24 April, 2017Issue 3434.1LiteratureTranslation

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Translating Post-War Boredom

Kanta Dihal

Gerard Reve, transl. Sam Garrett
The Evenings
Pushkin Press
£12.99 (hardback)





What do you feel when the bombs stop falling? Among the victorious there is joy, ecstasy, pride. Among the liberated there is relief, gratitude, succour. Among the defeated, bitterness and shame. And everywhere there is grief, pain, and loss.

But boredom?

Boredom, of all possible sentiments, is the one expressed in Gerard Reve’s The Evenings, a 1947 Dutch novel that has long been considered a post-war classic in the Netherlands. Frits van Egters is a twenty-three-year-old office worker with a bitterly cynical mindset and terrifying nightmares. Living with his parents, whom he despises, Frits drags himself through the days, with only the evenings occasionally giving respite to his eternal ennui. At night, he is haunted by bizarre and gruesome nightmares. The Evenings follows him during the last ten days of 1946, as Christmas passes by, barely noticed, apart from giving Frits another few seemingly endless days off. Nearly seventy years after its original publication, Pushkin Press has published the first English translation of this unsettling Dutch novel, by the prizewinning US translator Sam Garrett.

The novel shocked the Netherlands upon its publication. Established literary critics were appalled by its unrelenting cynicism and utter lack of positivity. The war is over: where is the gratitude, the celebration, the can-do reconstruction mentality? Adolescents, on the other hand – those who would give birth to the baby boom generation – revelled in what they considered to be a highly accurate depiction of the post-war sentiment among their generation. Its humour – grim, cruel, violent, sadistic, disgusting – became famous.

The Evenings stands perhaps in starkest contrast to another book about the war that came out in 1947, Anne Frank’s Het Achterhuis, which was translated as The Diary of a Young Girl in 1952. This painfully confrontational, emotional, and passionately written diary made it felt around the world that the Second World War is not meant to be forgotten. Reve, on the other hand, makes his reader do exactly that. The war seems to be the last thing on anyone’s minds in this novel, which describes everyday life that is so ordinary that it becomes unusual.

And yet it is not possible to read The Evenings without taking into account the war that had just ended. The protagonist Reve presents will strike most readers as detestable, in a manner similar to The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. Frits’s harsh humour is unsettling and will not appeal to everyone, and his obsession with pointing out that other men are going bald is exhausting. It is very easy to despise this utterly self-centred character – but can one really still hate him, remembering that he is twenty-three in 1946, knowing what he has likely gone through in the five preceding years? It is left to the reader whether or not to consider the influence it must have had on Frits; it is almost equally valid to hate him without consideration for his history. One could either read him as a slightly older Holden Caulfield, angsty and rebellious despite a privileged life, or as a pitiable, traumatized young man, freshly scarred from the war. Or – an unsettling realisation that dawns when taking a second look at Frits’s sadism – could he even have been on the wrong side in the war? Reve’s talent lies in almost letting us forget to take into account the war that had just ripped the country apart.

Gerard Kornelis van het Reve (1923-2006) made his debut as a novelist with The Evenings under the pseudonym Simon van het Reve. Abandoning this pseudonym after the third imprint of The Evenings, he initially seemed to be a one-hit wonder, and in the 1950s left the Netherlands for a decade in London. However, in the 1960s Reve came back to the Netherlands a ground-breaking figure, reaching an unprecedentedly large audience with writings that contained explicit homosexuality. Most famously, in 1966 the country reeled when in Nader tot U (‘Nearer to Thee’) he described having sex with God, who has taken on the shape of a donkey. Reve quite recently caused a national stir once more when in 2012 the literary critic Nop Maas published the third instalment of his Reve biography, subtitled ‘Chronicles of a Guilty Life’. Reve’s partner Joop Schafthuizen took Maas to court over this volume, which contained lengthy citations unauthorized by Schafthuizen, who owns the copyright to Reve’s work.

Reve’s influence on the Dutch literary landscape grew to the point where he is often referred to as one of the ‘Grand Three’ authors of post-war Dutch literature. The other two Grands are Willem Frederik Hermans (Beyond Sleep, 1966), and Harry Mulisch (The Discovery of Heaven, 1992), who until his death in 2010 was frequently mentioned as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Reve, who in 1973 formally dropped the prefixes from his surname, passed away in 2006 after a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

It is therefore a pity that the publisher, Pushkin Press, seems to have thought that Reve’s true achievements alone would not be impressive enough, and hugely exaggerated in their marketing of this book. Reve’s biography on the blurb describes The Evenings as having been ‘ranked as the best Dutch novel of all time by the Society of Dutch literature’. In fact, The Evenings was ranked third in this society’s 2001 ‘Canon of Dutch literature’. Numbers one and two, Max Havelaar (1860) by Multatuli and The Discovery of Heaven, were translated into English soon after their first publication. This same blurb also presents Reve as ‘the first openly gay writer in the country’s history’. This epithet should instead be conferred on Jacob Israël de Haan (1881-1924), who published two homo-erotic novels (Pijpelijntjes, ‘Lines from De Pijp’, 1904 and Pathologieën, ‘Pathologies’, in 1908), as well as a wide range of both gay and Jewish poetry, until his assassination by Zionists in 1924. In fact, when we are talking about Reve and his contemporaries, the aforementioned Anne Frank may well be taken into consideration in the same category due to the bisexual fantasies she indulges in in her diary.

Reve’s prose is succinct and repetitive, which paradoxically creates a work that is a quick read and yet manages to convey the sense of boredom that is central to The Evenings. In Dutch, Reve sounds old-fashioned, preferring articles over possessive pronouns. Garrett’s English translation sounds fresher and less ambiguous. The novel feels modernized despite its 1946 setting – partly because Dutch has changed significantly more in seventy years than English, having gone through spelling reforms nearly every decade. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, the popularity of The Evenings is in decline. Although it continues to be recommended for A-level reading lists, it no longer seems to speak to the sentiments of a generation that cannot imagine a life as slow and empty as Frits’s. One wonders if The Evenings has the potential to be anywhere near as successful as contemporary Dutch authors Herman Koch and Tommy Wieringa, Garrett’s earlier translation achievements.

The announcement of an English translation of The Evenings was received with enthusiasm in Dutch newspapers. It would have greatly pleased Reve if, at long last, his literary talents came to be acknowledged in the English-speaking world. During the decade he spent in London, he actively tried to achieve this fame, even going as far as writing a work in English, The Acrobat and other stories (1956). Even though this collection included stories published in The Paris Review, he failed to find a publisher, and eventually sold the collection to a Dutch publisher. It is as yet unclear whether The Evenings will be successful at all, but at least and at long last, to speak with the legendary closing words of The Evenings: ‘It has been seen… it has not gone unnoticed.’


Kanta Dihal is a third-year DPhil candidate in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She was formerly Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.