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Gerard Reve: De avonden (The Evenings)
In a a poll of theTop 100 works of Dutch literature of the 20th century, this book came top. (As far as I can determine, the poll was done by the De Amsterdamse Leesgroep (The Amsterdam Reading Group) so I am not sure how authoritative it is. However, their other choices seem very worthy. The site does not seem to have been updated since 2007.) Part of the appeal of the book may stem from its origins. Reve came from an aristocratic Dutch family and it was expected that he would follow a military career. He became a lieutenant in the Engineers and was sent out to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). He hated war but still managed to obtain two citations for bravery under fire. However, he helped a prisoner escape and was arrested. He was initially sentenced to twelve years in prison, which was reduced to seven years, on appeal. During his imprisonment, he wrote this book and, fortunately, made a copy of it. When the original was found, it was destroyed for being nihilist and immoral. He managed to escape prison with the copy of the manuscript. He fled to Belgium, where he hid out in an abbey. His book was published but he stayed in Belgium, continuing to write. After Indonesia gained its independence in 1952, there was a general amnesty and he was able to return to the Netherlands.
The book is very straightforward. It tells of ten consecutive days in the life of Fritz van Egters, starting on 22 December, 1946 and ending shortly after the first hour of New Year’s Day. Not a great deal happens during this period apart, obviously, from Christmas and New Year. Fritz is twenty-three years old and he lives with his parents in a small town near The Hague. He works in a dull office job (he is looking for another job). He has an older brother, Joop, who is married and lives nearby. He has few interests in life, except for meeting his friends, occasionally going to the cinema and occasionally listening to the radio. What he does do is observe both his family and friends as well as himself. His comments – at least the ones he makes to himself – are generally mundane. For example, he himself, when talking to a friend, admits to himself that he cannot think how to continue the conversation. However, it is a different matter when talking to others, where he can be really cruel. He takes great delight in pointing out to Joop and then to others that they are going bald, even if this is not really the case.
On the face of it, Fritz seems like a perfectly normal young man. He does his job, which he does not enjoy but he does get on with it. He seems to have a reasonably good relationship with his parents, though there are occasional disagreements, all of which seem minor. Indeed, when he hears his parents rowing, he tries to cover up his ears and not hear it. He likes drinking, but has not drunk anything for four weeks, prior to the start of the novel, though he does have one drunken escapade in this book, when he is nearly arrested for public urination (the police steer him to a public urinal) and loses his way home, but is helped home by his neighbours. He smokes occasionally and goes out with friends. There a few parties during Christmas week but they tend to be very low-key affairs. However, there is something of a dark side to him. He recounts to one of his friends, with great glee, how, when younger, he liked torturing animals, particularly but not only insects. The friend seems to be a borderline psychopath and recounts how he would like to torture a human. Fritz is amused but does not share the friend’s interest. However, he and his friends – but it mainly comes from Fritz – like telling stories which are at time macabre, often sick and at times downright nasty. Fritz seems to have unpleasant dreams most nights – the book opens with a dream about a coffin – which may or may not be related to these stories.
However, apart from what I have described, he does not do much. The opening day of the book is a Sunday. He gets up early and decides that he wants to spend the day profitably. During the day, we follow him as he notes the time and, suddenly, it is bedtime and he has accomplished very little. During the rest of the book, nothing much of note happens, excepts for the occasional parties and visits to the cinema. He does visit a celebration of the twentieth anniversary of his old school, where he meets a few former classmates and exchanges pleasantries and a few insults. He spends one lunch hour buying a birthday present for the one year old son of a friend but much of the time is spent trying to find the same item – a mug and plate – at a lower price. However, he spoils it for, when he visits the parents, only the mother is there and he waits for the father to appear. Meanwhile, the child cries and, finally, Fritz complains about the child and says he obviously won’t live long if he cries so much.
One other rather strange aspect of Fritz is that he does not really seem interested in the opposite sex (or, indeed, the same sex – Reve was gay). He pretends to one of his friends that he does have a girlfriend, but he does not. He buys some chocolate for a female colleague but that is all. The other oddity is that the book is set barely a year after the end of World War II but, apart from two very oblique references, the war is not mentioned. The Netherlands was, of course, occupied by the Germans but we hear nothing about the occupation. In short, it is something of a strange book, with not a great deal happening, with no formal beginning or end, except as determined by the calendar and a dark side to it which Reve does not stress but which keeps reappearing. Given that it was written while Reve was in prison, perhaps the dark side is something we would expect. However, I am not sure why the Amsterdam Reading Group voted this the top work of Dutch literature of the 20th century, even though I did find that it had a certain appeal.
First published in 1947 by De Bezige Bij
First English translation by Pushkin Press in 2016
Published in French as Les Soirs by Gallimard in 1970
Translated by Sam Garrett