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De procedure
Harry Mulisch
publisher: De Bezige Bij, 1998

translated as:
The Procedure
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 2001
translation: Paul Vincent

refered to by:
The Castle
Franz Kafka

Mary Shelley

full text search:

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If we can assume that, like most authors, Harry Mulisch wants his work to be read, what are we to make of the first page of The Procedure, where the novel's narrator tells us that "anyone who wants to be swept along immediately, in order to kill time, would do better to close this book at once, put the television on, and sink back on the settee as one does in a hot foam bath" (p. 3)? In The Procedure, as in his other novels (which include The Assault, Last Call, and The Discovery of Heaven), Mulisch is not afraid to deal with such complex and weighty themes as creation, meaning, life, death, and love, and in doing so, he draws upon Judeo-Christian creation stories, popular mythologies, and the modern science of genetics. The Procedure is a sustained meditation on how the world and its inhabitants have come into being; at the same time, it reflects on its own creation and the creative processes of its author. The narrator's admonition indicates that these ideas cannot be considered in haste.

The main character of The Procedure is Victor Werker, a geneticist who has discovered a process for creating life. Mulisch continually defies and subverts conventional narrative structures, however, and Victor appears only after an explanation of how the world was originally created in Hebrew, with words and letters acting as molecules and atoms. In fact, the unusual structure of the novel is as much a part of the book's theme as are the plot and characters. Are we to assume, then, that complex stories always require a complex telling? Instead of chapters, the novel is divided into three sections or "deeds" (A, B, and C) that are subdivided into a total of twelve "documents," so that the entire text has the feel of a legal record or a scientific report. Victor observes that "everything is always also something else" (p. 125). By writing a novel that masquerades as a legal or scientific text, Mulisch asks us to consider what distinguishes these different kinds of writing and what they have in common.

The first deed, "Speaking," plunges into a discussion of Sefer Yetsirah, The Book of Creation, in order to make a connection between the power of language and the will to create. As Victor later notes, "Life begins with speaking" (p. 85). Like a scientist studying the building blocks of life, Mulisch analyzes the materials from which he will build his novel: the letters of the alphabet. This first section establishes links between theology, science, art, and reproduction by examining the generative power of language in the creation stories of Adam and Eve, Lilith (Adam's first wife), and the Golem of Prague. Like a golem, a creature made from clay and brought to life by invoking a specific sequence of letters, Victor's eobiont—an artificial life form—is dependent upon the set of letters
used to label the crucial DNA sequence. According to legend, a golem is only a poor imitation of human form, and we might suspect that the eobiont will eventually exhibit similar flaws. If we are meant to understand that there is a common denominator at work in all acts of creation—sexual, scientific, and even literary—it may be that they share something with the original divine act of creation, or perhaps that they are fraught with difficulty and imperfection.

The second deed, "The Spokesman," begins to shed light on the scientific pursuits that have defined Victor's life. Victor recounts his development of the eobiont in a series of letters written to his stillborn daughter, Aurora. Victor sends these letters to Aurora's mother, Clara, who left him after her pregnancy. Here Mulisch emphasizes the risks and complications involved in every act of creation. Victor is painfully aware of the irony that he has succeeded in creating life artificially but has failed to do so naturally. These two efforts at creation raise numerous questions, among them whether there is a basic desire to create that transcends specific objectives, and whether or not a distinction between artificial and natural means of creation really exists. Victor also becomes aware of the disturbing parallels between his eobiont and the monster created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's novel. The allusion suggests the possibility that, like Frankenstein, Victor may have failed to consider fully the consequences of creating life in a laboratory and made too many sacrifices in the process.

Shifting back to a third-person narrator, the novel's final section, Deed C, "The Conversation," draws together the various fragments of Victor's life. In this section, Mulisch compares Victor to Pygmalion (the mythical artist who fell in love with his own creation). Implicit in the comparison is the question of what separates science from art. The central event is Victor's reunion with his "milk brothers," the triplets his mother nursed, whom he has not seen since he was a child. Victor's motive for this reunion remains uncertain. He may want to reestablish a connection with the natural process of reproduction, or perhaps he is searching for a family to fill the void left by his stillborn daughter and his estranged wife.

In The Procedure, Mulisch explores the structure of life—in the biological sense—and the structure of narrative, and at times the two seem nearly indistinguishable. The numerous parallels between theology and science, art and science, art and religion, and language and technology are ultimately as important as the development and resolution of the novel's complex plot. From the opening warning to readers expecting a breezy tale, Mulisch challenges assumptions about stories of creation. (from:


The Assault
"WWII novels"
The story of Anton, a boy whose family is killed in reprisal by the Germans after the body of a Dutch Nazi police chief, killed by the Resistance, is dumped on their doorstep.

The Magic Mountain
Thomas Mann, 1924
The story of Hans Castorp, a modern everyman who spends seven years in an Alpine sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, finally leaving to become a soldier in World War I.

Jorges Luis Borges, 1935/ 1944 / 1949
This is a collection of Borges's fiction, translated and gathered into a single volume. From his 1935 debut with The Universal History of Iniquity, through the influential collections Ficciones and The Aleph, to his final work from the 1980s, Shakespeare Memory.

The Aleph and Other Stories
Jorges Luis Borges, 1949
In stories that play with the very form of the short story, in this collection, Borges returns again and again to his themes: dreams, labyrinths, mirrors, infinite libraries, the manipulations of chance, gaucho knife-fighters, transparent tigers, and the elusive nature of identity itself.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 1808 / 1832
The first part, in particular, of this unpredictable, philosophical tragedy-in-rhyme - about a scientist who sells his soul to the devil - reads like a novel.

Eureka, a prose poem
Edgar Allan Poe, 1848
The creation of the world, its continued existence, and its ultimate end.

Letter to His Father
Franz Kafka, 1919
This is a letter never sent, from Kafka, the tormented son, to his father Hermann.

[De ongelofelijke avonturen van Bram Vingerling]
Leonard Roggeveen, 1927
A 'boy's book' about the amazing adventures of a youthful alchemist.

The Discovery of Heaven
"WWII novels"
On a cold night in Holland, Max Delius picks up Onno Quist, a chaotic philologist who cannot bear the banalities of everyday life. They are like fire and water. But when they learn that they were conceived on the same day, it is clear that something extraordinary is about to happen.

Earthly Powers
Anthony Burgess, 1980
About a writer and the man to whom he is linked through family ties, an earthy Italian priest destined to become Pope.

Foucault's Pendulum
Umberto Eco, 1988
A wily group of editors devises a mock formula for tapping the mystical powers of the universe, only to set off a series of mysterious disappearances.

Lemprière's Dictionary
Lawrence Norfolk, 1991
At its center of this novel is John Lemprière, a (real) figure whose 1788 dictionary of mythology insists on springing to gruesome life.

The Sorrow of Belgium
Hugo Claus, 1983
The Sorrow of Belgium centers on early adolescence, Catholicism, and on a boy turning not into a man but into that slightly different beast, a writer.
- Richard Burns (The Independent)

The Flounder
Günter Grass, 1977
First published in 1977, this novel is based on the fairy story 'The Fisherman and His Wife'. Multi-layered and laced with poetry and humour, it analyzes the battle of the sexes.

[De keisnijder van Fichtenwald]
Louis Ferron, 1976
Decline of a hunchback in the Nazi era.

Turkish Delight
Jan Wolkers, 1969
Love in times of free sex and 'Marxist garden gnomes.'

[Onder professoren]
Willem Frederik Hermans, 1975
Backstabbing and social disaster after a chemistry professor wins the Noble Prize.

I, Jan Cremer
Jan Cremer, 1964
The literary autobiography of the writer and artist Jan Cremer, in many respects the Dutch answer to Jack Kerouac.

Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais, 1532-1553
The classic satirical and ribald tale about the travels of Gargantua and Pantagruel, set in the French countryside.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Laurence Sterne, 1759-1767
Part novel, part digression, this gloriously disordered narrative interweaves the birth and life of the unfortunate 'hero' Tristram Shandy, the eccentric philosophy of his father Walter, the amours and military obsessions of Uncle Toby, and a host of other characters.

The Brothers Karamazov
Fyodor M. Dostoyevsky, 1880
Three sons find their violent and vengeful lives exposed when their despicable father is murdered, and each man struggles to come to terms with his guilt over his involvement in the crime.

The Stone Bridal Bed
'WW II novels'
Postwar journey of an American pilot to the Dresden he helped to destroy takes on mythical proportions.
Last Call

The Procedure
Microbiologist (modern-day alchemist) makes his own golem.
What if Hitler had a son? Mulisch mixes philosophical reflection and psychological inquiry into an exploration of the single-minded quest of a Dutch writer determined to understand the source of the German dictator's terrible power.
[Het zwarte licht]
After a traumatic experience, a young man decides to break off his engineering studies to become an artist.
Two Women
Lesbian relationship ends in murder (by doubly-deceived man) of one of the women.
[De versierde mens]
Seven stories in which mythology, fantasy, and reality come together.
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The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
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Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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