Childhood

Following the success of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings, Pushkin Press have released a translation by Sam Garrett of two of his novellas (originally published in 1949 and 1950) under the title Childhood. If this, alongside the gentle sunset pinks of the cover, elicits thoughts of youthful innocence, you will perhaps be surprised by the contents, which are more faithfully represented by the darkness beneath the bridge. This is not a darkness inflicted on children by adults, but the twisted, sometimes violent, minds of his protagonists, who exist in a world which is quite divorced from adult experience.

‘Werther Nieland’ begins with its eleven-year-old narrator, Elmer, attempting to wrench a drainpipe from the wall before taking a hammer to ‘pulverise’ some twigs: “The weather remained dark.” His boredom is relieved by the discovery of a new neighbour, the titular Werther, “thin and spindly”:

“I felt the urge to in some way torment him or inflict pain on him underhandedly.”

Elmer is determined to assert his superiority to Werther, referring repeatedly to his windmill-building skills. Though his parents remain largely hidden in the story, Reve laces his speech with adult expressions such as, “I know that for a fact.” His determination throughout to establish a club (of which he, of course, is president) seems a distorted echo of the adult world:

“There will be a club. Important messages have been sent already. If anybody wants to ruin it, he will be punished. On Sunday, Werther Nieland is going to join.”

It is difficult not to see the influence of the recent German occupation in the nature of the club, which is constantly threatened by spies and enemies. Another friend, Dirk, is dismissed for “wanting to ruin the club because he is a spy”, and Werther is later expelled because he has “been turned against it.”

This, however, is only one strand of the novella. Though Elmer’s mother makes only a brief appearance, Werther’s family, and his mother in particular, feature when Elmer visits him. Werther’s mother is friendly with an intensity which is disconcerting. She produces pieces of cardboard on which she has written about moments from Werther and his sister’s childhood. When the boys begin playing ping-pong, she snatches at the ball as if she must have as much of Elmer’s attention as her son. In this scene Reve captures the mystery of families, each one entirely strange to an outsider:

“I did, however, realise that it must be impossible to understand everything that happened, and there were things that remained a mystery and caused as mist of fear to come rolling in.”

This eccentricity is further enforced by Werther’s father’s enthusiasm for Esperanto. The mother, however, is more than simply eccentric as we discover later when Elmer sees her in the street being followed by a group of thirty children:

“The woman turned a curtsied, seizing the hems of her skirts on both sides. When she straightened up I saw it was Werther’s mother… She began performing a series of rapid steps in place, clacking the soles of her shoes loudly on the paving stones each time. Suddenly she lifted her skirts above her head, almost throwing herself off balance.”

When Elmer returns to Werther’s house it is obvious that her husband is aware of his wife’s ‘nervous’ problem, and Elmer ensures he is invited on a family outing to a “miniature circus” with an aunt which is clearly intended to keep the children out of the way. (The show itself turns out to be ‘inappropriate’, another glimpse into the hidden adult world).

The second, shorter novella, ‘The Fall of the Boslowits Family’, also contrasts the world of childhood with adult experiences which are initially sensed rather than understood. It, too, captures childish curiosity regarding another family, in particular the father, ‘Uncle’ Hans:

“I greatly longer to see the crippled man’s departure, for I had seen him carried in by two guests, and the sight of it had fascinated me deeply.”

In this case it is the war which lies in the background, beginning when the narrator, Simon, is sixteen, and by this time his family and the Boslowits are close friends. His initial attitude is one of excitement:

“I hoped desperately that all the rumours flying round the neighbourhood were true. ‘Really, truly at war, glorious,’ I said under my breath.”

Simon, however, becomes the witness to the war’s effect on the Boslowits family once the Netherlands is occupied, particularly Hans, who cannot walk, and their mentally disabled son, Otto – the type of victims whom we perhaps think of less often. It’s a story which seems at once detailed and economical, conveying the helpless terror of being regarded as no longer of any use by society. If the childhood portrayed can at times seem cruel, Reve seems intent of reminding us that the cruelty of the adult world is far worse. As Elmer comments when passing Werther’s house:

“It’s a dark place, where they live.”

It is becoming clear that Reve is a major writer whom we are only now beginning to appreciate in English.

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4 Responses to “Childhood”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s good to see more translations of Reve’s work being commissioned, but I think I prefer the sound of The Evenings. That cover is very appealing, if a little rosy given your comments on the darkness in the book!

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Great post Grant. I haven’t read any Reve yet, but both this and The Evenings do appeal. I prefer the dark side of things than the cutesy, to be honest! 🙂

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