Melville\'s Bartleby, Beckett\'s (and indeed Dante\'s) Belacqua, Goncharov\'s Oblomov – these are the characters who earn my deepest love and respect. One should not connive in the general futility. And the author of these stories explicitly comes out and says it: \"I want to be, and for me to do is: not to be.\" The main character in the first story, \"The Freeloader\", Japi, lives for scrounging off his friends and avoiding work. Everything satisfies and delights him. Well, almost: \"The one thing I\'m sorry about,\" he says at one point, \"is that there isn\'t a brawl in Walcheren every now and then.\" Here is his little speech about the world of school, followed by employment. \"First you go to school till you\'re 18 ... I had to learn the strangest things. \'Credited to the inventory account,\' translate that into French. Have a go at that … And it goes on for years. Then your old man sticks you in an office. And you realise that the reason you learned all those things was so that you could wet slips of paper with a little brush.\" The thing is, \"Nescio\" knew all there was to know about wetting slips of paper with a little brush – and more. It is the pseudonym of JHF Grönloh, the Dutch son of a shopkeeper, and a businessman in the import-export business, as well as a family man with four children. He found little time for writing, and wrote little: but what he wrote came out of the love of it, or the urgency to express something. And that something is, very often, about the grand scheme of things, and our insignificance within it – which would in itself not be the most earth-shattering of news, were it not for the fact that there is still something rather wonderful, something holy, about this insignificance. In this he resembles his near-contemporary Robert Walser. Walser\'s Berlin Stories (also published by NYRB Classics and reviewed here a few weeks ago) also feature the little man in whom a universe resides. Most of the nine stories here date from before or during the first world war. It\'s all rather like La Bohème, but more realistic, with penniless artists and a lot of smoking and talking and drinking of Dutch gin late into the night. As Joseph O\'Neill points out in his excellent introduction, this was a period when \"the social and existential predicament of the clerical classes was coming under unprecedented literary scrutiny, not least from the clerks themselves.\" But Nescio would, as a businessman, have known that you can\'t keep on doing nothing indefinitely. Japi, after a scuffle with a miner, becomes a shadow of himself and gets a job. And in the last story, \"Insula Dei\", set during the Nazi occupation, the narrator runs into an old friend of his, Flip. Now almost wholly wretched, it turns out he can, at least, remain unoccupied – within his own head. This story, appearing as it does like a coda to Nescio\'s previous work, is so well judged in tone and sentiment that for a moment the reader has the strangest feeling that he has arranged history itself so as to give his words greater poignancy and depth. \"But these aren\'t the first eventful times I have lived through and if I\'m granted even more years then with God\'s help I will most likely get to my third war. The silent course of things takes its silent, implacable course, the little man who is a hero today will tomorrow, when peace comes, be scolded in his stupid little job ...\" A word about the translation. Some speech has been translated into rather odd-sounding American slang of uncertain period. This grates on me – and I\'m half-American. It is a testament to the strength of Nescio\'s writing that mostly it survives its rough passage into English.