Translated by Sam Garrett
Review by Rob Spence
In Amsterdam, just after the Second World War, Frits, a young office worker, lives a dreary and unfulfilling existence. He lives in a flat with his constantly bickering parents, and tries to alleviate the dullness by visiting his friends and occasionally going out to a dance or a film. But nothing snaps him out of his state of ennui, and this novel, first published in 1947, chronicles a week or so (Christmas week, in fact) of his futile existence. The author, Gerard Reve, went on to have a long and often controversial career, but The Evenings remains his best-known work, and was voted best Dutch novel of the twentieth century by the Society of Dutch Literature. It’s republished here in the 2016 translation by Sam Garrett as part of the Pushkin Press Classics series.
The third-person narration focuses entirely on Frits, whose quotidian doings are described in minute detail. He is both sharply observed by Reve, and is a sharp observer himself, as we are privy to his often acerbic thoughts about his family and friends. His working life is barely mentioned. When, at a school reunion event, he’s asked by a former classmate about his job, he says, “I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.” Other than that, we learn nothing of his workplace. But it’s clear that at least his job provides some kind of structure in his life. The evenings of the title are where he struggles to find meaning in his world: the tawdry surroundings of the flat, and the similarly drab dwellings of his friends, provide the backdrop to his urgent desire to fill time with something meaningful. He is constantly checking the time, acutely aware of its passing, and apparently powerless to imbue it with anything of significance. The banalities of the radio announcers provide the soundtrack to home life. The habits of his family and friends are minutely, even creepily, observed by Frits: their table manners, their clothing, their hair and skin. Frits has an obsession with baldness, and never fails to find incipient signs of it in his young male friends, offering a series of bizarre theories on how to cure it. The creepiness extends to his frequent conversational gambit to fill the void, which is to recount stories, allegedly from newspapers, of grotesque accidental death, usually of children. The grotesquerie is mirrored in his dreams, descriptions of which increase in length and horrific detail as the novel progresses.
And yet, there is humour here, of a very dark variety to be sure, but definitely in play. Frits, with his inappropriate jokes, his nihilistic attitude to life and his strange obsessions, gets all the best lines, and the reader is often forced to see the humour in the absurdity of his situation. I was reminded of Kafka or Beckett in that respect: how comedy can surface in existential angst. Maybe there’s even a flavour of Flann O’Brien in there, too.
Reve is not a figure who is known in the Anglophone world, and not much of his work has been translated. That’s a pity, because on the strength of this book, one can imagine that he might have been as well-known as some other post-war European writers: Gunther Grass, say, or Italo Calvino. Both of those writers were well-served by skilful translations and certainly, Sam Garrett’s rendition hits the right deadpan note here. While reading this novel, I recalled the title of Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography: Chronicles of Wasted Time. Of course, Muggeridge’s incident-packed life was anything but wasted, and the title ironic. It would be an eminently suitable subtitle for this intriguing, disturbing, comic novel.
Rob Spence’s home on the web is at robspence.org.uk
Gerard Reve, The Evenings (Pushkin Press). 978-1605330264, 317pp., paperback.
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