A time-travel into the roaring twenties
In Tweeduister (Smokefall, 2001), Hermsen’s second novel, the author pictures the lives of a group of English and American artists - T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Marlow Moss and Djuna Barnes - during the turbulent years of the Interbellum, the period between the two World Wars.
During this time, the optimism and avant-gardism of the ‘roaring twenties’ changes gradually into the depression, fear and conservatism of the thirties. The renewed threat of war disrupts not only political life, but also the private lives of the artists who, confronted with the complex relationship between politics and art, can no longer remain on the sidelines of public affairs.
Tweeduister, situated in London and partly in Paris, follows closely the doubts, beliefs and hopes of some of these writers who have experimented fully with artistic and social forms but find themselves with no defence against the threat of war and fascism. They desperately try to remain faithful to their work, but, as Virginia Woolf remarks, ‘the time of the ivory tower is definitely over, we have to choose sides.’ Their political awareness increases the tension between life and art, artistic autonomy and social engagement. ‘I can’t preach in an novel,’ sighs Woolf, ‘but I can neither pretend that all of this is not happening.’’
The story is told partly by the leading character, Martha Thompson, a young Dutch woman, and partly by the historical characters who figure in the book – that is, Woolf, Eliot, Moss and Barnes. We identify with each character in turn and so gain various viewpoints on the events of the time.
Tweeduister is a fascinating novel about passion, the ramifications of war, literary marriages and the abyss between life and art. It is not only a demystification of the hitherto somewhat idealized life of the Bloomsbury group, it is also a thrilling story about the impact of war on different aspects of social life. It questions the political stance of the writer and discusses the interaction of art with society. It is also about the search for identity, conflicts within marriage, the creative process, solidarity and religion as a refuge. The novel is written in a very lucid and accessible style, making it suitable for a wide audience; but it also contains many small details, insights into the personalities of Eliot and Woolf that will surprise even readers who know their works very well.