The Garden where the Brass Band Played
‘Versatile’ is an understatement when it comes to Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971) and his literary talent. His oeuvre includes three weighty volumes of poetry, twenty essay collections dealing with subjects as diverse as music, literature and religion, and, last but not least, fifty-two novels. This man wrote ‘faster than God can read’, as was often said at the time. This is stunning when one takes into account that Vestdijk was also a doctor and furthermore severely depressive for several months each year. Everything was within his capacities and he shrunk at nothing. His novels (which won him the most fame) are realistic but also include subtle symbols and allusions to metaphysical problems.
No other modern author can equal the skill and frequency with which Vestdijk summoned up the world of adolescence. The insecurity of those years, the discovery of mentors, the joy and shock of first love, and the intellectual confrontation with the often unprincipled world of adults-in numerous novels Vestdijk gave lasting shape to that drastic period of transition known as youth.
For many, including the author himself, the novel The Garden Where the Brass Band Played is the pinnacle of his achievement in this field. The main character, Nol Rieske, looks back on his youth in the provincial town of W. (based on Leeuwarden, where Vestdijk went to university). At the age of eight his mother, whom he resembles, takes him to the town gardens where he is enchanted by the music of the brass band. He dances with Trix, the daughter of Cuperus, the band’s drunken conductor. The memory of this occasion takes hold of Nol and he is unable to forget it. Years later, when he is studying medicine and involved in a complicated relationship with the simple and worldly Trix, it still plagues him. He asks her to marry him. Soon after this proposal his mother dies of heart disease and Trix kills herself. The reason for her suicide lies in her inability to tell Nol about the relationships she has had in the intervening years.
Vestdijk masterfully depicts the force and drama of irrational love-Nol hardly knows Trix at all. He locates his story of youthful impetuousness, the budding love of music, and the irretrievable loss of the past in and around the ‘gardens’ of W., which grow into an almost mythic setting. When Nol finally recovers from his infatuation he is surrounded by dark trees whose leaves have the brassy colours of autumn.