‘The Evenings’: the Dutch masterpiece that English readers missed out on for 70 years
Gerard Reve’s debut novel The Evenings has finally made its way to English readers. Nearly 70 years after its first publication and 10 years after Reve’s death, the long-awaited English translation of the Dutch modern classic was released this Thursday. Professor of literature Sander Bax doubts whether The Evenings will bring Reve the international breakthrough he longed for in his lifetime. Either way, Bax is thrilled that he is finally able to introduce his international students to Reve’s masterpiece.
Lauded as the best Dutch novel of all time, The Evenings is considered a masterpiece of modern literature in the Netherlands. But if you’re not Dutch, chances are that you have never heard of this classic – or even of its author. While Gerard Reve’s highly acclaimed debut novel was published in the Netherlands as De Avonden in 1947, its English translation The Evenings did not appear until last Thursday – nearly seventy years later. Why did it take so long for the novel be translated into English? And what exactly have non-Dutch speakers missed out on for the last seven decades? Professor of literature Sander Bax explains.
Set in post-war Holland, The Evenings describes ten days in the life of 23-year-old Frits van Egters, a cynical and disillusioned office worker who is besieged by boredom. “Many Dutch people who lived during the post-war years say that The Evenings perfectly captures what life was like during that time. The novel gives an account of the dull milieu of the 50s, but it also describes the development of a young man and his sense of hopelessness. I think that today’s youth can still relate to feelings and thoughts like: what am I to do with this life? Clearly, the novel continues to engage people.”
In the Netherlands, Reve is undisputedly considered one of the literary greats. Daniel Seton, commissioning editor at the British publishing house that released The Evenings on November 3rd, told The Guardian that he was ‘astonished’ to learn there was no English translation of the novel. “It’s taught in schools over there”, he said. “It’s a kind of cultural touchstone. It’s highly acclaimed and very popular – quite a rare combination.”
“The Evenings is worth reading for a second or third time”
For professor Bax, the novel’s dark and complex humor is what makes The Evenings a true masterpiece. “It’s a complex novel, but it’s brilliantly funny at the same time”, he says.
“It’s worth reading for a second or a third time. I’ve read it about four times now, and I keep discovering new aspects and layers. The novel’s religious overtone, for example, is something you might not notice right away. But the novel doesn’t just depict the 50’s zeitgeist, it also tells the story of the budding mystic awareness of the main character, which is all the more interesting when you realize that Reve, who was born into a communist family, became a devout Catholic himself. To me, that’s what makes The Evenings so enjoyable.”
Difficult to translate
If The Evenings is at the top of every Dutch high school’s reading list, why had it not been translated into English before? “Reve actually tried to write in English in the 1950s. He even moved to London seeking an international breakthrough”, professor Bax says. Eventually, Reve returned to writing in Dutch, disillusioned by his lack of success as an English writer. He ironically described himself as ‘world-famous in the Netherlands’. “Why Reve failed to find international success, is a very interesting question”, professor Bax says.
“Reve’s work is difficult to translate”
According to Bax, Gerard Reve is such a heavy stylist that his work is difficult to translate. “Reve is incredibly stylistic. Perhaps his writing is simply too stylistic, too Dutch, to be translated. His irony, for example, seems almost impossible to capture in another language.”
Gerard Reve was also a highly controversial figure in the Netherlands. He was openly homosexual, and he was prosecuted for blasphemy in 1966 after he wrote a scene in which the narrator has sex with God, incarnated as a donkey. “He received a lot of media attention”, professor Bax explains. “That contributed to his national fame as a writer.”
Will Reve’s dream come true after all?
Almost 70 years on, Reve’s debut novel has now finally been translated into English. Professor Bax is curious to see how The Evenings will be received. “I’ve read one review so far, which was very positive”, he says.
Still, Bax doesn’t believe The Evenings will bring Reve the international breakthrough he so desired in his lifetime. “That would be fantastic, but it would strongly surprise me. The UK has a large body of literature itself, so translations generally don’t become a success very easily. And plot-driven novels like Herman Koch’s The Dinner are more likely to be successful, because they don’t lose their power if they are translated into English. Reve’s work is less plot-driven. His letters, for example, are associative chains of beautiful scenes and sentences rather than stories with a clear plot.”
“I am finally able to introduce The Evenings to my international students”
Whether it becomes an international success or not, professor Bax is thrilled to have an English translation of De Avonden at his disposal. For him, The Evenings opens up new teaching possibilities. “Because there was no English translation of De Avonden, it wasn’t possible to have international students read from it”, he explains. “Now I can finally introduce my international students to The Evenings. That’s great, since the novel is not only a masterpiece, it has also been of tremendous importance to Dutch literature.”