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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Procedure

Harry Mulisch

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To purchase The Procedure

Title: The Procedure
Author: Harry Mulisch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 304 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Procedure - US
The Procedure - UK
The Procedure - Canada
Die Prozedur - Deutschland
La Procédure - France
  • Dutch title: De procedure
  • Translated by Paul Vincent
  • Awarded the De Libris Prijs, 1999

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Our Assessment:

A : marvelously constructed, very well written tour de force

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 29/7/2001 Barbara Fisher
Daily Telegraph A 13/8/2001 Julia Flynn
FAZ A+ 20/3/1999 Harald Hartung
The Independent A 10/8/2001 Julia Pascal
The LA Times A 9/9/2001 Michael Henry Heim
Publishers Weekly B+ 4/6/2001 .
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction A Fall/2001 Joseph Dewey
San Francisco Chronicle A+ 30/9/2001 Drew Cherry
The Sunday Times A 4/11/2001 Hugo Barnacle
The Times A 8/8/2001 Lisa Jardine
TLS B 17/8/2001 David Horspool
The Washington Post B 23/9/2001 Gregory Feeley
World Lit. Today A Summer/1999 José Lanters
Die Zeit . 6/5/1999 Martin Lüdke

  From the Reviews:
  • "The golem, DNA, cloning, Pygmalion, Egyptian mummies, conception, childbirth, and death all have roles in this challenging and chilling story." - Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe

  • "While the age-old theme of hubris and nemesis throbs mournfully through the novel, the pleasures it affords are rooted in simple human observation. Sixteenth-century Prague, with its cavalcade of mystics and charlatans, is brought to brilliant life. The contemporary passages are equally good." - Julia Flynn, Daily Telegraph

  • "So dürfen wir Mulischs Prozedur einen glänzenden Roman nennen, den Roman des Romans." - Harald Hartung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Rarely linear, the novel has philosophical diversions that give us the wild daring of a very exciting mind. (...) The act of creation haunts the narrative, and Mulisch has found an original and seductive way of exploring hubris." - Julia Pascal, The Independent

  • "The beauty of his character -- and of the novel -- is that he understands that creating life, even as the human race has always created it, is a tortuous process, one involving infinitely more subtleties than the process he has developed." - Michael Henry Heim, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Although it feels somewhat disjointed overall, like a fantasia between novels, Mulisch's obviously powerful literary intelligence is at work here. Forecast: The esteem Mulisch gained for The Discovery of Heaven will probably ensure respectful reviews, but lame jacket art (a clay-covered fist) and the lurking sense that this is a minor work may discourage potential buyers." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The Procedure is a powerful inquiry into the implications of conception, an intricately constructed speculation that audaciously links Adam and Eve, Pygmalion and Frankenstein, and Crick and Watson. But as with the finest novels of ideas, what lingers here are not the Big Questions posed about life but rather the characters, proud and passionate, who here pose them." - Joseph Dewey, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "The Procedure is an extraordinary novel, a fascinating and complex inquisition into the problems of modern science, modern religion and the very nature of creation. (...) (A)as the novel progresses it reveals itself as one of those fine, rare creations -- an intelligent page-turner." - Drew Cherry, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The Procedure is entertaining, moving and invigorating, even if it does play intellectual games. An extended anecdote about a biochemist who creates artificial life, it messes about with the idea of creation, and indeed creation in general." - Hugo Barnacle, The Sunday Times

  • "What gives this novel its fascinating brilliance is Mulisch’s skill as a structuring storyteller, artfully setting clues for the reader throughout, to tie the sometimes syncopated strands into a tautly engineered whole." - Lisa Jardine, The Times

  • "The new novel seems to flicker past, as expansively written (and smoothly translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent), but structurally pared down, leaving much unsaid and unexplained. (...) Harry Mulisch's ability to be entertainingly erudite, to pose big questions in a refreshing way, has not deserted him in The Procedure, but his narrative is rarely a surprise to the reader, let alone to the narrator." - David Horspool, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)f the reader sometimes wonders where the novel is going, its constituent parts are sharply imagined, vivid and often funny." - Gregory Feeley, The Washington Post

  • "De Procedure is a fascinating and complex novel about the mythical, biological, and literary creation process." - José Lanters, World Literature Today

  • "Die Geschichte, durchaus voller Spannung und keineswegs ohne Action, wird sogar ziemlich geradlinig erzählt. Nur ist der Stoff etwas ungewöhnlich." - Martin Lüdke, 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:

       As in his marvelous novel, The Discovery of Heaven (see our review), Harry Mulisch again tackles the big questions in The Procedure. It is about creation, life and death, and love, all considered from myriad vantage points.
       The procedure of the title is both literally a process as well as a trial. The novel is divided into three sections -- (legal) acts or reports labeled A, B, and C -- each further divided into chapters (called notebooks here). The first section deals with Speaking, the second with the Speaker, the third with Conversation.
       The first section deals most directly with creation, as the author commences his undertaking, the elements from which he will create his work simply the letters of the alphabet. The chapters of this section progress from the abstract Man to the more specific Person to the artificial creation (the Golem) to the author's creation (and central character of the book), Victor Werker.
       Mulisch considers the creative process in all its aspects in these introductory chapters, from God's creation of Adam, Lilith (his first wife), and then Eve to authorial creation of a literary character. The chapter on the golem is a tour-de-force, and regardless of how familiar the tale is, Mulisch manages to convince with it again.
       Mulisch's circuitous approach to beginning his actual tale may seem odd at first -- an intrusive author debating how to go about his task, comparing himself to a god, historical examples, and the like. The digressions and considerations are, however, expertly served, and all do serve a purpose as the big picture comes together.
       Conception and creation -- artistic or otherwise -- are complex and arduous undertakings. The golem serves as a warning to the dangers of man meddling in the creative process; Victor Werker is much the human counterpart to that creature. Mulisch describes Werker's physical conception as well, as he gets down to telling the character's life story. Conception doesn't come easily, and neither does Werker's birth. (As is the case for all the acts of creation in this book.) Even Victor Werker's name is not easily found, as his parents debate long and hard what it is to be
       Mulisch handles these domestic scenes with great assurance (indeed, despite his philosophic ambition -- and talent -- these tend to be the best parts of his books). Victor Werker is also created in the image of his author: the family bears some resemblance to Mulisch's own, with Victor Werker fascinated by chemistry and literature in his youth (as was Mulisch), a mother who eventually goes to live in the United States, and a rule-obeying military man for a father.
       Victor becomes a chemist, the counterpart to the successful literary man Mulisch (both always considered likely Nobel laureates). His specialty is genetics, where he has developed a means of creating life. His eobiont is a modern golem, a controversial creation where man plays god. Mulisch gives a fair amount of scientific background regarding the alphabet and grammar of life found in DNA and RNA, but he carefully avoids discussing Werker's discovery too closely. It barely ever intrudes in the text.
       Victor relates much of his life and his scientific work in the second section of the novel, written in the form of letters addressed to his daughter Aurora. The child died in utero, only a few weeks before she was to be born. It is the ultimate irony (as a number of people remind him): the scientist who creates life artificially but cannot bring it about naturally. Aurora's death and birth, as described by Victor, is one of Mulisch's most successful scenes, another brilliant turn in this story.
       The letters to Aurora are sent to the mother of the child, Clara, whom Victor loved (and perhaps still loves) deeply but who left him after the child's death. In part he hopes to win her over again with his explanations to the child.
       The final section of the novel reverts to the third person, describing a series of encounters and conversations, some imagined, in which Victor tries to make peace with past, present, and future. A clever selection that sees Victor publicly proclaimed (or denounced) as the modern Pygmalion, the ultimate artist, as well as offering variations of possible reconciliations (or not) with Clara, an overheard plan for an assassination, and a dinner with triplets from his past, Mulisch neatly ties together the many threads of his narrative.
       The complex (and yet so tidy) plot is beautifully worked through. Mulisch's digressions -- on science and creation, typefaces and genetics, Mary Shelley and the alphabet, and much more -- are dazzling. Mulisch also entertains throughout. He tells a damn good story and he tells it damn well.
       The Procedure is the perfect manifestation of its author's ambition, a most impressive achievement. Beautiful and clever, and heartbreaking, The Procedure is a book for the times and for the future, showing what literature can still do. Highly recommended.

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The Procedure: Reviews: Harry Mulisch: Other books by Harry Mulisch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • 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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