Arrogance as an armour

26-11-2009

The man is vain. He doesn’t have the slightest idea about self-reflection. He has not a grain of modesty. These descriptions of the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch appear in the media regularly and underline my idea that, in most cases, it is better to know as little as possible about an artist’s character. It’s not easy to enjoy someone’s work (be it a book, play, film, painting, or anything else) when you know how unpleasant, conceited or arrogant the maker is.

After receiving high praise for The Discovery of Heaven, Mulisch wrote The Procedure, a book about the structure and meaning of humanity. The storyline follows a sixteenth century rabbi who is commanded by the emperor to create a ‘Golem’ (a clay figure brought to life by magic). He succeeds, but has to undo his work immediately because the Golem appears to be a killer. Four hundred years later, the scientist Victor Werker creates an ‘ebiont’ in his laboratory, a living creature born out of inorganic materials. Via the letters Werker writes to his stillborn daughter, we gain some insight into his life and his motivation. Why create life from dead material? We learn that the scientist is struggling with the unbearable fact that he is able to create an ebiont, but couldn’t save his own daughter.

Mulisch’s knowledge of science, history and religion, which he broadly exposes in his books, is certainly interesting – but at times it slows down the story. The reader’s patience is exhausted after a two-page explanation of DNA; but Mulisch continues on for another four.

Admirable in this book, and in his other works, is his extended vocabulary and witty use of words. Also a pleasure is his ability to explain complex situations in only a few words.

But to return to the beginning: in The Procedure, Mulisch appears to openly trifle with his own reputation. The reader knows that it is Mulisch himself who is talking when Werker writes to his daughter: “… you’ll undoubtedly think your father arrogant, like almost everyone, but I have no illusions. What is taken for arrogance in my case is nothing more than an armour against intrusiveness.”

Sounds acceptable; but then Mulisch goes on and ruins any chance for a spot of understanding: “After all, it’s no merit of mine that I have ideas that no-one else has!”

 

Welmoed Hoogvorst

In this series, three reviewers write about their favourite books, recent or not so recent

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