There’s a cold moment when you open a book that an entire nation officially loves. It can’t be quite that good, you think. It might say all too much about the country that loves it—in this case, Holland. Besides, when a book is approved as safe in so many schoolrooms, how can it possibly still be alive? And why doesn’t the rest of the world know about it already?
So the first thing to say about Willem Frederik Hermans’s Nooit meer slapen (Beyond Sleep) is that forty-one years of being lodged in the Dutch canon have done it no harm at all; it’s as bright and black as anything contemporary. It has the energy and ruthlessness of farce and a terrifying deadpan style, and it ends in appalling catastrophe. What’s more, it is entirely unfamiliar.
Hermans puts us in the mind of Alfred Issendorf, a mother-ridden Dutch geology student who’s come to the wastes of subarctic Norway to prove his professor’s daft theory about meteor holes. Everything goes wrong. Flies bite, tents leak, clothes are sodden, and the compass goes off by ninety degrees. Our hero is afraid of “having to survive in a world where everyone is out to fool everyone else”; why else would the Norwegians be so blandly difficult about handing over the aerial photographs he needs, and why has his professor sent him off on this hopeless quest in the first place?
The sun never sets on him, he can’t sleep, the mosquitoes clatter down like rain; Alfred finds himself in a trap that won’t open and keeps getting worse. He’s hopeless at anything practical, so “it is probably wiser not to help my companions at all.” He’s not strong, but he has to carry some fierce baggage, his mother’s ambition that he follow in his father’s career. This isn’t comforting, since the old man died falling off a cliff in the name of science. “I’m in a situation,” Alfred says, “where I have no alternative but to carry on with what I’m doing even though I fear it’s a mistake.”
He knows about heroic travel, secondhand; he has a friend up in the Himalayas with Sherpas bringing him tea. Alfred knows that’s not him. But he doesn’t quite know the name of the girl he thinks he ought to marry, and he really wanted, once, to play the flute in a provincial orchestra, and he’s come to the conclusion “my life will never be in keeping with what I know.”
At first, Alfred’s confused; very soon, he’s in a state of justified paranoia. Two of his three companions vanish one morning without a word. He argues with his remaining friend, goes off to get royally lost, and comes back to find the man dead. He now has no compass, no food, no company, no skills, and he has to get out of a wilderness. He is sure, and for once he is quite right, that this is all his own fault.
Hermans’s control is immaculate, as farce demands; even his digressions, the bits of Wittgenstein, are precisely relevant. Alfred is alarmingly like a burlesque of the Viennese philosopher—who also trekked off to the remotest bits of Norway, first to “settle accounts with myself” and then to “solve all the fundamental problems of logic.”
All Alfred manages in Norway is geologic fieldwork, but that is hardly the usual mainspring of a novel’s plot, and Hermans knows it. “One of the reasons why the range of subjects dealt with in novels is so limited,” Alfred complains, “is that authors want everybody to be able to follow exactly what is going on.” Hermans was a geographer until he finally lost his temper with universities and went off to be a writer in Paris. He wrote what he knew, yet made something strange out of that old classroom rule.
The style itself is a kind of trick. The prose starts out flat, but then you realize you’re caught in a forward rush that moves very much like anger. The repetitions become a kind of incantation. It’s no surprise that Hermans revered the black passions of Céline; he has the same kind of existential horror. But in his own time—Hermans lived from 1921 to 1995—the horror was no longer political or operatic. Alfred is the kind of narrator who pretends to be just writing down what he sees (“I must observe everything there is to observe, NOW”).
The wonder is what he sees: a world of tiny trees and humming reindeer, where you mustn’t tread on the grass because grass is precious, paths aren’t quite paths because the markings are so fragile, and the Lapp locals have their own impenetrable reality. The ultrarealism turns surrealistic.
Hermans also takes nice, heartfelt revenge on the “dull, stodgy and petty-bourgeois Dutch.” Our hero’s mother is a literary hack who barely engages with books (“she doesn’t even open them, to avoid damaging the spine”) and makes her living by reporting on reviews that have already appeared in other languages. Hermans once said: “I write serious prose disguised as entertainment, without the long-winded lyricism that is de rigueur in Holland.” In a single sentence, he manages to annoy his readers, who are told his books are meant to fool them, and every other Dutch writer.
It’s unfortunate that Hermans was such an impossibly spiky and careful man, one reason we have waited so long for translations; when John le Carré praised him in 1966, he turned round and insisted le Carré had stolen his plots. But maybe that is his occult appeal: He’s an author’s author, with no shame about his neurotic habits.
Hermans’s Dutch can’t be easy to translate— it’s both demotic and mannered—but Ina Rilke’s version lets us into the novelist’s mind, opening a strange new window on the world (which is what very good translation can do). Next year, Hermans’s masterpiece, De donkere kamer van Damokles (The Dark Room of Damocles, 1958), stranger even than this book, will be published, but it is wise to start with Beyond Sleep.We need time to get accustomed to the dark.
Michael Pye is the author of three novels: The Drowning Room (Granta Books, 1995), Taking Lives (1999), and The Pieces from Berlin (2003), the last two published by Knopf.