In 1947 the Dutch writer Gerard Reve published The Evenings, which would become the most famous postwar novel in the Netherlands. This plotless story is, depending on your viewpoint, either a deeply cynical or a very funny description of the last ten days of 1946, as seen through the eyes of the young office clerk Frits van Egters. He spends his days, evenings, and nights in Amsterdam doing nothing but working, ruthlessly observing his family and friends, sleeping, reflecting on his dreams, and talking to a stuffed rabbit. Despite being set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the book contains only occasional and always mocking references to it.
The Evenings was divisive: it was derided as “a disgrace and degrading” by some critics and proclaimed “a masterpiece” by others, and it immediately won a Dutch literary award. At a time when young men were expected to rebuild a country destroyed by the war, when Sartre was writing Anti-Semite and Jew, an essay reflecting on French anti-Semitism, and George Orwell was attempting to understand totalitarianism through Animal Farm, Reve offered a narrow, ennui-ridden portrait of a “liberated” young man experiencing an existential crisis. In spite of many reviewers’ and readers’ objections to the novel, it was a remarkable literary success in Holland: it quickly sold over six thousand copies and would sell 25,000 more over the next ten years.
Despite this success, in 1952, at the age of twenty-eight, Reve moved from Amsterdam to London, leaving both his home and his language behind; from then on, he was determined to write only in English. Although short stories by Reve appeared in The Paris Review in 1954 and 1956, he was unable to find a publisher during the five years he lived in the United Kingdom. Tim Parks has suggested that this was because Reve’s “style and politics seemed incomprehensible” in England, although the Dutch-born Canadian scholar Felix Douma thought, with slight reluctance, that it was because of the extreme number of mistakes in his English: “It does read like a bad translation.” Sixty years later, Sam Garrett’s precise and convincing translations of The Evenings and two early novellas by Reve, The Fall of the Boslowits Family and Werther Nieland, have corrected this problem. Garrett captures the consistently anxious, suggestive, and haunting tone that runs through The Evenings like a live wire—one that, after seventy years, is still electrifying. The narrators of The Fall of the Boslowits Family and Werther Nieland, too, are persuasively rendered in the matter-of-fact and dreamlike tones of the originals.
In 1951 Reve published a short story in English entitled “Melancholia” in a Dutch literary journal. The story, about a young man in hiding during the Nazi occupation, features feelings of lust and mentions masturbation: “Lying on the wardrobe, he had tried in vain to masturbate a second time. Now he tried again, but perhaps owing to the chill that had seized him, he could not even attain an erection.” Because of this, “Melancholia” was found to be “contrary to public order and the accepted principles of morality,” and the print run was confiscated. One reviewer who managed to get hold of a copy wrote that the story “has the honesty value of an opened toilet door, of the sick insipidity of an exhibitionist. It is the suicide of Dutch literature. It is Americanism.” The Dutch deputy minister of education, arts, and sciences—and later prime minister—Jo Cals withdrew a travel grant awarded to Reve because he deemed his writing “immoral.” Reve was vilified in the Dutch press. A commentary in De Telegraaf, the Netherlands’ biggest newspaper, said:
Mister Cals has called the writings of Mister Van het Reve “immoral.” We believe this is wrong. One connects to the concept of “immoral” an understanding of what is moral. Anybody who has young children knows that, for a while, they take pleasure in the use of dirty words, and chuckle about them. It is the task of the educators to correct this. But the literator Van het Reve obviously has never been corrected. He is still happy to write in the prepubescent stage of dirty words.
Despite this one act of censorship, however, most of what Reve wrote in the Netherlands during the 1940s and 1950s was published. Parks suggests that Reve left his home country because he felt its culture was “not big enough” for an artist of his stature. But it wasn’t mere hubris that drove him away, nor was he looking for “maximum diffusion” of his work. By writing in English, Reve thought he would be able to escape 1950s Dutch narrow-mindedness and provincialism. In 1951 he already saw himself as an exile—not just from a place, but from a language, too. In preparation for writing “Melancholia,” Reve studied the King James Bible and read H.L. Mencken’s The American Language; Kinsey, Pomeroy, and Martin’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male; Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough; and William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. It was quite an undertaking for a Dutch writer in his late twenties to start writing in English. “He who has a goal in mind, is fearless,” Reve would later write. “But it became clear to me nonetheless that a direct, daily contact with the spoken language one writes in is essential.”
While immersing himself in the language and trying to succeed in the UK as an Anglophone writer, Reve worked as a nurse at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases and took acting courses at the British Drama League. But after five years of traveling back and forth he returned home, which had as much to do with professional circumstances as private ones. Reve’s work in English was not getting enough attention and he was running out of money; the paperback version of The Evenings, an even bigger commercial success than the hardcover—it sold over 100,000 copies—was not released until 1962. And upon their return to the Netherlands, Reve and his wife, the poet Hanny Michaelis, divorced, and he moved in with a man, Wim Schuhmacher.* (Homosexuality was outlawed in the United Kingdom, and the police aggressively enforced laws prohibiting sexual conduct between men well into the 1950s. Holland was more tolerant: Amsterdam was considered a gay capital—relative to the times, of course.) Reve also converted to Catholicism, abandoning his socialist upbringing. The inklings of his religious conversion are already present in The Evenings: Frits often addresses God in his thoughts. While Protestant language is spare and simple, Reve’s language is extravagant and rich, like a cardinal’s robes.
Reve did eventually publish a book in English, The Acrobat and Other Stories, in 1956, but with Van Oorschot, a Dutch publishing house in Amsterdam. He knew it would not be a success in the English-speaking world. He also thought he knew why. The epigraph reads, “Time, Cash, Strength, Patience (a note found in the papers of Herman Melville),” and he had run out of all four. Seven years later, in 1963, after the great success of The Evenings in paperback and the first of his two subsequent epistolary novels—Approaching the End (1963) and Nearer to Thee (1966)—had catapulted him to fame, a Dutch version of The Acrobat and Other Stories came out, translated by Michaelis, with whom Reve was still on good terms. He chose not to include the epigraph in this edition. By the age of forty, Reve was an openly gay Catholic and recognized as one of the Netherlands’ most important postwar writers. His homeland was finally big enough for his talent.
The son of a journalist and a housewife, both staunch Communists, Reve was born in 1923, the youngest of two boys. (His brother, Karel, would grow up to become an expert in Russian literature and one of the most famous nonfiction writers in the Netherlands.) In 1938 the family moved to the Diamantbuurt, a newly developed neighborhood in the southeast corner of Amsterdam near the Amstel River, which serves as the setting of The Evenings. After finishing a degree in graphic design, Reve spent the last two years of the Nazi occupation working at a market garden, as a door-to-door iron salesman, and at a leather factory. After the occupation ended in 1945, he became a court reporter for Het Parool, which had been a resistance newspaper. He was lucky to have a steady job, but in his own words, his life wasn’t going anywhere.
The war had been traumatic: the city center of Rotterdam was destroyed, the government and royal family had fled to London, and the occupiers had deported about 70 percent of the Jewish population to concentration camps. Except for Germany, no country in Western Europe was as devastated as the Netherlands: the Germans had confiscated almost all trains, destroyed most inland bridges and ports, and dismantled the nation’s factories. Close to a million acres of farmland were useless, largely because of intentional flooding, and coal production was down to 25 percent of pre-war levels. Most of the country had electricity for only a few hours a day. More than 20 percent of all homes were irreparably damaged. Tens of thousands had died of hunger in the last winter of the war.
But once the war was over, it was not talked about—the Dutch wanted to put the whole thing behind them as quickly as possible. Reve hated Amsterdam and the mundane life he led. He bristled at the way the hardships of the war had made complaints—even reasonable ones about lack of opportunity—seem selfish and unreasonable. Something had to change.
On the advice of his psychiatrist, Reve decided to write a book. He had self-published a collection of poetry six years earlier and The Fall of the Boslowits Family in a magazine in December 1946; the novella is about the persecution of Jews in Amsterdam after the Dutch capitulation to the Nazis. The story is narrated by Simon, a neighborhood friend of the Boslowitses. Simon does not give any dates and hardly makes any direct references to the war or to the threats facing the family. The German bombing of the country’s largest airport, Schiphol, is even welcomed by Simon: Finally, the war has begun! This narrative technique, typical for early Reve—using a somewhat naive witness to note, not interpret, life’s events—“exploits the possibilities of omission to the extreme,” as the Dutch scholar Arne op de Weegh puts it. The words “Jew” or “Jewish” do not appear anywhere: those who are not heard from literally become not spoken of.
Boslowits is divided into two parts. The first begins in 1931, when Simon is seven. The most important development is a disease that leaves his uncle progressively paralyzed. The second part, which takes place after 1940, is focused on the rising threat to the Boslowits family as a whole—not just one family member, but the entire family is encroached upon by a society occupied by the Nazis. Letters come back undelivered, houses are being searched, a family member is molested, phones are cut off; because Reve never identifies the Boslowitses as Jewish, refusing to use the word as a label, the horror becomes even more banal and sickening.
The narrative structure of The Fall of the Boslowits Family is deftly crafted and can be seen as both a counterpoint to and rehearsal for the narrative structure of The Evenings. A rehearsal, because in both stories the war is never explicitly referenced, but instead carved out by silence. And a counterpoint, because unlike the narrator of The Evenings, the narrator of the Boslowits family story is too young to understand everything going on around him or to confront the troubles of his times head on. Reve would revisit the first-person child narrator in 1949, with eleven-year-old Elmer recounting his daily rituals in Werther Nieland. (He considered that novella to be his strongest early work, but many scholars feel it is Boslowits.)
The same month that Boslowits was published, Reve sat down at his typewriter and wrote, “Considerations and intentions when writing a long story, a novella for De Bezige Bij,” a publishing house founded during the war as part of the resistance movement. He noted that “two sheets of folio equal one page of print,” so if the work were to number a hundred pages, he would need to turn in two hundred handwritten sheets of paper. “We need not worry about the title,” he wrote to himself, suggesting a few possibilities: “THE ROOM RESIDENTS, HEROES OF OUR TIME or SICK CALL, we shall see. Or THE EVENINGS.” The last two bullet points read, “We must not let ourselves be pushed into one form or another. The declarative story-form is absolutely not disgraceful, see THE DEATH OF IWAN ILJITS by Count Leo Tolstoy.”
The Evenings’ opening line—“It was still dark, in the early morning hours of the twenty-second of December 1946, on the second floor of the house at Schilderskade 66 in our town, when the hero of this story, Frits van Egters, awoke”—is one of only a handful of lines with an omniscient narrator. For most of the book, the omniscient narrator considers Frits’s experience to the exclusion of other things, so the viewpoint is mostly his: “He looked at the luminous dial of his watch, hanging on its nail. ‘A quarter to six,’ he mumbled, ‘it’s still night…. What a horrible dream.’”
Frits is in exile from himself, in a sense, because of the alienating conditions of society. Droves of young literary readers of the postwar generation recognized themselves in Reve’s “hero”; they did not want to be pushed into one life or another, nor did they have the desire or endurance to live in a world without excitement. The young Reve changed his life by writing his book, the result of months and years of self-reflection. He was driven by a desire for compassion, both for himself and the people around him. (A quality that the older Reve lacked: in the 1970s, the writer would publicly insult citizens of a former Dutch colony.)
Frits lives with his parents in a relatively poor neighborhood. His older brother has left the household. The three remaining family members eat simple meals (potatoes and watery gravy; a delicacy like pickled herring has to last for days), and the house has no central heating: the living room has a coal stove that Frits attends to on weekends. Throughout the week, he works during the day, but builds up no savings. The evenings are long, dull affairs, with nothing but the family radio to entertain him. As life passes him by, he becomes obsessed with physical decline. He is not alone in this: all his friends seem lost. Not only did this depiction of Dutch youth attack a certain conception of Dutchness—the supposed “Roll up your sleeves!” attitude—it also threatened ideas of Dutch prosperity. If the young were not going to rebuild Dutch society, how was the country going to get the job done? And what kind of society would the Netherlands become?
Frits van Egters bears more than a passing resemblance to the novel’s author: Reve was a reserved, insecure, and detached adolescent with psychiatric problems who spoke in a baroque, “bookish” language that was very much his own. Van Egters is the same age as Reve was when he wrote the book. He is young, healthy, and employed. Yet he is not interested in his country’s reconstruction. Instead, he is obsessed with decay and ugliness, with pimples and hair loss, pettiness and disgust:
“It’s starting to fall out very quickly at the corners,” Frits said, “I must be frank. And because you don’t have so much hair to start with, I see baldness approaching. But if you don’t care all that much, well, all the better. You have bald people who are quite happy. Not that I can imagine that, I’d rather be dead myself, but you do hear of them.”
The novel’s driving force is the narrator’s struggle with the world around him. The Dutch seemingly wanted to rebuild a society on egalitarian principles, but mostly people withdrew into their own private lives, far removed from the “nobility” of their goal. Frits is frustrated with the situation, as are most of his peers, and Reve gives the reader insights into the obstacles—internal and external—that they encounter as they struggle to make their way through their days. Talking to one another is one of the few outlets they have. Here is Frits talking about his quarreling parents to his friends: “‘It gets on my nerves,’ said Frits. ‘I’m only waiting for them to hang themselves or beat each other to death. Or set the house on fire. For God’s sake, let it be that. So why hasn’t it happened yet? But let us not despair. All things come to those who wait.’”
Frits and his friends are bored because there is nothing to do. One remarkable scene has him asking Maurits, a friend and minor criminal, about torture: Who would he like to torture? And how? Goaded by Frits, Maurits goes on to answer in horrific detail: “‘Let him scream,’ Maurits said, ‘yes, let him scream…. First a beating. A few hours at a stretch. Let him come to, from time to time. Then strangle him. With my hands.’” Maurits gets up. “What do you think,” Maurits asks, sitting again. “Am I normal?” Frits answers, “Your soul is in anguish…but you are not mad. It is a form of sadism, but healthy and harmless.”
These perfectly paced dialogues—labeled “gloomy,” “gray,” “cynical,” and “completely negative” by one reviewer of the time—and internal monologues were liberating for a generation of young people stifled by the stuffy atmosphere of postwar Amsterdam, who lived with no privacy, no prospects, and no rooms of their own. In one particularly clever scene, the bored, lonely Frits pays a late-night visit to his friend Viktor, who is lodging with their mutual friends Herman and Lidia. The doorbell rings. It is Piet, a friend of Herman’s, with his nameless girlfriend. They want to spend the night at Herman and Lidia’s. Herman says he already has friends staying over. “‘You could stay in the alcove for fifteen minutes, Piet,’ says Viktor, ‘…we’ll just turn up the volume for a while [on a gramophone record].’” The couple declines, and after a minute of silence, Herman says, “Good riddance…. That’s been taken care off.”
As Reve worked on his book during the dark winter days of 1946, he typed an addendum to his list: the initial scale of his project was too modest, he needed more words to capture his arrested times in prose, and to create his own space. With The Evenings, the young Reve inhabited the deeply funny, bleak, and begrudgingly sympathetic worldview of Frits van Egters. In doing so, he proved to be one of the Netherlands’s finest postwar writers.
December 5, 2019
‘I Just Look, and Paint’