Paul Claes, a New Literary Wizard

Until recently, the history of modern Dutch literature could boast only one wizard: Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971), who was given this honorary title by Menno ter Braak, the foremost Dutch literary critic of the 1930s. Admittedly, Vestdijk was at the time just emerging as a writer to be reckoned with, but Ter Braak, highly impressed by Vestdijk’s versatility and near-maniacal level of production, predicted that his friend’s literary output would continue to grow in both quality and quantity. History has proved him correct. Vestdijk practised nearly all literary genres: poetry, short stories, novels, essays, criticism, even studies with more or less scholarly pretensions. Drama was the only genre he did not try his hand at, although he did write the libretto for an opera by the composer Willem Pijper.

The post-war world of letters in the Netherlands and Flanders has occasionally felt the need to honour another writer with the title Ter Braak awarded to Vestdijk. There have of course been other prolific writers of great versatility, one example being Johan Daisne (1912-1978), who was called the Flemish Vestdijk because of his extensive oeuvre and related literary views. But no other author has more right to be called a ‘wizard’ than the Fleming Paul Claes (1943-). After his relatively late debut with a volume of scholarly essays called Network and Nebula (Het netwerk en de nevelvlek, 1979), in the 1980s and 1990s Claes let loose a flood of articles and more than fifty books and booklets. Like Vestdijk he feels at home in all genres, with the exception of drama. Nonetheless, in the midst of such diversity it seems possible to detect a core of unity, the point around which all his activities revolve.

Paul Claes – who now lives in Belgium in Kessel-Lo, near his home town of Leuven – studied classical philology in the 1960s at Leuven’s famous Catholic University. In 1981 he received his doctorate, publishing a dissertation called Moth-Eaten Myths (De mot zit in de mythe), dealing with elements from classical antiquity in the work of the great Flemish writer Hugo Claus. Although Claes later studied modern literature as well (English and German), his wide knowledge of Greek and Latin literature nevertheless provides the basis of nearly all his work. His education plays an equivocal role in this. Its influence is positive in as much as it has put him in touch with such poets as Catullus and Horace, with Sappho and the tragedians, with the Greek and Roman writers of romances. It has also taught him to read closely, with an eye for detail. What the old-fashioned philology course could not give him was a mode of analysis and an interpretative method. His Flemish teachers tended to confine their instruction to finding solutions to the problems of authenticity, textual variants, historical background and the ‘correct’ translation. Following in the footsteps of his chosen guides, Ezra Pound and Hugo Claus, Claes broke with traditional notions of translation: his own poetical renderings entail – in addition to transposing from one language to another – adapting both the form and the cultural context, which requires a whole range of adaptations, deletions and additions. In his study on the art of allusion, Echo’s Echoes (Echo’s echo’s, 1988), Claes gave such a lucid description of the series of transformations undergone by a text during the process of translation or adaptation that he even succeeded in providing his colleagues in the field of literary theory with a mode of analysis, thereby earning the right to be considered the founder of the discipline of intertextuality in the Low Countries.

‘Make it new’

Claes’ translations in the manner outlined above form an impressive body of work on their own. In the first place I should like to mention his contemporary version of Catullus’ Carmina (1995) as worthy of closer inspection. This text is characteristic of Claes’ approach in two respects. First, in the course of his translations and explications he offers new interpretations of various, often much-discussed poems, so that his translation and commentary together can stand as a scholarly work. (Awaiting publication is an auxiliary monograph, written in English, on this Latin poet’s working method.) Secondly, he does not tone down the ‘foul-mouthed’ Catullus – he of the strongly sexual and obscenely aggressive poems – but lets him speak in fitting and equivalent Dutch. What holds true for Catullus also holds true for Claes’ selection (1997) from the Greek Anthologia, a series of 150 epigrams selected from the ample supply available. In the field of contemporary world literature, he has done much the same with the poetry of Rilke and Rimbaud, Mallarmé and De Nerval. He has also made such lesser-known poets as Louïze Labé and José-Maria de Heredia more accessible by producing anthologies of their work, complete with an introduction and notes. His translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, done in collaboration with Mon Nys, was published in 1994. John Vandenbergh’s Dutch translation of this text, roundly praised but long out of print, has been surpassed in every respect by Nys and Claes. Some critics have lamented the fact that the duo did not follow the example of their predecessor and supply the text with a commentary. Anyone who compares the translation with the original, however, will note that in countless difficult places Nys and Claes have incorporated implicit commentary in the text itself. The annotated character of Claes’ translations comes even more strongly to the fore in his Latin versions of classic Dutch poems. He has, for example, made translations which are brilliant and surprising – even for connoisseurs – of such canonical poems as ‘Melopee’ by Paul van Ostaijen and ‘I try in poetic fashion’ (‘Ik tracht op poëtische wijze’) by Lucebert. Many of these poems are not available in book form; others have never been in print. The volume entitled Metamorphoses. Carmina poetarum recentiorum (1991) is Claes’ anthology of twenty-four Latin versions of great Western poetry, ranging from Shakespeare and Vondel to Eliot and Pessoa.

A feast of recognition

Claes’ own poetry, and no less his fictional prose, can also be considered a form of commentary. His prose debut, The Last Book (Het laatste boek, 1992), contains stories in the style of pastiches recalling Proust, Kafka, Joyce, Nabokov and Borges. The Satyr (De Sater, 1993) is an extremely ingenious design for the prototypical romantic novel of classical antiquity. The Son of the Panther (De zoon van de Panter, 1996) rewrites the New Testament in twelve stories recounted by the twelve apostles, each offering his own vision of Jesus Christ. In The Phoenix (De Phoenix, 1998), a philosophical detective story in the style of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Claes manages in passing to make a mockery of the whole genre. And his most recent novel, The Chameleon (De kameleon, 2001), is again a historical novel, presented as the autobiography of Charles d’Éon. This French nobleman, born in 1728, made a lightning career in the diplomatic corps at the French Court and was also quite successful in a number of military enterprises; yet he died penniless and forgotten in London in 1810.

Of these prose works The Satyr was the most successful, possibly because the book bears a deceptive resemblance to the old-fashioned dime-store novel, with a pair of lovers who encounter seemingly insurmountable obstacles but emerge unscathed to enjoy the happy ending. As mentioned above, The Satyr is a reconstruction of the oldest novel in Western literature, currently held to be the Milesian Tale, a Greek text written in the first century BC by Aristides of Miletus, of which only one word has been preserved. Claes composed his reconstruction along the following lines: from the Greco-Roman tradition of romance – that of Longus, Heliodorus and others on the Greek side, and Petronius and Apuleius on the Roman side – he put together a package of motifs and stock situations which he sprinkled lavishly throughout the frame narrative as related by his protagonist-narrator, Endymion. The result – for readers acquainted with these antique romances – is one big feast of recognition. Claes embellishes his story with such freely acknowledged gems as ‘Trimalchio’s Banquet’ and ‘The Widow of Ephesus’, both from Petronius, as well as ‘The Festival of Laughter’ from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. But Claes never includes such borrowings without introducing variations to the original text, at once contributing to the humour of the novel and lending it deeper meaning.

Perhaps such a transformation is best illustrated by the following example: just as in Petronius’ Satyricon, Claes’ main character finds himself on a ship, the Eros. Petronius, of all people, is also there (an impossible situation, in fact, because Petronius lived at least a century after Aristides; but this is not the only anachronism in The Satyr). Petronius now makes Endymion the victim of a rather complicated practical joke, the gist of which is as follows: the boy thinks that, in an attempt to help, he has accidentally killed Petronius and two of his slaves, though it turns out he has only pierced three wineskins (yet another borrowing, though this time not from Petronius’ romance but from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, in which a similar fate befalls the hero of the story). Then comes the following fragment: ‘The laugh stifled up to this time now burst forth. Like dead men from their grave, Petronius and his slaves appeared from within the command cabin. Several Adonises lifted me up and carried me around like the hero of the Festival of Laughter which was being celebrated that evening. Not knowing whether I should laugh or cry, I submitted to the passengers’ roars of laughter, while reflecting on how quickly one’s luck could turn: Blood had turned to wine, tears of sorrow had been magically transformed into tears of joy, death had been converted into life.’

Apart from the change of situation, it is mainly the italicised parts of the text which effect a transformation, touching upon the theme of Claes’ novel: death and resurrection. This is, of course, a well-known theme: as Claes said somewhere, it is ‘the most important of all Greek myths, which has come, via all manner of roundabout ways, to be our most important myth as well’. That this theme is also typical of many romances of antiquity is a view now generally shared by specialists. It was introduced into The Satyr, therefore, to enhance the feeling of authenticity. It also lends unity to the oeuvre of Claes himself: in his dissertation on Hugo Claus (trade edition 1984), he was the first to make clear the debt Claus owed to Sir James Frazer’s twelvepart study, The Golden Bough, in which the Scottish anthropologist elaborated upon the very same theme of death and resurrection. Claes has shown its influence on the work of other authors, especially in the Netherlands, in his recent study The Golden Bough (De Gulden Tak, 2000).

Pasticheur and scholiast

It goes without saying that, as a poet, Claes is the hermetic type, appealing more to his readers’ experience of reading than to their experience of life. It was a long time, too, before any interest was shown in Claes’ poetical work. His formal debut, The Sons of the Sun (De Zonen van de Zon, 1983), contains a series of translations of (and therefore commentaries on) one of his own youthful sonnets, rendered in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek. The critics found it an object of curiosity more than anything else. His real debut, Rebis (1989), in which the volume just mentioned is included, received few reviews, probably because such poetry did not fit easily into any existing framework. Given the alchemistic structure of this series of poems, a comparison with the fictional prose of someone like Harry Mulisch would be more appropriate. The volumes Emblem (Embleem) and Mimicry, both of which appeared in 1984, have something in common: they are both offshoots of well-known literary-historical genres. In the former text Claes gives us forty quatrains with the same number of illustrations, taken from the four arts of painting, sculpture, drama and photography. The commentaries on the paintings, in particular, are extraordinarily ingenious, prompting one to reconsider time-worn (and worn-out) art-historical value judgements. Mimicry contains fifty Dutch poems (as well as seven poems in other languages), which are attributed to great poets of Dutch and Flemish letters but are, of course, the work of Claes himself. The idiosyncrasies of the poets selected are often so aptly demonstrated that those in the know find the texts downright hilarious. This is reinforced by the commentary accompanying the poems: not infrequently, the information supplied intentionally misleads the reader, by referring, for example, to nonexistent critical essays. In fact, Claes is gently mocking his predilection for explanatory notes and bibliographical information, even in the case of his own poems. The subtitle of Mimicry reads: ‘The history of Dutch poetry in fifty pastiches’ (‘Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse poëzie in vijftig pastiches’), which pretty much hits the nail on the head.

Glow / Feux (Glans / Feux, 2000) is a combination of two earlier publications consisting of thirty-six poems in French and Dutch, printed on opposite pages, their position alone causing them to interact. The main theme is love (in all its facets, but most often that of erotic tension) between famous couples from Greek mythology, such as Orpheus and Eurydice, Theseus and Ariadne, Hades and Persephone, Amor and Psyche. There is, to varying degrees, similarity in content between the poems of each diptych, though formally they are different: the French poems are slimmed-down sonnets, the Dutch poems are elegiac distichs printed over four lines, which creates an optical contrast between verticality and horizontality. In the couple Cybele and Attis, for instance, the poems refer to the relationship between the mother-goddess Cybele and the beautiful shepherd boy Attis, who castrates himself after the goddess afflicts him with madness for his faithlessness. The subject is treated in detail by Catullus in his Carmen LXIII, which, though viewed in the past simply as an Alexandrine tour de force, is now generally thought to embody his main theme: the love for a motherly lover. In a way this also holds true for Claes: the relationship between mother and son occurs in all the genres he practises, including that of essayist. The combination of beauty and cruelty – of ‘Beauty’ and ‘the beast’ – is also a conspicuous constant in Claes’ work, which is one reason why this paradoxical diptych can easily serve as a pars pro toto example of the rapidly growing oeuvre of this new literary wizard.

By Rudi van der Paardt
Translated by Diane L. Webb

First published in The Low Countries, 2002


A complete list of Paul Claes’ publications is to be found in Christine D’haen’s De zoon van de Zon (Leiden, 1997). She treats the various aspects of Claes’ work in exemplary fashion and conducts a remarkable interview with him about Mimicry.

For my analysis of The Satyr I have relied on my article ‘Ernstig spel’, published in Mark Pieters et al. (eds.), Oude keizers, nieuwe kleren. Amsterdam, 1997, pp. 25-29. I have written in more detail on Claes’ dissertation and his other studies of Hugo Claus, in Mythe en Metamorfose (Amsterdam, 1991, pp. 168-172).