The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve [review]

the-eveningsThe Evenings by Gerard Reve focuses on something we’ve all experienced – wasted days.  They’re the ones where you get up buzzing with plans to make the most of the day.  But you can’t get going until you’ve had breakfast and at least one cup of tea/coffee, and a thorough read of the newspaper. Maybe even an attempt at the crossword. Meanwhile your mobile phone keeps pinging to let you know  emails or text messages are awaiting your attention. Better deal with those first you think, they might be urgent. What’s happening on Facebook you wonder? An hour later having exhausted the stock of cute cat photos and pithy sayings, you migrate to Twitter and post a few of your own witticisms. Time to shower and get ready to face the world. Except everything you pull out of the wardrobe just looks naff. By the time you’ve sorted something that will pass muster it’s almost lunchtime; not really worth starting anything now. And so the pattern is established that will mean by bedtime, not a single thing from your list will have been completed. And you wonder what happened to all that time…..

For Frits van Egters, the central character in Gerard Reve’s debut novel The Evenings, most of his days disappear into this kind of nothingness. In the final days of 1946 he wakes one Sunday morning determined that this day will be different; that this “will be a day well spent.   This will be no wasted and profitless Sunday.” But what happens? Nothing much. He drifts through the day, one minute listening to the radio and the next taking books from his shelves and flicking through them without reading a word. In between he looks out of the window, idly observing the passers by and ducks waddling on the canal, and makes a minute examination of his mouth in the mirror. By then it is afternoon and “all is lost, everything is ruined. But the evening can still make up for a great deal.” Except his visit that evening to a friend also turns out to be a waste of time. And so one day turns into the next and the next. His life in fact is an endless cycle of monotonous days.

The Evenings follows Frits as he wanders aimlessly through the house he shares with his parents and out into the streets of Amsterdam. By day he is at work – what he does exactly we never really discover except that it too involves repetition: “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.” It’s the evenings that hang heaviest on his mind. How to get through them without descending into a black hole of despair? For the 10 consecutive evenings upon which the book is based, we observe the stultifying mundanity of his life.

evenings-dreamingFrits is ever conscious of time and how to make best use of it. During visits to ‘friends’ and even when he is at home with his parents, he is forever looking at his watch, calculating how long before he can move on without seeming impolite. How to avoid long pauses in conversation is his constant dilemma. One strategy he adopts is peppering his conversation with disturbing jokes and anecdotes about death. Another is to ask questions. The questions he asks at home are ones to which he already knows the answer because he’s heard his father’s stories many times over. He likes to think the questions he asks of his friends are philosophically deep and meaningful though it doesn’t matter if they are not because for Frits “Even if a question is entirely pointless it is better than no question at all.“. His questions often baffle people or are inappropriate to the occasion. A night out with Frits is not one to relish. He’s hard work. “Do you people believe that it is right for one to live in moderation?”, he throws at his companions on a night out at a dance hall. They barely have time to respond before he casts another question into the ring: “Are you not of the opinion that eating meat, if not a sin, should in any case be denounced as being unhealthy? ”  

He’s also very direct, not hesitating to point out signs of their ill health or their advancing age.

Oh but you are becoming quite bald,” he tells one man. 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… Do you count the hairs in your comb each morning? If you did you would see that there are more of them each day. Slowly but surely. I would be horrified to know that I was going bald. I would lose all desire to live. But please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean to discourage you.

With such low levels of interpersonal skills it’s not surprising Frits doesn’t have many friends. His sole true companion is a stuffed rabbit.

Most of this humdrum life takes place in a small quarter of Amsterdam. It’s here that Frits shares an apartment with his half-deaf father and his well-meaning mother. He disdains their eating and hygiene habits (his father comes in for particular contempt for his tendency to walk around the flat half-dressed and slurp his food) and scorns the tedious predictability of their conversation. But he also demonstrates some grudging affection towards them. On New Year’s Eve his mother is distraught to find she was duped into buying not wine for a celebratory drink, but apple-berry juice. To salvage the occasion, Frits dutifully drinks his quota, making encouraging noises about how much nicer it is than wine.

If this sounds dreadful let me assure you that The Evenings is – at times – highly comic. It’s impossible to read Gerard Reve’s portrayal of the battles between father and son for control of the radio or Frits’ paranoia about is body, without laughing out loud. Impossible too not to find some vestiges of sympathy for this hapless, down-trodden specimen of a man. My one difficulty was that a novel about the mediocrity and tediousness of a life did, after a time become rather tedious. The joke wore itself out for me in the middle of the novel. Fortunately I pressed on to the masterful finale where Frits, having failed to find anything remarkable to do to celebrate the new year, invokes a prayer for divine mercy on behalf of his parents, seeking understanding for all their faults. And then contemplates his own situation:

I am alive. I breathe and I move, so I live. Is that clear? What ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.

It sounds as if he is reconciled to his life but what kind of a life is that exactly. Reve doesn’t give us an answer but leaves us to wonder.

I haven’t read enough Dutch literature to know whether The Evenings deserves the accolade given by the Society of Dutch Literature of “the best Dutch novel of all time.” It’s different and memorable but I expect a stand-out novel to maintain quality throughout whereas this one sags in the middle.

Footnotes

The Book: The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale by Gerard Reve was published in Amsterdam as De Avonden in 1946. It’s taken more than 60 years for the novel to become available in English via Pushkin Press. Translation from the Dutch is by Sam Garrett.

The Author:  According to Wikipedia, Gerard Reve is considered one of the “Great Three” of Dutch post-war literature. He declared that the primary message in his work was salvation from the material world but his work is also notable for its themes of religion, love and  his intense hatred of communism. He died in 2006.

Why I read this book:  I’ve seen The Evenings described as a masterpiece of Dutch literature and since this is a part of the world whose literary output is largely unknown to me, I was delighted to see it available via NetGalley in 2016. Pushkin Press Fortnight orchestrated by Stu at Winstonsdad’s Blog galvanised me into reading it. 

Other Reviews: For a different perspective on The Evenings, here are links to some other reviews.

Want to explore Dutch literature further?

There is a good article on Dutch literature in translation over at Expatica.com where the managing director of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch literature provides a guide to authors to watch.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on February 21, 2017, in Book Reviews, Netherlands, TBR list and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. thanks for your great review. Personally, I don’t find myself ready to read this masterpiece, I need something less depressing right now

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  2. First I was thinking the book sounded really depressing and then like it was absurd and then it sounded kind of Kafka-like. I am intrigued to say the least!

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  3. Love the description of his work. I’ve held that position!

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  4. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out this review of the book, The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale, by Gerard Reve via the Booker Talk blog.

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  5. I’m intrigued! It sounds like “Back to the Future” of my current Sandwich-generation life of elderly parent and not-quite independent kids. Excellent review.

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  6. This was on my radar due to that wonderful cover. I don’t know if I’ll actually get to it though.

    It’s tremendously useful to know it sags in the middle. I find that being warned of something like that actually helps one get through it – it’s encouraging after all to know things pick up again.

    Anyway, very nice review though it doesn’t sound the greatest ever Dutch novel (hopefully). As for your first para, sadly I do somewhat recognise it…

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  7. I’m not sure this is for me, but I do like that cover – it’s very eye-catching .

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  8. I was very keen to read this, not least because Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities, but have been put off by its length. It seems more suited to be a novella which might explain its saggy middle.

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  9. Interesting review! I’ve been undecided about whether I should read this or not. The hype made it sound essential but I did wonder if, like you found, it would drag a little in places. I think I *will* pick it up if I get the chance.

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  10. I have this book on my TBR for March. Great review. I hope I will enjoy the read. I will keep in mind that the pacing is not uniform throughout

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  11. *fabulous*

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  12. Favulous review. I’m glad, my own less than enthusiastic review didn’t put you off completely.

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  13. This one hadn’t registered though I do read Stu’s blog. Your first paragraph about wasted days got me in – I have too many of those I fear OR I let myself fritter time because I have more of it. Once I was a very efficient user of time. I’m not sure I want to read this book – but, then again, it sounds like it might appeal to my reading appetite.

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    • I was determined when I retired that I wouldnt have those wasted days – I didn’t want to be still mooching about in my dressing gown at lunchtime. So I adopted the practice of identifying at least two things I needed to accomplish each day. Its about the only way I can bring structure otherwise I would get on the laptop after breakfast and still be on there come bedtime….

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      • Yes, know the feeling Karen re easy to spend whole day on the laptop. I usually do that ie have plans for the day, though many involve my laptop as I have fingers in a lot of pies … I have a lot of outside commitments which also means I’m put most days, but I still manage to not be as fruitful as I’d like, particularly in terms of decluttering which every now and then overwhelms me. I guess I meant wasted hours not days!

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        • Ah yes decluttering. I read an article about some young guy who made squillions of dollars when he was young and then had an epiphany about how much ‘stuff’ he had acquired. So he set about getting rid of it – his strategy was to dispense with one thing every day. I’ve been following that practice and found it much easier than doing big clear outs…..

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        • One thing every day. That’s a good plan. Last year I tried to institute a GiGo policy i.e. garbage in garbage out i.e. for everything I brought in I had to take two things out. And then Christmas came and I’m back to square one. I do have three shopping backs at the front door though waiting for me to take out!

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  14. I mostly remember Reve from a poem that we had to learn and discuss in class and it was so boring (Het Schrijverke it’s called). I wasn’t impressed at the time but maybe I was too young also to really appreciate. I haven’t read any novel by him but I still don’t feel inclined to do so. It’s almost unreadable now in my opinion, full of metaphores and old language that we don’t even know anymore what it means.

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  15. I was fairly underwhelmed by this one when I reviewed it for The Bookbag, especially given the Dutch classic accolades, but you’ve definitely brought out the good points: the humour, the sense of idle days disappearing, and that wonderful final epiphany.

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