The Evenings

Gerard Reve is generally regarded as one of the three major post-war Dutch writers alongside Harry Mulisch and W.F Hermans. While Mulisch has been reasonably well treated by translators (though much of his work is now out of print) and Hermans less so (though both Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles are well worth seeking out), Reve has been all but neglected. (So much so that in 2011 he featured in Writers No-one Reads, where you can find an exhaustive list of what was available in English at that time). Last year he was finally recued from this oblivion when Sam Garrett’s translation of his first novel, The Evenings, was published by Pushkin Press.

The protagonist of The Evenings is Frits van Egters, a twenty-three-year-old office worker whose life seems to have ground to a halt in the gloom of a Dutch winter. While his brother, Joop, is married, and his friends Jaap and Joosje have a child, he remains with his parents in a state of perpetual irritation:

“’Good morning, Father,’ Frits said. To speak these words, he felt as if he first had to clear his windpipe of a stone, which now fell at his feet.”

He regards his parents as ignorant and ill-mannered and alternates between criticism and forced gaiety. “The way you smoke is both incredibly clumsy and ridiculous,” he tells his mother, while at the same time thinking, “Make it sound like I’m joking.” He confides to his friend Viktor:

“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.”

Reve makes us fully aware of the disparity between Frits’ feelings and what he says by punctuating the narrative with Frits’ thoughts, a running commentary on the situations he finds himself in and the people he meets, frequently cruel and critical. By placing his thoughts in speech marks, and not dogmatically paragraphing each new speaker, he creates momentary lapses where we are uncertain if Frits is thinking or speaking. The fact that Frits’ cruellest thoughts are often spoken out loud makes second guessing impossible. An early example is his suggestion that his brother is balding:

“Listen, Joop… without meaning to be nasty, your scalp is really almost bare. It will not be long before you can count your hairs on the fingers of one hand.”

Baldness is a topic he broaches with many of his male friends and acquaintances; in his suspended adolescence it seems to be an accusation of ageing. He also happily tells Joosje that her child (another sign of adulthood)

“…is, in truth, a terrible little monster… The nerves have developed all wrong. It probably doesn’t have long to live.”

His inner monologue is given a certain pathos, however, as he clearly uses it to stave of his own unhappiness:

“An early start, this will be a day well spent.”

Later, with reference to visiting his brother, he thinks, “We shrink from nothing… It would be childish not to go. One must face one’s torments head on.” Though never explicitly stated, he seems as despairing of his own existence as he is of others. His nights are frequently spent searching for company or going to the cinema, almost anything to distract him from the emptiness of his life: Frits’ unpleasantness is redeemed by his own despair.

We also see him show kindness to his parents, asking questions on topics which he knows his father will speak on and making cheerful remarks, attempting to bridge the gulf between them while aware he has no hope of success. The New Year’s Eve dinner is a masterpiece of this type of communication, for example when he discovers his mother has bought fruit cordial thinking it is fruit wine:

“‘I’m sure it will be good, said Frits, ’It doesn’t matter much.’ ‘And now the moment for tears has arrived,’ he thought. His eyes grew moist.”

Frits’ own tears are existential, here contrasted with his mother’s tears of frustration, but “Shall we pause and feel sorry for ourselves?” is the danger he feels, and fights off, constantly. Frits’ complexity is the novel’s greatest success. It has been compared (by Herman Koch) to The Catcher in the Rye, and, though I am naturally suspicious of any comparison which appears on a book jacket, there are many similarities. Frits may be older, but he suffers from the same narcissistic ‘what is the point of life’ isolation, let down by, and alienated from, everyone he knows. Let down, also, by the seventy years we have had to wait to read this powerful addition to the genre.

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5 Responses to “The Evenings”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds excellent. Studies in ambivalence aren’t that common when I think about it, but this sounds like it explores that well.

    Gorgeous cover incidentally.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It *is* shocking that we’ve had to wait so long to read this in English – I really don’t know why certain translating teams that shall remain nameless render the same old same old, when there are gems waiting to be rendered in other languages….

  3. BookerTalk Says:

    Excellent review. It’s certainly a novel where you feel the emptiness of a life.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Great review, Grant. It does sound good. The tone reminds me of some of the films of Aki Kurasmaki, many of which are laced with a melancholic, deadpan humour. Love the cover too – it captures that sense of emptiness very well.

  5. Emma Says:

    Beautiful cover.
    This is a book I’ve heard of from a Dutch acquaintance. It makes me think of A Confederacy of Dunces.
    I should read this one. (The inevitable question being When?)

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