If there is such a thing as a ‘canon’ of European literature in English, then Gerard Reve’s name is not to be found in it. Tolstoy, Dante, Cervantes and the other heavyweight champions crowd the scene, crowned with laurels, enjoying a never-ending chorus of praise. ‘English Europe’, Europe as conceived by the English imagination, refined and great and classical and heroic, overlooks writers who work in the margins. Reve is such a writer.
Born in the 1920s in the Netherlands, Reve produced works that have become classics of Dutch literature. Alongside Harry Mulisch, he is considered one of the greatest postwar Dutch writers in his home country. However, where Mulisch fits nicely into the idea of ‘English Europe’, Reve resists this tendency. Mulisch’s impulse is towards rapture, to overload his stories, filling them to bursting with ideas, diversions, distractions, characters, plots. Reve is the antithesis.
His writing aims to take away, to delete, to leave unresolved and to offer less information than the reader may want. His two early novellas ‘Werther Nieland’ and ‘The Fall of the Boslowits Family’ (published here together as Childhood by Pushkin Press), are good examples of these tendencies. Written at an early stage in Reve’s career, the novellas recreate the dark, mysterious and strange experiences of childhood.
‘Werther’ follows the story of Elmer, growing up in a rural community, developing an obsession with a friend. It is a bizarre, semi-absurd exploration of childhood: stating experiences, without explaining or expanding on them. As the scenes begin to pile up, the reader is left with a disturbing sense of what Elmer’s childhood is actually like: secretive, repetitive, invested with strange symbols and rituals, and often, suddenly and without regret, cruel. Elmer is given to momentary fits of violence, to urges to destroy things, and to belittling his friend Werther, whom he often describes in animal-like terms. It is a world familiar enough in its rural trappings, but enclosed by cruelty.
This a theme continued in ‘The Fall’, with a new character, Simon, who is growing up in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. A family close to Simon’s own, the Boslowits, are inevitably and tragically destroyed by the occupation. However, this destruction is not the ‘point’ of the novella, rather it is an extreme representation of one of the many forms of violence and indifferent cruelty experienced as daily realities and depicted in the novel. Sexual abuse pervades the novel, as does animal cruelty. And yet none of this is moderated by a loving God or parent; it simply is, and it is not explained away. If Mulisch and other writers provide solace by ‘replacing’ God with their excited and overbearing humanism, Reve gently rebuffs the reader for being so naive.
As such, the two novellas are quietly and ironically caustic, recreating the cruelty of childhood and wartime Europe, set against a backdrop of presumed innocence and bucolic splendour. Violence abides in the life of Europe; a fact that writers like Mulisch often ignore, overwhelmed by the enduring power of concepts such as ‘civilisation’ and history. Reve is more honest: he tries to reproduce on the page life as it is lived: weird, impulsive and cruel. Like the Dutch poet, Hans Faverey, Reve’s spare style creates a sharply defined world, which lingered in the mind long after I finished reading, as much for its lack of answers or resolution.
Reviewed by Gurmeet Singh
CHILDHOOD – TWO NOVELLAS
Written by Gerard Reve
Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett
Published by Pushkin Press (2018)
Read The Queer Riveter in its entirety here.
Gurmeet Singh is a writer and editor living and working in Berlin. He writes mostly on culture, technology and politics, and is also currently writing his first novel. He tweets at @therealgurmeet.
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