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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Siegfried

by
Harry Mulisch


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Siegfried



Title: Siegfried
Author: Harry Mulisch
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 213 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Siegfried - US
Siegfried - UK
Siegfried - Canada
Siegfried - France
Siegfried - Deutschland
  • Een zwarte idylle
  • Translated by Paul Vincent

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Our Assessment:

A- : a fictional exploration of the phenomenon Hitler, written with marvelous command and confidence

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Berliner Ill. Zeitung C 23/9/2001 Hergen Kicker
Berliner Zeitung . 29/9/2001 Stephan Speicher
Forward . 6/8/2004 Robert Rosenberg
FAZ A 9/10/2001 Kurt Flasch
The Guardian . 22/11/2003 Josh Lacey
L'Humanité . 27/3/2003 François Mathieu
The NY Times D 24/11/2003 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 16/11/2003 Richard Lourie
The Observer . 4/1/2004 Eric Weinberger
Die Presse . 13/10/2001 Susanne Schaber
Prospect . 1/2004 Jason Cowley
Review of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2004 Jason Picone
Scotland on Sunday . 30/11/2003 Andrew Crumey
Der Standard D 6/10/2001 Daniel Kehlmann
Sunday Telegraph . 14/12/2003 Julian Evans
The Times . 22/11/2003 James Hopkin
TLS . 28/11/2003 Joseph Farrell
The Washington Post . 9/11/2003 Andrew Nagorski
Die Welt C- 3/11/2001 Tilman Krause
Die Zeit . (41/2001) Jens Jessen


  Review Consensus:

  Find it deeply disturbing and quite confused

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mulischs Experiment, der Wirklichkeit mit Hilfe der Fiktion einen Spiegel vorzuhalten, ist trotzdem gründlich gescheitert. Das Phänomen Hitler bekommt durch den Kindsmord keine andere Dimension, es bekommt nicht einmal eine überzeugende neue Facette. Alles endet im Klischee. (...) Das überreizte Spiel mit Siegfried endet in der Banalität des Blöden." - Hergen Kicker, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung

  • "Da klappt die Kinnlade nicht herunter. Wo die literarische Versuchsanordnung für die historische Wirklichkeit nicht fein genug ist, will man auch nicht glauben, dass die Empirie an ihr Ende gekommen sei und die Theologie einspringen müsse." - Stephan Speicher, Berliner Zeitung

  • "Yet this terrible, awful novel is greater and more important than so many other novels that, while good, are ultimately trivial. Siegfried is a less a novel than an argument, for one. And as a novel of ideas, as a search and as a quest, Mulisch is on to something. That's not to say he succeeds, but the effort is as maddening, paradoxical and thought provoking as its protagonist." - Robert Rosenberg, Forward

  • "Liebesromane kann jeder Schafskopf schreiben, aber wie das Nichts in die europäische Geschichte eingebrochen ist, das kann sich nur Harry Mulisch ausdenken und spannend erzählen. (...) Siegfried ist ein philosophisches Buch, wie wir seit dem Mann ohne Eigenschaften keines mehr hatten." - Kurt Flasch, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "This is the question at the heart of Harry Mulisch's brilliant new novel: what drove Hitler to consume and destroy everything within his grasp ? (...) Mulisch remains a playful writer, sparking fiction against history, fact against imagination. He packs his pages with ideas, charging at Hitler from every angle to try to find a way to understand the man." - Josh Lacey, The Guardian

  • "D'aucuns se seront offusqué ! Comment ? Un fils de Hitler comme il y a eu, par exemple, un fils hypothétique du Grand-Duc de Bade, connu sous le nom de Kaspar Hauser, lui aussi exécuté. Nous ne sommes pas de ceux-là, impressionné par l'érudition et la capacité d'Harry Mulisch à traquer par la voix romanesque le vrai mal sous toutes ses formes." - François Mathieu, L'Humanité

  • "Siegfried reads like a pompous Boys from Brazil-like yarn. It's an out-and-out potboiler, garnished with sophmoric, philosophical asides. As a made-for-the-movies melodrama, it is vivid and suspenseful enough. As a serious meditation on evil and guilt and history, it is a remarkably inane performance, at once silly and pretentious." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "At this point, Mulisch makes a series of choices that wreck his story. The narrative plunges into melodrama and metaphysics. Herter goes mad and dies from direct exposure to the Hitler virus. The madness takes the form of obsessive historical analysis and in its final stages includes a detailed hallucination of Eva Braun's diary of her final days -- otherwise, there is no explanation for its presence. The story loses the glow of art and becomes scorched, schematic." - Richard Lourie, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is a breathtaking act of egomania on Mulisch's part, redeemed by little irony -- this is an author who demands to be taken seriously. (...) There is cleverness and even insight, but awe is the last thing one gets from Siegfried. (...) (C)onversation and speculation can't be confused for literature, one would think, and as the author's ambitions are so manifestly literary, Siegfried must be judged something of a mildly interesting failure." - Eric Weinberger, The Observer

  • "Klar, irgendwas mußte ja noch kommen bei einem Roman, der's auf Blitz und Donner anlegt. Und bei Mulisch kracht's ordentlich. Aber war's das dann? Nein, Mulisch legt noch eins drauf. Sein Herter ist nicht nur gefeierter Dichter, sondern auch genialischer Philosoph" - Susanne Schaber, Die Presse

  • "Rather than producing a satire of the Hitler industry, which is a good subject for a novel, or a docudrama, Mulisch's novel ends up merely contributing to our fetishism of the Führer." - Jason Cowley, Prospect

  • "The novel is its own problem and solution -- Siegfried takes "nothingness" as its literal creed, and leaves no players or problems at its conclusion." - Jason Picone, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "A mere novella, when most readers would prefer a novel." - Andrew Crumey, Scotland on Sunday

  • "Und damit sind wir, verwirrt, verunsichert, nachblätternd, ob wir etwas übersehen haben, auch schon am Ende eines wahrhaft atemberaubend missglückten Romans angelangt. Mulisch hat in Interview wiederholt seine Überzeugung kundgetan, hier etwas Bedeutendes über Hitler gesagt zu haben. Was das sein soll, bleibt allerdings schleierhaft. (...) (D)em Autor dieses Romans (...) ist es nicht um Stringenz oder sprachliches Gelingen zu tun, sondern um das diffus-metaphysische Schaudern des als Kunst maskierten Kitsches." - Daniel Kehlmann, Der Standard

  • "Beguiling and shocking (.....) Always told with the briskness that is part of Mulisch's narrative trademark and his greatness as a storyteller -- he empties out his chest of stories with a wonderful matter-of-factness -- Siegfried ceases to be a high-class anecdote by a famous writer about a famous writer and morphs into a literary and theological investigation into the rise of evil in the 20th century." - Julian Evans, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The sweep of the novel is bracing, and the account of the novelist's experiences in Vienna in turn playful and penetrating, but the conclusion that Hitler was the ultimate void, the complete non-person (...) is disappointing. (...) All that philosophical effort seems disproportionate to its meagre, fragile fruits." - Joseph Farrell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Mulisch's novel isn't woven tightly enough to achieve his dual aim of spinning out a good yarn and offering new insights into what Hitler really represented. Mulisch creates high expectations on both fronts, never quite fulfilling them. (...) When it comes to the book's overarching ambition to explain the unexplainable -- who Hitler was and what he represented -- Mulisch comes as close as anyone at times." - Andrew Nagorski, The Washington Post

  • "Was wirklich ärgerlich ist an diesem in den Niederlanden außerordentlich erfolgreichen Buch, das sich übrigens, dies sei zugegeben, durchaus spannend liest, ist nicht so sehr die Selbstermächtigung eines Schriftstellers, der vorgibt, das "Rätsel Hitler" gelöst zu haben. Viel bedenklicher ist die Entwirklichung des Diktators durch das Begriffsbrimborium aus Theologie und Existentialphilosophie, mit dem der Autor seinen Hitler ausstaffiert." - Tilman Krause, Die Welt

  • "Harry Mulischs Roman Siegfried (so heißt der erfundene Sohn Hitlers) ist ein giftiges Stück Literatur, das, wie man es dreht und wendet, böse Funken und bittere Pointen nach allen Seiten abgibt. Es ist kein brillant geschriebenes Buch, es arbeitet recht sorglos mit den Versatzstücken des konventionellen Romans, aber das ist vielleicht die Voraussetzung dafür, dass man seine Lektüre zutraulich genug beginnt, um sich im Irrgarten der Konstruktion zu verfangen. Wo genau verlässt die Erzählung den Raum des Realistisch-Plausiblen und tritt in den Wahn ?" - Jens Jessen, Die Zeit

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:

       Siegfried begins as the story of Rudolf Herter, an internationally renowned Dutch author (bearing a striking similarity to Harry Mulisch), arriving in Vienna on a brief publicity tour that culminates in a reading at the National Library. The biographical similarities between author and author are worth mentioning, because they also play a role in the fiction itself (as in much of Mulisch's other autobiographically coloured work): an Austrian heritage behind the Dutch citizenship, a father who was too close to the Nazis in occupied Holland, grand works (including the magnum opus, here The Invention of Love rather than Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven). A preoccupation with the phenomenon Hitler also marks both authors.
       When asked to comment on Hitler Karl Kraus famously said nothing came to mind. Mulisch hasn't been as easily dissuaded: he has tackled the subject numerous times, including in novels such as The Assault (see our review), in his coverage of the Eichmann trial, and in his marvelous failed attempt at a novel, De toekomst van gisteren (see our review). But, like his Herter, Mulisch still feels he hasn't grasped the subject. Indeed, he feels that all attempts to explain Hitler have failed -- failed completely.
       In Siegfried it occurs to Mulisch's alter ego Herter that perhaps fiction is the net in which to catch the elusive subject. Not historical fiction, but using some very unlikely (but still fundamentally plausible) idea and building a fiction around it. And that is exactly what Mulisch does.
       The novel moves along at a deliberate pace, focussing for its first third or so on Herter's hurried and busy visit to Vienna. Mulisch's portrait of Herter only occasionally gets too self-satisfied here: on the whole it is a nice portrait of the mature artist at the height of his fame.
       During the various interviews and conversations Herter keeps thinking of how to expand on his Hitler-concept, of what approach to take. Inspiration finally comes in the form of a very old couple, Ullrich and Julia Falk, that approach him at the end of his reading at the National Library. They want to tell him something, and he senses that they might provide the material he needs: "They know something that no one else knows", he realizes. He arranges to meet them the next day.
       Their story does not disappoint. They worked for Hitler in his Bavarian retreat. And they have a bombshell: Eva Braun had Hitler's child -- the Siegfried of the title. Because it was deemed unacceptable for Hitler to have a child at that time the Falks had to pretend he was theirs. First Julia had to pretend to be pregnant (while Eva Braun remained hidden from sight, ostensibly far away). Then the Falks raised the child as theirs, still living in closest proximity to Eva Braun and, when he was there, Hitler.
       All does not go well, and the reasons why no one else knows of Siegfried's existence are eventually made clear. It is this story that the Falks give to Herter, for him to do with as he pleases after their deaths.
       Herter is stricken by the story -- both the human drama and tragedy behind it, and the potential in it. It is exactly what he needs. He feels he now has some understanding of the whole phenomenon Hitler (and goes on a neat Nietzchean riff to explain part of it).
       Then, before his flight back to Amsterdam, he wants to rest and takes a nap, finding himself then gripped by something stronger than sleep .....
       The abrupt cut leads to the next section, presented as excerpts from Eva Braun's diary in the final days of World War II. Siegfried is mentioned, the story the Falks told Herter elaborated on and brought to its conclusion. Is it Herter's summa, his fictional treatment of the material the Falks gave him -- or is it a piece of history, briefly made accessible ?
       The answer is unclear, as Mulisch does something quite daring in how he then closes the novel, considering that Herter is his alter ego, his reflection. Hitler remains, finally, ungrasped again, perhaps with the last laugh (even if it is in hell).

       The presentation is somewhat unusual, but it works well. Mulisch knows how to present a novel, almost shaking it out of his sleeve, one might think, one trick after another. The various parts are nicely done (with only some of the reactions too simple, too bluntly expressed). The stories -- Herter's, the Falks', Eva Braun's -- are all very good. And the thoughts behind it all -- about Hitler, about writing -- are interesting. Mulisch does not offer easy answers (even in ostensibly offering them): the unusual structure of the novel and the odd layers of fact and fiction force the reader to examine the issues (and some of the answers Mulisch offers) with a critical and suspicious eye. Siegfried is ultimately indeed the zwarte idylle -- the black idyll -- promised in the subtitle.
       Not everything fits together as nicely as Mulisch perhaps hopes: parts seem forced, and Herter's embrace of the Falks even before he has heard their story is too simply presented. The novel could have used a bit more exposition Still: a very solid work, and a fine read. Recommended.

       Note that most of the German and Austrian critics did not take kindly to the book (see review summaries, and especially the quotes). While their philosophical differences with Mulisch's theses can be accepted, their general confusion at his presentation (and their surprise at the book's bestselling status in the Netherlands) is a bit harder to understand. Mulisch's presentation -- an essential aspect of the novel -- seems particularly accomplished (and isn't particularly confusing). And while some of the critics seem to realize the form has a great deal to do with the content, they don't go far enough (or in the right direction) in considering the implications of this. Problems with the translation perhaps ?

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Links:

Reviews: Harry Mulisch:
  • The complete review's Harry Mulisch page
  • SchrijversNet Mulisch page, with links to bibliography and other information
  • Official Harry Mulisch site -- fancy and pointlessly elaborate, annoying to navigate
Other books by Harry Mulisch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Harry Mulisch was born in 1927. One of the foremost post-war European authors he has written numerous international bestsellers. Ridiculously few of his works are available in English.

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© 2001-2008 the complete review

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