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This review is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

Ten Ways of Looking at a Chameleon hugo claus, Even Now, translated by David Colmer (Archipelago Books) US$20

Among the plodding polders of 50s Flanders, perhaps the only thing stirring was the mind of Hugo Claus. By the time of his assisted death in 2005, after suffering from Alzheimer’s, and with 1500 poems, 32 plays and a score of novels behind him, he had long been the pre-eminent author of the Dutch-speaking world, the unofficial conscience of post-colonial Belgium, and had even sired a son with the Emmanuelle soft-porn star Sylvia Kristel. In short, the exemplary literary life.

Claus whisked himself away to Paris at 18, where he came across Antonin Artaud in a café and co-opted him as his ‘pale captain’. By the early fifties Bird had bebopped aboard too and even the influence of Dylan Thomas can be espied in the sprung rhythm of his alliterative h’s. Yet Claus’s poetry was never anything but sui generis and his magpieing of cultural and literary references, picked up in Poundland, would prop up his work like Yeats’s stilts, but worn with the insouciance of carpet slippers.

By the early 50s Claus found himself back at his parents’ in the pilgrimage getaway of Oostakker, having been dispatched to a boarding school at the age of four, from where perhaps sprang his life-long satirical spat with the Roman Catholic Church. By 1968 he was portraying the Holy Trinity as three nude dudes. This from ‘Five Polaroids of Jesus Christ’: ‘“I only pray when I shit / (and no longer as the Son of Someone). / (What’s more, the Slut is dead.) / I ...

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