W.F. Hermans: The Darkroom of Damocles

I would like to compile, for my own personal reassurance, a list of moments when admired authors have shown that they too struggle with difficult books. There was Martin Amis’s review of Don Quixote which he said “suffers from one serious flaw – that of outright unreadability.” Or Seamus Deane, Booker-shortlisted novelist and critic, whose introduction to the Penguin Modern Classic edition of Finnegans Wake opens: “The first thing to say about Finnegans Wake is that it is, in an important sense, unreadable.” Now, on the back cover of the Harvill (hardback-only: again) edition of Willem Fredrik Hermans’ The Darkroom of Damocles, we have Milan Kundera, admitting that he was “intimidated” by the novel’s length. Milan: don’t you worry. Just stick with me and everything will be all right.

He was right though. The first thing to say about The Darkroom of Damocles [1958, tr. 2007 by Ina Rilke] is that it is, in an important sense, too bloody long. But it is very readable. I had high hopes for this book as Beyond Sleep, Hermans’ only other novel in English translation, was one of my favourite books of 2008. It has been praised by reliable voices such as Lizzy Siddal and William Rycroft. And Milan Kundera.

It takes us through the life of Henri Ousewoudt, “a diminutive freak, a toad reared upright” who is orphaned when his mentally ill mother kills his father. Henri moves in with his aunt and uncle, and ends up marrying his cousin Ria, who is as physically unappealing as he is (“her teeth did not enhance her mouth, nor did they make it look fierce, they merely clamped it shut, rather like the clasp on a purse … her chortling reminded him of the squeak of chamois leather on a wet windowpane”). All this is brilliantly sketched, with enough omissions to make the reader work a little, and by page twenty we are into the main body of the story, where Henri has taken over his uncle’s tobacconist shop, and has grown into a man who “did nothing, wanted nothing, left everything to chance”.

War is raging, the Nazis have occupied the Netherlands, and Henri finds himself doing patriotic favours for a stranger named Dorbeck, who looks exactly like him, “the way a photo negative looks like the positive” – Dorbeck is dark and hairy, where Henri is babyishly fair and has never needed to shave. Here Hermans settles into a much more detailed telling, which is where he began to lose me. The accounts of Henri’s wartime activities, chance meetings with Dorbeck and captures and escapes, are vital in defining Henri’s relationship with the world (“Things just happen. Nothing I ever do makes a difference”), but they don’t half go on.

Henri has no allegiance to anyone, and it is his lack of agency which will lead to his troubles in the second half of the book, as first Nazis and then Allies consider him a murderer and a traitor. By failing to subscribe to an ideology, he cannot be anyone’s hero (“What is a hero? Someone who is careless and gets away with it”), even when he dyes his hair and looks like Dorbeck. It is Henri’s initial desire to impress Dorbeck which leads both to his discovery of his own strength and stamina, and to his downfall. When he dyes his hair to disguise himself from the Nazis, he recognises that he now resembles Dorbeck entirely, but even though it helps him find love, it doesn’t “make me the man Dorbeck is. We’re alike, but not the same.”

A ghostly vision entered his mind. The war was over, and he and Marianne were strolling hand in hand in some faraway countryside. Then they saw Dorbeck. Without a word, she went off with Dorbeck and left him standing there. No goodbye, no turning round to wave, just one quick look over the shoulder, only to call back to him: I knew what the man I wanted looked like. Forgive me for thinking it was you.

Whether Dorbeck really exists or not is the central question of the second half of the novel. All we know is that he really exists in Henri’s mind, a sort of Tyler Durden figure.

When I first saw him I thought: this is the sort of man I ought to have been. It’s a bit difficult to put into words, but think of the goods being produced in factories: now and then a substandard article gets made, so they make another one and throw away the reject…

Only, they didn’t throw me away. I continued to exist, reject though I was. I didn’t realise I was the reject until I met Dorbeck. Then I knew. That’s when I knew he was the successful specimen, that compared to him I had no reason to exist, and the only way I could accept that was to do exactly as he said. I did everything he told me to, which was quite a lot sometimes … quite a lot …

It is these existential questions and the cloud of unclarity that surrounds them, rather than the hard detail of the thriller elements, which drove me to the end of the book. Though The Darkroom of Damocles is full of action, it was the parts where nothing was happening that I liked best.


  1. Thanks so much for your review! I read this book in Dutch (my native language) in high school about twenty years ago. At that time it was a fairly popular book in high schools. I didn’t really remember much of the story, but while reading your review it came back. I think I should reread The Dark Room, see what I think of it after so many years.

  2. This book showed up the mailbox yesterday morning, your review shows up today — I have to think that there is more than serendipity to this. I’ve moved The Darkroom of Damocles to the coveted “next read” position.

    It is also the first Harvill-published book that I will be reading (I ordered the UK edition), following on from comments that both you and Stewart have made about the high quality of their works. I must say from a first impression and just flipping a few pages, I am looking forward to the physical experience of reading this book, perhaps not quite as much as the mental exercise that it will provide. Once I’m done, I’ll be supplying comments on both the mental and physical experiences.

  3. I was very impressed by this novel, which reminded me of Murakami in its ability to hover on the edge of absurdity without ever falling in. It did lose momentum about two thirds of the way into the narrative, but only for a few chapters.

    Henri is one of the great ‘holy fools’ of literature, albeit a rather mercenary and libidinous one at times. ‘The Darkroom of Damocles’ is a wonderful, picaresque novel and has whetted my appetite for ‘Beyond Sleep’.

    I also really enjoyed reading a European novel written by an author who experienced life during the Nazi occupation. Great stuff.

  4. A novel, written so close to the end of WWII, probably has different insights about the war than one written years later.

    Great review.

  5. Thanks for the comments everyone.

    Yes of course you may post a link, diaryofaneccentric. I’m glad you liked the review. And workingwords, you make a good point about the timing of the publication.

    Myrthe, I understand that the book is still taught in Dutch schools, though I’m not sure where I got that information from.

    Kevin, I look forward to reading your thoughts on it. Steerforth makes a solid case for this being an even better book than I thought it was, though I still preferred Beyond Sleep (perhaps we always prefer our first experience of a new author?).

  6. I think we do prefer our first experience of an author. Though perhaps we, rather obvious to point this out perhaps, make a beeline for those books, on reading a precis, that we know will suit our sensibilities. I don’t believe that Pale Fire, Catch-22, White Noise, Money, The Sweet Sickness or Glitz are necessarily any lesser than Lolita, Something Happened, Underworld, London Fields, The Cry Of The Owl or Freaky Deaky, but the latter examples were my first picks for each author and are all still my favourites of each.

  7. Qualified praise John, but praise none the less. I, like you, preferred Beyond Sleep and also found more to enjoy in this novel from those existential moments rather than the, at times rather confused, plotting. In both books Hermans is brilliant at keeping things ambiguous so that you have to work a bit harder as a reader to work out what or who is or isn’t real.

    I don’t think any of his other work is available in English translation yet, is it?

  8. Interesting point about intimidation by length. I think it’s the fear of investing time in something that might not be worth it.

    Can I ask, John, how quickly you read (approx pages per hour, or whatever)?

  9. You can, Tim, and even worse, I can tell you, though it’s years since I tried to work it out. I think it’s about a page a minute, so 60 pages an hour, though of course that depends on the book. Darkroom took me the best part of a week to read, I think.

    Intimidation by length is also because of all the books lying in wait which one might not get to (or get through) as quickly because one is reading a particular fat epic for a month or so. It’s this which has put me off Bolaño’s 2666 so far.

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