I continue to encounter small presses from both the US and the UK publishing quality world literature in translation. The ones I have already featured or referred to on this blog (in case you’ve missed them) are Deep Vellum (Dallas, TX), Two Lines Press (San Francisco, CA), Open Letter Books (Rochester, NY) and Tilted Axis Press (Sheffield/London). My latest discovery is Pushkin Press (@, @PushkinPress) of London. Founded in 1997, Pushkin publishes several critically acclaimed writers both old and new, among them Stefan Zweig (Austria), Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (Israel), Yasushi Inoue (Japan) and Eka Kurniawan (Indonesia).
One of their recent offerings is The Evenings (isn’t the cover just gorgeous?!) by Dutch author Gerard Reve (1923–2006). Reve, according to an article on The Culture Trip, was one of the “Great Three” of post-war literature in the Netherlands, the other two being Willem Frederik Hermans and Harry Mulisch. He is known mostly for themes of homosexuality and religion (particularly the issue of “salvation” from the material world). He remained a controversial figure – a convert to Catholicism and openly gay.
The Evenings (“De avonden”), Reve’s first novel, was published back in 1946, when he was only 23. The Society of Dutch Literature ranked De avonden as the country’s best 20th-century novel and its third-best of all time. It has been compared to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Albert Camus’s The Stranger and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle.
The book tells the story of Frits van Egters – a 23-year-old living with his parents in Amsterdam – over ten days in the month of December. As the debut of a young writer, it is astonishingly mature in both style and content. Although the war has just ended, there are no direct references to historical events. Reve is more interested in capturing the general mood of the period – it is marked by obscurity (as in Patrick Modiano) and ennui (as in Alberto Moravia).
Frits says: “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.” What does he do outside his office hours? Well, he has no lover to concentrate on. He quarrels with his mom and dad, wanders through the streets, passes canals, meets friends, cracks silly jokes and talks to a toy rabbit. He has no big ambitions, he just wants to somehow get by, “survive” – that is triumph enough.
What I found most touching about this novel was Frits’s struggle against time. I have mentioned before that I am obsessed with the phenomenon and feel pretty helpless and powerless before it. Frits looks at his watch, goes off to sleep, dreams of corpses and severed limbs, wakes up, dozes off again, dreams of menacing swans and men with fox-heads. “A loss”, he mumbles at one point, “a dead loss. How can it be? A day squandered in its entirety. Hallelujah.” At another place, he lets out in despair, “All is lost. Everything is ruined.” He wastes his days, fusses over the littlest of everyday events, invokes God Almighty. Ultimately, on New Year’s Eve, he takes comfort in the fact that he breathes and moves. He is ready to take on calamities and horrors. He is proud of himself. And then he sleeps again. What must one make of this strange end? I believe you could take it pessimistically or optimistically depending on your worldview.
There will be readers who will question its “masterpiece” status but most will enjoy the book. Murky, humorous and rather charming, on the whole The Evenings is simultaneously a realistic examination of our quotidian modern struggles and – because of its preoccupation with death and the grotesque – a greater, more symbolic work of commentary on a society that has lost its anchor, centre, purpose and drive. In which everything has turned/is turning into utter grime and ash.
When he awoke that morning at a quarter to eight, his first thought was: “It is Christmas Day.” On the window he saw no frost flowers. “Perhaps the thaw has set in,” he thought, then rolled over and slept until eight thirty. “Don’t go on lying here for more than half an hour,” he thought when he awoke again. Yet he fell asleep once more and awoke only at twenty minutes past the hour of nine, when his mother opened the door and said: “Isn’t it about time you got up? I’m going to put on the eggs.”
He raised himself on one elbow, but lay down again and pulled the covers over his head. He breathed the bedroom smell of his body between the sheets, and thought: “Would that smell the same to anyone else?” Ten thirty came. “Now I really must get up,” he thought. At five past eleven he slid back the blankets. After washing and shaving he took his clothes under his arm and went to dress in the warm living room. On his plate lay an egg. “It would have been better if you hadn’t boiled it already,” he said to his mother, “then I could have done it myself. Now it’s cold.”
“I had no idea you would stay in bed for so long,” she said.
For more information on Gerard Reve and The Evenings, check out this article on The Atlantic.