Can boredom be a topic for a novel? Boredom is about nothing happening, so it sounds quite impossible to write an entire book about it. Gerard Reve’s De Avonden is about boredom, and nothing else – or so it seems. When it was first published in 1947 in The Netherlands, many critics disliked it because of its cynicism and grimness. Not much later, however, it was hailed as an absolute classic in Dutch literature. Only as late as 2016, ten years after Reve’s death, it was translated into English. Want to know what it’s about? Read on!
The Evenings (from now on, I’ll use the English title, a literal translation of the original De Avonden) follows Frits van Egters, a bored young man who lives with his parents, during the last ten days of the year 1946. He feels disconnected from the world, and therefore counts down the hours and minutes until the evenings start. During these evenings, he talks to his friends, and wishes for better times.
The Evenings starts with Frits dreaming about a man dying, and the entire book is filled with gruesome dreams and conversations about death. To me, it seems that Frits, by displaying a perverse enjoyment in sharing stories about horrific deaths, attempts to overcome a great fear of dying. This might also be why he obsessively counts down the minutes until it gets dark, since the late hour only reminds him once again that yet another day has passed and he is twenty-four hours closer to death.
Apart from counting down the hours until the evening starts, Frits is also weirdly fascinated by people’s hair. Many of the characters are introduced by how much hair they have left on their heads. Whenever people are starting to lose their hair, Frits mercilessly comments on it, and lists all the reasons why people might become bald. The most common cause, of course, is old age. Frits’s attention people’s hair has to do with his focus on decay, since growing old means getting closer to death. Furthermore, Frits is reluctant to look into the mirror himself, because he doesn’t want to know how much time he has left.
(Just between you and me: It should be mentioned here that this novel was written and takes place in 1946, only one year after the Second World War had ended. While it is not mentioned explicitly, the war has left its marks on Frits; he has become detached from the world, and lacks a goal in his life. He doesn’t have a girlfriend, and finds himself unable to talk to his parents about important topics. Of course I write about this in parentheses, because Frits would never want me to discuss it openly.)
The Evenings is written in a deceptively matter-of-fact style, which reflects Frits’ disconnected life. There are some exceptions, however. The first is when seemingly insignificant events take place, such as his father chewing loudly, or his mother accidentally buying berry-apple cordial to celebrate New Year’s instead of wine. Such events move Frits to the very core, and he is convinced that “all is lost, everything is ruined”, and this is when he is reminded of his religion: “Eternal, only, almighty, our Lord”. It turns out that Frits isn’t as impervious as he pretends to be.
Another instance when language really shows Frits’s innermost feelings is when he reflects on his activities – or lack of them. My favourite sentence is the following: “Sitting inside in a darkened room, spying on the street-lit outside world.” This one sentence summarises the entire book: Frits finds himself incapable of really living his life, he feels isolated, and therefore makes it his hobby to tell other people’s stories, preferably gruesome and death-obsessed ones, since they form the ultimate contrast of his own uneventful life. This makes Frits a pitiful character, and his cynicism turns out to be merely a façade, hiding the fear and insecurity inside.
The final chapter, which takes place on New Year’s Eve, shows how sensitive Frits really is. He tries visiting his friends, but finds none of them at home. Then he spends the night with his parents, and begs God to take care of them, because he loves them. When the clock has struck twelve, when 1947 has finally started, despite Frits’s aversion to the passing of time, he realises that he is alive, and comes to terms with this. He then finally has a good night’s sleep, and doesn’t dream, for the first time in ten days.
Maybe he is now finally in tune with Time.
What did you think of The Evenings? Do you think a book needs a proper plot in order to be entertaining? Have you ever read any books by Dutch authors? When did you last count down the hours, waiting for something to happen? Which other books are about boredom? As you can see, this book raised a lot of questions – please share your answers in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-relates posts!