Hugo Claus, in about 1951 | Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, tg:lhph:537

Arts & Sciences
Read aloud

The Oostakker Poems by Hugo Claus

Artistic Renewal after 1945

The collection The Oostakker Poems by Hugo Claus was acclaimed in 1955 as a high point in Dutch-language literature. The 26-year-old author grew into an internationally-known artist who influenced many artistic domains.

Read aloud

In The Oostakker Poems Claus investigates his relationship with his parents, his lover and his country of origin. In that process the poet combines Biblical and mythological themes with violent eroticism and oppressive scenes. His poems do not follow a fixed rhyming pattern, but strike the reader through their rich imagery, contradictions and ambiguities.

‘Oostakker’ refers to a Catholic place of pilgrimage near Ghent, but Claus also alludes to heathen rituals that plead for the fertility of the earth. In his collection soldiers, flags and mutilated men pass by and there is mention of grenades and ruins. So that in this Oostakker, besides the old popular devotionpopular religious practices and traditions. , the Second World War is also very present. Claus was to investigate the motivations and effects of that war further in the novels De verwondering (Wonder) and Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium).

Hugo Claus Nacht van de Poëzie.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, Yvette Bosteels

Hugo Claus was admired as a reader of his own poetry and performed regularly. Here he is taking part in Poetry Night in 1980. Numerous records and CDs were made of Claus reading his own poetry.

Read aloud

Artistic Renewal after 1945

A new artistic generation stepped forward across the rubble of the Second World War. Even more than writers like August Vermeylen, Paul van Ostaijen and Gerard Walschap before the war, they demanded autonomy for the arts and rubbed readers up the wrong way. Reader-friendly popular education in the manner of Hendrik Conscience was not to be found at all in the artistic avant-garde.

With his criticism of the bourgeois belief in progress, the novel-renewer Louis Paul Boon actually revealed himself as a true anti-Conscience. In the 1950s he published the double novel De Kapellekensbaan (Chapel Road) and Zomer te Ter-Muren (Summer in Termuren). The book describes the life of the 19th-century working-class girl Ondineke against the rise and fall of Socialism. However, the author, who appears in the book as Boontje, constantly interrupts his story in order to comment on his own time with humour, venom and pity. In old age Boon published a novel about the social struggle of the Aalst priest Adolf Daens. That was the inspiration for the film Daens (1992), and later for an equally popular musical.

Hugo Claus was the most versatile member of the post-1945 artistic generation. He excelled in poetry and prose, worked as a visual artist and was to make an important contribution to theatre and film.

Focal points

Antwerp, Gazet van Antwerpen, Philippe Lebeau

Actress, teacher and director Dora van der Groen (1927-2015).

Read aloud

The Professionalisation of Theatre and Film

Like literature, theatre in Flanders since the 19th century had been in the service of popular elevation. A flourishing theatre grew up that familiarised audiences with the classic repertoire (from Shakespeare to Vondel). Via plays like Gudrun (1878) by Albrecht Rodenbach and Het gezin Van Paemel (The Family Van Paemel, 1903) by Cyriel Buysse, the Flemish theatre profited to some extent from the artistic developments Europe was going through. However, a thoroughgoing professionalisation of the sector had to wait until the author and director Herman Teirlinck founded the first drama school in Flanders in 1946. Dora van der Groen, one of the first graduates, was later to train many actors on her own theatre course.

Hugo Claus continued the renewal as a theatre-maker. Plays like Een bruid in de morgen (A Bride in the Morning) and Vrijdag (Friday) won prestigious prizes. More controversial were Het leven en de werken van Leopold II (The Life and Works of Leopold II), on the colonial rule of the Belgian king, and Tand om Tand (Tooth and Nail) an adaptation of Tijl Uilenspiegel, which attacks a narrow-minded Flemish nationalism.

Claus was also active in the film world. He provided the screenplay for the film Mira (1971) and several times collaborated with the director Roland Verhavert. A variety of theatre and film-makers remain indebted to him.


Ghent, Archief Gent, SCMS_PBK_1775

The Lourdes grotto in Oostakker.

Read aloud

Oostakker, the Flemish Lourdes

Today Oostakker, as a district of Ghent, is wedged in between the city and a modern port. However, when Hugo Claus wrote The Oostakker Poems, the village was still a symbol of rural, pious Flanders.

In 1873 a Lourdes grotto was built in Oostakker: a reconstruction of the spot in the French Pyrenees where it was claimed the Virgin Mary had appeared. When two years later the news spread that a man had been miraculously cured of a broken leg, the place grew into one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Belgium. Soon over 100,000 people annually visited the Lourdes grotto to pray and ask the mother of Jesus to be healed.

In The Oostakker Poems Claus criticises the cult of the Virgin Mary at the Lourdes grotto, and dissociates himself from Christian Flanders. Still, he cannot simply cut the links with the past and with his community just like that. He admits this symbolically in the poem De Moeder (The Mother). It begins with the much-quoted lines that evoke birth:

I am not, I am not except in your earth.

                                   When you screamed and your skin trembled

                                   My bones caught fire.

And the poem ends with this confession:

In me your life fades twirling, you don’t

                                   Return to me, I don’t recover from you.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Henrik Conscience Heritage Library, C154117

Louis Paul Boon from Aalst wrote De Kapellekensbaan (Chapel Road) in 1953.

Brussels, VRT, F. Bernabee

The film Daens (1992), directed by Stijn Coninx, was based on Louis Paul Boon’s documentary novel Pieter Daens of hoe in de negentiende eeuw de arbeiders van Aalst vochten tegen armoede en onrecht (Pieter Daens or How in the Nineteenth Century the Workers of Aalst Fought against Poverty and Injustice) of 1971. The film gives the printer Pieter Daens a secondary role and puts the emphasis on his brother, the priest Adolf Daens (1839-1907) (played by Jan Decleir) and his struggle against hard-hearted factory directors and powerful conservatives in the Catholic party.

University of Antwerp, Collectie Hugo Clauscentrum

Hugo Claus’ best-known novel is Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium). In it he incorporates his own childhood in Aalbeke and Kortrijk before, during and after the Second World War. On the cover of the first edition of 1983 is the painting Muziek in de Vlaanderenstraat by James Ensor.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis

The poster for the film Pallieter (1976) based on the novel of the same name by Felix Timmermans. Hugo Claus wrote the screenplay, Roland Verhavert (1927-2014) directed.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, Jurriaan Schrofer, Steendrukkerij de Jong & Co

Poster for the film Mira (1971). Hugo Claus wrote the screenplay, based on the novel De teleurgang van de waterhoek (The Loss of the Waterhoek) by Stijn Streuvels. The film, directed by Fons Rademakers and with Jan Decleir and the Dutch actress Willeke van Ammelrooy in the leading roles, caused something of a stir because of the nude scenes which at the time were felt to be audacious.

Bruine suiker.
Private collection Chokri Ben Chikha

In 2001 the young theatre-makers Chokri Ben Chikha and Zouzou Ben Chikha adapted Hugo Claus’ play Suiker (Sugar). The result, Bruine suiker (Brown Sugar) was no longer about Flemish workers in Northern France in the late 1940s, but about young North Africans working around the turn of the millennium in a hospital in Blankenberge.

Discover more on this topic


Bron: VRT archief – 1 mei 2015

Bio Claus

Bron: VRT archief – 5 apr 2004

Claus leest voor
Claus leest voor

Bron: VRT archief – 31 maa 2004

Dora van der Groen
Meer vrouw op straat – Antwerpen

Bron: VRT archief, De chinezen – 3 maa 2020

Louis Paul Boon
In de voetsporen van Louis Paul Boon

Bron: VRT archief – 20 feb 1977


Absillis Kevin, Beeks Sarah & Lembrechts Kris
De plicht van de dichter. Hugo Claus en de politiek

De Bezige Bij, 2013.

Claes Paul
Het teken van de hamster: een close reading van Hugo Claus

Vantilt, 2018. 

Didden Marc
Hugo Claus: een hommage

De Bezige Bij, 2013. 

Humbeeck Kris
Onder de giftige rook van Chipka: Louis Paul Boon en de fabrieksstad Aalst

Ludion, 1999. 

Noteboom Cees & Claus Hugo
Over Het verdriet van België

De Bezige Bij, 2010. 

Van Parys
De wereld van Cyriel Buysse

Atlas, 2009. 

Wildemeersch George
Hugo Claus: de jonge jaren

Polis, 2015. 

Wildemeersch George
Hugo Claus: familie album

Polis, 2018. 


Boon Louis Paul
Mijn kleine oorlog

Borgerhoff & Lamberigts, 2019. 

Boon Louis Paul
De Kapellekensbaan

Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, 2018. 

Boon Louis Paul

De Arbeiderspers, 2018. 

Boon Louis Paul
Zomer te Ter-Muren

De Arbeiderspers, 1995. 

Boon Louis Paul
Mieke Maaike’s obscene jeugd: een pornografisch verhaal voorafgegaan door een proefschrift in en om het kutodelisch verschijnsel waarmee de student Steivekleut promoveerde

De Arbeiderspers, 2018. 

Boon Louis Paul
De Paradijsvogel: relaas van een amorele tijd

De Arbeiderspers, 1999. 

Boon Louis Paul
Daens, of hoe in de negentiende eeuw de arbeiders van Aalst vochten tegen armoede en onrecht

De Arbeiderspers, 2020. 

Claus Hugo
De Oostakkerse gedichten

De Bezige Bij, 2003. 

Claus Hugo
Het verdriet van België

De Bezige Bij, 2018. 

Claus Hugo
De verwondering

De Bezige Bij, 2018. 

Claus Hugo

De Bezige Bij, 1999.