Author Hugo Claus dies at 78

March 19, 2008 12:01:59 PM PDT
Writer Hugo Claus - an artist, poet, playwright and novelist whose books painted a scathing picture of repression and hypocrisy in bourgeois Flanders - died Wednesday by euthanasia, his wife said. He was 78.

Claus, who had Alzheimer's disease, died at Middelheim Hospital in Antwerp. "He himself picked the moment of his death and asked for euthanasia," not wanting to extend his suffering, his wife, Veerle De Wit, said in a statement.

De Wit did not say how the euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium, was carried out.

Claus produced some 200 works during his career but was best known for his classic, "The Sorrow of Belgium" - a scathing attack on social injustice, stifling family relationships and Roman Catholic repression in his native Flanders in northern Belgium.

The partly autobiographical work defined his career and shot him to prominence on the international scene.

Often writing out of anger and guilt, Claus relied on pitiless realism in his work.

"I am a person who is unhappy with things as they stand. We cannot accept the world as it is. Each day we should wake up foaming at the mouth because of the injustice of things," he said in a magazine interview more than a decade ago.

Claus also directed several movies and, as a painter, belonged to the Cobra group, centering on spontaneous, intuitive painting.

He was married several times, including to actress Sylvia Kristel, star of the 1970s erotic movie series "Emmanuelle."

Throughout his life, Claus was a reluctant Belgian despite the increasing adulation at home as one of the prime men of letters in the Dutch language. But he said being from Belgium - the laughingstock of the French and Dutch alike - was a great advantage to his writing since he never was restrained by any sense of grandeur.

Because of his ambivalent relationship with his native country, Claus often threatened to leave Belgium and lived in the Netherlands, France and the Greek islands before returning home.

His death coincided with festivities accompanying the 25th anniversary of the publication of "The Sorrow of Belgium."

Born in the medieval city of Bruges in 1929, some of his youth can be traced back in "The Sorrow of Belgium."

Like the main character, Louis Seynaeve, Claus spent much of his childhood in oppressive Catholic boarding schools, where he rebelled against overbearing authority.

Claus did not get along with family members and repressed hatred for father figures became a recurring theme in his work. After World War II, he quickly left home and was forced to do menial work before making money from his budding literary talent.

At 18, he produced his first work, a collection of poems called "Short Series." The verses were rife with rebellion against the bourgeoisie and the constraints of Flemish society.

His fame grew quickly, especially after he wrote "The Wonderment" and "About Deedee" in the 1960s, touching on the themes of repressed homosexuality and family relations. Incest was at the heart of his 1970 play "Friday."

As a playwright, he first won recognition with the 1962 play "Sugar," a naturalist rendition of social conditions in a French sugar factory. Claus himself had worked at a sugar factory just after the war.

"As a boy working in a sugar factory, I found it so senseless that I left and decided never to work for anyone again," he said.

His survivors and funeral plans were not immediately available.