Het behouden huis—literally “the preserved (or surviving) house”—a novella by the Dutch writer Willem Frederik Hermans, was published in 1951 and translated into English by Estelle Debrot as The House of Refuge in 1966, then by David Colmer as An Untouched House in 2018. If, in the future, works of fiction must carry content warnings, this one will require a red alert. As the story draws to a close, nothing has been preserved and very little deserves to be. It is a work, observed the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, of “bestial destruction.”
Born in 1921 to upwardly mobile parents, Hermans was obliged to interrupt his university studies in physical geography when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940. The closely observed dramas of wartime behavior that he then began to compose provoked outrage for decades to come. In Het behouden huis the unnamed narrator, a partisan, has been fighting the Germans for four years, twice escaping from prison camps. On the front line of an attack on a small town in Eastern Europe, he appears to have no sense of what he is fighting for and can barely communicate with comrades who speak a babel of different languages. Entirely focused on the moment-by-moment struggle for survival, he is no more than an efficient war machine: “A German emerged and ran for the road. I shot him. A second, as well. A third. A fourth. They bent double like butterflies being mounted. I stabbed them to death with a pin six hundred feet long.”
However, when the partisan is sent ahead to scout for booby traps, he finds himself entering a well-to-do spa town where “the abandoned houses…stir and gather round me, offering themselves to me like women in travel stories about Indochina.” He steps into a stately house whose occupants seem to have left only moments before. At once the ease and opulence of this first “genuine home” that he has been in for years begin to exert their influence. He takes a bath, looks in the mirror, shaves, and becomes someone else: “Now that I was so clean, I expected to discover all kinds of things in my face. I discovered nothing. All the things I had been through were gone without trace.” He finds a suit, shirt, and tie, and then, tapping cigarette ash on the rug while studying gilded cherubs on the ceiling, recognizes a “sense of inner disapproval”: “It was like I had to behave respectably again, even though the owner of the house could count himself lucky if I didn’t loot it.” All too soon he is hearing his dead mother’s voice complaining about muddy footprints on expensive carpets. With each passing hour the protected world of the old bourgeoisie invites him to rediscover that blend of narcissism and respect for property—books, paintings, a well-stocked wine cellar—that passes for culture.
The Germans retake the town and a colonel appears at the door. The partisan claims to be the owner of the house and allows Nazi officers to be billeted there. Assuring the impostor that he has nothing to fear, the colonel explains, “Since joining the army…I have shaved every day without fail at exactly half past six in the morning…war or no war! That is what I understand by culture!”
For weeks the partisan lives a life of ease, doing “things that didn’t require any thought,” “touching objects without investigating them,” utterly forgetful of wartime imperatives. Nevertheless it is irksome that one of the upper rooms in the house is locked. A black cat keeps trying to get into it. As the partisan is climbing a stepladder outside the house to look into the window of this room, the owner returns. Any anxiety one might feel for the strangely numbed protagonist is quickly dispelled when he fetches his rifle and shoots the man dead, then strangles his wife. One has to own the well-preserved house to possess and enjoy its culture.
A few minutes later an elderly gentleman, the owner’s father, also appears. He has unlocked the door to the mysterious room. “All four walls were covered with racks of aquariums,” stocked with rare fish requiring the most delicately balanced environment. Pathetically, the opulent bourgeois seek to possess life in their palatial homes, locking it away in rarely visited rooms. “Something of unique cultural significance,” the elderly man insists.
As they speak, war is once again passing through the town. The partisans are back, and the novella’s terrifying finale unfolds: “an apotheosis of random cruelty…unparalleled in literature,” observes Cees Nooteboom in the afterword to Colmer’s unobtrusively efficient translation. The narrator dons his old soldiering clothes and claims to have been a prisoner of the Germans. The house is desecrated in every possible way, the German colonel tortured, the owner’s father hanged. Outrage after outrage is perpetrated. Leaving at last, the narrator throws a hand grenade into the hallway. After the explosion,
I saw bundles of dead raggedy reeds hanging down from the broken ceilings that had depicted heaven. I looked deep into the house’s diseased and dying maw.
It was like it had been putting on an act the whole time and was only now showing itself as it, in reality, had always been: a hollow, drafty cavern, rancid and rotting at its core.
Two contrasting energies galvanize Hermans’s fictions. The wry invitation to find symbols and deeper meanings is balanced by a wealth of detail and meticulously described action, all rapidly delivered, convincingly concrete, and psychologically persuasive. Binding the two together is a flair for bizarre analogies that compel recognition while dispelling our instinct to sympathize in an aura of the surreal:
The owner of the house was lying…just as I’d left him, his mouth wide open, the half-burnt cigarette shot back into his throat, like a pistil in a flower.
The plane changed into a comet of soot and hit the ground somewhere behind me. The explosion was like the world making a swallowing sound but amplified a million times.
The reader is soon convinced that Hermans knows life intimately and that his knowledge is devastating. “He lashed [readers] with the truth,” comments the introduction to the Dutch edition of his collected works. But there is humor too, albeit of the gallows variety. The Darkroom of Damocles (1958), the novel that made Hermans’s name, opens thus in Ina Rilke’s fine translation, first published in 2007:
“He drifted around on his raft for days, without a drop to drink. He was dying of thirst, because the water of the ocean is salty. He hated the water that he couldn’t drink. But when his raft was struck by lightning and caught fire, he scooped up the hateful water with both hands to try and put out the flames!”
The teacher was the first to laugh, and finally the whole class joined in.
Minutes after this initiation into his schoolmaster’s macabre sense of humor, the twelve-year-old Henri Osewoudt is told that a terrible accident has happened at home, though no one has the courage to explain. The boy is taken to his uncle Bart’s house and later that night into his cousin Ria’s bed. She is nineteen and offers a predatory consolation. Only later does he understand that his mother has killed his father.
Henri is short; his flaxen hair and smooth cheeks give him a girlish look; even as an adult he will never develop a beard. Constantly comparing himself with others, he feels he is a loser and takes judo classes to improve his self-esteem. At fifteen he realizes Ria is ugly: “She would otherwise have dumped him long ago.” And he would dump her if only other girls would pay him some attention. Nevertheless, when he is eighteen, Henri and Ria marry, taking over his dead father’s tobacco shop along with Henri’s mother, now released from a mental institution. Everything is done for the merest economic convenience. A picture is painted of dull, small-town life characterized by the reliable trundling of blue and yellow trams. Six days after Henri’s marriage, the Germans invade Poland, but he is half a centimeter too short to become a soldier. Joining the Home Guard, he is “allowed to stand [outside the post office] with an old rifle, on the sidelines as usual.”
At last Henri gets a chance to prove himself. A Dutch lieutenant turns up at the tobacconist’s asking for some film to be developed. And after pages of scrupulous realism, Hermans introduces a surreal element into his story: Lieutenant Dorbeck looks exactly like Henri Osewoudt—his doppelgänger, no less. When Henri protests that being the same height Dorbeck should also have been turned down for military service, the lieutenant replies, “So was I, almost. But I stretched myself.” Now he will be asking Henri to stretch himself. First he must develop the photographs, none of which appear to have any military significance. Then he must bury the lieutenant’s uniform as, with German victory complete, Dorbeck is going into hiding. Without ever being formally recruited, Henri comes to think of himself as involved in the resistance. He brushes up his judo and buys a Leica to be more useful. Dorbeck gives him a pistol and an appointment: “As soon as we’re in the living room, you shoot. Shoot whoever’s nearest to you.”
Two features distinguish Dorbeck from Henri: the ex-lieutenant has black hair and a beard. Henri thinks of him as a virile version of himself. He must become like Dorbeck, “the successful specimen.” Obeying his double’s every order, he is caught up in a whirlwind of disguises, betrayals, killings, conversations at cross-purposes, and sudden erotic encounters, to the point that all identity dissolves. There are moments of high comedy—as when, desperate to avoid being recognized, Henri puts on another partisan’s glasses and the two men stumble about, both quite unable to see—but also of shocking cynicism. “Spending a night of bliss with you then doing you in would be right up my street,” Henri reflects when he sees a girl in the Youth Storm, a Dutch movement that collaborated with the Nazis. “And a patriotic deed into the bargain.”
Authentic patriotism is scarce. When a comrade speaks of having acted “for my country,” Henri thinks, “What’s that supposed to mean? The blue tram? The yellow tram?” Only love offers hope for some kind of mental stability. He had done “every heroic deed” not for his country but for her, Henri claims on falling in love with a hairdresser, Marianne. She urges him to free himself of his obsession with Dorbeck and “be yourself.” But Marianne is Jewish and on the run, and the child they conceive is stillborn. In the general confusion, as Henri oscillates between thinking of himself as a “poor sod” and a “prince,” the only thing that matters is staying alive, coming out victorious. Hearing that Ria has betrayed him to the Germans, Henri stabs her to death with evident satisfaction.
The Allies advance, and the end of the war is in sight. Henri is confident that he will indeed come out a winner. But when he crosses the lines, disguised, thanks to his looks, as a female nurse, he finds that the British believe him to have been a German double agent who “delivered hundreds of good patriots into the hands of the enemy.” In a tour de force of interrogations, newspaper articles, psychiatric examinations, and even letters to the queen of England, Henri’s involvement in the war is reconstructed and deconstructed far beyond the point of bewilderment. Everyone has his or her version of events; no one listens to anyone else. Convinced that he is the victim of a misunderstanding, Henri shows no remorse for his many killings. The one man who might throw some light on events, Dorbeck, is never found.
It is hardly surprising that The Darkroom of Damocles proved offensive to anyone who believed in the patriotic spirit of the Dutch resistance. Hermans was a polemicist with a gift for the kind of overkill that transforms ordinary denunciation into something spectacular and terrifying. Had his novels been translated into English at the time they were written, no doubt their reception would have been equally tumultuous. At a distance of fifty and more years it is easy for us to see the deeper aspects of the work and forget the ruthlessness with which Hermans rubbed postwar complacencies into the dirt. He loathed all pious illusions. In the 1970s he spent much time and energy unmasking Friedrich Weinreb, a prominent Jew who claimed to have helped save many other Jews during the war while in fact selling them a fictitious escape route that frequently led to their deportation and death.
A Guardian Angel Recalls, published in Dutch in 1971 and now appearing in English for the first time in a gripping translation by David Colmer, opens with a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis. At the Dutch port of the Hook of Holland, the public prosecutor Bert Alberegt has just put the beautiful Sysy on board a freighter that will take her first to England, then America. This time Hermans places his surreal element at the heart of the novel’s structure: the story is narrated by Alberegt’s guardian angel. Constantly anxious for the fate of his ward’s soul, the angel necessarily sees everything through a Christian perspective of good and evil, with Alberegt’s positive thoughts often described as the result of his own celestial prompting and negative thoughts as suggested directly by the devil. But this obsessive moral framework proves comically inadequate to tell a story in which the brutal drive for survival and self-realization is always ascendant. Alberegt never shows so much as a hint of religious feeling. The two value systems forever at war in Hermans’s work are thus separated out and pointed up, to great ironic effect.
Sysy is a Communist who was smuggled out of Germany by Alberegt’s best friend, the liberal publisher Erik Losecaat, who persuaded him to use his position to help forge her documents. But was his help entirely altruistic? Alberegt fell in love with Sysy and has been living with her for four months. “A fat man of thirty-eight,” he feels she is his last best chance for a stable domestic life. Thanks to her he has overcome a ruinous drinking habit and stopped smoking. However, now that she is leaving, he wonders if she didn’t share his bed merely because he was in a position of power. She never had any intention of marrying him. He is “too fusty.”
Tormented by low self-esteem, Alberegt, after saying good-bye to Sysy, wonders if he couldn’t get her back by calling the police anonymously and having her arrested before the ship leaves. The guardian angel is appalled, attributing such thoughts to the devil. A more benign idea would be to go immediately to England and catch up with Sysy there, giving up his career for love. Driving in haste to a court hearing where he is to prosecute a writer who has insulted Hitler in a newspaper article, Alberegt is feeling extremely vulnerable and soon becomes even more so when, taking a shortcut down a remote country lane, he runs over and kills a little girl. Human dignity demands that he go at once to the police and confess. The angel is clear about this. The prosecutor throws the small corpse in the bushes and hurries to take his place in court.
Hermans does not disdain bizarre coincidence. His strategy is to push his uneasy protagonists to a limit where whatever moral qualities they might have are overwhelmed by the will to survive. Having failed to kill himself (the angel, who did not prevent the road accident, contrives to have his revolver jam), Alberegt hurries from court to a party at his mother’s house, where his friend Erik once again tries to enlist his help: a little Jewish girl smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and staying with other refugees in a remote area out of town has disappeared. Could he ask the police to look for her without disclosing that she is Jewish? Both the angel and the devil suggest that the terrified Alberegt borrow money and depart for England that very night, the one to have him pursue his love for Sysy, the other to allow him to escape detection and thus become “lord and master” of the situation. It is a major problem, the angel wryly acknowledges, that devils and angels often give the same advice.
Alberegt’s mother’s home resembles the great house of Het behouden huis: walnut bureaus, satin-covered lounge sofas, crystal chandeliers. Thilda Alberegt-Grijze has just performed a program of lieder at the local concert hall and is celebrating her performance, which was “a tremendous success.” A born winner avid for praise, the elderly woman sings for her party guests despite being exhausted. Alberegt’s “failed brother” Rense, on the other hand, is an artist who paints the same plain blue canvas over and over again and has never made a sale; his wife now wishes she had married his more financially stable brother. It was to avoid thinking of himself as “a loser,” we discover, that Alberegt switched from working as a defense lawyer, who is inevitably upset when a case goes against him, to being a state prosecutor, who has no emotional investment in the outcome of a trial.
Seeing those around him downing glasses of champagne and whiskey, he longs to drown his miseries, but that would mean a descent back into alcoholism. Unlike the successful people he envies, he cannot hold his drink. For consolation he keeps peppermints that he sucks hard whenever thinking becomes unbearable. The angel is “overcome with tenderness for this human, whose happiness had for the greatest part always been derived from insignificant habits.” Just as torment and dilemma approach their climax we hear the rumble of low-flying aircraft. Bombs begin to fall. Thilda is distressed that no one will find time to read the reviews of her lyric triumph.
It is May 10, 1940, when German paratroopers dropped all over the Netherlands to prepare the way for advancing land forces. Driving toward the coast through bucolic countryside, seeing a farmer’s wife carrying a bucket to milk her cows—“the most beautiful and most noble country that has ever existed”—Alberegt is caught in an air raid. Very soon the cows
were lying on their backs with their legs in the air, except for two that were still standing on their front legs and dragging their bloody, crippled hindquarters over the grass, tongues floundering out of their wide-open mouths…. He couldn’t see the farmer’s wife anywhere.
The angel is intrigued to see how immersion in war galvanizes his ward. Alberegt has “forgotten everything that had been oppressing him.” Suddenly flight seems cowardly. He decides to return to the town. But war, the angel reflects, is just “a red mist that covers the windows”: “Humankind is born in Pain and dies in Sorrow and war can’t change that.”
The speed of events and the rapidly growing complexity of the story are breathtaking. Rense is found to be on an SS list of people the Nazis intend to track down and neutralize. Is it because his awful art is considered dangerously decadent? He seems pleased with this recognition. Or was “R. Alberegt” a misprint for “B. Alberegt,” the prosecutor who allowed a journalist who insulted Hitler to go free? Alberegt realizes that if he confesses to killing the child, this will involve betraying his friend Erik as a man offering refuge to Jews, not to mention compromising any future with Sysy. Rotterdam is bombed and refugees block the road. A group of well-to-do friends gathers at Erik’s house to consider a possible escape to England.
Here we discover that far from being a paragon of virtue, Erik is a serial philanderer, living in the lap of luxury, enjoying fine wines and expensive paintings, making an exhibition of his very young mistress though nevertheless attached to his wife, who had once been Alberegt’s fiancée. The Jews he has smuggled out of Germany are working for his publishing house. Sysy is writing a book for him. “Ah, to be a man like Erik,” Alberegt reflects. It’s as if being a winner allowed Erik to act with moral courage, or alternatively as if being good were part of a winning business strategy. Certainly the man is a charmer. There is much witty discussion of art and literature.
Meantime, the angel’s occasional indignation at hearing the Lord’s name taken in vain seems ever more irrelevant. Nor can the celestial guardian offer the confused Alberegt much advice: “How could an angel see through man’s dark ways without becoming besmirched himself?” His only urgent warning is that the prosecutor do penance before he dies. Alberegt pays no attention. Meeting Erik’s flirtatious neighbor, a married woman who makes a point of letting him know her husband is away, he is distracted by erotic fantasies. Throughout this extraordinary novel all the characters are shown to be at the mercy of conflicting impulses, of which the guardian angel’s admonitions are but one. Their helplessness is their pathos and their disgrace.
Hermans did not always write about the war. Beyond Sleep, published in 1966 in the Netherlands and in Ina Rilke’s English translation in 2007, is narrated by Alfred, a doctoral student determined to make his name in the field of geology. His father’s ambitions as a botanist ended when he fell to an untimely death in the Swiss mountains. “Losing my footing will not take me unawares,” Alfred boldly declares. His mother has been hugely successful as a reviewer of British and American novels that she never actually reads—she plagiarizes reviews from prestigious foreign journals. Alfred is disgusted and fascinated. It was his mother who discouraged his initial ambitions as a flute player. “People don’t become world famous for playing the flute,” she told him.
In an earlier short story, another Hermans character observes that “only…insane, totally futile, impossible undertakings, can provide dignity.” The only thing that matters in life is to do something extraordinary: “Everything else…is mimicry and slavish routine.” So at the suggestion of his Ph.D. adviser, Alfred sets out for Finnmark, the northernmost territory of Norway, to prove that a series of supposed “ice holes” are, sensationally, “meteor craters.” He tells us, “I want to find something spectacular!”
At once he is the victim of academic rivalries. The renowned, blind, and elderly Professor Nummedal in Oslo is an enemy of Alfred’s adviser in Amsterdam and contrives to deny him access to the aerial photographs essential to his expedition. The young man feels further hampered by having grown up in the Netherlands, a geologically uninteresting country, and by his imperfect English. English is the language of success; citizens of small nations with minority languages are condemned to being losers.
Comically ill-equipped, Alfred proceeds by seaplane to the tiny northern town of Alta, where he meets up with three Norwegians who will be doing research of their own in the area. He is paired with Arne Jordal, who despite his wealthy family uses an old battered camera and a leaky tent because he considers himself “not worthy” of “anything new, anything costing money.” To fail with poor equipment is dignified, while to do so with state-of-the-art gear would be shameful. Alfred’s one boast is an expensive geological compass, given to him by his religious sister: “It’s quite large, with a rectangular base, precision degree scale, sights, clinometer, spirit level and mirror.” Having studied physical geography, Hermans knows the jargon and the territory.
But no compass could be a match for the disorienting experiences ahead. Alfred can’t sleep in the land of the midnight sun. The endless light is oppressive. He is not used to carrying a heavy pack across wastes of bog and icy rivers. The mosquitoes are multitudinous and relentless. He grows suspicious when the Norwegians speak together in Norwegian. He is astonished by their radical ideas when they discuss life and ambition, never geology. The other pair of explorers have excellent equipment; they are more comfortable, more expert: “Qvigstad bites into the world with big white teeth. Swings his hammer like a god. Leaps across rivers unhampered by the heaviest of loads.” Lavishly described in counterpoint to the comedy of misunderstandings between the young men, the dramatic northern landscape provides that blend of real and surreal that is the hallmark of Hermans’s work: “The green is streaked with watercourses, sometimes at right angles to each other like ditches dug for peat. The sky is black, deep blue and dark red, swirls of pigment running together without blending.”
Petty rivalries, paranoia, insomnia, and the fatal loss of his compass eventually leave Alfred alone in the vast landscape, reduced to the most essential struggle for survival while simultaneously yearning for oblivion. “Oh, to be crushed to death and done with it all,” he sighs. This, Hermans appears to be telling us, is how one arrives at the absurd: a world where the only thing that matters is success, but success is meaningless; where one is condemned to go on, without wishing to or understanding why. “Never have I been so certain that what I’m going through is utterly futile and impossible to recount,” Alfred decides. Hermans, however, is spectacularly successful in drawing his readers toward the same disorientation as his characters. Like a partisan’s grenade tossed into the plushly preserved house of Western culture, these unrelenting tragicomedies leave no complacencies intact. In this regard, even though the generation they were intended to shock has long since disappeared, they could hardly be more timely.