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the complete review - fiction
Willem Frederik Hermans
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||Willem Frederik Hermans
||Unter Professoren - Deutschland
- Onder professoren has not yet been translated into English
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B : sharp, unhurried satire
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Hermans, ganz Naturwissenschaftler, schreibt ein schnörkelloses und lakonisches Niederländisch, zeitlebens kämpfte er gegen modische Fremdwörter und die umgangssprachliche Verluderung, die für ihn einem systematischen Mangel an Exaktheit gleichkommt." - Dirk Schümer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Als begnadeter Polemiker und gnadenloser Kritiker der niederländischen Kultur samt ihrer Selbstzufriedenheit konnte Hermans zu satirischer Hochform auflaufen. Sein Meisterstück in dieser Hinsicht ist das Epos Unter Professoren" - Kristina Maidt-Zinke, Süddeutsche Zeitung
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
[Note: this review is based on Helga von Beuningen and Barbara Heller's German translation of the novel, published as Unter Professoren in 2016.]
For many years, Willem Frederik Hermans was a professor of geography at the University of Groningen but he left his position in 1973 after a conflict with officials (a whole parliamentary investigation was involved), a case that attracted national attention at the time (and continues to be shrouded in some mystery); Hermans not only left the university but also moved out of the country, to Paris, spending the rest of his life abroad.
Onder professoren ('Among Professors') is Hermans' reckoning with Dutch academia in the provinces, a thinly-veiled sleutelroman (roman à clef), dripping with his contempt.
What plot there is is straightforward: Rufus 'Roef' Dingelam is a professor of chemistry at a provincial university in the Dutch backwaters and on a Saturday morning a telegram reaches him at his rustic weekend house, informing him that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Hard to reach, only a few acquaintances and neighbors manage to congratulate him over the weekend.
Meanwhile, the university authorities are facing a student protest that is being planned for Monday -- inconveniently targeting Dingelam's lab, among others (though the proximate cause for the protest is in fact despised department head Tamstra).
The novel drifts slowly across various of the parties involved in all this, and their weekend activities -- Dingelam and his wife, Gré; the school administrators (some of whom barely recognize Dingelam's name); those planning the protests; neighbors and colleagues -- with little sense of urgency.
Dingelam's is barely shaken out of his routine by this great honor, while the school administrators seem to think a sit-down with the protesters after church on Sunday will lead to some mutually acceptable resolution (and certainly don't shift into high gear as far as public relatiosn go despite one of their own winning this prestigious honor).
No one even bothers to tell Dingelam about the planned protests -- which the authorities can't prevent the students from going through with -- and so he stumbles right into this huge mess when he arrives at his workplace on Monday morning.
He is also repeatedly lambasted for having called the police on the protesters, which the authorities had hoped to avoid.
(In fact, Dingelam hadn't called the police (though he gladly would have, he admits); this point, of being blamed for something he didn't do, seems also to have been at issue regarding Hermans' own case, which is presumably why it is harped on so here.)
The inconvenience of not having access to his office -- itself a lesser room Tamstra had recently forced him to move to -- and not being able to follow his routine is an annoyance, but Dingelam tries to soldier on, regardless.
Later, the attempt to hold an official ceremony, complete with the awarding of a state honor (the Orde van de Nederlandse Leeuw), recognizing Dingelam also goes poorly.
Eventually, a friend manages to convince him that he might as well just take off some where for a while, until things settle down, and Dingelam takes Gré to France, and Monaco.
The long novel doesn't so much go off on tangents as it ambles in the everyday.
For a considerable chunk of the novel, the focus isn't even on Dingelam, as the chapters introduce and linger on other relevant parties.
Hermans draws out even simple interactions -- shopping for groceries, an awkward late-night visit to the local bordello (the only place serving drinks at that hour, so the place some friends of Dingelam's take him and Gré when they get home Sunday night), the preparation of meals (including terrible cook Gré's attempts to surprise her husband with a fine cut of venison).
Among the odds and ends threaded through the novel is the rooster Dingelam gets from a neighbor -- meant for a celebratory meal, but then adopted by the couple, who can't bear to see him sacrificed for their sake, and absurdly, briefly, kept as their pet.
The Netherland's complicated irresolution about what happened during the Second World War also factors in, incidentally but frequently, from the former school friend and now psychiatrist Barend, who is convinced the young Dingelam saved his life decades earlier by saying just the right thing as he was off to register as a Jew with the Nazi authorities, to the fact that when Tamstra's picture is mistakenly published on the cover of a local newspaper announcing Dingelam's Nobel win he is indistinguishable from a Nazi war criminal recently in the news, to the academic whose Nazi guilt now manifests itself in a kind of paralysis of his right arm (in the care of Dr.Barend, it's easily diagnosed as his fear of his arm flying up in the Nazi salute).
The surprisingly even-tempered Dingelam doesn't let himself get thrown by too much, trying to continue going his own way, come what may -- and a lot comes .....
His efforts to get to his lab the Monday after he learns of his Nobel win are typical of the straight-faced comic misadventure Hermans excels at.
All along the way, Dingelam does muse about all manners of things, from what to do with the money he will receive -- welcome, but, as Gré points out, hardly enough to live off -- to sex (limiting himself, however, to the occasional perusal of Playboy and the mildest forms of flirtation; he and Gré are not exactly a happy couple, but they're certainly very much a couple, and straying beyond that seems nearly inconceivable).
Dingelam does constantly rail against and curse the provincialism he is stuck in and surrounded by, and he does consider escape -- perhaps an American faculty position ? -- but he never really shows much ambition or drive.
The pushier Tamstra is head of their department, but Dingelam just wants to get on with his work, and doesn't really worry much about recognition.
The Nobel honor is appropriate, in that sense, too: as is repeatedly noted, he is getting it for a discovery he made decades earlier, figuring out how to synthesize a fairly important substance that hundreds of other scientists had been trying to synthesize for decades.
The substance turns out not only to be tremendously useful in its initial application -- a whitening agent that is embraced by detergent makers -- but also an effective medicine in the treatment of epilepsy and, as it turns out, a proto-Viagra®.
Fortunes are earned with its industrial uses, but, typically, Dingelam didn't even patent it, instead publishing the synthesizing-process in a professional journal for all to use as they saw fit; he never grew rich off it.
Dingelam isn't so much an outsider as largely indifferent to the hierarchies and power-struggles that dominate university life (the theological faculty currently doing particularly well -- despite their embrace of the realization that god is dead).
He makes little effort to fit in -- and, for example, as is repeatedly mentioned -- and acknowledged by Dingelam himself -- he never laughs.
Overall, it's not so much that he is imperturbable, he's simply set in his own ways and isn't concerned with the usual forms of professional and social validation.
An unusual type, he nevertheless makes an interesting protagonist.
Hermans meanders around in the telling of the story, shifting to interior perspectives -- even beside the four chapters presented as fragments from Dr. Barend's diary -- and the occasional commentary.
The novel is, in a way, long-winded -- but agreeably so: Hermans luxuriates in his satire, rather than presenting a barrage of quick sharp jabs.
His drawn-out descriptions of the near-banal are finely crafted, and stylistically Hermans offers considerable variety.
The secondary characters -- students, faculty, and administrators -- aren't unsypathetically drawn, but ultimately Hermans' targets are devastatingly skewered (occasionally in a slow roast ...).
The hopeless student protests --with their absurd and completely unrealistic demands -- and the way the administrators try to humor them, and keep them in check, are an amusing portrait of the times, and the place (very much a backwater, which Hermans only allows Dingelam to escape at the very end).
A brief afterword, penned by a fictional colleague of Hermans, provides a bit more background about the writing of the novel -- emphasizing (with a big wink) that the novel is fiction, and the university it is set at is fictional, not (i.e. obviously it is ...) the University of Groningen.
There's an amusing final dig from Hermans here too: the parliamentary investigation into him apparently could find nothing more damning on the then-professor than that he (mis)used university paper for his private notes -- and in the afterword the fictional colleague reveals that the entire manuscript of this novel was written on the back of all the flyers and hand-outs and official announcements the university circulates (i.e. just the sort of meaningless misuse of university property/paper Hermans was criticized for).
(The final point: to avoid a similar abuse of this paper- -- which, as the fictional colleague notes, otherwise just gets tossed out unread anyway -- from then on all such papers would be printed on both sides, rather than just the front, so that there would be no blank back side to scribble on .....)
Onder professoren apparently hit very close to home, especially in its day, but from a foreign distance doesn't even seem particularly bitter.
Certainly, the university here is a joke -- ancient (celebrating the three-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of its founding not long before, it is, like the real University of Groningen, older than Harvard) but still entirely provincial -- but no more so than in most satirical campus novels.
The settling of scores perhaps slightly undermines the novel's overall structure, leaving it a bit baggy and less focused than it could have been, but it's still an enjoyable leisurely read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 27 July 2018
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Willem Frederik Hermans:
Other books by Willem Frederik Hermans under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Dutch literature
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About the Author:
Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) was a leading Dutch author.
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© 2018 the complete review
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