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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Beyond Sleep

Willem Frederik Hermans

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To purchase Beyond Sleep

Title: Beyond Sleep
Author: Willem Frederik Hermans
Genre: Novel
Written: 1966 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 253 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Beyond Sleep - US
Beyond Sleep - UK
Beyond Sleep - Canada
Ne plus jamais dormir - France
. Nie mehr schlafen - Deutschland
No dormir nunca más - España
  • Dutch title: Nooit meer slapen
  • Translated by Ina Rilke
  • Nooit meer slapen was made into a film (2005), directed by Gerrard Verhage
  • The author notes that he made some 250 minor changes to the text for the revised edition of 1978

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Our Assessment:

A- : odd, effective (mis-)adventure tale of man never destined for much

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 6-7/2007 Michael Pye
FAZ A 8/10/2002 Wolfgang Schneider
The Guardian . 15/7/2006 Michel Faber
Harper's . 7/2022 Francine Prose
The Independent . 28/7/2006 Paul Binding
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 17/10/2002 Dorothea Dieckmann
The NY Rev. of Books . 27/10/2011 Tim Parks
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/3/2022 Tim Parks
The NY Sun . 17/8/2007 Karan Mahajan
The Scotsman . 23/6/2007 Michael Pye
The Times . 15/7/2006 Ian Brunskill
TLS . 1/12/2006 Patrick Flanery
Wall St. Journal . 7/7/2007 Willem Otterspeer
Die Zeit . 12/12/2002 Andreas Nentwich

  From the Reviews:
  • "(I)t’s as bright and black as anything contemporary. It has the energy and ruthlessness of farce and a terrifying deadpan style, and it ends in appalling catastrophe. What’s more, it is entirely unfamiliar." - Michael Pye, Bookforum

  • "Ein Text von präziser realistischer Konkretion, der zugleich als philosophische Parabel zu lesen ist, als Endspiel am Nordkap. (...) Nie mehr schlafen ist ein großes Buch über die Vergeblichkeit, ein philosophischer Roman ohne die Schwächen, die dieser Mischform oft anhaften: das belletristisch entschärfte Räsonieren, den räsonierend entschärften Stil. Hermans schreibt plastisch und schnörkellos, suggestiv und poetisch." - Wolfgang Schneider, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "In the original Dutch, Hermans's prose is bracingly lucid and straightforward, justifying his reputation as a champion of unadorned style. Ina Rilke's translation is fluent and finds clever solutions to tough challenges (such as preserving the comic effect of conversations in which English is the foreign language), but overall the tone is more formal, more prim than it should be. (...) In the final analysis, it is the relative slightness of this novel, rather than anything lost in translation, that may cause the uninitiated reader to wonder why Hermans has been hailed as one of the greatest postwar European writers. Beyond Sleep is an engaging yarn once it hits its stride, intermittently thought-provoking, frequently funny, well worth investigating. But there are darker, stronger Hermans works still waiting for their chance to cross the Channel." - Michel Faber, The Guardian

  • "The tonal and philosophical differences between this often humorous novel and the violence and unremitting gloom of the other three hint at the breadth of Hermans’s range -- and sharpen our curiosity about the works that have yet to appear in English." - Francine Prose, Harper's

  • "The obstinate anti-human character of the land is marvellously caught, in a wealth of kinaesthetic detail, and yet there is beauty here: above all in the majestic cone of Mount Vuorje. (...) In Ina Rilke's lively and graceful translation, his novel does what so few do: it makes one see and feel life afresh." - Paul Binding, The Independent

  • "In short, Beyond Sleep establishes a geography that locates harrowing existential reality in the polar wilds and success and celebrity in the lingua franca of New York and London, while between the two, in the provinces of Holland and Norway, are only mediocrity and paranoia." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "Lavishly described in counterpoint to the comedy of misunderstandings between the young men, the dramatic northern landscape provides that blend of real and surreal that is the hallmark of Hermans’s work" - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "Even more impressive is Hermans's confidence in subverting our expectations; he addicts us to his pessimistic humor and then cuts the supply." - Karan Mahajan, The New York Sun

  • "The farce is ruthless -- one man dies -- and its extremes depend on a grounding of exact fact (Hermans was a physical geographer himself, before he lost his temper with universities). It also conceals a nice philosophic joke, since Wittgenstein himself used to go into the northern wilds of Norway to ponder fundamental questions." - Michael Pye, The Scotsman

  • "The grim absurdity is redeemed by the sheer oddity of narrative perspective that comes from Alfred’s lack of self-know-ledge, and his ploddingly literal approach to all he sees and does. Beyond Sleep is a welcome if belated introduction to an original and challenging voice in modern European literature." - Ian Brunskill, The Times

  • "Beyond Sleep is concerned with the gradual accretion of social, physical and scientific failures. (...) Linguistic hegemony and translation are, suitably, among the novel's primary concerns." - Patrick Flanery, Times Literary Supplement

  • "But no thumbnail description of Beyond Sleep can begin to suggest the richness and complexity of a novel that humbled many a Dutch critic into nail-biting sessions of rereading. Hermans's expression of his "creative nihilism" was anything but simple, though it was conveyed in the author's hallmark style: short, pungent sentences studded with details gleaned from close observation." - Willem Otterspeer, Wall Street Journal

  • "Nie mehr schlafen sammelt den kargen Ertrag des objektiv Erkennbaren. Der Mensch kann nicht anders, als in Vorstellungen zu leben; jede Vorstellung fordert Sinn, Sinn aber ist nicht verifizierbar." - Andreas Nentwich, 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:

       Nooit meer slapen takes Alfred Issendorf, a Dutch geology student set to write his dissertation, to northern Norway. He has ambition -- dreams of vague grandeur -- but not all that much talent. When young he actually hoped to play the flute, but was thwarted by his mother. The death of his father -- just before he was made professor -- when Alfred was a boy also leaves him trying to make dad proud, following in his academic footsteps.
       The novel follows Alfred's trail moving north in Norway. He hopes to find evidence to support the theory that meteors struck in the region -- a discovery that would make his name in the field -- but from the beginning things don't go particularly well. A professor he approaches for aerial photographs of the region -- vital to spot the likely spots -- is less than helpful (despite -- or perhaps because -- being forewarned by Alfred's professor), and the wild goose-chase for the maps is typical of Alfred's futile wanderings.
       Up north he meets up with his Norwegian friend Arne, and they get together with two more Norwegians, forming an expedition that has a common destination but different research goals. Alfred is not a very good explorer, and he is in over his head. Eventually he literally loses all sense of time (his watch stops) and direction (his compass fails) -- though it is others, not he, that suffer for it. Travelling in the region isn't pleasant: it's a constant battle against the mosquitoes (and, if not them, the flies), the light (its daylight almost all the time at that time of year that far north), and the rain. Alfred is fairly miserable, but manages always to plod along. Friend Arne is supportive and understanding -- which doesn't work out too well for him.
       Nooit meer slapen is a thoroughly enjoyable dark travel-tale. Despite being largely uneventful, and focussed on minor everyday annoyances (the incessant mosquitos, among much else), Alfred's journey is never boring. Keeping its ambitions in check -- Hermans uses the little man to make his devastating points, not grand, world-shaking events -- Nooit meer slapen succeeds because it exceeds all these limited expectations.
       The human interaction is particularly well done, and from the cynical commentary on Norway and the Netherlands (small countries where it is necessary to know a foreign language to study pretty much anything, for example) to the odd characters Alfred meets and doesn't quite know how to handle -- with everything happening just in passing -- Hermans offers an enjoyable trip, pervaded by that misty perception caused by the never-ending days (and resulting lack of sleep) up north. The characters Alfred meets are all of a different world, making for an often hilarious culture clash. Kind Arne, with his own set of problems, of course suffers for his attitude: in Hermans' world only the cynical or naïve survive.
       There are a few enjoyable asides, too, including Alfred's mother, Holland's most successful literary critic -- who never actually reads the books she reviews, but rather relies on the coverage in The Observer, the TLS, and Le Figaro to make up her mind (a portrait that must have gone over real well among the book reviewers of Holland when the novel came out).
       Alfred is not capable or destined for greatness, as he probably realised early on the trip: off to boring northern Norway, he reads in the newspaper of a Dutch expedition to the Himalayas. Not achieving greatness isn't always the worst thing, but the point is perhaps hammered home a bit too strong for Alfred's liking. He's a sad sack, but he's also a sympathetic character: Hermans is rough on him, but doesn't condemn him.
       Successful and entertaining, Nooit meer slapen is very well-written and conceived. A master at work, with a fine, light touch.

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Beyond Sleep: Reviews: Nooit meer slapen - the film: 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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© 2005-2022 the complete review

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