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Old 28th Sep 2011, 21:45   #1
kjml
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Default Harry Mulisch

Harry Mulisch, who died only last year at about this time, was one of the most revered and beloved authors of fiction in post-war Holland. Among many critics (in Holland and abroad) he was considered, even by himself, to be a front-runner for a future Nobel Prize. It was said, he was one of
. . . a generation of writers who explored the complex
aftermath of a war in which good and evil were not
as simple as black and white.
---from NYT obituary, October, 2010
His 1982 novel, The Assault, was made into an academy award-winning movie (of the same name) in 1986, which doubtlessly advanced in the States an already burgeoning European reputation.


The Assault is a modernist novel in the realist tradition, exploring the psychological aftermath of trauma in the life of Anton Steenwijk, whose family was summarily murdered by the Nazis in occupied Holland in the winter of 1945. The assault on the innocent townsfolk of Haarlem comes in brutal retaliation for the resistance-led assassination of a local official and Nazi collaborator, whose body is found in front of the 12-year-old boy’s family home. Proximity alone to resistance was obviously enough to condemn the family, their home, and another 16 local “hostages” as well.
Anton, alone amongst his family members, survives and is eventually united with his aunt and uncle in Amsterdam, where he lived out his adolescence in the years immediately following the end of the war and eventual liberation. But, as the introductory epigraph from Pliny declares:
“By then day had broken everywhere, but here
it was still night—no, more than night.”
--Letters, IV, 16
For Anton, the rest of life-after-the-tragedy is, seemingly, a fairly straight, and flat, experience of “many days, one after another,” neither joyous nor disappointing to any unsettling degree, but disturbingly bland just the same. I quote the famous definition of life by James Joyce to intimate an affinity Mulisch has with Joyce in this regard: like a true modernist, his chronicle of Anton’s existence is rendered in a psychological register, or key, he deems consonant with Anton’s experience of it. In this particular case the resulting tone is emotionally disengaged, or affect-less. (Significantly, Anton opts for a career in anesthesiology, at the start of which he speculates – pointedly – that the patients under his care are still in pain, though they now lack the ability to experience, express or remember it.) Though Anton can go on, it is a subtle mystery to the reader just how or even why he would.
". . . And in this sense Anton Steenwijk was a Greek. He stood
with his back to the future and his face to the past." (Pg.151)
The episodic structure of the novel presents us with various, chronological vignettes in the life-stages of our hero, which are almost maddeningly dull by the standard of dramatic fiction, rendered with an aloofness and detachment which can rightly be called "clinical." At times, I was convinced that I was reading a psychoanalytical case study of what we would now-a-days call "PTSD." His automaton-like perseverance marks a person estranged from himself and his own feelings about the obvious trauma of the past, and unable to absorb the threatening perplexities of the present. Our empathy comes easy where our sympathy is disallowed. Could this be what Mulisch intended? Could this be all that Mulisch intended?

No, Mulisch is a better writer than that. He knows that a malaise is not a person, and the course of an illness, as such, is not a life story. And he believes he knows that beyond partisanship and estrangement, there is subtle tolerance and eventual engagement. Anton Steenwijk is still an active agent in this drama, after all, and gradually and eventually there is change. Each vignette shows him confronting, albeit usually inadvertently, the specters of his past: his home town - after many years away - and the monument to his martyred family; Fake Ploeg, the son of the assassinated collaborator, and a school mate from Anton’s youth; Cor Takes, the love-struck and despondent, would-be assassin of the Dutch resistance movement, and finally Karin Korteweg, the woman who helped to put the dead body in front of the Steenwijk's house. In each of these scenarios Anton acts, however timidly or reluctantly, to confront his past, and to integrate the elements of that past into a current and comprehensive understanding. These moments constitute an arc of psycho-moral development in Anton, which is, I think, the theme - or at least the plot-line - of The Assault.

However well he has written the scenes and developed the plot of The Assault, and I grant that in these regards he has been deft and very successful, Mulisch has still produced a mediocrity in his selection and depiction of a hero. While it is not hard to empathize with Anton, or to pity his initial condition, it is difficult to feel engaged in the progress of a life that is lived so nearly superfluously. Anton is not given to probing the depths of his own psyche –indeed, the scene of him as a vacationing adult with a wife and child, swimming beyond the reef and sandbars, seems to suggest that depth itself is anathema to the author’s theme. What else, we can ask, is he supposed to be engaged with?
While the insult to his psyche (or soul) and, especially, the manner of its presentation are surely responsible for this estrangement, I think that the philosophical underpinnings of Mulisch’s moral perspective are also, equally and sufficiently responsible. In other words, changing the style alone won’t change the outcome.

The tepid moralism of rising above partisanship, while still being engaged, seems to be seriously undercut by the very arc of the plot. Anton Steenwijk starts out as a boy already above partisanship, and fully engaged – it is he, alone among his peers at school and even his masters, who holds no grudge against the collaborator’s son! - and look what it gets him! His life thereafter is an on-going challenge to recover from the injury his non-partisanship could not forestall. Anton doesn’t so much transcend his injury as merely recover from its worst effect: the almost complete emotional withdrawal from the wider world and its affairs. So, what is the message?

The message seems to me, to be a faulty and fairy kind of socio-moral optimism: A “two cheers” hurrah for tolerant political engagement. (“Engagement”, intoned with a French accent, was all the rage in the 70’s and 80’s!) To the American mind, I think, any such engagement requires individual moral judgment and, as always, the devil is in the details. Mulisch, and perhaps many or most of our European brothers and sisters, rely more readily and happily on consensus. But his theory of politics seems to be at odds with his literary theory, as a modernist novelist of an individual’s experience. It is revealing, I think, that Anton’s rapprochement with the world at large is not a matter of individual agony, so much as a non-introspective process of gradual and accidental enticements! This is a kind of hero Americans will hardly recognize. (And one which, I think, Mulisch hardly believes in! Thus, two cheers, only.)

Anton is finally restored to a semblance of his former self - although now older and wiser – and able to march with his friends and family members in a grand cause. But this engagement, what does it amount to (for him or to Mulisch), except a bovine acceptance of vulnerability? Mulisch, it seems to me, is at least partially OK with this, since his political faith seems to be in the masses – as exemplified by the marchers in the protest against nuclear proliferation - which mass Anton finally joins with, in spirit and in fact. But, as a writer and a realist, I think he is not so completely convinced. For, marchers of a different ilk – we would now-a-days call them “skinheads” – transect the parade, and though the marchers absorb this insult and move on, he makes it clear, though not emphatically, that the threat is ever present. (Interestingly, this parade scene is the least clear, credible and compelling part of an otherwise gripping story.)
The Assault seems, then, to be a meditation on surviving insults – even insults of the worst kind — with aplomb. Anton learns to broaden his political perspective (a bit) and to be fulfilled (somewhat) by that engagement. But, what of a broader significance has happened? Not much! Everything in this novel is in a minor key, so to speak; everything in moderation -–or less. It is hard to see anything transcendent in this narrative. Personally, and as a matter of critical speculation, I put this down to the discord between Mulisch’s overt political stance and his irrepressible aesthetic sensibility.

I can see why the didactic intent of the novel, with its moral of subtle and tolerant engagement, was so highly appreciated in the 1980’s, especially in the days of high (nuclear) tension between the Soviet Union and the United States, and widespread fear of another European war. In hindsight, though – and for all its objectivist detachment - it doesn't satisfy realism's demand of a credible resolution of the agonies of a compelling character. Briefly, the hero’s story is (or, at least, becomes in the end) too much like a statistical abstraction - or a moral summation - to be compelling. The result is only two cheers for Mulisch and The Assault.
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Old 29th Sep 2011, 7:22   #2
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Default Re: Harry Mulisch

Hi, Kjml.

The English translation of The Assault is notoriously bad. I once compared it to the original Dutch and found that all subtlety and tension was inexplicably lost in translation. This aside from the more obvious howlers, like the names of the four houses on the canal at the beginning, all of which, in Dutch, have a clear symbolic meaning, but in the English simply evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era (which totally misunderstands the effect of the novel and its whole point that the war is anything but bygone).
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Old 30th Sep 2011, 0:08   #3
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Hi Fanshawe,
I wish I had the Dutch language version to compare it to. Whenever we read translations, there is a chance that something essential is lost; of course, when a reader is not master of a foreign language, but tries to read it anyway, the same chance remains.
Yes, I can see that he makes a lot of hay with those quirky house names - more than I can properly account for - so I take your point that 'something' has been lost. But unless the translator excised whole chapters at a time, I think my main points will survive, since I have tried to focus my critique on the level of his ideas, and not his diction. (I did and do suspect that the march scene is hopelessly ill drawn--but whether by Mulisch or by a bad translator is impossible to tell from the ESL vantage.)

Your remarks have made me think more pointedly about those names. They do each seem to convey an idyllic sense of retirement or withdrawal from society into isolationism; and since the four of them are often mentioned together, early and late in the text, this perhaps could be said to signify that that spirit of withdrawal, or desire for isolationism, as it is seen by Mulisch, was general before the war. The withdrawal is pathological if it leads to the disengagement from the political world that allowed for the war in the first place. So, I think I can see better now how this is thematic in The Assault.
Thanks for looking in.

Maybe Random House is ready to take another shot a decenter translation.
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Old 30th Sep 2011, 9:25   #4
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Default Re: Harry Mulisch

I just had a hunt to see if we already had a Mulisch thread as myself and Digger both read The Discovery of Heaven back in 2006, but it appears not. Even now I recall enjoying reading it but feeling it fell short in the last chapters and in fulfilling its purpose.
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Old 1st Oct 2011, 16:13   #5
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Hi Col,
I too did a search of Mulisch threads and was a bit surprised that I found none. When I began looking into the proffered list of threads bearing his name, I came up with a few that only referred to Harry - any Harry, as in Tom and Dick' comrade - so I gave it up and started a thread.

I will be looking out for The Discovery of Heaven, as it is widely praised and most often called his masterpiece. Based only on The Assault, I think what Harry Mulisch has to say is serious stuff, though I don't know that I can agree with him. It is serious enough and presented well enough to keep me interested, and that's all I ask for as a motivation. (Final judgment is another matter, of course, but I am learning that it is best not to try for, or to focus on "final", but to aim for a judgment that is as serious and well-considered as the subject and the author!)
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Old 2nd Oct 2011, 17:15   #6
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Default Re: Harry Mulisch

Great analysis, kjml. Makes me want to find this. And I'm really intrigued, in that "eek!" sort of way, at the notion of a badly translated work loosed upon the world.
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Old 3rd Oct 2011, 13:39   #7
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Default Re: Harry Mulisch

Quote:
Originally Posted by kjml View Post
Hi Fanshawe,

Maybe Random House is ready to take another shot a decenter translation.
There's little money in translation, which is why it's so hard to find good ones from minority languages that aren't widely taught outside their native countries. So few people are actually able to comment on the quality of them that it's easy to get away with shoddiness.

It was the following quote which led me to compare the two versions (taken from the Complete Review):

Quote:
Note that Claire Nicolas White's translation has been widely and resoundingly criticised; it is considered to be shockingly poor. We have not had an opportunity to compare it to the original, but it is something to keep in mind.
If you're interested in reading more Mulisch, Siegfried is well-translated and a real page-turner.
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Old 3rd Oct 2011, 16:27   #8
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Thanks Fanshawe, I will keep Siegfried in mind.
It is interesting that my copy (Pantheon Books, a subsidiary of Random House) does not list the translator by name. Perhaps it is true in literature as well, that if you don't have to own it, you don't have to do it well.
An investigation would probably reveal some inauspicious connection to the movie deal which was made at the same time as the translation. However, we look, we leap, we hope the landing will be soft . . .
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