They told me it was strange, and they weren’t wrong. In fact, so unsettling and beyond my usual style of reading did I find The Evenings that I almost gave up on it after fifty pages. In part because of my Dutch reading challenge and in part because I hate not finishing a book once I’ve started, I persevered to the end – and I’m very glad I did.
The brief author’s note at the beginning of the novel apologises – ‘It’s not my fault it caused such an uproar’ – in a voice that is very similar to that of the protagonist, Frits van Egters. Sardonic, slightly caustic and feigning innocence, it is a voice that took me a while to get used to and still longer to truly appreciate. The Evenings is a foray into a slightly absurdist world, a strange journey through the mostly evening streets of an unnamed town (I assumed Amsterdam) and into the life and mind of a young, clearly intelligent, but incredibly bored man.
There are definite echoes of Kafka here, and I was also put strongly in mind of a recent encounter with the wacky world of Tim Etchells, whose Endland seems to be a biting, bizarrely funny attempt to make sense of a world – dare I say Britain – gone very wrong. Reve, writing in 1947, had also just witnessed his world collapse into the madness of the Second World War, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why he felt compelled to write The Evenings. ‘I was convinced I had to write it,’ he says in his author’s note.
Gerard Reve is regarded as one of the Netherlands’ three greatest post-war writers (the others are Willem Frederik Hermans and Harry Mulisch, who I confess to never having heard of) and was one of the country’s first openly gay authors. I don’t think it’s necessarily the best thing to read a book in the light of what we know about the author’s background – although it might well influence their writing, it’s easy to end up misguidedly conflating author and narrator – but in this case I couldn’t help wondering if the clearly lost young Frits was somehow a reflection of Reve. There seems to be something that Frits want to say or do, particularly when it comes to his parents, yet he never seems to get round to it. Instead he opens his mouth to be mean or sarcastic, tell dark jokes or tease his friends about an ongoing obsession of his: baldness. All of it seems to be a way of beating around the bush, avoiding the real point.
There are several ongoing themes in the novel, of which baldness is just one. Cruelty to animals, children and old people (whether direct or implied) is another, as is the cinema, boredom and the pointlessness of life. Frits has a job in which he does little more than shuffle index cards between one box and another, lives at home with his despised parents, and passes the rest of his time in a haze of ridiculous conversations with friends, himself and a stuffed toy rabbit. Time passes strangely in the novel, leaping forward in bounds before suddenly slowing to a crawl, and Frits is constantly wondering how he’s going to pass it. We observe him doing the kinds of things we all might do when we’re alone, bored and think no one is watching – pulling faces at himself in the mirror or considering throwing water over a couple of cats – and it was one of these small but hilarious moments of skilful insight that finally got me to accept the novel for what it was.
My overriding impression of The Evenings was that it is enveloped in a sort of murk, in which occasional moments of genuine brilliance and humour gleam like sudden sparks. The world it is set in didn’t seem all that far from the modern one, and at its core is a sense of humanity that makes the reader implicit in Frits’ thoughts and actions whether they want to be or not. While I got the sense that most people in the novel were relatively reasonable, Frits himself often isn’t, yet his moments of exasperation – such as when he suddenly notices that his parents slurp when they eat soup – or despair at another person’s perceived idiocy are impossible not to relate to. The world is ridiculous, Reve seems to be saying, and people often cruel or thoughtless, yet in the end we are all lost and a little bit bored, just looking for ways to pass the time.
That might be a bleak view of things and perhaps not at all what Reve was trying to convey, but that was the message his novel offered me. The Evenings was Reve’s first novel, after which he went on to write many things that often sparked controversies because of their eroticism or treatment of religion. Pushkin Press did the literary world a great service by publishing this first-ever English translation of The Evenings back in 2016, and I hope they go on to produce more of Reve’s novels (Childhood: Two Novellas, also translated by the great Sam Garrett, was published in 2018). I’d be interested to see where the workings of his mind took him – though I don’t often read this style of writing, it was an educational experience and I like a novel that makes me really think.
Despite the fact that it was written in 1947, The Evenings is a very timely read. Perhaps the best way to cope with a world gone insane is not to take it as seriously as we are wont to do, but to look at things through the mirror of the absurd. After all, Reve’s repeated refrain is as true now as it was back then: ‘strange things are afoot’ indeed.
My rating: 3.5/5