'The Evenings' by Gerard Reve

A dark comedy masterpiece of modern literature

(Drawing of a young Gerard Reve by Jana Michel)

(Drawing of a young Gerard Reve by Jana Michel)

“An unhappy childhood is a writer’s gold mine”

Between 1944 and 1947, a young man in Amsterdam had several therapy sessions with a psychiatrist by the name of C.J. Schuurman. The young man suffered from neurotic behavior and he felt a strong desire to rise above the ‘materialism of his upbringing’. Both his parents were devoted communists and he despised their political beliefs. The young man’s psychological issues had gone from bad to worse, to a point where he had even tried to kill himself. He was very suspicious of psychiatrists and he felt an aversion to those who based their therapy on Freud, but he liked Dr. Schuurman. The reason for this was that Schuurman was a spiritual man who based his ideas more on Jung and Krishnamurti than on Freud. Schuurman saw the archetype of the homo religiosus, the religious man, in the young man. Schuurman advised him to write everything down, to put on paper all his thoughts and dreams, and to find salvation and meaning by doing so.

The young man followed the advice. He decided to write a story and he went about it in a very methodical way. Before he even started writing, he thought about every aspect of the writing process. The story would contain ten chapters, each chapter describing one day out of the last ten days of the year 1946, from 22 to 31 December, in the life of an office clerk in Amsterdam named Frits van Egters. He planned on writing about two-hundred pages, which he would then edit down to a hundred pages. He calculated it would take him about three months to finish the manuscript. As for the writing style, he decided to use the third-person narrative as used by Tolstoy. The young man’s name was Gerard Reve and the story he was about to write would become his first novel, titled: The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale.

Published in 1947, just before Reve’s 24th birthday, The Evenings quickly became a classic of Dutch literature and it launched the career of one of the greatest and most controversial writers of the Netherlands. The novel was both loved and hated by many. Some critics could not stand the cynicism and hopelessness of Reve’s writing and they wondered how anyone could enjoy such a dreadful novel, while others had high praise for Reve’s brilliant use of irony and his dark sense of humour.

The Evenings became a cult novel in the Netherlands, with a strong following of fans who enjoyed the droll humour of Reve’s language and liked to quote typical Frits van Egters phrases to each other. In The Evenings, Reve created his own unique style of ironic humour, which became known as ‘Revian Irony’.

Some critics used to say it would be impossible to translate Reve’s brilliant use of the Dutch language successfully into another language, but these critics have now been proven wrong. In 2016, The Evenings was finally translated into English by Sam Garrett and the English version of the novel was praised by critics around the world. Herman Koch described it as “every bit as much a classic as On The Road and The Catcher in the Rye”. Tim Parks, in his review for the Guardian, called it  “not only a masterpiece but a cornerstone manqué of modern European literature”, and in his review for The National, Malcolm Forbes wrote it was finally time “for a wider audience to discover its weird textures and dark delights”.

This is what Gerard Reve himself had to say about his controversial debut novel in 1948:

“I wrote The Evenings because I was convinced I had to write it: that seems to me a good enough reason. I hoped that ten of my friends would accept a free copy, and that twenty people would buy the book out of pity and ten others by mistake. Things turned out differently. It’s not my fault it caused such an uproar.”

From left to right: the first edition (under the name of Simon van het Reve), a picture of Reve around the time he wrote  The Evenings,  and the cover of the English edition.

From left to right: the first edition (under the name of Simon van het Reve), a picture of Reve around the time he wrote The Evenings, and the cover of the English edition.

Frits van Egters: a small-time neurotic

The novel begins with a classic opening line:

‘It was still dark, in the early morning hours of the twenty-second of December 1946, on the second floor of the house at Schilderskade 66 in our town, when the hero of this story, Frits van Egters, awoke.”

After this, Frits tries to remember the dream he just had. He remembers he dreamt his living room was full of visitors. At one point a man in a bowler hat walked in, who then dropped down on the floor. As Frits tries to remember more of the story, he falls asleep again and the dream continues. Now the man with the bowler hat lies in a coffin. When Frits looks into the coffin he notices it’s full of carpenter’s tools. When Frits leans over the coffin to turn on the radio, the dead man’s right hand begins to stir. Frits wakes up again, feeling anxious. He looks at his watch and falls asleep again. Now the visitors have returned, and they are moving the coffin to another room. Suddenly, the dead man’s right arm appears out of a crack in the coffin. The arm tries to strangle one of the coffin bearers. Frits wakes up again, sits up in his bed for five minutes, and begins his morning routine.

Dreams are a recurring theme in the story. In fact, there are no less than nine dreams in the novel. There are ten chapters and eight of them end with a dream, while the first chapter also begins with the disturbing dream I just discussed. Reve used his own dreams, as well as some dreams of his friends, as the inspiration for the dreams in The Evenings. He was clearly following the advice of his psychiatrist, Dr. Schuurman, to write down his dreams.

One could say there are four main spaces in the novel: the dream world, the house where Frits lives with his parents, the rooms of the friends he visits, and the city. The office where Frits works barely gets a mention. So does the job itself. When a friend asks Frits what his job is, he simply replies: “I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.”

There are other recurring themes, besides the dreams, in the novel. Loneliness and alienation are without a doubt the main themes, but there are many other interesting ones as well. Time seems to be a big one. Frits has a tendency to constantly look at his watch and ask himself how much time there is left before he can go to sleep again. Another one of his obsessions is to comment on the impending baldness and other signs of aging of his friends. Frits loves to shock his friends and family with inappropriate jokes, especially jokes concerning their fears. Nothing amuses Frits more than jokes involving torture, disease, and death. He occasionally disturbs his parents by talking about his own mental state as well. When his father comments on his son’s strange behaviour, Frits replies: “I am a small-time neurotic. It starts with small-time compulsions. And it ends with counting change or saying no.”

The novel has a dark, phobic and disturbing atmosphere, but there is a lot of humour as well, especially in the way Frits van Egters talks and teases his parents and friends. Never has boredom and alienation been described in a novel with more wit, than by Reve in The Evenings. Reve’s excellent use of irony and wit is what makes this novel so unique. There’s not much going on, story-wise. The whole novel seems to be about Frits sitting at home listening to the radio and being annoyed by his parents, Frits going to work, Frits visiting his friends, and Frits dreaming at night. It is the language of Frits, the way he loves to speak in a formal way to his friends, as if he’s a professor giving a lecture, while he’s discussing the most absurd and disturbing subjects, that makes The Evenings a dark comedy which is often hilarious.

The most fascinating aspects of the novel, seem to be the things that never get any mention at all. One would think that a story which is set in Amsterdam in 1946 would mention the war at least once. But no, the war is not discussed at all. By doing this, Reve actually captured the way many young men felt at the time. There was a feeling of hopelessness in postwar Holland, especially amongst young people, and the war was often too disturbing to talk about. Even though the war doesn’t get a mention in the novel, one has a feeling it must be on the minds of every character in it. Another thing which seems to be taboo in the novel is sex. Frits doesn’t have a love life and doesn’t seem interested in having one, which is strange for a young man. The most intimate relationship Frits seems to have is with the toy rabbit he keeps in his room. The avoidance of love and sex is especially interesting when one is familiar with Reve’s later novels, where he discusses his love life and homosexuality in great detail. Of course, when Reve wrote The Evenings he hadn’t ‘come out of the closet’ yet. Reve converted to Roman Catholicism in 1966, much to the shock and horror of the media and public, and he wrote about religion (in his own mystical and often shocking and hilarious way) a lot in his later novels as well. But in this novel, religion is not mentioned.

“It has not gone unnoticed”

So, what is Frits van Egters looking for, one tends to ask when reading this strange story. Frits seems to wander through life aimlessly, waiting for time to pass. His main concern seems to be to get through each day without completely losing his mind. But, there’s also a feeling that Frits is looking for greater things. He’s desperate to find meaning, salvation, and redemption. Frits is obsessed with looking at his watch because he knows time is slipping away and he’s not spending it wisely. Life seems meaningless and the mundane, unremarkable lifestyle of his parents annoys him more and more.

In the very end, on the very last evening of the year, it seems Frits finally finds his salvation and his purpose. When he goes to bed at the end of the story, he talks to the toy rabbit placed on his desk:

“Everything is finished, it has passed. The year is no more. Rabbit, I am alive. I breathe, and I move, so I live. Is that clear? Whatever ordeals are yet to come, I am alive. It has been seen, it has not gone unnoticed.”

Frits finally realizes that the mere act of being conscious and observant of the world around him is all the meaning and purpose he needs. This realization is very similar to the well-known statement ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ (‘I think, therefore I am’), by René Descartes. The fact that “it has been seen, it has not gone unnoticed” gives Frits the salvation he was looking for. And what is a writer, if not an observer? In these last sentences, Reve seems to embrace the fact that he is indeed an artist. He is a writer, who needs to observe everything around him. In the end, Reve’s psychiatrist, Dr. Schuurman, could not have given better advice to his patient, when he told him to write everything down and find salvation and meaning by doing so.

So, as we are getting close to the end of 2018, I advise you to go get a copy of The Evenings from your local bookshop or library. It has become a tradition for Reve fans to read his classic debut novel every year, starting on the 22nd of December. If you do this, you will have exactly one day, or one evening, to read each of the ten chapters. You can, of course, read the novel at any other time as well. I promise you, you will either love or hate it.