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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Coming of Joachim Stiller

Hubert Lampo

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To purchase The Coming of Joachim Stiller

Title: The Coming of Joachim Stiller
Author: Hubert Lampo
Genre: Novel
Written: 1960 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 197 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Coming of Joachim Stiller - US
The Coming of Joachim Stiller - UK
The Coming of Joachim Stiller - Canada
La Venue de Joachim Stiller - France
Die Ankunft des Joachim Stiller - Deutschland
L'avvento di Joachim Stiller - Italia
El advenimiento de Joachim Stiller - España
  • Dutch title: De komst van Joachim Stiller
  • Translated by Paul Vincent
  • Previously translated by Marga Emlyn-Jones (1974)
  • De komst van Joachim Stiller was made into a film in 1976, directed by Harry Kümel

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Our Assessment:

B : narrative voice on point, but high concept doesn't really gel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NRC . 19/7/1996 Bas Heijne

  From the Reviews:
  • "De komst van Joachim Stiller wordt aangekondigd met de voorspelbaarheid van een krakkemikkige detective -- je ziet die Stiller als het ware van mijlenver aankomen. Lampo wil de metafysische dimensie van onze belevingswereld voelbaar maken, maar zijn proza is verstoken van verbeeldingskracht, zodat hem geen andere middel overblijft dan effectbejag. Zijn magie is geen mystiek, maar de magie van de goocheltruc. (...) In De komst van Joachim Stiller wordt de geest van de literatuur verraden. (...) De boodschap dat we niet alle stukjes van die puzzel in onze handen hebben, krijgt in een roman dan al snel de allure van een diepzinnige waarheid. Mysterie wordt mystificatie; wat verontrustend was, wordt geruststellend gemaakt. De komst van Joachim Stiller is zo'n geruststellende roman." - Bas Heijne, NRC

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:

       The Coming of Joachim Stiller is narrated by Freek Groenevelt and takes place in 1957. Now in his late thirties, he's scaled back his ambitions, after devoting: "three years or so to trying to live exclusively from my pen as a novelist and critic", and settled back into a position as city editor at an Antwerp newspaper. His parents are dead, and he's unattached.
       A few odds and ends open the novel. There's a new magazine called Atomium that's just published a withering attack on Freek in their: "editors' statement of principles", denouncing him as: "the most despair-evoking bungler and the lewdest pig ever to wield a ballpoint in this country". (Somewhat disappointingly, the attack appears wide of the mark, as Freek, while somewhat despair-evoking, is otherwise reasonably competent and doesn't display much lewdness.) Then there's the odd scene he witnesses from a pub he likes to go to, a street's cobblestones dug out by workmen -- and then simply put back in place, without any road- or other repair-work done, prompting Freek to write an article about dubious and wasteful city (non) planning. An alderman writes an outraged letter to the editor, claiming the whole incident is made up -- though when Freek visits the alderman the man acknowledges: "I knew that it was true, but nevertheless I had to protest against such an upsetting and frightening truth ..." -- leaving Freek even more confused about the episode.
       He might have been able to put confusion about the street incident out of his mind -- were it not for another letter addressing the situation and noting some of the specifics. This in and of itself might not be that unsettling -- were it not for the fact that the stamp on the letter was one that had long been out of circulation, and that when he examines the postmark:

I read in consternation: II.IX.19. Which meant logically -- to the extent that the matter could lay any claim to logic -- that the letter had been posted over eighteen months before my birth ...
       It is signed: "Joachim Stiller', and it is this mystery-figure that Freek becomes obsessed and haunted by.
       Visiting the offices of Atomium Freek doesn't find the editors responsible but does find the lovely and charming Simone Marijnissen; more disturbingly, he finds that they too have received a letter -- mentioning Freek -- from one Joachim Stiller ..... Not long later, Simone receives another one -- not very helpfully urging:
Do not be afraid. What must happen will happen.
       Then there are: the telephone calls; scientific confirmation that a letter from Stiller is nearly four decades old; and a book -- nothing short of: The Apocalypse -- that's several hundred years old and is ascribed to being: "Set out and explained by Joachim Stiller" -- an apparently historical figure active in the sixteenth century, of whom there isn't much of a record (though enough to suggest he was one: "crazy oddball").
       An analysis of Stiller's letter-handwriting eerily points to: "someone who doesn't exist at all, but could nevertheless write", and indeed this Stiller is a phantom-figure of sorts, in the air -- so to speak -- all around Freek, yet never quite graspable. His name comes up again and again -- including as a dying man's last breath ("Stiller, he said. Stiller. How is it possible ?") -- and if that's not enough, soon a rumor has spread throughout the city: nothing less than that the world is going to end.
       Despite the strange, indefinable cloud (or halo ?) of Stiller around Freek, he otherwise finds surprising peace of mind and satisfaction: Simone comes ever closer, and soon enough they're happily coupled-up. By the end, they've shacked up and find themselves well onto the traditional family way.
       So what's the deal with Stiller, and the way he (if that's what one can call it) seems to exist on some level outside time ? A friend points them to Ouspensky's A New Model of the Universe, noting:
Ouspensky recognises only a subjective concept of time for each individual and rejects the view that time is one continuous line, an eternity before us and an eternity after us. For a one-dimensional timeline, he substitutes a multi-dimensional concept of time. [...] [E]verything that has ever happened or ever will happen has already happened an infinite number of times and will continue to happen an infinite number of times.
       Throw in some Jung for good measure, and then ultimately Stiller is revealed for what/who he is, or stands in for: elusive still -- glimpsed, and then even encountered up close, but yet again in a way that doesn't allow for easy answers, but: "as a serenely smiling Crucified figure" ..... Yes, if Lampo's teases along the way left other interpretations possible, he ultimately goes all-in on Stiller's coming being the second (or who knows which ...) coming of a rather more familiar religious-historical figure -- hammered home with one final twist regarding his fate (where:"No one understands what has happened. All the doors were locked" ...).
       A connection to Freek's life is made with an event from years earlier, a traumatic near-miss during the war, an occasion when Freek narrowly missed getting a tram, a petty annoyance that is a turning point in his life. (As it turns out, the alderman also has a connection to that event.) Freek mentions it, almost casually, early on, but the trauma clearly sits deep, and resurfaces -- with its connection to Stiller finally coming to the fore. And, as Freek comes to realize:
First there was a Joachim Stiller outside me; now I know there is also a Joachim Stiller inside me, who emerged much earlier in my life than I ever dared imagine. No, it doesn't make things any simpler.
       Considered an example of the Flemish school of magical realism, The Coming of Joachim Stiller is an odd mix of the supernatural, esoteric-mystical, and religious, with a decent and somewhat at-odds dose of the profane. Lampo's would-be/could-be Christ story has appealing elements, and for quite a while there's a neat feel to these unnatural events. An old bookstore and an unusual artist -- rescued, then lost -- add to the atmosphere, as does the rumor of apocalypse, even if that isn't played up nearly enough. But any logic crumbles -- or rather never finds adequate support --, making for a shaky premise and hardly a sturdier conclusion. Whether Stiller's repeated reaching out to Freek (and also Simone) or the various specifics, such as the postmark dates on the odd letters, too much feels too arbitrarily contrived.
       Freek's narrative, however, has a lot going for it, the voice and his unspooling of the story making, episode for episode, solid and often very good reading. It might not all add up, but his encounters and experiences make for good stories all along the way -- to the extent that it can seem a shame he didn't simply continue down another path, rather than returning to this one.
       The premise has the feel of a grand, intriguing concept, but it just doesn't quite pan out. Lampo forces his way there -- and kind of spoils things when he does; The Coming of Joachim Stiller is a whole lot more fun when it still seems more open-ended. But at least he waits until very near the conclusion before his message and meaning are presented entirely overtly. Nevertheless, there's a good deal to like about this odd novel, chapter to chapter, and character to character.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 May 2019

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The Coming of Joachim Stiller: Reviews: De komst van Joachim Stiller - the film: Hubert Lampo: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Flemish author Hubert Lampo lived 1920 to 2006.

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© 2019 the complete review

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