Posts Tagged ‘Gerard Reve’

Childhood

November 6, 2018

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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The Evenings

October 12, 2017

Gerard Reve is generally regarded as one of the three major post-war Dutch writers alongside Harry Mulisch and W.F Hermans. While Mulisch has been reasonably well treated by translators (though much of his work is now out of print) and Hermans less so (though both Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles are well worth seeking out), Reve has been all but neglected. (So much so that in 2011 he featured in Writers No-one Reads, where you can find an exhaustive list of what was available in English at that time). Last year he was finally recued from this oblivion when Sam Garrett’s translation of his first novel, The Evenings, was published by Pushkin Press.

The protagonist of The Evenings is Frits van Egters, a twenty-three-year-old office worker whose life seems to have ground to a halt in the gloom of a Dutch winter. While his brother, Joop, is married, and his friends Jaap and Joosje have a child, he remains with his parents in a state of perpetual irritation:

“’Good morning, Father,’ Frits said. To speak these words, he felt as if he first had to clear his windpipe of a stone, which now fell at his feet.”

He regards his parents as ignorant and ill-mannered and alternates between criticism and forced gaiety. “The way you smoke is both incredibly clumsy and ridiculous,” he tells his mother, while at the same time thinking, “Make it sound like I’m joking.” He confides to his friend Viktor:

“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that.”

Reve makes us fully aware of the disparity between Frits’ feelings and what he says by punctuating the narrative with Frits’ thoughts, a running commentary on the situations he finds himself in and the people he meets, frequently cruel and critical. By placing his thoughts in speech marks, and not dogmatically paragraphing each new speaker, he creates momentary lapses where we are uncertain if Frits is thinking or speaking. The fact that Frits’ cruellest thoughts are often spoken out loud makes second guessing impossible. An early example is his suggestion that his brother is balding:

“Listen, Joop… without meaning to be nasty, your scalp is really almost bare. It will not be long before you can count your hairs on the fingers of one hand.”

Baldness is a topic he broaches with many of his male friends and acquaintances; in his suspended adolescence it seems to be an accusation of ageing. He also happily tells Joosje that her child (another sign of adulthood)

“…is, in truth, a terrible little monster… The nerves have developed all wrong. It probably doesn’t have long to live.”

His inner monologue is given a certain pathos, however, as he clearly uses it to stave of his own unhappiness:

“An early start, this will be a day well spent.”

Later, with reference to visiting his brother, he thinks, “We shrink from nothing… It would be childish not to go. One must face one’s torments head on.” Though never explicitly stated, he seems as despairing of his own existence as he is of others. His nights are frequently spent searching for company or going to the cinema, almost anything to distract him from the emptiness of his life: Frits’ unpleasantness is redeemed by his own despair.

We also see him show kindness to his parents, asking questions on topics which he knows his father will speak on and making cheerful remarks, attempting to bridge the gulf between them while aware he has no hope of success. The New Year’s Eve dinner is a masterpiece of this type of communication, for example when he discovers his mother has bought fruit cordial thinking it is fruit wine:

“‘I’m sure it will be good, said Frits, ’It doesn’t matter much.’ ‘And now the moment for tears has arrived,’ he thought. His eyes grew moist.”

Frits’ own tears are existential, here contrasted with his mother’s tears of frustration, but “Shall we pause and feel sorry for ourselves?” is the danger he feels, and fights off, constantly. Frits’ complexity is the novel’s greatest success. It has been compared (by Herman Koch) to The Catcher in the Rye, and, though I am naturally suspicious of any comparison which appears on a book jacket, there are many similarities. Frits may be older, but he suffers from the same narcissistic ‘what is the point of life’ isolation, let down by, and alienated from, everyone he knows. Let down, also, by the seventy years we have had to wait to read this powerful addition to the genre.