Exercises in Manliness
“… the night’s sleepless hour/ when the decision’s made?” is a quotation from a poem by the respected Dutch poet Ida Gerhardt. Rascha Peper chose this quotation for a novella in which an ‘exercise in manliness’ leads to the main character suffering an unsuspected and possibly fatal blow. Geert M. Bertolet Bokslag is the protagonist whose gruff surname (in Dutch ‘bok’ means billy goat and ‘slag’ blow) leads us to the accurate suspicion that we are dealing with a character of surly disposition.
The year is 1938. Bokslag is the medical superintendent of the sanatorium Huize Slangenstein. Despite his physical disablities – he limps and has a hunchback – he has been able to build a considerable reputation as a doctor who, without apparent cheerfulness but nonetheless calmly and dutifully, carries out his healing work. Hidden behind this dour facade however is a man who is unable to come to terms with his sensuality. Peper gives a skilful hint of this slumbering disruptiveness in the first few pages in a seemingly cool description of how Bokslag has furnished his room and set out the garden over which he looks out. “The only asymmetrical element was the man himself looking out from his elevated position.? This is a significant sentence. Bokslag himself is the flaw in his own ideal. This becomes even clearer with the arrival of Mathilde Vroom, a mercurial young woman who has come to Slangenstein because of tuberculosis and syphilis. One night Bokslag can no longer control himself and joins the drugged half-conscious Mathilde in her bed. She wakes only after he has given full rein to his passions–or else she only then shows she is awake because she immediately takes control of the situation and uses it to blackmail him. Until Bokslag tries to cover up everything with a reckless deed…
Besides this medical superintendent other figures to be found in Peper’s book are an author of pornographic stories, an Italian monk and an insecure artist. All of them are forced to assert their manliness in decisive moments and come what may. In these novellas Rascha Peper presents this sensitive material (how else should we describe the capricious territory of these emotions?) in controlled form with the skill and success already seen in her novel and in her collection of short stories. In her earlier work she often chose for the perspective of women who preferred memories, contemplation and dream to everyday social pressures. The increased tension in her latest work shows Peper to be an interesting writer and strong stylist, one who already deserves more than the cautious cliché ‘promising’.