Dutch & Belgian


Long before I finished The Cathedral of Mist I began to wonder how I was going to write about it, how, specifically, I could articulate the powerful emotional effect it had upon me. I saw myself floundering pathetically, like someone attempting to thread a needle in the dark. How many times, and how many ways, could I call Willems’ stories beautiful and moving? I had my notes of course, which were not as detailed or inspired as I would have hoped, but at least they were something to which I could cling. Yet, after closing the book I, unknowingly, put it down so that it was resting on the delete key on my keyboard. It was a fair few seconds before I understood why my words were quickly disappearing before my eyes. It was as though, after spending a short but disorientating period of time in Willems’ magical world, it was entirely possible, right even, that text can, of its own accord, begin to remove itself.

“The cathedral sparkled in the sunlight; every last detail of its architecture could be distinguished. I felt like we were seeing it reflected in one of those great mythical mirrors where winter has forever frozen its most beautiful memories.”

My intention was to begin this paragraph with some biographical information about Paul Willems, who I assume the readers of this review know as little about as I do, but a cursory look around the internet provides almost nothing of note. He was, I read, a French-speaking Belgian author and playwright who passed away in 1997. The Cathedral of Mist was, according to the publisher’s blurb, first released in 1983. It contains six short stories [and two essays, which I skipped], which run to roughly sixty small pages. I mention these apparently insignificant details because it seems incredible to me, first of all, that the stories are so recent, bearing in mind the timeless quality of them, and, secondly, how slight the whole thing is. Never has my love for something been built upon such feeble foundations.

In view of the scarcity of information regarding Willems, and the obscurity of his work, at least in English, it seems appropriate that secrecy features prominently in the collection. Indeed, although I didn’t keep score, it seemed to me that the words secret or secrets appear in each of the six stories, sometimes more than once. In Requiem for Bread, when the narrator, who I assumed was the author in all the stories, is told that bread screams when it is cut, he describes this as ‘one of those secrets of the world.’ Likewise, the Countess Kausala in An Archbishop’s Flight is said to be the keeper of ‘some very pleasant secrets.’ It is never revealed what exactly it is that the Countess knows, but this is not important of course. The frequent references to secrets are simply one part of an overriding atmosphere of romance, wonder and mystery. The world, as Willems sees, or experiences it, is one in which one can purchase a hat and subsequently find oneself in a bed, in the forest, as the snow begins to fall; it is a world where a man will invent his own language in order to communicate with his dead daughter; it is a world where there exists a cathedral made entirely out of mist; it is a world of epiphanies, if you know where, or how, to look.


Moreover, this is evident not only in the basic action or interactions, but also in the way that Willems uses imagery to transform ordinary, commonplace things into something significant, dramatic, beautiful or magical. Clouds, for example, are described as ‘great grey fairies’, and bullets are like bees, but perhaps best of all is when it is said that waves speak two words: ‘the first dashes up on shore, toward us. The other withdraws, taking back what the first said.’ I don’t like to compare one author’s work to another, for I find these comparisons lazy, largely pointless and often tenuous, but I could not help but be reminded, first of all, of Bruno Schulz. In his story Tailors’ Dummies, Schulz calls his father the ‘fencing master of imagination’ and this phrase seems to me to go some way to capturing not only his own genius but Willems’ too. Yet, having said that, there is an economy of style, a restraint, in the Belgian’s work that is lacking in Schulz’s, and which is reminiscent of Tarjei Vesaas.

What I have written so far will, I imagine, give the impression that The Cathedral of Mist is rather like a children’s book of fables or fairytales; and that would not be entirely incorrect. However, there is also a core of sadness, a very adult kind of sadness, and a preoccupation with death. In Requiem for Bread the narrator’s cousin dies by falling out of a window, and each night, when he shuts his eyes, he sees her ‘falling without falling, spinning without moving, dying without dying.’ In Cherepish he is in Sofia with Hector, a middle aged man who has ‘nothing in his life.’ Hector yearns for his own epiphany, but ‘whatever is essential has passed him by.’ Finally, in The Palace of Emptiness, Victor, following the death of his father, beats his wife ‘like a child who hits his mother because it is raining’. She leaves him for a while, is happy, and then, at the end of the story, she returns, ‘submissive to the harm she would need from now on.’ Willems’ characters are, more often than not, suffering; and, for this reason, I would resist the description of the author as a ‘fantasist.’



Following the separation of my parents I stayed for a while with my grandmother. I was around seven years old at the time. She lived in a flat, on a council estate in one of Sheffield’s most deprived areas. The living room window looked out upon a run-down concrete playground, which, eerily, never appeared to be in use, despite the large number of children in the neighbouring tower-blocks. The old lady did not own a TV, most likely because she could not afford one, and so would each evening tell stories about strange happenings – involving ghosts mostly – which she insisted she had herself witnessed. Yet most terrifying of all was the story of the circumstances surrounding her arrival in England. I was told that she had once been a member of an old aristocratic and wealthy Scottish family, but, for reasons that were unknown or unexplained, she was dispatched to a sanatorium while still in her teens. There she received electric shock therapy, and, upon her release, was subsequently disinherited and banished.

Whether any of that is true or not is, of course, debatable. I have, partly out of fear perhaps, but mostly in order to spare my mother any anguish or upset, never sought to verify what I was told. However, what is certain is that the unease I had felt upon entry into my grandmother’s home began to intensify to such an extent that it – the flat – was transformed, in my childish imagination, into a house of horrors, one that was large, unwelcoming, and labyrinthine. The ghosts, moreover, became real and malevolent and forever on the prowl. Indeed, according to my mother I began to have waking nightmares, visions, in fact, of a man sitting on the end of my bed, who only I could see. I also, she claimed, started to sleepwalk, and could be found most nights at the front door attempting to leave. Finally, my grandmother – may she rest in peace – was, I was sure, the mad conductor of these evils, rather than the inventor of them.

“Those who lie down to sleep in its vast rooms lay themselves open to nightmares; those who spend their days there are obliged to habituate themselves to the company of the atrocious shades of executed criminals, of men flayed alive, or walled up or otherwise tormented.”

Until I started reading Malpertuis I had forgotten all about my brief stay in a haunted house, although, as this review will show, I, comparatively, got off lightly. The novel was written by Jean Ray, a man who was described by a friend as ‘a Gothic personality’, and was published in 1943. The style, however, is reminiscent of something written at least a hundred years earlier, and the structure – with the use of the framing narrative – is similar to Jan Potocki’s Saragossa Manuscript, parts of which first saw the light of day in 1805. Indeed, Malpertuis begins with a sort of preface, which describes the theft of a number of manuscripts from a monastery. The thief then explains that he has attempted to edit and order the manuscripts, which altogether would have ‘constituted a work of colossal size and minimal interest’, in an effort to turn them into a coherent narrative of ‘mystery and terror.’ The resulting story is, he claims, the work of four or five men in total, but the greater part – the kernel, as he calls it – is provided by the journal of Jean-Jacques Grandsire, a young man ‘marked with the brand of misfortune.’

For a book that I found so gripping, that I would call a page-turner, it seems odd that when I think about it now I realise that there is little in the way of plot. Jean-Jacques’s journal tells of a dying man’s family and friends gathering around him. Following his death, his will stipulates that the people there named must live in Malpertuis or forsake their large inheritance. From this point onwards – aside from one or two digressions – we follow Jean-Jacques as he explores the house and encounters all manner of terrible things. So, how to account for the feverish speed and rapt attention with which I read it? Well, one of the reasons that Malpertuis is so engaging is that it consistently poses questions for which the reader wants answers. Why must the characters live in the house? What is the significance of the shop attached to it? What is the link between Malpertuis and the island described in the opening chapter? Why is the beautiful Euryale so distant? What does the Abbe Doucedame know about the goings on in the house? And so on. In many ways, Ray’s novel is something like a Gothic version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, with Jean-Jacques acting as the detective.


However, it is the terrible things that most hold the attention. Indeed, this was perhaps the closest I have come in my reading experiences to straight horror; and, I must admit, I had a blast. Take Lampernisse, a ‘skeletal creature’ with ‘spiderlike hands’, who lives in Malpertuis and obsesses over the lights, which he believes are being put out by a malevolent presence within the house. His ramblings about his plight are both oddly moving and chilling: “There was a time I sold animal black and lamp black, but I never gave anyone the darkness of night. I am Lampernisse. I am so good and kind, and they have cast me into outer darkness.” I am reticent to discuss the many other strange and horrible occurrences that litter the text for fear of spoiling it for those who want to read it, but I can’t resist mentioning that, amongst other things, there is something in the attic, there is a severed hand, there are faceless beings, and devilish beings with haunting mask-like faces, and a number of gruesome deaths.

Malpertuis was, according to the Abbe Doucedame, the name given to ‘the lair of the cunning and evil fox, Goupil’. In conversation with Jean-Jacques, he muses over whether the house that then took this name, the one in which Jean-Jacques etc. live, did so in order to denote evil or cunning. Yet he concludes that cunning is ‘the prerogative of the Spirit of Darkness’ and that therefore, whichever way you look at it, Malpertuis is, in his view, the house of the Devil. This can be understood in two ways, for, as already noted, there is horror inside the house, but the building itself is, in appearance, horrific also. On the facade there are ‘disagreeable carvings’, a facade that is, according to Jean-Jacques, a ‘severe mask’ that ‘fails to conceal the abominations that lie behind it.’ However, although it may seem as though the direction in which we – the reader and the characters – are heading is Satanic, that the mysteries of the novel are to be explained in relation to that, when the reveal actually comes Jean Ray does something incredible and wholly unexpected: he provides one of the most emotionally affecting endings of any novel I have read.


When I was a child my dad [who I stayed with occasionally] had satellite TV installed. As a Brit I had been raised on four channels, and here was the promise of ten, twenty, thirty. I had never been a big watcher of television [I lived with my mother and the electricity was frequently being cut off, so I always preferred the constancy of books] but this new development in my life seemed exciting; it would be, I thought, a connection to the outer world, the other world, a world that was denied someone [me] who had never been abroad, who had only once or twice been outside his home city. It appeared to offer a kind of freedom, an ability to go anywhere, at any time. But it didn’t really work out like that. I didn’t watch stimulating documentaries and foreign movies; no, I spent my time mindlessly vegetating in front of the screen, flicking through shopping channels and keeping up to date with the scores of third division football matches.

These days I don’t own a TV. I gave it up years ago, when the absurdity of the relationship occurred to me. As a result, my connection with the modern world, or at least with current affairs, is almost non-existent. I always joke that we could be on the brink of a nuclear holocaust and I wouldn’t know; the end of civilisation would take me completely unawares. In fact, it wasn’t until two or three years after the event that I found out that Bin Laden had been found and killed. It seems as though I am only ever capable of swapping one obsession, one unhealthy stance, for another.

“Once again, it seemed, I was discovering the truth of the rule, a rule I’d never explicitly formulated to myself, but whose veracity I’d quite often sensed in a vague sort of way, which was that the chances of seeing an idea through to completion are inversely proportional to the time you’ve spent talking about it beforehand.”

Jean-Phillipe Toussaint’s novel begins with his forty-ish year old protagonist describing his own decision to quit TV ‘cold turkey.’ He was never, he claims, dependant upon it, estimating the average amount of time he spent watching television at around two hours per day. However, he then states that he had noticed at some point [I must confess I found the chronology of the novel’s episodes somewhat unclear and confusing] that there had been a striking increase, that he had been letting himself go and spending ‘long inactive afternoons’ in front of the set, tuning in, for example, for almost the entirety of the French Open tennis tournament.

That someone wants to stop watching TV obviously suggests that they think that it is in some way bad for them. Indeed, throughout, whenever the narrator tells anyone that he has quit they respond by claiming that they themselves hardly ever watch TV, rather like those people who insist that they never masturbate, as though they are somehow ashamed of their attachment to it, their own compulsion. When contemplating the negative effects, the narrator describes himself emerging from long sessions [of TV watching, not masturbating] feeling numbed and nauseous. TV, he asserts, artificially keeps you in in a state of continual alertness, yet the mind is, simultaneously, passive and indifferent.

However, for me Toussaint’s novel isn’t really an attack on television. It is, first of all, far too good-natured for the word ‘attack’ to be appropriate. Secondly, one gets the impression that the narrator essentially sets TV up as a patsy, which is to say that he allows it to take the blame for failings or flaws in his own character. For example, we are told that he is in Berlin [alone, for duration of the novel, as his wife and child have gone to Italy] in order to complete work on a long essay on Titian and Charles V; and so the implication is that television is distracting him from that, from something that is a far more worthwhile endeavour. Yet, anything can be a distraction if you let it. There isn’t something uniquely distracting about TV. The truth is that he does not want to work on his essay, and so he allows himself to be easily drawn away from it, by numerous things, including swimming, frollicking nude in the park, [not] watering the neighbours plants, cutting out articles, drinking, etc.


So, despite the title, I would argue that the book is about weakness of character, about the attractiveness of indolence, of loafing around doing next to nothing. It is interesting, in this regard, that there is a passage in Television in which the narrator describes working hard as being the most fulfilling kind of human experience, as life lived to the full, so to speak. One must ask, therefore, is he lying to himself or to us, his audience? Because there is no point in his narrative that he gives the impression of working hard. In fact, in terms of the essay on Titian and Charles V, he has, by the end, got little further than deciding on a title.

It is also worth considering just how aware the author is of the tensions and contradictions in his work. Is, for example, the title ironic? Television features in the book, of course, but I couldn’t help thinking that Toussaint periodically returned to the subject almost as an afterthought, as though he too had allowed himself to be distracted by more easy-going pleasures, such as writing about the arse of a naked ping-pong player. We often talk about how a protagonist and author share certain qualities, or appear to, and certainly there is a similarity in the way that the narrator meanders around, avoiding his work, and the way that the author allows his story to amiably meander away from the themes it initially appeared to want to engage with. In any case, Television is an entertaining read; it is well-written, warm and funny.


Funny how, years later, I can still picture that one pose, how everything else has fallen away – all the bitterness, the arguments, the boredom – and left only that. I didn’t even see it first hand, I saw only her reflection in the surface of the mirror. I was sitting on her bed, and she, with her back to me, was grabbing at her short hair and pouting at herself; and I don’t know, I can’t recall, if I even found it beautiful at the time, but, after the break-up, this probably unreliable memory became, for a short while, an obsession, and the standard against which I judged all other women’s looks. How silly of me. In my mind I thought I was paying tribute to her, and yet in reality I was doing her an injustice, reducing her to a single image, one that no one, not even she, could have lived up to. If I see pictures of her now, which I do very infrequently, I just cannot square them with that young woman reflected in the mirror, who, I’m now sure, never existed anywhere but in my head.

Generally speaking, I’m not one for living in the past, for desperately scrambling after something that has gone. It’s too much like chasing a runaway donkey. It has a taste of the absurd about it. But I was nineteen at the time of the above anecdote, and nineteen is an absurd age. Besides, grief does strange things to you. No, she didn’t die, but the end of a relationship is a kind of death, a little death. It felt that way, anyway. I was in mourning; well, until I got over it, of course. Some people, however, never manage to do that, they cannot move beyond tragic or upsetting events. People like Hugues Viane, the central character in Georges Rodenbach’s atmospheric masterpiece Bruges-la-Morte.

“It was Bruges-la-Morte, the dead town entombed in its stone quais, with the arteries of its canals cold once the great pulse of the sea had ceased beating in them.”

In the opening pages Hugues is described as a solitary man with nothing to occupy his time. This, it soon becomes clear, is because his wife of ten years is dead. Or, more accurately, it is because, as hinted, he cannot get over his wife’s death, for he has, obviously, not been forced to spend the last five years alone, it is a kind of choice. Hugues wallows in his grief; he moves to Bruges, because it strikes him as a melancholy place, he contemplates suicide [but won’t go through with due to the small chance that this will prevent him renewing his relationship with his wife in heaven], and he is still wearing mourning for his spouse half a decade after she passed away. Moreover, he will not throw or give away her clothes or things, or change the arrangement of the home they shared, for this, he thinks, will, in a way, mean losing her again, or another part of her. It is, then, no surprise, although it is rather macabre, that his most treasured possession is a large chunk of her hair, which he removed from the corpse and keeps in a glass case.

On the basis of all this one might legitimately call Hugues obsessive, or even insane. Certainly there is, whatever you want to call it, something unhealthy and peculiar about his behaviour even at this early stage of the narrative. However, as things progress, one is left in no doubt at all as to how dangerous his frame of mind has become, as he first follows and then begins a kind of relationship with a woman who he believes is the very image of his dead wife. Yet it is to Rodenbach’s credit that one, or I at least, still feels some level of sympathy for his protagonist, even in the weirdest and most excruciating moments, such as when he attempts to make this doppelgänger try on one of his wife’s dresses. Bruges-la-Morte is less than one hundred pages long, and so the author did not have much to work with, but I never stopped believing in Hugues; he, and his grief, always felt kosher to me.


[Portrait of Georges Rodenbach by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, 1895]

While the trajectory of Hugues’ relationship with this look-alike is what gives the novel momentum and tension, and I’d argue that all great novels need those things, it is not what provided me with the most enjoyment. First of all, Rodenbach’s prose is fantastic. I have seen it described as ornate, but it never struck me that way, especially in the context of when the book was published, 1892, a time when authors really did know a thing or two about overcooking their sentences. For me, Rodenbach wrote with clarity, and insight and tenderness. His prose is that special kind that, if I can write this without too much cringing, glides along the page, with grace and absolutely without pretension.

I was also impressed by how he worked his themes into the narrative, in a way that is touching and engaging without being too heavy-handed. Bruges-la-Morte is, of course, primary concerned with death, but rather than focussing on corpses and funerals and all that, he chose to write about change and decay and memory [which are all, or can be, related to death, of course]. I have mentioned some of this stuff already, but it is worth exploring in more detail. Take  the locks of hair, Rodenbach notes how, while the body slowly disintegrates, the hair remains constant, it doesn’t change or fade, it, in effect, challenges death. I was very much taken with that.

Or consider how it is said that the face of Jane, the look-alike, becomes that of his wife, how, to be specific, after seeing Jane her face actually replaces that of his wife in his memory. We have all, I’m sure, experienced that strange and cruel phenomena, whereby we cannot properly remember what someone looks like, where, after a period of time, their appearance starts to become fuzzy in our minds. This is what happened to Hugues, so while he thinks that Jane is a deadringer for his dead love, in actual fact it is only ever Jane he sees; his wife, in essence, becomes Jane, not the other way around. I thought that was brilliant. Moreover, the marriage, we’re told, was extremely happy, was one where the passion and love never diminished over time. Therefore, one wonders whether this is simply how Hugues remembers it, rather than it being strictly the case, for his wife has become, in his mind, a kind of saint. Indeed, he literally worships her memory and treats her things like relics.


[Bruges-la-Morte, when originally published, featured a number of photographs of Bruges, including this one]

I hope I am managing to give some sense of how complex, moving and satisfying a book this is. There is, moreover, still much that I have not covered. I haven’t, for example, mentioned how mirroring plays such a prominent role in the text. Yes, of course, there is Jane and how she is the wife’s double, but there is more to it than that. At the very beginning of the book Hugues house is said to be reflected in the water of the canal outside. There is also much made of how Bruges itself mirrors the wife, how it is a dead city, and how Hugues needed a dead city to represent the dead woman. I must, before I finish, cover this in a little more detail, for Bruges-la-Morte is often described as one of the great ‘novels about cities,’ similar, in this way, to Ulysses or Bely’s Petersburg. Yet, without wishing to compare the quality of the three books, all of which I love, I would say that this one gave me more of a sense of place than the others. Bruges, we’re told, is where radiant colours are neutralised and reduced to greyish drowsiness, like a pastel drawing left uncovered. Which is, let’s be honest, fucking brilliant.

“Every town is a state of mind.”

Rodenbach takes us down the narrow streets, upon which falls constant rain, to the Église Notre-Dame [not the one in Paris], along the canals, and at every step there is an interplay between place and man, each intensifies the inherent sadness or bleakness of the other.


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.


There’s a popular argument for the existence of God, which is that the world, as we see and experience it, is complexly ordered, and so someone must be responsible for this order. Which is nice and logical, of course, but, rightly or wrongly, when I look at the world I don’t see harmony, I see chaos, especially where humanity is concerned. When I think about human existence it strikes me as overwhelmingly random. Without exception, you’re thrown into a situation over which you have no control whatsoever, a situation – whether good or bad – that is unstable, where with each passing second something could happen that could alter the fabric of your life. And this, at least partly, is what Harry Mulisch’s acclaimed Dutch novel is about.

The Assault spans decades in the life of Anton Steenwijk. It opens in 1945, a time when ‘almost all of Europe had been liberated and were once more rejoicing’; but this is Holland, and the Nazis are, unfortunately, still hanging around. Despite the war, the atmosphere in the Steenwijk household is peaceful, domestic; the family are spending the evening together; the eldest son is doing his homework, with the help of his father; the mother is unravelling a sweater. Later, they start to play a board game. Then, with no warning, six gunshots punctuate the night like the sound of the flapping of giant moth wings, and everything changes. Mulisch emphasises the normality of the situation prior to the shots almost as a way of lulling you into a false sense of security, the same false sense of security that the family themselves feel. Moreover, it is necessary that you believe that this is a normal family, that you understand that this – the assault that occurs – could happen to anyone, that remarkable things can and do happen to unremarkable people.


[Nazi collaborator and police officer Fake Krist lays dead in Haarlem, Netherlands, after being shot by the resistance]

Of course, you now want to know what the assault is. The details of the tragedy, which is partly based on a true story, are not important, not in relation to this review, anyway. What interests me is what I touched upon in the introduction, which is just how unpredictable life is. One event, one moment…no warning, and nothing is ever the same again. Anton, the Steenwijk’s youngest son, and only twelve at the time, is uprooted from Haarlem, and moved to Amsterdam; he is adopted by his aunt and uncle. More significantly, he carries the event around with him, is influenced by it, even when he thinks that he is paying it no mind, because in avoidance of something one still has a relationship with it. Towards the middle of the novel, Mulisch introduces another important character, Cor Takes, who interacts with Anton as an adult. He is more obviously affected by the assault, he, year-on-year, has it at the forefront of his mind, he makes no effort to let it go. Yet it is the case that both characters cannot escape it, or the war in Holland as a whole, they are tied to it; it is simply that they deal with that in different ways. The horrible truth of the matter is that one does not live with war or tragedy for the duration of the conflict or incident, one lives with it forever; this is, I think, Mulisch’s point.

One might ask, how do I know this? How do I know that one lives with tragedy long after the event, that it becomes part of you? Well, it isn’t something I have learnt from literature, that’s for sure. I’ve had my own experiences, which I won’t go into here, and I have known many people  – refugees, rape victims, trafficked women, etc – who have suffered more than I. And I saw their story in The Assault, in Anton Steenwijk’s behaviour and mindset. Mulisch’s book is, for me, the most believable, and powerful, exploration of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I have encountered in fiction. As noted, Anton rarely acknowledges the past to himself, and yet his choices, his actions, scream about it. For example, he studies medicine, because ‘he was fascinated by the delicate equilibrium that must be maintained whenever the butchers plant their knives in someone – this balancing on the edge between life and death.’ And I don’t think it takes a genius to understand why he might have an interest in death, and, as an anesthesiologist, pain and consciousness and memory. Likewise, Anton chooses a wife that, he admits to himself, in some vague way reminds him of the woman with whom he shared a cell so soon after the assault.

One of the most moving passages in the book is when Anton is at the theatre watching The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov’s famous last play, and he suddenly experiences an intensely painful flashback. The play is not, of course, at all concerned with war and yet Steenwijk sees something in it, in an innocuous scene involving a family sat around a table, that reminds him of his own family and that awful night in 1945. This kind of thing is, sadly, very familiar to me. As are the nightmares that Anton experiences. Indeed, I know a young woman who all but avoids sleep altogether because she cannot cope with the terrible nightmares she suffers as a result of what once happened to her. Even if I thought the rest of his book was dogshit [I don’t], I would applaud Mulisch – who lived through world war two himself, who lost his grandmother in the gas chambers – for all this, for going there and nailing it in such a sensitive way.


[A performance of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov]

While reading the books that I intend to review I make notes for myself, I jot down a few ideas about what I want to write about, the themes, important passages, and so on. Sometimes it is a bit of a struggle, but not with The Assault. Five paragraphs already, and I have not explored even half of what I wanted to prior to commencing this review, or certainly not in as much detail as I would like. Well, never mind; I guess it is important that I keep this under 3000 words, so that at least a few people will endeavour to read it. However, one thing that I do want to make explicit is that The Assault is such a brave and intelligent novel. Even in relation to something like the Nazi occupation of a country, Mulisch does not blindly take sides, he does not look for easy answers or explanations. For example, the resistance man, Takes, admits to killing and cutting up [literally into pieces] Nazis or collaborators, he longs to murder an old woman who ratted him out. There’s no romanticising of freedom fighters here, folks. In fact, Takes comments that many people only joined the resistance because they knew that Hitler was losing; and while I would rather not believe this, I do, unfortunately, find it very easy to believe.

Mulisch also pulls no punches in relation to the dead body that inspires the assault. When Fake Ploeg is shot a neighbour moves the corpse so that it it is outside the Steenwijk’s house, knowing full-well what this means, what will happen when the Nazis find it there. Moreover, Peter Steenwijk goes outside intent on moving it again [this scene is, in fact, grimly amusing], either back to from where it came, or to another house. Again, he knows what the consequences will be when it is found. Mulisch is not afraid to acknowledge the ruthlessness of people caught in life or death situations. Better them, than us. Even though all are innocent. Every one of us would like to think that we would not do such a thing, that we would not condemn someone else in order to save ourselves, but it is impossible to say with any certainty how one would behave in such a situation.

“Not until people are called Adolf again will the Second World War be really behind us. But that means we’d have to have a third world war, which would mean the end of Adolfs forever.”

You may have noticed that I have not so far not indulged in any criticism, and the reason for this is that The Assault is almost without blemish. The most I could say in this regard is that the scene between Anton and the woman in the dark prison cell is slightly cringeworthy. I just, I don’t know, struggled to get on board with a wounded woman babbling on about poetry and love, while feeling up a young boy’s face. A more serious complaint would be that there is a hell of a lot of contrivance, or coincidence in the book. Anton meets Takes, who played a major role in the assault, at a funeral, for example; in fact, he overhears him talking about it. This is many years after the event, of course. Yet one could argue that these coincidences are all part of, are evidence of Mulisch’s ideas about living with war and the impossibility of escaping one’s past. Throughout his life, Anton consistently bumps into people that are connected to the war, because it is simply a fact that everyone was involved in it in some way, you didn’t have a choice, it was unavoidable, it was there, on your doorstep, like Fake Ploeg’s dead body.


There is a British TV series, which I think aired in the 1970’s, called The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin. I watched it as a child, on one of those TV Gold type channels [I wasn’t around in the 70’s, of course]. As I remember it, the basic premise of the show was that Reginald fakes his own death, by leaving his clothes at the beach, as a means of escape, an escape from his sterile life, and then moves away and starts again, reboots himself, so to speak. I’ve long found this idea extraordinarily attractive. The show plays on my mind a lot. I’ve always had an anti-conventional mind-set, by which I mean that whenever I have been in a situation that one might call stable, or whenever my personal circumstances have been settled, I have instinctively rebelled against it. The most extreme example of this was when I was in relationship with a lovely girl, but I could not handle the stultifying daily grind of dinner with her parents, conversations about career goals, etc, and so, with no warning, up and left her and moved to London to be with a girl I had known only a few weeks. Yes, sometimes you have to try to escape; sometimes your social and family circle feels like a noose.

The Mahé Circle starts with a frown. As first sentences go, it is not particularly exciting, but it is significant, and strangely effective. The Mahé of the title is Doctor Mahé, who, when we meet him, is on a boat. He has, it appears, engaged a local man, Gene, to take him out fishing. However, Doctor Mahé, unlike his companion, isn’t doing well; most of the time he catches nothing, and when he does manage to tempt something onto his bait it is a diables, which is some kind of horrid spiny fish that, amusingly, you cannot touch with your bare hands and must be immediately thrown back. Ruefully, Mahé notes that, although he is a failure as a fisherman, he is doing exactly what Gene does, that their technique or approach is the same.

Disappointment, unease, and a strange kind of tension, permeates this evocative opening section. The doctor has a headache, the wine that was brought on board is warm, his wife is a smudge on the shore, and an approaching boat brings news that a local woman is near death. Indeed, Mahé is actually on holiday, but you wouldn’t know it, for nothing about his demeanour or circumstances suggests fun or freedom; it is, in fact, made clear that the climate and atmosphere of the mediterranean island of Porquerolles is hostile to him. However, as the narrative progresses, once Mahé and his family have returned home, it is revealed that there is something about that hostility that he craves, that it, in some way, makes him feel alive.

“In Porquerolles, things were hostile to him. He had tried in vain to lessen their impact. Down south, all the time, he had felt as if there was a tremendous chaos around him, a kind of life that was too vivid, so that the slightest contact with it made his blood pulse more quickly, and prompted a rising fever inside him.”

Simenon is at pains to stress that Doctor Mahé’s life, his life at home, away from Porquerolles, is a conventional one. He makes a comfortable living; he has a wife and children and he still lives with his mother. Moreover, his mother is said to still tell him when to change his underwear, she also chose his wife [more for herself, than for him, Mahé thinks], and this wife, with the bland smell, is described as being incapable of full-blooded grief [which is used a kind of criticism, as a way of highlighting her middle-of-the-road nature]. It is not difficult, then, to see how the island – with its extreme heat, scorpions etc – offers greater excitement, a sense of something other, something different. Placing cosseted or average men in a [comparatively] wild environment, making them literally and existentially confront the alien, is a trick often made use of by authors, but this is one of only two times [The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier being the other] that I have come across a protagonist that actually enjoys, yearns for that hostility.

There is, however, another reason why Mahé wants to return to Porquerolles, there is one other motivating factor. When, at the beginning of the novel, he is asked to attend upon the dying woman he sees, while at her house, a young girl, Elisabeth. From this moment onwards both the girl and the red dress she was wearing when he first saw her come to dominate his thoughts and, in turn, the novel. Initially, one thinks that the doctor might be concerned about her welfare, or even that he simply admires her for the way that she copes with the dire circumstances in which she lives, including dealing with her drunkard father, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has a more sinister interest in her. With each return trip he seeks her out, and on each occasion she has, of course, grown older, more womanly; yet she is, on each occasion, still wearing the same dress.

Throughout the novel Simenon makes use of a number of symbols, like the island of Porquerolles, which is a manifestation of Mahé’s increasingly dangerous, unconventional frame of mind. Elisabeth’s ever shortening and tightening dress is a symbol of Mahé’s lust [the colour red is itself a symbol of lust or danger] and, in a sense, mirrors the unravelling fabric of his life and, like the island, his mind also. Furthermore, a young girl is, of course, a symbol of independence, purity and youth. In one of the most significant episodes Mahé, like the two old men in Witold Gombrowicz’s great Polish novel Pornografia, encourages his nephew Albert to pursue Elisabeth, to sleep with her, in an effort to spoil or sully her. It should be pointed out that Mahé doesn’t really want or value any of these things for themselves, that they exist as symbols for him too; he doesn’t love the island, he doesn’t love the girl either [although the word is used towards the end of the novel it doesn’t convince], he is simply drawn towards anything that isn’t representative of his awful, common life, anything that will or could break the circle that he feels is closing upon him.

“He found that at thirty-five, here he was, too big, too fat, too full of rather vulgar life, with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week.”

I have read a number of Simenon’s Romans Durs [or hard novels] and while The Mahé Circle is not the worst, it certainly, contrary to a very positive review from John Banville where he compares it to Proust and Flaubert, isn’t one of the best either. Almost all of Simenon’s work is very short, and that often means that his novels are taut and concentrated. However, occasionally one wishes that he had spread his wings, and let the story breathe a bit. This is one of those. The Mahé Circle, while fun enough, and housing some interesting, if well-worn ideas, is simply too insubstantial to really get me excited; indeed, it feels a little rushed. For example, within 20 pages the Mahé family have been on holiday, returned and then gone back. Simenon moves through the gears too quickly, for my liking. In an ordinary thriller a fast pace would not be a problem, but here it seems at odds with the relatively uneventful story of a man questioning his life and slowly plunging into madness or obsession. Moreover, the author does too much telling, and not enough hinting or suggesting; he, in fact, does all the work for you. Again, this is mostly a consequence of length; the small number of pages means that he is forced to summarise or gloss over important events, or changes in Mahé’s thinking or mind-set. Yet, having said that, the structure is satisfying, especially the way that the narrative is circular, mirroring, of course, the title of the book.