Book Review: THE EVENINGS, by Gerard Reve

Posted: June 23, 2017 in Chat
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THE EVENINGS, by Gerard Reve, 1947.
Published by the excellent Pushkin Press, in its first English translation, by Sam Garrett, 2016

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I am currently reading The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (Gerard Kornelius van het Reve, 1923 to 2006).

This is an early, outsider-novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’  (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written….’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem.
The novel is set in 1946, presumably in Amsterdam. There is no TV, no record player or records; there is  a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
Of course no internet, iphones….
And everyone is bored out their heads.

Note that, ye critics of today’s youth.

And so the chief character, 26 year old Frits van Egters, entertains himself by needling everybody. This ‘entertainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I had the distinct impressions of Billy Liar, by Alan Sillitoe, but no.

And so I am struggling with it; struggling to keep up the interest.
Because…. ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’.
Exactly.
The date, see: 1946.
The best minds of the generation before were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, the transports. The best engineers, mechanics, workers, had been trucked off for the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, physically malnourished, spiritually dead.

And Frit’s generation were beginning to stir, wake, shake themselves, look around. And what did they see?
‘He looked at her’ (his mother), ‘:  the thin face, the grey hair, the slight growth of hair around the mouth and chin, the arms that never stopped moving. “Help us,” he thought.

 – Is it me, or is it always the woman is the easy target? That she must maintain a static, constant, role, appearance, demeanor, for the narrator/character.
Woman as a distant, uncomprehended being; woman as an inhabitant of the same world, also – but surely she cannot feel what we chaps feel, how we feel. She goes on doing that house stuff as though nothing else mattered, or had happened.
Only, Frits wakes one night, to sounds in his parent’s room. He entered, to find his mother shaking and sobbing. His father, isolated in his own wrecked existence, excuses it as one her nervous attacks.
There is an unwritten novel in that, certainly. In her side of the story.

Frits looked around his world, and saw people holding onto the known and trusted traditions, but they now seemed little more than threadbare habits:
‘”Who’d like a pickled herring?…”, “”No, please, no.” But he does.
‘“… there’s a real Middenweg wind blowing…” , “…Please don’t use terms unfamiliar to the uninitiated.”

The book starts off well, with a sly, dry, ironic humour as Frits woke early one Sunday morning. Early: good, despite the bad dreams, but time to make something of the day. Then we see him every few minutes clock-checking, and the opportunities flounder, die, as the day wears on.

The story is set in late December. Even the Winter was a disappointment: the ice on the canal melted early; there was no real snow; plenty of drizzle, yes, but nothing with any energy or excitement to it.
The intention was there, but it is as though the life had been drained out of people, the world, even; the spark to ignite a creative fire, dampened.

‘“Tom ta tom tom, tom ta tom,” Frits sang to himself, “nothing ‘s good, but everything’s fine.”
– There’s definitely a modernist technique at work here. There is certainly an echo of Doblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in the use of vernacular, in the internal monologues, thesinging.

*

The novel is structured on ten evenings, of increasing frustration with a fruitless life, and world. Each chapter charts the route taken by the tacking and manouvering of a clumsy, mostly empty, boat.

No, the novel is a not a ‘Ulysses’; it may share some of the self-absorption of Joyce’s classic, but the scale and scaffolding are pointedly small-scale.
After the previous period’s vacuous claims to new world orders, new worlds, great futures, this is a pointedly and purposely humdrum conception of humanity.
When you build, you must build from proper materials: people as they are – and not cloud cities, a reich, built from vacuous guff shored up with people’s real blood, guts, lives.

We see Frits attend the school re-union; his peers were trying to adopt the old role of getting on, making something of themselves. Frits, perversely, does not.  It is not as definite as that, or as a much a stance. His life has no heroic gestures, statements, no focussed disavowal of old values. No, he rumbles on in a diffuse scepticism.

And it is here where the book’s strength lies.
It does not succumb to cliche, or stereotype. Frits is disagreeable, but not hateful. The story charts  the hinterland that is his life: he does not veer far from the main path, and certainly not off into the dubious byways, side roads, the district beyond the tracks.

The immediately pre-War writers grouped under the banner of Forum, were preoccupied with the relationship of man to society. The War changed all that; the War brought the Nazi regime’s Kultuurkamer and its prescription of everything other than National Socialist writing.
Reve’s book was the first one of impact to be published in that aftermath.

Reinder P Meijer, in his’ Literature of the Low Countries’ (Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd, 1978) writes, ‘The dreariness of the subject matter recalls the work of the nineteenth-century naturalists, of whom Van de Reve may be regarded as a descendant.’
The directness of Gerard Reve’s depiction, though, is the main factor: ‘Van het Reve offers no explanations, no comments, no psychological key.’ (: Reinder P Meijer).
Gerard Reve also employs ornate speech – the interactions between Frits and older brother Joop, and associates, reads – as his response to the use of vernacular, above, shows – as an arch, ornate, edging-towards-parody of earlier high-flown literary styles.

It is not Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the book shares kinship with, but perhaps Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’. They both explore the ennui. Sartre’s book has the definite stance, raison, backstory even, in the opus of Being and Nothingness. Reve eschews those grand gestures, definitions, concepts, in favour of the individual vision.
Where Sartre argues for the individualistic response, Reve gives it.

*

Gerard Reve hit the headlines again with his 1970’s quartet of books ‘Dear Boys,’ ‘Sweet Life,’ ‘I Loved Him,’ and ‘A Circus Boy,’ where he explores gay sex, with a brutal edge. It is the style, also, that grabbed attention. The books are written with a blend of fact and fiction, in the form of written letters, and fantasy, but not the standard epistolary format.  Reinders P Meije again: the books stand out because of their ‘firm structure and … skillful way(s) of preserving a precarious balance between reality and the fairy-tale elements… introduced in his later novels…’.

But I’m still stuck.

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