Hermans W.F.

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.

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.”