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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Hugo Claus

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To purchase Wonder

Title: Wonder
Author: Hugo Claus
Genre: Novel
Written: 1962 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 338 pages
Original in: Flemish
Availability: Wonder - US
Wonder - UK
Wonder - Canada
Wonder - India
L'étonnement - France
Die Verwunderung - Deutschland
El asombro - España
  • Flemish title: De verwondering
  • Translated by Michael Henry Heim

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Our Assessment:

A- : fascinating, odd

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/6/2010 Tim Parks
Publishers Weekly . 30/3/2009 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wonder is a work of savage satire intensely engaged with the moral and cultural life of the author's Belgium and making no concessions to those who are unwilling to interest themselves in the small country's contentious politics." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "A bizarre, kaleidoscopic hide-and-seek narrative, this novel draws forth history's phantoms with a true sense of menace" - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wonder centres around teacher (of English-German) Victor Denijs de Rijckel. From the first he seems rather dazed, filled less with a sense of wonder than bewilderment. He lets himself get carried along by events; soon enough he finds:

Until recently I lived in rooms that were spic and span, where, prudent and self-assured, I had free range and thought no other landscape possible. And now look.
       The chapters of the book proceed chronologically, but along different tracks. One set of chapters is composed of what he writes in notebooks he keeps in the institution he's being kept in, the others follow earlier events. As the pieces are filled in it becomes clear that he likely wasn't all that prudent (and certainly not self-assured) to start off with -- he married one of his students, for example (not that that lasted) -- but certainly he has meanwhile come across other landscapes, even if they've only opened his eyes to a limited extent.
       Small things set everything in motion. The school principal asks de Rijckel to introduce him at an event, and there's a masked ball that he attends. He drinks heavily and for the most part drifts through events -- though there is a woman at the ball who catches his eye. Early the next morning he encounters a young student, Verzele, -- who had also been at the ball; the boy knows where the woman, Alessandra, lives and they decide to set out for there:
     Later the teacher was unable to remember who made the decision, who first learned from the other that he would follow him through thick and thin, who suggested that they might go there, not meaning in a few days or right after school, but now, on the spur of the moment, before the cleaning women came in, before classes began.
       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.
       De Rijckel is a passive, malleable figure. The secret notebooks he keeps while institutionalised -- and the care with which he keeps them secret -- are about as pro-active as he gets, and one imagines he is only able to do so because everything else about his life there is so tightly controlled. In all other respects he goes with the flow that others have determined -- so also in his brief marriage, the details of which also emerge over the course of the novel.
       What Claus excels at is in how he allows the story to unfold. At times the reader is led through the same fog that de Rijckel wanders in, but there are also moments of bright clarity. Clues accumulate over the course of the novel, sharp observations strewn among de Rijckel's near-sleepwalk throughout the narrative. Feints suggest one thing, but eventually something else entirely is revealed. And Claus' disjointed presentation is the only way to hold much of the powerful compressed expression interspersed throughout the text.
       Striking bits seem to reveal everything, but Claus repeatedly returns with new perspectives and additional layers, most obviously in the case of the figure of Crabbe. But it's a technique that serves Claus well elsewhere too, as in the nature of de Rijckel's relationship with the girl he married. Much seems to be summed up in one description:
     The only name that (though I never recognized it) made me burn and tremble was the most impersonal; it wasn't even a name the way she, Elizabeth, pronounced it that tepid day in the sweet-and-sour-smelling woodpile and under the neon lighting overexposing the lumber yard: "No, no, sir. I don't want to, sir."
       Yet later de Rijckel relates a later exchange of theirs, when he asked her:
"Was I innocent ?"
     She laughs.
     I push the point of my shoe against her chin and repeat the questions.
     She giggles and the glass splinters sink into her skirt.
     "You were starkers."
     "Me ?" (Me, a tortoise with no shell.)
     "Yes, you." But what she means is stark mad, not stark naked.
       Certainly, Wonder is also an indictment of the Belgian ("a bunch of yokels", one person decries them as) -- and specifically the Flemish -- character, the Nazi-sympathisizing just the most obvious manifestation of this people's flaws -- and de Rijckel's passive acceptance of whatever comes his way another.
        Wonder is a remarkable if far from straightforward piece of writing. Claus suffered from Alzheimer's in his old age (and had himself euthanized), and though this was written decades before that presumably manifested itself, the text feels like it emerged from a clouded brain, with (many) brief moments of insight and recognition. The dazed teacher at the centre occasionally exacerbates matters with some heavy alcohol consumption, but even without it there is much that is foggy here, especially in how the narrative unfolds -- chronologically (track by track), but, in its smaller sections, often non-linearly. Still, the overall effect is very impressive.

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Wonder: Reviews: Hugo Claus: Other books by Hugo Claus under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Hugo Claus lived 1929 to 2008.

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