Thursday, February 16, 2017

Gerard Reve's 'The Evenings': The Prayers of a Superfluous Man

"The Evenings" is appearing in English translation, and American and British readers are finally getting a chance to read Gerard Reve's book, lauded as the greatest Dutch novel.

Not a lot happens. The basic plot opens as Frits van Egters, a 23-year-old Dutchman, wakes up on the morning of Dec. 23, 1946, and our narrator follows him for the next ten days. The main action happens at night, when Frits wanders the streets in search of his friends, and the novel recounts the dreams that rouse him from fitful sleep. Frits lives with his parents, works in an office, and enjoys absurd jokes and grotesque stories. The plot occasionally threatens to erupt into something else, as Frits wanders into his parents' arguments, which his presence seems to dampen.

But a modern reader may come away from "The Evenings" wondering what all the fuss is about. What do all these meandering conversations, baldness jokes and midnight perambulations mean?

"These are trying times," Frits says to himself, an incredible statement considering what isn't happening in "The Evenings" - namely, the war. Nazi Germany invaded Holland, a neutral country, in 1940, conquering it in a matter of days. They fortified the public beaches, where the Dutch once played, against invasion. They forced tens of thousands into labor, with resisters shot. More than 25,000 Dutch volunteered to fight with the Germans, half of them dying. Even after D-Day, the majority of the Dutch remained under Nazi control, with the Germans cutting off food and fuel in retaliation for resistance. They liquidated the Jewish population, forcing them and others into hiding. Shortly before liberation, some Dutch were forced to eat tulip bulbs to stay alive.

When Frits encounters a friend, he says, "I see you have not left this earthly vale either." By situating the story in the dying days of 1946 - the first full-year without conflict since the war - Reve is telling the story of survivors of the greatest cataclysm of the 20th century. And these survivors are waking up to the reality that - this is what they had longed for, an almost smothering sense of meaninglessness.

Frits works in an office, he says, taking cards out of a file only to put them back in. Late in the book, Frits pins his hopes on whether the film he goes to see will be a good or bad one, as though this will determine the success or failure of that day's existence. The meals he samples are unremarkable, perhaps the best one a plate of homemade pastries. His greatest fears have to do with aging, or going bald. The uneasiness of his existence is that he has lived through the great conflagration and sees life yawning before him. The war, which is barely mentioned, at least gave a wisp of hope in that it would eventually end. What Frits sees now is the uncertainty of the future, and the return of routine and even tedium, to be followed by...?

Many English reviews of "The Evenings" go out of their way to compare the novel with that American hymn to dissatisfied, disenchanted youth, Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye." There are some similarities, though Frits is an older version of Holden Caufield with a different key for his eunni and angst. But I think he is a closer cousin to Meursault, the hero of Camus' "The Stranger." Reve's prose has the same flat qualities as Camus, while the novels share an absurdist view of the universe. "The Stranger" looks back at us from its origins in the war, asking questions about the nature of a universe where men send other men into gas chambers, and muses on the meaning of God's seeming silence.

But Frits wanders the snowy streets with prayers on his lips, quotes the Bible, and we wonder if his ridiculous dreams might not be visions. Where Meursault rejects meaning, Frits cries out for it, because he craves a life invested with meaning.

Thinking about this, I was reminded that "The Stranger" comes to a close, before Meursault's execution, with a visit from a priest. Meursault rages at the man, though Camus does not directly quote him, but only gives us his thoughts:

"What did other people's deaths or a mother's love matter to me; what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we're all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers?"

But Reve gives us Frits, on New Year's Eve, praying for his mother and father without their knowledge, begging mercy on these poor, oblivious souls. Earlier in the evening, he had said old people should be killed outright, in jest. Now his prayer is at times desperate, comic, pathetic, heartfelt, and as moving as a psalm.

He begins with Martin Luther's famous phrase, "Here I stand," and moves on to call the Almighty "from the depths" to look upon his parents. "See them in their need. Do not turn your eyes from them." Old age, disease and death approach them, and eventually Frits, and will anyone ever care? Frits cares, and he prays that God will as well.

"Even if a question is entirely pointless, it is better than no question at all...It is no disaster, to be unhappy...but how discouraging must it be to know that there is nothing to pin the blame on, outside oneself? The grave yawns, time zooms, and salvation is nowhere to be found. Poor man. The shiver of pathos. Scrumptious pity." 

The evening, as their lives, has not gone unnoticed, he closes. The prayers of a superfluous man availeth much.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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