Today we review a Dutch cultural classic which reached the English-speaking world for the first time last year.
If you’d asked me a year ago who the most famous Dutch writers are, I’m embarrassed to say I’d have struggled to answer. I may have come up with Multatuli (mostly because there’s a statue of him on the Torensluis, outside one of my favourite cafes in Amsterdam, where he is used for target practice by seagulls). But I didn’t know Gerard Reve, or his classic novel The Evenings (De Avonden).
That is, until now. The first ever English translation of the novel became available at the end of 2016, published by Pushkin Press. In the Netherlands it has long been considered a post-war literary classic. So much so that in 2007, readers of NRC Handelsblad voted it the best Dutch novel of all time. So does it deserve all the hype?
The Evenings was published in 1947 and is often prescribed as reading material for Dutch high school students. It is well known in the Netherlands for its sardonic humour. Its protagonist Frits van Egters muses on life, and desperately tries to fill his days and evenings with social visits to stave off boredom. He enters into humorous, morbid and mischievous discussions with his parents and friends, in which he gleefully draws attention to their perceived faults, such as baldness or deafness. With its themes of isolation, frustration and need for communication, it is a book with which many people will no doubt feel a connection. It is set during the ten days between 22 December 1946 and 01 January 1947, in which time Frits flails around Amsterdam in search of friends and acquaintances with whom to sit and talk.
Even when he has nothing to say, he comically forces the conversation. Sitting with a friend one evening, he repeats to himself “I must not let the conversation run out”. At home with his parents, he asks his partially deaf father “moronic” questions to which he already knows the answer, and is fascinated when his parents answer his questions with a serious reply. He is reminiscent of an anthropologist, studying his own family and friends as subjects.
But while the novel describes the encounters Frits seeks out, it also highlights the characters’ pronounced failure to communicate. Many of the conversations Frits has are superficial and meaningless. Communication is shown to be banal, needlessly offensive (Frits constantly suggests his male friends are going bald), but strangely addictive. When he can no longer talk to his friends or parents, he talks to a toy rabbit in his room. In a way the novel is like a precursor of the social media age, in which Frits is constantly seeking to communicate, no matter how pointless or exhausting this communication turns out to be. In the modern age, you can imagine Frits being the type of person who starts debates in the YouTube comments.
A fragment in Dutch:
Don’t Mention The War!
For a post-war literary classic, however, it is notable that the War itself is barely mentioned. Published only two years after the end of WWII, The Evenings refers to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands only in passing. This glaring omission confused and angered critics at the time.
And yet, is the War really so absent in Frits’s mind? He is obsessed with death and infirmity. Each night he dreams terrible dreams about corpses and funerals and terror. Then he wakes and acts as if nothing has happened. It is as if Frits is trying to suppress traumatic memories, and perhaps his desperation for conversation is an attempt to distract himself from the ever-present memories of terrible events. The War is the elephant in the room, conspicuous by its very absence.
Gerard Reve and de Avonden: Divine Comedy
However, in spite of its preoccupation with morbid themes, The Evenings remains a humorous book. It is the dialogue, and in particular the juxtaposition between what Frits says out loud and what he secretly thinks to himself, that offers the greatest source of humour in the novel. Frits’s despairing observations of his father, and the conversations he has with him, provide some of the best moments of comedy in the novel. It is a very funny book, in a dark and unsettling kind of way.
A note on readability: The Evenings is by no means fast-paced. It is a book in which, arguably, nothing happens, and in which the plot is driven forward only by the protagonist’s search for conversation. It is reminiscent, in a way, of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, except that The Evenings is driven by the protagonist’s desire for social contact rather than for food and money. Yet as a portrait of the monotony of suburban life in post-war Amsterdam, The Evenings succeeds in entertaining.
If you were not already forced to read it during school, then The Evenings is well worth a look. Look for the moments of wry humour, the moments of fragility in the characters, and the moments of beauty (especially in the redemptive final chapter). Not having read the Dutch version, I cannot comment on whether anything has been lost in translation. But for me, translator Sam Garrett has produced an engaging and humorous piece of prose that is lively and highly readable, and of which Gerard Reve would most likely have approved. Read it for yourself and see if you agree.
Did you read De Avonden at school? Do you love it or hate it? Is it the best Dutch novel of all time, or are there better ones? Let us know in the comments!