While Dutch literature isn’t one of my particular areas of interest, I have reviewed a few books from the Netherlands over the past few years (as has my little assistant!), so when Pushkin Press contacted me about a classic novel they were publishing, I was all ears. I was even more interested when I saw that the Society of Dutch Literature had ranked the book as the best Dutch novel of all time – meaning it had a lot to live up too. Thankfully, I can spare you all the suspense as this really is an excellent work; it’s just a shame it took almost seventy years to make it across the Channel to the UK (just for comparison, a talented athlete could probably have run and swum their way there in a week or so…).
Gerard Reve’s debut novel The Evenings (translated by Sam Garrett) was first published in 1947 and takes place at the end of the preceding year. The book describes the life of Frits van Egters, a twenty-three-year-old bachelor living with his parents. After dull days filing in an office, he lives for the nights, and the novel, running to ten chapters, explores ten of those evenings, the last days of 1946.
Surprisingly, though, these periods of leisure are fairly nondescript. Frits makes a series of visits to friends’ houses and walks along frozen canals in the darkness. Occasionally, there’s a night out, with visits to a school reunion, a couple of trips to the cinema and an evening spent drinking at a dance hall, but nothing much really happens. At some point, the evening is over, meaning Frits must make his way home to bed, to dream his way through the night – before waking in the morning to face another bland day…
The Evenings is a novel of the mundane and the everyday, focusing on the minutiae of Frits’ life. Readers desperate for a plot will be disappointed, with no real narrative thrust to speak of, yet taken as a whole, it’s all strangely compelling. From the first evening, we observe the young man’s obsession with making good use of his time, something that (naturally) he never manages:
“A loss,” he mumbled softly, “a dead loss. How can it be? A day squandered in its entirety. Hallelujah.”
p.33 (Pushkin Press, 2016)
Setting an alarm, then sleeping until 11.00, turning the radio on and off again a dozen times, planning to organise his books then realising two hours have passed while he was engrossed in flicking through novels, Frits is an expert at using up the minutes of his day without achieving anything worthwhile (all the while making the average reader reflect rather guiltily on their own procrastination habits).
Given the emptiness of the days, it’s little wonder the evenings take on such importance. Frits is overcome each night by a need to go out, somewhere, anywhere:
“A pity that I have to leave.” “But where are you going?” his mother asked. “Well,” he said, “we shall see.” “So you don’t know where you’re going yet?” she asked, “but you say that you have to leave.” “The one does not necessarily rule out the other,” Frits said. “One may need to leave without having to go anywhere. Those are the cases in which one must go away from somewhere.” “Stay and have a nice cup of tea,” she said. (p.202)
The truth is that these outings rarely satisfy him either, and he finds himself marking off the hours as he sits chatting with his friends. He doesn’t really want to stay, but he certainly doesn’t want to go home, so he continues talking rubbish until it’s time to leave.
Reve’s excellent portrait of his young anti-hero gradually reveals an intelligent youth, sarcastic, articulate and a teller of tall tales. With a mouth on perpetual overdrive, he simply can’t stop talking and teasing:
“That’s right,” Frits said. “Years ago I was camping on Tessel. In Oude Schilde, I think it was, there was a man who ate paper.” Viktor barked with laughter. “He ate paper. He always had a wet ball of paper in his mouth. Whenever he found another scrap on the street, he would take that ball out of his gob, poke a hole in it with his finger, stuff the new piece into it and then tuck the whole wad back in his cheek. He sold weather trees. No, wait, I think that was someone else. Or maybe it was him after all.” (p.126)
While outwardly relaxed, he’s inwardly bored of his life, and the reader senses that there’s far more to him than this. A key to this frustration is a late revelation that Frits left school at an early age, meaning that there’s a sense of regret for a life he never had but somehow misses.
Another important aspect of the novel is the anecdotes and dreams Frits shares, allowing the reader insights into his subconscious. Obsessed with the morbid and gory, he continually recounts stories revolving around the accidental deaths of children, or of a man eaten by his dog, and when he goes to bed, death haunts his bizarre (and very detailed) dreams. He may be mild-mannered, but there’s a lot of disturbing action going on inside his head, and when you add in his obsession with baldness, any therapist would have a field day given the chance to analyse the young office worker.
The Evenings is also fascinating for its depiction of post-war life. In a pre-social-media era, Frits drifts from house to house to chat in the evenings, with trips to the cinema and dance halls the highlights of his week. There are also mentions of aspects of life older readers may remember, such as coin-fed electricity meters, fetching coal from the shed and simple food with few foreign influences. The domestic nature of the novel is striking too, with much of the book consisting of Frits’ banal, yet spot-on, conversations with his parents:
“What is the weather like?” his mother asked. “Normal,” Frits said, “not so very cold. “When it’s cold like this,” she said, “I don’t much feel like leaving the house; father and I were planning to go out this evening to Annetje in Haarlem.” “That’s true,” Frits said, “you told me this morning.” “What’s it like outside now?” she asked, “is the wind very cold?” “It’s blowing, but it’s not a cold wind,” Frits said. “But what do you call cold?” she asked, “is it that humid cold?” The air is moist,” Frits said, “but the wind is actually quite sultry.”
“Let’s go anyway,” his father said. (pp.39/40)
The constant bickering and tension between the parents, with Frits in the middle, leads you to think that there may be a sub-plot about to emerge, but it’s a red herring – this is just another part of Frits’ life that Reve is allowing the reader to witness.
With such little importance placed on plot, it’s important for the book to read well, and that’s certainly the case here, even if there’s little that stands out at a sentence level. Instead, Reve shows himself to be a master of register and tone, or at least Garrett provides that in the English-language version. The dialogue is slightly more formal than you’d expect, a reflection of the time, and Garrett resists the temptation to normalise the language. This is a novel of the 1940s, and the way people talk and interact reflects that as well as providing a slight ironic gap between the reader and Frits. The dialogue is especially important as much of the novel consists of people exchanging stories and talking rubbish, and the more the minor characters (such as Frits’ friends Louis and Viktor, and the shady Maurits – a one-eyed ne’er-do-well) recur, the more real the story becomes.
Throughout The Evenings, Reve examines how mundane life can be, but there’s rarely the sense that this is a tragedy. There is a sad tinge beneath the surface, but on the whole both the writer and his creation are optimistic in cheerfully admitting the dullness of their days. You see, even if this particular evening is a disappointment, there’s always another one tomorrow, where things might be different – have another sleep, dream another dream, and look forward to another day where something exciting may finally happen…