«The book does not lend itself to a massive advertising campaign, since it is not made for the general public. Many booksellers have already refused to sell it. The management received a number of letters from readers expressing their repugnance. The fact that there are about a thousand copies still unbound and difficult to place proves that the book is “dead and buried”.
The book in question is De avonden, written in 1947 by Gerard Reve, and considered the super classic of Dutch literature of the twentieth century. The last ten days of 1946 are described, as the teenager Frits van Egters, the author’s obvious alter ego, experiences them, and as Kafka would tell us about them if he were the screenwriter of sitcoms set in the post-war period in a suburb of Amsterdam. Although nothing happens in the novel, and despite the seventy-year delay, the Anglo-Saxon press has warmly welcomed the English translation, without skimping on the word “classic”. Year 2018 The evenings arrives in Italy for the treatment of Hyperborea. “Dead and buried”: why in 1949 De Bezige Bij, the publisher where the book came out, saw us so short?
Since its first appearance, The evenings it divided the public into those who hailed it as the novel of a generation and those who censured its inopportune nihilism. Even today, while the book disappears from school programs and a handful of fanatics perpetuate its memory by re-reading it in the last ten days of the year, many are wondering what meaning it could have for the younger generations «that air of cabbage and stale bread, those sliding doors, the glittering streets of Amsterdam’s Plan Zuid, the “ohi, ohi” from Frits’ mother, the white shirts he is forced to wear, the (almost) gone herrings that end up at the table anyway, the pancakes with bits of wrongly shaped apple, the “wine” with berries and apple». Finally, today’s columnist addresses the book with the typically Dutch accusation of being “too typically Dutch”.
In a period of identity polarization, reproaching a book for being too Dutch seems like an observation born of its time. And yet, something Dutch, in The evenings, there is, and it was noticed right away. For the scathing novelist and polemicist WF Hermans, in fact, “the ability to observe accurately, with particular attention to the bourgeois living room mentality, is fully part of the tradition of the Dutch novel”, to then add that Reve, while writing a Dutch novel , has been able, like few other colleagues, to give it an international dimension. On the contrary, for Harry Mulisch and for the essayist Rudy Kousbroek the “provincial” style of Reve, if it has preserved its inspiration, has also made it untranslatable: an opinion widely echoed and, as every translator knows, without foundation. The fact is that, alongside the difficult relationship with the heirs and the shortage of translators from Dutch, it was precisely the paradoxical provincialism of the Netherlands that confined De avonden, like many of the best Dutch novels, to narrow relevance. Were it not for Fulvio Ferrari’s splendid translation, we would have to regret this long wait. Because a seventy-year-old book, if it is eventually translated and published, barely has time to define it as a “classic” before it has even been subjected to critical reflection, which already ends up buried by the frenetic editorial production.
The evenings it takes its to go unnoticed. He doesn’t show off unsettling gimmicks, doesn’t try the path of formal experimentation and doesn’t accompany us in labyrinthine plots. Which, for a twenty-three-year-old writer at the time, is prodigious: who doesn’t get excited, at that age, to demonstrate to everyone that he handles the literary tool with ostentatious ease? For the newcomer Reve, however, literary ambition must not stand in the way of the ambitious will that makes this book unique: to tell boredom by taking the risk of being bored. With his unmistakable mix of seriousness and irony, of maniacal precision and confused exhibitionism, Reve succeeds where the singers of theennui they failed, when in their reports of the pain of living they gave the bottom of all their intellectual resources by obeying a tacit convention of the narrative art: to talk about boredom, but as if it were the most colorful of experiences. For example Sartre, who richly thematized boredom (“I have no intention of having fun putting all of this on paper», Roquentin tries to clear himself from the first of the 250 pages of The nausea), but with an analytical acumen that, faced with the sober descriptive rendering of The evenings, reveals its zealous and programmatic character. One could say that The evenings it’s boredom how The nausea stands at the paraphrase of boredom. In a declaration of poetics, Reve is explicit in this regard: in his opinion, in a story set in a hotel room, in which the loneliness it is an essential tonality, one would do well never to name it directly, but to evoke it by describing «the room, the light, the smell, where it overlooks, the candy wrapper or the peels left around».
In a famous close reading of the work, critic Kees Fens subtly noted that ‘the detailed descriptions of space suggest an oppression, a lack of space; the accurate description of the passage of time suggests an excess of time». For Frits, describing, observing, remembering is the obsessive duty to fill in the gaps, right down to its comic implications. “The father reached the stove, grabbed the handle of the door and opened it with a loud crash. “It’s going to get dirty everywhere,” thought Frits, “and I have to watch. Why can’t I stop looking?” The father struck his pipe repeatedly and hard against the edge of the opening and some of the charred tobacco fell to the floor. Then he closed the door with a loud bang.’ The episode gives measure to the typical Reviano passage: sober and tripartite, a kind of heavy slapstick. However, the orderly syntax and the composed succession of sentences are continuously crossed and accelerated by a sense of impatience, of disheartened expectation of the future, which are then the very motion of boredom. Finally, Reve uses an intrinsic quality of narrative art, duration, to conquer the reader to the points: it is thanks to the repetition of the same narrative scheme that we slowly recalibrate our usual reading rhythm on that of Reviana’s prose, focusing our attention on every single word. Here, in this grammar of tedium, Reve re-embraces a poetic but wholly anti-lyrical dimension, which gives the book its touching despair.
Reve has never made a secret of encountering enormous difficulties in writing and, at the same time, not being able to do without it. Among the stimuli that prompted him to write, decisive was that of the Jungian psychiatrist who followed him in those years marked by depressive crises and an attempted suicide. Frits’ boredom is also Reve’s shame in scribbling the following sentence and his awkwardness with the novel form: The evenings it is primarily a chronicle, almost the diary of an obsessed camera, which nails the novel, once again, to its need to subordinate everything to the plot. Only in the final chapter, after a very long wait, does a novel mechanism seem to be triggered: this time, the home squabbles seem about to explode together with the New Year’s fireworks; Frits’ usual biblical tone is tinged with the desperation of Christ on the cross; the parody – why The evenings it is above all a parody of domestic life – it almost becomes a tragedy.
In all of this, Frits is an unforgettable character. The parody doesn’t spare him either, so aware that life in society is a game of roles. His good will, his sense of guilt, the raw countermelody of his thoughts, make us fond of the absurd rituals of his family tribe. It’s lucky that Reve wrote The evenings while he was still involved in the atmospheres that he was able to recreate with such lucidity. Because already at the age of thirty we no longer know what boredom is, and thinking back to adolescence, in which boredom was an inescapable horizon, we ask ourselves horrified: how was this possible?