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Hugo Claus

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Hugo Claus
Claus in Ghent, 1984
Claus in Ghent, 1984
BornHugo Maurice Julien Claus
(1929-04-05)5 April 1929
Bruges, Belgium
Died19 March 2008(2008-03-19) (aged 78)
Antwerp, Belgium
Pen nameDorothea van Male; Jan Hyoens; Thea Streiner
OccupationPlaywright, novelist, poet, painter, film director
Notable worksThe Sorrow of Belgium
SpouseElly Overzier [nl]
Veerle de Wit

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, novels, 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. He won the 2000 International Nonino Prize in Italy.

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 four sons born to Jozef Claus and Germaine Vanderlinden. Jozef worked as a printer but was also fond of theatre.[2]

Hugo was educated at a boarding school led by nuns in Aalbeke and experienced the German occupation of Belgium during World War II. The experience was formative, and would later be adapted by Claus into his semi-autobiographical The Sorrow of Belgium (1983). Many of Claus' teachers were Flemish nationalists who were sympathetic to fascism, and Claus joined the pro-German youth wing of the Flemish National Union. His father was also briefly detained after the Liberation for collaborationism.[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 [nl] (born in 1928) acted in a few films. They were married on 26 May 1955, and had a son, Thomas, on 7 October 1963.

Claus at the premiere of Het Mes, Amsterdam, 1961

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. They lived in the Raamgracht 5–7 building in Amsterdam. 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 endeavours 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]

Bert Anciaux, then Flemish Minister of Culture,[19] stated "I knew him well enough to know that he wanted to depart with pride and dignity."[20] 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.[21] The Roman Catholic Church criticized the media coverage; Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels referred to Claus' euthanasia in his Easter Homily.[22] The Belgian Alzheimer League respects Claus' decision, but believes the media coverage of his death neglects other options for Alzheimer's patients.[citation needed]


Poem by Hugo Claus as a wall poem in Leiden

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:
    • The Duck Hunt, 1955 (De Metsiers, 1950)
    • Sister of Earth, 1970 (De Metsiers, 1950)
    • The Sorrow of Belgium, 1990 (Het verdriet van België, 1983) (ISBN 1-58567-238-6)
    • The Swordfish, 1996 (De Zwaardvis, 1989) (ISBN 0-7206-0985-2)
    • Desire, 1997 (Het verlangen, 1978) (ISBN 0-14-025538-9)
    • Wonder, 2009 (De verwondering, 1962) (ISBN 978-0-9800330-1-4)
  • 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. ^ a b "Een virtuoze alleskunner" (19 March 2008). De Verdieping. Retrieved 18 June 2010. (in Dutch)
  2. ^ a b c d e Coetzee, J. M. (24 February 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. (in Dutch)
  4. ^ eorges Wildemeersch. "Introduction – Studie- en documentatiecentrum Hugo Claus". University of Antwerp. Retrieved 12 February 2009.
  5. ^ a b "Author Claus dies by euthanasia". BBC News. 21 March 2008.
  6. ^ a b Revue de la presse belge (French) Archived 20 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Radio-Television Belge RTBF (French) Archived 20 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "Le Devoir". Archived from the original on 21 March 2008. Retrieved 11 October 2018.
  9. ^ "La Croix – Actualité à la Une en France, en Europe et dans le Monde". La Croix.
  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. ^ a b 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
  13. ^ "De avonturen van Belgman". Blues Online.
  14. ^ a b "Hugo Claus". Jaski Art Gallery. Archived from the original on 6 February 2007. Retrieved 12 February 2009.
  15. ^ "Hugo Claus's position as poet-painter in Flemish/Dutch experimentalism (1947–1955)". University of Antwerp. Retrieved 12 February 2009.
  16. ^ "Hugo Claus: Mild Destruction (Een zachte vernieling)". NLPVF – Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature. Retrieved 12 February 2009.
  17. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Sacrament". festival-cannes.com. Archived from the original on 4 October 2012. Retrieved 7 August 2009.
  18. ^ svh (18 March 2008). "Hugo Claus overleden". De Standaard.
  19. ^ "Regeringen Peeters". Vlaanderen.be (in Flemish). 10 September 2014. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
  20. ^ LCI (French) Archived 21 March 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ "Welkom – Alzheimer Liga vzw". www.alzheimerliga.be.
  22. ^ "Kardinaal Danneels: 'de dood omzeilen is geen heldendaad'". De Standaard. 25 March 2008.