Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Sorrow of Belgium, by Hugo Claus

The Sorrow of Belgium

I decided to read The Sorrow of Belgium as research for my current work in progress, a novel narrated in part by a boy recruited into the Flemish nationalist movement in the lead-up to the Second World War. Claus’ largely autobiographical novel – he was born in Bruges in 1929 – was recommended to me by several people as crucial reading for the period and subject matter. Never slow to justify the purchase of a new book in the name of “research”, I promptly bought myself a copy and promised myself that I would not read it until I had finished drafting my own project.  

I failed miserably. I made the fatal error of reading the first line – “Dondeyne had hidden one of the seven Forbidden Books under his tunic and then coaxed Louis into coming along” – and from that moment I was hooked.  

Louis is the novel’s narrator and Claus’ alter ego. In a twist of stylistic genius, Claus alternates between writing in the third person and the first – a decision that is at once risky and absolutely right for so personal a novel, a book that is in many ways about his own emergent sense of the power of words and storytelling. The shifts are seamless:          

“He was sitting on a train, and for the first time in his life it occurred to him that a train, more so than the idea of a train, was a box so many feet high, so many feet long, so many feet wide, a fragile, futile, and above all simple thing on wheels. I could touch the ceiling of this carriage – who would have thought it? Only a moment ago I was in the playground, in the shadow of my grandfather, who is now lying on his deathbed.” 

Louis’ story begins in 1939, when he is ten, and ends as an uneasy peace is being reintroduced to Europe. The narrative is episodic – there are no chapters – and spans Louis’ antics at convent school, the death of his infant brother, the outbreak of war, the erosion and repair of his parents’ marriage, a short-lived membership in the Hitler Youth, juvenile sexual forays, and his first attempts at writing fiction. His experiences are peppered with colourful characters: his collaborator father and philandering mother, a slew of mad aunts, uncles and grandparents, school friends, teachers and clergy, Allied soldiers, Nazis and Resistance fighters.  

Most tellingly, there are no “good” or “bad” characters. Corruption is rampant, but necessary. Fact and rumour collide; the line dividing politics and mythology blurs. Humour, pathos, and irony punctuate the child’s voice, and, in time, the adolescent’s. Here, Louis scrambles to enter his first story into a magazine competition, justifying himself by lying to one of the judges: 

“My brother died in a concentration camp,” said Louis. “He was an intellectual working for the Underground, and he never tasted the fruits of his clandestine labours.” 

“Is this entry about his experience?” 

“His own experience, yes, of course.” 

“Het Laatste Nieuws would certainly be interested in that.” 

“It doesn’t deal directly with the concentration camp. It’s rather…” 

“Which concentration camp?” 

“…symbolic. Uh, Neuengamme.” (I’ll be struck down for that. Till the blood runs. Terminal cancer. Starting with the intestines. Then it spreads all over.) 

“It’s a good subject. The Belgian people are going to have to learn the facts. From the source.” 

“He handed me the text before he was taken away. In a cattle truck. ‘Take good care of it, Louis,’ he said.” 

“I thought his name was Louis.” 

“He asked me to adopt his name. So as to save his life’s work after his death, to continue it. My real name is Maurice.”  

Like a Breughel painting, The Sorrow of Belgium is busy, grotesque, hilarious and utterly compelling: an epic work that always manages to feel personal, and the undisputed masterwork of Claus’ lauded career. It is remarkable for its simplicity of style, honesty of telling, and the manner in which it completely immerses the reader in war-torn Belgium – terrifying, strange and so very human.  

The Sorrow of Belgium; Hugo Claus (original Flemish title Het verdriet van België), Tusk Ivories 2002 (first published 1983) 603 pp. ISBN 1-58567-238-6

About Trilby

Born in Toronto but grew up all over the map thanks to her peripatetic journalist parents. After completing degrees from Oxford and the LSE, she spent a year working at a London auction house - but soon gave it up to become a writer. Her first novel - for children 9-14 - will appear in 2009 (Tundra Books). Meanwhile, a "grown-up" novel, set in Ceylon and Flanders in the 1930s, is in the works. Almost a year since receiving a 1910 Sigwalt letterpress, she has yet to decide where the gauge pins go.

11 comments on “The Sorrow of Belgium, by Hugo Claus

  1. Jackie
    November 9, 2007

    Really liked your comparision to a Breughel painting, it gives a definite sense of what to expect. I see what you mean about the flow between the first & third person, it does work. Sometimes I believe we think that way. This appears to be an unusual book, but I see the appeal. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  2. Leena
    November 9, 2007

    Oh dear – I’m hooked just from reading that excerpt! I must get this book now.

    Honestly, this blog will lead me to bankruptcy before the year is out…

  3. Mhairi
    November 9, 2007

    Hmmm. Not a book I’d normally pick up to read, but … you do make it sound almost irresistible.

  4. Ariadne
    November 10, 2007

    This is something I have been thinking about reading for ages, but was always put off as the cover is so dire and makes it look really boring (the title doesn’t help either). I’m glad to hear it’s well worth reading!

  5. Ariadne
    November 10, 2007

    Just looked at the cover again. Jeez, it is AWFUL.

  6. Trilby
    November 11, 2007

    Ah, but remember what they say about judging a book by its…

  7. marygm
    November 11, 2007

    I like the sound of this book. One thing that particularly appealed is the humour in the extract. I think there’s something incredibly powerful about humour in tragic circumstances.

  8. Pingback: Bookweek Round-up « Vulpes Libris

  9. Zuazua
    April 27, 2008

    Normally the books with the best covers are the worst, it is all about marketing, “The Sorrow of Belgium” does not need a nice cover.

  10. Mhairi
    April 28, 2008

    Well, that’s a TEENY bit of a sweeping statement.

    The whole Tusk Ivories range (which is an imprint of Overlook Press) has that same cover design … with varying colour combinations.

    The Tusk Ivory collection are all what you might call unsung classics. They’re reprints of books that are being given a ‘second chance’.

    Now … however much you may not like the fact, a book’s cover IS important. Human beings are magpies. They’re attracted by surface show. Someone who was actually LOOKING for The Sorrow of Belgium wouldn’t care about the cover design, but a casual browser? Well … it doesn’t exactly scream “Come and get me” does it?

  11. Ralph
    March 4, 2011

    Noticed the title in the list and thought this might be about the Belgian Congo which I’m interested in, having recently read ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’. Although it isn’t, still deals with a fascinating subject and I very much appreciate your review, thanks.

    Certainly the Tusk Ivories cover designs are rather dismal, but all power to them for reprinting difficult-to-get-hold-of stuff. (“Tusk Ivory” isn’t a very politically correct name either, is it?)

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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