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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

An Untouched House

Willem Frederik Hermans

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Title: An Untouched House
Author: Willem Frederik Hermans
Genre: Novel
Written: 1951 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 115 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: An Untouched House - US
An Untouched House - UK
An Untouched House - Canada
Das heile Haus - Deutschland
La casa vuota - Italia
  • Dutch title: Het behouden huis
  • Translated by David Colmer
  • With an Afterword by Cees Nooteboom
  • Previously translated by Estelle Debrot, as The House of Refuge (1961: in the Odyssey Review; 1966: in The World of Modern Fiction)

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Our Assessment:

A- : darkest wartime tale, very well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 24/8/2018 Sam Jordison
Harper's . 7/2022 Francine Prose
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/3/2022 Tim Parks
Sunday Times . 29/7/2018 David Mills
TLS A 2/11/2018 Eileen Battersby
World Lit. Today . 9-10/2018 Felix Haas

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a brutal story thatís all the more shocking because it packs its ferocious series of punches into just 80 pages. It takes an hour or two to read, but An Untouched House is the kind of book that stays with you for ever." - Sam Jordison, The Guardian

  • "An Untouched House is a trial-by-fire introduction to Hermans’s work. (...) But what’s most interesting, and what connects this novel with the others set in wartime (...) are questions of identity, authenticity, and duplicity." - Francine Prose, Harper's

  • "If, in the future, works of fiction must carry content warnings, this one will require a red alert. As the story draws to a close, nothing has been preserved and very little deserves to be. It is a work, observed the Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, of “bestial destruction.”" - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "Its fluid deliberation remains timeless (.....) Hermansís shocking amorality tale remains defiantly vivid. (...) By any light, this eloquent marvel teases, bewilders and unnerves." - Eileen Battersby, Times Literary Supplement

  • "With its protagonist truly beyond good and evil, there are no reasons, no morals, no difference between victim and culprit. Survival is imperative -- not out of fear, passion, or love but out of innate mechanics. Hermansís novella is a bleak depiction of the absurdity of war, which knows no winners" - Felix Haas, World Literature Today

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:

       The narrator of An Untouched House is a Dutchman caught up in the Second World War. away from his homeland for four years now. He'd been captured by the Germans several times but managed to escape -- and had escaped eastwards, joining up finally with a ragtag group of Soviet-led partisans, battling on the eastern front. The war is nearing its close, but it's not one-sided yet; the battles between the Nazis and the Soviets are still a back-and-forth, and the narrator finds himself and his platoon in yet another fierce fight when the novella opens.
       The narrator efficiently but exhaustedly goes through the necessary motions, struggling to play his role, trying to do as ordered. Like all the others, he's so weary he can barely think straight. In the elegant but now deserted spa resort that they're battling over, his sergeant points him into town with unclear orders, and he stumbles his way to an imposing house. And he goes in.
       The contrast to what he's been living through for the past years is overwhelming -- "the first time in a very long time I had entered a real house, a genuine home". He even, aburdly, wipes his feet on entering.
       With no idea what his actual orders are, he can't help but make himself comfortable in the impressive house -- even sinking into the tub. In his exhaustion, he's oblivious, or inured, to the fighting outside -- the shots, the explosions. Maybe he should have been paying better attention: he falls asleep and is woken by the ringing of the doorbell. It turns out he slept through the battle over the town, and that his side lost: the Nazis reconquered it .....
       Fortunately, he's not in his uniform when he answers the door, and the officer waiting there mistakes him for the owner and requests that officers can be billeted in the house; the narrator is, of course, in no position to refuse -- but realizes that it puts him in a more than awkward position.
       The narrator has to pass himself off as the owner of a house he hasn't even fully explored -- while then soon living surrounded by Nazi officers. Complicating matters is a mysterious locked room that he can't get into, which presumably harbors additional secrets. And yet it all works out: staying aloof and imperious, the Germans take the narrator to be the grand property owner, and treat him with surprising respect. A good wine cellar and the wonderful tub keep him comfortable and allow for an absurd refuge from the war.
       Of course, everything only works out until it doesn't: eventually, the actual owner shows up -- amused to find the narrator wearing his trousers, but obviously not going to stand for it. And while he comes alone, he's not the only family member that reappears. The narrator, however, is not so willing to give up the life he's grown so comfortable with .....
       It's not the last of the turns of the novel either, as An Untouched House is a pitch-black thriller of war-time existence -- one can hardly simply call it 'life' -- at its extremes. The lulling comfort of the house, an island -- mostly ... -- of peacefulness even as it stands practically at the front, armies battling back and forth around it, is an unreal haven; among Hermans' most effective techniques is in how readily he allows the narrator to coldly switch to most basic instincts to preserve what is, in these circumstances, essentially a fantasy-world he has created for himself. Much of the power of the often dreamlike and surreal-seeming novel is, in fact, its crystal clear reality -- horrible reality.
       With a nicely turned resolution, An Untouched House is no redemptive war tale, just a stark vision of what it does to man. The experiences here are raw, fundamental, visceral -- "Stench is everywhere, unavoidable. Only stench tells the truth" --, the contrasts all the more striking. Even though Hermans' use of symbolism, right down to the closing scene, is blatant, the power of the story is sufficient to not make it feel too obvious; it's an expertly crafted story that is very well told.
       A small novel that packs a strong, hard punch.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 July 2018

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An Untouched House: Reviews: Willem Frederik Hermans: Other books by Willem Frederik Hermans under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

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

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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