A small gem of a book about growing up and returning to your roots
Along with other Dutch-language authors like Nescio and Willem Elsschot, A. Alberts exemplifies a school of literature that is characterised by stylistic precision and a sardonic, melancholy tone. Their work continues to attract new readers. This recent edition of Alberts’ first novel, The Trees, has drawn even more people’s attention to his timeless work.
The Trees is set in the Netherlands and follows the protagonist, Aart, from child- hood to adolescence. We witness him going about his day-to-day life, but everything has an ineffable patina of beauty to it. Aart is spellbound by the woods – although it’s not clear which woods they are, because as his mother says, ‘all there is in this area is a little thicket’. He also has a special connection with his teacher, Mr. Barre, who is a talented artist, and spends a lot of time with the girl next door and her farmer father. Aart doesn’t have a father himself – it’s never explained why, but you feel his longing for a paternal figure. The passage of time and the transience of life well up between the lines (when Aart goes off to school for the first time, someone tells his mother, ‘I’m sure it’s going to seem awfully empty around here’).
At the end of the story, Aart is grown up and heads off to university in the big city. He joins a fraternity, where he is confused by an encounter with some older students and has all his hair shaved off, then heads to a bar with his new friend Budde. What follows is a visceral description of the haze of drunkenness. And then suddenly he leaves the bar, gets into a taxi by himself and has the driver take him out of town, back to the woods of his childhood, where he walks and runs among the trees until the sun comes up.