Even Now: Poems by Hugo Claus (translated by David Colmer.) Archipelago Books. $20.00, 220pp.
There are certain writers who are difficult to write about, not because their works lack interest, but because they have achieved such stature and critical acclaim that it seems impossible to say anything about them that wouldn’t seem repetitive. Faced with such authors, critics are left to less interesting tasks, such as debating their place in the canon, championing their most minor works, or resorting to obscure parts of their biography in order to have something fresh to say. There are few opportunities for us to glean new perspectives. One comes shortly after the author’s death, when his or her work can first be assessed in its entirety. Another comes when the writer is translated into a foreign language and the work reanimated before a fresh audience. Even Now, a collection of poems by the recently deceased Belgian master, Hugo Claus, selected and translated by David Colmer, fulfills both these conditions.
Hugo Claus (1928-2008) has with good reason been called the single most important figure in Flemish letters, a giant of Post-War European literature, and among finest to ever use the Dutch language. His acclaim is not limited to his native Belgium, or to the larger Dutch-speaking world. Among his compatriots, only Georges Simenon rivals him in international acknowledgment. He has been widely translated, even into English, a language that for all its dominance remains notoriously deaf to an unacceptably high proportion of the world’s literary voices. Claus will doubtlessly be best remembered for his poetry, collected in two volumes as Gedichten: 1948-2004, as well as for his two most celebrated novels, The Sorrow of Belgium, a recognized classic of post-War literature, and De Geruchten (Rumors), a novel dealing with Belgium’s ambivalent relationship to its colonial history that has been translated into sixteen languages, but not into English. Aside from these works, his artistic output includes a further thirteen novels, dozens of plays, short stories, novellas, film scripts, paintings, librettos, and essays. I cannot claim to have read or seen all of Claus’s immense oeuvre, but what strikes me about the “minor” works that I have come across is that none of them are true failures. Claus seems to be one of those rare prolific authors whose talent shines through in everything he does.
There has probably been more secondary material published about The Sorrow of Belgium, a book that is often argued to be the most important Dutch-language novel of the twentieth century, than about the rest of Claus’s oeuvre put together. While Claus is no less a poet than a novelist, there is no volume of poetry that stands out in the same way. Even Now draws from twenty-two separate books, published between 1948 and 2004. The title sequence is taken from Alibi (1985), a book Claus published in the middle of his career. “Even Now,” is the only one to be translated and reproduced in its entirety. It begins with an explanation:
The four-lined stanzas are based
on a selection from the Sanksrit
poem the Chaurapanchasika.
Some of the commentary is
It is perhaps not incidental that the only intact section of this selection should itself be a selection—Colmer’s selection mirrored and justified by Claus’s own. Be that as it may, “Even Now” is a strong sequence and worthy centerpiece. The four-lined stanzas highlight Claus the champion of Eros, the staunch public defender of the artist’s right to titillate, the man that wrote countless newspaper pieces defending nudity in his plays and sex in literature. And with Eros comes Thanatos. With the desired woman, the dying man:
Even now, gagged and bound on the gallows today,
she, who will awaken soon with swollen lips, eyes closed,
was something I knew, and then lost sight of, and how,
but how did I lose her, how does a dog bark when it’s drunk?
[. . .]
Even now, when I am on the verge of crossing over
to that other life, she leads me as through black water,
ogling me and leering at me through her dangerous lashes,
laughing at me as I, drenched through, ascend her golden bank.
[. . .]
Even now, her body is carmine and gleaming with sweat,
her openings all smooth and slippery with baby oil.
Yet what I know of her remains a strange gesture,
a thing with no echo, full of bitterness, chance and remorse.
The italicized, sometimes appropriated, “commentary” interrupts these fragments, highlighting Claus the experimentalist, the restless poet endlessly shifting form and subject matter.
Colmer has done a remarkable job of adapting his approach for Claus’s various styles, showing restraint in not chasing down every pun, internal rhyme or assonance when translating most of Claus’s free verse, emphasizing the most obvious and immediate sense when that is what’s most important. He must equally be commended for changing this approach when Claus begins to rhyme, use fixed meter or become playful with language itself, allowing himself the freedom in English to match the playfulness of the Dutch. Colmer is a fine translator, sensitive to the subtleties of tone, successfully conveying the wit and spirit behind Claus’s poetry to readers in English and enriching a bilingual reader’s appreciation of the original.
In addition to translating the poems, Colmer has taken on the role of editor, selecting around two hundred pages of material for Even Now from about one thousand four hundred pages of verse. In a perfect world, our benevolent dictators would force Colmer to translate every scrap of poetry that Claus penned in a career spanning almost six decades, and then clone him to have someone get going on the untranslated novels. In this world, what we have is a selection, and we have to face up to the inevitable problems that selection entails.
Claus was not a poet who worked in single poems. His natural unit is the series, usually forming a separate section in a book, or even the book itself. His images and conceits gain depth in their repetition. He will ruminate upon a theme, coming at it from several angles, in several voices. His humor often depends on a larger context. Other translators have worked on Claus’s poems, notably Selected Poems: 1953-1973, edited by Theo Hermans, Greetings: Selected Poems, translated by John Irons, and the Claus section of Landscape with Rowers, translated by J.M. Coetzee. But they too have confined themselves to selections. Colmer’s selection is as good as any, and is the only one to attempt to cover the entirety of Claus’s poetic output. It successfully mixes in lesser-known poems with those that have become canonical, giving a fuller sense of Claus’s range. Nonetheless, the loss suffered by these poems amputated from their context remains palpable.
There is however another kind of context that counts: the one operative between separate volumes in Claus’s oeuvre, places where Claus refers back to his earlier work and his own ever-growing reputation. Even Now contains Claus’s celebrated poem, “Lumumba,” but not the poem that returns to the topic thirty years later after the upsetting results of Belgium’s official enquiry into the death of that ill-fated statesman, “Lumumba’s gebit” [Lumumba’s Teeth]. Such missed opportunities and the omission of personal favorites make it tempting to fixate on what was left out rather than on what got included. But these are minor and highly subjective gripes, born of a desire to see more of Claus in translation, rather than a true criticism of what Even Now makes available. On the whole, the poems that Colmer does select speak to each other in way that makes the collection very satisfying to read in a sitting.
Inevitably, the picture we get of Claus from Even Now is slightly skewed. Material that could be construed as too narrowly Flemish or Dutch in its concerns has been excluded. So, from De Sporen (The Traces, 1993), we get “Ten Ways of Looking at P.B. Shelley” and “Italo Calvino” but not “Geert Lubberhuizen.” This comes as no surprise—assumptions about the reader’s (lack of) interest in what’s not already known to them are pretty standard in the world of publishing—and is a sensible way to reduce an overwhelming amount of material to more manageable proportions. But it still is a pity; Claus in no way reserved his best work for those topics that would be most readily intelligible to foreigners, and at least part of his genius lies in the way he mixes regional Flemish with standard Dutch, and indeed with other, “more foreign,” languages, notably German, English and Spanish, always in a determinate political context.
The relationship between Claus’s work and his politics has been a topic of constant speculation for critics, the press, and often himself, over the entire course of his career, and even now, after his death. This year saw the Dutch-language publication of a remarkable collection that combines the beauty of a coffee-table book with the rigor of a scholarly volume, De Plicht van de dichter: Hugo Claus en de politiek (The Duty of the Poet: Hugo Claus and Politics), edited by some of the biggest names in Claus scholarship—Kevin Absillis, Sarah Beeks, Kris Lembrechts and Georges Wildemeersch—and achieving a kind of popularity and prominence that is unheard of for English-language critical texts. What this wide-angled perspective on Claus’s career reveals is a gradual move away from direct political engagement to a more nuanced position about the inseparability of the political and aesthetic realms. Early in his career, Claus is especially vehement in his stance against religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular, a stance he doesn’t hesitate to attribute to the part of his youth spent at a Catholic boarding school. In 1963, in the heat of an interview, he goes so far as to say that he would support a vigilante organization with the purpose of eliminating the Catholic Church if such an organization were to exist. He is equally clear in his disapproval of his countrymen’s complacency when faced with hard truths about their colonial legacy, something that will remain a concern for him in his later work, witnessed in the oft-cited ending to his poem about Patrice Lumumba: “The God of the Albinos has sat down/ on your dead body as if on a toilet.” Perhaps above all, Claus is opposed to the small-minded, bourgeois self-interest he sees in the good burgers around him, something well represented in Even Now through poems like “Anthropology” (1970),
This nation that supposedly
moves between two poles,
excess and godliness,
believes less in the hereafter
than in its daily groats.
This nation will give alms on Sunday
for the pope or Africa,
or burn incense to venerate the statue
of the Curé d’Ars who stank of the poor,
but generally pays and prays to calm
its fear of leaner years and butter up
its docile rulers, the realtors.
Claus also took an explicit position on issues of public nudity and censorship, defending the former and opposing the latter. When it came to issues like the collaboration with the National Socialists during the Second World War in Flanders, a topic he turns to at length with The Sorrows of Belgium in 1983, his views become more complicated. Claus was himself caught up in the local enthusiasm for Nazi visions of social order and, most of all, with Nazi aesthetics. Briefly a member of the local chapter of the Hitler Youth, Claus remembers being impressed with the uniforms, music, and the cinema brought in by the German invaders. While clearly opposed to Neo-Nazism in all its forms, Claus refuses the easy path of disavowal and instead explores in his work what made Nazism appealing or seductive to millions of people in the first place. Here Claus is less inclined to deliver a set of political or ethical standpoints than to remain resolutely faithful to the authenticity of his experience.
Generally speaking, Claus’s later work is less directly concerned with politics, narrowly defined. At the same time his poetry moves in the opposite direction, from its hermetic starting point in the early Oostakker poems, to clearer and more direct expression, and then, with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, to a beguilingly simple language. This dual arc gives rise to the oft-repeated narrative whereby Claus steadily becomes increasingly skeptical about the artist’s ability to change the world and increasingly willing to give voice to this position in his poetry.
Even Now contains a new translation of the celebrated late poem, “Interview,” best known in the English-speaking world though J.M. Coetzee’s excellent essay on Claus, “Stepping Stones.” In this dramatic poem a young poet visits the speaker, an older poet, at his house, for the purpose of an interview, “broadly speaking, / not too long, about love without stains, / and politics, without naming any names.” The younger man begins by apologizing for some of the critical hack jobs he has executed on the older man’s work: he writes for a living, and his strident tone has been “forced on him by the editor of the cultural supplement.” But after a few drinks it becomes clear that the critic has begun to believe his own criticisms. He accuses the famous poet of being stuck in the past, out of touch with new technology, “sometimes very hermetic,” of employing obvious rhyme schemes and obscure thought: some of the very accusations that have been leveled at Claus through the years. The older poet’s response is to think about the literary cannon, ranging from folktales to Byron and Pound’s personal quirks, elements that for him are “Stepping stones the poem can follow.” The poem closes with a failure of communication and of generational transfer: “Outside I point up at the moon. / He keeps staring at my finger.” For Coetzee, in this poem, Claus is taking a “wry look” at himself:
He does indeed keep his distance from the modern world (though in a more nuanced way than his rival cares to recognise); he is indeed highly conscious of how his own work relates to literary tradition, national and European; he is indeed a master of verse form, to a point where he can make difficult feats seem childishly easy; he is indeed sometimes hermetic—in fact, sometimes writes within a hermetic tradition; and readers looking for a neat message, some Clausian “philosophy” that will sum up his life’s work, are likely to come away empty-handed.
Perhaps Coetzee is right that there is no fixed set of philosophical, ethical or political principles that can fully characterize Claus. Claus certainly contradicted himself through the years, including over the viability of a Sartean “engaged literature.” But some of these contradictions are only apparent. To me it seems that throughout his oeuvre, and even in poems like “Interview” and “Ten Ways of Looking at P.B Shelley” (the Clausian series Coetzee chose to include in his compilation of twentieth century Dutch poems, Landscape with Rowers), Claus is consistent in his desire to cut through pretense. Even when he is at his most playful and ornate, there is a blunt frankness and a fidelity to authentic representation underlying Claus’s poetry. The “stepping stones” provided by tradition are indubitably important, but for me Claus’s signature lies in the speaker’s skepticism about the existence of “love without stains, / and politics without naming any names.”
If the famous poet in “Interview” is a self-portrayal of Claus, then I would like to counter it with another, this one from “Envoi” where the blunt and hermetic are not opposed:
My poems aren’t a classic fuck,
they’re vulgar babble or all too noble bluster.
In winter their lips crack,
in spring they go flat on their back on the first hot day,
they ruin my summer
and in autumn they smell of women.
Even Now cannot do full justice to scope of Claus’s achievement in little more than two hundred pages, but it comes closer to plotting his political, thematic, ethical, and stylistic range than anything to appear before in the English language.
Jan Steyn is a critic and translator of literature in English, French, Dutch, and Afrikaans. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
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