Easterein ca.1986


An examination of inner history by way of translating a Dutch writer.

Perhaps, up until now, I defined myself by not defining. Always moving away from places and verdicts (that boy, that house, that family, that culture, that school, that province, that mooring, that tether, that thought). Always this flight from definition to the blur and remote safety of edge lands. But now, something like an odd streak of light falling upon the books of a Dutch writer, an immaterial zone of internal circumstance has materialized. An overlap — of pasts and present. Because the circumstance is within and devoid of physical location, the life force has nowhere to go and nothing to evade or create distance from. This page is the exploration of this sensuous moire: Gerard Reve, Gerrit Noordzij, my father, Gerrit Gorter. The overlap is a coincidence and convergence of which I am content to be a part.
“Formally” translating literature is new to me, but translating in general is not. I was born in The Netherlands into a Dutch-speaking family in Frisian-speaking surroundings, and have lived in the U.S. for 20 years. Translation is loss; there is always compromise. This is true of converting thought into speech, or rendering Dutch into English. The desire to translate these few passages of Gerard Reve to English was also out of a need — to recover what had been absent from years of speaking a foreign language. To reconnect with the beauty of a primordial, intuited subtlety.

Folkert Gorter
Los Angeles, 2021

Gerard Reve: a “writer.” For the Dutch, part of the canon; a postwar literary great. A virtuoso stylist — intimate, satirical, poetic and deeply humorous. The themes were controversial; homosexuality, sadism, religion, and death. He was the first openly gay public figure in the Netherlands, and a devout, if unorthodox, Catholic (he converted when he was 43, to the disbelief and ridicule of many).

His method was autobiography in the form of letters and novels. What is singular and wholly recognizable, was his combination of the formal and stately with the colloquial; varying between exalted mysticism, common sense and tragic irony. His books are rarely translated (too difficult, too much of the place) and thus hardly taught or anthologized outside of the Netherlands. Starting in 1964 he lived for a number of years in a small village in Friesland (the northern rural province where I grew up), and it was here that these two books were written.
001  [ nader tot u ]  gerard reve — 1966
In the certainty of Death, but in the uncertainty of the hour of which, I have decided that I am no longer allowed to wait, and that today, at this very moment, at fifteen minutes past one in the afternoon, with a buzzing wind and a sky constantly cracking open to “the weather of all people,” by writing down this and no other sentence, I must begin The Book Of The Violet And Death, so that, when Death will have caught up with me, at least a small part of everything that I at one time would have had to confess, even the minutest, most obscure and scarcely comprehensible part, will have been put in writing. (I am the only one who knows that I have, of what I really should have written, never trusted a single word to the page.) Thus I begin this book, with all the strength I was able to muster, and without any hope, because there is none.
In de zekerheid des Doods, maar in de onzekerheid van de ure van dien, heb ik besloten dat ik niet langer mag wachten, maar dat ik vandaag nog, op ditzelfde ogenblik, te kwart over één in de namiddag, bij een zoemende wind en een telkens tot ‘het weer van alle mensen’ openscheurende hemel, door het neerschrijven van deze en geen andere zin, Het Boek Van Het Violet En De Dood moet beginnen, opdat, wanneer de Dood mij zal hebben ingehaald, er misschien van alles wat ik eens zou moeten bekennen, althans iets, zij het een allergeringst, onduidelijk en ternauwernood begrijpelijk deel, op schrift gesteld zal zijn. (Ik ben de enige die weet, dat ik, van wat ik eigenlijk had moeten opschrijven, nog nooit één woord aan het papier heb toevertrouwd.) Aldus begin ik dit boek, met al de kracht die ik heb kunnen vergaren, en zonder enige hoop, want die is er niet.

Reve in 1984
(Ph. Steye Raviez)

Approaching the end (1963)
Design by Gerrit Noordzij (1983)
Set in Noordzij’s Remer
Nearer to Thee (1966)
Design by Gerrit Noordzij (1983)
Set in Noordzij’s Remer
The center of the Oerlaap is occupied by two books by Gerard Reve: Op weg naar het einde (‘Approaching the end’) and Nader tot U (‘Nearer to Thee’). They are my father’s favorite Reve novels and these editions are designed by Gerrit Noordzij, an eminent Dutch typographer and typeface designer. They sat on the shelves of my childhood home.

It is here that a supreme Dutch clarity of graphic rationalism and typographic prowess deliver Reve’s intelligent humor, open exploration of sensuality, and ecstatic mysticism. This confluence of form, content and personal memory is foundational to me and my aspiration in all things.

My father: His effect was largely implicit — by proximity. A model of conduct, and a model for conduct. Teach-by-example now comes naturally. He was tolerant (though at times, detached). My muddling, stumbling and blind scrambling was met by immovable implications of support (“love” would be a term too dramatic) — the kind of support that is of course resorted to rarely, if ever. Self-reliance is now my mode.

002  [ nader tot u ]  gerard reve — 1966
I know that I would have to return much farther into the Past, as far as is possible, and that eventually I would even have to attempt to traverse the boundary of that still embodied memory, because beyond that, it should be possible to find the explanation of the horror that is “this disastrous life.” Maybe, if I live long enough and keep at it, one day I might succeed and finally be able to indicate the moldy, dark images, that sometimes due to the accidentally stalled device’s broiling projector lamp have transformed almost entirely into dripping molasses. Then I will know who the Soldier was with whom, thirty four years ago, I was in love, and who may have in fact existed; what the farrier shop means, behind which, in a kitchen, in the plastered light of a small courtyard, an old woman, thin as a dying bird, with her last ounce of strength, cuts a red cabbage in half; who the boy was, that played the harmonica and drank water from the canal because he was thirsty and didn’t have the key and didn’t want to ring the neighbors’ bell, and then died; o, sorrow of a lost youth that never was, and that is forever frozen in time.Ik weet, dat ik nog veel verder, zo ver als maar enigszins mogelijk is, zou moeten terugkeren in het Verleden, en dat ik tenslotte zelfs zou moeten proberen de grens van de nog gestalte hebbende herinnering te overschrijden, want daarachter moet, van de verschrikking die ‘dit rampzalig leven’ inhoudt, de verklaring te vinden zijn. Misschien zal het me, als ik nog lang genoeg leef en blijf volhouden, eens gelukken, zodat ik eindelijk de verregende, donkere beelden — soms in het per ongeluk tot stilstand gekomen apparaat door de gloeiende projeksielamp bijna geheel in druipende stroop veranderd — zal kunnen duiden. Dan zal ik weten, wie de Soldaat was op wie ik, vier en dertig jaar geleden, verliefd was, en die misschien werkelijk bestaan heeft; wat de hoefsmederij betekent waarachter, in een keuken, onder het gepleisterd licht van een binnenplaatsje, een oude vrouw, dun als een stervende vogel, met haar laatste krachten een rode kool in tweeën snijdt; wie de jongen was, die mondharmonika speelde en water uit de vaart dronk omdat hij dorst had en de sleutel niet had en niet bij buren wou aanbellen, en daarna gestorven is; o, weemoed van een verloren jeugd die nooit geweest is, en die voor eeuwig stilstaat in de tijd.

The arrival of this feeling of overlap — my father, Gerard Reve, Gerrit Noordzij — does not seem so much a coming-to-terms-with but a kind of clarifying and legitimizing of personality. A congealing of disparate characteristics that is now bringing together the intellectual, melancholic, poetic, and graphic beauty previously scattered. Oerlaap is a biographic marker, as well as an exploration of the confluence of the specific, random, and particular realities that make up a personality.

Me: I am an illegitimate Frisian; my parents, transplants. Thus in me, a permanent absence of allegiance. No affiliation and the foundation of my outsiderness. This was not a steady post — in others the outlier sometimes elicits confusion, even rage. Are you Frisian or Dutch? Athletic or the orchestra? Girls or boys? Intelligent or tough? With us or against us? Upstairs or downstairs? Inside or out? The overlap could only ever be partial. But the outsider becomes of the land and not of the people. I’m the overcast, windy, melancholic, solitary, soggy grasslands of Friesland. Uninterrupted horizons under a celestial dome. Son of ’70s modest idealism, prudent, macrobiotic, biodynamic rationalism. Of home-knit goat wool socks, unconventional, liberal, educated, sophisticated, austere, literary stock. Son of pastoral isolation. A mutant (“malformation leading to superhuman ability”); world’s fastest runner.
003  [ op weg naar het einde ]  gerard reve — 1963
Yes, if only I could get a hold of that raincoat of his, because once in my possession, I would be able to enchant M. without much effort and keep him under my control. It is a light-brown coat, of ordinary, synthetic fabric, reasonably well-cut, but certainly not particularly elegant, and greasy at the sleeve’s edges. Be that as it may — while I stand right next to him pretending to be looking at insects or salamanders, I bring my face as close as possible to his shoulder and armpit, and am able to ascertain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the cloth, as I suspected, indeed possesses that secret odor of which, from the time the animals were dispossessed of their speech, the orally passed-down composition was lost, and of which the only thing we now know is that it is related to (because equally nearly imperceptible) that of warm iron, of letters in shoe boxes kept in a drawer, and of the wood of the attic window, through which, keenly listening for suspect sounds on the staircase, one spies on the boy on the street who time and again nearly assumes the correct position, but who, right before the miracle of the seminal discharge is able to occur (Reproduction is really something quite wonderful if you stop to think about it), disappears around the corner.Ja, kon ik die regenjas van hem maar bemachtigen, want eenmaal in het bezit daarvan, zou ik M. zonder veel moeite kunnen betoveren en in mijn macht houden. Een lichtbruine jas is het, van ordinair, synteties weefsel, redelijk goed van snit maar zeker niet bizonder elegant, en vet geworden aan de mouwranden. Dat kan allemaal best waar zijn — terwijl ik, vlak naast hem staand, voorwendend naar insekten of salamanders te kijken, mijn gezicht zo dicht mogelijk bij zijn schouder en oksel breng, weet ik boven elke twijfel vast te stellen dat de stof wel degelijk, zoals ik vermoedde, de geheime reuk bezit waarvan, sedert de dieren hun spraak werd ontnomen, de mondeling overgeleverde samenstelling verloren is gegaan, en waarvan we alleen nog weten dat hij verwant is aan (want in gelijke mate bijna onwaarneembaar) die van warm ijzer, van brieven in schoenendozen in een lade bewaard, en van het hout van het zolderraam waardoor men, scherp luisterend naar verdachte geluiden op de trap, de Jongen op straat bespiedt die telkens bijna de juiste houding aanneemt, maar net voordat het wonder van de zaaduitstorting zich heeft kunnen voltrekken (de Voortplanting is eigenlijk iets heel moois, als je er even bij stil staat), om de hoek verdwijnt.

Graphic design: An employment to articulate information. A demandingly practical and rational trade; though without poetic sensitivity and a deeply self-reflexive flair, ineffective or worse. It is a method of amplification, contextualization, legibility, clarification, translation, etc. Like all arts its goal is impossible: the perfect balance of message and medium. Alas graphic design is a means, not an end. 

Image: Gerrit Noordzij

My father — teacher and economist of note — I can see him mostly reading (in the living room), writing (in his study), and riding his bicycle (commuting).  From my young perch, he was broad-thinking and broad-reading — well out of reach — pensive, rational, witty, understated, reserved. He was exceptionally well liked and respected by his peers and his pupils. My feelings are of admiration and inadequacy; of not being part of — because not being able to — participate in his intellectual world. I wished I could. Though I can rely on myself which is perhaps the boon/bust of such distance.

004  [ op weg naar het einde ]  gerard reve — 1963
As regards the much-discussed Process of Creation, I often wonder if there are people who can write without vertigo, without for example the sudden bursts of wild itchiness, mostly on top of the skull — as if a gnome living in the ceiling was dropping itching powder through a small hole in the plaster. Oh, they do exist of course, a type of 1st class writers who don’t have the least amount of difficulty summarizing their considerations into written language; who don’t suddenly need to scream, massage the scalp, inspect the Pubic hair, eat an old pork knuckle, throw water or a Brussels sprout out the window on someone’s noggin without the lucky one able to determine from whence it comes, and to not even mention all kinds of other things, because there are kids here, and ultimately you don’t know who gets their hands on such a magazine, unforeseen consequences etc., and nowadays, with the lightning fast application of all sorts of things, a thousand miles is nothing at all in this day and age.
Wat het veel besproken Scheppend Proces betreft, vraag ik me vaak af, of er mensen zouden bestaan die zonder duizelingen, zonder bijvoorbeeld de plotseling uitbrekende, woeste kriebelingen, bovenop de kop vooral — alsof een in het plafond wonende Kabouter door een gaatje in de pleistering jeukpoeder naar beneden gooit — kunnen schrijven. Ach, natuurlijk bestaan ze wel, een soort schrijvers 1ste klas, die niet de geringste moeite hebben hun overwegingen in geschreven taal op te sommen; die niet opeens moeten schreeuwen, de hoofdhuid masseren, het Schaamhaar bekijken, een koude varkenspoot eten, uit het raam water of een spruitkooltje op iemand zijn harses gooien zonder dat de gelukkige kan vaststellen waar het vandaan komt, om van allerlei andere dingen maar te zwijgen, want er zijn kinderen bij, en je weet tenslotte ook niet in wie zijn handen zo'n blad komt, een ongeluk zit in een klein hoekje, en tegenwoordig, met de razend-snelle toepassing van wat al niet, duizend kilometer dat is vandaag de dag niks niemendal meer, vraag maar aan Godfried Bomans, als hij tenminste niet zijn haar aan het wassen is.

The Oerlaap, as Parent: effective design arouses a receiver’s own interests. A good teacher awakens (and establishes) a student’s personal curiosity. A responsible parent vitalizes a child into standing on its own. With each of these (design, teacher or parent) their catalyzing is invisible. Each is ultimately a selfless, altruistic role, fully in the service of the communication: the recipient is unaware of each’s role in transmitting the message. “Look I did it all by myself.”

005  [ nader tot u ]  gerard reve — 1966
Poem for my 39th birthday
  • There are days when for hours at a time I do not have to think about Death,
  • But when I got up up this morning, Death was on my mind right away.
  • The lights were still on — as if it was evening already;
  • that’s how early I was thinking about the Dead.
  • At noonday Michael appeared. I made a sandwich for him.
  • I looked at him while he ate, and saw his youth.
  • When he had left, I drank from his glass, and panting, jerked myself off.
  • Hear now my voice, o Eternal One, please hearken back to me,
  • who strides forth between Death and Death, in a delusion,
  • and rests, even now, in Thine timeless Grave.
Gedicht voor mijn 39ste verjaardag
  • Soms zijn er dagen dat ik uren lang niet hoef te denken aan de Dood,
  • Maar bij mijn opstaan al was ik vanmorgen aan de Dood gedachtig.
  • De lampen brandden nog — of het al avond was;
  • zo vroeg reeds dacht ik aan de Doden.
  • Des middags verscheen Michael. Ik maakte brood voor hem.
  • Ik keek naar hem terwijl hij at, en zag zijn jeugd.
  • Toen hij weer weg was, dronk ik uit zijn glas, en trok mij hijgend af.
  • Hoor dan mijn stem, o Eeuwige. Gedenk u toch aan mij,
  • die voortschrijd tussen Dood en Dood, in een begoocheling,
  • en in uw tijdloos Graf reeds rust.

Easterein ca. 1980
Ph. A.J. van der Wal

Gerrit Noordzij

006  [ op weg naar het einde ]  gerard reve — 1963
No, the people want brilliance, and contrarian so-called whimsicality. And this is promptly delivered by Henry Miller. (How anyone has ever been able to take the writings of this bragging self-glorifier seriously is a mystery to me, seeing the tedious, belabored platitudes and unhinged petit bourgeois-ness that form its foundations, all mixed with Theosophy from West Frisia of 1910, and then in indigestible, bad writing; that’s how I’d describe the outmoded vitalism of this old treefucker, who, in his crusade against narrow-mindedness, became the parochial incarnate.) The crowd is in a state of tension about what the prophet is going to say about the novel. Dozens of paparazzi scurry off and on, some tripping, to capture the oracle from California, on the verge of enriching the world with a winged word, forever on film. “Well,” says the eternal youth, “I want to tell you that I have been walking around a great deal in your beautiful city, and that I’ve been looking at such marvelous paintings in your galleries! I would say: let us talk about painting. Let’s not talk about the novel, it’s been dead for at least fifty years.” How unique, and how original! Needless to say, this bêtise is rewarded with a hurricane of an applause. Nee, men wil briljantie, en tegendraadse zogenaamde leutigheid. Die wordt dan ook prompt geleverd door Henry Miller. (Hoe ooit iemand de geschriften van deze zwetsende zelfverheerlijker ernstig heeft kunnen nemen is mij een raadsel, gezien de vervelende opendeurintrapperij en het losgeslagen kleinburgerdom, die er de grondslagen van vormen, alles vermengd met theosofie uit Westfriesland van 1910, en dan nog onverteerbaar slecht geschreven; zo zou ik het overjarig vitalisme van deze oude bosneuker willen omschrijven, die, in zijn kruistocht tegen de bekrompenheid, zelve de vlees geworden geborneerdheid is.) De menigte verkeert in spanning naar wat de profeet gaat zeggen over de roman. Dozijnen blitzknipsers snellen, sommige struikelend, af en aan om het orakel van Californië, op het punt de wereld met een gevleugeld woord te verrijken, voor altijd op de lichtgevoelige laag vast te leggen. ‘Well,’ zegt de eeuwige jongeling, ‘I want to tell you that I have been walking around a great deal in your beautiful city, and that I've been looking at such marvelous paintings in your galleries! I would say: let us talk about painting. Let's not talk about the novel, it's been dead for at least fifty years.’ Wat enig, en wat oorspronkelijk! Onnodig te zeggen, dat deze bêtise met een orkaan van een applaus wordt beloond.

Oerlaap as Design Sensibility: effective design is never glamorous; it does not impose a cognitive load. Design is either translucent or equal to the message. Design is a positioning, a placement, a hanger, or an armature of a communication; design is the matrix of message. Good design (dare I say) is when the positioning fully recedes into its context, that is, until there is no separation between content and form. Poor design is a prop; a tell for a poor message (this circumstance is rife).
        Before design and message (form and content) merge, design must listen; then it can bestow its proper measure of attitude. When the assessment is effective it will give strength and power and longevity. Sometimes this happens all at once, sometimes over many years. Sometimes design must trick or charm the recipient to circumvent the psychological barriers and cognitive netting that might prevent arrival of the message.

Ine my mother often suggested that I be an instrument maker. The Dutch word instrumentmaker refers not to musical but to scientific or surgical-medical instruments: ‘precision mechanics.’ Though specific counsel was not heeded, the character was preserved. In design, the ‘instrument,’ or delivery mechanism (the medium) is inherent to the communicated message. To fully engage one’s means of expression, the delivery mechanism itself must be designed as well, whether it’s a brush, a typeface, a museum, or a publishing platform. My preference for designing delivery mechanisms (media) is partly to help deliver better messages and partly to indicate that there are possibilities beyond established means. Partly Ine as well.
007  [ op weg naar het einde ]  gerard reve — 1963
And thus we end up in a rather pretentious restaurant, way too expensive relative to the quality of the offering, with much pre-cutting, warm-keeping, wine-pouring from basket, asking if it is to our liking, etc. Only the chef, in hat, who comes over for a chat, is missing. Restaurants make me nauseous to begin with, because my conviction demands that man should take his food in secret, alone, preferably seated behind a jute curtain, and the food must furthermore be of the plainest kind, with plenty of raw carrot, boiled horse heart and raw kohlrabi, and if possible consumed on greaseproof brown paper on a substratum of newspapers. Eating in the presence of dozens of others, and strangers at that, I find to be much more obscene than performing the act of genital copulation in their presence. And to allow oneself tableservice in exchange for money by someone one doesn’t know and that probably hates you, that is positively sinful, and can never be justified. Aldus belanden wij in een nogal bekakt restaurant, veel te duur in verhouding tot de kwaliteit van het gebodene, met enorm veel voorsnijderij, warmhouderij, wijngieterij uit korfje, vragen of het gesmaakt heeft, etc. Alleen de kok, met muts, die een praatje komt maken, ontbreekt nog. Ik word al beroerd van een restaurant in het algemeen, omdat mijn overtuiging eist dat de mens in het geheim, alleen, bij voorkeur achter een jute gordijn gezeten, zijn voedsel tot zich neemt, dat bovendien nog van de allereenvoudigste soort dient te zijn, met volop rauwe wortel, gekookt paardehart en rauwe koolraap, alles zo mogelijk genuttigd van vetdicht pakpapier op een onderlaag van koeranten. Eten in het bijzijn van tientallen andere, en nog wel onbekende, mensen, vind ik heel wat ontuchtiger dan in hun bijzijn de geslachtsdaad uitvoeren. En zich voor geld aan tafel te laten bedienen door iemand die men niet kent en die je waarschijnlijk haat, dat is volstrekt zondig, en kan nooit worden goedgepraat.

Due to a youth of eccentric realities and quieted difficulties my style is a kind of hidden, opposite, negative one — most aspects of my personality could only thrive in the dark if they were to be genuine. Subsequently, a love of obfuscation and clarity — a romance of focus and blur. And further on, the warm flaws and idiosyncrasies in letterforms, sharp type over misty images; obscure expressions delivered with technical clarity. As has been said, truth suffers from too much analysis. Or, as a close friend has said, beauty is a play with distances.

008  [ nader tot u ]  recital/video — 1969
A poem from my widely read book Nearer to Thee, paperback, $8,50.
The title of the poem is: “It depends on just how you look at it.”
  • Thy word, which does not end, says
  • that I am but grass, and that is true.
  • After much fretting, firmly back to the jug.
  • But no complaints from me, because all must be
  • completion of Thee, Endless One, for whom I sing and dance
  • for as long as it pleases and continues to satisfy Thee.
Een gedicht uit mijn veelgelezen boek, Nader tot U, ingenaaid, €8,50. 
De titel van het gedicht is: ‘Het is maar net zoals je het bekijkt.’
  • Uw woord, dat niet voorbij gaat, zegt
  • dat ik slechts gras ben, en dat is ook zo.
  • Na lang getob weer stevig aan de kruik.
  • Maar klachten heb ik niet, want alles moet
  • voltooiing zijn van U, Oneindige, voor wie ik zing en dans
  • zo lang het U belieft en blijft behagen.

Reve recites a poem from Nader tot U
Source: Wie was Gerard Reve?

  • Het is gezien, het is niet onopgemerkt gebleven.

  • It was seen, it has not remained unnoticed.