I was slow to come around to Gerard Reve’s writing—slow at least by twenty-first-century standards. A year ago, when I first tried reading his novel The Evenings, I found it so dull I couldn’t concentrate and gave up after the second chapter. I knew that in the Netherlands The Evenings was a classic along the lines of The Catcher in the Rye (though apart from their aura of masculine disaffection, the two books turn out to have little in common), but I did not at all know what to make of Reve’s painstaking descriptions of domestic tedium: preparing tea and coffee, turning the dial on the radio, talking about the weather. Besides, at the time I was about to move to the Netherlands from the United States; my mind was overrun with unnamable anxieties and bureaucratic details. I sensed that I was missing something in this novel that, as the dustcover informed me, Tim Parks considered “a cornerstone manqué of modern European literature,” but the timing was off, and for a while I forgot about Reve.
When Pushkin Press brought out a second volume of his fiction last fall, I was stirred to remembrance. I picked up Childhood: Two Novellas with modest expectations, but I put it down in a state of excitement I have rarely felt as a reader. The two novellas, “Werther Nieland” (1949) and “The Fall of the Boslowits Family” (1946),[i] run to no more than one hundred and fifty pages. Nevertheless, they have the heft of masterpieces. The reasons for Reve’s belated appearance in English have been well chalked out in earlier reviews: he wrote in the small language of Dutch, had unorthodox political and religious opinions, and was openly gay long before it was accepted by the literary establishment.[ii] Now that he has at last begun to come into our language (thanks to the heroic efforts of his translator Sam Garrett), we must not let him slip away because he is too understated, too subtle, for our distractible minds.
I think there is a real danger of this with Reve. His style is not complex, but it is indirect, at both the level of the story and the level of the sentence. “Werther Nieland,” for example, takes places in suburban Amsterdam in the 1930s, but neither the name of the city nor the year is ever mentioned. This is justifiable, since the narrator is an eleven-year-old boy named Elmer who spends his time starting secret clubs and declaring himself president, writing down wishes on sheets of paper and swallowing or hiding them, killing birds or devising ways to “torture plants.” Elmer plainly lives in a world of his own. But even in The Evenings, which takes place in 1946 and is narrated by a twenty-three-year old, Reve declines to historicize. One of the things that most infuriated the first Dutch readers of the novel was that, as Parks points out, “amid so much despairing realism, nothing was said about the war.”
Nothing is said about the war in “Werther Nieland” either. Yet we feel its looming presence. In language tuned to childhood’s most ominous pitch, Reve tells a story that on the surface seems quite simple. Elmer, the lonely little bully, befriends Werther, a new boy whose physical frailty fills Elmer with “the urge to in some way torment him” (11). He visits Werther’s house and meets his father, who offers to give him a brochure on Esperanto, and his mother, who is mentally ill and pedophilic, always grabbing at her son’s crotch and eventually trying to persuade Elmer to undress for a bath. But Elmer hardly understands what is going on in the adult world, which he sees as if through a haze. His existence is given over almost entirely to superstitious rituals, acts of violence, and attempts to wield power over other children.
Elmer is afraid of everything, more or less. When, running around the neighborhood with another boy, called Maarten, he fishes a beetle from the water, he does not dare to touch it and so lifts it up between two sticks:
then I tossed it as far from the water as I could, into the grass. I was uneasy about this, however, and went looking for the animal and stamped it into the ground with my heel. “They’re nasty creatures, I’ve read that,” I told Maarten. “It has to be killed.” In fact, though, I wanted to make sure the beetle did not make its way back to the water, for then it would surely tell the water monsters about me. (64)
There is nothing out of the ordinary about such violence, committed out of irrational fear by an eleven-year-old who still believes in water monsters, but as such incidents stack up, we cannot avoid considering how other acts of violence committed out of irrational fear would shape the world in which Elmer is destined to grow up. His obsessions with clubs, membership, hierarchy—with who’s in and who’s out—are also the obsessions of the Nazis, who will soon bomb, starve, and systematically murder their neighbors the Dutch. The effects of Elmer’s violence and the violence sanctioned by Hitler cannot be reasonably compared. But the motives of this violence, the usual fearful motives of bullies, are not so different after all.
The second novella in Childhood, “The Fall of the Boslowits Family,” continues some of these themes. The teenage narrator has immature, rather callous ideas about bloodshed. In the early spring of 1940, when Britain and France had already declared war on Germany but the Netherlands remained neutral, he remarks to his friend Joost:
What I’d like most would be violent skirmishes, here in the streets of the city… Shooting from door to door, with hand grenades and white flags; but only for a day or two, otherwise it starts getting boring. (127)
Weeks later, after the Germans have bombed Rotterdam, killing hundreds of civilians, he listens to the radio, worried that this still won’t be enough to provoke open hostilities. It is only when the broadcaster announces “the crossing of the borders of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg by German troops” that he feels “reassured” (129)
But whereas “Werther Nieland” is told from the perspective of a self-absorbed eleven-year-old, the narration of “The Fall of the Boslowits Family” is leavened by the retrospective knowledge of the man the teenager will become. At the center of the novella are his family friends the Boslowitses, who are Jewish: Hans Boslowits, known to the narrator as Uncle Hans, suffers from paralysis and cannot move his legs; his wife, Aunt Jaanne, is extremely protective of him, as she is of their two sons, Hans Jr. and the “feeble-minded” Otto. The Boslowits family begins to worry the moment the Germans invade, while the narrator carries on being juvenilely oblivious. Not long after Amsterdam is occupied by the Nazis, he goes to see the Michel Carné film Hôtel du Nord, which is
about a suicide pact in which the boy shot the girl, but then lacked the courage to turn the gun on himself. The girl recovered, however, and the film ended with them being reconciled and at peace with life, after she had fetched him from the prison gates. It was a resolution that left me satisfied. (131)
Hôtel du Nord, whatever its cinematic merits, has a ridiculous plot—a romantic fantasy completely at odds with the actual tragedies about to occur. In the Boslowits home, Uncle Hans’s health rapidly declines, to the point that he has to be placed in a clinic where his wife can no longer go see him during evening visiting hours because of the curfew imposed on Jews. Meanwhile, the daughter of the man across the street “takes poison, along with her husband” (140), and Hans’s own doctor cuts his two young sons’ wrists with a razor, “after which he held their forearms in a bath of warm water to eliminate the pain. After his wife had opened her veins, he cut his own wrist in the same fashion” (143).
It should be said that none of this was unusual at the time. There were, in the early months of the Occupation, several hundred suicides in Amsterdam. As Jacob Presser writes in Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry:
Few Jews were in any doubt, even in those early days of May , that a train of disastrous events had begun; but even the most pessimistic among them could hardly have guessed the full horror that lay in store for them. There was widespread fear and dejection, not only among Jews but also among other Dutchmen, and many tried to escape along one of two routes: into freedom abroad or death at home. (7)
“The Fall of the Boslowits Family” manages to tell such a powerful story about this train of disastrous events in part because its narrator is too clueless to be sentimental. Like Elmer, he is too childish to grasp what is happening in the adult world as it is happening. Unlike Elmer, though, he reveals a genuine concern for other people, a concern that indicates, without actually putting into words, Reve’s own feelings about the unspeakable horror and sorrow of what occurred in Europe in the 1940s.
The reviewer in The Daily Mail who called the two novellas of Childhood “slight works, so subtle as to seem almost inconsequential” probably did not mean to suggest that he found the subject of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands or the systematic segregation and murder of Dutch Jews trifling. In fact, I suspect he may not quite have read the book. But whatever the case, his reaction points to a persistent problem with English-language reviews of foreign fiction—a lack of context, and a lack of interest in context, which leads reviewers to dismiss books as trivial or (the flip side of the coin) difficult, when they are nothing of the kind.
As a convert to Reve’s work, I am bound to be a bit zealous, but it seems to me that Reve is one of those writers whose gifts, at first glance, are easily mistaken for shortcomings. In The Evenings, the war is never discussed, it’s true, but that is not mere caginess on Reve’s part; it is, like Elmer’s tunnel vision in “Werther Nieland,” a plausible reflection of the characters’ reality. If the reader pays close enough attention, he is sure to see the war rearing its head in a thousand details: the young father talking about how “everything is still so hard to get” (127), the conversations about high blood-pressure and weak hearts among people in their twenties and thirties, the protagonist’s troubled sleep and disturbing dreams. The Evenings, like the novellas of Childhood, requires us to be alert to nuance, irony, and ambiguity of every type. Its subtlety must not be mistaken for frivolity.
In his aversion to “straight talk,” Reve can be credibly compared to other writers—Salinger, Nescio, Emmanuel Bove—but all of these comparisons fall short. Reve is a phenomenon unto himself: a chronicler of cruelty, a connoisseur of the unsaid, a poet of the wasted evening (edging into the wasted life). He is, not to put too fine a point on it, the real thing.
Gerard, Reve. The Evenings. Translated by Sam Garrett. London: Pushkin Press, 2016.
[i] The copyright page in Childhood states that “The Fall of the Boslowits Family” was first published in 1950, which is the year it was first published as a book. It seems the novella first appeared, however, in the literary journal Criterium in 1946.
[ii] Lest the reader think I am exaggerating, forgive me for quoting the first line of the entry on Reve in Martin Seymour-Smith’s Guide to Modern World Literature, which I emphatically do not recommend: “Gerard Kornelis van het Reve (1923), a gifted homosexual exhibitionist who dissolved his gift into buffoonery, wrote Evenings (1947).”
Presser, Jacob. Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry. Translated by Arnold Pomerans. London: Souvenir Press, 2010.
Seymour-Smith, Martin. Guide to Modern World Literature. New York: Macmillan, 1973.