Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index


to e-mail us:

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK


the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

In Babylon

Marcel Möring

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase In Babylon

Title: In Babylon
Author: Marcel Möring
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 416 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: In Babylon - US
In Babylon - UK
In Babylon - Deutschland
  • Dutch title: In Babylon
  • Translated by Stacey Knecht

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

A- : grand book of search for self and family, though perhaps framed a bit too melodramatically

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe A 9/4/2000 George Scialabba
FAZ . 6/10/1998 .
The Independent . 1/8/1999 Amanda Hopkinson
San Francisco Chron. A 4/2/2001 David Reid
The Times A+ 17/6/1999 Erica Wagner
TLS . 2/7/1999 Paul Binding

  From the Reviews:
  • "Jewish history illustrates the power of memory, story, and family over exile, cruelty, and loss. Within that immeasurably rich cycle of stories, this splendidly accomplished novel will take its place." - George Scialabba, Boston Globe

  • "Doch der Zusammenhang der allzu windungsreichen Sippenchronik macht nicht den Reiz des Buches aus, eher schon die Wirrungen. Möring erweist sich als großer Märchenonkel und Schwadroneur, kommt bei den Details der niederländischen Jugend und der amerikanischen Emigration vom Hölzchen aufs Stöckchen und weiß seine Leserschaft allzeit mit Anekdoten, Witzen, beiseite gesprochener Lebensweisheit zu unterhalten." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "A book full of darkness and laughter in the dark, this entrancing new work by the Dutch writer Marcel Möring ranks with W.G. Sebald's Vertigo as one of the most important European novels to appear in English translation since Thomas Bernhard's last. (...) In Babylon reads like a thriller and ravishes like metaphysics." - David Reid, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "It is Nathan's appreciation of the obscure, the mystery at the centre, that enables this multilayered novel to flower. (...) (A) tale that moves confidently between family history, fairy story, love story, ghost story. It is impossible to put this fat, rich novel into any kind of category. Like the Jewish family whose stories it unfolds, it is wide-ranging, adaptable, learned and clever." - Erica Wagner, The Times

  • "The novel is a moving and convincing testimony to the continuing tension between the desire for assimilation and the awareness of separateness. And it must surely encourage readers to look at The Great Longing in a new, Jewish light. Yet, for all its ample riches, In Babylon is not in the end as successful as the second novel; its concern with the weight of history has led the author away from territory he knows personally (which gave his earlier work its freshness and originality) to what he knows only from research." - Paul Binding , Times Literary Supplement

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.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Marcel Möring's novel, In Babylon, finds the narrator of much of the book, Nathan Hollander, and his niece Nina caught in a massive snowstorm in the Dutch countryside. They make it to their destination -- the deserted house that belonged to Nathan's uncle, Herman, and which Nathan inherited -- providing them with some shelter from the storm, but not with safety. Nathan has not visited the house in years, and there is no electricity and no heat (at least not until they start breaking furniture to burn in the fireplaces). In addition, the house turns out to be booby-trapped -- dangerously so. It also appears to be haunted, as two 17th century Hollander forebears, Chaim Levi and his nephew Magnus, also make their presence felt.
       Nathan inherited the grand old house on the condition that he write a biography of Herman (who happens to have been an eminent sociologist). A fairy-tale writer by profession, Nathan isn't quite equipped to write such a work, making of it a family chronicle of the Hollander's. It, and the tales he tells Nina, become companion pieces to the story itself, as they discover more about their family and themselves during their snowbound days and nights.
       The family story begins with Chaim Levi, the clock-maker from the 17th century who lived in an area near the current Polish-Lithuanian border. His nephew Magnus winds up -- after twenty-one years of travel -- in Holland, adopting a new name (Hollander) and finally settling down. These two remain, at least for Herman, the anchor of the family, relied upon and constantly referred to, the measure for everything that came after. A fair amount of In Babylon also tells their story.
       The Hollanders become true Hollanders, settling firmly in in Rotterdam, establishing themselves and remaining there. Only with Herman's generation is the family again uprooted, as Nathan's parents -- Emmanuel and Sophie Hollander -- emigrate to America on the eve of World War II. Emmanuel, a physicist of more practical than theoretical bent, even gets hired on the Manhattan Project, with the entire family (except Uncle Herman) moving for a while to New Mexico.
       Most of the family does return to Holland. Emmanuel -- now Manny -- feels comfortable in the United States, but Sophie can't adapt, unwilling to adopt American ways. They split up, the family now divided by the Atlantic, with Sophie raising the children in Europe. Nathan has siblings: sisters Zelda and Zoe, and then brother Zeno. Nathan, as the name implies, sits slightly askew among these Zeds. (Niece Nina is tellingly similarly named.)
       The preternatural Zeno is the most unusual in a fairly wild cast of characters -- bookish, brilliant, and very quiet, he goes through a number of phases, before becoming a messiah-figure and then disappearing, an apparent suicide.
       The family has its quirks, but beyond Zeno is not willfully bizarre. Möring creates a believable clan, happy and unhappy as families are. There are questions of identity -- the usual soul searching as well as more literal questions as both Herman and Nina wonder (among other things) who their fathers really are.
       The quest to understand the family and thus ultimately themselves involves looking back to distant and near family-history, as well as considering the situation Nina and Nathan find themselves in in the house -- isolated, trapped, and confronted by dangerous traps. Nina and Nathan also get to know each other better (perhaps better than they should). Nathan offers both his family memoir and some of his fairy-tales (his area of expertise), further stories to shed light on the whole state of affairs.
       The search for love is also a strong theme. The book begins with Nathan remembering when he last saw Uncle Herman -- happily (one presumes) expired after enjoying the company of a prostitute (who also turns out to be quite different than one might initially have assumed). Herman himself his unhappy in his loves (and considering how things go with niece Nina this is not entirely unsurprising). He gives marriage a couple of tries, without great success. In fact, he is haunted by his first love, red-haired Reisele, a girl he met on the voyage over to America. Memories weigh heavily in this book.
       Möring has built a complex edifice (yes, Babylon and the tower also figure in the text), working in several time- and reference-frames (present, past, memoir, fairy-tales, memories, etc.). The framing story -- the two stuck in the house -- is occasionally too melodramatic and not always convincing. The scenes that look farther back are uniformly successful.
       Möring writes confidently and securely, and there are a number of scenes and passages that are masterful. Overall, the effect is very impressive, and the book a great pleasure to read. Möring perhaps does not fully achieve everything he wishes to in this ambitious book, but it is still a great success. Certainly recommended.

- Return to top of the page -


In Babylon: 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

- Return to top of the page -

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

- Return to top of the page -

© 2000-2009 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links