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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

In a Dark Wood

Marcel Möring

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To purchase In a Dark Wood

Title: In a Dark Wood
Author: Marcel Möring
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 447 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: In a Dark Wood - US
In a Dark Wood - UK
In a Dark Wood - Canada
Der nächtige Ort - Deutschland
  • Dutch title: Dis
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative Dantesque vision, spinning in a few too many circles

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 14/2/2009 Jem Poster
The Independent . 6/3/2009 Paul Binding
de Volkskrant . 24/11/2006 Maarten Doorman

  From the Reviews:
  • "In this intelligent, literate narrative, the forest that skirts the Dutch town of Assen becomes the dark wood of Dante's Inferno, while the town itself is depicted as a desolate place of sin and suffering. (...) Homer, Dante, Joyce, Greek myth, Arthurian romance -- Möring's debts are unmistakable, but there's no sense of a sneaking or slavish dependency on these sources; his unapologetic literary borrowings are a form of celebration. His exuberance sometimes seems hyperactive, but its general effect is compelling." - Jem Poster, The Guardian

  • "The very scale of Möring's ambitions makes for difficulties, not least the inescapable literary parallels. We become at times over-aware not only of Joyce but of Joyce's mentors: Homer, Dante, Sterne. What is strongest in the novel is what relates most nearly to the author's classic The Great Longing (1992) -- a heartfelt salute to a generation's mores and mindset, and their inability to withstand the march of time." - Paul Binding, The Independent

  • "Dis werpt een heleboel vragen op. De belangrijkste is de vraag of het combineren van twee goede ideeën altijd een goed idee is." - Maarten Doorman, de Volkskrant

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:

       In a Dark Wood is rooted dark and deeply in Dante's Inferno. The English title is perhaps even more obvious than the Dutch one, taken from the opening lines of Dante's work (Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita); the Dutch title, Dis, refers to -- as Möring has one of his character's put it --: "The city in hell" in the Inferno. The sections of the novel are also marked in Dantesque fashion, not with chapter-headings but rather full-page illustrations of concentric circles (as in the circles of hell), beginning with a single small circle and concluding with ten. (Möring uses several graphic devices in the text: aside from an eight-page comic-strip section and some typographical games there are also several parenthetical sections -- each marked by a full-page opening (and then close) parenthesis.)
       The story begins as that of Jacob Noah, and his return, at the end of World War II, to the shop his parents ran in the Dutch city of Assen. For three years he survived "like a mole in a hole in the bog"; no one else in his family survived, all were victims of the Nazis. He takes over the shop and becomes increasingly successful. Yet what is the case after just the first few years holds true for long after:

     It's 1950. Jacob Noah has shed his past the way a fox gnaws off the foot that got caught in the trap. The future lies before him like a blank sheet of paper.
     But it changes nothing.
     The past doesn't pass.
     The path towards a stirring future lies before him, open like the first page of a book whose story has yet to begin and could go on for thousands, hundreds of thousands of pages.
     But still.
       And the story also looks towards the past, telling, for example, of the difficult time his parents had, his entrepreneurial father, finally frustrated by the hurdles he, as a Jew, faced in the intolerant city of Assen -- and his very smart mother, who managed to make a success of the shop where her husband couldn't but paid in other ways for that success. Jacob builds upon their legacy, and becomes enormously successful, the mightiest man in town (in a town that he has reshapes and pulls into the future). He marries, too, and has three daughters, Aphra, Bracha, and Chaja -- yet: "He has everything, but what does he have ?"
       The narrative moves to the present, to this book's own Bloomsday, 27 June 1980, when the famous annual TT Assen motorbike days are held ("when the little town with a population of just over forty thousand inhabitants swells to about five times that size") -- and to the other central character, a Stephen Dedalus to Jacob's Bloom. (Yes, this is also a Joycean work, with the Jewish man in the city where he is an outsider (Assen or Dublin), and a specific world (and era) packed into a single day.)
       The new character that is introduced is Marcus Kolpa, a brilliant young man who seems to have been treading water for a while now: "A promise, that's what he is. Has been for thirty-one years now." Like Jacob, Marcus feels unfulfilled; unlike Jacob he does not fight it by immersing himself in activity. He writes a bit on the side, he sleeps with a fair number of women, but he doesn't work too hard at getting anywhere -- not knowing where he wants to get to. (Jacob, meanwhile, worked very hard -- yet also almost effortlessly -- to get somewhere, also without really knowing where he wants to get to .....) The weight of this is getting to Marcus:
Once, ten years ago, I wrote a poem. Since then: zip. Now I'm old and no longer promising.
       Marcus is first encountered in an act of symbolic futility and emptiness, "on his knees jerking off to the early-evening news", even his seed going to waste (well, aside from going 'splat!' (as Möring also graphically has it) on the TV screen ...). But he's decided he's had enough, explaining on this fateful day that:
     I don't want to be anyone's Jew any more, Ize. I want to get away. I want to dissolve. I don't want to be anybody any more. I want to forget myself.
       But one of the messages of this book is that forgetting is almost impossible to do, and that the past always remains with us, as millstone and more.
       Marcus and Jacob are also connected by their love of the serious and number-obsessed Chaja. When she was seventeen and Marcus was twenty they fell in love, but after a relatively short while Marcus broke up with her; obviously he still pines after her, and on this night of 27 June 1980 one of his quests is that of Orpheus after his Eurydice (or, as is also suggested to him, of Dante for his Beatrice). If Chaja remains something of an underdeveloped cipher it is also because she is always a mystery to the men (from the time she first says: "Seventeen" to her father) -- but she has also found a hold that they have not:
     Numbers have always helped her to create order and free the world around her from hubris and multiplicity. They have always given her the emptiness that she needs and seeks.
       While Marcus makes his way through the living nether-world of Assen during these motorbike-race days, Jacob takes a different journey: he gets into a car accident and, rather than simply dying, finds himself in a limbo that is this same Assen yet on a different plane. Led around by the Jew of Assen -- a pedlar who is a proverbial eternally wandering Jew, yet peculiar to the place ("Someone has to be the Jew of Assen") -- his quest for understanding continues, allowing for a different sort of confrontation with past and present. Lives and fates intersect -- all amongst the hellish activity of the overcrowded town, awash in alcohol and noisy motorcyclists.
       Möring's book is ambitious; the notation at the book's close: "1997-2006" is surely also meant to impress, a reminder of the time that went into this, and that this is not simply an ordinarily quickly written novel but a true decade-work. It's cleverly done: Möring borrows from Dante and Joyce (and others), but does not slavishly adhere to their templates; rather he playfully uses what suits him -- and then does his own thing. There are many tangential stories here, as the book strays in many directions; these show both his strengths -- Möring has a fine sense of how to convey life-stories, for example -- and weaknesses, specifically in his digressions, where he gets too caught up too far afield. Too much is of equal weight here, with Möring unwilling to focus on what's central (and too unwilling to give up what's central to let all his smaller stories truly bloom).
       Sprawling and messy, there's also something tentative to In a Dark Wood, in particular the experimentation in it -- the typo- and graphical games, or the asides:
One moment, readers.

One moment to ask a few questions:

          the how,
          the when,
          the who
          and the what,
          the where
          and the why.

Where ...
       Möring allows himself some of these approaches, but doesn't take advantage of their full potential, as if worried that they could undermine the import of the work and the seriousness of his intentions. It's too bad; he might have failed had he gone further, but it would likely have been a more interesting failure.
       In a Dark Wood is an interesting and intriguingly variegated work, and an often compelling one -- but it falls a bit short of being entirely successful.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 December 2009

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In a Dark Wood: Reviews: Marcel Möring: Other books by Marcel Möring under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Marcel Möring was born in 1957. He is the author of numerous novels, and has won the prestigious Dutch AKO Prize

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© 2009 the complete review

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