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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Gerard Reve

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To purchase Childhood

Title: Childhood
Author: Gerard Reve
Genre: Novellas
Written: 1949/50 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 155 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Childhood - US
Childhood - UK
Childhood - Canada
  • Two Novellas
  • Dutch titles: Werther Nieland and De ondergang van de familie Boslowits
  • Translated by Sam Garrett
  • Werther Nieland was previously published in a translation by Richard Huijing in the Dedalus Book of Dutch Fantasy (1993)
  • De ondergang van de familie Boslowits was previously published as The Decline and Fall of the Boslowits Family in a translation by James S. Holmes and Hans van Marle in Modern Stories from Holland and Flanders (1973)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effectively dark childhood perspectives

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail . 25/10/2018 Anthony Cummins
Financial Times . 14/12/2018 Saskia Solomon
London Rev. of Books . 2/4/2020 Joe Dunthorne
The NY Rev. of Books . 5/12/2019 Philip Huff
The Observer . 2/12/2018 Alexander Larman

  From the Reviews:
  • "These are slight works, so subtle as to seem almost inconsequential, generating frustration, as well as fascination, from Reve’s reliance on his ability to wring menace out of things left unsaid." - Anthony Cummins, Daily Mail

  • "These are tales of the joys and pains of life that linger in the mind." - Saskia Solomon, Financial Times

  • "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. (...) What gives [The Fall of the Boslowits Family] a sickening sense of freefall is Reve's decision to maintain the fast passage of narrated time." - Joe Dunthorne, London Review of Books

  • "The narrative structure of The Fall of the Boslowits Family is deftly crafted and can be seen as both a counterpoint to and rehearsal for the narrative structure of The Evenings." - Philip Huff, The New York Review of Books

  • "(T)hese two posthumously published novellas by the Dutch writer Gerard Reve, skilfully translated by Sam Garrett, show he was capable of enormous and often unsettling power. (...) Reve’s ability to convey menace and tension is on display throughout." - Alexander Larman, The Observer

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Childhood collects two novellas, written by Reve shortly after the Second World War: Werther Nieland and The Fall of the Boslowits Family, both featuring narrators recounting experiences from their youth, in accounts that are very in-the-moment (rather than retrospective); the perspectives are those of children.
       Werther Nieland covers a fairly short period of time, when narrator Elmer is eleven. A child used to keeping himself busy, he retreats to secret hideaways and keeps secret hiding places, and while he he has constructive plans -- to build things, or to form (secret) clubs -- for the most part he is destructive (on a small scale and in childish ways, but still often rather unpleasantly). He seeks out companionship but his domineering personality makes him a poor playmate.
       In this story he goes to visit a neighbor-boy and meets Werther Nieland. Typically, almost immediately: "I felt the urge to in some way torment him or inflict pain on him underhandedly"; typically, too, he tries to impose himself on the boy, suggesting how he can be helpful and essentially inviting himself over to Werther's home. When he does visit, he finds an unusual household: Werther's father is a passionate Esperantist (who can't help but try to win over the new boy to his passion), while his rather overbearing mother obviously has some mental (in)stability-issues; as Werther's aunt eventually suggests: "'Mother is nervous,' she went on. 'Maybe you two have already noticed that.'" Of course, to Elmer Werther's mother's behavior is all of a piece with the strange world of adult behavior; he can't judge what is out of the range of normal -- just as he has little sense of where his own behavior (which includes bits of animal cruelty) is in the range from acceptable to unacceptable.
       Elmer knows enough to keep, or try to keep, most of his activity secret -- but that's part of the problem: there's no social feedback that might make clear to him that what he is doing is wrong or unacceptable. But then Reve presents a world in which the social norms generally aren't well-enforced or made clear: Werther's father stands more less idly by while his wife behaves rather too cheekily with the children, and does little more than try to gently guide her away (until he tries to get some help for her -- done more or less behind the backs of the children). An attempt to distract the children on a day Mrs. Nieland is to be attended to sees Werther's aunt take the kids -- with Elmer getting himself invited along -- to an entertainment in town; the show she takes them to isn't the kid-friendly circus-like act she was expecting but rather a risqué entertainment (most of which flies over Elmer's head, though even he can sense something isn't quite right about it); "this was not very suitable", she has to admit.
       The sexual allusions and jokes confuse the boy; Werther's mother's behavior obviously go beyond that which he is familiar with -- yet only stretch rather completely break with it: for example, her insistence on bathing her children, and leaving them running around naked, differs only from Elmer's own domestic experiences in the timing and circumstances (but it does creep Elmer out enough that he doesn't let himself be drawn into it).
       Elmer tries to rope friends into participating in his clubs, but his off-putting manipulations -- somehow, it's always obvious he should be in charge -- and demands sink most of these exercises. Indeed, Elmer's actions are largely frustrated ones -- a seeking out of connections that he can't quite make, and solitary acting out that leads nowhere: a typical scene is:

     When I could think of nothing to do I spent my time crumbling the soft plaster from the attic walls, which I knocked off with a hatchet. Afterwards, I always felt sad, and tried, if I had my glass cutter with me, to scratch my name in a windowpane, almost never with success.
       The childish, largely uncomprehending (though sensing ...) perspective and voice is effective here, though Elmer is a creepy little kid. In the story, Werther and his family eventually move; Elmer cycles over to scope their new home out but doesn't visit, the connection broken; "'It's a dark place, where they live,' I said quietly" -- to himself -- and that describes the story, and Elmer's own world as well.
       The Fall of the Boslowits Family begins with narrator Simon explaining that he first got to know the Bolsowitz family when he was seven. Son Hans, two years older than him, is the first connection, but the rest of the family also makes an immediate impression, notably the crippled father -- also named Hans -- and then the oldest son, the "feeble-minded" Otto. The novella begins a few years before the Second World War, but skips along over the years, presenting the darkening clouds as they affect the families.
       Life seems to go on much as usual, all along, as Simon describes it; even war, and then surrender, are taken in stride. There's an effort to maintain a sense of normalcy -- especially, of course, in front of the children. Most obviously, the adults want to reassure simple-minded Otto -- institutionalized, but frequently brought home to visit -- though it's obvious to Simon (and the readers) that the over-simplified cheery attitude is increasingly at odds with reality around them.
       As the shadow of Nazidom looms larger, and then the ugly reality of Nazi occupation takes hold, people are more affected: there are suicides, the authorities become more threatening. Simon's family seems largely unaffected, but those in their circle aren't -- notably the Boslowits family. The physically and the mentally handicapped, in particular, are vulnerable -- though ironically the elder Hans' debilitation initially at least protects him -- it's too much of a bother to cart off him anywhere.
       Friends and family do their best to protect who they can, but as the occupation continues and actions against the locals become more aggressive -- "'They've started,' she said, 'they're rounding people up. No more notice, they're picking them up just like that.'" -- the nooses tighten. No, there is no happy end in this brutally forthright tale.
       Tighter and shorter than Werther Nieland, The Fall of the Boslowits Family is a very effective tale of Dutch life in the late 1930s through the German occupation, the specter of Nazism growing more real and hitting closer to home (even if not, directly, Simon's home), a small classic of its kind.
       In a distinctive voice that captures childish incomprehension while still conveying what is missed by the still immature mind, the two works collected in Childhood are dark and even unpleasant, but both strong and impressive.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 November 2018

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Childhood: Reviews: Other books by Gerard Reve under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Gerard Reve lived 1923 to 2006.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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