The Man in the Mirror
The ultimate confrontation of an old man with himself
The theme of Herman Teirlinck’s final novel, The Man in the Mirror, remains extraordinarily topical. The main character, Henri, a banker and dandy fast approaching seventy, is a kind of postmodernist avant la lettre. He sees life as a game that should be played with virtuosity and imagination. Ironically, he refuses to commit himself to any attitude towards life. For him, ‘everything is true’ is almost the same as ‘nothing is true’. Morality is replaced by aesthetics. Henri is the perfect egotist for whom the art of life is the art of camouflage. ‘Whatever you think you are, that is what you ultimately are.’
The novel starts with a meticulous description of Henri in the barber’s chair. Gazing into the eyes of his mirror image, he notes the deterioration of a body that is no longer his. Just like Gustav von Aschenbach, the famous character from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice , Henri undergoes a beauty treatment before entering into the ultimate confrontation with himself. His ageing face is spruced up with creams and scents, his lacklustre hair smeared with old-fashioned miracle remedies, his nails polished by a charming manicurist who treats him to a momentary ‘sensual fringe benefit’ – ‘The touch of a woman’s hands has a subtle unreliability about it.’ Henri rises from the ashes a handsome young man, fit for fresh feminine conquests.
But what may seem like purification is, in reality, a vain attempt at keeping up the camouflage of a life built on lies and deceit. Henri’s Don Juanesque masquerade is no longer tenable and he subjects himself to a merciless bout of soul-searching. In the face of death, Henri is anxious to unmask himself, in search of the true identity behind his immaculate caricature. He resolves to resort to drastic measures, casting off all pretence and revealing his past and that of others, as described through flashbacks. His crippled wife with whom he has a marriage of convenience; his son Manuel, killed in an accident; the one big love of his extramarital life, Elsje; his only friend Sebastiaan, also dead; all bear witness to his loveless, lying existence. Before his moral execution can be carried out, however, one more experience awaits him. The ultimate attempt at self-portrayal can only succeed after, and by means of, a last supper, served by the stunningly beautiful Babette, the ‘typist’ at his office, with whom he has a rendez-vous in the hotel where he will perform his swan song.