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.
I now own a small collection of books written by or about Anne Frank.
Yes, that’s two copies of The Diary of a Young Girl. The big hardback was a new translation from 1995 and this is the copy I read when I was 18 (I think I had previously borrowed the earlier translation from the library when I was 13 or so). It deeply affected me, as I think it affects everyone who reads it, so the one thing I was sure of when we planned our holiday to Amsterdam was that I was going to Anne Frank House and I was going to stand in the Secret Annexe.
The second of these books that came into my possession is The Last Seven Months of Anne Frank, which my dear friend H bought for me at (where else?) Anne Frank House when she holidayed there last year. Because she knows me well, she knew I’d already own the diary.
But that didn’t stop me from wanting the newer version of the diary, released in 2001, with previously unpublished material. And of course when I saw that they have now separately published Anne Frank’s short stories in the collection Tales From the Secret Annexe I had to buy that.
It was a really strange experience going to that museum at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam. You walk into a modern building added to the side of Otto Frank’s business premises, and are fed through some background info before the warehouse, then the offices, then the secret annexe, then back down to further info about the terrible fates of the annexe occupants and finally the diary itself.
Despite being crowded and hustled through it all, despite the historical rooms being empty but for photos and other documents on the walls, I found it profoundly moving. For one thing, though I had read about the exact dimensions of the annexe, it was still shocking to experience its smallness for myself. It was strange seeing the pencil marks still on the wall recording the heights of Anne and her sister Margot. And that bookcase-covered secret door, which I’d read about and even seen photos of, but to see the original was the oddest thing.
But most of all, it was the pictures still on the wall in what had been Anne’s bedroom – postcards and magazine pages showing historical figures, famous paintings, film stars, the English royal family. Most of her pictures had been removed but there are still a few dozen there, preserved behind perspex. And though it’s been years since I last read the diary, I could remember Anne writing about those pictures on her wall and how much they meant to her.
So in the next few months, with that experience fresh in my mind, I’m going to read my three new books by or about Anne Frank. It will have its depressing moments but I remember the great thing about the diary being that it’s not (for the most part) a depressing read of itself. The sadness comes when you turn the page from her last written words and read the publisher’s note about her tragic death. It’s powerful, even when you know the facts already.
So you already know that I love love loved Amsterdam and had a great time there, but what did I do that was so great? Here are some photos and notes to elaborate.
We walked around soaking in the beauty, by which I mean the friendliness, the architecture and canals, the attitude, the love for design and all those bikes! (I overheard an American tourist claiming that he’d seen loads of parked bikes but hardly anyone cycling. He had clearly not ventured beyond the central street because pretty much everywhere else in the city was solid with cyclists, even when it was raining.)
We ate tasty food, both typically Dutch and international fare, including my first ever oysters. (Conclusion: I like them but don’t love them, though I did feel classy tipping that shell!)
Also, Tim surprised me at the start of the holiday with tickets to see Cirque du Soleil, which is something I have always wanted to do and it totally lived up to expectations. There were bendy ladies! And terrifying stunts! And fancy clever acrobatics! In a tent in a car park! They rock and so does Tim.
Back to that love for design, there is clearly a real respect in Amsterdam for design in all quarters and this means there are lots of shops selling the most gorgeous stuff. I mean, I’m not much of a shopper and I would never go somewhere on holiday just for the shops but this was a rare case where they added something for me.
But mostly, let’s face it, it was all about the canals and bicycles, the near lack of cars in the older areas, and the chilled atmosphere.
I have neglected the blog this month and my excuses are slim. But in my defence this past week I was having too much fun in the land of canals and bicycles. From our first hour in Amsterdam, the city had won my heart (it helps that we arrived in glorious sunshine, which was sadly not continually present for our whole trip). It has a great atmosphere, good food, very few cars and, in the parts we saw at least, feels very well looked after.
I’ve barely started the process of going through my photos so more will follow, but for now I will leave you with this note I made during our first afternoon in the city.
Amsterdam: guy clutching an Orhan Pamuk paperback while cycling ahead of a Spliff smoking accessories van.