Fear and Loathing in Post-war Amsterdam

A bleakly funny book and a classic of Dutch literature, The Evenings tells the tale of a young man dealing with boredom and self-loathing during the last days of 1946.

I’ve never read a book about ennui and existential despair that was quite so funny, albeit in a brutal, cold way.

The Evenings by Gerard Reve is considered a classic of Dutch literature but was only recently translated into English by Sam Garrett in this handsome 2017 edition by Pushkin Press. The novel was the author’s debut, and he quickly earned a reputation as “complicated and controversial”, as stated in the publicity materials that came with the book. From what a newcomer to Reve’s work can gather, this was primarily due to the way he fused sex and religion in his later work. Although he was born into a communist family, he rejected communism and embraced an unorthodox form of Catholicism, with one of his key works depicting a character having sex with God, who appears in the form of a donkey. He is known as being the first openly gay author in the Netherlands and is considered one of the foremost post-war writers in the country.

The Evenings tells the story of 23-year-old Frits van Egters, who spends his days in a dead-end job: “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.” Comprising ten days at the end of December in 1946, we follow the narrative as Frits endures the tedious monotony of day-to-day life with his petit bourgeois parents. The atmosphere at home is stifling. Frits wakes up every morning determined not to waste his time, then endures his workday schedule with a determination to enjoy the evenings, only to spend those evenings counting the minutes until he can leave his house after dinner to walk the chilly, snow-lined streets of Amsterdam in search of some other form of entertainment.

Inevitably, this search leads him to his brother’s house, or the house of one of his friends, where Frits counts the minutes before he can safely leave again, whereupon he falls into the dread of having to go home and possibly exchange a few agonised, awkward, tedious words with his parents again before he can safely get to bed. Except the bed isn’t safe either; Frits endures macabre, surreal dreams every night and often wakes up in tears or in fear. And so the rest of the night goes, until Frits rises again the next morning.

One might expect that a book of an ordinary life of boredom would be boring, and for a certain reader it might be. But this is no ordinary character, and Reve’s narrative voice is shot through with pungent acerbic humour and irony. I’ve never read a book about ennui and existential despair that was quite so funny, albeit in a brutal, cold way. That humour can be shocking, at times, because it reveals to the reader just how sardonic and brutal their own sensibilities could be. Frits is often unkind in his most private thoughts and even in his public speech, but because he constantly second-guesses and rebukes himself, he can’t help but be both relatable and pitiful.

“She answers me, because one must reply to even the stupidest of remarks,” Frits thinks about a young child who politely acknowledges some banal remark or other that Frits has made about the children’s attempt to test the ice on a frozen canal. Such are the norms that regulate bourgeois behaviour; it’s a farce at the best of times, and yet people persevere with the charade because social relations will fall apart otherwise.

A conversation with a friend named Viktor demonstrates Frits’ frustration at his living situation and postponed life while also capturing some essence of the absurdity and the humour that propels the narrative of the entire book:

“How is it going?” the young man asked, how are things at home?”

“Very bad,” Frits said in a cheerful tone, “very bad, Viktor. Let us call a spade a spade. Let us, when something is bad, say: bad.”

“I see,” said Viktor. “In a word: bad. And how are your parents?” “A very shrewd question,” Frits replied. “Rather like asking, when there’s a thunderstorm: what’s the weather like at the moment? No, no, that’s a lame comparison. In any case, miserable.”

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 things come to those who wait.”

This also demonstrates Reve’s idiosyncratic style in which dialogue is not clearly differentiated between the speaking characters, so much so that sometimes one has to reread to follow the conversation and determine who is speaking. Although Frits often tells inappropriate, morbid jokes that involve laughing over the death of babies or his fantasies of doing away with people over the age of 60, many of Frits male friends are either silent or keen to join in. The macabre sensibility seems to be a part of the Dutch male psyche.

Frits is not too impressed with women, as a whole: “I feel miserable today. But let us pause and look around. Some people are punished severely from the very start: they are born as women.” Love or hate Frits, and whether or not, as a woman, one finds this pronouncements disturbing, it’s impossible not to see the bleak humour of the truth in that statement. It all depends on what one means when one says it, and in Frits case, detached and ironic as he is, it’s hard to tell. And so he rarely interacts with women with the exception of his mother (“You read like a woman,” he tells her when he observes her reading the paper, “you don’t move your eyes, you sway your head back and forth.”) but the various wives and sisters and the one female friend often react to Frits and his male friends’ jokes with distaste. But yet Frits and friends push on; Frits, especially, by his need to fill up the silence. “If no one else says anything,” Frits thinks at one point, “I have no choice but to keep talking.”

Reve is not interested in delving into Frits’ psychological state by way of providing a backstory or even any story. There’s nothing here in terms of character development as one might find in a realist novel. But we do get a sense of a constant atmosphere of fear and unease from Frits’ recurring dreams, filled with sinking canoes, coffins on boats, toddlers doing headstands on windowsills, and most telling of all, “the intact body of a young, very slender man in green uniform”, the head “a skull, with earth and a dripping, slimy substance in the open cavity that was its mouth”. At one point, while visiting a friend, he thinks of playing a terrible joke while waiting for them to answer the bell: “How about if I shout something cute. German police!”

The spectre of mass slaughter on an industrial scale — the second world war — hangs over this book, but it is never once referenced directly. The general estrangement brought about in society is reflected in the careful ways in which Frits’ parents only want to talk about the most mundane things, and in the way Frits and his friends try to one-up each other by telling jokes about dead babies and deformed, mutilated people. Frits might seem unstable, at times, and deeply troubled, but so are many of the people, especially the men, he spends time with.

Because of the bleak nihilism that pervades Frits’ worldview, the end might seem to offer a sense of tender recognition of the frailty of human life, and a glimpse into Frits’ humanity, despite his morbid jokes and his occasional sadistic, violent fantasies directed towards people of his parents’ age or, disturbingly, his toy rabbit. But Reve is not interested in offering a simplistic, hopeful end, and Frits’ thoughts on the final day of 1946 are as ambivalent as ever. “Whatever ordeals are yet to come, I am alive,” thinks Frits, perhaps recalling the spirit of the final thoughts of another outsider, Stephen Dedalus, at the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

What has acute boredom and estrangement done for the creation of Frits, the man, as he grows into adulthood? There’s really no way to tell. In ten years, will he become the Dutch Psycho, or will he settle into adulthood worn down by ennui, and defeated by life’s banal, accumulative disappointments? Or might he carve out a life for himself that is, in some small way, one that he considers worth living? It’s a testament to Reve’s writing and imagination that the question of Frits will haunt the reader long after they’re finished with this book.

RATING 8 / 10