Hugo Claus

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Hugo Claus
File:Hugo Claus.jpg
Born Hugo Maurice Julien Claus
(1929-04-05)5 April 1929
Bruges, Belgium
Died 19 March 2008(2008-03-19) (aged 78)
Antwerp, Belgium
Pen name Dorothea van Male; Jan Hyoens; Thea Streiner
Occupation Playwright, novelist, poet, painter, film director
Notable works The Sorrow of Belgium
Spouse Elly Overzier

Hugo Maurice Julien Claus (Dutch pronunciation: [ˈɦyɣoː ˈklʌu̯s]; 5 April 1929 – 19 March 2008) was a leading Belgian author who published under his own name as well as various pseudonyms. Claus' literary contributions spanned the genres of drama, the novel, and poetry; he also left a legacy as a painter and film director. He wrote primarily in Dutch, although he also wrote some poetry in English.

His death by euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium, led to considerable controversy.


Hugo Claus was born on 5 April 1929 at Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges, Belgium.[1] He was the eldest of the sons born to Jozef (Joseph) Claus, a printer who had a passion for theater; his mother was Germaine Vanderlinden. Three more sons were born into the family within the subsequent decade: Guido (February 1931 - 9 November 1991), Odo (born January 1934), and Johan (November 1938 - 13 February 2009).

Educated at a boarding school, the young Hugo Claus lived in Belgium during the German invasion of the country in World War II. Several of Claus' schoolteachers during the half-decade of the German occupation of the country were right-wing nationalists eager to support the pro-German government; his father was briefly held in custody for pro-German activities after the end of the occupation, and Hugo was himself swayed into supporting the pro-German Flemish fascist youth movement.[2] Claus' experience with the wartime nationalist right would later become a source for his 1983 book The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel which tells the story of Claus' alter ego Louis Seynaeve.[2] A sympathizer of the political left at a more mature period in his life, Claus lauded the socialist model after a visit to Cuba in the 1960s.[2]

Claus' prominence in literary circles and his debut as a novelist came in 1950, with the publication of his De Metsiers at age twenty-one. His first published poems had in fact been printed by his father as early as 1947.[3] He lived in Paris from 1950 until 1952, where he met many of the members of the CoBrA art movement.[4]

From February 1953 until the beginning of 1955, Hugo Claus lived in Italy where his girlfriend Elly Overzier (born in 1928) acted in a few films. They were married on 26 May 1955, and had a son, Thomas, on 7 October 1963. In the early 1970s, he had an affair with actress Sylvia Kristel, who was 23 years younger, with whom he had a son, Arthur, in 1975. The relationship ended in 1977, when she left him for actor Ian McShane.[5]

He was a "contrarian", of "anarchist spirit".[citation needed] Journalist Guy Duplat recalls that Claus had organized in Knokke the election of a "Miss Knokke Festival", which was a typical beauty contest, except for the Claus ruling that the members of the all-male jury would have to be naked.[6]

Literary career

Hugo Claus was considered to be one of the most important contemporary Belgian authors .[7][8][9] Claus published the novel Schola Nostra (1971) under the pseudonym Dorothea Van Male. He also used the pseudonyms Jan Hyoens and Thea Streiner. The 1962 De verwondering (The Astonishment) and the 1983 Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) rank among Claus' most significant works as a novelist.[10] Lee views Het verdriet van België as a postmodern critique of national identity.[11]

Most prolific in literary endeavors as a dramatist, Claus wrote 35 original pieces and 31 translations from English, Greek, Latin, French and Spanish plays and novels. His dramatic sketch Masscheroen was first staged at Knokke Casino and featured an all-nude cast: three naked men were given the task of portraying the Christian Holy Trinity of God the father, God the son, and the Holy Spirit; the work also made light of the Holy Virgin, a Belgian saint, and the Three Wise Men.[12] Attacked as blasphemous and deleterious to the public's moral well-being, the light-hearted play's performance triggered a notable legal case in which Claus was prosecuted: convicted on charges of public indecency, Claus was ordered to pay a ten-thousand-Belgian franc fine and serve a four-month prison sentence.[1][2][12] The prison term was reduced to a suspended sentence after a public outcry.[2]

Claus also wrote the script of a satirical comic strip, "De Avonturen van Belgman" ("The Adventures of Belgian Man") in 1967, which spoofed the Belgian bi-lingual troubles. The strip itself was drawn by artist Hugoké (Hugo de Kempeneer). [13]

Hugo Claus' name had been put forward many times for the Nobel Prize in literature, on which he would casually comment "this prize money would suit me fine".[6]

Painting and film

As a painter, Claus was a participant in the CoBrA art movement from 1950. He had developed friendships with some of its members, and illustrated a book by Pierre Alechinsky in 1949.[14] He collaborated with key figures in the movement including Karel Appel and Corneille[15] and participated in some exhibitions.[14] He later used his experiences of this time in his book Een zachte vernieling (Mild Destruction).[16]

Claus directed seven films between 1964 and 2001. His film Het sacrament was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.[17]


Claus suffered from Alzheimer's disease and requested his life to be terminated through euthanasia, a legal procedure in Belgium, at the Middelheim Hospital in Antwerp on 19 March 2008.[18]

The Flemish Minister of Culture stated "I knew him well enough to know that he wanted to depart with pride and dignity."[19] Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said that he imagined the onset of Alzheimer's must have been "inevitable and unbearable torture". "I can live with the fact that he decided thus," he said, "because he left us as a great glowing star, right on time, just before he would have collapsed into a Stellar black hole."[5]

His death by euthanasia has received criticism from the Roman Catholic Church and the Belgian Alzheimer League.[20] The Roman Catholic Church criticized the media coverage; Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels referred to Claus' euthanasia in his Easter Homily.[21] The Belgian Alzheimer League respects Claus' decision, but believes the media coverage of his death neglects other options for Alzheimer's patients.[citation needed]


Amongst others:


Claus wrote over a thousand pages of poetry, more than sixty plays, over twenty novels and several essays, film scripts, libretti and translations. Only a small part of this œuvre has been translated into English:

  • Prose:
  • Poetry:
    • with Karel Appel: Love Song, 1963 (written in English)
    • Four Flemish Poets: Hugo Claus, Gust Gils, Paul Snoek, Hugues C. Pernath / edited by Peter Nijmeijer. (1976) (ISBN 0856820342)
    • with Pierre Alechinsky and Karel Appel: Two-brush paintings: Their poems by Hugo Claus, 1980 (Zwart, 1978)
    • An Evening of postwar poetry of the Netherlands and Flanders [sound recording]: Hugo Claus, Judith Herzberg, Gerrit Kouwenaar, and Cees Nooteboom reading their poems, 1984
    • Selected Poems 1953-1973, 1986
    • The Sign of the Hamster, 1985 (Het teken van de Hamster, 1964) (ISBN 9071345130)
    • Greetings: selected poems, 2004 (ISBN 0151009007)
    • Even Now, selected and translated by David Colmer, 2013
  • Theatre:
  • Essay:
    • Karel Appel, Painter, 1963 (Karel Appel, Schilder, 1964)

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Een virtuoze alleskunner" (19 March 2008). De Verdieping. Retrieved 18 June 2010. (Dutch)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Coetzee, J. M. (24 Feb 2007). "Stepping Stones". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 June 2010.
  3. Bloom, Ono (20 March 2008). "De Vlaamse leeuw is dood: In memoriam Hugo Claus 1929 - 2008". De Verdieping. Retrieved 18 June 2010. (Dutch)
  4. eorges Wildemeersch. "Introduction - Studie- en documentatiecentrum Hugo Claus". University of Antwerp. Retrieved 2009-02-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Author Claus dies by euthanasia". BBC News. 21 March 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Revue de la presse belge (French)
  7. Radio-Television Belge RTBF (French)
  8. Le Devoir (French)
  9. La Croix (French)
  10. Brems, Hugo (2007). "Claus, Hugo (1929-)". In Bernard A. Cook (Ed.), Europe Since 1945: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (pp. 204-205). London: Taylor & Francis. ISBN 0-8153-1336-5.
  11. Lee, M. (2002). National Identity and Its Construction: The Codification of Flemish Identity Illustrated through Het verdriet van België by Hugo Claus. Dutch Crossing: A Journal Of Low Countries Studies, 26(2), 212-232.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Willinger, David (2007). "Introduction". In Hugo Claus, The Sacrament and Other Plays of Forbidden Love (pp. 11-80). Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press. ISBN 978-1-57591-110-6
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Hugo Claus". Jaski Art Gallery. Retrieved 2009-02-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Hugo Claus's position as poet-painter in Flemish/Dutch experimentalism (1947-1955)". University of Antwerp. Retrieved 2009-02-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "Hugo Claus: Mild Destruction (Een zachte vernieling)". NLPVF - Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature. Retrieved 2009-02-12.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Festival de Cannes: The Sacrament". Retrieved 2009-08-07.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. De Standaard online
  19. LCI (French)
  20. [1]
  21. De Standaard online

External links