Extraordinary, vital, a marvel: Harry Mulisch's The Discovery of Heaven flaunts its Goethean scope wonderfully. How to describe it? A post-Christian epic? A European political frieze? Theodicy or love story? A kind of postmodern Bildungsroman? Metaphysical treatise? All of them apply, but none quite fit.
It places itself in the tradition of the great intellectual toys of the Enlightenment – 'toys' in Gabriel Josipovici's sense – Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau, for example, Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet, or, latterly, the work of Thomas Mann. Literature of this sort abolishes the strict barriers between lived experience and abstract intellection - life and the mind's life are indissociable.
Characters in such fiction tend to be big, cerebrotonic talkers; magpies of the mind; visionary Bedlamites energetically in quest of the Truth. Invariably it takes them on the most roundabout of routes to find it. They encounter many reversals. They are often pummeled on the anvil of history. Yet the works in which these characters figure comprehend the widest ambit of human endeavour: science, art, politics, theology: 'getting it all in'. Unembarrassed by their ambition, books of this type hum with intellectual ardour. “..[W]hat do such loose baggy monsters,” a mystified Henry James asks in the Preface to The Tragic Muse, “with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?” (James was a master whittler of form, a superliterary scrimshanker, yet had the magnanimity to recognise the value of work he couldn't quite understand.)
Well, what does The Discovery of Heaven 'artistically mean'?
In the first instance the novel is concerned with the friendship and varying fortunes of two men, Max Delius and Onno Quist. Max, an astronomer, whose mother perished at Auschwitz and whose father was a Nazi collaborator; Onno, the scion of a family of Dutch political grandees. (In the first instance, also, The Discovery of Heaven appears to behave like a realist novel.) Both men feel bound together by a shared destiny. Into their providential twinning comes a third element: Ada Brons, a professional cellist, first Max's lover, then Onno's. She will bear a child, to be named Quinten; will die in a car accident, leaving the infant motherless; and Max and her mother Sophia will enter an odd liaison, part formal, part erotic, raising Quinten in the absence of Onno his father, too absorbed in his political career to take the responsibility. Max establishes a radio observatory on the site of a former Nazi transit camp in Westerbork. Onno, a gifted philologist before politics waylaid him, obsesses over the conundrum of the Phaistos Disc. People argue, fall in love, die.
Thus far, from a certain angle, The Discovery of Heaven conforms to the narrative, stylistic expectations of a typical mainstream novel. Its surfaces, finely rendered and exquisitely chased, are those of literary realism. All the makings of a slightly off-centre comedy of manners. It gives itself over to the occasional thoughtful digression:
In a world full of war, famine, oppression, deceit, monotony, what – apart from the eternal innocence of animals – offers an image of hope? A mother with a newborn child in her arms? The child may end up as a murderer, or a murder victim, so that the hopeful image is a prefiguration of a pietà: a mother with a newly dead child on her lap. No, the image of hope is someone passing with a musical instrument in a case. It is not contributing to oppression, or to liberation either, but to something that continues below the surface: a boy on his bike, with a guitar in a faded mock-leather cover on his back; a girl with a dented violin case waiting for the tram...
Yet Mulisch has other designs. The novel's prologue presents a conversation between a pair of angelic beings. They discourse on the DNA helix, the 'Hermetic caduceus' which deep codes us; and the manner of the insertion of a 'Spark' – soul – into each of them. Mankind has “uncovered our profoundest concept – namely, that life is ultimately reading. They themselves are the Book of Books ... We made them much too clever, using the same code..” The angels confess that they have intervened in human history. Their purpose? To actuate one especial Spark, the Spark of Sparks - the logos spermatikoi - ensuring that it finds the right host. They engineered the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in April 1914 – blindly entailing the subsequent massacres – merely in order to bring together, in the course of events, the grandparents of Max Delius... The boy Quinten, conceived on a political junket to Cuba in 1967, is to receive the Spark, his destiny to be a divine envoy, the vessel of the 'Boss's' last-ditch attempt to reestablish dominion on earth, before abandoning it altogether.
The realist 'casing' of the novel suddenly becomes unstable, volatile. Coincidences must now be read not as authorial slips or plot flaws but as the invisible nudges of supernal powers. “It seems so easy to influence the normal course of events,” one of the angels says, “but reality is just like water; it's liquid and mobile, but it can only be compressed a little by using a great deal of force. When someone falls onto it from a great height, it's as hard as the rock from which Moses struck water.”
Some of the novel's most touching, delicately realised sequences are those of Quinten's childhood in the castle of Groot Rechteren, its converted apartments occupied by assorted scholars. One of whom, Mr Themaat, teaches the boy about the history of architecture – deliberately chosen by Quinten, because of a dream in which he finds himself in what he calls 'the Citadel', a vast Piranesian construct:
...the universe had been transformed into a single architectural complex, without beginning or end. Nowhere is there a living being to be seen. Completely alone, but without a feeling of loneliness, he wanders around through a limitless series of rooms, colonnades, staircases, galleries, alcoves, pillars, footbridges, doorways, vaults, which extend in all directions ... all that material built, joined together, piled on top of itself, spreads out and envelops and encloses him like a bath filled with warm honey...
(Quinten tries to find some approximation of his oneiric cityscape, some clue to its source: the closest he comes is in the 'megalomaniacal fantasies of Boullee', reifying death..) Mulisch splendidly conjures the boy's sense of being in the midst of lowering secrets, his obscure significance, his goodness unmarred by cynicism and hurt. 'Beautiful', with eerily brilliant sapphire-blue eyes, Quinten is drawn as a gentle changeling, groping slowly towards unlocking his destiny.
The Discovery of Heaven teems with ideas, yet evokes the mysterium of the human situation with tenderness and delight. Astrophysics and palaeography, Dutch politics and music – Mulisch intently lards his novel with so dizzying an array of topics, never losing sight, however, of psychological truths: the novel's personnel aren't lecturers or blusterers, talk though they might on an encyclopaedic range; they embody, to an exciting degree, James Wood's 'lifeness'. This, in spite of the stellar grandeur of its themes. Mulisch dramatises our fretful bid as a species to locate ourselves in the cosmic void. (Max convinces himself that a pulsar MQ 3412 conceals the origin of the universe, a celestial doorway to Heaven.) It edges at times into territory covered by Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, with a quest to recover the tablets of the Decalogue: Candide crossed with The Da Vinci Code.
“The removal of gods from the world,” writes Milan Kundera in Testaments Betrayed, “is one of the phenomena that characterize the Modern Era.” The advent of the novel as a distinct literary genre is, for Kundera, another such phenomenon – the novel as a vehicle for free sceptical inquiry, unconstrained by precept and moral injunction; an art form that pits itself against religious dogma, against the inflexibilities of church and sect - against, in a phrase, the Literal Mind. Taking flight on its emancipatory energies, the novel arrived at the moment of the breach with God's covenant. It declared itself the bright book of Life.
True, Kundera is himself something of an evangelist on this score. His impassioned advocacy of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses seems to me honourable and right. If the novel is a 'carnival of relativity' – and Kundera echoes Lionel Trilling's notion of the novel's responsiveness to 'good-and-evil' rather than good and evil – then, by logical extension, it ought to be fitted to weave into its fabric human knowledge and experience in the round. Considered in terms of form alone, it is endlessly manipulable. Of all literary modes it is principally a shapeshifter, readjusting and reconfiguring itself to the external pressures of the time. It exists as a rebuke to fixed convention, aesthetic and moral. It freely absorbs and modifies other forms. (The bourgeois entrepreneurial mercantilist form par excellence, the Marxist critic might say, out of breath...) The novel's absolute antithesis, then, is the index expurgatorius.
The trappings of theology put to artistic ends: this isn't a novel written by a believer in any conventional sense, and its narrative apparatus – the messianic child, God's displeasure at mankind throwing in its lot with Aristotelian and Baconian science – deploys religion as a literary conceit. As in Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts, the Spirits perform a technical, philosophical function. Revisiting the old discredited trope of the omniscient author, Mulisch mischieviously ironises it - one of his angels narrates the novel, complaining that still the puppets wriggle free of his will:
We underestimated human potential, both the strength of man's intellect and the weakness of his flesh, and therefore his receptivity to satanic inspiration - but ultimately he is our creature, and so what we've really underestimated is our own creativity. So ultimately in our failure there is a compliment to us: our creativity is greater than ourselves!
Mulisch examines not only the illimitable complexity of human destinies – how impossible it is to disentangle them finally from each other, and to isolate their ultimate origin – but also the strange persistence of love on our blighted planet. A fine, wise book, indeed.