On My Way to the End
In the 1960s Gerard Reve’s career entered a new phase when he discovered that the letter was his ideal literary form. It allowed him to adopt a direct, confrontational tone, combined with formal, almost solemn, syntax and vocabulary. Reve wrote openly and in great detail about his alcoholism, his homosexuality, his preoccupation with death and his adoration of God and the Virgin Mary. As the main character of his letters, he described his life with remarkable candour, contributing to his own legend in the process. In a 1998 interview he said, ‘I’m a Great Writer, but it’s not as if I’m not stuck up about it.’
The letters in On My Way to the End shocked Dutch readers of 1963 with their complete lack of taboo and shameless frankness. In the opening ‘Letter from Edinburgh’, Reve talks about attending a writers’ congress in the Scottish capital and describes his anger on discovering that certain topics there, particularly homosexuality and sodomy, were considered beyond the pale. ‘As a homosexual,’ Reve wrote, ‘I will never let anyone forbid me from making homosexuality the subject of my work.’ He spent the rest of his creative life making this clear.
Yet it is not groundbreaking honesty that has made On My Way to the End one of the undisputed masterpieces of Dutch literature. The book’s power lies in the author’s firm grasp of what he calls ‘pointless facts’. At first glance, it may seem as if Reve is simply writing down whatever pops into his head (‘mindless bullshit, blessed by the Almighty’, as he later called it), but upon closer examination, all the personal anecdotes, travel stories and cynical jokes are part of an intricate literary pattern. Gradually the problem of writing itself emerges as one of the book’s themes. The only way to comprehend the world is by attempting to bring order to it, and one can only bring order to life by writing about it.
In the final analysis, it is Reve’s brilliant style that won these ‘letters from faraway places’ a place in the canon. His sentences are more exuberant and baroque than in his earlier work, and he possesses that rare gift of being able to make his reader cry and laugh at the same time.