A gripping story of temptation

Victor-Denijs De Rijckel, a self-conscious and sexually troubled language teacher, is asked by the headmaster to prepare a flattering introduction for the speech the latter is going to give in Oostende. De Rijckel, who has had to put up with the headmaster’s arrogance for years, chooses to attend a bewildering masquerade ball in the city’s casino instead. Overwhelmed by a boisterous feeling of liberty, he watches an austerely dressed woman refusing the advances of a hapless admirer. When the woman leaves for the beach, De Rijckel and the unfortunate admirer cannot keep up with her. The following morning, a thirteen year-old pupil invites De Rijckel on a trip to the village of Hekegem, a trip that promises to offer the teacher additional glimpses of his object of desire.

In Hekegem’s Almout Castle, the two continue their quest for the woman, but the teacher soon finds himself in the midst of a secret society of Flemish-nationalist fanatics honouring the memory of the mysterious lieutenant Crabbe, a former ss officer. De Rijckel gradually loses control of the situation. When he realizes that his role is changing from witness to accomplice, he tries to disentangle himself from the oppressively hagiographic mythology surrounding Crabbe, clinging on to entirely impotent notions of duty and morality. When he finally manages to escape from the castle and finds refuge in a pub, other customers accuse him of paedophilia. Sandra will save him from the villagers, but he will have to rescue himself from the imminent darkness of lunacy.

In Amazement, the graphic events are recounted in many mutually enriching, if often contradictory, ways: not only does Korneel, De Rijckel’s psychiatrist in the mental institution, force the deranged teacher to write down what happened at Almout in a more or less linear manner, but De Rijckel manages to keep a secret diary as well as yet another notebook, containing crucial details concerning the people who drove him insane.

In Claus’ magisterial novel, the baroque plot is intertwined with strong psychological portraits, scenes from Flemish military history and lurid images of desire. Eminently readable as an adventure story, this scintillating tour de force also harbours an array of emotions and densely textured meanings. De verwondering is without any doubt one of the landmarks of twentieth-century Dutch literature.

While fully aware that such an honourable title can only be used in great exceptions in Flemish literature, I would call De verwondering a masterpiece.

Paul de Wispelaere, de Vlaamse Gids

Fine and ambitious […] A work of savage satire intensely engaged with the moral and cultural life of the author’s Belgium […] Packed with asides, allusions, and fierce juxtapositions, a style created to evoke a world sliding into chaos where contrast and contradictions are so grotesque that we can only ‘wonder’ […] [Wonder is] a reminder of the energy and experimental verve with which so many writers of the Fifties and Sixties (Malaparte, Bernhard, Grass, Böll, Burgess, Pynchon) conjured up [a] disjointed and rapidly complicating world.

Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

To speak today of a still largely-unknown major work on European Fascism […] 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 Wonder, it would be churlish not to admit to an explorer’s exhilaration at discovery.

Sam Munson, The National



De verwondering (1962). Fiction, 242 pages.


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