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Gerard Reve: Bezorgde Ouders (Parents Worry)

This is the only novel of Reve’s to be translated into English, which may or may not be surprising. Though written in the third person, it is the inner thoughts of Hugo Treger over a twenty-four hour period. Treger is a poet (he has had some critical success), a translator by profession, primarily of stage plays (with occasional journalism to supplement his income), a Roman Catholic, an alcoholic and a homosexual. The translation does not come much into this novel but the other four feature very highly, particularly the homosexuality. Despite the very graphic depictions of Treger’s homosexual lusts, this book was not nearly as controversial in the Netherlands as his earlier and more famous work De avonden [The Evenings], not least because, in part, the Dutch had got more used to Reve’s controversial writings.

Treger lives in a small flat in Amsterdam (though it is only called A. in the book) with a man eighteen years his junior, who is known only by his nickname, Unicorn. He is called Unicorn because he has a very large penis, about which Treger fantasises for much of the book. Indeed, Treger’s sexual activities seem to be much more about fantasising than actually having sex with Unicorn or anyone else, though he is happy to stroke Unicorn from time to time and, towards the end, tries, unsuccessfully, to pick up a young man. His fantasies are sadistic (he fantasises about Unicorn being tortured or even beheaded), about Unicorn having sex with other men and about a couple of dark-skinned young men he sees around as well as the fairer-skinned zoo-keeper. Unicorn is very passive, at least in the perception we get of him in Treger’s mind. He cooks the meals and tends to the plants. He is nominally studying though, in three and a half years, he has only taken one exam and was not very successful at that. He does seem to regularly attend classes, though Treger is not sure whether he is actually going to class or going off with other men. He more or less depends financially on Treger, though his parents do now and then give him small sums of money.

Like Reve, Treger only converted to Roman Catholicism in middle age (about which sensational decision he was still not at one with himself) and worries somewhat about his guilty behaviour, though not about his homosexual activities. Indeed, when he confesses, which is infrequently and usually to a different priest every time, he tells tales of getting hold of young men, taking them back to the flat, holding them down and beating them and allowing Unicorn to rape them. All of these stories are completely untrue. Nor does he seem to worry about his racist feelings towards blacks, particularly black Catholics. Some of his sexual fantasies have racist overtones, as he imagines Unicorn captured and abused by blacks. Indeed, his racist thoughts occur throughout the book. As for his poetic activities Treger’s poetic genius did not amount to much in his own opinion and throughout the book he struggles to find a good rhyme for lines the has thought of. He also considers writing a hymn (at least in part for the royalties he would get.)

Treger is not well off and is happy to scavenge. Early in the book he sees a giant teddy bear on a dustbin and takes it as a present for Unicorn, christening it Sebastian. He will scavenge for other things during the course of the book. Christmas is approaching and he has never bought a Christmas tree but is thinking of doing so. However, he plans to wait till the last minute, when the price goes down. Indeed, he feels if he waits long enough, he may be able to get one free, that has been abandoned by the seller. He continues to look for bargains throughout the day.

What is interesting about this book, of course, is the character of Treger. He spends a lot of time ruminating about life and about often trivial things. It annoyed Treger that, as so often was the case, he engrossed himself in something so utterly unimportant that, moreover, was none of his business. He will do this throughout the book and it is always amusing, the way Reve describes it. However, his continual homoerotic fantasies are likely to put off a lot of readers, which may be, at least in part, why Reve has had virtually no success in the English-speaking world. There is no doubt, however, that Treger, a poet, an alcoholic, with alcohol-fuelled thoughts, a Catholic who seems to love the mysteries but clearly does not adhere too much to Catholic doctrine and, inevitably, an amateur psychologist, is an interesting character and joins an established list of deranged, lustful and religious alcoholics in literature.

Publishing history

First published in 1988 by Veen
First English publication by Fourth Estate in 199