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the complete review - fiction
A Guardian Angel Recalls
Willem Frederik Hermans
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- Dutch title: Herinneringen van een engelbewaarder
- Translated by David Colmer
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A- : a strong novel of personal tragedies, and a national one
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times Book Rev.
From the Reviews:
- "The novel is structured like certain Highsmith novels: a character commits a crime, sometimes involuntarily, and spends the rest of the book hoping to escape his fate or waiting to be apprehended. The difference here is that the disaster befalling Alberegt is historical as well as personal. (...) It’s hardly the sunniest or most positive image of humanity: each of us mired in self-interest, capable of almost anything if our survival is at issue or if we think it might lessen our individual burden of guilt. And yet it’s a measure of Hermans’s gifts that we find ourselves so painfully aware of something we may have thought in the dead of night and kept to ourselves when we awoke. He makes us grateful that he has transformed his fears into fiction so vivid and entertaining that we can simultaneously recognize, investigate, and escape our darkest imaginings." - Francine Prose, Harper's
- "Constantly anxious for the fate of his ward’s soul, the angel necessarily sees everything through a Christian perspective of good and evil, with Alberegt’s positive thoughts often described as the result of his own celestial prompting and negative thoughts as suggested directly by the devil. But this obsessive moral framework proves comically inadequate to tell a story in which the brutal drive for survival and self-realization is always ascendant. Alberegt never shows so much as a hint of religious feeling. The two value systems forever at war in Hermans’s work are thus separated out and pointed up, to great ironic effect. (…) Hermans does not disdain bizarre coincidence. His strategy is to push his uneasy protagonists to a limit where whatever moral qualities they might have are overwhelmed by the will to survive. (…) Throughout this extraordinary novel all the characters are shown to be at the mercy of conflicting impulses, of which the guardian angel’s admonitions are but one. Their helplessness is their pathos and their disgrace." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books
- "There’s a sharp edge to Hermans’s unsettling comedy. (...) Repellent as Alberegt can be, his predicament is wickedly enticing." - Alida Becker, The New York Times Book Review
- "Hermans does a wonderful job tracking Bert's ethical, moral, and spiritual roller coaster, which fascinatingly mirrors the Dutch Nazi sympathizers and fifth columnists who enabled fascism. This should establish Hermans as a modern Dostoyevsky." - Publishers Weekly
- "Hermans realized his dark, existentialist vision in an idiosyncratic prose, here seen at its finest. David Colmer’s superb translation is particularly effective when it comes to Hermans’s portrayal of character (.....) All are fully humanized, and nuanced, despite their inadequacies in the context of a war from which no one emerges unscathed." - Paul Binding, Times Literary Supplement
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:
A Guardian Angel Recalls begins on 9 May 1940, with several significant events he is involved with on this day basically driving the thoughts and actions of the novel's main character, Alberegt, for the rest of the story.
Dutch readers will of course immediately realize the significance of the date, but even those for whom it doesn't immediately ring a bell can guess what's coming (though perhaps they might not realize how soon), as 9 May was the eve of the German invasion of the Netherlands; the novel then plays out largely over those few days up to and including the Dutch capitulation.
First, Alberegt -- called Bert by friends and family -- suffers a terrible disappointment, bringing Sysy, the Jewish refugee from Germany he is deeply in love with, to a ship so she can escape to safety in England and then America.
Even as he believes that the German threat, though great, is not imminent, he understands that it is wise for her to get to safety, just in case -- but it also crushes him, and he first seriously considers sabotaging her escape-plan and then desperately hopes to be able to follow her (though his reasons for wanting to flee have, by that point, been compounded),
Alberegt has only known Sysy for a few months, but he is madly in love with her -- even as he understands that she does not fully reciprocate his feelings.
Indeed, one of the reasons she hooked up with him is surely that she saw that in his position as a public prosecutor he might be useful to her and her cause.
Alberegt has to rush back from sending Sysy off, because he was also due to make the final arguments in a case he's prosecuting, a journalist accused of insulting the head of state of a friendly country -- a form of lèse-majesté that had become law in the Netherlands.
The 'friendly nation' in this case is, of course, Germany -- which has already proved not to be very friendly -- as the Dutch seemed to hope that by being seen to oppose those who said nasty things about Hitler they could ingratiate themselves with his regime.
Alberegt had planned to ask for the maximum sentence to be imposed, but changed his mind at the last second -- something of a bombshell.
The concern then is how the Germans will react -- a concern that grows as it becomes clearer in the days that follow that they are going to be in charge.
Between those two events there was another, truly shattering one: in his rush to the court and a moment of carelessness, Alberegt ran down a young girl with his car, killing her.
Instead of calling for help, he tossed her dead body into the bushes -- and is then deeply wracked by guilt over the following days, torn between coming clean and fleeing, and never managing either.
The novel is narrated by Alberegt's guardian angel, who has been at his side all his life (unbeknownst to Alberegt).
He is a watcher -- and a (very light) guider, nudging Alberegt along, but fairly limited in how much he effects.
He is a quiet presence -- in both the novel and, to quite some extent, in Alberegt's life.
Even if he is always there -- it's his voice narrating after all, and he sits more or less permanently on Alberegt's shoulder, so to speak -- he easily fades into the background for much of the time, a narrator who doesn't focus on himself but rather on the one in his charge, and a guardian angel who exercises a light touch, certainly going essentially unnoticed by Alberegt.
Too light, on occasion: as he admits, he was inattentive when the accident occurred: "my thoughts had turned away from my ward to consider the suffering of man in general rather than the distress of this one individual".
When he snaps back to attention, a girl is dead and the individual's distress has been considerably heightened; the guilt the novel is steeped in is not just Alberegt's but also that of his guardian angel.
That night of 9 May was also a big one for Alberegt's mother, a classical singer.
(She's disappointed neither of her sons inherited her musical talent -- though she couldn't help herself in naming Alberegt, whose actual first name is Simon, followed by several more names that add up to a musical acronym (that apparently didn't help inspire its bearer).)
She gave a grand concert, and Alberegt then joined her, his brother Rense, and many others for a celebration of the triumphant appearance.
They party into the morning hours -- waiting also for the morning newspaper, which does indeed include a glowing review, but by that point there's news that overshadows this and everything else: the Germans have invaded.
Alberegt asks first his mother and then a friend, publisher Erik, for some cash, saying he wants to sail after Sysy and that time is of the essence.
The harebrained idea to chase her doesn't get anywhere, even as Alberegt continues to try to get his hands on funds that would allow him -- he thinks -- to flee; he meets all kinds of failures along the way, even as he otherwise seems extraordinarily lucky in escaping the new dangers that come with the German invasion.
It's almost like he has a guardian angel ... (not that he considers that).
But he's not meant to reünite with Sysy, or to flee his horrific accident/crime; indeed, he appears to be meant to stay in his homeland during this time of great crisis: that much, apparently, his guardian angel can see to.
The reality of the Dutch situation doesn't sink in too quickly among the characters; they can't believe that it could fall -- and in such short order -- to the Germans, even as the invasion encircles them.
(A wonderful scene has some youngsters return from a record shop they'd gone to to buy needles for a phonograph (so that the party can continue), pleased to report: "It's going wonderfully. They've retaken Waalhaven with an attack out of Vlaardingen".
Of course, it wasn't going wonderfully.)
Alberegt does admit at one point: "I'm not optimistic", but then that applies to his own situation as much as the larger one.
And yet he is often near or in the middle of the action, as Hermans paints a vivid picture of the German takeover, from the parachutists -- some shot while descending, but many more making it -- to the bombings.
Alberegt escapes (physical) harm, even as much of his world around him collapses -- right down to his workplace.
Meanwhile, Alberegt keeps learning more and more about the girl he killed.
Erik knew the family that took her in, and had been helping them; he asks Alberegt for advice as to how they should proceed, and whether they should go to the police, as, as far as anyone else knows, the girl has simply disappeared, her fate entirely unknown; only Alberegt knows what became of her.
Events even bring him back repeatedly to the scene of the crime: he faces a constant reckoning, and yet also walks entirely free, without anyone suspecting what he's done (or, indeed, even just what happened).
Along the way, he keeps trying to justify his decisions and in/action -- never even fully convincing himself, but continuing to stumble down the same hopeless path nevertheless.
It's a masterful pyschological profile of a man tortured by his own very real demons -- demons unseen by anyone else, with no one having the slightest idea of what weighs so heavily on Alberegt's mind.
The guardian angel also has the devil to deal with -- literally so, a constant jockeying for position and influence.
The devil eggs Alberegt on -- "Cheer up, the devil said. The future is full of encouraging possibilities", he claims -- but the guardian angel doesn't have too much to worry about: Alberegt can't see it.
The occasional suggestion is also fairly easily batted down:
The devil whispered, What if you took a different hat ?
Once, long ago, you read a book about a man who put on somebody else's hat and turned into that person.
Wouldn't that be your best option, becoming someone else ?
Don't you want to give it a try ?
As oblivious Alberegt is in his helpless, hopless daze, his guardian angel tries to lead him to the only way out:
Don't do it, I said.
They're just fairy tales you don't believe in anyway.
He put the other two hats back where they had been
Trust in me, I whispered.
I've protected you from the worst till now.
You've come through it without a scratch.
You can make amends for everything by doing penance.
And that's the only thing of any value in this earthly existence.
That's the only reason you mustn't die.
Flee or stay, but stay alive.
You can't die as besmirched as you are now.
Because death is a marriage and only if your soul has been cleansed, can it breathe out with relief, and leave its earthly husk.
Good luck with that in that time of senseless death -- as Hermans captures so well.
For Alberegt, 9 May is like a culmination of his failures -- with what follows feeling like fate is mocking him (with the praise he gets for his recommended sentence at the trial; with no one connecting him to the girl; with his failed attempts at fleeing (and everything else)).
He comes to think:
Has there ever been anything of all the things I tried to make of my life that didn't contain poison ?
Alberegt's personal catastrophes become just part of a scene full of personal -- and national -- catastrophes.
Death is all around, in various forms; people become evermore reckless and desperate.
Things repeatedly come to a head -- and then turn out just to have been one more step along the long, long way.
In various forms, people see and find no way out.
If Alberegt's attempts at fleeing, and their failure, are almost comic, many other cases are truly tragic -- and Alberegt gets a front-row seat to many of them.
Late in the novel, the guardian angel notes:
Just as when the gas has been lit under a kettle, it seems for a long time as if nothing is happening, or almost nothing ...
But A Guardian Angel Recalls is really at a steady -- if slow -- boil from the get-go.
The contrast of the turmoil all around and the relative calm of so many -- the conversation and exchanges almost casual (if not carefree) -- is striking throughout.
The country literally collapses, falling into the hands of the Nazis, in the background: aspects of the fighting are visible, but it's almost like it's all playing out on some movie set.
It's impressive how little actual combat -- and how little direct confrontation with the invaders -- Hermans weaves into his story, knowing that the reader understands just how catastrophic a takeover by this force will be.
The gas burns ... heat spreads ... but further consequences are absent.
And then, suddenly, the lid of the kettle starts jumping up and down.
White steam escapes, seething powerfully.
The water is boiling.
The change is quick and dramatic, and the characters respond to it -- but in their own fashion: so, for example, Alberegt's mother complains about the commotion and the precautions she now has to take, including that: "I deadlock the front door. I never used to, it's so middle class".
A running joke is people being asked to pronounce 'Scheveningen' -- a word that is thought to trip up and reveal any German trying to pass for Dutch.
And then there are a few weaselly folk who look ahead, suggesting, for example: "Our epoch requires reflection. Adaptation could be necessary -- of our judicial perspective too. This era demands reflection" .....
The secondary characters, and their relationships with Alberegt, add a great deal to the story, from struggling artist Rense (as his mother harshly points out: "Is there anyone in the whole world who would mistake a canvas Rense has painted for a painting ? I don't think so") to avant garde publisher Erik (his firm called Book/Book, Inc.).
There is a great deal of busy-ness throughout, characters making decisions -- and yet often finding it difficult to follow through; in so many ways, A Guardian Angel Recalls is an account of failures.
At one point Alberegt notes (about some notes Erik had written about the missing girl): "He's just written a few words about something he knows nothing about, like most writers" and very near the end he regrets having fallen for a story, noting: "Stories are no use to us. Where are the documents ?"
A Guardian Angel Recalls is not factual-documentary, but Hermans' novel shows the possibilities and value of fictional representation, story-telling such as this easily as revealing as any documentary record.
And Hermans knows whereof he writes, A Guardian Angel Recalls impressing both as (individual) character-study and as historical account.
It might not give (all) the details of the German invasion of the Netherlands, but surely is as clear and deep an account of it as any.
A Guardian Angel Recalls is a strong work presenting personal tragedies, and a national one, Alberegt's desperation mirrored, funhouse-like, all around him, a light comic touch just making the overall grimness of the situation all the more clear.
A significant work, by a major writer.
- M.A.Orthofer, 29 October 2021
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A Guardian Angel Recalls:
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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© 2021-2022 the complete review
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