Beyond Sleep Hardcover – May 31 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Dutch geology student Alfred Issendorf makes a wonderfully quixotic journey in this previously untranslated 1966 gem from Hermans (1921–1995), a Dutch novelist who worked in Paris. Alfred sets out for Norway's northernmost region of Finnmark with three other students to try to confirm their professor's dubious hypothesis that regional craters resulted from meteor impact rather than Ice Age glaciers. Insecure, exhausted, doubting his career choice and barely up to the physical rigor of trekking through the Arctic wilderness, Alfred begins to imagine that everyone—his companions and their mentors—is plotting against him. But he is determined to make his mark, mostly to compensate for the loss of his biologist father who fell into a mountain chasm when Alfred was six. The story takes an unexpected turn when Alfred loses his compass—literally—and reveals surprising reserves of fortitude and cunning. For all his anxiety and irony, he also proves a sympathetic narrator, particularly in the development of his relationship with Arne, one of his companions, who is in many ways his opposite. In this moving tragicomedy, Alfred's self-knowledge is achieved at great cost and offers him little hope. Hermans's portrayal of Alfred's existential transformation is deep and crystalline. (May)
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Dutch novelist Hermans' 1966 book is literate, naturally developed, cannily paced, tonally even--an exceptionally well crafted novel. Why did it languish untranslated for 40 years? Because of unsympathetic characters, perhaps? Alfred Issendorf is a PhD candidate aiming to guarantee a cum laude degree by proving his mentor professor's pet theory about meteorite impacts in Norway's Finnmark region. Inadequately prepared, Alfred is disappointed by his professor's Norwegian contacts (this is mordant high-comic material), antipathetic to his companion field researchers except for the maudlin Arne, and maddeningly full of himself though he lacks all self-confidence. Stubborn, to boot, he badly bruises a leg in a fall due to his own inattention, and later he willfully takes off in the wrong direction and gets lost. He meets no tragic end, and when he finds one, he is minimally affected. He is also supremely unlovable, tolerable only because he's young and hence may outgrow his self-absorption. He's unpleasant, and so are the other characters. Finally, they're wryly funny, and in that lies the novel's brilliance. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The young Dutch geologist Alfred Issendorf is determined to win fame for making a great discovery. To this end he joins a small geological expedition, which travels to the far North of Norway, where he hopes to prove a series of craters were caused by meteorites and are littered with extraterrestrial "Issendorfite," but ultimately realizes he's more likely to drown in a fiord or be eaten by parasites.
Unable to procure crucial aerial photographs, and beset by mosquitoes and insomnia in his freezing leaky tent, Alfred becomes increasingly desperate and paranoid. Haunted by the ghost of his scientist father, unable to escape the looming influence of his mother, and anxious to complete the thesis that will make his name, he moves toward the final act of vanity which will trigger a catastrophe.
A deadpan comedy reminiscent of Heller or Vonnegut at their best, with more than a dash of Kafka, Beyond Sleep is a unique and illuminating examination of how hard it is to be a true pioneer in the modern world- a masterpiece.
Not only is the plot strange, but the style of the novel is unusual. First, it is very informal, told first-person in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion. Second, it displays a wide range of styles of humor, from the wry and dry to, occasionally, the absurd and farcical. Finally, Alfred is a sort of amateur metaphysician, who shares with the reader all sorts of off-beat ideas -- some worthwhile and some sophomoric -- as well as a few rather hackneyed ones (e.g., "Life's a dream.").
An example from the "worthwhile" category: "Maybe it would have been better if I had failed in my first year at university. * * * But then what? What would I have done? Become a flautist after all? How will I ever find out? No-one can start over at the same point twice. If an experiment can't be replicated, it ceases to be an experiment. No-one can experiment with their life. No-one can be blamed for being in the dark."
BEYOND SLEEP was an easy read, which contributed to the impression, while reading it, that it was a relatively simple novel. But it is deceptive in that simplicity. The more I reflect on it, the more I realize Hermans (a noted Dutch author, circa 1950-1990) packed into it. I don't believe that it is a great novel, and I suspect that it will not appeal to everyone (not by a long shot), but for me and my sometimes idiosyncratic tastes it proved to be moderately entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking. I would not be surprised to find myself picking it up again a few years hence, and I certainly will seek out the one other Hermans novel so far to be translated into English, "The Darkroom of Damocles".
Alfred is a bit of a nerd. A nebbish, a mama's boy, a navel-gazer. He fumbles badly in planning his grand scientific expedition. He is ridiculously under-equipped and hopelessly inexperienced in wilderness lore. He lacks the physical conditioning of an outdoorsman. As he slowly recognizes, he also lacks the intuition of an observer-scientist. He's the wrong guy in the wrong field for the wrong reasons, and he's way outside his safety zone, completely overmatched by the harshness of the tundra. Of course, everything goes from sorry ineptitude to serious danger, but the surprise is that Alfred finds the resources in himself to survive, a heroic effort really but one that he has to mock: mere survival is hardly greatness.
"Beyond Sleep" begins with a muddle of miscommunication, Alfred's hapless efforts to secure the maps that he needs to find evidence of his thesis, and ends with another muddle, Alfred's lame encounters with two beautiful females, one too young, one too old for him. The muddle and the inconsequentiality of experience is not just loose plotting of the novel; it's the whole story. Meanwhile, squeezed between these goofy episodes, there's an 'existential' novel of considerable suspense and emotional power, the tale of Alfred versus both Nature and his own nature.
There's another level of writing in "Beyond Sleep", the dubious pleasure of vicarious misery. Alfred IS miserable out there on the tundra. He's carrying a pack much heavier than he is ready for. He has the wrong shoes, the wrong sleeping gear, and preposterously little food for such a trip. It rains constantly. He falls in the river fords and soaks his gear, and then he falls and scrapes his leg badly enough to make gangrene a threat. Two of his three companions, arrogantly well-prepared and seasoned hikers, abandon him, while the third is as bonkers as he is, and as quixotic. Worst of all, the mosquitoes! I've done a lot of back-country camping in the far North; I read this novel, in fact, while hiking in the Laurentides mountains of Quebec, where mosquitoes are not unknown. The mosquitoes in "Beyond Sleep" are so accurately described, so horribly itchy on the page, that I fear I'll wake up scratching for months after I get home. Alfred's suffering is at the same time laughable and pitiable, and no doubt "existential." What a thing is Man, driven by his ego to feed swarms of bugs with his life-blood! Let me tell you, mosquitoes don't share our perceptions of futility.
Other reviewers have complained that "Beyond Sleep" is disorganized and anti-climactic. If you're looking for a straight-ahead adventure story, you may agree with them. But this is a novel about the equivalence of success and failure. Alfred's goal out there on the tundra is to find a meteor, to prove his thesis that meteor impacts have shaped the landscape there. He finds nothing to support his idea. However, as he is escaping with his life if not his self-esteem, a veritable meteor impact occurs precisely where he had been searching. Alas, Alfred is too self-absorbed to recognize the impact for what it is. His thesis can be proven after all, but he won't get the credit for it.
The main character of this book (Alfred Issendorf) is on a quest. Although practically the quest is just to find proof of his advisor's hypothesis that certain lakes are meteorite craters, beneath the surface this is all a metaphor for a much more general quest, namely the quest for immortality (which may be the oldest story in existence, i.e. Gilgamesh). Alfred tries to attain immortality by making an immortal scientific discovery. As the old Norwegian professor puts it near the beginning of the book: science is humanity's titanic attempt to escape from its isolation in this universe. In this sense the PhD topic is also metaphorical. Just as humanity has tended to look for the meaning of life not here on this earth, but in what lies beyond life itself, Alfred wants to prove that objects from beyond this earth (meteorites) have come down to leave their marks. Similarly, the nightless landscape of Finnmarken alludes to the topic of the quest, immortality. btw. in Dutch the title of the book is literally 'to sleep never more'.
As the book progresses, the author piles up evidence to the crucial tragic fact that is the topic of this book: that even if Alfred were to make an 'immortal discovery', it would be the discovery and not him, Alfred, his personal thoughts and feelings, that would become immortal. In the end the quest for immortality is bound to fail. Along the way to this tragic conclusion the author manages to not only entertain and amuse us but also share some rather profound ideas. Some of my favorite examples include the suggested connection between the invention of photography and the phenomenon of psychological identity crisis, the claim that one day machines will have become so much better at doing science than humans that all 'true science' will be done by machines and that humans will only engage in scientific research as a form of entertainment (which more than 40 years after the book appeared is still a rather modern idea). And finally, the prophecy that humanity will eventually go extinct by realizing its own futility.