Hugo Claus repeatedly probed his home country’s ambivalent relationship with its Nazi occupiers. Sam Munson reads a new translation of the Flemish novelist’s great portrait of postwar malaise.
This review appeared in The National. Click here to link to the original review page.
The modern problems of European nationalism are most often discussed in literature by reference to the barbarities of the Fascist regimes in Germany, Austria and the former constituents of its empire, and France. This is an intuitively obvious approach: the sight of an entire continent in ruins exercises a transfixing power on the human mind. The sad fact, however, is that the majority of literary attempts to address these horrors fail, looking as they do for rational meaning – in the form of Hegelian, Judeo-Christian, Marxist and other cosmos-encompassing explanations – where there is only a moral abyss.
There are, of course, exceptions – Doktor Faustus, The Man Without Qualities, the poems of Yvan Goll, Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, the essays of Jean Amery, the novels of Imre Kertész and the historical research of Raul Hilberg, among others. Most of these investigations of radical evil are well known and widely recognised as among the best writings of the 20th century. To speak today of a still largely-unknown major work on European Fascism – one as masterful as any of the above-mentioned – seems presumptuous, rather like announcing the existence of, if not a new continent, at least a land mass of strange and significant proportions. But in discussing the 1962 novel Wonder by the Flemish writer Hugo Claus, it would be churlish not to admit to an explorer’s exhilaration at discovery.
Claus was born in 1929, died only last March, and spent his adult life as a prolific artist in multiple media. Despite his early success as a painter, surrealist poet, and acute psychological novelist (and a tabloid-splashed five-year marriage to the western world’s favourite soft-core star, Sylvia Kristel), it was not until 1983 that his international reputation would begin to approach the tremendous respect he enjoyed in his native country. That year, he published the novel most critics regard as his masterwork, The Sorrow of Belgium, a postmodern bildungsroman about growing up (as Claus did) under the occupation government.
This was a fertile subject for a writer as interested as Claus was in human weakness and moral ambiguity. From the beginning of Hitler’s rise, there was plenty of enthusiasm in Belgium for the man and his policies, particularly among the Dutch-speaking Flemish majority. The Nazis took Belgium without much official resistance, and the government surrendered unconditionally after 18 days of fighting. Though King Leopold III refused to join the government in exile, he eventually capitulated to the Nazi army, and he spent the rest of the war under house arrest in his palace. The Sorrow of Belgium probes the sources of that enthusiasm and subsequent surrender through examinations of Catholic piety, family life, social stratification, ethnic nationalism, and the divided moral character that Claus saw as afflicting his homeland – all viewed through the lens of the young narrator Louis Seynaeve’s supple mind, all stamped by his insecurities and fears.
The novel placed Claus firmly in the first rank of postwar European literature and made him a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize. Asked what winning would mean to him, he replied (tellingly, in French, not his native Dutch): “The money would suit me just fine.” That insouciance in the face of calcified cultural piety, that subtle sarcasm, that bitterness — these are Claus’s hallmarks. His philosophical outrage over evil (in both its quotidian and world-historical incarnations) veers between the virtuosically articulate and the bestially dumb — a tone and temperament well-suited for discussing the political afflictions of 20th-century Europe, which united sustained intellectual assaults on the liberal order with matchless instances of raw cruelty.
The success of The Sorrow of Belgium aroused interest in Claus among English-speaking readers, the long-term result being the translation of a few (too few) of his many other books. These include The Swordfish, a dark religious parable; Desire, a novel of failed erotic pursuit; and now, thanks to a masterly, fluid translation by the eminent Michael Henry Heim, Wonder, a disturbing examination of Belgium’s relationship with Fascism that predates The Sorrow of Belgium by two decades.
Wonder is set in the postwar 1950s, and it comprises the story of a hellish two days in the life of Victor De Rijckel, a meek and sexually frustrated divorcé who leaves behind his depressing and meagre existence as a teacher of German and English in order to pursue the enigmatic Alesandra Harmedam, a striking woman he meets at a masquerade ball. Victor’s journey takes him, by bus and on foot, from the coastal town where he lives to the small inland village where Alesandra’s family reigns as the local gentry.
After infiltrating the Harmedam’s manor house, Victor discovers the existence of a cult devoted to the memory of Crabbe, a fictitious Belgian nationalist and apparatchik of the Nazi government. Mr Harmedam has converted part of his estate into an open-air statue garden devoted to Crabbe’s memory, and every year he and Alesandra organise a festival in Crabbe’s honour. The townspeople either turn a blind eye to Crabbe’s devotees or admire them, a small-scale version of the behaviour of many Belgians during the Second World War. It is among these pathetic but menacing people that Victor attempts to seduce Alesandra, with horrifying and comical consequences.
Claus’s prose matches his bizarre and masterfully-designed story well: it is both cold-eyed and infused with the unexpected. In the intellectual intensity of its physical descriptions, it has obvious antecedents in the styles of both Musil and Nabokov. Here, he describes the seaside town where Victor lives and works:
“Amid the hostile crowd with their naked thighs and peeling shoulders, their sand-covered knees, eyebrows, and hair; through their iodine-turbid gestures and voices, their hula hoops, the grandfathers in tennis shoes, the fathers in green visors, the children gleaming with oil; past one of the twelve ice-cream carts (two nuns and one fisherman licking), he made his way along the esplanade, which was yellow and composed of smooth, neatly-joined hexagons for the girls roller-skating along it. Opposite the beach and the channel of the inlet, which had been turned into a harbour by means of a breakwater that was regularly, every five or six years, destroyed by storms, stood a sandstone ship’s captain, the back of his head on a level with the houses’ second stories.”
But where Claus’s gift particularly shines in Wonder is in the risks he is willing to take with narrative structure. By far the most powerful and disconcerting of these is the deliberate erosion of the boundary between different points of view (a technique also employed in The Sorrow of Belgium): the structure of the book’s chapters varies wildly, from straightforward third-person narration of Victor’s daily life, to passages from his tormented diary, to short chapters on Belgium’s war history narrated by a clinical “We.” Even when he has taken the narrative reins, Victor cannot decide between using the pronoun “I” and referring to himself as “the teacher.” He often slips from one to the other within the space of a sentence or two. Claus presents this as a reflection of Victor’s self fragmenting in the face of the horrid truths he uncovers about his nation while chasing Alesandra: its rigid class stratification, the hidden currents of its nationalism, its love of violence.
By the novel’s end, Victor has suffered a nervous breakdown and been imprisoned in a shabby asylum, where he suffers from fantasies of persecutions at the hands of Alesandra’s conspiracy. (Claus leaves open the possibility that this paranoia is justified.) We learn that he has been writing the text we have been reading, scribbling with obstinate fury as rats clamber through the pipes above his head and dogs howl in a courtyard just out of his sight. In this, Victor serves as Claus’s proof of bourgeois society’s inability to either assimilate or fully reject Fascist politics. He is neither a Nazi nor an anti-Nazi; both positions require intellectual and spiritual commitment, which he lacks the strength to make. Instead, he comes, as Belgium did, to a tortured and unsustainable compromise with reality.
Claus sees signs of Belgium’s decay lurking everywhere — not just in Victor’s mind. One of the book’s most wrenching scenes (narrated by that cold and cynical “We”) describes the post-Liberation punishment of Alesandra’s father Richard, a prominent collaborationist. When the army truck driving him to prison is halted by a crowd, Harmedam seeks to placate them by paying obeisance to a statue commemorating Belgium’s dead in the First World War:
“Harmedam…then bowed his head and, yes, kissed the booted foot of the dying soldier of 1914-1918, at which point an old woman pushed her way through the still ungratified crowd, yes, a raging buzzard, and before anyone could stop her she pounced on her prey, lifted her flowery skirt and gave his neck two stamps of a flat-heeled shoe. Under everyone’s eyes his mouth cracked down hard on stone…we all stared at the three teeth lying on the ribbed sandstone, and a young man, a student we never saw again, gathered them up and tossed them high in the air. The younger among us lept up to catch them. And that was pretty much the end of that.”
The sorrow of Belgium, indeed. Victor’s elevation, via his literary artistry, to a witness of his fellow Belgians’ crimes does not make Wonder a novel of redemption. Though Victor survives to tell his tale, he remains locked away from society, among the insane. The old woman who stomps on Harmedam is similarly ineffectual: a collaborator with one of the most vicious political regimes in history, and all he gets is a kick in the teeth? Even the crypto-Fascists, Victor’s enemies, share this tendency towards pointless gestures: their statues, their meetings, their sinister and useless devotions. Eventually we learn that Crabbe himself, the vaunted saviour of the Flemish nation, could not stomach the extermination camps and, as a result, was sent as cannon fodder to the Eastern front by his revered German superiors.
Wonder reads like the diagnosis of a national illness, a suggestion that the Belgians were both willing collaborators and comical victims. Twenty years after its publication, Claus would revisit very similar ground in his magnum opus. But his estimation of the Belgian soul as narrow and feeble was fixed, it seems, by his early thirties, if not sooner. The novel ends with a long and harrowing confession of this all-pervading weakness, from Victor himself:
“Trouble never happens to us. We never get into trouble. We detest the unwashed, the irresponsible, the antisocial. When we see such a man coming our way we go back to our bag of frites or fresh shrimp and our thoughts about the elections, which will rightly bring the strongest, the sharpest of us to power. And then, permettez, well, then it is shocking when a man of this sort right there on the embankment, hands on hips, gazing at the shifting sea, lets out a sudden loud scream…The teacher thought, I’m going to scream. I mustn’t…He gazed out over the quivering surface and with all the strength his lungs could muster let out a scream. It went on and on.”
The only witnesses to Victor’s final, desperate, wordless attempt at expression, at truth-telling, are a middle-class woman and her disabled adult son, whom she has taken out for a good-weather ride in his wheelchair. Both of them pretend not to have heard.
Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review. His first novel, The November Criminals, will be published next spring by Doubleday.