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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Au pair

Willem Frederik Hermans

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Title: Au pair
Author: Willem Frederik Hermans
Genre: Novel
Written: 1989
Length: 415 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Au pair - Deutschland
  • Au pair has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

A- : very good story-telling, darkly enjoyable

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 29/11/2003 Dirk Schümer
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 22/10/2003 Dorothea Dieckmann
Die Welt A 25/10/2003 Gunther Nickel

  From the Reviews:
  • "Allein, das Ganze liest sich dann zäh und hätte auch etwas zügiger auf den Punkt kommen können (.....)Doch ganz so genial, wie der Erzähler sie vielleicht fand, ist die Finte denn doch nicht. Die Moral, daß die Menschen schlecht und Humanisten Gefühlsdusel sind, hätte sich auch weniger umständlich erzählen lassen. Hermans gestattet sich auf knapp fünfhundert Seiten allzu viele Abschweifungen und ist deshalb weit von der zynischen Eiseskälte seiner direkten Nachkriegsprosa entfernt, die zum Härtesten und Besten in der europäischen Literatur jener Zeit gehört" - Dirk Schümer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Der Roman gibt auf keine dieser Fragen eine Antwort. Er wirft sie lediglich auf. Und dem Leser bleibt es überlassen, sich einen Reim auf all das zu machen. Auch darin gleichen sich Au pair und Die Dunkelkammer des Damokles. Der in beiden Büchern aufscheinende politische Nonkonformismus und der feingeschärfte Sinn für Ambivalenzen haben neben der kristallklaren Sprache und der schnörkellosen Handlungsentwicklung Cees Nooteboom zu der Bemerkung veranlasst, die niederländische Literatur sei ohne Willem Frederik Hermans undenkbar. Das ist, bei allem Respekt vor Nooteboom, doch stark untertrieben. Mindestens vier Romane von Hermans sind nichts weniger als Meisterwerke der Weltliteratur. Au pair ist einer von ihnen." - Gunther Nickel, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       For Dutch girl Paulina native Vlissingen -- indeed, Holland itself -- doesn't offer the opportunities she's looking for. At nineteen she decides to go to Paris, to study French and art history. She needs a job to sustain herself, and being an au pair is the obvious choice, a job offering decent hours, a place to stay, and a bit of money. The university has an office devoted to helping place foreign students as au pairs, and Paulina is immediately offered a job.
       The position is with a lawyer-couple, the Pauchards, and her brief experience with them is a wonderful comedic set piece. Their child is a boy of thirteen -- though, in fact he turns out to be a spoiled, oversexed infant. The Pauchards are oblivious to a great deal (going so far as to welcome the stranger in their household in the nude), but also wily professionals, assigning Paulina a room in the attic that has been subdivided into a whole tenement, filled with immigrant-tenants (and which is only accessible by a back entrance). Providing small things like a lock on the door to her room are evidently beyond them.
       The Pauchard-adventure does not go well, and Paulina flees. A girl with similarly bad experiences is ahead of her at the placement office when she comes to ask for a new job, and that girl gets little sympathy, so Paulina tries a slightly different approach (the class-angle, which still works in the right circles). And she gets a too-good-to-be-true job.
       What's most striking about Paulina is her height -- she's 1 metre 92 (that's almost 6'4") -- but in this case her most winning quality is apparently that she's from Vlissingen. She can't believe what she's lucked into, a position in the household of Général de Lune, where she can live in complete comfort and has no apparent duties. There's no child to au pair, and the old general himself is in frail health and can only rarely spend any time with Paulina. But the General is thrilled to have her in the house -- apparently solely because his great passion is the artist Constantin Guys, who happened to be born in Vlissingen. Indeed, he's a great Guys-collector, and even has a few of his pictures put up in Paulina's room. Despite the Vlissingen-connexion and her art-historical ambitions, Paulina doesn't know Guys from Adam (though she quickly tries to rectify the situation) -- but it doesn't matter: she's welcomed and pampered, treated more like an illustrious guest than a servant (even by the actual servants).
       It's an odd household, with other members of the family occupying other floors of the grand house. There's music-obsessed Michel, whose apartment is almost entirely empty; he devotes himself to playing the piano (which cost him his marriage). And there are Armand and Jacqueline, who are renovating their apartment when Paulina moves in; Armand's literary ambitions never panned out, so the couple leads a quiet, withdrawn life drinking too much. And there's their son, Edouard, a financial wiz, but he isn't too much of a presence early on, keeping himself a bit apart from the de Lune-filled house.
       There is, of course, an ulterior motive to all this show of generosity, a family secret of sorts which they need Paulina's help in resolving -- or at least so they claim. The General was entrusted with a man's fortune during World War II. The man and all his relatives perished, then or later, the only vaguely related individual being his wife's half-brother, who was a high-ranking SS-man. Over the decades (the novel is set in the 1980s) the Geneeral (and then also Edouard) have taken good care of the fortune and it has grown greatly. The General faces something of a moral dilemma, not wanting to see the funds fall into the hands of the SS man; he hopes to give it to an aid organisation instead. There's also some need to keep things from the authorities (from the tax man to the lawyers), and so the plan is to spirit the money to Switzerland, and turn it over to an organisation there.
       This is where Paulina comes in: as they expected, she volunteers to smuggle a suitcase across the border. It seems harmless enough, but there's more to it than that. Paulina eventually learns that she isn't the first au pair entrusted with this mission -- though they never quite trusted the previous ones (sending one with a newspaper-stuffed suitcase, for example). And, as she eventually learns, there may be even more to her position than that.
       Nevertheless, Paulina goes through with her mission -- though not surprisingly, last minute changes find her setting out not for Switzerland but Luxembourg. When it's done with she is also done with the de Lune family -- and not much the wiser.
       The fairly simple plot is presented very well by Hermans, who doesn't like things black and white, preferring a uniform dark shade of grey. Games are played here, with layers uopn layers confusing the issues. It's a moral tale and, true to life, morality here is ambiguous, without easy answers.
       What Herman does particularly well is play with his characters. Paulina is a naïf, overwhelmed by her height, never loved. The tall de Lune family isn't one she can completely embrace, but there's a certain comfort among these oddballs, a sort of sense of fitting in.
       Regardless of what she does, almost no one reacts to Paulina; like the Pauchards (and, yes, one of them pops up again -- though fully dressed); they acknowledge her, but she is more a chesspiece to be moved around, or an ornament (albeit a very well treated one). She doesn't have the will or power to assert herself, either -- frustratingly kept at bay from the General, for example, the excuses always plausible enough but that hardly assuaging her feeling she is missing vital information and contact.
       The de Lunes are also a colourful cast of characters, and Hermans presents them very well, a different sort of idle rich than usual. The novel as a mix of entertaining character (and social) studies and thriller is particularly effective.
       Au pair isn't a tidy family-mystery, nor a coming of age novel; the focus is very much on Paulina, who completely dominates the book, but though she's not entirely a pawn throughout the book (indeed, she has a strong independent streak), she's very much at the mercy of others -- and the greater world -- for most of it, and her final step is only one towards maturity, not the actual reaching of it. Hermans' unwillingness to present clear-cut answers (or even, occasionally, clear-cut mysteries) is refreshing, and makes the book all the more impressive. A very enjoyable read.

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Au pair: Reviews: Willem Frederik Hermans: Other books by Willem Frederik Hermans under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) was a leading Dutch author.

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