Tzum | Review: Hugo Claus – Belgium’s Sorrow

(This is a review from 1983, from Everhard Huizing’s archive)

Space-wide war

It took me two days to read the latest book by Hugo Claus Belgium’s grief read. Two days of almost uninterrupted reading for a book of almost eight hundred pages. But it was certainly not a war of attrition. Belgium’s grief is indeed a wonderful novel, and although the year has only just begun, I almost dare to speak of the most important literary event of 1983. In any case, it is a masterpiece, as writers usually only write one in their lifetime (and most never write themselves ).

IN Belgium’s grief Claus describes a touching episode in the life of the deceitful, unsympathetic and at the same time very endearing little boy Louis Seynave. When the book begins, he is almost eleven years old and we are on the eve of World War II. At the end of the book, the war is over; Louis is seventeen years old and in the process of becoming a writer. He already has a short story with the title Belgium’s grief. Action locations are mainly Haarbeke, Walle (Kortrijk) and Bastegem in West Flanders, where Hugo Claus also spent his childhood. Despite several similarities between the main character’s life and his own biography, Claus has emphatically pointed out in various interviews that he has not written his autobiography with this novel. What is it then? Different answers are possible. A historical novel, a family novel, a psychological novel, a novel about the origins of a writing career. All answers are equally good, and I believe that it is precisely this versatility that is an important part of the quality of this book.

As said, the beginning and the end of the novel are marked by, roughly speaking, the beginning and the end of the Second World War respectively. More than a description of Flanders in wartime, however, Claus gives a picture of how the war was not an actual war for the Flemish (and at least for the petty-bourgeois family at Seynaverne). In particular, the staunch Flamingans, of whom Louis’s father was one, saw the Germans as liberators (from French ‘dominion’) rather than occupiers. The men admired the German organizational talent and the women the German politeness: “They certainly know how to treat a woman.” When Louis’ mother starts working in an office at ERLA (where German planes were repaired), his father’s biggest complaint is that she puts up with the amorous attentions of her German superiors too much. He is just jealous and nothing more than that. It is probably no coincidence that this novel largely consists of (superiorly reproduced) living room dialogues between Louis’ extremely talkative parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, trivial dialogues in which the war is reduced to the width of space. People follow the great achievements, but discuss them only to the extent that they have direct consequences for their own business. As meat prices plummet due to D-Day, one of Louis’ aunts (who runs a butcher’s shop with her husband) makes the following immortal comment: “It’s cruel that your trade can depend so much on a landing in Normandy .”

I’m not a historian, but if Claus’s presentation is at all consistent with historical reality, I think many serious historians will be jealous of the way he has addressed the problem of Flemish cooperation (which is much more nuanced, by the way and complicated). than I can possibly list here). The question is, of course, whether the Flemish people will be so enthusiastic about this book.

Except about Flanders, the war and the Seynave families Belgium’s grief certainly not least about Louis’ upbringing. He is not only the main character of this novel, it is also through his eyes that we observe the actions of the other Seynaves. Louis is a very sad little boy who, from his strict upbringing in a nun’s boarding school, desperately tries to find his way through life through lies, lies and fantasies. Where reality is incomprehensible or unacceptable to him, he simply creates another in his imagination. In several places in the novel, it is also difficult to determine where the actual perception of Louis ends and the imagination begins. Of course, Claus is not doing anything new with that. One might even say that the theme of fantasy is fast becoming an obligatory subject in modern Dutch fiction. But while other authors often ‘treat’ this theme in a pedantic-academic way, Claus knows how to weave it into a tightly coherent whole in a very convincing way. The composition also forced my admiration. In an interview de Claus stated that this time he had not wanted to be bound by ‘a psychological story with a beginning, a rise and an end’. It was actually missing Belgium’s grief even a hint of intrigue. The book consists of an almost endless series of separate scenes, scenes and anecdotes. However, none of them seemed to me to be out of place or to be omitted.

Everhard House

Hugo Claus – Belgium’s grief. The busy bee, Amsterdam.

This review originally appeared in Nordens Avis on March 21, 1983.

(photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo; Nationaal Archief, CC0)

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