The hike itself is fairly straightforward: there are setbacks and various twists and turns due to poor planning but solutions present themselves each time.
Parallel to this, we are given a painstaking account of Alfred’s mental journey through his own soul. This journey is much less straightforward. The main issues are visited and revisited, criss-crossing each other, and only very gradually does it become clear just how much one element has to do with another:
- the crumbling of his ambition to obtain a doctorate, an ambition that Alfred becomes ever more painfully aware was only born of deference for his father, who died too young
- the insight that friendship, even if it is real (such as the one he has with his travelling companion Arne), can hardly be relied on, and certainly not for the achievement of personal goals
- the realisation that relationships with others can be positive provided they remain superficial.
There are wonderful examples of the third point in the last section of the novel, but at that point the expedition is over. All the relationships where the “other” really penetrates into Alfred’s world (his mother and sister, the academics he depended on, his companions on the expedition) lead first to frustration, then to distrust and finally to disillusionment.
Alfred concludes that humans as individuals have too little power over their environment to be able to realise their goals. It is not impossible that “something” will come of one’s efforts, but only when the actions of separate individuals, directed and/or conscious or otherwise, coalesce. Despite his growing insight into his own insignificance, Alfred is unable to radically change his life. So the novel ends with: “Here I sit, holding a cufflink in each hand. Put the two together and I have one whole meteorite. But not a shred of evidence for the hypothesis I had to prove.” Whether Alfred’s failure will eventually lead him to his real passion, art (in his case, music), remains unknown.
In terms of style, Beyond Sleep is one of Hermans’ greatest works. The author was determined that it be so. After the first publication in 1962, he continued to make adjustments. For the fifteenth edition (1978), there are, according to the author, 250 changes (in addition to those made on earlier editions). This does not, in Hermans’ words, stop the book from being “still the same, that is to say: what it should have been when it first came out.”
This concern for the “perfect” (that is, best possible) match between a complex narrative and an apparently simple form is the main hallmark of Hermans’ writing. The extent to which this is achieved here is a good reason to keep rereading Beyond Sleep.