He was 83 and had cancer. Now: the superlative in the headline isn’t my evaluation—I’m just quoting the about-the-author paragraphs from his too infrequent American editions (“Holland’s most important postwar writer,” says the one in front of me). But the Dutch agreed: in a 2007 newspaper poll, Harry Mulisch’s 700-odd-page opus The Discovery of Heaven—in which two angels manipulate 20th postwar European history so as to secure the return of the Ten Commandments, with digressions encompassing seemingly the whole of Western thought—was voted the country’s best book, according to this weekend’s Times obituary, though it’s another of Mulisch’s novels that’s probably the country’s most important.
Mulisch was born in 1927 to a Jewish mother and an Austrian father who would go on to cooperate with the Nazis in exchange for his family’s safety. In interviews, he quite famously claimed, “I am the Second World War,” and his 1982 novel The Assault, translated into English in 1985, is something like a definitive reckoning with collaboration and resistance, trauma and time, history and memory.
The assault happens during the last winter of WWII, in Mulisch’s native Haarlem, when the Resistance shoots a collaborator as he cycles along the row of houses where the young protagonist, Anton, lives; he falls in front of their next-door neighbors’ house, and the neighbors, correctly fearing reprisals from the Nazi occupiers, quickly drag the corpse into the adjoining yard. In four subsequent chapters taking us up to the present day, the aftereffects of the war are traced through Dutch society—”the cloud of ash that rises from the volcano, circles around the earth, and continues to rain down on all its continents for years”—as the adolescent, adult and middle-aged Anton learns, in bits and pieces, the full story of what happened on the night his life changed, and what it means. It’s a self-conscious historical detective story: we keep reading, plowing ahead through time with the expectation that the past will eventually make sense—an expectation which Mulisch manipulates expertly, a bit wise and a bit clever.
The Assault is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read on the subject of time:
And then…and then…and then…Time passes. “That, at least, is behind us,” we say, “but what still lies ahead?” The way we word it, it’s as if our backs were turned to the past as we look toward the future; and that is, in fact, how we actually think of it: the future in front, the past behind. To dynamic personalities, the present is a ship that drives its bow throught the rough seas of the future. To more passive ones, it is rather like a raft drifting along with the tide. There is, of course, something wrong with both these images…
Besides, whoever keeps the future in front of him and the past at his back is doing something else that is hard to imagine. For the image implies that events somehow already exist in the future, reach the present at a determined moment, and finally come to rest in the past. But nothing exists in the future; it is empty; one might die at any minute. Therefore such a person has his face turned toward the void, whereas it is the past behind him that is visible, stored in the memory.
It goes on in this vein, at once windy and deeply moving: if you’re wondering what the Greeks thought about all this, he’s about to tell you, before moving on to wax ruminative on other political, scientific and philosophical paradoxes (my favorites: noting the weirdness of being the same age as your father was when x happened, or of having a child who can only think of things you lived through as part of history). Mulisch’s public persona was as conspicuously erudite as his literary one: he was a flamboyant intellectual who not so secretly coveted the Nobel, a political commentator always ready with a quote for Dutch media, and a snazzy dresser: just a few years ago, he sat in his study for the author photos which feature, quite prominently, on the back cover of new editions of his dozens of books. You can see the silk cravat and blue jacket above; unfortunately I haven’t been able to turn up any which also include the fireapple-red pants he was wearing in these pictures.
Given all this—a very great novelist and a towering, beloved and mocked cultural figure in a not insignificant country—it’s a bit depressing, if not surprising, that Harry Mulisch’s death isn’t a bigger deal here. What stature he does have in America is mostly due to his translators and the critics who championed him: he was admired by Elizabeth Hardwick, and the Times Book Review and the NYRB. His ideal reader may have been John Updike, who wrote perceptive, enthralled reviews of The Assault, Last Call (a hellishly clever meditation on art, life and the Dutch cultural memory; if you admire The Assault you’ll enjoy Last Call) and Discovery of Heaven for the New Yorker, and frequently mentioned him elsewhere. (A Dutch film of The Assault also won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1987, beating Betty Blue and The Decline of the American Empire.)
I can’t really claim to be as persuasive an advocate or as apt an interpreter as Updike, and I do wish I’d read more of him than I have—various other novels of have been translated into English and published sporadically here—but I think these books would mean a lot to you if you let them.