The Dutch Society of Literature has apparently voted Gerard Reve’s The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale the best Dutch novel of the twentieth century. Whenever I read this, my mind is unable to suppress a picture of ants electing their own masterpiece and rejoicing over its glories. But my bemusement is just getting started and it reaches its climax with this question: why now? Why has such a presumably momentous novel, which was published in Amsterdam as long ago as 1947 (as De Avonden), only belatedly shown its face in English last November? Soon the answer is clearer than clear. When flicking through these Evenings, you can see immediately that they together submit the preeminent novel of now.
The Evenings is surely the darling of our whole age. The definitive novel of the Millennials has been finally written – and it was, er, written in Dutch in 1947. Maybe the Netherlands is so progressive that it had achieved the correct Millennial mentality seventy years ago. Or else it is that any old nonsense will become relevant if only you wait and, in this decade, the personal idiosyncrasies of Reve’s protagonist Frits van Egters have at last aligned with the values of the majority. Yes, this must be it. Frits is like an ant egg that has remained dormant for decades, waiting for the environmental currents to become favourable. And now he has hatched.
Some reviewers identified Frits as a Millennial at once. Here is the WordPress critic Idle Woman:
He’s petulant and entitled: a strange, sullen creature, half-child, half grown-up, trapped in some midway stage that he can’t seem to escape. He’s bored. So, probably intentionally, are we.
Here is Eileen Battersby for The Irish Times:
He lives with his parents and although 23 and working as a clerk in a lowly job which he describes as a tedious ritual involving moving files around, remains very much a boy… Austerity remains part of daily life…
Or what about Laura Freeman for The Spectator:
Frits is not immediately likeable company. If you wanted to make him a noble struggler against the dreariness of life, you’d call him a nihilist. You’d talk of anomie and ennui and existential crisis. He’s a little bit Meursault, a little bit Lucky Jim, Holden Caulfield, Portnoy and Adrian Mole.
Meursault and Holden Caulfield scanned though. Previous generations could process these characters. UK readers would have probably found Frits incomprehensible in the ’60s and too trivial even for the ’80s. The translator of this first English edition, Sam Garrett, claims to have read The Evenings in 1983, but he adds that he would have “failed miserably” had he attempted to translate it at this time. So spent over thirty years brushing up his Dutch!
The novel is allegedly too Dutch to be ever easily English. The Atlantic’s James Reith has described how “the difficulty of capturing Reve’s style in another language has an almost mythic status among his native readers.” The problems of translating The Evenings are well audited in The Atlantic, but it all sounds like a proliferation of excuses to me. Reith recounts reasons that are typically given for The Evenings’ untranslatability: “Reve’s sense of humor, mundane references to local culture, the religious dimensions of the Dutch language, and of course the historical context.” He dredges up a failed translator of The Evenings, Lydia Davis, who testifies that whilst the book “does not appear to be so hard [to translate]—the action is concrete and repetitive, the vocabulary limited—there are stylistic subtleties that I would not be equal to.” Yet such untranslatable references and subtleties make the most tremendous of meals for any translator of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams; they litter Nikolay Gogol’s Dead Souls (my own edition is helped along by 305 footnotes).
So I think I am confirmed in my thesis. Frits would have been born premature in the ’90s – he would have lain weak and gasping under the reader’s confused, dismissive gaze. He is a through-and-through Millennial. He is one of us.
He admittedly seems somewhat two-dimensional because he is not permanently connected to a smartphone or Snapchat. It is like being in the company of a Millennial during a ten-day power-cut.
The Millennials were all born between 1980 and 2000. If Philip Larkin had famously declared that “Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf,” the Millennials are conceivably the Mariana Trench. In an article for Time Magazine entitled “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” Joe Stein plumbs the depths:
The incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older, according to the National Institutes of Health; 58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982…Their development is stunted: more people ages 18 to 29 live with their parents than with a spouse, according to the 2012 Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults. And they are lazy. In 1992, the nonprofit Families and Work Institute reported that 80% of people under 23 wanted to one day have a job with greater responsibility; 10 years later, only 60% did.
We will begin with the narcissism, where Frits stands second only to Narcissus himself as a prototype Millennial. His reflection is like a household idol and he is constantly returning to linger before it in private moments, clothed and unclothed, in the hallway mirror and the shaving mirror. He is fascinated by his body and yet it causes him to recoil with disgust. After one inspection of his anus in the shaving mirror, he remarks “Very distasteful… you would hardly believe it was human.” Aside from a promising daydream about bondage with a toy rabbit, this is the only remotely sexual experience in his story. That rabbit was, incidentally, given to Frits by a girl and everything that he says to it would sound a lot better being said to the girl. The lack of sex amongst Millennials is phenomenal – study after study reports that Millennials have significantly fewer sexual partners than their parents’ generation. Characteristically, Frits can never tear himself away from the mirror.
Despite being in his physical prime, Frits is forever worrying over his body’s wear-and-tear and, of course, his great hobby-horse of going bald. This is pure Peter Pan syndrome, a term which the psychologist Dan Kiley and sociologist Kathleen Shaputi have used to refer to the quintessential Millennial horror of ageing and refusal to age. Frits proclaims that, “Everything over sixty should be done away with.” His behaviour is often conspicuously childlike, as when he is frisking his toy rabbit or braving the “monster” in the attic. He retreats even from the adult irresponsibility of getting drunk, returning home to be mothered and put to bed.
In common with between a third and a half of Millennials (it obviously varies from country to country), Frits lives with his parents. He does not appear to pay any rent and he certainly does not cook meals for himself. In common with around half of Millennials, Frits is over-educated for his job and he is resigned to it going nowhere. In one of the earlier Evenings, Frits is planted in a classically Millennial scenario: he revisits his old school where he is forced to confront how little progress he has made since leaving. He confesses to one well-wisher that, “I’m keeping my eyes open for something good… At the moment I’m working in an office.” He calls himself “the failure.” His present career is recapped briefly:
Fritz took a deep breath, opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again and said then in a flat voice: “I work in an office. I take cards out of a file. Once I have taken them out, I put them back in again. That is it.”
That is indeed it – his employer, the nature of his work, and his wage and grade all remain unmentioned. He never, in fact, thinks of them outside of work and Frits’ life appears to be lived wholly in his evenings. So far so Millennial. It is all in sync with countless contemporary young lives in which unskilled, low-paid work is intermixed with vital strategies for passing the time in suburbia.
Frits’ recreational attitudes will be likewise familiar to Millennials. Just as we watch the BBC’s QI and gobble up BuzzFeed’s listicles, Frits is obsessed with useless trivia. He and his friends list factoids about obscure diseases and the musophobia of elephants. Just as we thoroughly enjoy the offensiveness of cynical comedians such as Sacha Baron Cohen and Frankie Boyle, Frits cracks tasteless jokes about children dying. This anti-social edginess reflects a characteristically Millennial depoliticisation, the default Millennial status of the social atom. Frits is not politically conscious and we have no way of placing him on the Left or the right. He might sometimes ramble away to himself in sincerely Biblical language, but he never attends church.
Frits’ selfhood seems so huge and multi-layered because we are given such a liberal access to it. We are there when Frits is depositing dried snot under the living-room chairs or “digging about in his ear with a pencil.” Romeo probably does these things too but readers and audiences are typically made scarce during such moments. Innovatively, The Evenings charts Frits’ disgusting hinterland in two separate voices, so that after he has spoken out loud, his speech is usually qualified or contradicted by private thoughts:
“What is this all about?” he thought. “Very interesting, extremely interesting,” he said, “I’ll have a look at that tomorrow.” “That is not enough,” he thought. “I will examine it closely tomorrow,” he added… Frits left the room. “I need to stop thinking,” he repeated to himself over and over as he brushed his teeth and undressed. He hopped into bed. “I still have those sugar cubes in my pocket,” he thought.
We enjoy an access to Frits’ selfhood so exclusive that it is denied even to him. Yes, we know Frits better than he does himself. After Frits has dreamt, he awakens and promptly forgets his dreams – unlike us, who have received a hard copy. The dreams are uneasy and meaningless – simply data like that which he shuffles around in his office – but this superfluous layer of selfhood adds weight to the overall force of his narcissism. Frits’ selfhood is so huge that a first person narrative could not contain it all.
If one was capable of making a vast imaginative wrench, then it might be possible to become disentangled from the sheer proximity of this novel and to connect with its actual historical context. I am reminded of Edith Nesbit’s story “The Ebony Frame” in which the modern-day narrator finds a portrait of himself “in the dress men wore when James the First was King.” Nesbit’s tale attests to the dangers of identifying too intimately with an uncanny resemblance. But it could be theorised, for example, that Frits lives with his parents because the Netherlands is still experiencing rationing or scarcity, and that this family is thus pooling its food supplies. Frits might not talk about his office work because it has some unpleasant role within Amsterdam’s post-war reconstruction. His obsession with his own body, rather than being interpretable as narcissism, could merely express the valuing of good health in light of a war in which lots of young men were killed or injured. In the shadow of the Mushroom Cloud, a 23-year-old man might not be in any hurry to grow up and have children of his own.
This book might have its own independent literary context as well. Malcolm Forbes notes that The Evenings was published five years after Albert Camus’s The Stranger and that the two have “by accident or design… much in common.” There is a dignity and even a glamour to Meursault, however, that is straightforwardly lacking in Frits. I was reminded more strongly of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) (and specifically of Virginia Woolf’s Frits-evoking description of it as “the work of a queasy undergraduate squeezing his pimples.”) Like Ulysses, The Evenings ends on a high, generous, rather unearthly note that it was previously unable to locate. Molly Bloom exults “yes I said yes I will Yes”; Frits begs God to “fix your gaze upon my parents.”
It is impossible to describe The Evenings without making it sound enormously off-putting. It is a Dutch avant-garde novel in which nothing happens. It is a book about the boredom of a celibate office worker who lives with his parents. That annoyingly quirky detail – the harping on about the toy rabbit – might remind you of the synopsis from a flyer for any Edinburgh Fringe student comedy. For all of this, The Evenings is enjoyable and satisfying. This is firstly because a novel in which nothing happens cannot avoid becoming massively suspenseful. The reader ends up like somebody seated in darkness with their vision straining for glimmers of light. Secondly, the aching aimlessness of the story is paradoxically both given emphasis and softened by the control of Reve’s prose and his careful structuring.
So nothing happens briskly, concisely, and without any unnecessary verbiage. I duly recommend that you combine your own unfilled evenings with Frits’. As I have intimated, they might, at least if you are my age, very easily blur into one.