Willem Frederik Hermans

1 Sep 1921
27 Apr 1995
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Willem Frederik Hermans (1 September 1921 – 27 April 1995) was a Dutch author of poetry, novels, short stories, plays, as well as booklength studies, essays, and literary criticism. His most famous works are The House of Refuge (novella, 1952), The Darkroom of Damocles (novel, 1958), and Beyond Sleep (novel, 1966).

After World War II, Hermans tried to live off his writing exclusively, but as his country was just recovering from the Occupation, he had no opportunity to sustain himself. He published three important collections of short stories from 1948 to 1957, chief among them the novella The House of Refuge (1952), and in 1958 became lecturer in physical geography at Groningen University, a position he retained until his move to Paris, France, in 1973. The same year 1958 he broke to a wide audience with The Darkroom of Damocles. In the seventies Hermans played an important role in the unmasking of Friedrich Weinreb as a cheater of Jews in the war. Hermans refused to accept the P.C. Hooftprijs for 1971. In 1977 he received the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the most prestigious literary award available for writers in the language, handed out every three years alternately by the reigning Dutch and Belgian monarchs to a writer of the other country, the Belgian king Baudouin handing the prize to Hermans. Hermans is considered one of the three most important authors in the Netherlands in the postwar period, along with Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve.

Willem Frederik Hermans was born on 1 September 1921 in Amsterdam to Johannes (‘Johan’) Hermans (1879-1967) and Hendrika (‘Rika’) Hillegonda Hermans-Eggelte Hermans’s intelligence first emerged at grammar school, where he was included in the selection of four boys who were taught a more challenging Arithmetic course than was demanded of the other classmates.Apart from that, he followed the standard curriculum: Reading, Writing, Geography (with attention to the Dutch Indies), Native History, Gymnastics, and Singing.The grades of his admittance to the Gymnasium in 1940 were generally good, though not outstanding.

Hermans’s reading, remarkably well-documented from early age onward, included some favorites he could read again and again without exhausting them. Most important were children’s versions of classic works: he cited the legend of King Arthur, which never ceased to give him the chills even as an elderly man, as “the most significative work” of his youth.Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, which he could read over and over without ever getting enough of it. Alice in Wonderland both charmed and scared him, especially the poem on Father William. Besides these international classics, he also read Dutch children’s book, most notably Woutertje Pieterse by Multatuli.

In 1933 Hermans enrolled in the prestigious Barlaeus gymnasium in Amsterdam, where most teachers held an academic degree and having written a dissertation was not even an exception among the teaching staff.The curriculum in the first class was Latin, Dutch, French, History, Geography, Arithmetic, Biology. In the second year this was augmented with Greek and German. In the first two classes Hermans’s results were mediocre at best, and when he had to double the third class for lack of applying himself, he vowed such thing would never happen to him again. During this time Hermans had fallen under the spell of literature. When the school staged a performance of Sophocles’s Antigone, Hermans was given a minor role but the play left a lasting impression upon him: “It was my first introduction to the kind of literature that could swipe away the everyday world like a dull nightmare.”

In 1957, Hermans worked as volunteer assistant to photographer Nico Jesse while writing his De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Darkroom of Damocles) which features a mysteriously blank photograph.In 1958 he was appointed reader in physical geography at Groningen University. In 1972, after accusations by among others the Calvinist Member of Parliament and later minister Jan de Koning that Hermans was using his time writing instead of lecturing, a parliamentary committee was set up to investigate the matter. The committee found that Hermans’s chief crime was his use of university stationery for writing his notes.

His style is existentialist and generally bleak, and his writing style is unique in Dutch literature with its short and pointed sentences. There is no doubt that he was influenced by World War II and the German occupation of the Netherlands between 1940 and 1945, and his longer novels (De tranen der acacia’s and De donkere kamer van Damokles) are set during the war. Even his more upbeat writings (Onder professoren and Au pair) can have a strange, existentialist twist to them.

The best example of Hermans’s notoriety was the minor issue of the first volume of the memoirs of the minor writer C. Buddingh’, which Hermans savagely and condescendingly criticised in a review in 1979. The next volume was published only in 1995, ten years after the death of Buddingh’ but only months after Hermans’ death.

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