Mulisch is a Dutch half-Jew who considered this book his “magnum opus.” He intertwines religious, historical, and scientific philosophy with a narrative, but the ideas take precedence over character development and writing style. The book is a memento of sorts, of Mulisch and his best friend — their intellectual relationship and brotherly love, that is stronger than their familial or romantic ties with others.
It’s whimsical, clever, and informative; and full of historical and philosophical name-dropping.
One of the names mentioned is Piranesi, an 18th century Italian artist known for his atmospheric and imaginary architectural drawings. One of the most interesting parts in the book is the description of “Somnium Quinti” (Quinten’s Dream), which is perhaps inspired by Piranesi’s work. Quinten dreams of an “interior exterior” — that is, a strange architectural world/phenomenon where he is the only one present amongst a deserted, grey, silent city — stairs, balustrades, doorways and arches all intertwined and built on top of one another in an endless formation, similar to something Escher (or Piranesi) may have drawn.
It’s an interesting book, but not my favorite.
“‘Shall I tell you something, Marilyn? Believe it or not, I’m happy now. Because I know that one day I shall look back at this evening in the knowledge that I was happy then. Maybe you can only be happy via that mirror. One day I’ll lie on my deathbed in the knowledge that I’ll never get up again–and then the thought of this evening may perhaps ease my death.’ He took a sip, but did not swallow. He swished his tongue about in the wine, the smell of which now penetrated his nose from inside, and it seemed to him as though those few cubic inches in the darkness of his mind in some way contained the whole world, just as a drop of dew on a stalk of grass mirrors the landscape.” (p. 183)
“She was a professional musician; she knew that making music was not about expressing emotions but about evoking them: and that could only succeed when it was done professionally–that is, dispassionately, like a surgeon operating…” (p. 79)
“But in politics the words themselves are the deeds,… There’s a bad smell about doing things verbally without doing anything.” (p. 416-417)
“It was orderly disorder, or disorderly order–it was a third possibility: an artistic, unplanned arrangement of countless things, which had obviously landed somewhere by chance, casually put down, forgotten… but which here formed an incomprehensible, harmonious creation, just as a swarm of birds at a certain moment took on a perfect shape that had not been composed by anyone.” (p. 365)
“Might it be that beauty was geometrically and musically calculable but that, in turn, perfection somehow diverged from it? Just as a straight line drawn with a ruler was always somehow less than a straight line when Picasso drew it without a ruler?”
(Note: I have to say here, that ‘beauty’ and ‘perfection’ should be switched. Perhaps perfection can be geometrically calculable, but it’s beauty that diverges from it…)
“With eyes closed, squeezed shut by the darkness, Onno and Quinten listened to the thin Gregorian chant, which hung in the air like a silver cobweb. For Onno it exuded a desperate loneliness, a metallic freezing cold, which seemed to flow in through a chink straight from the Middle Ages — but for Quinten its harmonic unanimity evoked the image of ten or fifteen men, sinking after a shipwreck but holding each other to the last.” (p. 652)
“I have a feeling that the world is very complicated, but that there’s something behind it that is very simple and at the same time incomprehensible… a sphere. Or a point.” (p. 601)
“But causal explanations can never be justifications for his behavior. Man is not a machine, or simply an animal… That’s why behavior must be judged not causally but finally… Moreover, it’s an unacceptable insult to people who have had an equally rotten childhood and who do not commit crimes.” (p. 576)
“When he emerged from under the trees, his bare feet sinking into the sand, still warm from the sun, the moonless starry sky spread out with a gesture that he thought he could almost hear: like a marvelous chord played by the whole orchestra. Compared to this, the sight of the heavens from his hotel room on the twenty-fifth floor, pale because of the city lights and the exhaust fumes, was a record on an old portable gramophone.” (p. 186)
“That was also inconceivable — too much had happened to him in the meantime for that: you couldn’t expect a stone that you’d let go of to return into your hand halfway, like a yo-yo.” (p. 542)
And, perhaps my favorite quote of the whole book (strangely): “Only when she was alone did she have the sense that she really existed; other people might be frightened precisely because of that sense, but she was frightened of other people because they stole it from her.” (p. 187)