In this revealing and poignant story, Stefan Hertmans uncovers haunting details about the previous owner of his house and the crime he committed as a member of the Nazi police.
In 1979 Stefan Hertmans became obsessed with a rundown townhouse in Ghent. The previous owners were mentioned only in passing during the acquisition, and it wasn’t until the new millennium, long after he had sold the house, that he came across a memoirby the owner’s son Adriaan Verhulst, a distinguished history professor and a former teacher of Hertmans’, which revealed that his father was a former SS officer. Hertmans finds he is profoundly haunted by images of the family as ghostly presences in the rooms he had once known so well, he begins a journey of discovery—not to tell the story of Adriaan’s father, but rather the story of the house and the people who lived in it and passed through it. Archives, interviews with relatives and personal documents help him imagine the world of this house as they reveal not only a marital drama, but also a connection between past visitors to the house and important figures in the culture and politics of Flanders now. A stunning and immersive reimagining of a family in a historical moment of great upheaval confirms Hertmans’ always brilliant melding of fiction and nonfiction.
About the Author
STEFAN HERTMANS is an internationally acclaimed Flemish author. For more than twenty years he was a professor at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Ghent, where he wrote novels, poems, essays, and plays. His first book in English, War and Turpentine, was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize and awarded the prestigious AKO Literature Prize in 2014. His last book, The Convert, was a finalist for the 2020 National Jewish Book Awards.
Translated from the Dutch by David McKay.
“[Hertmans’s] most recent pastiche of fiction, memoir and Sebaldian evidence gathering [is] inspired by the discovery that his former home in Ghent once housed a notorious Nazi collaborator . . . [The Ascent] deftly blends reporting and speculation as he reimagines the lives these rooms once sheltered, laying out the terrible consequences of an ambitious man’s blinkered devotion to the bureaucracy of the Reich.” —The New York Times Book Review
“When Belgian author Stefan Hertmans decided to rent a damp old house on the banks of the sludgy Lieveke canal in a rundown neighborhood of Ghent, he wasn’t thinking about its previous inhabitants. . . . But many years after he left the three-story house . . . he learned that, during World War II, it was occupied by Willem Verhulst, an SS intelligence officer. . . . Straddling the line between nonfiction and fiction. . . . [Hertmans] presents a gripping tale of the house on Drogenhof Street, which contains both his own memories and the secrets of the SS officer and his family. . . . Using the house as a framework, the author provides a visceral sense of life in the occupied city during the war. . . . Beautifully translated by David McKay. . . . Hertmans’s parallel stories of Verhulst’s treachery and his own path to uncovering the secrets hidden in the Drogenhof house make for a compelling read. . . . the reader can hardly wait to find out what he discovers.” —Jewish Book Council “A fascinating project of autofiction. . . . Hertmans had already sold his former home in Ghent when he read a memoir by a former occupant that shocked him: before he’d lived there, an SS officer had called the place home. Hertmans uses this jarring revelation . . . to explore the home’s long history and reconsider the meaning of sanctuary.” —CrimeReads
“Hertmans turns the spotlight on the Flemish nationalist and Nazi collaborator Willem Verhulst. . . . paint[ing] a brilliant portrait of a deluded and dangerous man. . . . [The Ascent is] a deft blend of history, fiction and autofiction, skillfully translated by David McKay. Hertmans draws on a wealth of sources . . . [and] the photographs scattered throughout the text bring to mind the work of W.G. Sebald. . . . Eerie and atmospheric. . . . In his insightful and expertly crafted book, history that has settled is roused and reckoned with, and it still has the ability to captivate and the power to shock.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Discovering he lived in a house in Ghent formerly owned by a Nazi collaborator, [Hertmans] experienced ‘the powerful pull of an unknown life’ and set out to investigate. Through a series of anecdotes, he tells the story of Willem Verhulst. . . . [His] impressionistic prose is deeply evocative, and the novel reads like a fascinating conversation, drawing on the storyteller’s absorption with his subject matter and intimate knowledge of the characters involved.” —Booklist
“‘In the first year of the new millennium . . . I learned that for twenty years I had lived in the house of a former SS man.’ So begins Flemish author Hertmans’ coolly intriguing re-creation of the life and circumstances of Willem Verhulst. . . . As much a story of the family and the setting as of the horrible . . . figure at its center, the book . . . delivers a haunting, detailed record of people, place and atmosphere.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A thoughtful and unflinching narrative in which [Hertmans] imagines the life of his Ghent home’s previous owner. . . . Recreating the lives of the Verhulst family during the grisly period of Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945 and beyond, Hertmans chronicles how Willem becomes a high-ranking Nazi informant, traces his exploits as a Flemish nationalist rabble rouser after WWII, and explores his romantic attachments. . . . [he] adds nuance by drawing on interviews with Verhulst’s daughters Letta and Suzanne . . . and the memoirs of Verhulst’s son, Adriaan, who was Hertmans’s history professor in the 1970s. . . . along with excerpts from various letters and journals, [which] convey the depth of the author’s immersion. In Hertmans’s hands, the dusty rooms of history come alive.” —Publishers Weekly
“A powerful and humane reminder that the horrors of the past century are inexhaustibly fascinating and reverberate today.” —The Observer (UK) “Hertmans’s acute scrutiny of the grim tale he has unearthed brings a monster and his milieu into riveting focus. Alive with the same investigative verve, psychological perception and narrative virtuosity as its two acclaimed predecessors, The Ascent is a compelling addition.” —The Sunday Times (UK)
“A self-conscious blend of archival legwork and artistic licence. . . . grimly compelling.” —Mail on Sunday (UK)
“Prepare to descend. Based on years of research and augmented with personal reflections and fictional episodes . . . the book tells the true story of Willem Verhulst, a Flemish nationalist from Ghent. . . . Hertmans brilliantly describes and imagines scenes. . . . memorable.” —The Daily Telegraph (UK)