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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sorrow of Belgium

Hugo Claus

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To purchase The Sorrow of Belgium

Title: The Sorrow of Belgium
Author: Hugo Claus
Genre: Novel
Written: 1983 (Eng. 1990)
Length: 603 pages
Original in: Flemish
Availability: The Sorrow of Belgium - US
The Sorrow of Belgium - UK
The Sorrow of Belgium - Canada
Le chagrin des Belges - France
Der Kummer von Belgien - Deutschland
La sofferenza del Belgio - Italia
La pena de Bélgica - España
  • Dutch title: Het verdriet van België
  • Translated by Arnold J. Pomerans

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Our Assessment:

A : grand, panoramic novel of wartime Flanders

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Hudson Review . Spring/1991 Tom Wilhelmus
London Rev. of Books . 26/7/1990 Patrick Parrinder
The LA Times A+ 22/7/1990 Danielle Roter
New Statesman A 29/6/1990 Nicholas Richardson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/7/1990 Suzanne Ruta
San Francisco Chronicle . 22/7/1990 John Taylor
The Spectator B+ 24/11/1990 Andro Linklater
TLS . 29/6/1990 Richard Todd

  From the Reviews:
  • "With biting wit, gorgeous language and graphic imagery, Hugo Claus rushes the reader back in time as if by magic. (...) This immense autobiographical novel is clearly Claus' masterwork." - Danielle Roter, The Los Angeles Times

  • "All the characters live in a farrago of misinformation, gossip and rumour. The occupation simply institutionalises the situation. Words have lost whatever meaning they once had (and that was precious little).(...) Claus settles his account with his country in a splendid but sinister hallucinatory fresco." - Nicholas Richardson, New Statesman

  • "The Sorrow of Belgium is a long, dense, rich novel, intensely moral and poetic, most moral where it is most poetic, as steeped in bitter history as the soil of that Belgian district where, it is said, the butter still tastes of the corpses of 1914-18. (...) Mr. Claus's wonderful novel is a chronicle of war in a corner of one small country and a painstaking portrait of the artist as an obnoxious young man." - Suzanne Ruta, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The charm of Claus' writing lies in his Breughelian cast of aunts, uncles, villagers and onlookers (.....) The book's claim to be a classic rests on the sensitivity with which Claus charts the changing perspective of the child's eye as he grows through adolescence to maturity." - Andro Linklater, The Spectator

  • "In every way, The Sorrow of Belgium is a magnificent anecdotal monster of a novel that now may be destined to become a cult book in the English-speaking world as it has done elsewhere in Europe." - Richard Todd, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Hugo Claus' The Sorrow of Belgium is presented in two parts. The first part is The Sorrow, divided into twenty-seven chapters. The second, longer part, of Belgium, is presented without any additional sub-division.
       The book focusses of Louis Seynaeve and his family. It is clearly an autobiographical fiction: Louis is the same age as author Claus (and meets similar publishing success at a young age by the end of the novel). Mainly told in the third person, an "I" sneaks in occasionally, the author unable to restrain himself, pushing through, making his presence known (only to be almost immediately subsumed again).
       The book begins in 1939. The threat of war is in the air, but young Louis is only peripherally touched by this. His concerns are those of childhood. Louis attends a boarding school, where he maintains some semblance of control over the baffling world around him through a secret society he shares with some classmates -- the four Apostles, they call themselves. They have their own rules and rituals -- and seven "Forbidden Books" -- but it is a haphazard sort of club, changing with their whims.
       Reality is more complex -- and frustrating. Louis is anything but worldly-wise. Sex is a mystery, as is so much else in the world around him. But mysterious sex, especially, seems at the center of so much he doesn't understand. To add to the confusion, Louis' mother is pregnant, a condition he can't fully fathom either. (Matters aren't helped much when he doesn't wind up with a sibling after all.)
       Louis' father, Staf, is a printer with grand ambitions who finds little success. He is largely dependent on advertising revenue in a tough economic climate (that only gets worse as the war progresses). A Flemish nationalist, he is often dependent on French-speaking goodwill, making for a variety of complications as he haplessly tries to do good business and further his political goals.
       Belgium is a country divided between Flemings and Walloons. The Seynaeves live in Walle ("based on Kortrijk, or Courtrai, in the province of West Flanders" Arnold J. Pomerans informs in his introductory translator's note), and the tension between the two is obvious in almost all aspects of everyday life, right down to the local soccer teams.
       The German presence for most of the war makes life more complicated and exacerbates these particular tensions -- though one of the surprises of Claus' account is how life does go on, almost as normal. The vast collection of bickering Seynaeve-relatives generally focus only on their petty concerns, and Louis' mother, who goes to work for the Germans, manages to make the most of the situation (while also being helpful to locals who might get shipped off to work in Germany). Even Staf has to flee, at least briefly, but it is only a temporary displacement, and he is back soon enough. Most of those around Louis survive the war surprisingly well.
       Ugly shadows do appear -- though they are not always obvious to Louis. Even when they are -- a teacher reappearing with some missing teeth -- most everyone takes it in stride. In part it is a novel about complicity, but Claus doesn't point accusing figures. In these times people continue to do the same stupid, human things they did in peacetime. People are merely trying to make the best of the situation -- though, as in peacetime, they often do so in ways that are largely incomprehensible to Louis.
       Louis too goes through some unfortunate phases, including joining the National Socialist Youth of Flanders (the Flemish version of the Hitler-Youth). He is drawn to the order and the rules (and perhaps the power). Earlier, while away from boarding school, he had wondered: "can I thrive only in the Institute ?"
       An excellent student, Louis also goes on to completely ignore his studies. He finally finds salvation only in a hoard of -- again forbidden -- books, the books the Nazis have outlawed. In the end he become a writer -- a precocious writer, in a transformation that isn't entirely satisfactory. (Louis is marvelously depicted as a naïf, and though elements of his schoolboy character are carried through to the end, his finding himself as ... essentially: Hugo Claus by the end seems a bit much.)
       Much of the book is in the form of dialogue and conversations, in quickly shifting scenes that depict the whole rich muddle of Flemish life during those war-years. Louis' relatives and acquaintances make for a rich cast of characters, and Claus deploys them very well.
       There is a fair amount of sex in the book: Louis' own confused fumblings, and then his growing realization of what is involved. There are also several quite shocking scenes, including those around the Balkan (possibly Gypsy) siblings, Bekka and Tetje Cosijns. In one the child Tetje goes in a hut with the local Dirty Dick (who certainly lives up to his name) for seven francs, an arrangement that is apparently frequently repeated and which Louis (pulled away from this scene by a protective and knowing Bekka) refuses to understand ("They must be fighting, Louis thought") Corruption -- sexual and moral, especially -- is rampant. And Louis' family is certainly no paragon.
       The Nazi-horror simmers largely below the surface, rarely directly touching Louis. He (and many of the others) take advantage of whatever the situation is -- whether the Germans are the dominant force or (as happens towards the end of the book) the liberating Americans

       Claus' achievement is an impressive one. The Sorrow of Belgium is a sprawling, far-reaching, and often very entertaining saga of the war years and of Flanders. Certainly recommended.

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The Sorrow of Belgium: Reviews: Hugo Claus: Other books by Hugo Claus under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Dutch literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Hugo Claus lived 1929 to 2008.

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