Hugo Claus (Bruges, April 5th, 1929 - Antwerp, March 19th, 2008) is Belgium's best known contemporary writer and one of the most important and productive post-war artists. He started publishing as a poet shortly after World War II. In more than half a century, he created an oeuvre of more than 150 monograph publications, that mainly consist of poems, stories, novels and plays. More than a hundred translations of parts of his work in over twenty languages have been made.
Of great importance to Claus was his encounter with modernism and, especially, with surrealism (1948). For him surrealism is not only an aesthetic affair, it is a way of life with far-reaching ethical implications. Consequently, life and art seem interchangeable. Just like his private life - Claus spent years in France, Italy and Holland - his work is profoundly marked by a constant quest for liberty, adventure and independence. With the surrealists, he shares the ambition to change the traditional ways of life by declaring war on anything that can obstruct the free development of man. Claus never aimed for the status of politically engaged writer, the way Jean-Paul Sartre or Günter Grass did. That does not, however, imply that his work is a-political. Claus's critique of society is to a great extent anarchistic: he focuses on the individual who is hindered by all sorts of institutions (school, family, church, state...). In his work Claus deals with these factors.
Claus is a loner, a man who always went his own way and always kept his distance. Distance, as a matter of fact, is combined with openness and receptiveness in his case. His interest in surrealism sparked a preference for dissidents like Antonin Artaud - who he proclaimed his anti-father in 1948 - and Raymond Queneau. From 1949 onwards, he participated in the Belgian branch of the international CoBrA-movement of painters (Christian Dotremont, Pierre Alechinsky). In Paris in the early fifties, he met these experimental painters (Karel Appel, Corneille, Asger Jorn...) and their writing counterparts (Simon Vinkenoog, Hans Andreus, Remco Campert, Lucebert...) on a day-to-day basis. In his 1978 volume of poetry Zwart (Two-brush paintings : Their poems by Hugo Claus), about the works of Appel and Alechinsky, and in his novel Een zachte vernieling (A Gentle Destruction, 1988), which evokes his Paris years (1950-1952), Claus denounces the experimental free expression cult, primitivism and anti-rationalism.
Claus's work is characterized by a very solid realist base. But just like Gustave Flaubert or James Joyce, he is not a realist. He is convinced that there is more than meets the eye. Those things we cannot see - everything subjective, imaginary, unconscious - are not apparent in his work, however. He hints at them, using allusions and quotations. Everything that is part of the world of dream and myth surfaces in his texts only in the form of vague references, cryptic allusions and twisted quotations.
His volume De Oostakkerse gedichten (The Oostakker Poems, 1955), his first poetic masterwork, sets the tone for what is to come. Time and time again, the opposition between nature and culture, between vitalism and erudition, confessing and concealing, a sense of tradition and of liberty is reiterated. Later on, Claus will clarify his position, using references to the western philosophical tradition. This serious and ambitious undertaking, typically, is countered by a lighter approach: intricate, hermetic poetry is followed by more accessible poetry to listen to; long, philosophical poems are placed next to witty examples of light verse, trivial anecdotes, rhyming diary pages and ingenious occasional poems. Technically as well, Claus knows no limitations. His work can be associative, then strictly logical; he writes sonnets and in free verse, uses rhetoric and parlando, and mixes the tragical, sublime and classical with the burlesque, banal and obscene. In volumes like Almanak (Almanac, 1982) and Alibi (1985) he also puts into practice this ambivalence thematically, in poems that are characterized by a tense relationship with women and his own community. Wreed geluk, the title of a 1999 volume (a pun meaning 'cruel happiness' and 'great happiness') also hints at this division, the most dominant theme in his work. It allows for the agility of an author who cannot be reduced to a certain position, but rather to the status of opposition.
In his prose as well, Claus celebrates variation. Mannered and esoteric parts are followed by vernacular episodes, epic passages are mixed with dialogues or poetical fragments, naturalistic scenes with grotesque or surrealist imaginings. Like no other Dutch-writing author, Claus has put the innovations of the international avant-garde to use in his own work. He uses techniques from the cinema (montage/editing, flash-back, close-up) and psycho-analysis (projection, condensation). He combines different narrators, mixing first and third person narrations or even we-narrations, a form echoing the classical choir. Flemish peasant's novels, like his 1950 De Metsiers (translated as The Duck Hunt and Sister of Earth) or Omtrent Deedee (About Deedee, 1963) are followed by exotic artist's novels that can be light and accessible, like De koele minnaar (The Cool Lover, 1956), or top-heavy and hermetic, like Schaamte (Shame, 1972). Two highlights of his prose deal with the aftermath of World War II, De verwondering (Amazement, 1962) and De geruchten (Rumours, 1996). His magnum opus, the massive 1983 Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) also deals with that unfinished past: in this novel, Claus combines all of his earlier technical approaches and themes - it is a story of initiation, documentary novel, Bildungsroman, family chronicle and historic evocation.
Claus, who also direct plays, is a prolific playwright. Highlights in this output are Een bruid in de morgen (A Bride in the Morning, 1955), Suiker (Sugar, 1958) and Vrijdag (Friday, 1969). His most successful plays share a certain form of realism and they all combine comedy and tragedy. In Claus's plays as well, variation rules. He will apply Artaud's theatre of cruelty (Thyestes, 1966) or retakes Bertolt Brecht's epic theatre (Het lied van de moordenaar - The Song of the Murderer, 1957). He has written comedies and tragedies, romances and satires, and most often a mixture of all of these. Like in his prose, the main characters in his plays have to face psychological, sexual and social challenges. A link is often hinted at between these challenges and the difficulties they have to deal with in their parents' house. This interference in their development leads to a disturbed view of reality. A central, though often disguised, figure in the whole of Claus's work is Oedipus. He symbolizes man's fundamental lack of (psychological, existential, social...) freedom and independence. Because of their oedipal attachments, Claus's main characters are bound to remain immature, they fail in their role as father, lover or hero and have a problematic relationship with their families, their wives and with society.
Claus is also very active and versatile as a translator and adaptor, especially of plays. He has translated from the Greek and Latin classics: Aristophanes, Euripides, Seneca, Sophocles amongst others; from the English: Samuel Beckett, Noel Coward, Ben Jonson, Fay & Michael Kanin, Christopher Logue, Christopher Marlowe, Dylan Thomas, William Shakespeare and Cyril Tourneur; from the French: Jean Anouilh, Jacques Audiberti, Charles de Coster, Fernand Crommelynck, Michel de Ghelderode and Jean-Clarence Lambert; from the Italian: Giorgio Gaber and Natalia Ginzburg; from the German: Georg Büchner, Christian Dietrich Grabbe and Franz Grillparzer; and from the Spanish: Fernando de Rojas, Federico Garcia Lorca and Ramón Maria del Valle-Inclán.
Claus is also known as an active painter, film maker and librettist. A sample of his artistic activities is provided by the book Hugo Claus. Beelden (Images, 1988). His most important individual exhibitions include those in Brussels (1956, 1959, 1961, 1987), Rotterdam (1959), Amsterdam (1963, 1986, 1988), Antwerp (1978, 1989), Berlin (1988) and Liège (1991). He wrote about twenty film scripts and directed several movies, including De vijanden (The Enemies, 1967) and Vrijdag (Friday, 1980). His most important contributions to music-projects were libretti for François de la Rochefoucauld's La Mer blanche (1956), Bruno Maderna's Morituri (1968) - about the Vietnam war - and Konrad Boehmer's Georg Faust (1985).
His work shows no preference for any particular style, genre or art form. The best possible realisation of the aimed for effect is what matters. The way he explores and crosses certain boundaries testifies to his great artistic mastery. About painters and their work, he writes essays (Karel Appel. Painter 1962), commentary text for a documentary (Brueghel, 1969), scripts (Rubens, 1977) and most often poems (about Jeroen Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, Paul Joostens, Roger Raveel and others). In his adaptations in particular, he seems to float freely from one art form or genre to another. He rewrites his own or someone else's prose for the theatre, but also works the other way around (Jessica, 1977, a novel based on his own play). Film scripts can be based on his own work, as was the case with his own story Het mes (The Knife, 1961), or on other writers' (e.g. Diary of a Mad Old Man, 1986, based on Junichiro Tanizaki's book). Here again, he also works the other way around: he rewrote Jean-Luc Godard's movie Pierrot le fou as a play (Gekke Gerrit, 1972). The best example of this working method is Omtrent Deedee. This 1963 novel was based on a film script, was later rewritten as a play (Interieur - Interior, 1971) and served finally as the basis for a new film script that Claus himself directed (Het sacrament - The Sacrament, 1989).
Of all Dutch writing authors, Claus has received the most awards and prizes. Among the more than fifty prizes, including seven Belgian or Flemish National Awards, several Dutch awards, he also received the Belgian-Dutch Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren (1986), the most important literary prize for a Dutch writing author. International prizes include the Prix Lugné-Poë (1955), the Ford Foundation Grant (1959), the Prix International Pier Paolo Pasolini (1997), the Aristeion Literature Prize (1998), the Premio Nonino (2000) and the Preis für Europäische Poesie (2001).
© Georges Wildemeersch