Jonathan Glenn Reinhardt: Blog

Harry Mulisch Is Dead

Dutch author Harry Mulisch died yesterday, of cancer. He was 83 years old.

Mulisch is one of those authors I read when I got to college and wanted to figure out what I liked and what I was supposed to like, and ended up liking for having read his books once each.

As part of my explorations, I read The Discovery of Heaven, a magical realist book in which God gives up on human kind and sends an angel to recover the original tablets of the Ten Commandments through an especially chosen child, Quinten, from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. I also read his The Assault, which is a sort of murder mystery set during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The protagonist is the only member of his family to survive a retaliation by the SS after a Nazi collaborator is found dead in front of the family's house, and years later he tries to piece together how the collaborator's body ended up there. Finally, I recently read Mulisch's novel Siegfried, in which he imagines that Hitler secretly had a son, Siegfried. A famous novelist searches for Siegfried in Vienna and gets in over his head.

Mulisch was interesting to me not so much because he kept being mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature -- which, by the way, almost seems to guarantee that a writer won't ever get it -- but rather because his biography seemed to make him well suited to explore certain themes, like the complexities of being one's father's son. Mulisch was born to an Austrian army officer and a Jewish mother in 1927, and when the German Wehrmacht and later the SS occupied the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, Mulisch's father dealt with confiscated Jewish assets. Fathers who collaborate with the Nazi occupation come up several times in Mulisch's work, apparently an important theme in Dutch literature since World War II, as that country particularly honors members of the Dutch Resistance, and yet, like France, was made up mostly of apathetes and a good share of quite enthusiastic collaborators who contradict the prevailing national narrative. On the other hand, despite working for the Germans, or likely because of it, Mulisch's father managed to help keep his Jewish wife out of the concentration camps, which blurs all the supposed clear lines and complicates motivations.

His work is in some ways antithetical of my own approach -- Mulisch famously said he doesn't care about his readers and writes only for himself -- but it's just as important to know whom one is choosing not to emulate as it is to know whom one should.

Perhaps the best way to get an idea of Mulisch's work is here at The Ledge, which includes a full list of Mulisch's work, who influenced his craft, and who writes books that make good follow-up reads after Mulisch. More thorough obituaries come from the Associated Press and Reuters, and other excellent resources about Mulisch can be found at The Complete Review, the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, and on the author's official website (if you know Dutch).