Friday, March 28, 2008

Hugo Claus: The Sorrow of Belgium

In 1983, 25 years ago, Hugo Claus' Het Verdriet van Belgiƫ (The Sorrow of Belgium) was first published. Next to his poetry it is his most personal book; one in which he weaves many of his childhood memories. He spent his entire childhood, from the age of 18 months until he was eleven, in a boarding school, and this made a huge impact on his life.

The Sorrow of Belgium is a family epic which takes place from 1939-1947. Louis Seynaeve is eleven years old at the beginning of the story and attends a Catholic boarding school, where he together with three of his friends has a secret club called the "Four Apostles".

Louis' family is pro-German, and they are relieved when the Germans invade Belgium, as they feel the war will be good for Flanders and will help it to get out from under the domination of the French-speaking Belgians. Louis decides to become a writer, and once he begins to be exposed to other ideas and books, his opinion of the Germans slowly starts to change. When Belgium is liberated, Louis' family disintegrates; his father is arrested and jailed for collaborating with the Germans.

The book paints a detailed and colorful picture of Belgium: family relationships, village life, politics, poverty, Catholicism, and finally, it is an intimate portrait of a child's life and coming of age.

As I mentioned in a previous post, even before Hugo Claus passed away last week, there were many activities surrounding the 25th anniversary of this book, considered one of the classics in Belgian literature. One of those activities was a "reading marathon" held here in Leuven in February. DJ Bobby Ewing (our official "town DJ") has just made an audio "remix" of this event including well known Belgians reading passages from the book, set to music. It can be downloaded for free at:

A memorial service for Claus will be held this Saturday at 11 am in the Bourla Theatre in Antwerpen.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hugo Claus, 1929-2008

Today Hugo Claus died at the age of 78. He had had Alzheimers for several years and chose to have euthanasia, which took place this morning in Antwerp, Belgium.

Belgium is in mourning for one of our greatest artists. Hugo Claus was a writer, poet, painter, film directer and playwright. Having only ever read his most well known book, "The Sorrow of Belgium", I can't say I am very familiar with his work, but everyone here recognizes him as one of the monuments of Belgian literature.

This year, "The Sorrow of Belgium" celebrates its 25th anniversary. Just last weekend there was a whole section in our newspaper dedicated to it and a few weeks ago a "reading marathon" of it here in Leuven. I am currently re-reading it for "Book around the world" and will post more about the book itself in the future.

In the meantime, my sympathy goes out to the family and friends of Hugo Claus.

Anne Enright: The Gathering

This was an impulse purchase when I was out with my boys shopping at FNAC, the multimedia chain here that actually has a pretty good selection of English books. We were looking for the fourth book in the Wolf Brother series for my middle son (and he only wanted to read it in English) but they didn't have it - so we ended up ordering it from Amazon. Anyway, while we were in FNAC of course I had to browse the adult fiction section...and I ended up buying The Gathering, which won the Man Booker prize last year.

The few books by Irish writers I have read, I have enjoyed very much, and this was no execption. There is something faintly unfamiliar about Irish fiction that makes it exotic and interesting to me: certain words (like "eejit"!), a certain atmosphere of melancholy, the slightly different way of life that is portrayed, and of course the Irish language itself that pops up every now and then.

The Gathering is a dark first person account by a middle aged woman, Veronica, who is dealing with the suicide of the brother she was closest to in her large family, and at the same time dealing with many demons from her difficult childhood, but also her discontent with her present life, especially her marriage. In fact, the novel was much more about Veronica than her brother Liam. Veronica also spends a great deal of time imagining what her grandmother Ada's life was like when she was young and her strange relationship with her husband, Grandpa Charlie, and his best friend, Lamb, who ended up playing a pivotal role in the childrens' lives.

The novel touches on heavy themes: child abuse, alcoholism, mental illness...but also Veronica's struggle to love her husband and be a good mother:

...and it is just as you suspected - most of the stuff you do is just nagging and whining and picking up for people who are too lazy to even love you, even that, let alone find their own shoes under their own bed; people who turn and accuse you - scream at you sometimes - when they can only find one shoe.

Haven't we all felt like that as mothers (or fathers) at times? Ultimately the book is a fatalistic view of families and how love is expressed, or not expressed, to our spouses, siblings, parents, children, aunts, uncles...

There are so few people given us to love...We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love anymore. And there is no logic or use to any of this, that I can see.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A suggestion

My friend Joy emailed me, having just read The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard. An Oprah book club entry. Joy said she spent the weekend speeding through it. "I had hesitated to pick it up, since it dealt with the kidnapping of a 3-year-old, but it was worth it (although I really did squirm at times). Another reason to read this: the author is another U of I alum!"

Joy and I both graduated from the University of Illinois so we love to support alumni authors! I have this sneaking suspicion that I already read it, but I am going to look it up at the library or on Amazon to make sure. We'd love to hear anyone else's comments on it!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Michael Pollan: In Defense of Food

One of my major interests is how diet affects health, and I have read a lot of books on this topic. Most recently, this book by Michael Pollan, who also wrote The Ominvore's Dilemma (which I haven't read). In Defense of Food is excellent. He doesn't try to scare people into veganism, but he shows very reasonably, how we can make better food choices, which affect not only our own health, but the whole food chain, in a positive way. His basic premise is: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

"Eat food" refers to Pollan's opinion that "the most important fact about any food is not its nutrient content but its degree of processing". Therefore we should be eating food as close to its natural state as possible, and avoiding processed food "products".

"Not too much" refers to Pollan's thoughts on good eating habits: eating regular meals instead of grazing all day long, eating less food but better quality, sitting down at the table, eating slowly, cooking at home, and even gardening.

Finally, "mostly plants" means just that: "a diet rich in vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of dying from all the Western diseases." Pollan does not require full fledged vegetarianism or veganism - eating very small amounts of meat is still acceptable and beneficial in his book.

I found this to be an eloquent exploration of our modern eating habits and how we do have the power to make small changes that have enormous impact. Read more about my own personal take on food at my health and fitness blog here: