Hugo Claus: Acclaimed author whose work was marked by intelligence and passion

Though often a controversial figure, the Flemish writer, director and graphic artist Hugo Claus was rarely overtly political. His sympathies were with the underdog, but he never descended to agitprop. Claus was the recipient of seven state prizes in Belgium and in 1986 was awarded the prestigious Prize for Dutch Literature. Harry Mulisch, the only other living writer in Dutch to be tipped for the Nobel Prize, called Claus "a great figure", while the poet Remco Campert described him as "the greatest writer of my generation".

Born in Bruges, the son of a printer from whom he inherited a love of theatre, Claus was educated first at Roman Catholic boarding schools – an experience powerfully evoked in his internationally acclaimed novel The Sorrow of Belgium – and later in the state sector. Although precociously talented, he opted for "the university of life", and between 1948 and 1955 he travelled widely in Europe, becoming an active member of the progressive art scene in both Paris and Rome.

He was in all senses a larger-than-life figure: first and foremost in his great productivity, as a poet, novelist and dramatist (with some 150 publications), but also as a painter, scriptwriter and director for stage and screen. Claus famously affected "laziness", but that is belied by both the oeuvre itself and by the testimony of those close to him. The actress Sylvia Kristel, his long-time companion and mother of his son, described his "monastic" sense of discipline.

Besides its sheer volume his work is also amazingly diverse and eclectic. "Purity is the dirtiest word I know," he is quoted as saying. Or, equally frankly:

I have a perverse inclination to do things I've never done before. As a result I often fall flat on my face. It's a question of disposition – I don't dig like [certain contemporary Dutch writers]. They dig, dig, dig. I'm more of a butterfly.

The 1,400-page Gedichten 1948-2004 ("Poems 1948-2004") traces his poetry from his startling début, De Oostakkerse gedichten ("Poems from Oostakker", 1955), with their linguistic and rhythmical virtuosity, urgent physicality, animal eroticism and bleak mythical undertow, to the more regular forms and understated tone of his later love lyrics and occasional verse. A recent selection in English, translated by John Irons, was published in 2005 as Greetings, filling a glaring gap.

The novelist J.M. Coetzee recently wrote of Claus that he is not a great lyricist, and though his style is crisp and pointed he cannot be called a great satirist or epigrammatist either. From the beginning, however, his poetry has been marked by an uncommon mix of intelligence and passion, given expression in a medium over which he has such light-fingered control that art becomes invisible.

In 2005 Claus expressed some disillusion with poetry and with the lack of response to his own, but posterity is likely to disagree with him.

The first important influence on Claus's extensive dramatic work was Antonin Artaud, the prophet of the "theatre of cruelty", but Artaud's was never a defining influence. Indeed, surveying his output of plays, one often has the impression that Claus redefines himself with each new work.

It is a huge leap, for example, from the gritty realism of Suiker ("Sugar", 1958), set among a community of migratory farm labourers, to the charged melodrama of Vrijdag (Friday, 1969) on the recurring theme of incest. The play was quite successfully performed in an adaptation by Christopher Logue at the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court in 1971, though the transposition of the action from Flanders to Fulham robbed it of some of its resonance.

One of his greatest achievements in the theatre remains his spectacular satirical burlesque Het leven en de werken van Leopold II ("The life and works of King Leopold II", 1970) where he tackles the outrageous colonial exploits of the Belgian monarch in the Congo and their tragic repercussions in the 1960s – themes that he rightly argues had hitherto been neglected in Flemish writing – in a pantomimic style quite worthy of Dario Fo. When challenged about the comparative absence of black faces on stage, he retorted that he was studying the oppressor, not the oppressed. His influence on younger talents, like Tom Lanoye, is evident.

Besides his original work for the theatre, Claus was a prolific translator and adaptor, of among others, Sophocles, Tourneur and Dylan Thomas. He had the omnivorous erudition and enthusiasm of the autodidact.

In fiction, he was an original and underrated short-story writer, in the collection Natuurgetrouw ("True to nature", 1954) and others. One exceptional work that Claus himself later adapted for the stage is the novella De verzoeking ("The temptation", 1980), the interior monologue of a dying nun. This adaptation of his own fiction became a habit. One could even argue that his plays, which continue to draw audiences throughout the Low Countries, are likely to outlast all but his best fiction.

He first gained attention as a prose writer with De Metsiers (The Duck Hunt, 1950), the product of a challenge by a publisher who dared him to attempt a Faulkner-style multi-perspective narrative. In De verwondering ("Bewilderment", 1962; English translation in preparation) he shows himself a fully fledged modernist, tracing a disturbed schoolteacher's links with a sinister fascist group. Het jaar van de kreeft ("The year of cancer", 1972) is a more conventional story with autobiographical elements including a well-publicised affair with a famous actress.

In 1983 Claus produced his fictional masterpiece, Het verdriet van België (translated by Arnold J. Pomerans as The Sorrow of Belgium, 1991). The book, one of only three Dutch-language works to achieve the status of a "Penguin Classic", is essentially a Bildungsroman showing the growth to manhood of a Flemish boy, Louis Seynaeve, during and after the Second World War, in the murky worlds of clericalism, Flemish nationalist politics and collaboration. However, the novel's masterly evocation of the aspirations, equivocations and frustrations of a whole society is stunning and deserves a much wider readership. Appropriately, the covers of both Dutch and English editions feature a haunting street scene by the Flemish painter James Ensor.

For a Dutch-language author Claus has been widely translated, and a selection of his prose and poetry is available in English. Why then has he not (yet) reached a wider audience? One suggestion is that his work is difficult to translate. He is a "difficult" writer in two respects: firstly his literary roots lie in modernism and experimentalism (although capable of linear narrative, it was not his preferred form), and secondly, his language, a stylised form of his native West Flemish, is less accessible than the lucid transparency aimed at by many of his counterparts in the Netherlands. His Burgundian exuberance and prolixity – the mythical, anarchic figure of Til Uilenspiegel comes to mind – are obstacles for some. Cumulatively, however, his prose rewards the reader's effort to join the author on his adventure in language, which in one of his more oracular definitions he calls "an anagram of the world".

Claus's work has been called a cosmos in its own right, which defies exhaustive definition. Yet this Promethean artist, often Baroque, elusive and at times self-contradictory, is, like W.B. Yeats, capable of stunning simplicity; the following poem, "In Flanders Fields" (translated by John Irons) commemorates a cataclysm that links his native West Flanders with Britain:

Here the soil is most rank.

Even after all these years without dung

you could raise a prize death leek here.

The English veterans are getting scarce.

Every year they point to their yet scarcer friends:

Hill Sixty, Hill Sixty-One, Poelkapelle.

In Flanders Fields the threshers

draw ever smaller circles round the twisting trenches

of hardened sandbags, the entrails of death.

The local butter tastes of poppies.

Paul Vincent

Hugo Maurice Julien Claus, writer and poet: born Bruges, Belgium 5 April 1929; married first 1955 Elly Overzier (one son; marriage dissolved), second Veerle De Wit, (one son with Sylvia Kristel); died Antwerp, Belgium 19 March 2008.

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