The Evenings: A Winter’s Tale. By Gerard Reve. Translated by Sam Garrett. Pushkin Press; 317 pages; $22 and £12.99.

A Foolish Virgin. By Ida Simons. Translated by Liz Waters. MacLehose Press; 216 pages; £14.99.

The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories. Edited by Joost Zwagerman. Penguin Modern Classics; 555 pages; £12.99.

GERARD REVE’S diabolically funny novel, “The Evenings”, came out in 1947, but has only recently been translated into English. The book has been praised on both sides of the Atlantic and has led readers to other freshly translated modern classics of Dutch literature. Among these are Ida Simons’s comic “A Foolish Virgin” (1959), about pre-war Jewish life, and Joost Zwagerman’s collection of 36 landmarks of modernist short fiction for “The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories”. Together they map a landscape of the imagination that is far from flat and never dull.

Zwagerman, a prolific writer who committed suicide in 2015, says in the preface that the writers he selects share one aim: “To give a voice to madness”. As voters in the Netherlands prepare for an election on March 15th that may reward the unruly populism of Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party, readers abroad should hearken to that literary voice in all its cliché-busting oddity. Rational calculation and amiable consensus do not invariably govern Dutch heads and hearts. Dig beneath the topsoil of “this supposedly hard-headed country”, advises Zwagerman, and you hit a contradictory layer of “contemplative arch-romantics” and “reserved iconoclasts”.

These quiet rebels are all over his anthology, from “An Eccentric” by Marcellus Emants, convinced that “we are doomed to live in absurdity”, to J.M.A. Biesheuvel’s tragicomic loser, plagued by “unspecified fears that devour the soul”. The colonial legacy of the Dutch East Indies sprinkles its fiery spice of adventure, danger, desire—and guilt—throughout the book. In a fable by Harry Mulisch, Sergeant Massuro literally turns to stone “from remorse” at his jungle atrocities in New Guinea. Several stories track the revenge that society takes on its heretics and mavericks. “We were on top of the world,” recalls the narrator of the 1915 tale “Young Titans” by Nescio (pen-name of J.H.F Gronloh), “and the world was on top of us.” In Frans Kellendonk’s poignant “Foreign Service”, the Egyptian cleaner Gamal assesses his new neighbours. With the Dutch, he decides, “there is [a] war of the soul and the greediness and then the greediness wins.”

Driven by mischief and devilry, these books show the Dutch awkward squad on parade. Reve himself would rank as a colonel in any regiment of renegades; a gay Catholic, he offended every orthodoxy. “The Evenings” chronicles the ten final days of 1946 through the aimless encounters of a vain but troubled filing clerk, Frits van Egters, with his friends, his parents and strangers in a dank December Amsterdam. Reve combines a pitch-black comedy of manners with swingeing satire and metaphysical despair. He joins hilarity to heartbreak. “A day squandered in its entirety,” ponders Frits after another drab outing. “Hallelujah!”

Bleak, droll and exquisitely expressed, in the manner of Samuel Beckett’s near-contemporary works of fiction, “The Evenings” hints at the anguish that underlies this anomie. Frits and his jesting chums hardly mention the second world war, which inflicted such misery on the Netherlands. A mood of stunned trauma hangs over this novel like the clammy mist on Amsterdam’s canals. In this frozen aftermath, the memory of horror surfaces indirectly in Frits’s gruesome nightmares and, very occasionally, in overt allusions. A news report tells of a child blown up by a grenade. “Deferred suffering from the war,” remarks Frits. “That is always a joy.”

These kids’ air of brutal nonchalance—their morbid chats about diseases and accidents; Frits’s comic obsession with baldness as a harbinger of death; his claim that “Everything over 60 should be done away with”—masks the shock of damaged survivors. From the deep midnight of shattered Europe, Reve crafted not only an existential masterwork worthy to stand with Beckett or Albert Camus but an oblique historical testament. Sam Garrett’s splendid translation does justice both to the deadpan humour and the half-buried pain.

“The Evenings” mentions a schoolboy called Sal Jachthandelaar who “made it to Switzerland and from there to England. His family is dead.” No explanation given; none required. Under the Nazi occupation, more than 100,000 Dutch Jews (out of 140,000) were killed. Many English-language readers who pick up Simons’s “A Foolish Virgin” will have read only one other account of a Dutch Jewish girlhood: the diary of Anne Frank. Yet Simons, who narrowly avoided transportation to a death camp, refuses to let the grief of hindsight darken her effervescent story.

Astute but naive, little Gittel shuttles between her home in The Hague and relatives in Antwerp. In the 1920s, the Jews of both cities live safely, even merrily. Still, the grave banker Mr Mardell reprimands her skittish folly and insists that “there’s no joy without suffering.” This translation by Liz Waters conveys Gittel’s madcap exuberance amid fun-loving families who scent no storms over the horizon. Grandpa Harry is even “a Jewish anti-Semite”: a “relatively innocent pleasure” then, “of a kind no longer available to the gas-chamber generation”. Planted in this dancing novel, that phrase goes off like a bomb in a ballroom. Within living memory, this phlegmatic and pragmatic land has endured a state-enforced collective madness. For Zwagerman, Dutch writers habitually “explore the vague borderland between delusion and reality”. In public, as in private, that line may not always prove as firm as the sturdy dams and dykes of Zuiderzee.