Literature falls short when compared to Photography: ’Creative process and word-image relations in the works of Willem Frederik Hermans

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Dutch writer Willem Frederik Hermans (1921-1995) is well known for his ongoing revisions of his works, thus making them a valuable source for ‘textual genetics’. Researching the ‘manuscript genetics’ of Hermans’ works is more difficult, since he threw away most of his early manuscripts. Some exogenetic documents, however, are still available: among them notes documenting textual sources for his debut novel Conserve (1947), and notebooks and pocket diaries of the 1940s – showing Hermans’ frantic reading of 19th century and 20th century writers. The notebooks also provide insight in his creative process, by revealing titles and ideas for essays, stories or novels, together with apparently isolated sentences, and revision notes for texts he was working on. Next to that, endogenetic sources of his novels Ik heb altijd gelijk (I’m always right, 1951) and De donkere kamer van Damocles (The Dark Room of Damocles, 1958) survive. Both of them demonstrate a heavily ‘textual’ orientation: Ik heb altijd gelijk is not only indebted to the works of Céline, Freud, Dutch authors Multatuli and Menno ter Braak, but also explicitly makes use of other sources, such as children’s literature, newspapers and popular songs. De donkere kamer has a somewhat similar, though less ‘bookish’ conceptualization.

In the late fifties Hermans strove to become a professional photographer as well, trying to get his photographs published in international and Dutch magazines, such as Life, Photograms of the Year, and Leica-Fotografie. In that period, he also published several articles on photography, in which he elaborated on the creative possibilities of photography when compared to writing: ‘A photo camera, being able to separate a fragment, in its completeness, from the surrounding chaos, represents the upsetting problems of live at a single glance. In this respect, literature falls short when compared to photography.’

Then, In 1966 Hermans publishes Beyond Sleep. This ‘Nordic’ novel, set in the impenetrable landscape of Finnmark, has a ‘manuscript’ genetics that is to a great extent ‘pictorial’ rather than ’textual’ : many descriptions within the novel are directly based on pictures Hermans (who had a PhD in physical geography) took, while visiting the region as a scientific researcher in 1961.

Photography turns out to be more prominent in Hermans’ writing. In 1967, he publishes his autobiographical Fotobiografie – in which one of the photographs directly relates to a central passage of Ik heb altijd gelijk, notably one that was added to the novel during a late, but highly creative stage of its composition. The same goes for De donkere kamer: as becomes clear from the manuscript, photography played a decisive role in the creative process of writing this novel, enabling Hermans to re-conceptualize a first draft of his text, at which he had got stuck earlier.

In my paper I will explore the relation between textual and photographic sources within the context of Hermans’ creative process: To what extent do exo- and endogenetic sources reflect a supposed media change from textual to pictorial sources? And how does this development relate to the notion of ekphrasis?
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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