First published in the Netherlands in 1947, The Evenings is a difficult book to describe, so please bear with me while I endeavour to give it a go!
This brilliant, strangely compelling novel revolves around the life of Frits van Egters, a twenty-three-year-old office worker who lives at home with his parents in a small flat in Amsterdam. The story, such as it is, unfolds over the ten days leading up to New Year’s Eve in 1946, as Frits struggles to fill the interminable downtime that falls between Christmas and the New Year.
Frits is a master in the art of procrastination, content to fritter away great swathes of time in the act of thinking about something without actually doing it. At one point, he notes that now would be an excellent time to have a tidy-up, only to spend the next couple of hours doing nothing in particular. Similarly, a pause to look at a newspaper becomes two hours staring out of the living-room window – not a word is read during this interlude on a sleepy Sunday morning.
“I just sit here and sit here and don’t do a thing,” he thought. “The day’s half over.” It was a quarter past twelve. (p. 14)
For Frits, the atmosphere at home is severely strained, dictated as it is by relations with his parents. While Mother tries to maintain some semblance of order around the flat, her tendency to fuss and prattle on leaves Frits in a perpetual state of irritation. The situation is compounded by the predictable nature of her conversation, so predictable in fact that Frits takes a kind of perverse delight in goading or prompting his mother down a particular path, just to provoke the expected response. In this scene, Frits has cajoled Mother into looking for the previous day’s newspaper, knowing full well that Father is currently reading it.
“Well, Mother,” he said, “it’s not here on the table. If you think that I am incapable of searching, why don’t you try?” “It’s as though the two of you were morons, as though no one in this house has any sense,” she said. “Don’t you two have eyes in your head?” What’s all this screaming?” his father asked. “Nothing,” Frits said, “there is no conflict whatsoever. It is a friendly debate. Later on there will be an opportunity for you to pose a few questions.” (p. 269)
Father is another source of exasperation for young Frits, courtesy of his dodgy hearing and annoying personal habits. ‘Fire a cannon beside his ear for a joke, he’ll ask if there’s someone at the door,’ Frits muses at one point as he ponders his father’s deafness. Other regular irritations include breaking wind, slurping while drinking and asking Frits whether he has anything new and interesting to report on his return from work. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before something awful happens to Mr and Mrs van Egters, as Frits half-jokingly remarks to his friend Viktor.
“I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that. So why hasn’t it happened yet? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.” (p. 120)
Frits is equally provocative, if not more so, when in the company of his friends. (The trouble is, people never quite know whether he’s kidding or being serious.) Baldness is something of a preoccupation for Frits, and he proceeds to point it out in others at every possible opportunity. There are multiple examples in the book, not least in the gleeful taunts Frits throws at his brother, Joop, when he drops by for a visit.
Early death or degradation is another running theme, frequently cropping up in Frits’ dreams and conversations, steadily infusing the narrative with a palpable sense of bleakness. While some of Frits’ friends find his disturbing jibes somewhat uncomfortable, others know he is only joking, responding with their own equally controversial comments. There is a seam of mordant wit running through this novel, an air of gallows humour that permeates throughout. (It is worth recalling at this point that The Evenings was published just two years after the end of WW2, and while the war is barely mentioned explicitly, the sense of darkness clearly remains.)
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way Reve give us access to Frits’ thoughts alongside his speech, so while Frits often seems to be engaging in fairly banal conversation – typically with his parents – the running commentary on what is going on in his head tells a very different story. While some of these inner thoughts are peppered with dry humour, others are imbued with a feeling of desperation, a kind of existential angst that typifies Frits’ existence.
Suddenly the kettle began singing in the kitchen. “Make that noise stop,” he thought, “for God’s sake, make it stop.” (p. 20)
As Frits tries to make it through the evenings without killing someone or losing his mind, life goes on in the van Egters household. There are bland meals to be cooked, coal to be fetched, fires to be lit, keys to be found and the radio to be turned on and off (a particular bone of contention between Frits and his father). The way Reve manages to make the mundane feel stealthily compelling is an art form unto itself.
A few minutes later his mother came in with the dishes. “I’m going to Bep Spanjaard’s,” he said, “and from there we’re going to a midnight showing at The Lantern, at eleven thirty.” “What time will you come home then, for God’s sake?” she asked. “It will probably be around two o’clock,” he replied, “be sure not to bolt the door.” “One of these days you’ll go completely mad,” she said. “True,” Frits said, “I am already moving in that direction, by leaps and bounds. But don’t tell anyone.” (p. 224)
As the novel moves towards its undeniable conclusion – a New Year’s Eve that Frits seems destined to spend with his parents – there is a growing sense of dread. A fitting note, perhaps, for an evening that often seems like an anti-climax, such is the pressure to enjoy oneself irrespective of circumstances. There is a marvellous scene in which Frits’ mother produces a bottle of apple-berry cordial, thinking it is fruit wine, while a ‘non-stop programme of Hawaiian melodies’ plays out on the wireless. Needless to say, the evening is excruciating, all the more so for Frits, who is desperate just to get through it.
In summary then, The Evenings is an excellent novel, by turns savage, hilarious, poignant and biting. Who knew that a narrative about the mundanities of everyday life, the interminable passing of time and our endeavours to idle away the hours, could be so darkly comic and oddly touching? Bravo to Pushkin Press and the translator Sam Garrett for rescuing Reve’s text from obscurity and publishing the first English translation in 2016. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.)
I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the futility of Frits’ life. Perhaps we are all just shuffling paper, taking cards out of a file and putting them back again to little or no avail, steadily dispensing with the days until our time on this planet is over…
“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.” (pp. 53–54)
I think I have this one buried somewhere on my Kindle. I never seem able to remember or find my e-books. It sounds almost unbearably fierce about the boredom of the everyday and hell is other people…
It is quite savage at times, possibly a hangover from the atrocities of the Second World War. I’ve seen a couple of reviews that mention the Hongerwinter (hunger winter) in 1944 when food supplies in the western regions of the Netherlands (incl. Amsterdam) became increasingly scarce as the Germans stopped the transport of goods into the country. While Reve doesn’t dwell on the war, there’s a sense of its aftermath in the novel – the whiff of austerity, the bleak atmosphere, the lack of purpose in life, particularly for young men.
I like the bleak sound of this.
I would recommend it.
I’ve read this, and I agree that it’s a masterpiece. “Grigor Samsa without the cockroach” is my synopsis.
Ha, yes! Kafka is a fair reference point for sure. It’s been years since I last read Metamorphosis. One of those books you read as a teenager, almost as a rite of passage into adulthood.
I was amazed to find I’d reviewed this back in 2017 as I still remember it so sharply. It’s extraordinarily good, isn’t it. Grimly funny and Frits is a masterclass in characterisation.
Yes, really quite remarkable – and I can understand how it would stick in your mind, especially given Frits’ character. As we were saying on Twitter last week, those scenes with his parents are excruciating. I really thought there might be an *incident* of some sort towards the end…
This sounds so bleak, but also funny. One I’d have to be in the mood for I think, but Pushkin are always irresistible!
They are! I don’t know how they manage to do it, but someone in that publishing house has a very sharp eye for these things. It really is quite savage, in blackly comic kind of way. The sort of book that probably won’t suit every reader, but if you can tune into its wavelength it’s utterly irresistible.
I think you’ve described it very well Jacqui – it sounds really intriguing and very atmospheric
How many novels tackle the routine dailiness and dullness of everyday life? With the quotes you used here, I believe you captured ‘The Evenings’ very well. When I read it, I thought it went on a little too long, but otherwise it captured the irritations and boredom of family life extremely well.
Thank you! The book is veritable goldmine of soundbites, mostly because Reve’s style is so ‘out there’ and distinctive. It’s hard to be believe that its only just been translated into English in the last 5 years…
Sounds marvellous Jacqui – full of existential bleakness and boredom! It’s one of those I’ve been circling for a while and I think I might have a digital version, so I’ll have to see how quickly I can get to it. I like the sound of the device of having Frits’ speech and thoughts running alongside each other – intriguing!
Yes, it’s a little disconcerting at first, as it’s not entirely clear whether Frits is verbalising all of this stuff or just thinking about it in his mind; but once you realise what Reve is doing, it works really well. You’d like this, I think. At times it reminded me a little of Monty Python, the kind of savage, surreal comedy they specialised in.
I have seen quite a lot of fairly mixed reviews of this over the last couple of years. Overall I still think its a novel I would like. Those mundanities of everyday life you talk about appeal to me, along with the period and setting.
It’s a interesting one for sure. If you’re thinking of picking it up, I would suggest downloading a sample on your kindle first, just to see what you think. Reve has a very particular style, and while I really liked it, his savage tone might not appeal to everyone…
Ah OK, thanks for that advice, I could do that.
A little masterclass in how to write about a difficult to describe book and make it irresistible. It sounds so resonant with the period we’ve all been going through too. I love the quotes you’ve used, there’s certainly a man tottering on the edge of a cliff feel to them. I’m a fan of books that have the internal thoughts running parallel to what’s actually being said.
Yes, totally! You’re spot on with the teetering-on-the-edge feeling. There’s a cumulative effect to the narrative, a sense of impending doom that builds throughout, especially as we get towards the end. I genuinely feared for the parents at a couple of points, so close was Frits to falling into the abyss…
Good one! I don’t know why I always feel drawn to the Dutch. It’s so interesting to think about the literature now in translation that those war years produced.
Yes, completely – and it’s a slightly different aspect of the war to those we often hear about. There’s one explicit reference to ‘deferred suffering from the war’, but other than that, it’s barely mentioned directly. There’s a notable hangover effect though, a pervasive sense of bleakness and austerity that permeates throughout…
As a reviewer said “unbearably fierce” seems to sum it up.
Wonderful review! Gallows humor and a protagonist who specializes in procrastination — this one is right up my alley particularly as I’m trying these days to read more lit in translation.
Cool! I’m glad you like the sound of it. An unusual book but very compelling once you fall into step with its rhythm.
Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal
Great review, Jacqui! I liked the sound of this so much, I immediately purchased a copy. The existential bent and the dark humour reminded me of another Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans – whose books Beyond Sleep and An Untouched House are definitely worth reading. The humour is not biting, but very black and absurd.
I wonder if there is something in the Dutch (or Norther European) culture that tends to cultivate this bleak, absurdist, existential brand of humour? I’ve seen it in the work of some filmmakers from Finland and Sweden, directors like Aki Kaurismaki and Roy Andersson, whose films often go down this route. I don’t know Hermans or the books you’ve mentioned in your comment, but I’ll take a look…
Not that I think it contains revolutionary elements, but there’s something about the cover that I find quite satisfying. And that comment about the tidy-up…well, yes. Indeed. What would likely win me, though, is the parallel view of his inner thoughts alongside the more omniscienty voice.
The dual perspective is inspired, a very effective touch, especially in a novel as savage as this. It makes me wonder what else Reve might have written in his lifetime, whether there might be other hidden treasures just waiting to be rediscovered.
Pingback: Winding Up the Week #172 – Book Jotter