Witty novel about childhood friendship
Maarten ’t Hart, one of the best loved and most popular authors in the Low Countries, wrote Verlovingstijd (Betrothal) to cheer himself up when confined to his bed after a fall from his bicycle. The story is about the friendship between the narrator – a character familiar to those who know ’t Hart’s works – and Joerie, his childhood best friend.
The two of them grow up in Maassluis, the village where ’t Hart himself grew up and the setting of most of his novels. In another parallel with the author, they both go to university in Leiden, where ’t Hart studied biology in 1962.
There is, however, constant tension in the relationship between the two boys, a tension that has an odd but emotional root: Joerie, who is more attractive, intelligent and, in particular, more social than the narrator, steals all his friend’s girls. Worse, Joerie is only interested in a girl once the narrator has shown an interest; only then does he pounce. There is more.
Blonde Frederica, the prettiest girl in school, approaches the narrator to fake a relationship, realizing that it’s the only way to get his friend Joerie’s attention. After Frederica has given the tragic hero of Verlovingstijd his first real kiss, Joerie does indeed become interested. Frederica’s plan succeeds, and she becomes his wife.
A dubious choice of partner is a theme that recurs several times in this novel. For instance, there is the choice of the narrator’s wife, a skinny woman who refuses to wear make up and whom his father scornfully calls ‘a bicycle rack’. And, more importantly, there is the confession of his mother, whose story serves as both prologue and epilogue. In her old age, she tells her son that she married the wrong man, his father.
’t Hart has strung these stories together with obvious delight. With broad brush strokes and all manner of tangents and anecdotes, he tells the tale of his alter ego’s doomed relationships. And fail they do – the narrator, for the most part, pines for what is never to be his.
All this will be familiar to readers of Maarten ’t Hart, as will be many of the settings, characters and themes. The readers of Verlovingstijd get exactly what they want from Maarten ’t Hart: a good old-fashioned story which vividly and humorously exposes the unmistakably tragic side of life.