What is a novel? After reading certain books you start to wonder about what it is again that makes a story a novel. A novel is in any case fictional prose. It has a certain minimum length, but nobody knows exactly how long it’s supposed to be. A small novel is called a novella. “Schweigeminute” by Siegfried Lenz (translated as “Stella” in English) is called a novel or novella although it comprises just 100 pages.
The characters have depth, there’s a storyline, a plot. The characters are supposed to undergo a change, a development in the story. The (impossible) love between Stella Petersen and her student Christian takes your breath away. Lenz wrote a magnificent novel with a fascinating denouement.
Steven van der Hoeven works as an editor with soccer club Feijenoord and wrote with “Je ogen verraden je” (Your Eyes Are Betraying You) the story of his sexual experiences as a secondary school student with a trainer of his club. Steven is the youngest son in an evangelist Christian family with seven older siblings. He revels in the attention of soccer trainer Ries, who’s twenty-eight at the start of their relationship.
What starts out as a refuge with exclusive attention evolves in a sexual relationship in which Ries and Steven handle things rather straightforward and mechanically. A little bit of porn, a towel afterwards and that’s it at first. After a while Ries wants Steven to focus his sexual attention on him but this is not really Steven’s thing.
Van der Hoeven describes the sexual relationship in an admirably candid style, bordering on the exhibitionist. The reader gets a lot of detail. What starts out small becomes a scandal.
Ries turns out to have sexual relationships with various boys and is caught out. The direction of the club writes a letter to all the parents and that’s what gets the ball rolling. Steven denies to have had anything with Ries, but breaks down and confesses after he’s confronted with Ries’s full confession.
The secretary of the board presses him to tell his parents and when he doesn’t, tells them himself, claiming he thought they already knew. One of the other leaders has had negative experiences himself and presses Steven to talk about what happened.
Brother Daan is constantly steering towards revenge and on top of everything else Steven gets beaten up. It’s no wonder Steven has rather negative memories of his sexual escapades with Ries. In spite of therapy session his cry from the heart: can I just be normal again? has still not been answered.
Van der Hoeven writes candidly, not one word in French as they say. That’s fine in itself. But the reader of a real novel wants characters of flesh and blood, needs background information, otherwise everything goes flat and almost senseless. Some circumstances need to be explained further, like the religious aspect in the family. It gets hardly any attention in the book while this seems to dominate the atmosphere in Steven’s family. Even Steven’s character is one-dimensional and impersonal. If this was the author’s intention, he succeeded incredibly well.
The cover of the book (an eight-year old child) has nothing to do with the content. We could forgive the author for that, but in his epilogue he goes completely overboard.
He makes the publication into a political pamphlet when he suggests all kinds of measures that should be introduced against men like Ries, getting very close to the kind of language of some other care workers, and the intentions of “heroes” like Henk Bres.
Van der Hoeven crosses a border there, turning an honest story into a political pamphlet. It might be good for sales and public response but it would have been stronger if Van der Hoeven had just stuck to the story.
Shooting Up & Swallowing
Sacha Sperling’s debut novel “Mes Illusions donnent sur la cour” (Éditions Fayard 2009) is of a different league altogether. Sacha Sperling (pseudonym of Yacha Kurys, son of film makers Diane Kurys and Alexandre Arcady) was eighteen years old when this book was published.
The book is about the fourteen-year old Sacha, an adolescent growing up in a rich Parisian world. His parents are divorced. His father is an orthodox Jew, who has started a family with another woman.
His mother is self-absorbed and doesn’t pay him any mind. After fooling around with a few girls he falls in love with Augustin. There’s avid description of the sexual tension between the boys, as well as their experiments with various drugs, sex and alcohol. At a certain point this started to bore me: all these descriptions of nihilist scenes, the short sentences, the vortex towards the great nothingness.
“It’s like a failed version of a Larry Clark movie. I laugh without explaining why,” Sacha says at a certain point and that is actually exactly what the book is about. We read the book as if we were watching a Clark movie. The introduction seems to summarize the story, while the epilogue says it’s all fiction after all. Why, Sacha, why?
Let the story do the work. Cherish your raw, sometimes poetic, often revealing prose. Revel in your short staccato sentences, but leave the rest to us, the readers.
And when you’ve finished reading the epilogue and close the book, you look a beautiful young man in the eyes. That’s what you’ve been reading about, Sperling seems to say to us. It’s beautiful, confusing and eerie. The author succeeded in creating a strong atmosphere.