BOOK REVIEW: An Untouched House

by Willem Frederik Hermans

…it was impossible to imagine ever having been capable of thinking things through; as automatically as if one’s deeds were the world’s thoughts.”

UNTOUCHED HOUSEThis short but powerful novella is a minacious reflection on the brutality of war by the Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995), whose most famous works include The House of Refuge (1952), The Darkroom of Damocles (1958) and Beyond Sleep (1966). Along with Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve, he was one of the three most important authors in the Netherlands during the post-war period, receiving the highly prestigious Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren in 1977.

First published in 1951, An Untouched House concerns a partisan with the Red Army during the second world war. In the chaos of a battle-sapped German countryside he discovers an empty house, apparently unscathed by the surrounding devastation and, exhausted, falls asleep in the drawing room. He wakes to the sound of German boots marching up the front path, hides his filthy uniform and poses as the owner.

The interloper, whose name we never learn, keeps up the pretence, but becomes gradually more embroiled with the occupying forces and locals. The narrative is suffused with a fearful apprehension, and when the Soviets finally arrive, the story’s denouement is a hideously depraved and vicious spree of violence.

Translated into English by David Colmer, winner of the International Dublin Literary Award, the book is only 120 pages long (which includes a lengthy afterword by Cees Nooteboom) but is shockingly impactful. While I cannot claim to have relished reading this 20th century classic, I was filled with admiration for its unflinching depiction of what happens when war numbs the human heart and destroys empathy.

Many thanks to Pushkin Press for providing an advance review copy of this title.

Categories: Translated Literature

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13 replies

  1. I thought this was an immensely impressive novella, too, Paula. Kudos to Pushkin Press for publishing it in translation.

  2. Thoughtful review, as always, Paula. I thought of you today because I’m reading The Silence of the Girls!

  3. You’ve intrigued me, Paula – I haven’t heard of this book before, and it sounds definitely worth checking out! Thank you!

  4. Lovely review. I really like the premise. It adds to the apprehension and fear for the whole novella.

  5. Pushkin Press are such great publishers, and this sounds so powerful. I think novellas can really pack a punch.

  6. Dear Paula Bardell-Hedley,

    I’m a collector of translated books from the Dutch writer W.F. Hermans. I’m looking for an ‘uncorrected bound proof (review copy)’ of ‘An untouched house’, UK edition. Uncorrected proofs are very difficult to get. So, I kindly want to ask you if I can obtain an example. I hope to hear from you soon.

    Gerrit J. Bosch
    Berkenstraat 15 – c
    8924 BX Leeuwarden
    The Netherlands

    • Hi Gerrit, I would love to help but unfortunately the review copy I received of An Untouched House is sitting on my Kindle. Have you tried contacting Pushkin Press direct? Perhaps they can assist. Sorry I can’t be of help to you. Paula


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