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Hugo Claus Het Verlangen (Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 1978). Translated from the Dutch by Stacey Knecht as Desire (New York: Viking Penguin, 1997).
Hugo Claus Greetings (Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, 2005). Translated from the Dutch by John Irons.
The noted Flemish writer Hugo Claus’s 1978 novel, Desire, begins in a small town Belgian gambling bar called The Unicorn. Its inhabitants, a rather seedy lot, include figures with monikers such as Felix the Cat, Verbist the Schoolmaster, Deaf Derek and Frans the Dutchman as well as more simply named (but perhaps more complexly presented) figures Jake, Markie, and Michel. The center of this down-and-out group, the traveling salesman Rickabone, is missing because of his death, and it is upon him that the group blames all the events of the story they tell.
For the first part of the novel, indeed, there seemingly is little to reveal: the small-time gamblers (with often large-time losses) seem like the kind of boy-men who exist everywhere, particularly as they engage in silly maneuvers to get a view up the knickers of straddle-legged local woman, Marianne. The game, however, soon becomes a kind of outrageous challenge, as each of the men attempt to outdo one other, and we quickly recognize that behind the standard tools of their trade—cards, booze, women, and school-boy behavior—something more frightening lurks. When one of their group speaks somewhat deprecatingly of their hero Rickabone, there is a kind of verbal ruckus which ends in the sudden invitation by the “hyper-super-sensitive” Michel for Jake to join him on a trip to Las Vegas. The pairing of these two is an extremely unlikely one, as strange as the friendships between Laurel and Hardy, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pècuchet, or Beckett’s Mercier and Camier. For like all these famous duos, the one, Michel, is lean and, in this case, darkly handsome, and the other, Jake, a fat, jovial and placid man, the peace-maker of the group.
Soon we visit each of these figures at home, intuiting that something more is happening there than what appears. Michel is living with his mother, his only true possessions hidden under his bed: “the Hitlerjugend knife and the airgun and the weepy love letters from Markie”—one of only two times in this fiction that Claus hints that the beautiful Michel might possibly be homosexual. The author is even more subtle about the home-life of Jake, surrounded by his loving and beloved daughter, Didi, and his critical and argumentative wife, Dina. By the end of the book, however, we perceive this same scene in a completely different manner, as we discover that Didi is not at all a child, but a mentally-disturbed adult woman who behaves, after her breakdown, in a child-like manner.
Into the new world these two proceed, seeming innocents on their way to a startling revelation. As with most socially and culturally isolated people, however, they cannot really take in the world they encounter. In London Michel is already consumed with a search for porno, while Jake suffers the after-effects of a night of Indian spices (“it’s not every day you get stuff like that in Belgium…”). By the time they reach Los Angeles, the two are slightly disgusted with each other’s company as they sit by their motel TV, guzzling Budweiser, Miller, Schlitz, Jim Beam, ginger ale, Pepsi and Windsor, “a classic Canadian whiskey with the smooth flavor you expect and price you don’t.” Michel curses the TV for having no porno and Jake lies curled up for hours in his shorts, “like a big fat baby that has been plunked down on the orange bedspread by a giantess.”
In Las Vegas things are not much better, as Michel alternates between gambling tables and porno theaters and Jake attempts to take in the hotel pleasures, such as watching the performers at Circus Circus. Jake soon falls under the influence of a sham preacher, who alternates between preaching hell and damnation against the evil city and working as a gambling croupier. Although Claus takes a few potshots at American culture, his focus is not upon the American scene but upon the Belgian scene these two men carry within. Under the influences of his new experiences and his sense of distress, Jake writes strange letters home to his wife, letters which betray a new sense of reality—issues which she quickly discerns and confronts back in their home town.
Didi, it appears, was in love with Markie, even preparing to marry him until he was forced by Rickabone to break off the affair and take up a homosexual relationship with the wealthy Salome—an act which led to her breakdown.
Suddenly we begin to understand the complex relationship between the two men, the man who has had an affair with Markie and the man who has lost his daughter to insanity because of Markie. We now comprehend the love-hate bond between them, and sense the controlled violence that exists not only in these men’s psyches but in all the hearts of all the Unicorn denizens. And we also now perceive that the desire of the title is not just a search for pleasure in a world that, metaphorically speaking, is “Rickabone’s fault” (a desire holding out against by the gaping chasm of death into which one’s rickety bones inevitably will fall) but a search for redemption—that Michel’s invitation to Jake was more than a whim, was an attempt rather for the two of them reach out together for the truth.
Arriving at the truth, however, is openly dangerous. At a late night Vegas haunt, Jake recognizes some of the Circus Circus performers, one of them who stares intently at him in a clearly sexual gaze. The gentle giant snaps, violently attacking and killing the youth. Readers will recognize that Jake’s violence was directed not at the stranger but at the man who has brought him to this place.
As the two men escape back to Los Angeles and, ultimately, to Belgium, they have both undergone enormous changes. Jake moves away, never returning to the Unicorn. Michel occasionally visits, but he is no longer welcome, the denizens recognizing that something terrible has happened between the two of them—and fearing perhaps that that terrible thing is something in which they have all played a part.
Los Angeles, January 31 2006
Soon after having finished the review above and having put the Project for Innovative Poetry anthology of the Dutch Fifiters—of whom Claus was a member—to press, I discovered that Harcourt had just published a new collection of Claus poems, which I immediately ordered through Amazon. Upon its receipt, however, I wondered perhaps if I’d ordered the wrong book. It seemed amazing to me that this poet, whose work—as the fiction above suggests—often portrayed an almost brutal depiction of sex and the human beast, might have a book titled, Greetings, as if the bitter ironist I knew had suddenly joined the card writers of Hallmark. If there was one thing that Claus never seemed to do was to merrily “greet” his readers. The strange photograph on the cover, depicting, I presume, the underside of a bridge (in Flanders?) continued my confusion. Was Claus’s dark vision being presented as a “soaring bridge” between beings. The poem which with the volume began—inexplicably reprinted on the book’s back cover—was, moreover, one of the worst poems by Claus I had ever read. Its end rhymed lines, “crow/glow,” “ways/ablaze,” etc and its conventional subject matter—the days become shorter, “slighter than a butterfly,” all because of love—seemed almost unrecognizable of what I knew of the Claus canon.
Who was this translator, John Irons (the internet suggests he may be a British translator living in Odense, and, if it is the same gentleman, a rather tepid poet—
pa was six days gone
begins one of his “Pa” poems titled “Farewell”)—and what was the standard for the poems which he had chosen? The book contained neither introduction nor introductory note, no substantial statement about Claus (a short 6-line bio and photograph appear on a jacket leaf) and, even more oddly, not even a copyright line, which would at least tell us from which of his books the poems had been collected. It was if the book had simply willed itself into English. *
That is not to say that there are no profoundly beautiful poems in this volume. Although I would have chosen another selection of Claus’s poems, particularly when it comes to the rhymed sonnet-sequence of 12 pages near the end of the book (the alternating and sequential rhymes—“design/Einstein,” “detect/neck,” “damp/camps,” etc nearly drown out any message that the poet might have wanted to convey), there are important poems in this volume that represent Claus’s best writing.
As I have indicated—and the vast majority of these poems support my argument—Claus’s Flanders is a dark world, a place of “Sparse song dark thread / Land like a sheet / That sinks…,” a world in which “A glass man falls out of a pub and breaks.” If the recurring themes of his poetry seem predictable and almost maudlin—the difficulty of growing older (what I described above as the “rickety-boned” subject matter of Desire, and his life-long love of his wife and man’s desires in general)—Claus’s presentation of these subjects is quite the opposite of sentimentality: the wife and husband as represented in his elegiac poem “Still Now,” for example, battle out their life and love, he “scratching and clawing for her undersize no-man’s-land,” she a “giggling executioner,” beheading him in her “cool glistening wound.” The poem ends with an image of their continuing struggles:
Still now riveted in her fetters and with the bloody nose
of lovers I say, filled with her blossoming spring:
“Death, torture the earth no longer, do not wait, dear death,
for me to come, but do as she does and strike now!”
Again in the poem “His Prayers,” Claus presents the act of loving—something he often portrays in crude and occasionally scatological terms—as a kind of beautiful punishment:
I dreamed I pulled off my eyelashes
and gave them to you, merciful one,
and you blew on them as on a dandelion,
oh, hold back your punishing hand!
to your pleasure
There is a sense of submission, in fact, in nearly all of Claus’s poems. The world of his Flanders is, in its stench of human misery and flesh, highly unjust: “Do not talk about the natural hygiene of the universe / which justifies death (from “His Notes for ‘Genesis 1.1’”). In one of his most parable-like poems, “Elephant,” Claus spells out this perpetual cycle of love and destruction which ends nearly always in his work in submission and death: meeting an elephant, the narrator and the beast become “good friends,” until one day he catches the animal “giving me a look. / an ice-cold look, a plaice’s look.”
Then I put on my wishing cloak
I donned my wig of cunt-hair
and topped it with my dreaming cap
with circle, stars, and stripes,
and then I recited my formula of murder
from the Catalogue of Changeable Signs
The elephant was an instant corpse.
Without a sigh he fell on his rump
and rumbled, crumbled, tumbled into ash,
But if the world is unjust, its inhabitants are heroes for simply living. The image of the one-legged dance (reminding me of the tradition of Flemish painting) appears again and again in Claus’s poetry. It is the dance itself, as painful and impossible as it is, that redeems the brutal world he evokes. In the poem “Simple” he weaves several of his dominant themes—love, submission, fear, death—together
the two of us dance on just one leg.
When I kneel at your knees
and I bring you to your knees
we are fragments full of pity and danger
for each other.
With chains around their necks
the dogs of love come.
That is not what I might describe as a world of “greetings,” but there is no question that Claus’s vision is of a humane redemption of the sorrow and suffering we all must face.
Los Angeles, 10 March 2006
*I have since discovered on the translator’s website that the poems include the works of Claus’s
ik schrijf je neer with the exception of two poems. Irons is indeed the author of the “Pa Poems.”
I believe readers would have been better served to know this information and the fact that John
Irons has translated a great many other Dutch, Danish, and Swedish and Norwegian poets as well.
Copyright ©2006 by Douglas Messerli.
Douglas Messerli is a poet, fiction writer, and dramatist. He edits Green Integer and The Green Integer Review.
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