I was really looking forward to this book. The Society Of Dutch Literature voted it the greatest Dutch novel of all time and some 59 years after its first appearance it is making its debut in its first English translation.
I have recently discovered Dutch author Tommy Wieringa and after reading the excellent “Joe Speedboat” was keen to read more from a country whose literature I had pretty much ignored. I was even more thrilled to discover that the translation was by Sam Garrett, who was responsible for bringing “Joe Speedboat”, a book which is going to be battling it out amongst the front runners for my Best Read of The Year, to a new audience.
Reading the blurb it reminded me of my last year’s best read “Alone In Berlin” by Hans Fallada, a novel which took 62 years to arrive in English and which has since been acknowledged as a modern classic. “The Evenings” is also published by the rather marvelous Pushkin Press. All of these positives made me eagerly await my review copy. It seemed like the perfect match for me.
It is set in Amsterdam in the last couple of weeks of 1946. The main character is 23 year old Frits Van Egters and it starts very much in a simple, unfussy style which can be quite common in European literature and is really quite appealing. I settled down and prepared to enjoy.
However, it soon became clear that it was not going to match my expectations. It didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Basically, Frits leaves the home he shares with his parents most evenings, visits friends, says things without thinking, worries about anyone’s impending baldness and goes to bed where he dreams and that’s about it. There’s no plot development and the characters did not come alive particularly and the whole thing comes across as sadly, for this reader, insignificant. It was at this point that I realised that I was not quite so attuned to Dutch literature as my limited experience of it had hoped. Compared to “Joe Speedboat” this is a damp squib. It might end with the odd firework on New Year’s Eve, but it was without any explosive writing.
Frits, an anxious outsider, becomes annoying. He describes himself, fittingly, as a small time neurotic; believes everyone over sixty should be done away with, that male baldness is one of the worst things that could happen to a man, that’s there is little point in women and who has a need to fill in gaps in conversation with observations that are often idiotic. At times he comes across as a young Dutch Alf Garnett! Johnny Speight’s creation was ironic but I’m not sure if we should view Reve’s Frits as an example of Dutch humour. I don’t know if we should latch on to what are some underlying mental issues. I really don’t know what I am supposed to feel for him, other than irritated.
I needed to find out more about the author. “The Evenings” was Reve’s first novel in a long career, originally written under a pseudonym. A film has been made of it as has a graphic novel. Reve’s work, I discovered, is credited with making homosexualiy acceptable to his Dutch readership, largely through humour and irony. I don’t know how much this statement applies to this particular work but reading the book I didn’t pick this up. Frits displays misogyny ( probably) and narcissism (definitely) but I didn’t pick up on any coded references to his sexuality. True, he did seem to like going to the toilet together with male friends but I put that down to the amount of alcohol consumed!
Is this a novel, which on its first British publication, is now too dated? Are the concerns I’ve raised the reason why it has taken so long to arrive over here? It’s certainly enigmatic and I haven’t cracked the puzzle. It is a book I thought would be ideal for me and as it didn’t grab me it makes it seem an even bigger disappointment than perhaps it deserves to be. I’m certainly going to be on the lookout for other reviewers to see just what they made of it. I don’t want to be the one sat by the wall if a party is in the offing.
The Evenings is published by Pushkin Press on 3rd November 2016 . Many thanks for the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.