Tag Archives: Harry Mulisch

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..

* This is an affiliate link. If you buy a product through this link, I will receive a small percentage of the purchase price.

The Discovery of Heaven Read Along, Part IV

This is the fourth and final post for the The Discovery of Heaven read along, as hosted by me throughout May and June. If you have posted about part III yourself, feel free to leave the link below and I will include them at the bottom of this post.

The Discovery of Heaven Read Along

With Max dead, Quinten starts looking for Onno and when he is in Rome, he accidentally finds him. Or rather, Onno sees him and says hello. When together they start exploring Rome, Quinten becomes convinced that he has found the original stone tablets with the 10 commandments of Mozes and feels he has to break in to retrieve them. He does, and when fleeing Rome they visit Jerusalem, where the assignments of the Angels is finally fulfilled and the ten commandments are brought back to heaven.

In a way, this last part made the book for me. You could argue that everything falls into place. You realise just why so many of the things that happened had to happen and why all those characters were introduced to Quinten’s life in the first place. You could argue that everything fits together a little too conveniently and that this makes the story feel contrived, but I think the fact that the book borders on the contrived (let alone the plot of Quinten returning the tablets with the Ten Commandments) is what makes it fascinating: Yes, Mulisch ties up every little loose end (or almost everyone) and every character, every event is revisited in some way, but this is part of the larger plot: Mulisch tells the story of a plan of God, executed by angels, so if things seem convenient or you feel there’s too much coincidence, Mulisch can say: but what do you expect, we’re talking about God here, we’re talking about this higher force who knew and can direct to a certain extent. It’s funny when you think about it, and also a kind of exaggerated arrogance: This is Mulisch playing God, in the manner that every author is able to ‘play God’ for their characters and stories, but he is making it more explicit.

Does any of that make sense? I hope it does. In my head it makes perfect sense but try to put it on paper..

There are many different aspects of this novel and so many questions of interest, but I am hoping other posts will bring them up.

Also, did anyone think the last part of the book had a bit of a Da Vinci Code feel to it? Of course, The Discovery of Heaven was released and written much earlier than the Da Vinci Code was, but because of the setting and the many grand theories about conspiracies in religion.. I somehow felt the need to want to check what Mulisch wrote. For the record, I did like The Discovery of Heaven a lot more than the Da Vinci Code though I will say that the Da Vinci Code is a much faster read.

And, do you think Onno will die? I somehow hope not. I would like for him to be left wandering around for a while. To have someone who knows on earth. I don’t know. As much as I disliked him in the third part, and he never really redeemed himself to me in the fourth, I would like him to be alive.

There is also Max’ formerly thought to be death mother. How did you feel about her appearance? I am unsure..

And Ada’s sudden death at the time of Quinten’s disappearance? How did you feel about Quinten at the very end, looking around and saying that every woman is his mother. I read somewhere that Mulisch felt that literature and the feminine were the only thing he thought could save the world from utter devastation and that is why, when Quinten returns the stone tablets, he is surrounded by words and his mother. Does this mean I’ve been too harsh on Mulisch all this time, complaining about his female characters? But what on earth does it mean that ‘the feminine’ can safe the world? I don’t know..

As I said, so many things to discuss..

The Discovery of Heaven Read Along, Part III

This is the third post for the The Discovery of Heaven read along, as hosted by me throughout May and June. If you’re interested, read more information about the read along here. If you have posted about part III yourself, feel free to leave the link below and I will include them at the bottom of this post.

The Discovery of Heaven Read Along

Ah, the third part, the beginning of the end. I didn’t remember much about this part of the book initially, but while reading there were things I recognised. However, I didn’t remember liking this part as much as I did this time around. The Discovery of Heaven is growing on me, and I will try to explain why. I will be visiting a music festival this weekend, so while I’d love for you to leave your links (please do!) I won’t be able to visit until Wednesday.

In the third part of the book, the child of Ada and Onno (or as the reader knows, Ada and Max) is born through Caesarean section, while Ada’s brain becomes more and more still. Max and Sophia raise the child, in an old castle which is now inhabited by artists and eccentrics. Quinten grows up to be an uncommonly clever child, often asking inquisitive questions that leaves many wondering just how a child could think of such things.

Through this part of the book, Quinten is often visited by a nightmare/dream about an otherworldly place that has no outside but only an inside. This makes him take a special interest in architecture, often visiting one of the persons living in the castle who can help him in his quest to find this mysterious building. Meanwhile, the affair between Max and Sophia stops, and Max finds another woman. Onno restarts the relationship with Helga, the girlfriend he had before meeting Ada, that Max destroyed at the time. Onno hardly visits Quinten, being caught up in a very succesful political career, succesful that is, until his participation at the conference in Cuba is discovered, and his political career comes to a sudden halt. Max is on the verge of making a major astronomical discovery. When, one night, he discovers heaven, he is killed by a freak meteoroid, which makes Quinten decide to go look for Onno.

To me, this part of the book was a complete turn around. Where I used to like Onno better, I now have so much more respect for Max. Especially when Onno decided to pull a disappearing act. Seriously? When you have a child you think is yours? I disliked how he decided to live his life before, with his political career being more important than his family life.. I know he got a tough deal, I know, but disappearing? And Max taking his responsibility like that. I don’t know, as much as I disliked him in the first two parts, I enjoyed reading about him this time, though I admit the last pages about him were a bit.. hard to follow.

In this part, Mulisch’ habit of showing off his knowledge was less annoying to me. I think, this must be because he now mostly uses Quinten to ponder things. Making the knowledge seem more innocent somehow?

Also, I loved the castle.

And the beginning of part 3/the end of part 2, with Ada’s fragmented thoughts, it made me a little emotional.

As for the greater theme of the whole book, I still wonder what Mulisch meant to portray exactly. This idea that humans have failed to keep to the bond with God – is it supposed to be a good thing, or a bad thing? I somehow cannot imagine Mulisch thinking religion is great, but his idea that the bonds with Moses are now broken, with the heavy weight of the “how could this happen?” question regarding WW2, it seems he doesn’t picture mankind as good either. And then there is the big question of predestination or not, and free will. I am still considering all of this, so hopefully I will have answers instead of questions in two weeks time.

One more thing, I am still annoyed at Mulisch’ portrayal of women. He implicitly agrees that men and women are completely different somewhere in this third installment of the book. And he also suggests that it is a woman’s place to cook dinner an awful lot. But I guess after 3 posts about this, it is time to let go?

How did you feel about this part of the book?

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.

The Discovery of Heaven Read Along, Part II

This is the second post for the The Discovery of Heaven read along, as hosted by me throughout May and June. If you’re interested, read more information about the read along here. If you have posted about part I yourself, feel free to leave the link below and I will include them at the bottom of this post.

The Discovery of Heaven Read Along

Here we are, at the end of the beginning. I am enjoying the book now, more so than I did the first part. However, I cannot shake some of the criticisms I had 2 weeks ago.

In this second part of the book, Ada, Onno and Max are back in the Netherlands. Ada soon discovers she is pregnant and Onno proposes to her thinking the child is his. However, Max knows the child might as well be his and finds it hard to face Onno because of his guilt. When Ada and Onno visit Max at his work in Westenbork, Ada is called that her father had a heart attack. When they hasten home, all three of them are in a car crash and while neither Max and Onno are hurt, Ada gets into a coma. While she does not wake up, her child survives. When Max goes to Leiden to tell Ada’s mother, Max and Mrs. Brons sleep together. This leads to them regularly having sex. Since Onno is unable to take care of the child alone, due to his political career, Ada’s mother moves to Westerbork to raise the child together with Max.

Ah, the intrigue. Here it is: Ada slept with Max and Onno on the same night. And so, theoretically, we do not know who the father is. Except that, we know, because at the very beginning of the book it is said that the child has to be Max’s. I liked this idea of telling a story through different perspectives and thus getting knowledge from different sources. You seem to form a broader idea of the why and what of what is happening, and yet, you are always left to question the little details: are these matters of choice, or decisions of the “Angels”?

What I still find problematic is the way Mulisch writes about women. They are not really plot devices to drive the story along, but because of the thorough characterisation of Max and Onno, and the noticeably little attention for Ada (or later her mother), I cannot escape the feeling that Harry Mulisch just didn’t care so much. And frankly, the “Ada’s in a coma now” felt like a way of not having to address the issue of who Ada is or isn’t. I remember from last time that I read this book, and I felt the same rereading it now, that I really wanted to have a better or bigger story for Ada, I felt she deserved some meaningful words at the end. I remember going back and rereading the last few pages to make sure I hadn’t missed anything Ada said, and I did the same this time. I know, it is the cruelty of life and death that is portrayed perfectly in this scene: being there at one moment, not being there at another. But I was searching for more. Also for more of an impact on me, that Ada is now in danger of life. Something like shock or emotion, but you are almost not allowed to feel it. And I really do believe that part of this is Mulisch inattention to his female characters. Additionally, can I just say a loud “EW” for the details about Max and Ada’s mother having sex, and Mrs. Brons’ supposed special vagina?

But there is also the subtle storytelling of Mulisch. He does know how to build up his story. I was fascinated with the funeral scene. Where you know it to be the funeral of Ada’s father, but you feel like it is really Ada’s, because that is who you are thinking about the whole time.

How are you enjoying the book thus far?

Alex of the Sleepless Reader wrote an interesting post on part 1 and 2, bringing up several points of discussion.

If you have written a post on part 2 (or on several parts) of The Discovery of Heavenrecently, please leave me a note and I will add the link to this post.