Hugo Maurice Julien Claus (5 April 1929 - 19 March 2008)
Claus, who was born in the Flanders city of Bruges to Jozef and Germaine Vanderlinden Claus, had a strict Catholic upbringing. Unable to adapt, he worked on a farm while studying at the Academy of Ghent and also studying drama.
A versatile and prolific Belgian author, he wrote poetry, novels, dramas, short stories, screenplays, essays, and translations. Pseudonyms he had used were Dorothea van Male; Jan Hyoens; and Thea Streiner.
His first marriage (26 May 1955) was to Elly Overzier, and they had a son, Thomas (6 October 1963). An affair with actress Sylvia Kristel, 27 years his junior, produced a son, Arthur, in 1975 - the relationship ended in 1977 when she left him for actor Ian McShane. His third marriage was to the actress Veerle Claus-De Wit.
Guy Duplat has described a beauty contest Claus organized in a Flemish seaside resort, Knokke, one in which members of the all-male jury had to be naked.
Known as an anti-authoritarian, he attacked conventional bourgeois mores, religious bigotry, thereby stirring much controversy. Claus worked also as a stage and film director - his films were regarded as scandalous because of their eroticism and bluntness. His international breakthrough Claus made in 1983 with the postmodern novel The Sorrow of Belgium.
Claus wrote in Flemish. For decades he was the dominant figure in Belgium's postwar Dutch-language literature.
A biography by books and writers describes his life:
- In Paris Claus met Antonin Artaud whose influence is seen in Claus's early collection of poems, Registreren (1948). After returning to Belgium he joined the Cobra group, which was named after the cities of Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. The group was established in 1948 by Karel Appel with other Northern European artists and writers, and presented a European parallel to the Abstract Expressionists in New York. Later Claus published essays on the painter Corneille (Over het werk van Corneille, 1951) and Appel. In the novel Een zachte vernieling (1988) he returned to the activities of group.
- In 1950, Claus went to live in Paris. He also spent some time in Italy. In 1955 he settled down in Belgium and married Elly Overzier; they had one son.
- As a novelist Claus made his debut with De metsiers (1950, The Duck Hunt), which was inspired by William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. This naturalistic family chronicle made Claus famous. The Duck Hunt focuses on the problems of puberty, and shows how innocence is crushed by an absurd fate. Claus's experimental period in poetry ended with De Oostakkerse Gedichten (1955).
- In the fragmented Het verlangen (1978, Desire) overweight, slow-witted Jake and dark, brooding Michael leave The Unicorn, their local tavern and head for Las Vegas, where they see the other side of glitter and glamour in the New World. Meanwhile their friends at The Unicorn comment on their missing buddies and Jake's wife struggles to tend their brain-damaged daughter.
- Claus's ambitious war novel De verwondering (1963), a story of a private inferno and Flemish Nazis, was an allegory of the contemporary world, and included references to Dante, Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, and classical mythology. The work had a late sequel in Het verdriet van België (1983, The Sorrow of Belgium), which traced grippingly the narrow-mindedness of ordinary Belgians, a subject which had led the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) collect his insults in a travel book entitled Pauvre Belgique! The post-modern bestseller can be read on different levels. Louis Seynaeve, the protagonist, is young who grows up in Nazi occupied Belgium. His formative years are tinged with a convent school with its nuns and monks and later the strong women of the family who reveal to him the secrets of the family. Claus's book later inspired Claude Goretta's television film Der Kummer von Flandern (1994).
- Schaamte (1972) was set in the Caribbean and the autobiographical Het jaar van de kreeft (1972) was based on a love affair between the author and a well-known actress. In Claus's work the emphasis is more on situation than on character. Often his books dealt with a family crisis in which the victims and victimizers are both threatened by the same forces. De zwaardvis (1989, The Swordfish) was a novella about a small-town conflict and crisis. In the story Martin Ghyselen, a lonely boy, escapes the pressures of his surroundings into fantasy, seeing himself tragically as the martyred Jesus. De geruchten (1996) was set in the mid-1960s. René Catrijsse, the sick prodigal son, returns to his home village. He has fought in the Belgian Congo before deserting from the army. His return coincides with a series of accidents in the community, and soon also the scapegoat is found.
- As a playwright Claus wrote psychological and social dramas, such as Suiker (1958), historical spectacles (Tijl uilenspiegel, 1965; Het leven en de werken van Leopold II, 1970), and adaptations of classical Greek, Roman, and Elizabethan texts, written under the influence of Antonin Artaud's theatre of cruelty. Orestes (1976) was after Euripides and Het huis van Labdakos (1977, The House of Labdacus) was a synthesis of several ancient Greek and Roman works. In Vrijdag (1969) Claus examined a triangular drama in which the acceptance of the truth means a step toward reconciliation. George Vermeersch returns from prison and finds that his wife has a lover. Vermeersch reveals that he had an incestuous relationship with their daughter. His wife acknowledges that she was aware of the situation. When the lover leaves her, the Vermeersches are left to reconstruct their marriage.
- In 1973 Claus travelled to Bangkok where his wife of that time, Sylvia Kristel, acted in Emmanuelle, one of the most successful erotic movies ever made. Claus, who was 27 years her senior, coached her in acting. "Don't lie there like a dead fish," Kristel recalled him saying. Claus's own place in Belgian cinema was primarily as a writer, for example of commentaries for documentaries by Charles Dekeukeleire, Paul Haesaerts and Patrick Ledoux. He wrote the screenplay for Roland Verhavert's Pallieter and adapted Stijn Streuvel's novel De Teleurgang van de Waterhoek for Fons Rademakers' film Mira (1971). With Rademaker he also collaborated in Het Mes (1961), De dans van de reiger (1966), and Niet voor de poezen (1973), based on Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk crime thriller. Claus's own films caused much controversy and were less successful. In 1967 he directed De Vijanden (Enemies) from his own screenplay and in 1980 Vrijdag (Friday), based on his play which was produced originally in Amsterdam in 1969. Another attempt at direction was Het Sacrament (1989, The Sacrament), about 24 hours in the life of a priest. Claus adapted the film from his novel Omtrent Deedee (1963).
- Claus lived long periods in Paris and Rome. In the later years of his life Claus spent half of the year in his farm in Northern France. Claus's several awards include the State Prize for Dutch Letters, the Herman Gorter Prize, and VSB Prize for poetry in 1994. De Geruchten (1996) received in 1998 the Aristeion Prize. He was frequently mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Dennis Hevesi's New York Times obituary includes the following:
- The author of more than 20 novels, more than 60 plays and several thousand poems, Mr. Claus was best known for his 1983 novel, The Sorrow of Belgium.
- A long, dense, poetic work, the book views the Nazi occupation of Belgium, starting in May 1940, through the eyes of a teenage boy named Louis Seynaeve. It examines the moral contradictions many Belgians faced and the outright collaboration of others, undermining myths of widespread resistance that took hold after the Nazis were defeated.
- There were 90,000 Jews in Belgium when the war started; 40,000 perished, most in the death camps. When the news reaches Louis’s father after the war, he utters a glib excuse for his ignorance.
- The experiences of young Louis in The Sorrow of Belgium resembled those of Mr. Claus’s own adolescence, he said. Like Louis, he hated going to a Roman Catholic boarding school and rebelled against authority figures, particularly his father. When the German tanks first rolled in, he told The New York Times in 1990, “There was an ecstatic feeling.”
- “We were close to the French border and the French soldiers drank our red wine, attacked our women and ate all our food,” Mr. Claus continued. “The Germans were disciplined, sang marching songs — they were very exotic enemies. Like Louis, I liked them very much.”
- “I began despising the Germans as soon as they started to lose,” he said.
- “I am a person who is unhappy with things as they stand,” The Associated Press quoted Mr. Claus as saying 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.”
- For further information: Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 1, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Introduction to Four Works for the Theatre by Hugo Claus by D. Willinger (1990); Introduction to Hugo Claus: Selected Poems by T. Hermans (1986); Claus Reading by Paul Claes (1984); Mensch und Schuld by Herbert van Uffelen (1983); Hugo Claus, Experiment en Traditie by J. Weisgerber (1974); Hugo Claus of Oedipus in het Paradijs by G. Wildemeersch (1973); Literature on the Low Countries by R.P. Meijer (1971); Post-war Dutch Literature by J.P.Snapper (1971); Over Claus' Toneel by J.De Decker (1971).
Claus, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, died by euthanasia at a hospital in Antwerp - in Belgium, euthanasia is legal.
Klein reeks (1947) was his first work, and his most recent were Ik schrijf je neer (2002); Greetings: Selected Poems (2004. trans. by John Irons); Gedichten: 1948-2004] (2004); In geval van nood: gedichten (2004); and The Sacrament and Other Plays of Forbidden Love (2007, ed. by David Willinger). See the entire listing.