Category Archives: Netherlands

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.

Reviews In Short

With just a few weeks left of the year the only way I’m going to catch up on the backlog of reviews is to batch a few of them in one post.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

This was an interesting take on a moral dilemma. It poses the question of how far parents will go to protect their children, even when they have committed a despicable act. Two brothers – one a political leader tipped for the top, the other a teacher with a bit of a past – and their wives meet for dinner in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. We discover that this encounter is organised not as a social occasion but to discuss what stance to take about a crime committed by 15 year old sons. The nature of that crime, and the resentment the teacher feels towards his more successful brother, is revealed slowly as dinner progresses. The dinner itself is wonderfully funny if you enjoy laughing at the pretentiousness found in the kind of restaurant favoured by foodies. The provenance of every item on the plate is described in minute detail by a oleaginous  maître d’ determined to get through his script though all the guests want to do is get stuck in. The humour nicely counters the darker elements of the narrative.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Apparently this 2015 best seller was labelled as “the next Gone Girl“. There is some similarity. Both titles featured the word “girl” (clever me for spotting that…); both had page-turning plots with more twists and turns than you’d encounter driving along the Big Sur and both stories were relayed by a narrator whose reliability came in at around level 2 on the credibility scale. There I think the similarity ends. The Girl on the Train had a murder plot that turned on the ingenious device of memory loss by a narrator drinking excessively to deal with a broken marriage.  Without giving any of the plot away all I can say is that this was a highly entertaining read.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Doerr won the National Book Award with this novel set in France and Germany before and during the German occupation of France. It’s told through the eyes of two children; one is a blind girl living in Paris with her beloved Papa, a locksmith and creator of intricate puzzles; the other is an orphan with a remarkable gift for radio technology and transmitters.  He can fix anything. On opposite sides of the war, their stories gradually come together as war rages over St Malo. I couldn’t warm to this book despite some clearly well researched details. The narrative seemed overly drawn out and the first 100 pages were very dull in fact. It wasn’t so bad that I felt I wanted to give up but it was really only the last quarter that was particularly interesting.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

This was chosen by my Book Club much to my dismay. I hadn’t long finished reading the excellent Elisabeth is Missing by Emma Healey and the thought of another novel on the topic of mental illness wasn’t  appealing. But I’m so glad I didn’t skip Filer’s debut novel. He created a completely engaging narrator in the form of Matt Homes, a 19-year-old schizophrenic who was sectioned because he couldn’t cope in the community. With the aid of an old typewriter he tries to convey feelings of guilt about something that happened to his brother (the nature of which we don’t discover until close to the end of the novel). Letters, doodles and sketches are mingled within his text. Matt knows however that there are limits to his memory and his ability to be honest about painful moments in his life. Filer brilliantly invests Matt with a caustic sense of humour which he deploys towards the condescension and jargon he experiences in psychiatric treatment. Quite simply this was such a superb novel I read it in one day.

 

Two foodie novels in review

The Dinner Herman KochHerman Koch’s The Dinner was one of the publishing hits of 2012, garnering wildly differing views on whether it was an extremely well executed novel about the lengths to which parents will go to protect their offspring or a nasty book about some very dislikable people.  I enjoyed it on the whole though wasn’t convinced by the narrator Paul, a failed teacher who despises his more successful politician and celebrity brother Serge.

The two men and their wives meet in an upmarket restaurant in Amsterdam. Amid the They are there to discuss an act of unprovoked violence committed by their teenage sons. Koch reveals the nature of the boys’ attack in between scenes where a servile waiter describes the provenance of each item of food in infinite detail. It’s an evident swipe at overly pretentious restaurants.  The lamb’s-neck sweetbread might have been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and the sun-dried tomatoes raised in Bulgaria but there still isn’t very much to eat.

The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle. It was as though the empty plate was challenging you to say something about it, to go to the open kitchen and demand an explanation. ‘You wouldn’t even dare!’ the plate said, and laughed in your face.

Paul is clearly a man with a chip on his shoulder. He despises everything his brother and sister in law represent.

They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’: from croissants to French bread with Camembert, from French cars (they themselves drove one of the top-end Peugeots) to French chansons and French films.”

But the reason for this deep resentment towards his brother was never fully explained. Is it purely a case of envy at the celebrity status his brother has acquired as the front runner in the upcoming national elections? Or is this another example of how Koch has structured his novel around secrets and the necessity of keeping them just that: secret.

the presidents hat

Surprisingly for a novel about a hat with supposed magical properties, the plot of The President’s Hat  by Antoine Laurain similarly turns on a meal.

Middle-ranking officer worker Daniel Mercier decides to take advantage of his wife’s absence one evening to treat himself to dinner in an elegant Parisienne brasserie. While savouring a seafood platter and crisp Pouilly-Fuissé, (and trying to ignore the price), he is astounded when the banquette alongside him is occupied by President Mitterand. Mercier lingers over his meal, eavesdropping on Mitterand’s conversation with his cohorts. When the President leaves, he has forgotten his hat. It ends up gracing the head of the starry-eyed Mercier.

He quickly discovers that the hat confers authority and confidence. His superiors discover his full potential and give him promotion. But Mercier loses the hat. The next person to find it similarly realises that its possession emboldens her to make a big change in her life.  The hat passes through a succession of hands, acquiring talismanic qualities as the fortunes of each of its new owners are transformed.

This was an impulse buy and while I enjoyed the descriptions of the brasserie and Daniel’s repast, overall I found it far too light and frothy. I suppose it was meant to be a fable of a time that no longer exists – one where no-one goes out for dinner and spends all their time texting ‘friends’ or drinks a full bottle of wine and then drives home.

End Notes

The Dinner by Herman Koch is published in the UK by Atlantic Books. Koch is a Dutch author who has also worked as a television actor and newspaper columnist.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is published by Gallic Books. Laurain was born in Paris where he has worked as a journalist and indulged his passion for collecting antiques. His next novel is due to be published later in 2015.

 

%d bloggers like this: