In his story ‘Young Titans’, first published in 1918, the great Dutch writer Nescio (1882–1961) depicts a group of young men who are torn between their dull lives as jobbing clerks and their fading artistic and literary aspirations. ‘No, we didn’t actually do anything,’ the narrator of the story recalls. ‘We did our work at the office, not all that well, for bosses we despised … But we were waiting. For what? We never knew.’ The experience of clerkship lies at the heart of much modernist fiction, not least because so many of its foremost practitioners, from Franz Kafka to Italo Svevo, were clerks themselves. Moreover the absurdity of office life is a particularly pertinent theme in Dutch fiction, perhaps because of the Netherlands’ persistent reputation as an industrious trading nation. In Gerard Reve’s newly translated 1947 novel, The Evenings, the protagonist, Frits van Etgers, describes his job with self-mocking laconicism: ‘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.’ The staccato constructions and melancholy aloofness of Reve’s prose betray the influence of Nescio’s exquisitely self-effacing style, but, unlike Nescio’s young clerks, Frits dreads not the numbing routines of the office but the dead space of the evenings and the weekends in Amsterdam.
The narrative of The Evenings unfolds over the last ten days of December 1946. Time, with its drifting irreversibility, is Frits’s major concern. Midway through a languorous Sunday he silently reflects, ‘We’re more than half-way … the afternoon started an hour ago. Valuable time, time irretrievable, have I squandered.’ But