maandag 27 januari 1997

Beyond Sleep

W.F. Hermans,
Beyond Sleep (Nl 1966)
Novel, 316 pp. (Dutch ediditon)
26 January 2009

Before I started on this novel all I knew was that it is set in the north of Norway and that the main character is plagued by insomnia and midges. What I did not know is that it is also funny and very intelligent - an irresistible combination.

Our young protagonist, Alfred, travels to Norway to do geological research. He is woefully under-prepared, but reckons that with the recommendation from his professor nothing can go wrong and all doors will open for him. Unfortunately this recommendation fails to produce the aerial photographs that are essential for Alfred’s research, so that he arrives with some delay and without photographs at his destination in the north where he meets up with his Norwegian fellow travellers, young researchers like himself. Alfred is already becoming slightly apprehensive, but he still is confident that his research will be a success. And here the book really became interesting.

Alfred is very determined to make good on the scientific promise that his father was never able to fulfil due to a fatal accident when Alfred was only a boy. Alfred, therefore, is going to deliver a brilliant PhD thesis (based on the brilliant research he is about to start) and after that he is going to be a brilliant professor. Everything now depends on the spectacular finds he is bound to make in the next couple of weeks, but that will simply be a matter of keen observation, for Alfred, after all, is a smart scientist - unlike his younger sister, who is stupid enough to believe in god. The little sister did give him an excellent compass, though, which turns out to be the only decent piece of equipment he has with him.

As tends to happen with people who move into the wilderness for the first time, Alfred is confronted gradually but relentlessly with his own limitations and ignorance. The three Norwegians are experienced mountain-hikers; Alfred is a klutz from an overpopulated flat country, who has nothing but his perseverance to pull him through, as soon becomes apparent. Even the expensive compass of his religious sister cannot help him in the end. His camera stops functioning. Alfred loses his sense of direction and is unable to see clearly anymore – literally and figuratively. Because of this, however, he does for the first time start to think seriously about what life really means, what truth is, what man’s part in the universe is, who he himself is and what he wants. His conviction that you can achieve anything in life as long as you want it badly enough evaporates completely:
The veil of mystery shrouding life in its entirety lifts momentarily and I know that at all times and in everything I do I am defenceless and powerless, as replaceable as an atom, and that all my resolve, hopes and fears are nothing but manifestations of the mechanism governing the movements of human molecules in the fathomless vapour of cosmic matter.
On the way back, after a gruelling trip, he has become a different person: no longer an untried student, but a grown-up – disillusioned, but also determined to go on, because ...
But then what? What would I have done? Become a flautist after all? How will I ever find out? No-one can start at the same point twice over. If an experiment can't be replicated, it ceases to be an experiment. No-one can experiment with their life. No-one can be blamed for being in the dark.
Pessimistic? Maybe, but I rather like Hermans’s somewhat illusionless but honest vision of life, especially when he manages to convey it in such an interesting way and with the self-deprecating humour he displays in this novel. In Beyond Sleep he has created a marvellous mix of metaphysical musings and physical discomfort, scientific questions and ironic events, tragedy and comedy – it’s just like life itself. A great novel.

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