"Wonder" by Hugo Claus [BTBA 2010 Fiction Longlist]
Wonder by Hugo Claus. Translated from the Dutch by Michael Henry Heim. (Belgium, Archipelago)
I might be wrong about this, but it seems like Hugo Claus is one of those authors well-read Americans have heard of, but maybe never read. Or maybe they’ve read The Sorrows of Belgium, which is by far his most well-known work. (And the reason why he was always rumored for the Nobel Prize.) Wonder, in all its strangeness, may well bring a whole new group of readers to his work though.
Before getting to the book itself, it’s worth touching on Claus’s life for a moment. As Archipelago writes in its author bio: “Impossible to pin down, Claus was eclectic and in constant motion; his work is kaleidoscopic.” He was 18 when his first book of poems was published, and then he went on to write six novels and a number of plays.
He was also a painter and was affiliated with the CoBrA group (I love manifesto-driven groups with abbreviations resulting in quirky capitalization a la the OuLiPo . . .) a collection of artists that—at least according Wikipedia, the World’s Greatest Short Form Information Source—shared “a unifying doctrine of complete freedom of colour and form, as well as antipathy towards surrealism, the artists also shared an interest in Marxism as well as modernism.” Claus died of voluntary euthanasia in 2008.
I can’t do half the job Michael Orthofer did in describing Wonder so I’m think I’m just going to crib his review . . . The focal point of the novel is Victor Denijs de Rijckel, a schoolteacher who is a bit mental before the story even starts. And the novel progresses along two major tracks: a series of entries de Rijckel makes in a notebook he’s keeping at the institution where he currently resides, and a chronological description of earlier events.
The plot is set in motion when de Rijckel attends a masquerade ball, falls for a woman (isn’t it always the case?), and then meets a young student the next morning who knows the woman and where she lives. Michael can take it away:
The woman lives at Almout castle, in Hekegem, and they go there. Taking a room at a local inn the teacher passes the boy off as his nephew, but eventually they suspect him of being a paedophile; rather than turn him in, however, they want their silence to be bought — typical, it turns out, for this morally compromised nest. Reaching Almout de Rijckel is mistaken for someone else, the Dutch delegate to a meeting taking place there.
Wonder was first published in 1962, and the shadow of World War II is still a very strong presence. The meeting at Almout is of those sympathetic to the Nazi cause, the figure that looms over the meeting and town that of Jan-Willem Crabbe who distinguished himself during the war and about whose fate many theories swirl. De Rijckel is shown a picture of Crabbe: “being decorated with the Ritterkreuz by Hitler himself and you can see the admiration on Hitler’s face.”
Obviously, de Rijckel is in way over his head — led around by a boy barely in his teens (“my messenger and guide, who has led me from disgrace to scandal”), considered a paedophile by the townsfolk and a Nazi sympathiser by those at Almout. Things spiral somewhat out of control, but in a book where the central character has never been in much control it seems the obvious course.
And to get a sense of the prose, here’s a bit from de Rijckel’s notebook, which is more jumpy and linguistically playful that the descriptive sections of the book, but demonstrate Claus’s talents (and Michael Henry Heim’s):
Just now I nearly fell asleep as I wrote. And of course I was writing that the teacher fell asleep. There’s not a soul in this dump. Nobody can whisper the answers the way they did at teacher’s-college exams. The fastest years of our lives. Classes. Cheating, masturbation, pimples. Film. Over. So fast: a father, a mother, Elizabeth, the Principal.
She didn’t want a child. Mostly finger fumble. A wife who still belonged in school. Criss-cross spider webs. Crossword puzzles. One day she crossed out the word “marriage” in nearly all my books. In red ink. Every morning she combed and combed her hair. Then she left me. No big deal. The first thing I thought was, I’m going to wallpaper the apartment to my taste. But she kept the apartment: her mother saw to that. The pattern on the wallpaper came from a junk shop: crinolines and fiacres from French woodcuts—that sort of thing.
I felt more at home in my hotel room. Anonymous as a classroom. I wish I could get today’s paper. Or—I’ve asked that bastard twenty times by now—a dictionary. I want to dazzle Korneel (who will never read this notebook, may he die of cancer) with adjectives. I was good at composition. I once wrote a composition about spring.
Echoing another of Michael’s observations, the narrative is a bit disjointed, non-linear, and hazy. But it also has a very classic, very capital-l Literary feel. This is a book that’s going to be read for years, which is a testament to the great work Archipelago is doing.
I’m going to leave off here with an awesome quote from Claus himself that’s on the back of the book: “We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth from the injustice of things.”