Exactly ten years ago today, the Flemish writer Hugo Claus passed away. He was 78 years old.
For many, Hugo Claus is the greatest Flemish writer of the second half of the 20th century. In 1986 he received the triennial Dutch Letters Prize, the highest literary distinction in Dutch. A prolific author, he has worked in many fields, publishing over twenty novels, dozens of plays and thousands of poems. He has also exercised his talents as a painter and film director.
Claus had the art of varying the registers better than anyone else, happily alternating the tragic, the sublime, the classical, the burlesque and the flatter obscene. His favourite themes were love for the mother, the difficult contact with the father (absent), sexuality (incipient), the feeling of guilt linked to the Catholic faith, and Flanders during and after the war.
He went through hard times in his youth, but stubborn and ambitious as he was, he knew to acquire his place in the republic of literature, and turned his writership into something glamorous.
In his late years he was fêted (never good for a writer) as an emperor, and ended up as a hero to many because of his self-chosen death. He is now ten years dead, and he is deafeningly commemorated in Flanders (and the Netherlands). But let us not forget that he was apparently not much read anymore since he passed away.
Claus is not an easy writer. Tim Parks has seen well that his classic novel The sorrow of Belgium (1983) is so firmly anchored in a world of its own that it may not be understood, or may be difficult to understand, outside of it.
Find out for yourself on our website Literature from the Low Countries, where you can read four of his poems in English. Because Claus will mainly survive as a poet. He is one of those rare poets who has delivered great verses in which often a weak, sometimes silly line appears. You have to be a great poet to get away with that.