I only wish that I could stir it up, fan the fires

The Evenings: a Winter’s Tale
by Gerard Reve
translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett

After the emotional onslaught that was A Little Life, a comedy first published in the 1940s seemed like the perfect next read. But perhaps this was exactly the wrong choice at that moment, because I did not enjoy this.

Set in Amsterdam in the last few weeks of the year (presumably 1947, when it was written) this is the story of Frits van Egters, a young office worker living with his parents, trying to stave off the boredom of the long winter evenings. He is irritable and melancholic, prone to dark, violent thoughts and fantasies.

Frits has plenty of friends to call on the time of, which is perhaps surprising considering how rudely he speaks to them, verging on bullying at times. But he is also something of an entertainer, talking a lot, telling tall tales, passing on gossip and encouraging others to do the same. He drinks, smokes, listens to music, goes to the cinema, but is always dissatisfied.

“Sunday morning at eight thirty he awoke with a mouth as dry as cork…The inside of his head felt as though fluid were under pressure there: the tension extended all the way to the back of his neck. He was thirsty. ‘The best thing,’ he thought, ‘is to get up immediately, wash my face, brush my teeth and rinse my mouth thoroughly.’…Then he fell asleep again. A few minutes past nine thirty he awoke once more…He raised only his head, but had to let it fall back from the pain, which arose in his throat and behind his eyes…He remained supine, his eyes fixed on the wall, until eleven.”

Frits is at his most unpleasant when it comes to his parents. I did find some humour in the small things about them that irritate him, such as his father’s dubious table manners, but behind their backs he regularly wishes them dead, sometimes imagining lavish endings for them. He repeats some of these fantasies to his friends, who simply laugh them off or, tellingly, comment that they cannot be sure when he is joking.

Amazingly, Frits is not the most unpleasant person in the book. He has a friend who viciously ill treats dogs and cats, with passages I could not fathom anyone finding funny. Frits’ own unpleasantness is never physical, it is all psychological. He picks on his brother and several friends for showing signs of baldness, goading them with how little they can do to prevent the awful fate of losing their hair. He repeats stories of dead babies and small children to his sister-in-law and another young mother. He reminds everyone of embarrassing scenes from their past.

“They were sitting close to the stove, which Viktor poked up with a length of wire. ‘Yes, I’m listening,’ he said.

‘It gets on my nerves,’ said Frits. ‘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 good things come to those who wait.’

‘I see, I see,’ said Viktor, staring at the floor.

‘Affliction cometh forth,’ said Frits in a solemn tone… ‘one huge, demonic extravaganza. I only wish that I could stir it up, fan the fires. Lessons in disembowelment.’ ”

This book is apparently considered a classic in the Netherlands, and this is its first translation into English. It comes covered in superlative recommendations, raving about its humour and comparing it to other great works of the 20th century. I can’t deny I laughed a few times, even out loud, but for the most part I found Frits deeply annoying and was bored rather than entertained. His behaviour is sometimes disturbing, but for the most part his darkness is contained within his mind and he acts the part of reluctantly dutiful son and friend. Which is much less interesting than a more extreme version of this character.

Perhaps at another time, in different circumstances, I would find things to like in this book. At a sentence-level the writing is good. And I did finish it, which I wouldn’t usually when I find reading a slog. I suppose I was curious where it might go. But I can’t see myself giving it another chance in the future, not with so many other books out there to read.

De Avonden published 1948.
This translation published 2016 by Pushkin Press. Paperback edition published October 2017.

Source: A copy was kindly supplied by the publisher in return for an honest review.

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