Archive for the ‘Willem Frederik Hermans’ Category

A Guardian Angel Recalls

February 10, 2022

Willem Frederik Hermans, one of the great Dutch writers of the 20th century, has remained stubbornly unknown in English, even when both Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles were translated by Ina Rilke in 2006 and 2007 respectively. (Hermans may himself be partly to blame as, according to Michael Pye, “He was convinced translators betrayed him and he resisted being published outside the Netherlands in case his Dutch enemies laughed at the sales figures.”) Now, however, Pushkin Press, perhaps noting their success with Gerard Reve, have not only brought these two novels back into print, but issued new translations by David Colmer of An Untouched House (2018) and A Guardian Angel Recalls.

A Guardian Angel Recalls is the story of Dutch prosecutor Bert Alberegt in the days before and during the German invasion of the Netherlands. It is, indeed, told by his guardian angel:

“He had stopped believing in God and no longer knew me. Still, I had kept my eye on him all that time. His whole life. I was his guardian angel.”

The novel opens as he says goodbye to Sysy, a young woman he has fallen in love with, a Jewish German refugee who is leaving for America. He worries that he will never see her again, and that the relationship (he is thirty-eight, she is twenty-five) was simply one of necessity on her part:

“In her position, going to bed with her rescuer and doing everything he asked of her was nothing short of unavoidable.”

He even considers having her arrested on the ship so she can be returned to him, but as the guardian angel points out: “It was the voice of the devil that whispered.” This highlights the moral ambiguity of Alberegt’s character, which is, indeed, best exemplified as a dialectic between his ‘angel’ and ‘devil’ as he reasons his actions, though noticeably always in his own best interests. This will be seen even more forcibly in the crime which will haunt him throughout the novel: a young child he knocks down and kills as he returns from the docks when he drives the wrong way along a deserted country road. What should he do?

“There was nobody else in sight. Nowhere any indication or suspicion that someone might be watching him from some hidden vantage point.”

He throws the child’s body into the undergrowth – “like holding a puppy by the loose skin over its backbone” – and continues on his way. The accident is the most dramatic form (unless we count the war) of Hermans’ intention to demonstrate the randomness of life. Alberegt may feel he is purposeful in his choices but, like everyone else, those choices are influenced by events he has no control over -to the point that we question whether they are choices in any meaningful way. This perhaps explains the ‘angel’ and ‘devil’, a well-worn symbol of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ choices which Hermans steadily undermines.

Another clear example of the lottery of life in the novel is the discovery of the name R. Alberegt on a list of Dutch nationals the Gestapo intend to arrest on arrival in Holland. Could it be Alberegt’s brother, Rense, an abstract painter whose work is only of importance to himself? Or perhaps the ‘R’ is in fact a ‘B’ and Alberegt himself is in danger. Is this simply an excuse to get to England, or a valid reason? Is he motivated by the danger, his desire to reunite with Sysy, or his guilt?

Beyond Alberegt’s personal dilemmas, the novel also gives us a dramatic picture of the invasion of the Netherlands, which began on the 10th of May 1940 and ended four days later with the Dutch surrender. This is foreshadowed early in the novel as Alberegt asks himself:

“Who in the world believed that the Netherlands had even the slightest hope of holding firm if Germany really invaded?”

Later, in a bar, he overhears an airman say that the Dutch air force only have fourteen fully armed planes.

The invasion itself is portrayed at ground level, with competing stories of what is happening (and Alberegt always at a disadvantage due to his erratic car radio). Rumours of German paratroopers in Dutch uniforms, “traitors everywhere” leaflets promising ‘liberation’ – at one point Rense thinks that the water has been poisoned. Civilians are asked to say ‘Scheveningen’ to prove they are Dutch (as Germans can’t pronounce it). The rumours are punctuated by sudden acts of violence such as when Alberegt sees the courthouse bombed:

“It was the section with his own office. He had a clear view of his desk, chairs, and bookcases, like in a doll’s house with a hinged front you can swing open. And then he saw the floor of his office break off like a piece of biscuit.”

Meanwhile Alberegt vacillates between resignation and attempting to flee to England.

A Guardian Angel Recalls is as tense as a thriller, but it is a novel without heroes. Our sympathy for Alberegt is based, like that of his guardian angel, on proximity, and the increasing sense that his attempts to rationalise what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ only complicates his life. It is great war novel which, at the same time, transcends the war.

An Untouched House

July 15, 2018

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.