February 14, 2008
W.F. Hermans: Beyond Sleep
For the second time in a row I must thank Lizzy Siddal: it was her review of The Darkroom of Damocles last year which made me want to read something by Dutch author W.F. Hermans. For an author who the blurb tells us is “considered one of the greatest post-war European writers,” they haven’t exactly been rushing his stuff into English. The Darkroom of Damocles was published in 2007, but in the end I plumped for Beyond Sleep (1966), translated in 2006. No sign of either one appearing in paperback anytime soon, so it’s a hefty hardback risk.
Then again, on the upside, this is a Harvill Secker hardback, so well produced and squarely bound that it can stand on its spine without falling over:
(Don’t try this at home.) What of the insides though? A quote on the cover from J.M. Coetzee calls Beyond Sleep “hilarious,” which is a bit odd, as I’ve never found much evidence in Coetzee’s books that he likes a good laugh. In a curious way, though, this is the perfect choice: the book is both funny and deeply serious: it has that odd combination of weighty themes and borderline slapstick humour that we (or I) only see in fiction in translation.
This combination is well indicated in the opening sequences, where the narrator, geologist Alfred Issendorf, sets out to obtain aerial photographs to assist his expedition in Norway. He meets one person after another, to be sent hither and thither in fruitless pursuit of the photos, and all this has a Kafkaesque quality to it, of comic frustration as well as illustrating man’s impotence in the face of greater powers: authority, fate, chance.
This sense of futility arises throughout the story. A professor tells Alfred, dispiritingly, “I have seen a great deal of scientific work done to no avail. Warehouses filled with collections no-one takes any notice of, until the day they are thrown out for lack of space.” Or: “To think: yes I have this talent, but everything I could have done with it has already been done.” This doesn’t bode well for Alfred’s own investigations, which hope to prove that ‘ice-holes’ in the Norwegian wilds are in fact craters from meteorites, and by the time the expedition comes around, Alfred feels “stuck fast, like a warped axle in a damaged hub. In a fix I can’t squirm out of.” Heading into no-man’s-land, he is reminded of the fate of Scott of the Antarctic:
Battling to reach the South Pole in his frozen thermal underwear, his toes frostbitten, but his heart pounding in his throat at the idea of treading on ground that had never been trodden on by man … Ground? Snow then. And treading on snow heretofore untrodden by man is something anyone with a back garden can do in winter.
As well as this repeated theme of the dual nature of the pioneer – possible hero, potential failure (“ninety-nine out of a hundred discoveries are seen as foregone conclusions”) – the book balances its cynicism by also considering the individual as part of a greater body of mankind. Alfred considers ancient megaliths and the work involved by nameless generations:
How they managed without horses, winches, wheels is a mystery. But it may have taken several generations to assemble twenty or thirty boulders in one place. Building cathedrals was to the Middle Ages what shunting megaliths was to the Stone Age. Levering them forward with the aid of tree trunks, half a metre a day. Which is one hundred and fifty metres a year. One point five kilometres in a decade. Anything is feasible, provided people aren’t in a hurry, provided they have faith in their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and don’t doubt the necessity of the task in hand – such as building barrows for the dead.
Cathedrals took even longer to build, and they were just as useless. Barrows are the Stone Age version of cathedrals. What is my cathedral? I am building a cathedral of unknown proportions, and by the time it is finished I will be long dead and no-one will ever know of my contribution.
Once in the highlands of Norway, the story returns to its comic beginning, as Alfred and his colleagues struggle in tents with the persistent rain and mosquitos, and the usual difficulties of non-comfort living (“We take turns going outside armed with six sheets of toilet paper and the folding spade. It’s the only way”).
Beyond Sleep is a rich and strange book, becoming almost surreal in the later sections so that we wonder if all this is really happening – could “beyond sleep” mean dreams as well as death? – and I was reminded at times of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, with its similar fluid structure and themes of purpose, stress and finding a role in life.
The Aztecs performed human sacrifices on a nightly basis, to ensure the sun would rise in the morning. They had done so since time immemorial, the way we wind up our clocks before going to bed. Not a murmur from anyone, not a soul who dared to suggest it might be worth finding out what would happen if they skipped the ceremony for once.
Was there ever an Aztec who raised his voice to protest: “What we’re doing is insane!”
In a world where so many sacrifices have already been made without any effect at all, how can anyone believe there are still sacrifices worth making?
Hilarious? “Well, more pithy, I suppose,” as Basil Fawlty put it, but it’s a book of curious glory amid the brittle strangeness. The best joke (apart from the one the publishers are playing on us, by not issuing a paperback) Hermans reserves for his afterword, which tells us that this translation is not of the first edition, but of the fifteenth printing, which has some 250 changes to the text – almost one per page. “But the book is still the same: that is to say, what it should have been when it first came out.”