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