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Holland Park Press

Writing as Salvation

2 November 2012 Zie Nederlandse versie
by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

I hardly ever pay visits. I love a lively discussion, but rather not in someone’s home. Visiting is a bit superficial, like a ‘novel without an extra layer of meaning’. In the way it invites thoughts like: would they use the living room suite for group sex on a bleak autumn day?

Or they have a timid daughter, and this title pops into your head: Sarah’s Silence.

The reason I’m heaving these thoughts is because I’ve just finished the final part of a biography about Dutch writer Gerard Reve (1923-2006). Reve too was an observer, much more a commentator than a participant in real life.

I admire Reve, and that makes me glad we have a few things in common, such as a preference for pitiful people, bed-bound people, and other neglected groups.

If, for example, I drive past an old people’s home or hospice and I spot a group of elderly people in the recreation room, I can’t help thinking: I hope they don’t engage a second-rate artist like Jimmy Savile to entertain them. Such things happen, but they always come to light forty years later, when everyone involved is already dead.

Or, when coaching people as part of a writing competition, you find out that one of the female entrants is called Sofia Opfer (Sofia Victim). A wonderful name, and you couldn’t have made it up.

Certain authors have a contagious writing style. Not because it can make you ill, but rather their work influences your own writing. Gerard Reve is one of them. So if you’re thinking ‘this column has a different feel’, you know what’s causing it.

The main thing that I noticed, when reading this biography, is how much Reve protected his working environment while at the time actually needing other people. It sounds very familiar.

A quarter of a century ago I stopped maintaining ‘social contacts by visiting people in their homes’. I usually meet people in public places, and I even meet up with my best friend in a pub.

Parties are probably even worse than visiting people at home. Being told to join in a polonaise must count as one of the main reasons for committing suicide.

When visitors announce their imminent arrival, there’s panic. At such times there is no way to get any writing done; besides everyone can see ‘what you’re working on’.

Reve was very attached to his mother. Some people think I’m also overtly close to my mother, because I look after her well. From time to time I cook her dinner; I would have done the same for my father, but of course I can’t do that. Who cooks for someone who’s dead? Occasionally I prepare asparagus for my dinner, ‘because it’s what he liked’.

Last Sunday I drove my mother, aged 88, and my aunt, aged 86, to a graveyard to change the ribbons on the flower baskets on the graves of my maternal grandparents and my uncle Harry. The baskets still had the ‘Eastertide’ yellow ribbons, which had to be replaced by red ones ‘because we’re approaching Christmastide’. Before you know it, you’re scrubbing the graves with an outsized washing up brush.

There’re more similarities, however: Reve had a made-up army career, whereas mine is genuine. And he drank three bottles of wine a day: I drink four beers at most, and never before five o’clock.

Reve loved men, I love women. Both of us used the catholic approach: all inclusive.

I too adore Holy Mary; just tell her everything and slip in ‘the asking for something’. During my life I’ve already spent the equivalent of a small car on votive candles. The Holy Virgin uses my money to drive about heaven in a sky blue, ‘the name says it all’, Fiat 500.

Maybe I should visit a psychiatrist, but before you know it he hangs himself, which is exactly what Reve’s personal doctor did.

And yet, as it says in the postscript to Reve’s biography: ‘Quite probably, no other Dutch writer has prevented as many suicides and comforted as many helpless people as he did.’

© Arnold Jansen op de Haar
© Translation Holland Park Press

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