Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Evenings: A Winter's Tale, by Gerard Reve

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A long neglected classic is translated into English for the first time.

The Evenings (1948) was Dutch novelist Gerard Reve's first novel, published when the writer was a mere 24 years of age. Don't let the writer's youth fool you though: The Evenings is an extraordinarily accomplished and assured debut. Published in English by Pushkin Press for the first time (translated by Sam Garrett), Reve's fist novel reads like a timeless existential classic. Think Jean Paul Sarte's Nausea, Knut Hamsun's Hunger and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Frits van Egters is a 23-year-old office employee, where he performs unremarkable filing work. During the evenings he visits friends, family and acquaintances in a seemingly endless round of meetings, outings and casual contacts. He goes out to cinemas, cafes, friends' houses or simply walks the streets, running into all sorts of characters. Each chapter, which describes the events of a 24 hour period, ends with Fritz nodding off innocently to sleep, only to be assailed by hideous nightmares. 

The novel doesn't follow a plot, but rather covers the ten days leading up to new year's eve. There are comic scenes in the family's little flat as they celebrate the new year: Frits's mother has been duped into buying a bottle of apple and berry juice, thinking it is wine. This somewhat puts a dampener on the family's new year celebration, but life goes on, even if the "wine" does taste sour.

The genius of The Evenings is to mix a naturalistic style, describing the minutiae of daily life -  the incessantly trivial conversations, the drab daily meals, the radio reports, the detailed discussions of the weather - with a main character that is dancing along the borderline of insanity. Frits is self-deprecating, neurotic, intellectually playful, precocious, theatrical, self-dramatising, mercurial and obsessive-compulsive. But in a funny way. He's clearly full of neuroses and anxieties (a constant worry throughout the book is baldness: how to avoid it, how to detect its symptoms), yet his self-mocking  refusal to take himself seriously is charming and endearing. Frits is so real on the page, he encapsulates so many of our daily preoccupations and jitters, that you long to be his friend. Not only that. The descriptions of 1940s Amsterdam - its people, cafes and street life - make the story a deliciously immersive experience, proving books are the closest things we have to time machines.

Warm, intimate, uncannily cathartic, yet also psychologically complex and nuanced, The Evenings is a novel that brings endless pleasures, giving the reader joy and release.

The Evening: A Winter's Tale, by Gerard Reve. Published by Pushkin Press. ISBN: 9781782271789 RRP: $29.99

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