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.
That statement is so clear that I am impelled to flag my disagreement. However, it is the conclusion of the Hermans’s protagonist and it matters not one iota that I disagree. Far more important is that the adventures leading to this conclusion make fascinating reading. But would I have read Beyond Sleep had I known it was an existentialst masterpiece? In all honesty, yes (and that despite the fact that the word existentialism enshrouds my heart in a very cold mist. It’s the aftermath of studying Camus for French A-level.) However, Hermans’s The Darkroom of Damocles is such a stupendous read that it was only a matter of time before I read Beyond Sleep. And now there’s nothing else in English. Publishers, if you’re reading this, there’s plenty more to choose from ….look!
But to return to existentialism for a very brief moment – who would have thought that it could be so amusing?
Dutch geologist Alfred Issendorf is striving to make his mark – in many ways he is competing with his dead father. The latter died on a geological expedition during Alfred’s childhood. Alfred wants not only to survive his own expedition but to prove the hypothesis that the Norwegian landscape was formed by meteor impact.
The novel begins with Alfred’s search for the photographic images that will guide him on his expedition. This section is a satiric swipe on the world of academia fuelled by some rough treatment that Hermans himself experienced. (Details here.) As Alfred is passed from pillar to post in a comically frustrating chase, it becomes clear that the Norwegian professor (the one with the photographs) has reasons not to help Alfred, the protégé of the Dutch professor (the one with the competing hypothesis.). Or so Alfred leads us to believe.
He misrepresents himself in other areas also. This is his first expedition and his companions are all experienced explorers. Alfred gives us an account of his unfit, bumbling self, eaten alive by the mosquitos (obviously he’s never heard of lemongrass), struggling to keep dry, incapable of sleep in the land of the midnight sun, losing his equipment piece by piece. He is injured in an accident that mirrors the one that took his father’s life and foreshadows impending disaster. His hypothesis becomes increasingly tenuous. His mind descends in hallucination and paranoia. We see Alfred through his own self-depreciating eyes:
All things considered, I have not been overly blessed with the kind of qualities that come in handy for a geologist. Poor memory, to the point of losing my way in places I know very well. Poor fitness, for lack of exercise. Illegible handwriting. Badly executed drawings.
Some or all of that may be true. What he doesn’t tell us is that he is a tenacious soul, his capacities severely underestimated by himself. Ironically it’s his one act of confidence/vanity/delusion that precipates the inevitable catastrophe. Alfred’s journey, however, is such that before it ends he must dig deep into reserves he did not possess at the beginning. He must become a man but can he snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat?
Unsurprisingly, the Norwegian wilderness plays a huge part in this novel. The descriptions, penned by a geologist cum novelist, are exceptionally vivid and really capture the beauty and the peril of the landscape pictured on the dustjacket. As do Alfred’s exertions!
So, I finally have an opinion. Beyond Sleep and The Darkroom of Damocles are both brilliant reads. But which is the greater novel? A question which is the subject of much literary debate. I’d love to know your view. Haven’t read them …. yet? Make up your mind based on recent blogging reviews.