Fiona Wil­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The Evenings By Ger­ard Reve Trans­lated by Sam Gar­rett Pushkin Press, 320pp, $29.99

Half­way through The Evenings is a scene that cap­tures the dark heart of the 1947 novel by Dutch au­thor Ger­ard Reve. Frits van Egters, the 23-year-old ni­hilist at the cen­tre of the story, meets his crim­i­nal friend Mau­rits, who is rather sub­dued.

“Come now,” Frits says to him, “surely we can find some­thing to cheer you up. How do you stand with re­gard to in­flict­ing burns with a lit cig­a­rette? That ap­peals to you, doesn’t it? Or is the blade more to your lik­ing?”

That works. “Yes,” Mau­rits says qui­etly. “I need to see a lit­tle blood on each wound.”

Read­ing The Evenings is a lit­tle like play­ing the knife game. It’s bloody, vi­o­lent and you have no idea where it’s go­ing to end.

This novel, trans­lated into English for the first time, has been de­scribed as a Dutch “cul­tural touch­stone” by Bri­tish pub­lisher Pushkin. Reve, who died in 2006 aged 82, is con­sid­ered one of The Nether­lands’ finest post­war nov­el­ists and this book is taught in schools there.

This was his first novel. It is seen as a dark, ex­is­ten­tial­ist mod­ern clas­sic wor­thy of com­par­i­son with Al­bert Ca­mus’s The Stranger (1942) and Jean Paul-Sartre’s Nau­sea (1938).

World War II is not men­tioned but its shadow is seen in the dis­il­lu­sion­ment, bore­dom and alien­ation of a gen­er­a­tion whose hopes and ideals have been shat­tered.

So why has it taken so long to be trans­lated? One reason might be its pe­cu­liar­ity.

De­scrib­ing The Evenings is a chal­lenge. It has lit­tle in the way of a plot. In­stead you are pro­pelled through a se­ries of strange and men­ac­ing en­coun­ters un­til you col­lide dizzy­ingly with the end of the tale.

The story is set over 10 days lead­ing up to a new year. We fol­low the dis­af­fected Frits as he drinks, sleeps and vis­its friends. He has a job, although we do not see him there. “I work in an of­fice,” he says. “I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.”

Frits is a char­ac­ter prone to ob­ses­sions, chief among them hair loss. “De­liver me from bald­ness ... It is a grue­some in­flic­tion,” he says as he ex­am­ines him­self in a mir­ror. And he notices the state of other men’s hair in­stantly. “I see bald­ness ap­proach­ing,” he says to a friend. “The ig­no­rant are easy prey for bald­ness.”

He is a man with “a sick soul”, or so he tells his con­fes­sor, a toy rab­bit. Each chap­ter ends with a de­scrip­tion of that night’s night­mare, where Frits is plagued by vi­sions of chil­dren with swollen heads, preda­tory crea­tures and dark cel­lars.

Although noth­ing much hap­pens, The Evenings is packed with the minu­tiae of life: de­scrip­tions of that night’s gravy; the way his fa­ther tears meat from the fat on his din­ner plate; the te­dium of sit­ting with his par­ents night after night. “Ten o’clock is the first mile­stone,” he thinks as he sips fruit juice — his mother be­lieves she has served him wine. “Then it’s on to eleven. Once we’re past that, the worst is over.”

Luck­ily, the minu­tiae are fas­ci­nat­ing. No sooner has Frits re­counted this do­mes­tic scene than he steps away from his par­ents (“I’m only wait­ing for them to hang them­selves or beat each other to death”), finds his toy rab­bit and pours out all his frus­tra­tion on him: For you I have a very spe­cial pun­ish­ment in store. You will be given twenty-three lashes. If you scream, ten more. Then I’ll stick a pin in your rear end and an­other one in the back of your neck ... Then I’ll twist your ears. I’ll wring them like wet laun­dry, un­til a bit of blood drips in them. Then I’ll make you dance on a glow­ing iron plate ... There is no es­cape.

The Evenings has been called “darkly funny” by its pub­lisher, which doesn’t give a sense of quite how Sty­gian it gets.

With Mau­rits, Frits swaps bad-taste jokes and fan­tasies about crimes to pass the time. Di­a­logue be­tween char­ac­ters ap­pears with­out line breaks and the ef­fect is dis­ori­en­tat­ing and claus­tro­pho­bic.

“I’d like to stran­gle lit­tle boys in the woods,” Mau­rits says. “Sim­ple as that.” “That’s too in­sipid ... and not particularly orig­i­nal. And per­verse to boot,” Frits tells him. Steady on.

Reve liked to pro­voke. The un­ortho­dox, gay Catholic wasn’t afraid of com­bin­ing eroti­cism and re­li­gion in his writ­ing. There’s a sense of that in The Evenings. Two decades later, in 1966, he was pros­e­cuted for blas­phemy when in his novel Nader tot U the nar­ra­tor has sex with God in­car­nated as a don­key.

What does it all mean? At one point in The Evenings Frits hears a pi­anist play a song called Give Me Five More Min­utes. He re­calls lyrics: “Every man has his story, but it is sel­dom an im­por­tant one.”

By the time you reach the end of this novel, in which very lit­tle hap­pens yet very much is told, you can’t help but feel a lit­tle lost.

Per­haps Frits is meant to be a sym­bol for a dis­af­fected gen­er­a­tion, per­haps he’s not. Reve isn’t the kind of nov­el­ist to give you a straight­for­ward an­swer, but the jour­ney is quite a ride.

Ger­ard Reve, one of The Nether­lands’ finest post­war nov­el­ists, in 1963

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