Hugo Claus at Bozar: Con Amore

On March 19th, 2008, at the age of 78, a giant of Belgian literature gave his last breath at Middleheim hospital, in Antwerp. Playwright, poet, short story writer and novelist, Hugo Claus brought to the world the daily life of twentieth century Flanders. People walking on cobble-stone streets, catching the tram, the casual interactions with butchers and fruit sellers at the market, all of it rendered with the specificity that makes a work of literature universal.

On the tenth anniversary of his death, Bozar Centre For Fine Arts together with De Buren, organized an event to remember the genius behind The Sorrow of Belgium. French-speaking and Dutch-speaking authors were invited to pay their tributes in an evening centered around the exhibition: Hugo Claus Con Amore, shown at Bozar from the February 28th until May 27, 2018.

Yes, you could say there was a lot of love in our relationship,” said journalist and film maker Marc Didden, who is the exhibition’s chief curator. “If I can tell you one thing about him is that whenever he came over, it was as if the whole room had been suddenly lit. He was just charming, I suppose, because everybody liked him.” In his younger years, Didden was a student at RITCS (Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound) and when asked who he wanted to work with for his thesis the answer was immediate: he sent a letter to Claus, without really having any high hopes. Days later the two met at a theater rehearsal and it would be the beginning of long-lasting friendship.

Claus was born in Bruges, lived in Paris and Italy, but his dramatic and creative soul often returned to Flanders. “He was proud to know the intricacies of how people in Kortrijk speak,” said Didden. “He used to brag about how he understood their humor. ‘I can make these people laugh,’ he used to say. One night he tried to speak in what he thought was the Kortrijk dialect, and to his surprise, people were dead-silent. But what I want to say is that at the core of his being, he always wanted to be close to the people, starting from the way they spoke.

Toward the end of his life, Claus was afflicted with Alzheimer’s and requested to put an end to his life –euthanasia is a legal procedure in Belgium. During the weeks he spent at the hospital, he made a handful of drawings, some of them with fantastic and surrealistic motifs. For this event, four Flemish and Dutch poets were commissioned to each write a poem inspired by Claus’ drawings. Paul Bogaert, Dean Bowen and Dominique De Groen came up on stage and recited their pieces; Marieke Lucas Rijneveld‘s was read by De Buren’s own Willem Bongers-Dek.

Claus’s creative endeavors were almost limitless. Besides poems, plays, novels and short stories, he painted and directed films. He also left behind some poems written in English, and throughout the evening, Ghent-born singer Renée delighted the public with texts for which she had composed the music. She studied screenwriting and filmmaking under Mark Didden at RITCS. Among the pieces she performed was My elegant elephant, a song that talks about loneliness in an oblique way, perhaps characteristic of Claus. The public was rapt with elation at her beautiful, heart-felt singing.

I discovered Claus through his short stories,” said Liege-born novelist Caroline Lamarche. “I can say he influenced my first book, also a collection of stories, because spending so much time in Paris I’d come to feel that my writing had been stifled. Reading Claus was a relief because it taught me how to write freely.

Claus had a gift for capturing the essence of life in sentences. He enjoyed every aspect of it, the simple pleasures that remained close to his heart: Belgium. And he did so until the last moment.

Two days before his death he wanted to do three things,” said Didden. “He wanted to eat fritjes, watch a film and take the tram. That’s what he wanted to do.