[This article is a translation of the Dutch article Reves Raleigh. Note that the quotes of Old and lonely in this English version are my own. As far as I know, there exists no official translation. Note: I also translated a few chapters of his 1975 work A Circus Boy]
On some occasions, you have to be pointed at the sheer brilliance of something you were already familiar with. This can even be the case regarding a passage of an artist you have always admired. You knew his work was great, you had already read this particular episode, but you still hadn't fully digested its significance. You needed that extra reminder.
Inspired by a plea of Reve-connaisseur Diederik van Vleuten, I reread the 'Jane Raleigh episode' of Old and lonely (Gerard Reve, 1978). The story is about a stage actrice in London of the fifties, with whom the narrator has a short affair (chapter five to thirteen). I agree with Van Vleuten: the episode ranks among the best of Reve’s writings. It is a masterful blend of acute observation and big symbolism, of raw honesty and cliché, of things vulgar and divine.
Although the story is larger than life in some respects, it is still convincing on a deep level. Jane Raleigh is a Mother Mary figure, an angel. But an angel that has gotten a convincing human incarnation. Nor is the narrator a regular guy, considering his perverse and possessed mind. For sure, the recipe for a sad history in which ‘not a single sane human being makes an appearance’. And still, as in every tragedy, it is a triumph of greatness. Amidst all sadness, Jane Raleigh is capable of a great deed.
The story’s narrator, who is named Gerard, lives in a small London apartment in the mid-fifties of the twentieth century. He lives on a ‘small grant of Duchess van B.’ and had been ‘employed as an assistant-grave-digger’ for a short period. Before commencing his story, he warns his readers: ‘I must confess that in all my memories a lot of rain falls.’
Gerard often visits Jane, who shares for financial reasons an apartment with her inane collegue Jacky. He is a subordinate figure, who is characterised as follows:
It is inevitable that Jacky will become object of the ‘fairly universally directed, ever vigilant horniness’ of the narrator. She is the heroine, for whom Gerard soon feels sympathy.
During one of the Saturday afternoons on which Jane receives guests, in Gerard’s eyes a ‘bunch of chattering faggots’, he watches her in amazement:
The fact that Gerard is attracted to men, doesn’t stand in the way of an affair between him and Jane. It does complicate matters, however. I will not quote the love scenes here – they are unsettling, to say the least.
The thread of the story are the rehearsals and performances of a play in which Jane has the lead role. We meet the director of the play, an enthusiastic but talentless figure, and Jane’s father, an anonymous man who loves his daughter to the point of devotion.
The play is poorly directed, Jane's competent acting notwithstanding. The première receives a modest applause, after which ‘the imbecile, obligatory visit behind the scenes’ takes place:
The play gets two more performances, for smaller crowds. The romance between Jane and Gerard is not viable, in his eyes. He has a bleak outlook:
The author had warned us… And yet not everything is lost. Thanks to a grateful gesture of Jane, which impresses Gerard deeply, the story ends with hope.
The enchanting quality of the story is partly due to 'the ritual glow of the stage lights’ under which the events take place. The filmic staging of the scenes, the décor of rainy London city, it all is a beautiful film noir. The narrator is the despairing hero – a James Dean with some screws loose. Between his eyelids he can definitely see the goodness of his beloved woman, but he stands powerless in the face of destiny. Reve's craftmanship is that he uses these theatrical components to tell a truly honest and touching story. He adds all kinds of unbelievable, grim details (at least it is hard to accept that reality was as bleak as the author penned it down) without, oddly, undermining the emotional core of the story.
Amazing are the stylistic grace and well-directedness. In a space of seventy pages, two main characters and three secondary characters are portrayed convincingly, as their destiny unfolds. It is remarkable how little dialogue Reve needs to achieve this. Jane comes to life convincingly, but she speaks only a handful of sentences. The things she says, however, are so well put and truthful, that the reader is left speechless. How many words does it take an angel to bring her message? Eight, in this story.
While reading we feel, behind the narrator Gerard, the presence of the writer Gerard. The narrator may be helpless, the writer lets us know who pulls the strings. The grand finale is the last page, where both temperaments are opposed in sharp contrast: the sardonic grin of the almighty writer/puppeteer versus the narrator’s truly felt love for a woman. First the writer rubs us in once more that it is all a story. Only to show, immediately after and coinciding again with his narrator, that he cares deeply about the whole situation. First we readers can't resist a chuckle, then we stare ahead in silence.
Some say that Reve indulged, after the letter books On my way to the end and Nearer to Thee, in decadent or corny writing about silk trousers and ‘boy buttocks’. It appears fashionable to suggest that Werther Nieland (1949) is his masterpiece. Without talking down any of Reve’s works, I would like to plea for Old and lonely (which is a frame story which, by the way, also contains a brilliant episode about a communist youth camp). It can compete with any work, with other masters of world literature as well as far as I am concerned. Isn’t it about time for a translation into English? Or – as a prelude, a translation of the Jane Raleigh episode – it could be a novel in its own right. Or would it be sacrilege to separate it from the novel as a whole?
My translation of Gerard Reve's A Circus Boy (1975)
Siegfried Woldhek: drawing of Reve