"She loved the modern Dutch literature, probably because, with the exception of a few authors, it is made up solely of a type of book designed for sophisticated young people which nobody reads after 25." So observes the narrator of Harry Mulisch's novel Two Women (1975). Despite his having started to write prolifically soon after the war, that sophisticated lesbian melodrama had been his only substantial work to finds its way into English until, in his fifties, he had international success with The Assault (1982). Leanly told, and slickly filmed a few years later, that bestselling novel is far from typical of a restless spirit who, forever haunted by the Occupation, throve upon writing in many forms and taking a different approach with each book, all of which, along with a sedulously projected public persona, made him the Anthony Burgess of the Netherlands.
Born in 1927 in Haarlem, he was the son of Kurt, a former army officer of Austrian and Hungarian roots who, soon after arriving in the Netherlands married a girl, Alice, somewhat younger than himself; indeed, she was a Jewish teenager, and scarcely had her son been born than she upped and left for a new life in the city, which meant that he was in effect brought up by the housekeeper. If this would be matter enough for lifelong angst, it was more than complicated by the Occupation, which saw his maternal grandparents carted off to a concentration camp, never to be seen again, while his father worked in a bank which, it emerged, dealt in the confiscated assets of captured Jews; this position enabled him to protect his son and estranged wife, but led to his being given a three-year, postwar jail sentence for collaboration.
He was a ruined man. In such circumstances, his son had left school early, which scuppered hopes of scientific studies, and found that he could fashion a living from his pen. From a short story came a first novel, and a couple of dozen works straddled journalism, theatre, poetry and fiction. All of these were unknown in England but, partly through the efforts of John Calder, some shorter pieces appeared here, and this led to a translation of Two Women.
Narrated by Laura, the novel tells of her driving to Nice, where her mother has died. Along the way she recalls events: her involvement with Sylvia – who does not eschew the pleasures offered by Alfred, Laura's ex-husband, a drama critic whose instability brings an ending on which the curtain comes down to many a gasp. Put like that, it might sound hokum but in fact, ever meditative, it is something of a French film in prose, even if it does not avoid a touch of the Bad Sex Prize: "we separated ourselves from the room and from the day and capsulized ourselves as an ameoba in the endless sea".
The Assault drew upon the Dutch experience of the Occupation which was encapsulated in Anne Frank's diary, turning upon a variant of the moral quandary in which his father had found himself. The short novel is formed of episodes across several decades at the end of which Anton Steenwijk – now, significantly, an anaesthetist – learns the full circumstances of a wartime incident in which the body of a murdered collaborationist police chief was dumped on his family's doorstep, which had led to them being shot by the Germans. Everything is coolly evoked, including a Haarlem which "looked more like one of those grey clinkers that came out of the stove, when there had still been coal to burn". The novel is suffused with a sense of prisons: "hermetically sealed somewhere deep inside him ... boundaries have to be continually sealed off, but it's a hopeless job, for everything touches everything else in this world. A beginning never disappears, not even with the ending".
As an appreciative John Updike remarked, "a quality seems evoked, of disconnection and eternity, that is present in all experience but noticeable only in crisis... With the cool passion of a scientist, Mr Mulisch scrapes rust from the Forties steel hell and gives violence its anatomy".
The difficult beginning to Mulisch's own life took a very different turn with Last Call (1989), a sprawling work in which a 79-year-old actor, Uli Bouwmeester emerges from the obscurity into which he sank after a wartime tour of Germany; he is to play an actor who at the beginning of the century had played Prospero; this makes for plays within plays, with reference to much else in Mulisch's wide reading, all buttressed by sharp-eyed views of contemporary Amsterdam.
If Bouwmeester is hardly sympathetic he is not unattractive, rather like Burgess's Enderby, and whenever this wild novel is about to lose the reader it brings a brush of fresh engagement, such shocks as "the only thing her womb had produced was the tumor that killed her".
Different again was The Procedure, which partly offers idiosyncratic, even cantankerous reflections on writing ("anyone with Aids here is almost holy, but anyone who smokes is murdering himself and other people").
None of this prepared readers for The Discovery of Heaven (1989). Magic realism is scarcely the term for it. Some of the narrative is relayed to their boss by two angels deputed to recover the stones which bear some of the Ten Commandments now that mankind has signed up with the Devil by broaching the DNA code. This mission involves their conjoining two friends – the linguist Onno and the astronomer Max – in a ménage à trois with Ada, a woman as beautiful as the sounds she brings from her cello. Her child, whose birth kills her, could be either man's.
That is but part of a plot which takes in much of the world, and its past, and continues for over 700 pages: The Assault it isn't, despite another wartime donné; Mulisch's masterpiece, if anything it is a book in which to lose, and find, oneself, a world in which disquisition goes alongside copulation, the fabular allied with close observation. And, if that was not enough, his last work, Siegfried (2002) varied a point from The Assault where Anton thinks "not until people are called Adolf again will the Second World War be really behind us. But for that we'll have to have a Third World War, so that means the end of the Adolfs forever". This last novel, however, depicts the post-war upbringing of Adolf and Eva's putative son.
In life, Mulisch was as colouful as his prose. With a Burgessian delight in female flesh, he settled down in 1971 with Sjoerdje Woudenberg, and they had two daughters, and all remained close friends, visiting daily, when he took up in 1989 with Kitty Saal and sired a son. Although Mulisch once noted that to translate poetry is akin to playing different notes during a Beethoven piece when in different countries, more of him is needed in English – even if, right now, he is another victim of the shrinking public-library system which, for example, means that none of his books is in Brighton and Hove, and just a few scattered around Susssex.
Harry Kurt Victor Mulisch, novelist: born Haarlem, Netherlands 29 July 1927; married 1971 Sjoerdje Woudenberg (two daughters), partner to Kitty Saal (one son); died Amsterdam 30 October 2010.
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