Thursday, 20 September 2007

W F Hermans

Photo ©Friso Keuris 1996

Sometimes you really do discover a book by chance. Browsing through the stacks at Any Amount of Books one day on Charing Cross Road, looking to satisfy my book buying habit, I picked up a novel. I have no idea why I picked it up, I didn't know the author, hadn't read a review and didn't particularly like the cover, but there was some blurb by J M Coetzee and the sleeve described it as a modern classic of European fiction. Good enough for me that day and thank god I did because it introduced me to the man above Willem Frederik Hermans.

Born in Amsterdam in 1921 Hermans studied physical geography before becoming a lecturer at Gronigen University. In 1972 he was accused of using his time at the university for his own writing rather than lecturing and a committee was set up to investigate. It's main conclusion was that Hermans had used university stationary for his notes. Disaffected with academia and his native country he resigned and moved to Paris in 1973. There he wrote numerous novels, plays, poems and essays including one piece Onder professoren (Among Professors) written entirely on the backs of letters from his university. In order, as his alter-ego Zomerplaag puts it, 'to do something useful with this expensive paper that would normally disappear unread in the garbage bin polluting the environment'. Afterwards the university obliged staff members to use both sides of papers. He died in 1995.

Beyond Sleep is the story of Alfred Issendorf, a young Dutch geologist determined to make a great discovery and win himself fame. He joins an expedition to Norway hoping to find meteorite craters but it isn't long before his shortcomings put a strain on the group. As the expedition progresses and Alfred is beset by fresh trials and tribulations, he becomes paranoid and desperate. As his mind begins to unravel we see a man pushed to the very limits of endurance. Issendorf is a fantastic creation, imbued with the kind of delusional vanity which made Ignatius J. Reilly so hilarious in A Confederacy of Dunces. Hermans is brilliant at writing the slow disintegration of his mind, the haunting presence of his insecurities and the fragility of his hold on reality.

The Darkroom of Damocles is very different in tone but no less existential. Set during the German occupation of Holland this is a wartime thriller with an ambiguous hero. Henri Osewoudt, a tobacconist, is visited one day by Dorbeck, a man who is Osewoudt's double but in reverse. Henri is blond and beardless with a high voice; Dorbeck is dark haired, his voice deep. Given a series of dangerous missions by Dorbeck, Osewoudt finds himself embroiled in wartime resistance and on the run after his wife denounces him to the Germans. At the end of the war he is taken for a traitor and finds himself unable to prove the existence of his handler Dorbeck. Even the photo he took of the two of them together turns out to be blank. Initially disappointed by this novel, after having enjoyed Beyond Sleep so much, I found myself increasingly caught up in it and surprised by how brave and modern the ending was. It is left for you to decide whether you have been following someone on the 'right' or 'wrong' side.

These are the only writings of his to have been published in English and I hope others may follow. If, however, they don't then these two novels stand as a great testament to Hermans' skill and deserve to be read by a wider audience.


John Self 6 October 2008 at 11:14  

After, as you know, enjoying Beyond Sleep earlier this year, I picked up The Darkroom of Damocles when I was in London last month. Looking forward to it enormously, so much so that I keep putting off reading it so I have something to look forward to! The real shame is not just that these are the only two of Hermans' books to be published in English, but that the UK publishers don't seem to have any intention of issuing them in paperback. I don't mind spending money on an unknown book, but £18 (or thereabouts) is going to be prohibitive to many who might otherwise give him a go.

I suppose the good thing is that these two were just published in the last couple of years, so there may be more in the pipeline.

PS - You need a Recent Comments widget on your sidebar!

William Rycroft 6 October 2008 at 19:33  

You're right about the price. I was really lucky to find a review copy of the first and get the other on a certain auction website for less than the cover price. It's a lot to ask people to pay on a punt. Let's hope there are more in the pipeline.

As for the widget, I'll see what I can do...

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