Tragedy of errors
In Ivory Watchmen Simon Vestdijk chronicles the downfall of a gifted secondary school student called Philip Corvage. The boy – who lives with an uncle who bullies and humiliates him – is popular among his teachers and fellow students, writes poems which show true promise, and delights in delivering fantastic monologues sprinkled with Latin quotations.
But this ill-starred prodigy has a defect: the inside of his mouth is a disaster area, consisting of stumps of teeth and the jagged remains of molars, separated by gaps. In the end, this leads to the boy’s downfall, which is recounted almost casually. It starts with a new teacher’s reference to a ‘mouth full of tombstones’ and ends with his drowning when the jealous husband of his uncle’s housekeeper pushes him into a canal.
The events in the novel take place over a period of 24 hours and nothing – at least initially – points in the direction of any dramatic denouement. Wry, and incisively, Vestdijk describes the boy’s background, his behaviour at the dentist’s (he writes the man a poem), and his naive displays of erudition. For all its light-heartedness, it is a telling portrayal of secondary school students and their teachers. Vestdijk is at his best in the description of the new teacher, with his egotistic ambitions and questionable views of his chosen profession.
This tragic novel gradually evolves, as one misunderstanding follows another, Philip’s illusions run away with him, and fate ultimately gets the upper hand. In it Vestdijk demonstrates his inimitable style, with sentences that elaborate, suggest and bewitch, and are filled with delightful linguistic invention. Vestdijk also demonstrates the psychological insight that has enabled him to paint this penetrating and touching portrait of the boy Philip, his tragic – even angelic – hero. This novel is among the best work that Vestdijk has given us.