An Untouched House

None of the great triumvirate of post-war Dutch writers – Harry Mulisch, Gerard Reve, Willem Henrik Hermans – have been particularly well treated in their translation into English. Mulisch has been the most widely, if haphazardly, translated, but only The Discovery of Heaven is still in print, with others (particularly Two Women and The Stone Bridal Bed) hard to find; Reve was largely unknown until the publication of The Evenings in 2016; and Hermans had only two previously translated novels, The Darkroom of Damocles and Beyond Sleep, to his name, both of which appeared over ten years ago having waited over forty years to be translated. Now, finally, we have another work of Hermans to read thanks to David Colmer and Pushkin Press.

An Untouched House is a novella of only eighty pages (this edition comes with an afterward by Cees Nooteboom) but is a powerful evocation of the chaos and confusion of war, a deliberate puncturing of the picture of heroic resistance to the German army which must have been shocking in 1951 when it was originally published. It begins (and ends) with an image of destruction:

“The main bough, almost the whole crown was suddenly lying at the foot of the tree without my hearing the crack.”

Immediately we sense the war-weariness of our narrator, a lone Dutchman in a band of partisans, “there wasn’t a single person I could understand.” He walks on, under fire, but all he can think of is his thirst. Hermans’ descriptive powers are such that the opening scene, familiar from so many films, is experienced anew. A downed plane “changed into a comet of soot”, the explosion as it hits the ground “like the world making a swallowing sound.” Shooting German soldiers, the narrator sees them “bent double like butterflies being mounted.” A lull in the fighting is described:

“…as if the war was a large sick body that had just been given a shot of morphine.”

Hermans, however, is more interested in the psychology than the events of war. When the narrator is given an order he doesn’t understand it leads him to an empty house:

“I realised that this would be the first time in a very long while that I had entered a real house, a genuine home.”

Discovering hot water, he decides to have a bath, but, once clean, he cannot stand the thought of putting his filthy uniform back on, instead borrowing a shirt and trousers from a wardrobe. He falls asleep only to be wakened by the ringing of the doorbell: on the discovery of a German officer at the door he claims to be the owner of the house.

An Untouched House, short as it is, still has many twists and turns to lead us through, each darker than the last, before its end. We enter a moral no man’s land, where the narrator’s ownership of a house he does not know (“How many rooms in the house? I wasn’t even sure how many floors.”) mirrors his own life.

In particular, Hermans takes aim at the idea of culture. The house itself, with its piano, on which the German officers play Beethoven, and its library, is a symbol of culture. To the German officer who has commandeered the house, shaving is the apotheosis of culture:

“I have been in the army for forty years today. Shaving with hot water, war or no war! That is what I understand by culture!”

For the old man who collects fish they are “something of unique cultural significance.” He praises the Germans as “defenders of our culture”. These ridiculous ideas suggest something of the dark humour which runs through Hermans’ work, accompanied by a nihilism which is visible in the novella’s conclusion. For all its brevity, An Untouched House is a classic of war literature.

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18 Responses to “An Untouched House”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    This sounds interesting …
    Yes, I’d agree that we don’t hear much about Dutch literature of any kind. The last one that was widely promoted here in Australia was War and Turpentine, and before that Koch’s The Dinner, plus Gerbrand Bakker’s books because he won the IMPAC.
    I’ve also read Hella Haasse but that was because I used to follow a lovely blog called Iris on Books but Iris is doing other things now and I haven’t found another blog that focusses on the Netherlands as a substitute.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, I read War and Turpentine as it was on an IFFP long list, and at least one of Bakker’s books for the same reason. Adriaan van Dis is another Dutch writer worth checking out.

      • Lisa Hill Says:

        I just looked him up at Goodreads – he’s prolific! What would you suggest first?

      • 1streading Says:

        I would certainly recommend Betrayal. I also like Otto de Kat – Julia / News from Berlin / The Longest Night form a loose trilogy (i.e. you can read them in any order).

      • Lisa Hill Says:

        I’ll have a hunt around. All the titles at Goodreads are in Dutch which means I have to work my way through them one-by-one until I find the ones with those titles in English…

      • Tony Says:

        Nooteboom is definitely worth a look, too (I’ve read a few, of which ‘Rituals’ is my pick).

      • 1streading Says:

        I haven’t read that but coincidentally I’ve just finished Lost Paradise.

      • Tony Says:

        I think that was the first of his I read, enjoyable, but with a few issues (particularly of cultural appropriation…).

      • 1streading Says:

        Did you read it in German? (I’m not sure what you mean by cultural appropriation though).

    • John Luijten Says:

      There’s a whole new WF Hermans-world to discover! I’m from The Netherlands, and as a fanatic reader read a lot of Dutch novels. WF Hermans is still the greatest writer! The more books you read, the more you get to know his view of the world. It’s not optimistic but so fascinating! He has written books that I’ve read three, four times.
      Besides his novels and short stories he wrote a lot of essays. I don’t think that they will be translated in English, because they mainly deal with Dutch issues. But some of them are filosophical, they are absolutely great!

      • 1streading Says:

        I loved both Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles when they were translated into English so I was excited when this appeared. I certainly hope more is translated.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I’m slightly ashamed to say that my personal experience of Dutch literature is pretty close to zero. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read any Cees Nooteboom (who contributes the afterword here) – only Gerbrand Bakker (I loved The Detour). The premise does sound interesting, and I do like a classic of war literature every now and again. We’ll see…

    • 1streading Says:

      No reason you should have read a lot of Dutch literature – especially as much of it doesn’t seem to be translated! This is very short but it’s certainly powerful.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds fascinating, Grant. Like Jacqui I’m not sure if I’ve read any or much Dutch literature, though I do have a Mulisch lurking somewhere!

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m beginning to think the number of Dutch books I seem to have read points to something unusual in me! At 17 million it probably just counts as as small nation which is perhaps why I sympathise!
      Mulisch is well worth reading, though the one I haven’t read is his most famous, The Discovery of Heaven.

  4. Gerrit Bosch Says:

    I’m a collector of translated books of the Dutch writer W.F.Hermans. I’m looking for an advance reading copy of ‘An untouched house’ (UK edition). Pushkin Publishers told me that they don’t have copies.
    Who can help me?

    In forward thanks!!

    Gerrit Bosch

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