The English translation of The Evenings has brought renewed attention to what made the novel an unlikely classic—and to its reputation for being “too Dutch” to resonate with a non-native audience. As Sam Garrett, whose translation will be published in the U.S. on January 31, told me, “People often asked me, when they heard I was working on the book: ‘Oh, how can you translate De avonden? It’s so specifically Dutch.’” That claim, of course, raises the question of what it means to be Dutch in the first place. Critics often cite a number of qualities that account for The Evenings’ national specificity: Reve’s sense of humor, mundane references to local culture, the religious dimensions of the Dutch language, and of course the historical context. These elements—along with some practical roadblocks—contributed to the myth of the book’s untranslatability for decades. Now, that myth has effectively shattered.
In The Evenings, Reve captured the disaffection of Dutch youth through Frits’s grotesque dreams, his ability to joke about anything (even war casualties), and his constant intermingling of the sacred and profane. The novel opens by announcing Frits, with comic grandeur, as “the hero of this story.” He checks his watch early in the morning before drifting into a dream where six men carry a coffin with a cracked, sagging bottom. A hand then emerges from the crack and reaches for one of the men’s throats. “If I scream,” thinks Frits, “the whole thing will fall to the floor… there’s nothing I can do.” The book continues as it begins: with a mixture of clock-watching banality, cryptic symbolism, and ironic bombast. And it’s captivating.
Much of the book’s comedy comes from Frits’s stately tone, and how he applies it to everyday, and sometimes inappropriate, subjects. To wield Dutch, Reve believed a writer needed to absorb the Statenbijbel, the Netherlands’ equivalent of the King James Bible, that was published in 1637. “That language,” Reve said, “that dialect, is what has become Dutch.” The Statenbijbel helped to unify the various dialects of the Dutch Republic into one language, and so too helped in unifying the Netherlands as a whole. In the late 1940s, this style would’ve seemed highly formal, almost parliamentary, but the biblical echoes would not have been lost on Reve’s audience. Which is why it was subtly sacrilegious for Reve to use that tone—in the then very Christian Netherlands—to describe Frits wandering home drunk or examining himself naked in a mirror.
What goes unsaid also plays a key role in The Evenings. World War II is arguably the book’s center, but it is an absent center, one perpetually talked around, and only mentioned a couple of times in passing. Frits’s obsessive attention to detail and abstract ruminations often act as distractions from the war’s after-effects. Late in the novel, Frits’s mother accidentally buys fruit juice rather than wine, leading to a monologue often considered one of the most beautiful ever composed in Dutch. Frits pleads to God, listing all his parents’ little foibles: His father “hears little [and] what he hears is not worth mentioning,” his mother “makes oliebollen,” Dutch pastries, “with the wrong pieces of apple.” He then tearfully proclaims their “immeasurable goodness” and expresses his concern for them as “death approaches and the grave yawns.” But they will not even have the dignity of a grave; they’ll have an urn as “we pay for that in weekly installments.” The book’s tragedy lies in Frits’s flippant attitude toward the world and in the way time takes on a renewed poignancy. “Let us make sure our time is well spent,” Frits says earlier in the novel, while seeming to waste his time on trivialities. Yet, in the aftermath of a war, there is something quietly life-affirming in having time to waste. “I am alive,” Frits announces to his toy rabbit on New Year’s morning, “whatever ordeals are yet to come, I am alive.”