The Five Forms of Time in the Historical Novel The Assault by Harry Mulisch

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This entry is part 5 of 11 in the series History and Time in The Assault by Harry Mulisch

The Assault by Harry Mulisch is structured as a Greek tragedy. At this level the novel is a timeless epic. The element of time plays an important role in most of Mulisch’s work. To him, a writer deals with time in many different ways.

image: Anthony Dodd
image: Anthony Dodd

(05-05-2014, updated 07-25-2018)  Anton’s story is about an incident at the end of the Second World War and its aftermath; however, by structuring it as a Greek tragedy, Mulisch puts it into a larger perspective. At this level, The Assault (De aanslag) is a timeless epic (1). And so we arrive at the element of time, which plays an important part in most of Mulisch’s work. In 1961 he wrote:


A writer deals with time in many different ways. When someone writes a text about the heretic Tanchelijn (2), who said that God is Tanchelijn, then he is dealing with historical time, the twelfth century; with the time of his experiences, which he incorporates in the text; with the time in which he works at the text; with the time in the text (the created time, time eternal, time as un-thing, time as thing); and with the time in which someone will become acquainted with the text. Those are five times, and this is how he endures–if one is missing, emptiness and the silence of the world become unbearable (3).

Mulisch has incorporated these five forms of time in The Assault. I will discuss the first two times–historical time and the time of the author’s experiences–later.

The novel was published in the second half of 1982, so the time in which Mulisch worked at the text was almost immediately after the peace demonstration of November 1981, and at the end of the novel it becomes clear that the demonstration is the point of narration where Anton is left in the crowd:

But what does it matter? Everything is forgotten in the end. The shouting dies down, the waves subside, the streets empty, and all is silent once more. A tall, slender man walks hand in hand with his son in a demonstration (p. 185).

The time in the text, the created time, is elusive, changing, although Anton constantly tries to measure it, tries to pin it down. He attempts to determine the distance between the time of the assault and his ‘present’ time, and it is no coincidence that sextants–which are used to measure the distance between two points–intrigue him.

On the other hand, he comes to realize that time cannot be measured in such a spatial-linear way. He senses this for the first time after the liberation, when he hears of Peter’s death:

For Anton that distance of five months between January and June, 1945, was incomparably longer than the distance between June of 1945 and the present day (p. 57).

The seeming difference in distance between separate periods is reflected in the anisochronic narrative. The evening of the assault is described in forty-three pages, and each meeting that Anton has later with other characters is described at length, while the time in between, thirty-six years in all, is dealt with in little more than twenty-two pages.

In the last episode, when Anton is thinking about events in time, it reminds him of

an experiment he once made in his uncle’s attic […] Into a solution of water glass (the slimy liquid in which his mother had preserved eggs at the beginning of the war) he had dropped a few crumbs of copper sulfate […] These began to spread out like worms, billowing out further and further, and there, in his attic room, sprouting ever-lengthening blue branches through the lifeless pallor of the water glass (p. 151-151).

Time as an un-thing, therefore. ‘Time eternal,’ or mythological time, will be discussed later.

And finally, there is the time in which someone will read the text. As we will see, at one level Mulisch is writing quite specifically for a Dutch audience in the beginning of the 1980s–an audience who is familiar with many of the historical facts he refers to–but at another level he has attempted to write a novel for a larger audience, a novel that can be read and understood in the future, even if the reader is not familiar with the historical settings: “But what does it matter? Everything is forgotten in the end […] A tall, slender man walks hand in hand with his son in a demonstration” (4).

The reader is aware that Mulisch realizes that the future value does not lie in the historical setting, but in the larger story of a man moving in time. Which demonstration it was, and why it took place, will hardly matter a century from now. Or will it? Maybe this particular demonstration will go down in history exactly because Mulisch has written about it. However, I will discuss the author’s selection of historical facts later.

Of course, Mulisch is also aware of the possibility that his work will be outdated in a future time. He seems to put his own writing into perspective in the living room scene immediately before the assault takes place. Peter has just finished translating a Greek sentence by Homer, and his father reads it in a solemn voice.

“How beautiful this is,” said Steenwijk, leaning back and taking off his glasses. “Sure, great,” said Peter, “Specially after I’ve been working on it and hour and a half, that lousy sentence” (p. 14).

To Peter, ancient literature is reduced to an annoying high school homework assignment.


  1. Jaak de Maere mentions the epic quality of The Assault in “De Aanslag van Harry MulischDietsche Warande en Belfort 128.3 (1985) 210-214, p. 211.
  2. Tanchelijn is a play Mulisch wrote in 1960.
  3. Harry Mulisch, Voer voor psychologen: Zelfportret (Amsterdam: Bezige Bij, 1961) p. 91.
  4. Italics are mine.

Can time stand still? Click here to find out in the next post in this series.

This post was first published on 05-05-2014, on the blog Resident Alien, under the title: “The Assault: Part 4: Mulisch’s Five Times”.


Series Navigation<< Structure and Narration in The Assault by Harry MulischTime Stands Still: The Petrifaction of Anton’s World in The Assault >>

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