Gerard Reve - a novel that is not only a masterpiece but a cornerstone manque of modern European literature, that I hesitate before setting down a response; a gripping, bizarre and often very funny testimony to ennui"
Gerard Reve, The Evenings, Trans. by Sam Garrett, Pushkin Press, 2016.[1947.]
'I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.'
Twenty-three-year-old Frits - office worker, daydreamer, teller of inappropriate jokes - finds life absurd and inexplicable. He lives with his parents, who drive him mad. He has terrible, disturbing dreams of death and destruction. Sometimes he talks to a toy rabbit.
This is the story of ten evenings in Frits's life at the end of December, as he drinks, smokes, sees friends, aimlessly wanders the gloomy city streets and tries to make sense of the minutes, hours and days that stretch before him.
Darkly funny and mesmerising, The Evenings takes the tiny, quotidian triumphs and heartbreaks of our everyday lives and turns them into a work of brilliant wit and profound beauty.
Ashamed of his middle-class family, twenty-three-year-old anti-hero Frits van Egters hurls sarcastic remarks at his friends and parents. His nightmares, along with his unrelenting observation of all the details that exude quiet despair, form a poignant contrast with his tender words to a toy rabbit, the sole object of his affection.
The closing scene, in which Frits learns his mother accidentally bought fruit juice for New Year’s Eve instead of wine, prompting a solemn, ceremonious monologue in which he addresses his parents with love and compassion (‘It has been seen. It has not gone unnoticed’), has often been called the most beautiful passage ever written in Dutch.
"The funniest, most exhilarating novel about boredom ever written. If The Evenings had appeared in English in the 1950s, it would have become every bit as much a classic asOn the Road and The Catcher in the Rye." - Herman Koch
"Unlike John Williams, Gerard Reve's work was critically acclaimed and sold exceptionally well during his lifetime. But, just like Stoner, The Evenings is brilliantly written, and has a maximum impact on the reader's soul." - Oscar van Gelderen
"Very funny and strange... Reve is a writer who may yet 'catch on' in the Anglophone world" - Lydia Davis
Published for the first time in English, this is the 1947 debut novel by controversial Dutch writer Reve (1923-2006), who went on to a rich career offending Dutch sensibilities.
He’s a mean man. He’s a sick man. No, he’s just a bored man, although he does spend time pondering what to do with the solid contents of his nose, deciding that the best place for them is the underside of a chair: “wherever you go, if you feel around under the chair the pieces of dried snot fall to the floor.” It is Christmastime, a year and a half after the end of World War II, and Frits van Egters is thoroughly disaffected. The young man works in a meaningless office job, pushing paper from one stack to another. He’s a Dostoyevski-an character in his malaise and spitefulness, but Frits is more or less than that; he still lives at home, tormenting his mother on the details of how to properly smoke a cigarette, giving his pimply brother a hard time; if the war were still going on, Frits might well be working for the bad guys, but now he’ll spend the days between Christmas and the New Year wandering around Amsterdam loudly voicing his barely post-juvenile opinions about things to whomever will listen, including a stuffed rabbit when no human is available: “Rabbit, I am alive. I breathe, and I move, so I live. Is that clear? Whatever ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.” Alive, yes, but an irredeemably unpleasant twerp all the same, given to killing insects and thinking about edema. Not much happens because not much is meant to happen, as if to say that apart from the occasional invasion by a malevolent neighbor life is pretty dull. If listless existentialism is your bag, then this is your book, which, though written well enough, hasn’t aged particularly well.
Unpretty but true to life—at least life of a sort, however uninteresting. - Kirkus Reviews
With the first English translation of 1947 Dutch masterpiece The Evenings, by the out-of-time, out-of-step gay Catholic convert Gerard Reve, it makes perhaps its most crucial contribution yet to bringing quietened, radical non-English voices into the open. Reve’s debut doesn’t have the mainstream-baiting sensationalism of his later, sex- and religion-focused work. But it’s debatable whether he ever wrote anything better.
Trying to sum up the rare quality of this novel in a few hundred words is akin to tossing off a pithy one-liner on Karl Ove Knausgård’s six-volume opus My Struggle. Comparisons to that chronicle of domestic minutiae are actually rather neat; much of The Evenings’ enticing devilment is in its mesmerising detail, as protagonist office worker Frits recounts, with a combination of contempt, agitation and amusement, the oppressive repetition of his fruitless evenings spent at home with his parents. That he still lives with them is a mark of the man.
Not unlike insurance company employee and fellow absurdist Kafka, Frits is steeped in a contemplation deep and dark enough to make him ill but does not possess the dynamism nor social adaptability to improve his lot. The more pallid Frits’ efforts to find meaning or light in his life, the more exhilarating the read.Appropriately, this gripping, and often very funny, testimony to ennui is set in that most spirit-sapping of times, the low-lit dreary days and black empty nights at the end of December. Pathological clock-watcher Frits counts off the interminable minutes of his neighbourhood walks with the exasperation of uninspired columnist Tony Parsehole repeatedly calculating his word-count as he writes.
Tormented by his wastefulness and plagued by vivid, unfathomable dreams, Frits fills out his evenings with visits to depressed friends, chats with his toy rabbit, and musings on baldness, table manners, disease and death. For the reader, the experience is like wandering through a Magritte painting come to life – bizarre, enchanting and, yes, surreal enough to warrant the comparison of a literary giant with Viz colossus Tony Parsehole. - Jane Graham
"As the reader accompanies Frits through a string of strange encounters, his recurring monomania and morbid, surreal dreams contribute to a mood that is listless and oppressive, yet curiously compelling." - Laura Garmeson, Financial Times
"By the time you reach the end of this novel, in which very little happens yet very much is told, you can’t help but feel a little lost." - Fiona Wilson
"(W)hat a curious work it is. (...) It is the repetitions of the novel that make it so mesmerizing: the cyclical days, the jokes, the scurrilous stories, the endless disquisitions on baldness and its remedies, the slow, claustrophobic mealtimes (.....) The novel is dark, funny, unsettling and lingers vividly in the mind." - Shaun Whiteside, Times Literary Supplement
The Evenings recounts the days of Frits van Egters -- ten days, from 22 December 1946 through New Years, recounted in ten chapters. Frits is twenty-three, living -- though fairly independently -- with his parents, with a good if dull job:
I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.
The novel is an account of his largely uneventful days (and nights), through Christmas and up to New Year's. While there's an omniscient narrator, the focus is entirely on Frits, and a great deal is interior -- what he thinks, often presented in quotes, as if he were speaking in his mind, as well his dreams, which play out almost like real-life and blend into waking moments (as he often sleeps rather fitfully)
Real life is pedestrian and numbing, and often he finds himself facing: "'The empty hours,' he murmured, turning away". There's almost nothing of Frits' office life -- as if it isn't even worth mentioning -- beyond the fact that it doesn't appear very taxing, and that in this holiday season he can go home fairly early and he gets a few days off. His main concern is how to fill his evenings, and over the course of these ten days he visits and meets a number of his friends, goes to the cinema and a school reunion, and even gets completely drunk at a casino. But that still leaves a lot of empty time: "'I just sit here and don't do anything,' he thought".
There are also meals and casual time with his parents, though they also often go their own ways, the family in a loose sort of orbit that finds them together often enough but also drifting apart.
There's a theatricality to Frits' interior monologues and observations; while he tends to the civil -- if occasionally confrontational and/or abruptly direct in interaction, in his mind he rolls his eyes and comments more dramatically, as when observing his father eating:
Gritting his teeth he watched as the man speared three potatoes from the platter with his own fork. "Tht is unclean," he thought, "a violation of every precept. But we stand powerless."
He gets along well enough with his parents, but in typical fashion -- Frits tends to the glib and callous, or even cruel in his very direct manner -- he responds to one inquiry about how his parents are doing.
I'm only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God's sake, let it be that. So why hasn't it happened yet ? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.
He goads others, notably the petty thief, one-eyed Maurits; "'Let's see how far I can go', he thought", for example, in seeing just how far he can cruelly prod his acquaintance. Frits also enjoys telling hard-edged jokes and anecdotes, and claims to revel in stories of misery:
"The devil take me," said Frits, "it is a delight to me each and every time. Those reports like: child killed by exploding grenade. Glorious. Deferred suffering from the war. That is always a joy. They always start of so cosily, those reports," "the seven-year-old son," he said in an impassive voice, "of the Karels family, agriculturalists in Breda, attempted on Wednesday afternoon to dismantle a small anti-aircraft shell with a claw hammer."
Though set shortly after the end of the Second World War, there's barely any mention of it -- only a few looks back to those times, as well as hints of some of the lingering consequences (including those instances of "deferred suffering" that continue, in various forms, to surface -- or the fact that there are still shortages and: "everything is still so hard to get"). Yet even as on the surface the war has been put behind them, the aftereffects clearly still hang in the air, contributing to the sometimes almost nihilistic atmosphere.
Even as Frits is active and involved, seeking out company and doing something, he doesn't find the satisfactions he is looking for, moaning:
"What an evening," he thought, "what an evening. When is it going to end ?"
Frits tries to force himself to participate, to play along, but even as he and everyone else goes through many of the motions, there's a sense of a society that's battered and only slowly putting itself back together again -- as evidenced particularly by much of the sharp and even cruel banter. Frits does well with the banter, and tries to go along with the rest:
"There is no going back," Frits thought. "Let us adopt an impassive or, if need be, even cheerful expression."
Frits suffers from his generation's ennui and his own uncertain position -- he has a job, but with his limited schooling perhaps limited prospects; he doesn't have any sort of love-life -- and stumbles on in these dark, wintery days: "'The day is void, and the evening without content,' he mumbled". He's frustrated with his situation, and with himself:
Things take place around us. Yet we barely notice them. We have ears, but we hear not, eyes but do not see.
Maurits voices what many of Frits' acquaintances surely also feel about his hard statements: "I just wish I could figure out when you're being serious". But Frits carefully controls his serious side -- so that, at best, those that know him might react like his father: "'Don't pay him any mind,' his father said, 'he's only blathering'".
Nevertheless, he is not as indifferent as he makes himself out to be: tellingly, tears come to Frits repeatedly -- "'And now the moment for tears has arrived,' he thought. His eyes grew moist." -- breaking the hard shell of indifference he tries to maintain
In summary, the relatively uneventful The Evenings sounds like it should be dull -- or, as Frits sums up:
"All in all, it is dreary," he thought, "most dreary."
Yet it is anything but. In his cataloguing of the simple, everyday Reve's sharp eye makes for a consistently enjoyable read. And while Frits is a determinedly unsympathetic protagonist, and yet Reve humanizes him: he is a representative of his generation, warts and all, and fascinating as such.
Projecting on his father, Frits internalizes his own misery:
"It is no disaster to be unhappy," Frits thought, "but how discouraging must it be to know that there is nothing to pin the blame on, outside oneself ?"
An almost deadpan tone also helps make this a very comic novel, along with some genuinely funny interactions (including the New Year's disappointment when the mother mistakenly buys a 'berry-apple' beverage, rather than a bottle of wine: "Help us, O eternal one, our God. See us in our distress. From the depths we call to you. Hideous.""), as well as running gags such as Frits' obsessive worry and theorizing about baldness (and his constant pointing out to others that they are growing bald), as if this were the worst thing that could befall anyone (displacing his more serious concerns):
"Deliver me from baldness," he said, pushing back his hair and examining the hairline. "It is a gruesome infliction."
Reve's pitch-perfect tone -- especially of Frits' stilted interior voice, but also in describing the humdrum -- and Sam Garrett's well-attuned translation make for a very engaging read. There is considerable ugliness here -- moments of great unkindness, and flashes of darker undersides -- that can be off-putting -- but they fit with the work, and Frits' world; the surrounding everyday absurdities do help make it more palatable.
The Evenings is not a novel in which much happens -- not much of note, anyway -- and the characters are not particularly sympathetic. There is no great arc of growth or adventure, either -- and yet it is a near-perfect novel, an astonishingly accomplished work for such a young writer, who captures a time -- of life, and in history -- exceptionally well.
Highly recommended. - M.A.Orthofer
It is so rare, as a reviewer, to come across a novel that is not only a masterpiece but a cornerstone manque of modern European literature, that I hesitate before setting down a response: what can I say, in a world of hype, that will put this book where it belongs, in readers’ hands and minds?
Gerard Kornelis van het Reve was born in Amsterdam in 1923 and published The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale in 1947, shortly before his 24th birthday. It follows the movements of the 23-year-old Frits van Egters in the last 10 days of 1946. If the title focuses on the evenings, it is because, for much of the day, Frits is at work, where he scarcely exists. What does he do? “I take cards out of a file,” he responds to a friend’s question. “Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again.”
But Frits never complains about his job, nor expresses any desire to change it. Those hours are at least taken care of. His problem is his evenings and days off – Christmas in particular – and his one ambition is to get through them without losing his mind. Both for its hero and its author, this novel is a tour de force of filling space, of turning tawdry emptiness into comedy of the highest order: it is up there with Henry Green’s Party Going, and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Never has the business of arriving at bedtime been more urgently and richly dramatised.
Everything takes place in a few suburban streets in Amsterdam where Frits shares a small flat with his half-deaf father and well-meaning if clumsy mother. An older brother has left home. The parents live in a state of stalled conflict that Frits is determined to ignore. Their eating and grooming habits – described with a mixture of savage fury and grudging affection – are a constant torment, their conversation so predictable that Frits takes masochistic pleasure in prodding them towards old platitudes. His only ally, between stoking the stove, feeding guilders into the electricity meter and criticising Mother’s cooking or Father’s table manners, is the radio, whose scattered fragments of news and music offer themselves to the shipwrecked Frits as life-saving flotsam in an ocean of wasted time.
“‘All is lost,’” he thought, ‘everything is ruined. It’s ten past three.’”
One thing that astonished and infuriated early critics of this precocious debut was that, amid so much despairing realism, nothing was said about the war. Barely two years had elapsed since the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, only three since the “Hunger Winter” of 1944 when 18,000 people died of starvation. The extent of Dutch collaborationism was at the centre of heated debate. But Frits simply isn’t interested, recalling the conflict in passing merely as an inconvenience that prevented him from retaking failed school exams.
It may sound dire, but Reve’s sparkling collage of acute observation, droll internal monologue and pitch-perfect dialogue keeps the reader breathless right through to the grand finale, which sees Fritz tying himself in knots to survive an interminable New Year’s Eve with his parents and a bottle his mother is convinced is wine and Frits knows, alas, is berry-apple cordial. “Eternal, only, almighty, our God,” he begs in one of many appeals for divine mercy, “fix Your gaze upon my parents. See them in their need. Do not turn Your eyes from them.”
Why has The Evenings not been translated into English until now? Reve’s international career, or lack of it, reminds us how important politics can be in deciding what books make it to our shelves. He did not write in one of Europe’s major languages, hence could not benefit from the attention we understandably give to French and German literature. He tried to write directly in English, but it didn’t work out for him. In a period when publishers tended to the liberal left, he was ferociously anti-communist; he converted to Catholicism but at the same time came out as gay, long before such openness was commonplace. When sex did begin to appear in his writing, it was disturbingly violent and sadomasochistic; on one occasion he was put on trial for describing a character who has sex with God in the form of a young donkey (“the dearest, most innocent creature I can think of,” he defended himself in court).
Always ahead of the game, he enjoyed huge success in Holland with a form of creative non-fiction mixing travel writing and letters, authentic and otherwise. None of these reached the Anglo-Saxon world. In 1990 Fourth Estate published Parents Worry, but brilliant as it is, this late novel, with its ominously obsessive, anxious, insistent voice, was not the place to start. It lacks the charm, freshness and immediate recognisability of the world described in The Evenings.
So, huge respect to Pushkin Press for finally doing the business, and in particular to Sam Garrett for a translation that avoids a thousand pitfalls to give us this enfant terrible of Dutch genius in an entirely convincing English. Shame that Reve, whose evenings ran out for him in 2006, is not around to enjoy it. - Tim Parks
The Evenings was voted the best Dutch novel of all time by the Society of Dutch Literature, and its author, Gerard Reve (1923–2006), was the first openly gay writer in the Netherlands. It's a historic book for its native country, but will it have the same impact in English translation? Contemporary Dutch novelist Herman Koch compares The Evenings to the works of Kerouac and Salinger, and I can see how it could have achieved cult status for a certain generation, but plot-wise I found it more tedious than revelatory.
The novel takes place on the 22nd through 31st of December 1946: a total of 10 evenings, described over the course of 10 chapters. Twenty-three-year-old Frits van Egters lives with his parents, works at an office job, and spends his evenings wandering the streets of Amsterdam and visiting friends and relatives. Chapters generally begin with him waking up late (on a weekend) or leaving the office (on a weekday), and end with him falling asleep, only to sleep fitfully and wake up briefly between disturbing, symbolic dreams.
Frits is a mighty odd character. We are privy to his melancholy thoughts as well as to his often jokey speech. He swaps gruesome stories with his friends and seems obsessed with baldness and the elderly. He's constantly needling his male compatriots about possible signs of baldness and railing against the annoyances of old people – could it be that these are in fact his two key fears for himself? Everything his dull parents do irritates him, and even though it's the holiday season there are precious few signs of jollity. Even in a post-Christian European setting, I expected at least a few Christmas traditions to crop up.
The protagonist's self-absorption means he is generally immune to other people's problems, including his parents' seemingly troubled marriage and a friend's casual cruelty to his dog. Frits is selfish, yes, but mostly he's just tremendously bored. Lines capturing his ennui are among the best in the book:
'I just sit here and sit here and don't do a thing,' he thought. 'The day's half over.' It was a quarter past twelve.
'Why do I think that way?' he thought then. 'What right do I have to be so blasé?'
'I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.'
'This day was empty,' Frits thought, 'I realize that.'
Anyone who has been stuck in a dead-end job, living with their parents in their mid-twenties, will sympathize with Frits's situation. I particularly enjoyed his dream sequences, like the one where he's trapped in a department store and can't find a toilet so has to urinate in a bunch of vases. But in general I found the novel's format repetitive and the 'profound' thoughts rather prosaic. Luckily, the final chapter, set on New Year's Eve, ends strongly. I had been worried that the miasma of meaninglessness would lead to a very dark conclusion, but instead Frits comes to a sort of epiphany – perhaps even in the religious sense of the word – that affirms his small life. This is an unusual book, but if the synopsis appeals to you or you just fancy trying a classic from another country's literature, you will find it an atmospheric wintry read. - Rebecca Foster
In a a poll of theTop 100 works of Dutch literature of the 20th century, this book came top. (As far as I can determine, the poll was done by the De Amsterdamse Leesgroep (The Amsterdam Reading Group) so I am not sure how authoritative it is. However, their other choices seem very worthy. The site does not seem to have been updated since 2007.) Part of the appeal of the book may stem from its origins. Reve came from an aristocratic Dutch family and it was expected that he would follow a military career. He became a lieutenant in the Engineers and was sent out to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). He hated war but still managed to obtain two citations for bravery under fire. However, he helped a prisoner escape and was arrested. He was initially sentenced to twelve years in prison, which was reduced to seven years, on appeal. During his imprisonment, he wrote this book and, fortunately, made a copy of it. When the original was found, it was destroyed for being nihilist and immoral. He managed to escape prison with the copy of the manuscript. He fled to Belgium, where he hid out in an abbey. His book was published but he stayed in Belgium, continuing to write. After Indonesia gained its independence in 1952, there was a general amnesty and he was able to return to the Netherlands. read more at The Modern Novel
Gerard Reve’s The Evenings was first published in the author’s native Netherlands in 1947. Now, almost 70 years later, it appears in English, although not as a lost-and-found masterpiece but a woefully late arrival.Reve’s debut novel caused an uproar on its immediate release but went on to be critically-acclaimed and hugely popular. Today, Reve is hailed as one of the greatest post-war Dutch writers. The Evenings has never been out of print and was ranked by The Society of Dutch Literature as the country’s best novel of all time.
All the more remarkable, then, that this perennial favourite has never been available to Anglophone readers. Sam Garrett’s expert translation allows us to see what we have been missing. This is an edgy, atmospheric and sardonically funny book which was way ahead of its time. Still possessing the power to shock but also to beguile, the novel’s bold stylistic tricks and its hero’s original thoughts and deeds mark it out as a classic in any language.
The book unfolds over 10 consecutive evenings at the end of December 1946. Frits van Egters is a 23-year-old daydreamer, idler and procrastinator who is besieged by boredom and ashamed of his middle-class family. His office job is dull ("I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That’s it.") and his home-life consists of moping around, listening to the radio or squabbling with his parents. Time out involves listless, directionless walks along Amsterdam’s streets and canals or venting his spleen to a toy rabbit.
Despite regularly frittering away hours doing next to nothing, Frits never actually squanders a whole day. A morning and afternoon can be lost, even ruined, "But the evening can still make up for a great deal."
Come twilight he becomes animated. Whole chapters are devoted to each evening’s entertainment: outings to cinemas, theatres and dancehalls, visits to his brother Joop and his friend Jaap. Frits opens up, sloughs off his humdrum daytime self and becomes the centre of attention or life and soul of a party.
This may sound compelling enough to constitute a diverting romp, but not a country’s touchstone text. However, Reve’s magic touch is his protagonist’s unique mindset and captivating mood swings. After dark, Frits lets loose bawdy jokes and grisly tales. He indulges in existential debates, reveals illicit desires, and rants about his greatest fears, including that "gruesome infliction", baldness. Every day culminates in sleep that is sullied by a surreal and disturbing dream.
The Evenings was published five years after Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and whether by accident or design the former has much in common with the latter. Both revolve around the empty pursuits of alienated and disaffected young men; both are studies of ennui tinged with cruelty. "I have a sick soul," Frits declares to his rabbit, by which point he has discussed killing with his sadistic friend Maurits, recounted anecdotes about torturing insects, and admitted that old people are a "plague" and a "burden".
Fortunately, he may be spared the job of bumping off his own parents: "I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death."
Frits’s nihilistic outlook combined with Reve’s experimental novelistic flourishes make the novel feel considerably more modern. Plot is dispensed with entirely. Dialogue comes bunched together in the same paragraph, sometimes to disorientating effect.
As with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle of novels, Reve clogs sentences with the unfiltered minutiae of daily life. Everything is recorded: quotidian detail, inane exchanges, inconsequential impulses and gestures.
None of it should work: neither Frits counting down the hours at home, watching his mother knitting, "Needles ticking like a fast clock", nor Frits unleashed at another soirée and sharing his seemingly unedited, untelescoped nocturnal movements.
Or, on a more banal level, Frits with his family rhapsodising over his mother’s gravy, or Frits with his friends differentiating between a draught and wind. And yet by day and by night Frits remains curiously vital, his wayward antics and rambling thoughts possessing a strange allure, hypnotically energising not soporifically draining.
"Every man has his story," Frits says, "but it is seldom an important one." Reve went on to tell more stories until his death in 2006, but it was this one which proved to be far and away the most important.
After entrancing generations of Dutch readers, it is now time for a wider audience to discover its weird textures and dark delights. - Malcolm Forbes
Baldness has begun preoccupying young Frits van Egters, not his though, only the impending hair loss of others. He cultivates the role of prophet of doom, assessing bare patches on the heads of those around him and often expresses his views in a formal rhetoric and delights in including some science. The torpid days between Christmas and New Year crawl by as he counts the relentless minutes between eating, sleeping, visiting his friends and executing outings to the cinema and elsewhere.
Frits is restless; given to complex and disturbing dreams as well as ongoing melancholia. Then there is the matter of observing his aging parents. His father is becoming deafer by the day and his cheerfully fussy mother refuses to serve black coffee, does the cooking, monitors the coal and does her best in generating small talk, usually about food. Joop, the older son, is married. He too, in common with many of the men in this poised, brilliantly well sustained masterwork of comic pathos, appears to be losing his hair.
It is not surprising that Reve’s debut, which was published in 1947, is considered by the Society of Dutch Literature to be the best Dutch novel of all time. It should also be acknowledged as one of the finest studies of youthful malaise ever written. Frits is an Everyman, or more accurately, every person, caught up in an ongoing personal drama of wondering what exactly his life is about.It comes as a small shock to discover that this is the first English translation. The distinguished American translator Sam Garrett, who has lived in Amsterdam for more than 30 years, has conveyed each sigh and sly aside with majestic tonal panache and the outcome should cause many readers to revise their opinions of The Catcher in the Rye (1951). In all fairness to Salinger, The Evenings is so much better and while it is immensely more sophisticated, it also expresses that bewildering sense of being very young, if already decidedly weary of grown ups who appear so stupidly unaware of life’s true menace. If Holden Caulfield is a bit of a pain, Frits van Egters, with his vile if hilarious jokes, astute observations and offbeat humour, is slightly terrifying but more real and far better company.
Unlike Meursault in The Outsider, which established Albert Camus as a seer, Frits is not an isolated figure. He lives with his parents and although 23 and working as a clerk in a lowly job which he describes as a tedious ritual involving moving files around, remains very much a boy. As he counts his father’s sighs and other annoying habits, a running commentary plays in his mind – it concerns the tension between what Frits says and how he really feels. There is also a soundtrack provided by the radio with its endless variety of music programmes which emerges as a clever narrative device, as does a borrowed toy rabbit.
Meals are prepared and eaten, the washing up helps to deal with some of the time if not enough. His mother sits down, “knitting something in white wool” and the sound makes him think of “needles ticking like a fast clock”. Frits must take action; he dons his coat and heads out into the cold streets with only one mission on his mind – to get through the hours between his next, big nocturnal adventure which arrives fast and furious in the form of vivid nightmares.
In Frits, Reve, who was born in 1923 and enjoyed a colourful, if provocative literary career, has with this random if very deliberate narrative expressed the dilemma of a post-war generation, too young to have served, yet sufficiently old to be aware of what has happened. There are passing allusions throughout of a society dealing with rationing and beginning to relax. Austerity remains part of daily life, only no one discusses the past. Frits is caustic; aware he is expected to shock his buddies and makes nasty jokes about parents killing their children, albeit by accident.
Yet he puts some effort into buying a present for a friend’s child. He also has deep thoughts. The sound of a train in the distance causes him to reflect: “And so our hours pass.” Elsewhere when pondering his desire for sleep during the day, “I should get up. . . and fetch a blanket from the cupboard. But I cannot force myself to sit up straight. . .” He hears children playing and it makes him recall: “When I was seven, I cut grass on the lawn with a normal pair of scissors and saved it in a paper cornet. I’m laying here like a sick man.” He falls asleep. Cue for another dream in which he weeps. On waking his pillow is wet.
For a narrative so funny, it is also profoundly moving. Frits is obviously suffering and exists in a state of muted panic. On the morning following a cinematically detailed binge drinking session with his friends – his parents having subsequently helped him get to bed – Frits wakes and on peering into the shaving mirror, mumbles, “The body is gravely damaged.” After another evening spent visiting a friend, he returns home and collapses on his mattress, but remembers he hasn’t cleaned his teeth. “He tried to sit up a few times, but was unable to rise. “I’ll count to 20,” he thought. At 24 he hopped to his feet and went into the kitchen. After brushing his teeth, he dropped his underpants and, holding the shaving mirror between his legs, examined his crotch. . . ”Very distasteful,” he mumbled. “If you saw a photograph of it, taken from below, you would hardly believe it was human.”
Little happens, yet a great deal does. It is a people-watching novel, rich in character and bantering dialogue. For Frits the end of the year is also about the end of life, or rather some lives, of those close to him. “Everything is finished,” he whispered, “it is passed. The year is no more. Rabbit, I am alive. . . Whatever ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.” Although it has taken close on 70 years to reach an English-speaking readership, The Evenings, as a novel possessing a wide appeal, deserves to begin making up for lost time very quickly - and will. - Eileen Battersby
The Evenings caught my eye because it was described as the great postwar Dutch classic, following a young man on his meanderings through the night-time streets of Amsterdam. As some of you may remember, I spent some time working out of Amsterdam a couple of years ago, and grew rather fond of the city’s laid-back spirit, so I thought I’d give the book a go. The result – and I beg my Dutch friends to forgive me – is bemusement. It turns out that one man’s classic is another man’s bafflement, and perhaps the translation is to blame, for I found little to enjoy in this unremittingly bleak tale of youthful stagnation.
It is 1946 and Amsterdam is still scarred by the privations of war: coal is expensive; gas runs on meters; and chocolate is only available under the counter for those who know to ask for it. Frits van Egters is twenty-three and still lives in his family’s modest apartment, where he turns a scathing eye on the dull, repetitive routines of his disenchanted parents. A high-school dropout and uninspired office worker, Frits finds nothing joyful in his situation and exists in a kind of purgatory, waiting for life, perhaps, to suddenly hit him over the head. This book follows his wanderings on several evenings between the start of December and New Year’s Eve, as he tries to make the most of his time – having some pompous idea of how it should be spent and yet, unfailingly, finding that day after day slithers out of his reach. We only see Frits in the half-light, watching his own life like an embittered observer, needling at his parents, sniping at his friends and having weird uneasy dreams. He seems to have some vague, unarticulated ambition to escape this uninspiring existence, but he doesn’t have the motivation to do anything about it: rather than actually shift himself to improve, he makes do with sitting back and congratulating himself on how superior he is to everyone around him.
I can cope with books in which nothing much happens. I can cope with books in which I don’t like the protagonist. And I can cope with depressing books. But to bring all these things together is to demand a great deal! Frits is entirely uncharismatic. He’s a navel-gazing, pompous, arrogant, insensitive, hypocritical mediocrity and his life is utterly pointless – and he knows it. But he stumbles on, behaving like an impossible student rather than the grown man he is. He sneers behind their backs at his parents’ foibles, wincing at his father’s lack of social graces and looking down on his mother, but at the same time he’s terrified of any marital discontent which might threaten his own existence. He spends family meals in a welter of anxiety, trying to think of something – anything – to say so that the silence doesn’t weigh down upon them all, all too often finding solace in mundane questions. He’s petulant and entitled: a strange, sullen creature, half-child, half grown-up, trapped in some midway stage that he can’t seem to escape. He’s bored. So, probably intentionally, are we.
And things are no better with his acquaintances – I say that, rather than friends, because I don’t think Frits really has any friends. He spends his evenings popping in to see Jaap or Louis or Viktor or Bep, but no sooner has he arrived then he’s panicking at the weight of silence again, and tries to fill it with sound. He’s obsessed with baldness and torments his friends without cease; he thinks of horrific murderers or accidents which are supposed to amuse; and he’s both misogynistic and misanthrophic. Some of his friends are no better, trading stories of disabled people or unfortunate deaths with great hilarity, and you find yourself wondering exactly what has caused this generation of unfeeling young people. Is it something to do with the horrors of the war, still fresh in their memories? Is it some strange fight to cope with all the dreadful things that have happened? Or is it simply the brutal callousness of youth?
Classics are funny things. A national classic will often be deeply bound up with some trait in a people’s character or history which they perceive much better than outsiders. So perhaps my dislike for this book is simply because I don’t fully appreciate the world in which it was formed. But I struggle to understand the five star reviews proliferating on Amazon, as no one offers a reason why the book is so good. It’s true that I don’t warm to existentialist novels, as we discovered with the trial that was The Woman in the Dunes. But I simply can’t understand the point of something in which all the characters are so cold and detached and cruel and bitter and spiteful and petty and unhappy, with no charisma and no true story at its heart… The Evenings is simply an unfolding, a snapshot of a life which is dreary and which shows no sign of being anything other than that. I suppose existential fiction is all about the pointlessness of doing anything… but this novel really did leave an unpleasant taste in my mouth.
I would very much welcome dissenting views – not just telling me I’m wrong, because that doesn’t help anyone, but explaining what cultural contexts I may have missed. Why is this considered to be so great a classic? Is it genuinely regarded with such fondness in the Netherlands? Or is it one of those classics, like Lucky Jim, perhaps, that captured the mood of an era but now feels awkwardly outdated? I don’t like not liking things, especially something like this which a lot of people have clearly thought is brilliant. Tim Parks in the Guardian effused that it is ‘not only a masterpiece but a cornerstone manque of modern European literature‘. (Mind you, he also compared it to Waiting for Godot, and I would rather nail my tongue to a table than sit through that again.) Good God: what am I missing? - theidlewoman.net/2016/12/06/the-evenings-gerard-reve/
I was really looking forward to this book. The Society Of Dutch Literature voted it the greatest Dutch novel of all time and some 59 years after its first appearance it is making its debut in its first English translation.
I have recently discovered Dutch author Tommy Wieringa and after reading the excellent “Joe Speedboat” was keen to read more from a country whose literature I had pretty much ignored. I was even more thrilled to discover that the translation was by Sam Garrett, who was responsible for bringing “Joe Speedboat”, a book which is going to be battling it out amongst the front runners for my Best Read of The Year, to a new audience.
Reading the blurb it reminded me of my last year’s best read “Alone In Berlin” by Hans Fallada, a novel which took 62 years to arrive in English and which has since been acknowledged as a modern classic. “The Evenings” is also published by the rather marvelous Pushkin Press. All of these positives made me eagerly await my review copy. It seemed like the perfect match for me.
It is set in Amsterdam in the last couple of weeks of 1946. The main character is 23 year old Frits Van Egters and it starts very much in a simple, unfussy style which can be quite common in European literature and is really quite appealing. I settled down and prepared to enjoy.
However, it soon became clear that it was not going to match my expectations. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Basically, Frits leaves the home he shares with his parents most evenings, visits friends, says things without thinking, worries about anyone’s impending baldness and goes to bed where he dreams and that’s about it. There’s no plot development and the characters did not come alive particularly and the whole thing comes across as sadly, for this reader, insignificant. It was at this point that I realised that I was not quite so attuned to Dutch literature as my limited experience of it had hoped. Compared to “Joe Speedboat” this is a damp squib. It might end with the odd firework on New Year’s Eve, but it was without any explosive writing.
Frits, an anxious outsider, becomes annoying. He describes himself, fittingly, as a small time neurotic; believes everyone over sixty should be done away with, that male baldness is one of the worst things that could happen to a man, that’s there is little point in women and who has a need to fill in gaps in conversation with observations that are often idiotic. At times he comes across as a young Dutch Alf Garnett! Johnny Speight’s creation was ironic but I’m not sure if we should view Reve’s Frits as an example of Dutch humour. I don’t know if we should latch on to what are some underlying mental issues. I really don’t know what I am supposed to feel for him, other than irritated.
I needed to find out more about the author. “The Evenings” was Reve’s first novel in a long career, originally written under a pseudonym. A film has been made of it as has a graphic novel. Reve’s work, I discovered, is credited with making homosexualiy acceptable to his Dutch readership, largely through humour and irony. I don’t know how much this statement applies to this particular work but reading the book I didn’t pick this up. Frits displays misogyny ( probably) and narcissism (definitely) but I didn’t pick up on any coded references to his sexuality. True, he did seem to like going to the toilet together with male friends but I put that down to the amount of alcohol consumed!
Is this a novel, which on its first British publication, is now too dated? Are the concerns I’ve raised the reason why it has taken so long to arrive over here? It’s certainly enigmatic and I haven’t cracked the puzzle. It is a book I thought would be ideal for me and as it didn’t grab me it makes it seem an even bigger disappointment than perhaps it deserves to be. I’m certainly going to be on the lookout for other reviewers to see just what they made of it. I don’t want to be the one sat by the wall if a party is in the offing. -
Gerard Reve (1923-2006) is considered one of the greatest post-war Dutch authors, and was also the first openly gay writer in the country's history. A complicated and controversial character, Reve is also hugely popular and critically acclaimed- his 1947 debut The Evenings was chosen as one of the nation's 10 favourite books by the readers of a leading Dutch newspaper while the Society of Dutch Literature ranked it as the Netherlands' best novel of all time.