This is an enjoyable book, even though the subject is a lonely adolescent who has a very cynical outlook on his life. I don’t usually care for coming-of-age books — I hated the Catcher in the Rye — but Frits Egberts, the main character in De Avonden, is likeable. This is a post-war classic in Dutch literature and while I have read about the book, I never the story itself.
The main character is a clumsy boy, 23 years old, who still lives with his parents. He’s not too happy about living with them, and criticizes them in his thoughts. The father is hard-hearing and rather clumsy and detached. Seems like the parents don’t have the greatest relationship with each other either (“‘Dat is nu een intellectueel’, zei zijn moeder.”)
The book is well-known for its emphasis on the physical, and the low ambitions of the main characters. This is contrast to the prevailing (pre-war) literature which often was, if not moralizing, then at least hopeful and with characters “fit and of good characters”. The World War murdered the illusions of young people, as an award description for this book would say. In De Avonden the conversation is often about bodily functions, hair loss, diseases or even torture. I skipped over the more egregious descriptions of animal cruelty.
Details of life after the World War are interesting. My father was born in 1949, so he could almost be one of the babies figuring in the book. At one point the light in the house goes off, and won’t go on until they deposit a guilder coin in a box in the hallway. Coal is expensive and people are careful not to heat the house too warm. At one point, Frits is eating slices of bread with gravy, something pretty similar to the horrible but efficient dinners that Maarten Koning in Het Bureau would make for himself when his wife wasn’t home.
The book showcases a lot of traditional Dutch food. At the end of the story, before New Year’s Day, Frits mother is making appelbollen. Sure enough has lots of comments on her cooking and he tries to eat one when it’s still very hot. Here are some more dinner descriptions in the book:
- “‘s avonds vlees, aardappels en veldsla; pudding van rijstgries, met bessensap, na”
- “als dessert was er gele vanillepudding met beschuiten jam en chocoladehagelslag in lagen er in verwerkt”
- “Zijn moeder bracht vijf kleine chocoladepuddingen binnen, elk in een theekopje. Ze kiepte ze een voor een op een schoteltje. ‘Gelukt’, zei ze.”
- “Hij schepte zich uit de schalen op. Er waren aardappelen, ingemaakte tuinbonen, appelmoes en varkensvlees. ‘Ik vind, dat het weer verrukkelijk is, moeder’, zei hij, ‘vooral de jus.’ ‘Doe daar niet te gek mee alsjeblieft’, zei ze, ‘want meer dan in de kom is er niet.’”
I read this in the first week of December, which is kind of appropriate since the storyline starts on December 22nd and has its finale in New Year’s Eve, 1946.
De Avonden by Gerard Reve.
I read this book in Dutch.