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Hugo Claus

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To purchase Desire

Title: Desire
Author: Hugo Claus
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978 (Eng.: 1997)
Length: 211 pages
Original in: Flemish
Availability: Desire - US
Desire - UK
Le désir - France
Jakobs Verlangen - Deutschland
El deseo - España
  • Dutch title: Het verlangen
  • Translated by Stacey Knecht

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-written, dark modern morality play -- though parts feel a bit dated

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times A 19/1/1998 Jonathan Levi
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/3/1998 Peter Bricklebank
World Lit. Today B- Winter/1999 Henry J. Baron
Die Zeit . 8/10/1993 Joachim Fritz-Vannahme

  From the Reviews:
  • "Claus has painted a masterpiece, but not of an internationalist Belgium, a paradise of European Unity. His Card Players make their tricks in a squalid, ingrown Garden of Earthly Delights, a hell of Bosch-like proportions." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The writing is superb, to be sure, but it fails to yield an esthetically satisfying experience." - Henry J. Baron, World Literature Today

  • "Hugo Claus erweist sich als ein Artist des Banalen, der sich mit ein, zwei flinken Sätzen seine Szene schafft, in Flanderns Einöde wie im tristen Glitzern von Las Vegas, und sie mit einem Personal bevölkert, das, kaum vorgestellt, schon altvertraut wirkt. Je grauer die Welt, um so glanzvoller dieser Stilist des Beiläufigen." - Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, Die Zeit

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:

       The Flemish (i.e. Belgian, but writing in Dutch) author Hugo Claus is among those whose name gets bandied about annually before the Nobel Prize is awarded. His prolific and varied output make him an interesting contender, though you would never know it to judge by the few translations available in English. The Sorrow of Belgium, one of his grander tomes, is available, and recently (though twenty years after its original publication) Desire was finally offered up to an American audience.
       Surely one reason why this book -- far from his best known -- was chosen was that it is partially set in America. If so, it is a fairly sad sign -- all the more so because that aspect has a dated 70's feel (as well it might, since that is when it is set), and is more likely to put off potential readers.
       Desire begins raucously at the Unicorn, a tavern in Belgium where a group of friends drink and gamble. In these, the best scenes of the book, Claus presents his characters, a clan held together by card-playing and alcoholic indulgence and a bizarre mutual dependency (a smokier, rawer Cheers, if you will). Among the characters are "Michel, the accused, and Jake, the innocent." Michel, who lives with his terminally ill mother and his father, decides that he wants to visit the promised land, deciding to venture beyond the Unicorn, to America. And he invites Jake, an oversized innocent and the jolly fool at the Unicorn, to go with him. Jake is married, and he has a daughter he dearly loves -- and who appears to be retarded.
       The Unicorn is a den of gambling, and their destination is an obvious one: Las Vegas. A shadow hanging over them -- and all those at the Unicorn -- throughout the story is Rickabone, who even in death is larger than life, the exemplar of the devil may care attitude prevalent at the drinking hole. They are not nice people at the tavern, a mixed bag of all sorts. They seem basically harmless -- though, as it turns out, they most definitely aren't.
       Michel, who carries Hitlerjugend dagger with him, and Jake are definitely a mismatched pair. They make it to America, baffled and yet at home first in Los Angeles and then Las Vegas. Their interests remain the same as at home: drink, gamble, ogle naked women -- though they seem to realize that there is a certain emptiness to this as well. It is Jake who speaks of desire, in the letters he writes home, a longing he cannot quite put his finger on.
       The adventures they have along the way are often amusing -- including a fun cameo by Jerry Lee Lewis, and their arrest as suspected serial killers. Their bafflement about things American is by and large not new (and it probably wasn't in 1978), but parts are fun. In a bar Jake sips root beer, spitting it on the floor, leading him to recall "the last time he had drunk anything this bad":

      "Try some," Rickabone urged. (Jake) did and spit it right out again.
      "Coca-Cola," said Rickabone. "The whole world's going to be drinking it."
      "No," said Jake. "I don't care how hard they advertise, I don't care how hard they try to get it down people's throats, this rat poison'll never sell, no sir. You think a real Belgian would give up his beer for this ?"
      "You're such a child, Jacob," said Rickabone. "It's not a matter of taste."
       Knowing Rickabone, like his acolyte, Michel, is right, understanding the perverse ways of the world. The innocent Jake sees truth (and surely anybody who really tastes Coca Cola, who lets it linger on their taste buds (if they have any) could, in our opinion, not but agree with his assessment and reaction to it) -- but, as Rickabone recognizes, it isn't about taste, or truth.
       Michel vows that "Innocence must not prevail", and he does his best to that end, as the novel takes a decidedly darker and more violent turn. Jake is essentially betrayed on both sides of the Atlantic. He does, in a sense, find what he wants on this trip, but the personal cost is high. Recognizing how he has been treated by those at the Unicorn, a sap for so many years, Jake is able to move beyond the tavern. But is still a wrenching process of personal discovery.
       Claus has written a strong moral tale. He writes exceptionally well, and many of the scenes are very nicely done. The characters, however, are a sad and sorry lot (excepting the irrepressible, ever-present Rickabone), and it is difficult to sympathize with them, even with the victimized Jake.
       Much of the America on the book is dated, and though Claus gets much of it right it is still clear that a foreigner is writing about the country, and aspects don't ring true. It is not a fatal flaw, but it is annoying.
       Recommended, though certainly not for everyone. It is a good book, but not a nice one.

       A note on the translation: We have not had occasion to compare the English translation with the original. However, Stacey Knecht has certainly presented an eminently readable version, and while we aren't sure how close to the original it is, the jargon and cant (of which there is a great deal) flow smoothly and believably and the whole seems exceptionally well rendered. Knecht seems to have captured the original convincingly and well.

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Desire: Reviews Hugo Claus: Other books by Hugo Claus under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Hugo Claus lived 1929 to 2008.

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