Amsterdam Blues

Gerard Reve, the Netherlands, 1969
Steye Raviez/Hollandse Hoogte
Gerard Reve, the Netherlands, 1969

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…

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