First Lines: Het verdriet van België

Hugo Claus’s semi-autobiographical Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) is Belgium’s Big and Important Book about World War II. It covers a lot of themes — growing up, family, Flemish small-town life, collaboration — as seen through the eyes of an impressionable child. I found it a bit of a slog.

Mostly, I guess, because I found the protagonist, Louis Seynaeve, to be an unsympathetic and insufferable git. In the novel’s first part he’s mostly tolerable as an impressionable eleven-year old, safely tucked away from the tumultuous world with the nuns in a boarding school, but even there he is bossy and cruel. And as soon as he’s pulled from those confines, it goes wrong. His school work suffers, he enjoys a brief stint in the Flemish branch of the Hitler Youth … sure, having a family that mostly sympathizes with the Germans doesn’t really help, but still: grow a pair.

What also didn’t really help, is that we find out that Louis is supposed to be the novel’s author. In the second part we learn he wrote the first part, but by then it was too late: the narrator had become too unreliable to really care.

I liked the language though. It’s Dutch, but the Flemish use words and phrases that are completely unlike what we would use over here. That was fun.

And I loved, loved, hashtag sparkly-heart (#💖) loved Louis’s grandmother, Bomama. She has all the best lines. For example, when Louis admonishes her that she shouldn’t repay injury with injury because Jesus would not do such a thing, not even when the Jews hammered nails through His hands and feet, she replied: “Well, I’m not Jesus,” before finishing a game of solitaire. Or when a nun first learned about skiing and didn’t believe such a thing was possible. Her reaction? “Your Jesus did walk on water.” Classic. (When she waxes poetical that heartache may hurt, but that it’s also the salt of life, one of Louis’s aunts has the equally brilliant comeback, “I’d rather have a salted herring.”)

Book read
Hugo Claus — Het verdriet van België
First line
Dondeyne had een van de zeven Verboden Boeken onder zijn schort verstopt en Louis meegelokt.