JANUARY 31, 2017
TRUE TO HIS NAME, Gerard Reve fills his 1947 debut novel The Evenings with a series of dreams, nightmares, and daydreams — fantasies that have as much to do with the Nazi occupation of his native Holland as with his young narrator’s anxieties about life in the postwar years. Given the historical circumstances and what we know of Reve’s temperament, it’s no wonder that these dreams are accompanied by a certain cynicism, a pervasive discontent that, at least at first glance, could be said to border on the nihilistic.
Published when the author was 24 years old — and only now, after all these years, rendered into English by Sam Garrett — The Evenings kick-started a 50-year literary career. Reve’s works include novels as well as books that blur the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Relatively unknown outside Holland, at home Reve is regarded as a key figure of post–World War II literature. But he was anything but an establishment figure. He was an out gay man who wrote openly and humorously about homosexual sex and the relationship between eroticism and religion and took every opportunity to épater la bourgeoisie et la bohème alike — appearing, for example, at a Dutch literary festival, wearing both a swastika and hammer and sickle around his neck, to read a poem many considered overtly racist. Born into a leftwing, atheist family, Reve ended up a Catholic convert and fervent anticommunist. But this did not secure him the favor of the authorities and the conservative forces in his home country, who prosecuted him for obscenity and blasphemy after he depicted one of his narrators making love to God (incarnated as a donkey).
But all that would come decades after the publication of The Evenings, a novel as funny as it is painful, about which Reve comments in the short preface, “I hoped that 10 of my friends would accept a free copy and that 20 people would buy the book out of pity and 10 others by mistake. Things turned out differently. It’s not my fault it caused such an uproar.” That uproar has given way to something more lasting: The Evenings has become a national treasure, taught in schools and lauded by punters and critics alike.
The Evenings’s narrator is Frits, a man in his early 20s who lives with his parents — a gauche, half-deaf father and a naïve and clumsy mother — both of whom he ignores and provokes in equal measure. Though he finds them repulsive and a social impediment — “I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death” — he also finds a place in his shrunken filial heart to love them, at least when overtaken by drunken sentimentality. When he’s had a few, he showers his parents with mawkish clichés and platitudes. Still, on most evenings, Frits’s claustrophobic home life is simply too much for him to bear. He consoles himself, hilariously, by verbally abusing a toy bunny, and finds any excuse to visit his small circle of friends, or simply to walk the streets, playing the role of flâneur. No matter where he is or whom he’s visiting, Frits’s evenings never fail to grow longer and longer and longer.
His Bartleby-like day job, on the other hand, barely figures in the novel. Of his weekday employment he merely says, “I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.” We gather that the days are nearly intolerable, but those evenings, when he seeks to pull the fragments of himself back together, can also drive him crazy. The problem is Frits himself. For one, he simply has to direct, even dominate, every conversation, unsettling his friends with dubious medical and social advice, particularly when it comes to incipient baldness (“The ignorant are easy prey for baldness”) and the need to rid society of anyone over 60 years of age. Allaying his own fears by stoking the fears of others, Frits is so adamant in his plainly ridiculous assertions that his friends never know how seriously they should take him. Yet they allow him to drone on, humoring him while growing increasingly anxious. All the while Frits maintains an internal dialogue with himself, covering a vast range of topics. The weather proves to be a subject worthy of the most careful examination:
“Is it raining, or isn’t it?” he said to himself. “There is a situation in which it is raining and one in which it is dry. Between the two there is nothing. Still, minutes go by when you don’t know, when you hold out your hand and are not sure. In the face of uncertainty let us say: it is still raining, but imperceptibly so. Yes, that is a good way to put it.”
Some of Frits’s friends join in with their own accounts of grotesque medical conditions and, in some cases, acts of violence. Notably, the only person to take him completely at face value is Maurits, a thief and potential murderer of young boys. Here things turn dark indeed. “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 seems to illicit the required response: “Yes,” Maurits says quietly. “I need to see a little blood on each wound.” They proceed to swap fantasies about Maurits’s criminal activity. “I’d like to strangle little boys in the woods,” Maurits says. “Simple as that.” But Frits’s final word — which, of course, he must have — is as dismissive as it is patronizing: “That’s too insipid … and not particularly original. And perverse to boot.”
Though the war is clearly the backdrop to this novel, it’s hardly spoken about. There’s no mention of the Nazi occupation or, for that matter, the 1944 “Hunger Winter,” when 18,000 died of starvation. The farthest Frits goes in addressing the national trauma is to mention the inconvenience of retaking a school exam and to crack a joke about the “German police” when knocking on a friend’s door. Nevertheless, the war casts a shadow over all of Frits’s evenings. Its legacy is apparent in the austere living conditions of his friends and family, as well as in the disillusionment, boredom, and alienation that color the attitudes of nearly every character. It could even be that the war’s absence makes it all the more present. It’s impossible, for instance, not to feel its aftershocks in the nightmares that end most chapters, with their images of children with swollen heads, predatory creatures, and dark cellars.
Taking place in the last 10 days of 1946 and the first hours of 1947, The Evenings is not only an emotional graph of the narrator but also an exploration of in-between states — the intervals that separate adolescence from adulthood, war from peace, past from present, and perception from reality. These are the interregnums where, as Gramsci might say, morbid symptoms invariably appear. Frits himself is always morbidly stuck. He even finds himself torn between listening and not listening to music on the radio. All the same, one eventually realizes that Frits’s true nature is on the schmaltzy side of the dial. He spends New Year’s Eve in the company of his parents, sharing a bottle of berry-apple cordial. Looking at his parents through slightly inebriated eyes, Frits sees them as fragile products of a seemingly indifferent God, and he begs Him for sympathy: “See them in their need. Do not turn Your eyes from them.” It is an endearing moment, which belies his self-projection as a radical nihilist.
Reading The Evenings I had a daydream myself. I imagined that, sometime in the mid-1960s, François Truffaut had secretly adapted the novel for the screen, casting his favorite actor, Jean-Pierre Léaud, in the role of Frits. I could hear the young actor declaiming, in true romantic fashion, the protagonist’s various frustrations. And it was easy to foresee the person espousing these thoughts eventually turning into an upstanding — if ill-at-ease — member of society. Indeed, The Evenings comes across as softer, funnier, more humane, and more conservative than other masterpieces of postwar European writing. Reve is not exactly Camus, Céline, Beckett, Pavese, or even Henry Green. In his harmless abuse of the toy bunny, in his small pleasures, and in his drunken prayers for his parents, Frits emerges as something other than the nihilistic misanthrope he claims to be. At heart, he’s a frustrated sentimentalist — closer to Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar than to Camus’s Meursault. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said for the manner in which Reve’s novel both reflects and undermines the morbid symptoms of postwar European life and literature. By representing the quotidian alongside the nightmarish, The Evenings earns its status as a little masterpiece — a provocative reminder that life goes on even in the bleakest of circumstances.
Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood; and of the novel Cry For a Nickel, Die For a Dime.