“Valuable time, time irretrievable, have I squandered…”
An inexplicably good read by the Dutch author Gerard Reve, very much comparable to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The Evenings’ protagonist is a 23 year old clerk, Fritz, who lives with his parents. The story follows his ten mundane days, from 22nd of December through the New Years, spent in a pedestrian fashion with bickering, bantering, casual gossip and conversational relays that lead nowhere. Ennui of life in general is set in contrast to the setting of the story which takes place in December 1946, but the Second World War is neither referenced not placed as a back-drop of the story. The excitement for the end of the great war, future prospects of young men, recurring sentiment of hope and expectation is all absent from this book.
“Nothing’s good, but everything’s fine.”
Through following Fritz’ banal days, we get a glimpse of a life lived by the commonplace man who exists day in and day out. No grand external affairs of the world make an impression on him. His work and duties, thoughts and observations, company of immediate friends and acquaintances are enough to keep him occupied till the day sets in once more and he readies himself for tomorrow. The routine tasks of waking up, eating, going out, making conversations, thinking and appreciating, examining and commenting, recalling old memories and dishing out criticisms, and finally the ritual of sleeping and dreaming in tandem are all recounted elaborately, so much so that the reader marvels and revels at the authors’ ability to catalogue the minutest of details in such a fascinating manner.
He went to his bedroom, pulled one book after another from the shelf, flipped through them and put them back where they belonged. “It’s too cold in here,” he mumbled.
Through Fritz we meet his indifferent, half-deaf father and overtly considerate mother, whose lives and daily activities lay before him predictably enough that he takes pleasure in their blunderings and gross habits, often amusing himself at their cost. We meet his brother and a horde of friends to whose houses he makes unexpected visits, usually on whim. Their conversations seem narrow, vacillating between themes of baldness and gruesome details of death and diseases, coupled with violent anecdotes which his friends seem to enjoy. He often passes wiry comments on their physical state, conjures wild assessments out of thin air on what ails them, and presents baseless solutions to their problems. His affable personality is contrasted with thoughts that suggest his boredom with trivialities of life.
“Let us make of it a day well spent. We will let ourselves be discouraged by nothing. Rather, adversities, both large and small, shall ennoble us.”
The violence of imagination is peppered with philosophic inquiries as Fritz thinks of this and that, makes grandiose statements to himself, uses religious tone (without any pomposity) to allay the sorrows of the world (like the clumsy actions of his mother), observes the passage of time, questions the nature of his days and so on.
“It is no disaster, to be unhappy,” Frits thought, “but how discouraging must it be to know that there is nothing to pin the blame on, outside oneself? The grave yawns, time zooms, and salvation is nowhere to be found. Poor man. The shiver of pathos. Scrumptious pity.”
Whenever the protagonist is indulged in conversation or thought of a horrific nature, he summons the ability to do something which allays the reader into trusting his inherent goodness. A brilliant example of this is presented in the last chapter when the frustration of activity in the Egters’ household reaches a boiling point. He has knowingly caused annoyance to his mother on a New Year’s Eve, having criticized her cooking and making her search for yesterday’s paper. He has observed his father’s disgusting table manners and continues to engage him in pointless conversation. Yet he makes a heart-felt prayer for them, asking the Lord to look after them in spite of their ordinariness.
Many a times there is vivid discrepancy in his thoughts and what he chooses to say out aloud. But a few times, Fritz’ brazen honesty makes the reader vouch for him and see where his sincerity takes the story.
“How are things here?” Joop asked. “How do you think?” thought Frits. “How do you think?” he said.
“Well,” Frits said, “I can’t avoid you completely. So when I run into you, I at least abide by the terms of common courtesy.”
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel are the elaborate and surreal dream sequences that build upon how Fritz spends his day, with whom and in what context. The dreams relay his innermost fears and are certainly the source of his intense, dark and brutal narration of stories, which at times amuses the listener or puts them in a grievous state of anxiety. Time and dreams collide to form an external world through which Fritz lives out a mildly stimulating life. Every night his dreams shape shift a dull day into an exciting albeit morbid one.
But perhaps the central theme of the novel doesn’t revolve around boredom but existence and life, what it means to be present. This is exemplified in Fritz’s last monologue.
“Everything is finished,” he whispered, “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.”
This certainly implies that despite the novel’s graphic imagery and daily numbness, it leaves the reader on a slightly optimistic note, highlighting the gratefulness felt by an ordinary young man. His gratification for relief from an activity as small as brushing teeth is a form of thankfulness.
“No need to brush my teeth,” he murmured, “It is an evening of conciliation.”
The only point of contention in the story is the onslaught on the female sex as Fritz repeatedly makes callous commentary on their kind.
“No reason why the women shouldn’t walk behind us. It is appropriate that they be unassuming, for they are incapable of logical thought”
“Hold up a road map for a woman to see. Whether you hold it the right way, or upside down, she won’t notice. Have you ever come across a woman who could repeat the contents of a radio report? Or quote anything accurately, no matter what the source? They are defective, deplorable creatures”
One possible explanation for this could be the fact that the author was a homosexual but this by no means defines his outlook on women-kind. Rather, as an extension of the author himself, the protagonist could be gay too. There is no clear evidence of this in the novel, which begs the question as to why Fritz goes on a tirade against women? This slight can easily be overlooked as I have not read anything else by this writer, nor am I much acquainted with his personal life and beliefs.
To conclude, remarkable as a debut novel, Gerard Reve perfects the art of singling out the nitty-gritties of the life’s humdrum. Time is empty, days are long and one must do what one can do indulge the self. The mix of hilarity, horror and absurdities makes “The Evenings” a palatable read for wintry afternoons.
- Rocking his corpulent frame forward, he raised his eyebrows, producing a crease in his shiny forehead and a quiver in his smooth, pasty blond hair
- He breathed the bedroom smell of his body between the sheets, and thought: “Would that smell the same to anyone else?
- When the weather was bad they couldn’t leave, and when the weather was good they couldn’t either, because it could always take a turn for the worse
- “I have many bad traits,” said Frits. “One of them being niggardliness. Reconcile yourself to it. Some people are virtuous, others are not. One is better off having nothing to do with most of them.”
- One may need to leave, without having to go anywhere. Those are the cases in which one must go away from somewhere
- An evening, the course of which is fixed beforehand, cannot possibly be a failure. The point is to imagine nothing more of it than can reasonably be expected, that’s all.
- When I was little I thought it was an incredible treat, whenever we would take a trip. I pitied the people who stayed behind: the porters on the platform, the cyclists and pedestrians at the level crossings.