Childhood by Gerard Reve

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Translated by Sam Garrett

Reviewed by Harriet

Gerard Reve (1923-2006) was a Dutch writer – according to Wikipedia, one of the ‘Great Three’ of Dutch postwar literature. I have to admit to never having heard of him, but if the two novellas contained in this attractive hardback from Pushkin are anything to go by, it will be well worth seeking out his other work in translation.

The longer of the two novellas is called ‘Werther Nieland’. Werther is an eleven-year-old boy who is, however, only partly central to the story, which is told in the first person by another eleven-year-old called Elmer. Here’s how it begins:

On a Wednesday afternoon in December, when the weather was dark, I tried to wrench a drainpipe off the back of the house, this without success. Then I took up a hammer and pulverised a few thin twigs from the current bush atop a post in the garden fence. The weather remained dark.

Elmer, an only child, and a solitary boy, is given to destruction. He catches sticklebacks in a nearby pond, cuts their heads off (‘”these are the beheadings” I said quietly, “for you are all the dangerous kings of the water”’) and buries them with some ceremony in the garden. To make the beheading easier, he decides to build a guillotine from Meccano, using a razor blade, but cuts his finger badly.

Elmer goes to visit a boy called Dirk, who lives nearby. There he meets Werther for the first time. The two boys are building a Meccano hoist, which they plan to power with a windmill. Elmer watches Werther: ‘I felt the urge in some way to torment him or inflict pain on him underhandedly’. Soon he is visiting Werther’s house, and meeting his strange mother, who he sees grab her son’s genitals. Later she expresses the desire to see the boys naked.

Elmer sets up clubs and urges Dirk and Werther to join them. The clubs, really more like secret societies, have formal names and Elmer is always the president.The president has all the power and is constantly finding reasons to expel the other boys from the clubs. He writes out formal rules and buries them in secret places. He’s fond of secrets and likes Werther to know that he has them. The two boys spend time together but Werther is always rather distant and uncommunicative.

It’s hard to convey the fascination of this story. Elmer is essentially a lonely child, on the cusp of adolescence. He has created his own secret world in which he has all the power, and though he clearly longs for friends he has no real idea how to make or sustain friendships. But none of this is spelled out; the reader just has to deduce it for themselves. Over the whole story is an extraordinary sense of strangeness and a kind of menace – it reminded me rather of a David Lynch film. Bizarre events take place but nobody makes any comment on them. One such is a day out for the boys arranged by Werther’s Aunt Truus – they are told they are going to the circus, but the show turns out to be something quite different and wholly unsuitable for children, though Aunt Truus makes no effort to remove the boys until the show is over. Shortly after this event, Werther’s family moves away from the district, and Elmer has lost the only friend – if that’s the right word – he’s ever had.

The second story, ‘The Fall of the Boslowits Family’, is also narrated by a boy, but the events cover a number of years. When the story begins, Simon is seven, and his family have just made friends with the Boslowits, who he learns to call Auntie Jaane and Uncle Hans. Their son Hans is two years older than Simon, and treats him in a rather patronising way. Then there’s another, younger, boy, Otto, who lives in a chidrens’ home but is often brought home for rather boisterous visits. The two families quickly grow close, though Uncle Hans is an invalid, paralysed from the waist down – Simon is fascinated to see him being carried about.

The years go by and soon Simon is sixteen. Together with Hans and two other friends, he becomes wildly excited by the fact that war has been declared. To begin with the boys are disappointed that

there’s no more action:

‘What I’d like most would be violent skirmishes, here in the streets of the city’, I said. ‘Shooting from door to door, with hand grenades and white flags; but only for a day or two, otherwise it starts getting boring’.

The situation of the Boslowits family starts to deteriorate and Simon watches it with only partial understanding. He helps when all the precious items have to be moved from their flat and hidden, and hears with some interest that Uncle Hans – who has been hidden for months in a neighbours’ loft – appears to have taken his own life. By the end of the story we know that things will not go well for the rest of the family. But Simon shows no real reaction to it all – he’s like a disinterested bystander in the whole thing. As in the first story, much is left unsaid but is made plain by the curiously distanced voice of the juvenile narrator.

As far as I can tell, only three of Reve’s many works have appeared in English translation; Pushkin brought out The Evenings, to high praise, last year. I certainly can’t find enough good things to say about Childhood. Both stories are wonderfully evocative of the minds of the two young protagonists and of the events going on around them, the implication of which is not apparent to them. Excellently translated by Sam Garrett, this is a gem of a book and highly recommended.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny Editors.

Gerard Reve, Childhood, trans. Sam Garrett (Pushkin, 2018). 978-1782271789, 352pp., hardback.

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