This is the first English translation, published in January 2017, of the famous Dutch novel. It is a novel about boredom – tedium – monotony – ennui. You’d think that with such a subject the book would be, well, boring. It isn’t. Remember the TV series Seinfeld? Pretty much nothing happened in each episode, yet, it was entertaining. Seinfeld is often described as being “a show about nothing”, since many of the episodes written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are about the minutiae, the small humdrum matters, of daily life. It’s same in this book. As author Tom McCarthy explains in an article about his favourite books in which nothing happens, the lack of an exciting plot, “creates the perfect blind spot in which a hundred events can take place, and everything can be said.”
How to say the author’s name
(Pronounced, more or less, Géérart Réhfuh – with a hard G and a hard R)
Boredom that is not boring
In fact, Seinfeld was not about nothing at all. The type of domestic, finely detailed and intensely personal plots were forensic analyses of the characters’ lives. Not going big and dramatic ensured that every incident in their lives were magnified and amplified to be visible and important. As Jerry Seinfeld himself explained in an interview for The Hollywood Reporter in 2016:
Seinfeld dismisses as “nonsense” the notion that it was “a show about nothing” — “That was made up by the press” after Jerry, the show-within-the-show, was described as that. Instead, he says the program was a snapshot of what it was like to be a New York comic in the years before the turn of the century, and he feels it was good because it was “tight,” emulating the “crispness and precision” of The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-57) and always adhering to a simple self-imposed rule: “No hugging. No learning.” What this meant was that the show was to avoid, at all costs, the sentiment or moralizing that was then common on other sitcoms. “Our thing was, ‘We’re either setting up or paying off,'” he says. “Nobody wants to learn from a comedy. Learn somewhere else. How arrogant to presume that you could teach in addition to entertaining.”
These kinds of novels in the “less is more” style can fail because often less is just simply less. In most cases, the less is more novel is intended to make the reader:
- Focus on what IS there
- Wait for something to happen – create expectation
- “Fill the void” with their own imaginations
- Have wide-ranging interpretations of the meaning
It takes skill for a writer to do this, to write tightly, economically, not deviate from the intention and to “kill your darlings”. Killing your darlings means, like Seinfeld explains, that a writer will not indulge in hugging and self-congratulation or delight in using his or her pet phrases and styles. The minimalism has to be rigorous, directed and consistent in order for it to work.
Why did Gerard Reve write this novel in the first place?
“I wrote The Evenings because I was convinced I had to write it: that seems to me a good enough reason. I hoped that ten of my friends would accept a free copy, and that twenty people would buy the book out of pity and ten others by mistake. Things turned out differently. It’s not my fault it caused such an uproar.” (Gerard Reve, 1948)
It was Reve’s first novel – it’s quite right that he couldn’t have predicted the outcome. So whether he intended to produce a minimalist masterpiece is an open question.
All quiet on the surface, legs pedalling frantically below
The Evenings describes ten evenings in the life of the 23-year-old “Frits van Egters” which take place between 22 and 31 December 1946. Frits has a range of odd friends, sad old parents, and an apparently very dull job as a clerk. He and his friends philosophize, they go to movies, they walk around. So much for the plot.
Underneath all that some seriously strange stuff is going on. Frits is severely stressed. His dreams get more vivid than his actual life or his surroundings, which are uniformly post-war drab, grey, uneventful, and poverty-stricken. He tells absurd anecdotes to his friends, uses long formal words and speaks in a half-joking, half-pontificating style, and acts in a kind of hail-fellow-well-met manner, like a Dutch “Hooray Henry” even though he has no money. He is obsessed with baldness. To his parents he talks about what they are going to eat, and where the key to the coal store is, and what the weather is like, and what’s on the radio. Or, how to smoke a cigarette correctly. He rants at his parents in his head, he prays they will not do what they habitually do (slurp, burp, sniff, repeat themselves, chew loudly…), and he prays a lot. (Religion is a frequent theme in Reve’s novels.) He gnaws on his fingers, he picks at himself, he bites himself, and he talks to his stuffed toy rabbit and threatens to kill it.
“He looked at the windows, the ceiling, the doors and the seat of his chair, then stuck his thumb in his mouth.” (p.50).
“It was ten o’clock. He unbuttoned his shirt, slid his hand under his singlet and ran his fingers across his chest. pulling up both shirt and singlet, he looked at his belly, a crease in which was formed by his seated position, and poked the little finger of his right hand into the navel. He sniffed at the finger and wiped it on his handkerchief.” (p.101)
Every afternoon he fears the coming evening – how on earth will he pass the time? How long can he get out of the small apartment – if he walks slower, takes another route, can he avoid getting home early? It is a terrible downer to be inside Frits’s head.
Frits is a man-child – he still lives with his parents (perhaps because of the post-war austerity conditions) has some icky habits, and he is vindictive. But so are his friends and acquaintances, a collection of horrid Dutch archetypes, like World War Two Van Kooten en De Bie characters.
“The dog accompanied the two of them down the stairs, but halfway there Walter grabbed the animal by the scruff of the neck, placed his shoe on the tip of its tail and stepped on it hard. The dog gave a yelp, which turned into a long howl.” (p.99)
When his parents argue, he is like a child who thinks if he cannot hear someone, they cannot hear him.
“’I hear nothing,’ he said, closing his eyes. ‘I hear nothing. Nothing is what I hear.’ He closed the door and brushed his teeth hastily. When the voices grew louder, he chanted to himself. ‘Boom, boom, boom, boom!’ he sang, his head filled with a heavy buzzing. (p. 101)
At the office, one is not sure whether he actually does any work.
“He bit a corner off a piece of stationery, chewed on it and spit the wad onto the floor. ‘Now think,’ he mumbled, ‘what was it I was going to do tonight?’” (p.133)
Reve managed to make something gripping of Frits’s uneventful life as the Dutch “Everyman”. It is as though he has penned a portrait of the embodiment of the Dutch in the post-WWII years, filled with relentlessly upbeat, social and cheerful interactions in public, and dreadful, maddening, quiet desperation inside themselves and at home. That is still a Dutch characteristic – always “gezellig” (cosy and sociable) regardless of how you actually feel. All the characters are like that; his crazy friend who is a semi-criminal, his brother, his friends from school. It’s 317 pages of this, and not one single page was boring.
In the end Frits survives Christmas and New Year, and he says, simply, “I am alive, I breathe, and I move, so I live. Is that clear? Whatever ordeals to come, I am alive.” (p.317).
The ordeals may be his personal life, or the dramas of his friends’ lives, or his hated and pitied parents, or another war. Who knows? Perhaps, for someone who has survived the Nazi occupation of his country, just being able to live is enough, nightmares notwithstanding.
By the time I finished the novel, I was amazed that the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch at my alma mater, Stellenbosch University, in South Africa, could have put this novel on the list of prescribed reading. How could any student at that age have had any comprehension at all for Frits’s fate or any appreciation of a novel written in this style?
Amazingly, they made a movie of the novel in 1986. With so much internal dialogue, I suppose the only reason they even thought of it was because Reve is a giant of Dutch literature and this novel is one of its modern classics.
A note about the translation
One of the features of Dutch is that it uses diminutive forms of words, as a way of expressing intimacy or familiarity – or superiority. The suffixes -je, -tje and -pje is added to just about every noun and some adverbs. So, a grown woman could affectionate be called “meisje” (girl), and mild weather could be called weertje, and a guy, kerel, could be a kereltje. This would have been one of the difficulties of translating the book, since English simply does not have this. For instance, in Dutch one passage reads:
“‘Wel Fritsje,’ vroeg hij glimlachend, ‘hoe gaat het? Een sigaret? Een sigaartje? Altijd, niet? Hij hield hem een doosje kleine sigaartjes voor.” (p.53 in the 1981 paperback edition).
Garrett translated this as:
“‘Well, my good Frits,’ he asked with a smile, ‘how are things? A cigarette? A cigar? Always up for that, right?’ He proffered a box of thin cigars.” (p. 74, 2017 edition)
The Dutch phrase showed a few of the variations of the use of the diminutive – condescension/affection (Fritsje), modesty (sigaartje), and literal smallness (doosje). Garrett chose to translate it without the diminutives – and in any case, I think it is idiomatically impossible to do. I think Garrett did about as good as job as one could.
About the author
Gerard Kornelis van het Reve (born 14 December 1923) started writing as Simon van het Reve and adopted the shorter Gerard Reve in 1973. Together with Willem Frederik Hermans and Harry Mulisch, he is considered one of the “Great Three” of Dutch post-war literature. Reve was one of the first homosexual authors to come out in the Netherlands. Reve himself declared that the primary message in all of his work was salvation from the material world we live in. Reve’s life was filled with controversy. Along with the themes of religion, love and homosexuality, his novels also have the theme of intense hatred of communism and liberal communist leanings. He often wrote ironically or humorously about these topics, and people were not always sure what his beliefs actually were. In 2001, he was awarded the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the most prestigious prize for Dutch-language authors, but King Albert II of Belgium refused to present it to him and the money was awarded by bank transfer and the certificate delivered. During the last years of his life, he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and he died of it, in Zulte, Belgium, on 8 April 2006 at the age of 82. Three of his 32 novels and collected letters can be read in English; The Acrobat (written in English, 1956); Parents Worry (translated from Bezorgde Ouders, 1990), and now, The Evenings (De Avonden, 1947).
From the archives…
Reve was inclined to contentious points of view, and understandably, due to his personal circumstances, he hated the Dutch government. This is a newspaper clipping, dating from June 1984 when Reve visited South Africa to see Apartheid for himself when he was 60. He caused an uproar when he said that Apartheid was based on Christian ethics, not politics. He got the idea sort of right, but not the reasons. The majority Dutch Reformed Church/Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk (NGK) in the country had found Biblical justification for Apartheid. This continued for decades, with all its implications, until the NGK Synod of 1986, after which church members, and later the Synod itself, in 1989, declared Apartheid to be a sin rather than the will of God.