Was Le Carré influenced by Hermans’ novel?
In 1962 the first English translation of Willem Frederik Hermans’ great Second World War novel, The Darkroom of Damocles, was published to great acclaim. A year later John Le Carré published The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to equal acclaim. However, Hermans had no praise for his fellow writer. Instead, he accused Le Carré of plagiarising his work.
In Hermans’ own words:
“I have the impression that [Le Carré] based his spy largely on my book. The similarities stand out too much. Examples? The main character who reaches the stage of no longer knowing who he’s working for. The love relationship with a girl who disappears without trace. The shooting at the end.”
Insult to injury!
Hermans’ grudge deepened when Le Carré in reply to the question, which writers had influenced him, he replied “Some Dutch writer with a book called The Room of Damocles. His name is Verhulst or Van Heulst.”
Hermans wrote: “Reports of John le Carré’s sickening remark have reached me from various quarters. I think Le Carré misquoted the name of the author who wrote Damocles to make it difficult for his listeners to look for that book.”
Plot similarities and differences
There are startlingly similar plot points. Both heroes are alienated, both are used by forces outside their knowledge, both have a love interest that gives them light and hope in an otherwise desultory existence and both love-interests are lost. Le Carré acknowledged that he was influenced by The Darkroom of Damocles albeit in an offhand manner.
However, there the similarities cease. Ironically, Hermans himself identified the difference: “A man like [Le Carré] has very different success to me. He writes entertaining literature. I write serious literature disguised as entertaining literature.”
Herman’s protagonist, Osewoudt, is already alienated from his existence at the beginning of the war. He suffers a bleak, loveless childhood and enters into a bleak, loveless marriage. His meeting with his doppelgänger and alter ego Dorbeck is the turning point. Dorbeck sends him on a bloody rampage, ostensibly on behalf of the Dutch resistance. This ordinary man executes and murders with no compunction for motives which do not seem clear even to him.
In classic thrillers, plots are woven to show agency and purpose. This book exposes the real way that war progresses. There is incompetence, people are disposable, no one cares. In this chaotic world we are never sure whether Osewoudt’s actions are heroic and patriotic or simply criminal. We cannot enter his world, understand his psychology or empathise with his predicament. We are observers; we look at him but rarely with him.
An unfair comparison
I suspect this is what Hermans meant when he criticised Le Carré as “entertaining”. Le Carré’s protagonist, Alec Leamas, is more of a world-weary character. The war has ended but he has gone straight into another, the Cold War. Although this is a war that shows no sign of ever ending, Leamas does not have the same existential angst as Osewoudt.
Le Carré’s style helps us to enter into the mind and life of his character. We are able to understand him, his motivation and his alienation because they make sense to us. Instead of looking at him, we are with him. That is the flaw that, in Hermans’ mind, turned Le Carré from a truly literary author into a popular writer.
Just how “literary” is Le Carré?
Is it possible that this criticism stung Le Carré? He disliked the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. The quality of his writing was such that he was fêted for lifting his spy novels from the “genre” category and into that of “literature”.
Despite that, he avoided the literary scene. When he received a nomination for the Booker prize in 2011, within 45 minutes his agent issued a statement from the author: “I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.”
How “entertaining” is Hermans?
As for Hermans, he wanted people to consider his writing as serious literature. The Darkroom of Damocles, in its excellent 2007 translation by Ina Rilke, is a difficult, cold and uninspiring read set in a nihilistic world that is truly depressing. But it is a book that stays with you afterwards.
It is a book that leaves you asking questions and reassessing what it means to be human. Or whether it means anything. In that respect Hermans is right. He does write serious literature although I would take issue with the description that it is entertaining.
The Darkroom of Damocles – Herman
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – Le Carré