When I purchased a copy of the novel Beyond Sleep by Willem Frederik Hermans I had no idea what the book was about. I was just killing time, combing the bargain bin in a little bookstore in Wadena, Minnesota, while some friends checked out the Ben Franklin across the street. I suppose the odd Dutch spelling—Willem Frederik—caught my eye. The blurbs on the dust jacket by Nooteboom and Coetzee didn’t hurt.
The bio on the inside flap began: “Hermans is considered one of the most important Western European authors….” I could easily finish the sentence myself. “…one of the most important Western European authors that no one has heard of!”
I brought the book up to the sales counter and waited patiently while the clerk answered the questions of a man in a plaid shirt, down vest, and unlaced Sorels who was looking for some thriller by an author named Lee Child. “He has twelve books in the database … we carry only one … we don’t have it right now.”
Many buttons were pushed during this search, and it took quite a while.
Finally my turn arrived and I handed my find across the counter. “I got it on the $2 shelf,” I said.
He took one look and said, “This isn’t a $2 book.”
Frowning, I replied, “Well, that's where I found it. 'Buy three and get the fourth one free.'” I pointed toward the corner shelf near the entrance to the restaurant behind the shop.
“It was mis-shelved,” the man said in a tone of mild indifference. (Yet as he held it aloft I noticed the book did have a tell-tale remainder slash across the bottom of it.)
“I really don’t care," I said. "Let’s forget it.”
There was a long pause. “OK. I’ll give it to you for two dollars.”
“It doesn't matter. Really, I never heard of the guy.”
“No. I’ll ring it up at $2.” Once skeptical, now he was determined.
“Thanks, I appreciate it. I can assure you no one else is going to buy it.”
I probably shouldn’t have said that. Just because I’ve never heard of W.F. Hermans doesn’t mean that no one in Wadena will have heard of him.
I imagined Beyond Sleep to be a dark, introspective, psychologically knotty work on the order of Hermann Broch or Thomas Bernhard. Only later did I notice that the image on the cover, though clothed mostly in shadow, shows a naked foot silhouetted by light penetrating the wall of an old-fashioned canvas tent. The blurb under the dark silhouette, by Roddy Doyle, says: “The language is dry; the socks are wet; the compass is lost. A masterpiece.”
True to such hints, Beyond Sleep is mostly a book about camping. The narrator, one Alfred Issendorf, is a Dutch grad student eager to make a real impact in the world of science—unlike his father, a botanist who fell into a crevasse and died before he was able to distinguish himself in any way. Alfred was seven at the time, and he’s been haunted ever since by the notion that a spectacular discovery will somehow reunite him with his father and also dissipate the cloud of depression under which he often labors.
On the suggestion of his advisor, Alfred heads to Norway to join a small team of trekkers heading north to the largely barren hills of Finnmark, where the mosquitoes are thick and the sun never sets from mid-May to late July. Before meeting up with the group, he plans to obtain some aerial photographs of the region in Oslo from a professor-colleague of his advisor. Here he meets the first of many obstacles that will try his patience and test his fragile sense of self-worth throughout his expedition.
Alfred’s self-appointed task is to locate craters in Finnmark that were created by meteorites rather than glacial ice, but without the photos his quest becomes a more or less random investigation. His three companions are all Norwegian (Alfred doesn’t speak the language) and they all know the country they’re traversing well. Though they’re courteous, Alfred has trouble keeping up, lacks the proper boots for crossing streams, and is often left with nothing to do as his colleagues make and break camp, catch fish, gather fuel for fires, and all the rest. Though he bungles his knee badly during a river crossing, Alfred soldiers on, determined not to become a laughing stock. I WILL NOT BE LAUGHED AT, he says to himself at one point. They must speak highly when my back is turned.
The foursome engage in some interesting conversations about the origins of the universe, both scientific and theological, as they sit around smoking cigarettes after a long day of hiking. They also take up the issue of how difficult it is in modern times for anyone to distinguish himself—to do something that will be remembered.
There are some good descriptions of the unusual countryside, and Alfred spends quite of bit of time describing the relentless attacks of flying insects both inside and outside the tent. A herd of reindeer pass. Heavy rains descend.
For much of the book, however, the overriding tone is one of hardship, desperation, and a sense of unworthiness. Yet the prose has a degree of lightness and abandon to it, too. Here’s a typical passage.
Reaching the other side of the stream I have a sense of sinking deeper into the moss with each step I take. The moss gives way to black mud. I am entrenched among polar willows that come to my waist. Arne’s already climbing up the other side. How did he get there? My shoes fill up with water. I have to raise my legs higher and higher to make any headway in the bog, which is knee-deep. I can feel the seat of my trousers getting wet. But what can I do? My camera and map pocket, which I’m wearing round my neck, must not get wet so I hold them aloft, but then I have to drop them again as I need both arms to steady myself. I have to speed up, raise my legs even higher now, because staying in the same place for even a second means sinking an extra ten centimeters. My upper body is drenched too, not with water but with sweat. The mosquitoes attack my face, get into my eyes. I am panting so heavily that they get sucked into my mouth; I can feel them on my tongue, on my epiglottis. I don't shout for help because there isn’t any. As a last resort I let myself flop forwards, across a thicket of willows. They bend under my weight, forming a web. Slowly I extract my left foot, manage to place it on three flattened willows, then pull the right foot loose and stand up straight.
The tale takes a turn for the worse when Alfred discovers that Mikkelsen, who joined the party at the last minute, possesses the aerial photographs that he needs for his research. Having been largely deprived of sleep for days, due to the ever-present sun, the bugs, and his colleague Arne's snoring, Alfred begins to spin weird, paranoid scenerios about what’s really going on.
It could have gone like this: Sibbelee sent Nummedal a letter telling him about the research I planned to do, at which Nummedal thought: Aha! Now’s my chance to get back at Sibbelee for having contradicted me at that important conference all those years ago….It would be bad form for a professor flatly to turn down the request of a colleague, but Nummedal is too crafty for that anyway. More devious. He summons his pupil Mikkelsen and proposes an interesting little research project for him to undertake—my research.
I don’t want to give away every twist and turn of the plot. Nor would it be fitting for me to say anything about how the domain “beyond sleep” to which the title refers fits in. Suffice it to say that Hermans’ little novel, first published in 1968 but only translated in 2006, makes for a good winter read.