The cover description of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings proclaims “the most exhilarating novel about boredom ever written.” As exhilarating as boredom can be, presumably. Translated from its original Dutch to English for the first time since its 1946 publication, The Evenings is the story of Frits, a young office worker who lives, not altogether happily it seems, with his parents. The action – though I use this word loosely – takes place in the evenings of the title, over ten days during the Christmas period, because Frits’s days are simply occupied by work. It is the hours after he leaves the office and before he arrives again that concern us. Although not much really happens then either. He eats dinner, visits people, goes to the cinema, and has nightmares, and that’s about it.
I spent the first few chapters waiting for the story to get going, before reading the whole exhilarating boredom line on the cover and realising that wasn’t going to happen; it’s a plotless narrative, which is certainly a true test of an author’s skill. With so little plot action, the characters must be strong. Thank goodness for Frits’s parents who rescue the tale from complete snore-dom with the gentle humour of their domesticities, including the trials and tribulations of his father’s jumper and his mother’s dining etiquette obsession. Indeed, there is humour to be found in the banality of the plot, for example, in the relatable pattern of Frits’s working day in his dull office (there is even boredom in the scenes we don’t see), where he packs up early and waits until finishing time – we’ve all done it. Reve’s physical description is also effective, with wonderfully atmospheric depictions of the cold, dark, snowy night streets.
Set and written the year after the end of the Second World War, there is no hint of what horrors the characters or readers have recently endured. I begin to wonder if this was the point of Reve’s writing – to return his readers to their ordinary lives, and I soften a little. Reve succeeds, like many authors of the plotless narrative, in making The Evenings’ tedium its genius, but it just didn’t work for me. I don’t want to read about the everyday humdrum life I go to great lengths to avoid experiencing myself, but perhaps others whose lives have been out with their control do. If I’ve learned something from this reading experience, it’s that you really can write anything you know.
The Evenings was published on 3rd November 2016 by Pushkin Press.