Dutch Master, by Francine Prose

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July 2022 Issue [Reviews]

Dutch Master

On Willem Frederik Hermans

Illustration by Zé Otavio. Source photograph © Philip Mechanicus/MAI

[Reviews]

Dutch Master

On Willem Frederik Hermans
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Discussed in this essay:

A Guardian Angel Recalls, by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. Archipelago. 511 pages. $20.

An Untouched House, by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer. Archipelago. 120 pages. $16.

The Darkroom of Damocles, by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke. Pushkin. 411 pages. £9.99.

Beyond Sleep, by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke. Pushkin. 312 pages. £9.99.

The work of Willem Frederik Hermans suggests what might have happened if Graham Greene had outlined the plot of a novel, set it in the Netherlands, and invited Patricia Highsmith to populate it with her most amoral and slippery characters. Inept, ignoble, and not especially bright, the men at the center of Hermans’s pessimistic and extraordinarily engaging narratives are focused on saving their own skins. They behave abysmally, committing horrific crimes while attempting to cover up the crimes they have already committed. They are astonished when they fall in love because they believe themselves to be unlovable, and when they doubt the sincerity of their lovers’ affections, we may be inclined to agree. The pitch-dark universe of these fictions remains unlit by a flicker of grace or redemption; readers in search of a sunny resolution or a protagonist with whom they can identify should probably look elsewhere.

One of the Netherlands’ most prolific and celebrated writers, Hermans was born in 1921 to a middle-class family in Amsterdam. He attended the elite Barlaeus Gymnasium, where he read the work of Kafka and Kleist. The author of more than two dozen novels and short story collections, and the recipient of numerous prestigious prizes, he spent twenty years as a geography teacher at the University of Groningen. A controversial figure in his native land, he was put on trial in 1951 for the anti-Catholic sentiments expressed by one of his characters. His outspokenness and pessimism, his harsh critique of the failures of the Dutch Resistance, and his ferocious reviews of fellow authors did not endear him to his colleagues or to his compatriots.

In a foreword to his story collection Paranoia, he wrote:

What we call our life is nothing but a remnant, the odor of a fire that has been put out long ago. . . . We live in a falsified world. The same words are repeated but they express nothing. In our language there is one truthful word only: chaos.

Difficult and exacting, he is said to have canceled a French translation of one of his books because it wasn’t completed on time, and in an afterword to his 1965 novel Beyond Sleep, he reports having made two hundred and fifty corrections to a later edition, in order to produce “what it should have been when it first came out.” In 1973, he moved to Paris, where he died in 1995.

Three of the four novels now available in English take place during World War II. The outlier, Beyond Sleep, superbly translated by Ina Rilke, is the least bleak and violent, and has a far more appealing—if no less incompetent—hero, a geology graduate student. Like his counterparts in Hermans’s other books, the nerdy young geologist, Alfred Issendorf, is determined to survive under highly challenging circumstances; but unlike them, he is not required to commit or cover up a murder. The tonal and philosophical differences between this often humorous novel and the violence and unremitting gloom of the other three hint at the breadth of Hermans’s range—and sharpen our curiosity about the works that have yet to appear in English.

Beyond Sleep tracks Alfred’s ill-starred research expedition to Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway, where he hopes to discover the craters that will prove his mentor’s theory that a rain of meteorites once struck the earth. His own fondest wish is to find a shard of meteorite, the “little stone of cosmic provenance” that he has longed to possess since childhood.

Unsurprisingly, nothing goes as planned. In Oslo, he meets an ancient professor, a blind Norwegian jingoist more interested in settling old scores with rival academics than in providing the aerial photographs required for the mission. Progressively smaller planes transport him to the far north. There, with his circadian rhythm profoundly disrupted by the white nights, he suffers from the insomnia that gives the novel its title, and his sleeplessness is exacerbated by swarms of voracious mosquitoes:

Over the past day I have developed a successful technique of killing them by means of slaps to the head, my hands being guided by sound not sight. The sonar-driven coup de grâce. In my current position slapping is impossible, and besides it shouldn’t be necessary. The head-net should offer full protection. But a pinprick sensation on my nose makes me suspicious. I open my eyes. Settled on the mesh just above my right eye is a mosquito.

The three companions with whom he heads deeper into the wilderness are stronger, more agile, and better prepared. Alfred lacks the proper boots for crossing the rocky streams and has trouble shouldering the backpacks stuffed with provisions and equipment. Anyone who has fallen behind on a hike will recognize Alfred’s vacillations between shame and barely suppressed panic as he struggles to keep up. After a while, he comes to fear humiliation almost as much as death: “Even if I fell into the ravine and got killed, I’d still be mortified, albeit posthumously.”

En route, the men catch and cook fish. Over dinner and tucked away in their tents, they have intense and frequently comical discussions about the purpose of education, the existence of God, Wittgenstein, explorers, and the uses and abuses of literature. Our hero thinks often about his beloved father, a botanist who fell into a crevasse and died when Alfred was seven, and whose failure to get the recognition he deserved is partly why his son has abandoned his dream of becoming a flutist.

Early on, Alfred receives an almost parodically manipulative letter from his mother, “Holland’s foremost essayist,” whose career has consisted entirely of writing about books that she has never read, and whose method—recycling reviews from the foreign press—allows Hermans to critique the shallow pretensions of her adoring Dutch audience. “Anyone wanting to appear cultured simply reads what my mother has written,” he observes. “And then parrots her opinion without mentioning where they got it from.” He gets injured in a minor accident, and his misery and paranoia increase when two of the other hikers abandon him without warning. Misreading his compass, he becomes separated from his one remaining friend. From the start, hints and portents have primed us to anticipate disaster, but when it finally occurs, it’s not the one we have been expecting.

The wartime novels are less whimsical and far more disturbing. Perhaps the most brutal (the others are close contenders) is also the briefest. First published in 1951, its 2018 edition lucidly translated by David Colmer, An Untouched House is a trial-by-fire introduction to Hermans’s work. If you’re not put off by the litany of horrors compressed into its eighty pages, you’ll be enthralled (as I was) by the other novels, which are not merely longer but notably more nuanced and complex.

We know very little about the first-person narrator of An Untouched House, except that he is a Dutch partisan temporarily separated from his comrades during the last days of World War II. We can’t see him. We never hear his name. We’re not sure exactly where he is: somewhere in an embattled no-man’s-land overrun by desperate Germans, Russians, and partisans. Ten pages into the novel, he kills four German soldiers in a barrage of sentences that ring out like shots: “A German emerged and ran for the road. I shot him. A second, as well. A third. A fourth. They bent double like butterflies being mounted.”

Wandering into a resort town, he finds a rather grand house that appears to have been deserted in haste; a woman’s coat is draped over the sofa.

It spoke like the objects in detective stories. It said: although I am expensive I am lying here carelessly bunched together. Someone who was about to put me on and step through the door dropped me here. She’d noticed that she’d forgotten something. She is still in the house. Be careful, you are not alone.—Two stag’s heads on the wall said nothing.

The partisan makes himself comfortable and almost begins to believe that the house is his. That’s what he tells the Nazi colonel who comes to the door and subsequently moves in, along with his slovenly soldiers. The narrator pretends to be German, and when the rightful owner eventually shows up, he shoots him in the back of the head from an upstairs window, then strangles the owner’s wife in the bathroom. There’s a surreal subplot involving a nonagenarian tropical-fish enthusiast, a hint of necrophilia (the narrator puts his hand on the thigh of the murdered wife), and some celebratory cross-dressing: two male partisans appear in the dead woman’s fancy frocks, makeup, and silk stockings. But what’s most interesting, and what connects this novel with the others set in wartime—A Guardian Angel Recalls and The Darkroom of Damocles—are questions of identity, authenticity, and duplicity. As these novels chart the ways in which warfare can deform and degrade us, they measure the gap between their characters’ true inner selves and the false identities they assume: the roles they play and the lies they tell. And all three books monitor the terrifying ease with which that gap can narrow.

Though Hermans has been compared to Vonnegut, the comparison doesn’t entirely fit. His work has none of Vonnegut’s occasional tweeness, and he’s willing to go much further toward abject nihilism. But the often-quoted line from Vonnegut’s Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” could serve as an epigraph for Hermans’s wartime novels.

Before An Untouched House begins, the fighting and death the narrator has witnessed have effectively wiped out his memory and identity:

The war had never really taken place; as long as I wasn’t wounded, nothing had happened. There had never been any other people, not in my lifetime, nowhere in the whole world.

The partisans who arrive at the house near the end of the novel seem to think that he is the Nazi he’s been pretending to be—and beat him up. But by the time the partisans have tortured the German colonel and strung up the bodies of the house’s owners, it occurs to us that the narrator might as well be a Nazi. It hardly matters, because none of these soldiers are any better or worse than the others. The book has become a classic in the Netherlands, despite (or perhaps partly because of) its savage portrayal of the warriors whom the Dutch idealized for their efforts to liberate the country.

All of the novels are remarkably fast-paced; Hermans, who claimed to have written serious novels disguised as entertainment, clearly doesn’t believe in making the reader wait long for something dramatic to happen. In the opening pages of The Darkroom of Damocles, also translated by Ina Rilke, a boy named Henri Osewoudt comes home from school one day to learn that his mother has murdered his father and been committed to a mental asylum. His uncle, a businessman who deals in bird feathers, takes the boy in, and his female cousin, Ria—who, at nineteen, is seven years older than he is—invites him to sleep in her bed. Ostensibly offering to comfort him during his first night away from home, she proceeds to molest him that night and for the next half dozen years. As he grows older, Osewoudt begins to find her increasingly repellent, but when his mother is released from the hospital, he marries his cousin, moves in with her and his mother—now given to wandering around the house in a mask made from newspaper and actively fending off an imaginary menace—and reopens his father’s tobacco shop.

Even with a less fraught family, Osewoudt, we feel, would still have problems, most of them churned up by anxiety about his masculinity. He’s short and skinny, with a high-pitched voice and wispy blond hair; he is obsessed with the smoothness of his skin and with the fact that he has never had to shave. We need to know all this to understand why his life changes so radically when a stranger named Dorbeck shows up at his door.

Dorbeck looks a great deal like Osewoudt, “the way a photo negative looks like the positive,” and Osewoudt feels as if he is looking in a mirror and seeing someone else: a person with black hair and an enviable shadow of stubble darkening his jawline. Dorbeck is in every way more confident and manly than he is. Osewoudt runs a side business printing photographs, and his first communication from Dorbeck is a message asking him to develop some film, then cut the negatives into strips and send them to an address in Amsterdam.

Soon after, Dorbeck reappears, gives Osewoudt a pistol, and instructs him to meet him the following week at the Haarlem railroad station. There they join up with a large, sweaty fellow named Zéwüster, who tells Osewoudt where they will be going and what to do when they get there:

We go inside together. As soon as we’re in the living room, you shoot. Shoot whoever’s nearest to you. Mind you don’t make a mistake, because if we both shoot the same man, the other one’ll take us out.

What’s striking is that, though we spend more than four hundred pages inside Osewoudt’s consciousness, we have almost no idea what he is thinking or feeling between that first command to kill and its execution, except for an unfamiliar sensation of lightness, “like being on another planet, where the force of gravity is only a fraction of the earth’s.” He shoots a red-faced man, who grabs for him as he falls to the ground; after the incident, we are again told nothing about Osewoudt’s response, except that he is worried he might accidentally slip up and get caught.

Throughout the novel, Osewoudt does whatever Dorbeck asks him to do. He brutally murders men and women—Hermans seems to enjoy, and excel at, writing scenes of extreme violence—in some cases without knowing precisely why the hit has been ordered. Osewoudt’s sole twinge of remorse overtakes him after he has briefly looked after, then abandoned, a little boy whose parents Osewoudt and a female accomplice have just murdered. Once the remnants of his moral conscience have apparently been obliterated, he takes to violence like the proverbial duck to water and commits a pair of crimes—killing his wife in revenge for her having betrayed him to the Germans, and finishing off her lover, a Nazi sympathizer—that Dorbeck has nothing to do with.

Osewoudt assumes, as does the reader, that Dorbeck is working for the Resistance, but he neither asks for, nor receives, a full explanation of his handler’s true motives or political sympathies. It’s not until halfway through the novel that Osewoudt confesses, to a young Jewish woman he has fallen in love with, what the reader has suspected all along—that his unquestioning obedience to Dorbeck has more to do with his longing to become more like the man he so closely resemblesthan with any sincere desire to liberate Holland from its occupiers:

A soldier obeys whoever’s superior in rank. He doesn’t obey the man, he obeys the orders. But I can only obey Dorbeck, and no one forced me. Do try to understand: before I knew him I didn’t have a life, really. . . . I had no skills, no ambition. It wasn’t until I met Dorbeck that I felt I wanted something, if only to be like Dorbeck, if only to want the same things as he did. And wanting the same thing as someone else is a step up from not wanting anything.

But what does Dorbeck want? Osewoudt never finds out, though he suffers greatly as he does his idol’s bidding. He gets arrested, beaten, jailed, hospitalized, and rescued from the hospital by four mysterious agents who vanish without a trace. Disguised as a nurse, he spends a significant portion of the novel in drag until he is found out, and—after the Germans are defeated—is again arrested, this time accused of having worked all along as a double agent for the Nazis.

No one can find the men who took him from the hospital, or Zéwüster, or a man who mistook Osewoudt for Dorbeck, whom he claimed to have met in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark. Osewoudt can’t manage to find the crime scenes, the places to which he was ordered to go; the photo he took of himself and Dorbeck looking in the mirror turns out to be a photo of himself and the German officer he poisoned. A series of snapshots—three pajama-clad soldiers wearing gas masks, a snowman with a helmet and rifle—that have served as signals connecting him with Dorbeck, and which identify a female agent whom Osewoudt tries and fails to save, are now used as evidence against him. And no one can locate the ephemeral Dorbeck, if he even exists.

It’s astonishing and virtuosic, the way in which almost every event in the novel so far comes to seem more and more sinister in hindsight. And it reminds us of how the differences between reality and fantasy, patriotism and treachery, can—under certain circumstances—be a matter of perspective.

In A Guardian Angel Recalls, translated by David Colmer, the action unfolds in the days just before and after the German invasion of Holland. Its protagonist, Alberegt, is “a fat man of thirty-eight. His pink face, all too meticulously shaven and coiffured, and his watery eyes in particular betrayed his years of excessive drinking.” A public prosecutor, Alberegt spends the novel compulsively sucking on peppermints as he tries to stay away from alcohol, as he has during the four months he has lived with his lover, Sysy, a Jewish refugee from Germany.

As the novel begins, he’s seeing Sysy off on a boat bound for America, where she is headed in a desperate effort to escape the imminent invasion. The book is narrated by Alberegt’s guardian angel, and as the prosecutor races back to the city for a court trial, the forlorn lover speculates about Sysy in ways that have little to do with love, and which try the patience of even the most forgiving and tolerant angel.

Sysy never loved him, he thinks. Why would a beautiful young woman be attracted to him? She just slept with him in exchange for the help he offered her. Maybe there is still time to turn her in, so that she will be imprisoned in the Westerbork detention camp—where, he imagines, he can visit and comfort her on a lovely spring day.

Preoccupied, afraid that he’ll miss the trial, and urged on by the devil to ignore the angel’s prudent warnings, he drives the wrong way down a curving, one-way road, and runs over a little girl, killing her. It is indicative of his character—and of the bad choices that the devil urges him to make throughout the novel—that, rather than report the accident and seek out the child’s family, he decides to hide the body instead:

He picked the child up, making sure the dripping blood couldn’t splash onto him by gripping her in two places by the back of her clothes—like holding a puppy by the loose skin over its backbone—walked over to the side of the road behind the car, and launched the body into the bushes. The foliage opened willingly, but very noisily, and closed again entirely after the small body had fallen through it.

The novel is structured like certain Highsmith novels: a character commits a crime, sometimes involuntarily, and spends the rest of the book hoping to escape his fate or waiting to be apprehended. The difference here is that the disaster befalling Alberegt is historical as well as personal. Through a series of improbable but somehow persuasive coincidences, he learns that the child, like Sysy, is a Jewish refugee from Germany, and that the elderly Jewish couple looking after her are bewildered and heartbroken by her disappearance. As German bombs rain down on the city and destroy the courthouse, Alberegt consoles himself with the possibility that a colleague who possesses a dossier that might expose his guilt has likely been killed in the wreckage. The discovery that his brother, an artist, has wound up on a list of people sought by the Gestapo, and the sense of abandonment that overcomes the population when they learn that the queen has fled to England, intensifies Alberegt’s panic and the growing terror of his family and friends. Alberegt tries to convince himself that the importance of the little girl’s death has been overshadowed by the death all around him—a specious line of reasoning that deeply dismays his guardian angel, who has, throughout the novel, offered a metaphysical take on the succession of sordid and catastrophic events.

My heart filled with concern. I perceived a heathen indifference awakening in this man and supplanting his gratitude to God for miraculously sparing him so far. Keeping his crime secret and preserving him from a ghastly confrontation with his victims: her foster parents, the Leikowitses.

Instead of humility and gratefulness, I could even detect something akin to hatred for God and the whole order of things. It is, he said to himself, as if my entire life has been unmasked, as if all the careful decisions I made, hoping to do my best, were a farce and always have been.

When Alberegt and his friends try and fail to escape by boat, the angel’s reflection on their situation may remind us of all of Hermans’s other novels: “Humans are like that. Their imagination plays tricks on them. Always out to save their skins, even though they’re saved time after time without them doing anything.”

Ultimately, Alberegt’s friends descend into anti-Semitic musings, burning the books that they fear might invoke the Germans’ displeasure. It’s hardly the sunniest or most positive image of humanity: each of us mired in self-interest, capable of almost anything if our survival is at issue or if we think it might lessen our individual burden of guilt. And yet it’s a measure of Hermans’s gifts that we find ourselves so painfully aware of something we may have thought in the dead of night and kept to ourselves when we awoke. He makes us grateful that he has transformed his fears into fiction so vivid and entertaining that we can simultaneously recognize, investigate, and escape our darkest imaginings.