Siegfried by Harry Mulisch

Siegfried - Harry MulischSiegfried – Harry Mulisch
Translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent

Penguin, 2004
Buy: Amazon | Bookdepository

That is one spooky cover picture, isn’t it? Well, without revealing too much, the picture strikingly fits some of this book’s themes.

In Siegfried a distinguished Dutch author visits Vienna to promote one of his recently translated books. Once there, he mentions during a television interview that the only way in which we can hope to understand a figure like Hitler is to put him in a fictional situation. Captured by his own idea, Rudolf Herter starts to imagine possible scenario’s. During a book signing on one of the following days, he meets an elderly couple, the Falks, who ask him if they can tell him their story in response to the television interview. When Rudolf meets up with the couple the next day, they tell him about their lives as domestic servants at Hitler’s Bavarian retreat. They then continue to reveal a few startling facts about Hitler and Eva Braun.. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction..

Except that this is of course still fiction, Mulisch’s fiction. I cannot really reveal anymore without giving the climax of the plot away, which happens around the middle of the novel. All that’s left now is for me to tell you whether I enjoyed Siegfried.

Last year, I read two book by Harry Mulisch for Dutch Lit Month: The Discovery of Heaven and Two Women. After that, I felt I had had my fill of Mulisch. But I owned one more book by him: this one, Siegfried. A book I had received as a gift from an ex-boyfriend, I had purposely ignored it for almost 10 years.  I felt I had better get it over with. Upon finishing it, I’m now even more certain that Mulisch and me are not meant to be. At least not meant to move beyond one-book-in-a-lifetime. And I think, if you were to try one of his novels, Siegfried should not be the one to start with.

The novel follows a rather difficult structure that starts out with the reader getting familiar with Rudolf Herter and his visit to Vienna. After that we are introduced to the Falks and their story in the form of a talk between the couple and Herter. Following the big reveal, Herter then continues to philosophise about Hitler’s nature, eventually coming to the (rather pretentiously formulated) conclusion that Hitler is pure negativity, a black hole, that because of its void intrigues others and destroys everything around it. This expose is followed by the fictional diary of Eva Braun’s last month in Berlin, before returning to Herter in his hotel room.

Sounds rather cumbersome for a 200 page novel, doesn’t it?

The many story elements united in Siegfried is one of its drawbacks. Even more so because the story of Herter, the one that is supposed to glue it all together, is not half as interesting as the story of the Falks. If theirs had not just been the climax of the novel, but the main focus from the start, Siegfried might have been much more interesting to read.

Add to this that Rudolf Herter quickly got on my nerves. Rudolf, and apparently everyone he meets, thinks he is great and incredibly intelligent. Many women dream of sleeping with him, or at least Rudolf tells us they dream of it. Perhaps all of the former is meant to be part of his fame, and while he often makes a small remark on how crowds make him feel a little uneasy, most of those paragraphs start and end with an assertion of his superiority.

The way in which Herter’s superiority was written is what made me so uncomfortable, because it spells out gender inequality and a glorification of intellectualism. In any situation, in any conversation, Herter is the one that infers, defines, and understands. Moreover, women are only present in the story to ask questions, and to affirm his position, his knowledge, and his superiority. Even in case of Rudolf’s conversation with the Falks, the man relates the main part of their story, the woman sometimes makes small marginal remarks, and Herter then continues to interpreted their tale, make it legible. All of this results in a long expose on the philosophical understanding of Hitler’s nature, in which Herter spews information about the history of philosophy, and laughs in the face of his girlfriend’s questions. In short, Herter’s character, and the manner in which his story was told, made me angry. But it also led to his “Hitler as a void” theory sounding not interesting, but (more) pretentious, and in effect, a little silly.

I am not sure if this assertion of male intellectualism is part of any book written by Mulisch, but I have a feeling that I finally got a little closer to understanding what annoyed me in his portrayal of women in The Discovery of Heaven last year. Anyway, I’m glad to be taking a break from his fiction for a while. Until next year, at the very least.

Other Opinions: Reading Matters, Yours?

P.S. That is, I thought I was done with Harry Mulisch. Until I came across these wonderful posts on Mulisch’ The Assault at a gallimaufry. These beautiful descriptions make me think I should at the very least give this that particular book a try. Some day..

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10 thoughts on “Siegfried by Harry Mulisch

  1. Mrs.B.

    I’ve read this and I remember not liking it very much although I did enjoy Discovery of Heaven. Yes, that’s certainly a creepy cover photo.

  2. Caroline

    I just posted my review on The Assault and must say I liked a lot of it. I thought it was quite subtle how he described the way in which repression works.
    Howvere what you write about Siegfried tells me I wouldn’t like it. That cover is almost gruesome.
    I still think I might have to try The Discovery of Heaven.

  3. Pingback: Dutch Lit Month: Introducing Week 3 | Iris on Books

  4. winstonsdad

    I never fully finished discovery of heaven and have another by him on my shelves but will pick this up when read those two love the sound of it ,all the best stu

  5. helen

    Thank you for your kind words Iris!

    I enjoyed your review of this and even though you disliked it you made it sound intriguing. Did the other novels of his which you’d read concern the war?

    I think you would enjoy De aanslag more, go on, put it on your list for next year…

  6. cbjamess

    I still have The Discovery of Heaven on my TBR list. I would like to try something by this author soon.

  7. Solvejg

    Don’t agree completely… I kinda liked the story, thought it was interesting. But I completely agree on the pretentious theory-part at the end of the book. Luckily, that didn’t completely spoil it for me. Though it has been 10 years since I read it, so I might want to reconsider🙂.

  8. Janna Amelkin

    Forgot all about Dutch literature month. However, I have been reading recently published books in Dutch on my e-reader. Discovered Anna Enquist and read “De IJsbrekers” and “De Verdovers.” Her books are distinguished by an insightful psychological point of view, which I like. Currently, I am reading “Tonio” by A.F.Th. van der Heijden. It is about the loss of the author’s only child. I read some of the book every evening and while doing my chores I look forward to continuing with the book. It is a newly published book and has not been translated into English, nor have any other books by van der Heijden.

    As far as Harry Mulisch is concerned, I did re-read “The Assault” about a year ago. It is very well put together and I enjoyed it very much. It seems to me that this book is very different from “Siegfried,” which has a lot of philosophizing, of which I am not fond. I thought of using it for a report for a class on “The Rise of Hitler,” which i will be taking in the Fall. However, I am not sure I will be able to understand the philosophy. By the way the book Mulisch wrote on Eichmann in the 1960’s also has recently been translated into English. I read it a few years after it was published and at the time it made sense to me. I may use that together with Hannah Arendt’s views for this upcoming course.


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