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Belgium's foremost writer, he tackled controversial themes

Douglas Messerli
Friday May 2, 2008
The Guardian

Belgium's leading writer, Hugo Claus, who has died aged 78 in hospital after suffering from Alzheimer's disease, was a major poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist and film-maker, who wrote hundreds of works and was best known for his semi-autobiographical novel The Sorrow of Belgium.
Born in Bruges, he dropped out of school at 15 and, unhappy at home, left soon after for the second world war, working in a sugar factory for a while. He soon began writing poetry, joining the group of mostly Dutch poets often referred to as "the Fiftiers". As a visual artist - Claus was the son of a painter - he was also involved with the international art movement Cobra (which took its name from the first letters of the major cities of its proponents COpenhagen-BRussels-Amsterdam).

In English, his Selected Poems 1953-1973 was published in Scotland in 1986 and a more recent collection, Greetings, in 2005. A large selection of his poetry also appeared in the volume Living Space: Poems of the Dutch Fiftiers in 2005.
It is as a novelist, however, that Claus is best known to the English-speaking audience. His first novel, The Duck Hunt - a work inspired by William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying - was published in the US in 1955, and other works, The Swordfish (1996) and Desire (1997) followed. He is perhaps best known, however, for his 1983 masterwork, The Sorrow of Belgium, published by Penguin in 1991 and recently reprinted by the Overlook Press. In the tradition of Günter Grass's The Tin Drum, the novel recounts the story of Louis Steynaeve from his time in a Catholic boarding school through the second world war. Claus's clearly autobiographical narrative explores the natures of the Dutch and French-speaking Belgians, and their various collaborations. His intricate insights into the interrelationships of social and governmental corruptions, black-market profiteering, revenge, antisemitism and simple stupidity reveal the reasons for complacency and outright acceptance of the Nazis by thousands of his countrymen, including his own early romanticising of the Germans. As he later admitted: "The Germans were disciplined, sang marching songs - they were very exotic enemies. Like Louis, I liked them very much."

In all his works, Claus tackles difficult subjects, including incest, homosexuality, and what he determined were the detrimental effects of religion. Desire depicts a world of small-time drunkards and gamblers, in particular Michel and Jake, who travel together to Las Vegas in search of excitement; what the two discover in the American desert are the entangled tragedies they have left behind; Michel, we gradually perceive, has abandoned the woman he was to marry, Jake's daughter Didi, for a homosexual affair with another of the bar denizens, leaving her in mental collapse. Jake, a seemingly jovial and peaceful man, suddenly lashes out in anger, killing a young gay dancer.

Claus's novel The Swordfish recounts the story of a wealthy woman and her son left by her husband in a small, provincial town. Martin, an intense child, who has been converted to religion by a local teacher, sees himself as Jesus bearing the cross to Golgotha, while their drunken hired hand, Richard - a former veterinarian who has been imprisoned for performing unlawful abortions - looks on. Accusations of child abuse and the sexual coupling of the woman, Sibyelle, with a nebbish-like schoolteacher, ends in the brutal murder of Richard's wife.

In his 1969 play Friday, Claus explores an incestuous relationship. When George Vermeersch returns from prison, he discovers his wife is having an affair with another man. Partially in revenge, but also in an attempt at reconciliation, he admits that he has had a sexual relationship with their daughter; the wife, in turn, admits that she had known of the situation without demanding it come to an end, and, as the lover leaves her, the two are left to reconstruct their empty marriage.

For all his seemingly dark and despairing portrayals of Flemish life, however, Claus was a great believer in the human race, recognising everyone as interconnected and linked; accordingly, any evil or mean act of his figures affects the entire society. The betrayal of anyone is the betrayal of all. As Claus noted in a magazine interview: "We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth because of the injustice of things."

He was often nominated for the Nobel prize and it is on record that he had given up hope of winning. He did, however, receive numerous Belgian and European prizes for his writing. Claus was also a film-maker, and from 1953 until 1955 he lived in Italy, where his lover and, later first wife, Elly Overzier, acted in films. Overzier bore Claus his first son, Thomas, in 1963. In the early 1970s, he had an affair with Sylvia Kristel, the star of the Emmanuelle films; their son Arthur was born in 1975. Claus married his second wife, Veerle de Wit, in 1993.

Often described as a "contrarian," Claus was a writer who might be described as both traditional and experimental, often blending the two to produce powerful messages that, for sympathetic readers, could not be ignored. And in that sense Claus's canvas was, as he describes it in his poem A Woman: 14, a "landscape of anger":

Don't run from me (lame humans)

Meet me, feel me,

Crease and break, break,


According to his wife, he had chosen euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium, as his agent of death. As the head of the Flemish Literature Fund, Greet Ramael, responded: "He chose the moment of his death himself. He left life as the proud man he was."


· Hugo Maurice Julien Claus, novelist, poet, painter, playwright and film-maker, born April 5 1929; died March 19 2008

avatar van liv2
In Boeken > Nieuws > Boekennieuws:

Er moet me iets van het hart, ik zag zo juist een reportage op tv. Hugo Claus wordt herdacht. Daarvoor is er een schare bekende vlamingen opgetrommeld om op de dijk van Oostende 'scherpe zinsneden' voor te lezen uit zijn boeken. Alles ok tot hiertoe maar wat blijkt nu: nieuwbakken acteurs( Koen de Graeve) deklameren voor de camera's dat de literatuur van Claus hen'door hun jeugd heeft geloosd', dat het verboden literatuur was...en blah, blah.
Komaan zeg, dertigers die zeggen dat claus verboden literatuur is/ was, ik zou echt wel eens willen weten welk boek van claus hen dan oh zo fijn door hun jeugd heeft geloosd, was het misschien 'het verdriet van belgië of misschien wel 'omtrent Deedee? .... Wat een geblaat, en geleuter, ik geloof er niets van en daarom een citaat van Mr John Lennon

You're so clever and classless and free, but you're still fucking peasants as far i can see











avatar van manonvandebron
Hugo Claus heeft een hoge status in de Vlaamse letteren, maar door het jonge publiek van vandaag worden zijn boeken wellicht niet meer zo veel gelezen. In z'n laatste jaren had hij het imago van een intellectueel, een éminence grise, die taaie literatuur voortbracht. Bij mij was de eerste kennismaking toen we op school het eerste deel van Het Verdriet van België moesten lezen en bespreken. Dat werd een geweldige meevaller, want z'n beschrijving van het West-Vlaamse volksleven was zeer herkenbaar. Toch heb ik nog jaren gewacht om ook het tweede deel te lezen, en vervolgens ook veel van z'n andere boeken. Op jongere leeftijd had Claus een heel ander imago: de rokkenjager met de leren jas. Die dubbelzinnigheid wekte mijn interesse op.

Zijn hoofdthema is de Tweede Wereldoorlog, die hij als tiener meegemaakt heeft. De opkomst van nationalistische partijen in de jaren '30, de collaboratie, de repressie en de nasleep in België zijn door niemand anders zo grondig en levendig behandeld. Stilistisch was hij beïnvloed door modernisten als Faulkner en Joyce, maar ook de traditionele Vlaamse cultuur is volop aanwezig. Hij schreef nooit in het dialect, maar leende daaruit wel woorden en uitdrukkingen, met als doel de taal te verrijken. Ook zijn poëzie is het ontdekken waard.

1. De Verwondering 5,0*
2. Het Verdriet van België
3. De Koele Minnaar 4,0*
4. Het Jaar van de Kreeft
5. Omtrent Deedee 3,5*

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