Book Review: Childhood by Gerard Reve
Gerard Reve is considered one of the greatest post-war Dutch authors, and his 1947 debut The Evenings – a dark novel where the protagonist roams the streets of Amsterdam every night on a Beckettian tour of pointless activities and repetitive conversations – is a masterpiece of Dutch literature. Despite his success in the Netherlands, Reve had not been translated into English until Pushkin Press’s 2016 release of The Evenings. His writing is now starting to enjoy long-awaited international acclaim thanks to Pushkin’s work in championing it: Sam Barrett’s skilful translations combined with the stunning cover designs. Childhood includes two of Reve’s early novellas, Werther Nieland and The Fall of the Boslowits Family. Both embody the best of Reve’s writing: dark wit, strange characters, and brilliant style that make this book a delightful and mesmerising read.
The first novella follows young Elmer as he engages in rather disturbing pastimes, develops an obsession with a new friend, and fails to persuade other children to join his secret societies. Readers who know The Evenings might experience a slight déjà vu. In his pointless activities, random acts of cruelty, and a fascination with all things morbid, Elmer feels a lot like the younger version of Frits van Egters, before he got stuck in a soul-crushing office job and had all the time in the world to decapitate fish and throw cats down the stairs. Werther Nieland’s narration gets inside Elmer’s inner life of childhood rituals, obsessions, and Lord of the Flies-y despotic tendencies. The fact that adults seem absent from this world is perhaps not unusual for a book narrated from a child’s perspective. In Werther, however, this absence takes a darker turn. The detachment of the adults gives the green light for disturbing things to happen: Elmer’s family’s obliviousness to his animal-torture and friend-beating hobbies is one, but adult passiveness becomes even more alarming when the behaviour of Werther’s mother – quickly progressing from slight creepiness to open sexual abuse – is met with minimal reactions. Werther Nieland is as grotesque and disturbing as it is beautifully crafted and fascinating.
The narrator of The Fall of the Boslowits Family is a bit more empathetic than Elmer, though Reve once again shows his unique approach to depicting his characters’ inner worlds. In this novella, Simon recounts growing up in German-occupied Amsterdam, where the fate of his parents’ friends – the titular Boslowits – is gradually sealed. He is initially excited about the idea of experiencing war, to the point of feeling deeply disappointed that it might not happen:
To the young narrator, war is as thrilling as it can be only to someone not aware of what it entails: he sees it as a welcome break in everyday routine that causes schools to close and interesting conversations to ensue. The story then turns increasingly darker as the situation in Amsterdam worsens and both the narrator and the readers realise the impending fate of the Boslowits family. That constant feeling that something terrible is going to happen, ever-present behind all the daily activities and mundane conversations of people attempting to maintain some sort of normalcy, is an incredibly compelling depiction of wartime.
Childhood is translated by Sam Garrett and published by Pushkin Press. The beautiful cover design is the work of Bill Bragg and Clare Skeats: kept in the same style as in The Evenings, the cover brilliantly captures the themes in a colour palette evoking the strange, dreamlike quality of the book.
PhD Researcher at the University of Stirling, examining the past five decades of Scottish publishing in collaboration with HarperCollins and Publishing Scotland. Graduated with an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University and a BA in English from Queen’s University (Canada). Loves Inside Llewyn Davis, Peter Gabriel, and flat design.