It is, it seems, a common human desire to want to be remembered for something, to have made a mark on the world, and yet obviously very few of us achieve it. I have quite a few years ahead of me still, I hope, but I’m under no illusions as to the likelihood that anyone will be building monuments to me in Sheffield city centre or that one day school children will sigh and roll their eyes as their teacher does his or her best to make my great achievements interesting to them. I will be forgotten after my death, there’s little doubt about that; in fact, I’m largely insignificant now, only existing in the minds of a few hundred people, out of billions in the world, the majority of whom wouldn’t even know, nor care, if I fell under a bus tomorrow.
The narrator of Beyond Sleep, Alfred Issendorf, is a Dutch postgraduate Geology student who is on a research trip, heading for the Norwegian wilds in order to make a discovery, in order to do something that will make his name [which, in this instance, involves meteor craters]. Therefore, while it is possible to understand the title of Hermans’ novel as referring to death [which features frequently in the narrative] one might equally, or more appropriately, interpret it to mean ‘beyond death,’ or, in other words, the endurance of the self, via one’s achievements, beyond death. Indeed, Beyond Sleep is full of references to famous, important scientists and explorers, such as Robert Falcon Scott, at the side of whom Alfred feels small or insignificant. In this way Beyond Sleep is concerned with well-worn existentialist themes, such as the individual’s place in the world, whether one’s existence really matters, and so on.
[Finnmark, in Norway]
The novel begins with Albert trying to obtain some aerial photographs for his trip, and one assumes that the tone of the work is set in these opening exchanges, as the young man is faced with incompetence and absurdity at every turn. It isn’t, I ought to point out, a grand, intense Kafkaesque absurdity, but rather the kind of small-scale ridiculousness that people like you and I [definitely I] come across every day. For example, he believes that a meeting has been arranged with Professor Nummendal, but, when he arrives, the professor appears to have no knowledge of it. Not only that, but, instead of explaining that he doesn’t have the aerial photographs, which are the stated purpose of the visit, he treats the young man to a pointless trip around Oslo in his company. Moreover, all three of the major characters that Alfred is in contact with in the first fifty or so pages are in some way disfigured or have a disability. Nummendal is blind, his porter is too, and Direktor Oftedahl has scars on his face and some problem with his throat.
Yet as the book progresses the strange, subtly surreal atmosphere dissipates somewhat. One of the clearest indications of this is that the other students taking part in the expedition – Arne, Mikkelsen, and Qvigstad – are, for want of a better word, ‘normal’; they do not behave in any way out of the ordinary, they have no odd verbal tics or physical features, and so on. Indeed, once Alfred enters the wilds in Finnmark, Beyond Sleep becomes more a kind of anti-adventure novel, i.e. one which shares some of the elements of a traditional adventure narrative – a man entering unknown territory, searching for something valuable – but which is, for the most part, really rather humdrum, or banal, with leaking tents, bad food, minor disagreements, an injured leg, and philosophical exchanges being about as exciting as things get [although philosophical exchanges do excite me, I must admit] for a good two hundred pages.
On this, Alfred makes an interesting point, which is that these kinds of trips only become glamorous or exciting or significant in retrospect, if an important discovery is made, and that, even when that is the case, the successful explorers and scientists don’t share with the public the boring bits. Furthermore, he is acutely aware that very few people make discoveries that change the world, or even their own small part of the world; very few of us, as alluded to in my introduction, will be remembered for our accomplishments. For Alfred, there is a feeling that if he doesn’t discover anything then his time will have been wasted, that it wont mean anything, that his hardship and hard work will have been for nothing, and that it will seem silly, to others and to himself. He believes that success, interest from the world-at-large, or even from just the academic world, is the only thing that can give the expedition meaning; only success can give it significance. There is, therefore, a palpable atmosphere of futility hanging over the book, in that Hermans gives us a man who predicts that he won’t succeed, yet who knows that the only thing that can give his actions meaning is success; and so, as a result, he approaches his work, his life, with a kind of hang-dog half-heartedness.
“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.”
As a reading experience Beyond Sleep is pleasant enough; it is easy to navigate and yet it does have some depth. And it is at times very funny. However, I do feel as though it lacks focus. Every time I was confident that I had pinned down where the novel was going and what the point was, it shifted slightly, and became something else. For example, in a previous paragraph I wrote about the banal aspects of these kind of scientific endeavours, and that stuff is certainly there in the text, but, then, towards the end, one of the main characters dies, which isn’t, of course, a banal event, it doesn’t happen all the time when people are involved in this work. Moreover, while initially it is Alfred who appears to be the sensible, and sane, man in a world of fools or weirdos, later he is the paranoid, incapable one, who is essentially ditched by his peers. Perhaps that is Hermans’ point, or one of them anyway, that everybody is a dolt to someone.
In any case, more of an issue is that the overriding theme, that to be great is not a position afforded to many, that there are, to paraphrase Hermans, only a small number of geniuses, is hardly profound, is rather obvious in fact, and doesn’t really warrant a 300 page novel. Ironically, Hermans himself was one of these not-so-greats, or not-quite-greats, and has been largely forgotten, or remains undiscovered, except in his native Holland.