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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Huid en haar

Arnon Grunberg

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Title: Huid en haar
Author: Arnon Grunberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010
Length: 523 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Mit Haut und Haaren - Deutschland
  • Huid en haar has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : solid character study, but constant shifts to supporting cast make for a novel that's spread too thin

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Het Parool . 11/11/2010 Ronald Ockhuysen
de Volkskrant . 28/10/2010 Peters Arjan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Grunbergs personages, ronddolend in een wereld zonder basis, kunnen dan alleen nog meewarig worden bekeken. De afstand wordt extra vergroot door Grunbergs aforismen en observaties, die de schrijver nadrukkelijk voor zijn personages plaatsen en het zicht op hen belemmeren." - Ronald Ockhuysen, Het Parool

  • "Maar mooier nog is onze conclusie, dat je fictie niet als flauwekul terzijde kunt schuiven. Voordat je het weet, zit je zelf in een verhaal verstrikt dat naar een roemloos einde snelt. En zo weldadig is de vrije markt niet, dat ze naar een verliezer een poot uitsteekt. Daarom is Arnon Grunberg een hogere romancier." - Peters Arjan, 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:

       The central character in Huid en haar is forty-one-year old Dutch economist and academic Roland Oberstein. He is one of the world's forty top Adam Smith experts, and his specialty is economic bubbles; he prides himself on his dedication to his scientific pursuits (as he sees the study of economics ...) and is a firm believer in Smith's 'invisible hand of the market' (i.e. that free, competitive markets (which is the way he sees the world) will sort everything out). He's satisfied with his lot, certain that:

Wat hij wil kan hij krijgen. Wat hij niet kan krijgen, wil hij niet. Zo eenvoudig is het recept voor geluk.

[What he wants, he can get. What he can't get, he doesn't want. That's how simple the recipe for happiness is.]
       Roland took up a position at George Mason University, escaping from the Netherlands in a step that also involved divorcing his wife: Sylvie, a dentist, didn't want to give up her practice and move. They have a young son, Jonathan, and the father tries to stay involved, via iChat and Skype and the occasional visit. Before leaving for America, Roland also took up with Violet -- the girlfriend of a student of his -- and they carry on a long-distance relationship of sorts. Sylvie has also taken a lover -- though one so depressive that she can barely rouse him for anything -- and in Roland's extended absence Violet also starts fooling around.
       The novel begins with Roland at a conference in Europe, where he meets American scholar Lea, who is studying Auschwitz-commandant Rudolf Höss. Lea is married to the borough president of Brooklyn, Jason; they have two young children but their sex-life has petered out, as she hasn't been able to get Jason to have sex with her for months. (She tries all sorts of methods to spice things up when she gets back stateside, but Jason's issues turn out to be entirely more fundamental.) Lea is drawn to Roland, but they don't begin an affair at the conference; when they are both back in the United States they do begin seeing one another. (Conveniently, Roland comes to New York on weekends and even has his own little apartment there, while in Fairfax he just stays at the Best Western.)
       Huid en haar is a novel full of distance, both emotional and physical. The one couple that lives together -- Lea and Jason -- is torn in very different directions, while Roland's relationships -- with his wife, with Violet, with Lea -- are all more or less long-distance. He -- or they -- drop in, but no one really stays.
       Huid en haar is also a novel of disconnects and distractions. Already in the opening scenes Lea has to deal with her babysitter's breakdown while she's at the conference that's half a world away, while Violet complains to Roland that he is working at the same time as he is on the telephone with her. The characters in the novel are constantly texting one another -- brief missives that are only partial explanations or that don't have to be dealt with immediately --, while when they telephone or iChat one or another party nearly always seems (doubly) elsewhere -- distracted, focused on something else.
       Roland comes across as something of an unemotional cold fish, going through the rituals of courtship and seduction but more, it seems, out of a sense of obligation than any true feeling. But, if one of the women in his life is dissatisfied with him the market will provide her with an alternative as she can 'trade him in', he feels. As he romantically puts it:
Maar het is een vrije markt, de liefde, godzijdank. Laten we ons voorstellen dat ik een supermarkt ben.

[It's a free market, love is, thank god. Let us imagine that I am a supermarket.]
       Nevertheless, among Roland's talents is that of great comforter -- he is: "de grote geruststeller", calming everyone from his lovers and students to, occasionally, his colleagues:
Niet door beloftes te doen die niet zullen worden waargemaakt of door te vervallen in sentimentaliteit, maar door hen erop te wijzen dat wat ze vrezen niet het ergste is.

[Not through promises that won't be kept, or by falling back on sentimentality, but rather by pointing out that what they're afraid of really isn't that bad.]
       Reducing everything to the rational ('Is genocide really irrational as we generally assume ?' he asks a shocked Lea, trying to consider it too in economic terms), Roland isn't quite sure what role other people have to play in his life. His research is certainly his priority -- and he chooses that over his relationships repeatedly -- but he continues to juggle the various women in his life (as they, for some reason, put up with him).
       Roland does, however, eventually give in to Sylvie's demands that he spend more time closer to home (and his son), and he accepts a position one semester out of the year back in Holland, returning to George Mason for the other semester. This arrangement does not go well, as the students and local demands prove to be more than his almost clinically rational-minded approach to everything can handle. Typically, too, he takes a room apart from the women in his life -- but doesn't rent an apartment of his own.
       The biggest question in -- and problem with -- Huid en haar is: "Wat zien ze in hem ?" ('What do they see in him ?'). The all-in blindness of passion (the suggested English title for the novel is: 'Every Scrap') may be part of the explanation, but it's no accident that so much of the pairing in Huid en haar is (merely) sexual, and vast emotional disconnects dominate. Roland is only vaguely plausible as character and lover because everyone else is so screwed up too. Among the 'relationships' in the novel one finds: Jason forces himself on and blackmails his lover into submission; Lea winds up hooking up with a Pakistani lawyer now working as a taxi driver in New York whom she meets via Craigslist; Violet has sexual encounters with another man mainly, it seems, so she can tell Roland about them; and Sylvie's depressive lover is as good as comatose. Sex is casual or tinged with force (Jason's love-making is anything but, while a riding-crop later features in some of Roland's sex-play), but rarely part of what might be considered a healthy relationship.
       "Wat is verlangen ?" ('What is desire ?') the characters wonder as they struggle with it. Here, too, Roland's world-view carries over, as he treats desire as just another consumer good that market forces will deal with. Of course, the fact that his specialty is speculative bubbles suggests all markets can, for a time, go out of whack -- and it's not a surprise this one does as well.
       Huid en haar is an intriguing but flawed character study. Roland could be interesting enough as a central character -- and focus of the study -- but the tangential stories, of the women in his life (and the men in their lives), and the constant shifting from one to another of these pull too much if the focus away from the ostensible protagonist -- who, as a consequence, feels rather hollow and thin. As in Tirza, the protagonist here is single-minded and limited, but in focusing so relentlessly and tightly on Hofmeester in Tirza Grunberg created a convincing figure; in Huid en haar far too much of the action is elsewhere. This makes for an interesting portrait of the age and its mores -- the various encounters between the characters are often very well done, as Grunberg moves slowly through all these characters' lives -- but without that single central story or character to truly hold and bring it together (despite the fate he has in store for Roland) the novel isn't entirely satisfying.
       Very good in its scenes and details, and some of the storylines, but underwhelming as a whole.

- M.A.Orthofer, 12 June 2013

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Huid en haar: Reviews: Arnon Grunberg: Other books by Arnon Grunberg under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Arnon Grunberg was born in 1971 and has won numerous literary prizes.

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