In 1963, the novelist Gerard Reve became the first openly gay public figure in the Netherlands. By the end of the decade, it was known that he lived with two friends in an open relationship and had a fetish that he called ‘Revism’ (it involved seducing a younger man in order to offer him to an older one for love and torture). During the same period, when many of his generation were moving away from religion, Reve converted to Catholicism. He saw no paradox here. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he denied the paradox by writing a series of semi-autobiographical novels in which he tried to synthesise the contradictory parts of his life. One of them, Nader tot U or ‘Nearer to Thee’ (1965), resulted in his being tried for blasphemy. The offending passage begins:
And God Himself would visit me in the form of a one-year-old, mouse-grey donkey and stand in front of my door and ring the bell and say: ‘Gerard, that book of yours – did you know that I wept while reading some of its passages?’ ‘My Lord and my God! Praised be Your Name to all Eternity! I love You so immensely,’ I would try to say, but would burst out crying halfway, and start to kiss Him and pull Him inside, and after a colossal climb up the stairs to the little bedroom, I would possess Him three times and at great length in His Secret Opening, and afterwards give Him a free copy of my book, not in paperback, but hardcover – no frugality or stuffiness – with the dedication: To the Infinite. Without words.
To fuck God once or twice at moderate length would be enough for most writers but Reve had a reputation to uphold. He decided to defend himself at the trial, which ran from 1966 to 1968. It made him famous. In court, he argued that the passage expressed his serious and personal relationship with God. He said that he saw ‘sexual surrender’ as the highest form of intimacy and that sex with God was therefore the closest one could get to Him. It was the ‘most complete and most tender submission’.
Reve was finally acquitted by the Dutch Supreme Court. It would be easy to conclude that the judges were taken in by a master of self-publicity, particularly when you look at a photo taken the following year: Reve with his arms around a real donkey, kissing its nose and looking knowingly into the camera. But what’s interesting – and this is one of the things that makes him more than just a provocateur – is that Reve’s religious beliefs lasted for the rest of his life. For all his gleeful transgressions, his faith was real. He worked on a new Catholic Bible, the ‘Willibrord’ translation, and at one point briefly changed his pen name to Marquis Gerard Kornelis Franciscus van het Reve – a nod at once to his favourite marquis, de Sade, and (he was christened Franciscus) to the sacrament of baptism.
His life was full of incident – there is a three-volume biography that runs to 2300 pages – but the novel that made his name is about boredom. Published in Dutch in 1947, The Evenings describes ten nights in the life of 23-year-old Frits van Egters. He walks, he smokes, he sees baldness everywhere, he counts the moles on his father’s neck. He passes the time by telling cruel jokes and maligning his good-natured parents. His main pleasure is ‘scrumptious pity’. Every night he is beset by nightmares – hands burst from coffins, monsters chase him into cellars – though he experiences them as a respite from the dreariness of being awake. But in the novel’s final pages Frits, on the edge of sanity, finds his despair lifting and he discovers empathy. He is moved by his parents’ ordinary human fallibility: his father, increasingly deaf after a childhood spent working in a weaving mill; his mother, who tried to buy a bottle of wine to toast the new year but was tricked into buying ‘berry-apple’ juice instead. ‘All the world’s suffering, swept together in a shoebox,’ Frits says, standing alone in his childhood bedroom, before launching into a surprising, funny monologue:
‘See my mother,’ he said quietly. ‘She says I should stay at home, nice and cosy. That I should wear the white jumper. She makes oliebollen with the wrong pieces of apple … Almighty, everlasting, she thought she was buying wine, but it was fruit juice. The sweet, good woman. Berry-apple. She moves her head back and forth when she reads. She is my mother. See her in her immeasurable goodness.’
He whispers his final revelation to a toy bunny: ‘Rabbit, I am alive. I breathe, and I move, so I live. Is that clear? Whatever ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.’ It is one of the weirder religious epiphanies in literature.
Critics at the time didn’t pay much attention to Frits’s spiritual journey. Instead they condemned the book for being too bleak: the young people of the Netherlands, emerging from war, should be allowed to feel hopeful. But The Evenings was a success because it measures the gap between what we’re told to feel about our lives – e.g. that being young is fun – and what we actually experience. In 2002, the Dutch Society of Literature voted it the best Dutch novel of the past hundred years, and there have been a number of failed attempts to translate it. Even Lydia Davis had a go before admitting that ‘there are stylistic subtleties that I would not be equal to.’ Happily, in 2016 Pushkin published a wonderfully fresh rendering by Sam Garrett, the success of which has led to his translating two more of Reve’s early works: a pair of novellas from 1946 and 1950, now appearing together as Childhood.
The first, Werther Nieland, is narrated by 11-year-old Elmer, who seems likely to grow up to be a lot like Frits. Whereas Frits’s cruelty is mostly verbal and internal, Elmer finds time in this short novella to cremate a starling, stone a sparrow, behead a collection of sticklebacks, shoot at ducks, crush a beetle, trap a cat in a box before pushing it down some stairs, build a bomb to kill anything living in the river, ceremonially burn a harvest spider and throw a jam jar of little fish down the drain: ‘They are going into the ground because they are absolutely filthy animals,’ he says. That Elmer is not the cruellest child in the story is an indication of its atmosphere of casual carnage. Just as in The Evenings, the war is the unspoken thing: it is mentioned out loud only once, by a madman yelling in the street. And yet it is everywhere in the behaviour of Elmer and his friends, little dictators who seek to divide and categorise their peers. ‘There will be a club,’ Elmer announces. ‘Important messages have been sent already. If anybody wants to ruin it, he will be punished.’ Reve is brilliant at capturing the suddenness of childhood thought, the way an idea is improvised in the moment of speaking and instantly becomes law. Elmer meets another boy, Dirk, whom he appoints as the club’s ‘deputy secretary’. Dirk suggests they pull down a tree and gets a rope from his pocket. By the next sentence the rules have changed. ‘You’re an enemy of the club,’ Elmer says, and they drag Dirk around, bound at the ankles, while he cries and begs to be set free.
Halfway through, Elmer tells his more thoughtful friend, the eponymous Werther Nieland, whom he loves, envies and despises, about his traumatic family history. It is ‘a long story’, Elmer says, ‘and a sad one too’. Elmer’s brother ran away from home after their mother locked him in the cellar. ‘He took almost nothing with him, only his blankets from his bed. It’s a terrible thing. That’s why I’m so sad this afternoon.’ It’s a relief to be given an explanation for Elmer’s malicious behaviour – until we realise he’s making the whole thing up. He pauses to invent a name for the lost brother: André, he decides. Later we meet Elmer’s real brother and mother, who seem, if not exactly nice, then normal. The idea that there need not be any underlying explanation for human cruelty – that some people are just like that – is a common thread in Reve’s work. He shows that we prefer to explain away malevolence – seeing it as the result of past harm or pathology – rather than acknowledge the existence of everyday evil.
The second novella, The Fall of the Boslowits Family, begins with seven-year-old Simon, his parents, and their friends the Boslowitses, a middle-class Jewish family whom Simon sees a few times a year. It is 1930. The Boslowitses give Simon presents and in time he thinks of them as his aunt and uncle. In their company he is sensitive and polite, positioning himself by the bookcase ‘as though in deepest thought’. But he is a different boy when he is with his friends, the Willink brothers, who are familiar Reve types: shame-free young sadists. ‘It was wonderful to be around them,’ Simon says, ‘because there was nothing they did not dare do … I would venture out into the neighbourhood with them and toss, as did they, a stone, a rotten potato or a horse’s turd into every open window. A delicious fever of friendship liberated me from all fear.’
Initially, each year in Simon’s life is much like the last. He ages from seven to sixteen in just twenty pages. Like Frits and Elmer, he yearns for something, anything, to relieve the boredom of his existence – the difference is that his wish is granted when he gets the Second World War. He is jittery with excitement – ‘what I’d like most would be violent skirmishes, here in the streets of the city’ – while his father takes a cold, sociological interest, wondering whether the eight o’clock news will start with its usual jingle (‘the old cock-a-doodle-do’) or if that would be thought too jolly for the announcement of a Nazi invasion. All the while Aunt Jaanne Boslowits sits in her big armchair, ‘staring into space without a word’. A chasm opens between the two families, a chasm only the Boslowitses seem to notice.
Within days of the invasion, the Luftwaffe flattens central Rotterdam, which Simon experiences as a ‘deep thundering and play of lights on the south-western horizon’. The Dutch forces surrender, and Aunt Jaanne finds Simon and his compliant family burning their communist books and pamphlets in the stove. What gives the story a sickening sense of freefall is Reve’s decision to maintain the fast passage of narrated time. In peacetime, it seems natural that the years should flow past in a matter of pages. In wartime, however, it seems callous, as deaths zip by and Simon barely notices. He learns that their Jewish neighbours have started committing suicide. First the ‘Parkman girl is dead’; then ‘Dr Witvis is dead,’ having ‘cut the wrists of his two young sons, after which he held their forearms in a bath of warm water to eliminate the pain’. Moments later, seasons have passed and the streets are barricaded. The Boslowitses dare not leave the house after dark. Everything is sudden: ‘They’re rounding people up. No more notice, they’re picking them up, just like that.’ Hans Boslowits, who is Simon’s age, is taken away. In the next paragraph elderly patients from the infirmary are loaded into vehicles. A sentence later we hear that the hospital which cares for the Boslowits’s disabled son, Otto, has been ‘emptied out’.
The war hidden under the floorboards smashes its way into the room. The narrative strands we were encouraged to care about – will the children be mean to Otto, will Hans run away, how far will the Willink brothers go? – are made to seem laughably naive. The real questions are: why don’t Simon and his parents do more to help the Boslowitses? Why aren’t they outraged by the deaths around them? Why is their inaction so normal? Simon keeps visiting the Boslowitses but by the end it is pure habit: a performance of kinship. Mr and Mrs Boslowits were never his aunt and uncle. After he leaves their house for the last time he looks up and sees them ‘already sitting at the window like statues’. He waves and they don’t respond.
It’s a shame that the bulk of Reve’s work remains untranslated. He badly wanted to reach an international audience: ‘Let us no longer express ourselves in a local patois,’ he said, ‘but instead publish our writings in, for example, English. The 863 Dutch people who usually buy our work will continue to do so … If we really have something to say, the work will find its own way and not be forever buried in Sunday afternoon social clubs and book groups.’ With this dream in mind, he moved to London in 1953 and turned up on Angus Wilson’s doorstep: ‘Sir, I am a Dutchman who started writing English two years ago,’ he said. ‘I read some of your work. I just came to see you and I don’t come for any money, food or assistance whatsoever.’ They became good friends, and over the next few years four of Reve’s English-language stories were published in the Paris Review. But he never quite established himself. By the end of the decade he had returned to the Netherlands, seemingly having come to accept that his writing was too Dutch to work in other languages. Sixty years later – and 14 years after his death – it turns out that this untranslatable writer isn’t.