In a Dark Wood Wandering – Hella Haasse
Academy Chicago Publishers, 1991
Translated by Anita Miller
(I read the Dutch version, “Het Woud der Verwachting”, originally published in 1949, my edition is from 1998).
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How I wish I did not have to say that I didn’t finish this book. Because, truth is, I desperately wanted to like it. And had I had more time, I might have tried harder. And I might have finished, even. And I think I would have enjoyed it more. I am not sure, but I have a feeling that while part of me thought this book could have done with losing a lot of its words, that had the time been right, had I read this during a long break from university for example, I might have given this the attention it is due and liked it more because of it.
In a Dark Wood Wandering is about Charles of Orleans (1394 – 1465), son of Louis of Orleans, and traces what life was like during the 100 year war in France, at the French court. The story starts with Charles’ birth and ends with his death, while in between those two dates, the story considers many aspects of court life, especially the many political plots that were part of a country ruled by a king who suffered from lapses of insanity (Charles’ father Louis of Orleans).
I think the fact that the story is demarcated by the birth and death of Charles has weaknesses and advantages. On the one hand, there seems to be little semblance of a plot. This, I should have realised from the title alone, since “In a dark wood wandering” implies that one is searching for something and yet not knowing what it is. This gives the book a crowded feel, in which attention is paid to many (seemingly insignificant) details. It is what made me wish that half of the story lines could have been removed, at times. This attention to detail, but also the assumption that the reader will remember all the intricate relationships of the many characters, makes the story very difficult to follow. This is complicated further by the historical circumstances that are mentioned, but never explained, leaving me with the feeling that I really needed to brush up my knowledge of the Middle Ages before attempting to read this book again.
There is, however, something very admirable about Haasse’s manner of story telling. Perhaps, if you consider her story through the eyes of a historian, instead of a reader of historical fiction, it is easier to appreciate what she achieved here. The many details, down to the style of dress, education, manners and customs, as well as the larger storylines of political intrigue, must have cost an exhausting amount of work.
It is a shame, therefore, that if you pick this book up as I did, expecting a somewhat light read, you are likely to be left a little exhausted too, searching for the plot and the connections between the many people mentioned.
Fact is, I would like to give this book another try, sometime. But I think I will turn to other books by Haasse before that. Books that are a little shorter, perhaps? (At 600 pages in small print, this book feels like a huge read). Moreover, I will wait for a time when my life is less busy and I am less preoccupied. For now, In a Dark Wood Wandering did not work for me, but I fully trust I will get back to it and appreciate it more, next time I pick it up.
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