book talk: Beyond land and sleep

Last summer my boyfriend and I were visiting a friend of his, who is a smart man. My boyfriend is also a smart man. I’d like to think I’m somewhat smart, but my boyfriend is the thinking-about-things kind of smart. Just as this friend who is also an avid reader. He and my boyfriend often talk about books, what the writer has been trying to say and what they think of it. I’m normally just listing to get a new recommendation for my intellectual pile. The last title I got was Nooit meer slapen, by Willem Frederik Hermans. A Dutch book, but translated to English (Beyond sleep is the translated title).

Beyond sleep is about obsession, suffering and getting to know oneself. I found it a hard read especially in the beginning, it really needs some focus to get in there, but after a while, it’s strangely addictive.

The main character is Alfred, a Dutch Geology student, who’s in Norway to find meteor craters and with this fulfill his dead dad’s dream of having academic fame. His dad died when he was young and wanted Alfred to reach greatness. His mum has been pushing Alfred after his dad’s death to get here and make sure his dad would be proud of him, putting a lot of pressure on Alfred. The start of his expedition is poorly when he needs air photographs of the region, but find no help in actually finding them. As a result, and with a combination of his gloomy thoughts and the midsummer sun, he’s unable to sleep. His travel company  exists of:

  • Arne, his guide and friend. Arne is native Norwegian, like Alfred a geology student and used to surviving the land. Even though Arne comes from a rich family, he himself gets around with old, broken stuff (most notably his camera with the broken lens and a leaking tent).
  • Qvigstadt and Mikkelsen, who are more distant in Alfred‘s eyes looking down on him, as he’s not used to the rough nature and the hardship of fieldwork.
Other characters are minor, his professor is only briefly mentioned. Alfred meets a Norwegian professor who is supposed to help with the air photo’s but wants to revenge the Dutch professor and Alfred‘s mom who pushed him into trying to realize his dad’s dream.

Science is the titanic attempt of the human intellect to deliver itself out of its cosmic isolation by understanding

Whining and nagging

Beyond sleep is rightfully a Dutch masterpiece, but not for everybody. It’s full of metaphors and underlying meanings, but it might be an acquired taste. I’m not really a person who’s likely to see underlying meanings and focusses more on the story itself, so I can’t go into what Hermans has been trying to say without saying it. But, what I did find eccentric was his writing style. The whole novel is just Alfred‘s thought. Which, as I type this, doesn’t sound too weird, but it was when I was reading it. Probably because he’s nonpartisan, he connects an event straight away to a feeling and most of his feelings aren’t happy ones. Normally I can deal pretty well with non-happy people, I’m more likely to find them interesting, but Alfred gets annoying and whiny. After a while, I really wanted to tell him to shut it and quit whining, but the last chapters made up for that again. The scene on the bus back was positively endearing.

To be honest and to be alone, you must discover something that makes it worthwhile to suffer.

All in all
You can debate about if you like it and why, but it’s clear it’s a carefully composed masterpiece. Written in the sixties, but still relatable (except for the lack of mobile phones and internet) and relevant. I think a lot of people are still focussed of making that one amazing discovery in whichever field and making their name famous. So much that they might forget who they are and what other dreams they have. Alfred‘s journey is one of self-loathing and discovery, and a clear message at the end: every obsession can end when you realize why it’s an obsession.