Two Women – Harry Mulisch

Twee Vrouwen - Harry MulischTwee Vrouwen (“Two Women”) – Harry Mulisch
Nederland Leest, De Bezige Bij, 2008 (originally published in 1975).

What could I say about this book? I liked it better than I expected? I remember reading my second Mulisch, after enjoying his The Discovery of Heaven for the first time and disliking it. Why? Because it had the same style, the same philosophical ideas. The same endless train of words. Or so it seemed. I can imagine that, had I read this book close to that second one, I would have felt the same. Now, my feelings are a mixture of my first and second experience of Harry Mulisch.

Two Women is about Laura, who is divorced and one day finds herself attracted to a young woman of 20. They start living together, but from the first it becomes clear that this story cannot end well..

There is something that made me hesitate to read this book. You see, so often you read about a relationship between two women or two men, simply because the book wants to be about that, wants to be controversial. I had suspected Mulisch to do the same. On some level, this might have been his intention. But the book explores other issues. His references to tragedy within the text, he must have had something bigger in mind, something like writing his own version of a Greek tragedy, with two women, instead of two men as he has a theatre playwright do in the book. [I wonder if the ideas he has Laura’s ex-husband express, on how a tragedy is never a tragedy with just two women, or two men, but always needs at least a man and a woman, are his own thoughts, given the ending of the book? I wonder if this is why I feel hesitant about this story?]

The ending is a little bit too predictable, you see it coming pages in advance. And yet, the predictability is not what bothered me about the book, nor was it what I loved.

I am sorry, but my thoughts about this book only come in fragments.

As to the philosophising, which is always present in the works of Mulisch, at times I wanted to nod, thinking: yes, yes, I think I know exactly what you mean, wanting to run away as a child to the great “Away“, just somewhere not Here. At others I wanted to tell him to just stop it already. “Really? You start to contemplate about things like that while there is a crisis in your life going on? Or is this showing off how much you know about literature and science, as so often happens?”

I liked how you only find out details of the main character slowly, throughout the book. How, nearly at the end, you find out her first name. How, for the first 30 pages, you’re unsure if it’s a he or a she, except that the book is called Two Women, so you might have known.

And the style? The same mixed reaction. At times, I truly felt that Mulisch had found the perfect use for the Dutch language. (And I wonder if his works ever really work in translation?). At others, I started to wonder if it was just me, if I have been reading too much English literature for years now, but that I couldn’t follow. I felt as if the Dutch language was alien to me, I felt I had to know that this was a beautiful sentence, that there was a deeper meaning to it, but it just left me puzzled. And I could not be bothered to return to it, and read it again.

This is the thing about Two Women. I am not sure WHAT to think. I liked it, but then I didn’t. And I somehow feel that this might have been taken as a compliment by Mulisch. Staring at me with his unreadable face from the back of the book, I can almost see him smirking at me “I knew I would have left you questioning, little girl.”

The edition that I read is a free edition provided by the library in the Netherlands, every year (or at least they used to) they give away copies of one book to library members for free, with the hope to stimulate reading and discussion of books. “Twee Vrouwen” has been translated as Two Women in English, but doesn’t seem to be in print at the moment.

10 thoughts on “Two Women – Harry Mulisch

  1. Kim

    ik had een beetje dezelfde reactie. ik vond het wel goed geschreven, het was beter dan ik had verwacht, en toch viel het me ook weer tegen. heel raar. ik las het een paar maanden terug en ik weet nog steeds niet goed wat ik ervan vind. maar het verhaal zit niet nog steeds in mijn hoofd dus dan zal mijn uiteindelijke oordeel wel niet heel goed kunnen zijn.

    denk ik. misschien lezen we het te laat. in de tijd van publicatie was het misschien wel veel grootser omdat het over twee vrouwen gaat, en een relatie. nu is dat eigenlijk normaler?

    het filosoferen vond ik ook tof. en het einde ook wel. eigenlijk was er niets dat me echt tegenstond, het maakte alleen niet echt een indruk. en dat is voor mij nu toch wel echt een pre. maakt niet uit wat voor indruk, het moet gewoon ‘iets’ achter laten en dat deed het niet.

  2. Leeswammes

    I read this at the time of the free gift book. I don’t remember anything of ti. Not even whether I liked/enjoyed it. I think it was just so-so. No intelligent remarks about it, sorry.

  3. amymckie

    Sounds kind of like an interesting book but at the same time I’m unsure. I like that your review pretty much says the same thing, that you’re not sure what to think.

  4. rhapsodyinbooks

    He’s definitely an interesting writer. I read The Discovery of Heaven several years ago now, so I don’t remember specifics, but it gave one a great deal to think about!

  5. winstonsdad

    I ve liked what I ve read of discovery and the other book of his I ve read he is a writer that leaves you wondering life after reading ,he seems a real deep thinker at times and sometimes I feel like a swimmer in the deep end not able to touch the bottom ,all the best stu

  6. Vishy

    Wonderful review, Iris! I have heard of Harry Mulisch but I haven’t read any of his books. This books looks quite interesting from your review! I loved your observations on the identity of the main character (that was my favourite passage – “I liked how you only find out details of the main character slowly, throughout the book. How, nearly at the end, you find out her first name. How, for the first 30 pages, you’re unsure if it’s a he or a she”), how Mulisch uses the Dutch language and your mixed feeling about the book. I will look for this book. Thanks for the wonderful review🙂

  7. Pingback: A Month of Dutch Literature: Looking Back | Iris on Books

  8. jan

    I did read “Twee Vrouwen” in Dutch in the past year and found it disappointing. It confused me at times and I don’t know why. I doubt it was being rusty with Dutch, because had been reading one or two books a year in Dutch without real difficulty. “De Aanslag”, also by Mulisch, (translated as “The Assault”), which I also read in the past year is really a wonderful book. It is really a mystery. The story has been put together very well and is compelling. Nevertheless, there are also a few incomprehensible sentences in it.


  9. Pingback: Siegfried by Harry Mulisch | Iris on Books

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