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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.

The View from Here: Books from the Netherlands

viewfromhereWelcome to the Netherlands which is the next country in the View from Here series on literature from around the world. We’re going to be in the expert hands of Judith,  a self-confessed bookaholic who is renowned for her Leeswammes’ blog.

Let’s meet Judith

Not only do I read a lot, I have two blogs with book reviews and I have my own editing company, Book Helpline. So, there are few moments in the day that I’m not busy with books.

My English blog is called Leeswammes’ Blog and it’s all about books! Mostly I post book reviews, but also other bookish things. Three times a year I run the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop, where bloggers give away books to their readers. I also have a Dutch blog, De Boekblogger for my reviews of the Dutch books I read. Last year, I ran a challenge for Dutch readers to read more Dutch authors. 🙂

Yes, I read both in English and Dutch. Not a great feat: I was born in the Netherlands and spent many years in England. I even have an English husband and English children!

I love contemporary fiction, a bit of literary fiction. I love dystopia, for the great ideas that many authors have about a future world (even if it’s usually quite depressive). I also read thrillers and chick-lit. Quite a mixture of genres!

JudithQ. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in the Netherlands?

We love Scandinavian thrillers. We also love biographies and memoirs by famous people, and books about dieting and cooking. We read a lot of translated books, for instance, Dan Brown, Nora Roberts, you know the kind. From the current top-25, 11 are translated (I checked!).

Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Dutch literature?

That would be writers like W. F. Hermans, Harry Mulisch and Simon Vestdijk. They are 20th Century writers that were very popular at the time. The first two are still read a lot by school children. My favourite book I discovered while at school: Beyond Sleep by W.F. Hermans, about a trip to northern Norway.

Q. What effect did the upheaval of World War 2 have on the Dutch literary landscape – did it change the nature of what authors wrote about?

Yes, many authors wrote about the war, especially in the first few decades after the war. No wonder, they’d lived through it as a teenager or adult. But even much, much later, it still played a role in many books. World War 2 has had a big impact on Dutch literature and the whole society as such. The Darkroom of Damocles, again by W. F. Hermans is about a young Dutch man hiding from the Germans to avoid deportation to a factory in Germany.

Q. Who are some of the major writers from the Netherlands that you think deserve more attention? 

Other than the authors I’ve already mentioned, Renate Dorrestein,  is a favourite writer of mine. Her books often contain a surrealistic element, just a hint, so you’re not sure what to make of it. Wonderful!  And Herman Koch, who became famous with his love-it-or-hate-it novel The Dinner. I love the way his characters look at the world. Plus Gerbrand Bakker (The Twin, The Detour) who is also well received abroad and worth a read.

Q. There’s an initiative called the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature that is trying to get more local writers translated into English. Why is this kind of action needed do you think?

I don’t know why it’s needed, but it’s a way to conquer the world without the use of sailing ships, I guess. It’s 400 years ago that we were a major nation. Now, we’re small but in certain areas still influential. For non-Dutch readers I think it’s a great chance to find themselves in the heads of people who are like them, but just a little bit different, living a life that is in some respects quite different and in others, very similar. And a major advantage is, that only the best books get translated!

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