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.

W.F. Hermans: Beyond Sleep

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.”


  1. Those in the know debate as to which novel is the greatest: Beyond Sleep or The Darkroom of Damocles I can’t believe that Hermans could better TDoD but then I’m not in the know …. yet! Not long now, though.

  2. Oh there you go Lizzy, William has read them both … excellent background to Hermans himself as well in that piece. ‘Fairly uncompromising’ seems a nice way of putting it: his personality comes across well in the afterword to Beyond Sleep:

    There is, I believe, a growing trend among authors to rewrite or thoroughly revise novels that were first published many years ago. An excellent idea.

    Some reviewers object to this – no doubt because their criticism of the original book no longer applies to the revised version.

    All the better, I’d say.

    I will definitely be reading The Darkroom of Damocles: I might wait a while to see if they do put this one out in paperback though… then when you’ve read Beyond Sleep, Lizzy, we can all compare notes!

  3. As a dutchman it’s great to read some foreign appreciation for “our” great author W.F. Hermans. I have read many books of him, but I think “Nooit meer slapen” (= Beyond sleep) is his best.
    Nice blog btw.

  4. okay I reread The Dead last night and found I did not remember ANYTHING. Perhaps I have read too many books and should stop. Have also ordered the Bloomsday book and will be having another stab at Ulysses when it arrives. I have a feeling that is one book I will remember.

  5. But did you enjoy it, Candy??

    Thanks for visiting, Arend! Good to see Hermans is so well regarded in his home country, even if we’re just beginning to discover him here. I hope we get to see more of his books in English soon.

  6. Well I don’t know if I enjoyed it. It was very good but not calculated to evoke joy or hilarity obviously. Which is not necessarily what makes a book enjoyable. I found it depressing actually. Perhaps it is because we are in the depths of a truly horrific winter and everyone is sick around here and depressed to begin with. I don’t think I have ever actually enjoyed Joyce to be honest. I have never enjoyed Hemingway either. There are a lot of books I don’t enjoy but am still glad I read. I like to know things. I read about the Holocaust extensivelty and have for about fifty years. Those are not enjoyable either but I feel the need to know.

  7. I like quirky books like this.

    Especially when people have to rough it and they are not used to it.

    Interesting note about facts: how much is really needed or will be put in a warehouse.

  8. I’ll look out for Hermans now. The” Less well known European writers than they should be category” brings to mind a recently read book by Wolfgang Koeppen, The Hothouse, which was excellent, and similarly uncompromising.

  9. Thanks Andrew – this must be one of those synchronicity moments because I have Koeppen’s Death in Rome at home waiting to be read – it was on the ‘Booksellers Personally Recommend…’ shelves of my local Waterstone’s. Time to move it up the pile then! Will also look for The Hothouse.

  10. Just copying pasting a bit of text from The Hothouse to give a flavour:

    And then a man was back in the cage he’d been born into, the cage called Fatherland which dangled along with a bunch of other cages called Fatherland, all on a rod, which a great collector of cages and peoples was carrying deeper into history…You were swung on the pole that the great cage bearer had over his shoulder. Who could say where he was going? And did you have any say in the matter? You and your cage might wind up on the pole of the other cage-bearer who was just as unpredictable as the first( and who knows what daemon, what idee fixe was actuating him) in heading for the unknown- an expedition that would be taught to the children in time.

  11. I read both these books in the original Dutch years ago and loved them. Thanks for the reminder… I shall dig them out of the bookshelf and re-read them.

  12. Thanks for visiting, cartooncat, hope you enjoy them even more this time around!

    Thanks for the quote Andrew, I somehow missed this when you put it up a few days ago. Very good indeed, will seek out The Hothouse as soon as I get to Death in Rome.

  13. I must stop badgering you, but this one sounds great too. Another one to add to the ever-growing list. I’d heard about ‘Darkroom’, but have never seen it in any shop here in Australia.

    Weirdly, Coetzee lives about 2 mins walk from me in Adelaide. Sometimes I walk my dog past his house and see his washing line and think, “Ah, now I’ve seen a Nobel-winner’s underpants.”

  14. Badger on, JRSM, especially if you have more stories like that. I didn’t even know Coetzee lived in Australia. A friend of mine lives around the corner from Will Self and has seen him sitting on his front step in his pyjamas smoking, presumably because Deborah Moggach doesn’t let him do it in the house. I myself have no such literary celebs nearby, unless Glenn Patterson counts.

  15. It’s great to see that foreigners are reading the work of Hermans. I’m dutch and I’ve noticed that younger people in Holland are starting to forget who he is. Wich is horrible ofcourse. I hope that they’ll translate ‘Ik heb altijd gelijk’ in English: ‘I’m always right’ and ‘Onder professoren’ wich could be translated as ‘The academical in-crowd’. I think those novels might be even better than the other two. Anyway… it’s a nice blog you have there!

  16. Thanks Kundera – I’m glad to hear your recommendations of other Hermans novels which deserve wider attention. I do hope one of our enterprising publishers gives us more of his stuff.

    I read somewhere that Hermans was considered one of the ‘big three’ of modern Dutch literature, along with Harry Mulisch (who died a week ago) and Gerard Reve. I bought one of Reve’s books, Parents Worry, some time ago, the only of his books to be translated into English as far as I am aware, and your comment reminds me that I must get around to that one too.

  17. Re: J.M. Coetzee’s delights, and how he takes or expresses them.
    On the back Overlook Press’s “Darkroom of Damocles” released in the US, he is quoted as saying of “Beyond Sleep” ” A novel of worldly disengagement trembling on the edge of tragedy, all the more comic for being related in Herman’s pokerfaced manner.” Not at all the same in the US as “hilarious” in England.

    RE: Lizzy Siddal’s review, and adding to the archeology of blurbs, Milan Kundera is quoted on the front of this “Darkroom of Damocles” as saying “I read it in a single sitting… a thriller during which the suspense never flags… a great novel.” I guess there’s much hidden in the ellipses, including terror of length, subsequently overcome.

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