Simon Vestdijk’s The Garden Where the Brass Band Played

Simon Vestdijk (1898–1971) wrote The Garden Where the Brass Band Played in the form of a memoir, narrated in the first person by Nol Rieske, the younger son in a bourgeois household, who is looking back on his youth. The story is set in the late 1920s or early 1930s in the provincial town of W. (seemingly based on Leeuwarden, the Dutch town where Vestdijk attended university). This psychological novel with clearly autobiographical overtones is a complex coming-of-age story about the emotional development of the main character, Nol Rieske, and his unattainable, tragic love for Trix Cuperus. Tracing an arc through the life of a young man, from childhood to adulthood, this bildungsroman offers extraordinary insight into adolescent psychology and reflects upon missed opportunities and the irretrievable loss of the past. The key scene of The Garden occurs when Nol is eight years old. His mother takes him to the city park, where he is enchanted by the music of the brass band and its conductor, Cuperus. Upon hearing the maestro conduct a Sousa march, Nol discovers the compelling power of music. Spontaneously, he dances with Trix, Cuperus’s 12-year-old daughter, with whom he immediately falls in love. The memory of this occasion takes hold of the protagonist and serves as a leitmotif throughout the novel.

Music, extensively commented upon and wonderfully evocated by Vestdijk, plays a major role in the novel. Cuperus comes to the Rieske residence to give piano lessons to Nol, who feels great affection and admiration for his erratic teacher and mentor. Cuperus’s reputation as a drunk, however, causes the town to disapprove of his behavior, and he gradually becomes an outcast, even more so after the disastrous amateur performance of the opera Carmen, which he directs. This production—a lengthy intermezzo in the main section of the book—dissolves into chaos when the throaty baritone, drunk with rum to attempt to restore his voice, tries to kill the tenor onstage. Cuperus subdues him, but the audience’s unruly reaction to this disruption, along with accusations of public drunkenness directed against Cuperus, suspends the opera production.

Nol grows up, goes to the university to study medicine, and almost loses track of Trix, who becomes a waitress at the town’s garden restaurant. When he returns to W. to visit the dying alcoholic Cuperus, Nol’s love for the young woman is rekindled. After her father’s death, however, she refuses to allow Nol to write or to visit her because she considers herself unworthy of his affection. Although Nol belongs to the upper social stratum of the town, his love for the worldly and simple yet fiercely proud Trix seems to undermine class distinctions in a society where the bohemian and bourgeois stand irreconcilably opposed.

For three years Nol hears little about the young woman, but thoughts of her nevertheless continue to haunt him. Before his mother’s death, Nol meets Trix again and proposes marriage. However, tragedy enters their relationship. After revealing to Nol that, following the opera performance of Carmen, she was seduced by Vellinga, the editor of the local newspaper, and later on by a number of Nol’s friends, Trix commits suicide because she had become public property. Nol had failed to grasp his love’s psychological exhaustion and despair, and he continued to cling to the image of Trix as inscrutable, indomitable, and superhuman. His self-centered impulse to idealize Trix in nearly metaphysical terms rather than to accept her in the real world blinds him from seeing her self-destructive tendencies.

The implacable opposition of moral pettiness and a more open attitude toward dissent and difference clearly surfaces in The Garden Where the Brass Band Played. The novel offers a razor-sharp analysis and harsh critique of small-town parochialism and brilliantly evokes its weariness and apathy.

The mood in the novel is one of nostalgic reflection, seizing time past in quasi-cinematic images. In the elegiac final chapter, the garden turns into an almost mythic setting. After Nol’s recovery from the emotional tribulations, he returns to the park where he finds himself surrounded by dark trees, bearing leaves that have the brassy colors of autumn. In trying to come to terms with the deaths of his mother and Trix, the protagonist is reminded of his own inevitable death. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played is simultaneously a subtle metaphorical interpretation of the platonic love theme and a lament for its demise.

Among 20th-century Dutch novels, Vestdijk’s books best present and shape the universe of adolescence with superb descriptions of emotional insecurity, the discovery of mentors, and the experience of first love. Particularly, The Garden Where the Brass Band Played is a masterful study of melancholic romanticism. It represents the apex of the author’s novelistic achievement. The work received great acclaim among critics and readers, gaining Vestdijk a reputation as one of the most accomplished novelists of his generation in the Netherlands.

Meijer, R. P. Literature of the Low Countries. A Short History of Dutch Literature in the Netherlands and Belgium. The Hague and Boston: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978. 342–349.
Vestdijk, S. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played. Leyden: Sythoff/London: Heinemann, 1965.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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