- The Sorrow of Belgium by Hugo Claus, translated by Arnold Pomerans
Viking, 609 pp, £14.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 670 81456 3
- Joanna by Lisa St Aubin de Teran
Virago, 260 pp, £12.95, May 1990, ISBN 1 85381 158 0
- A Sensible Life by Mary Wesley
Bantam, 364 pp, £12.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 593 01930 X
- The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Macmillan, 418 pp, £12.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 333 53875 7
Half a century after it was fought, the Second World War is still being written, and still being judged. The run of new fiction, like the current debate over war crimes trials, bears witness to our continuing obsession with the events of 1939-45. Things silenced and hushed up, perhaps for good reasons, in the late Forties are now being disinterred and subjected to lengthy post-mortems. The question of collaboration amongst intellectuals in the occupied nations has again become a talking-point, thanks largely to the posthumous revelations about the Belgian-American literary theorist Paul de Man. But what about the ordinary people of the Low Countries? Hugo Claus’s The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel first published in Holland in 1983, presents a world in which collaboration with the Nazis is made to seem as inevitable as breathing.
The protagonist, Louis Seynaeve, who is ten years old at the time of Munich, grows up in an enclosed and self-righteous little community in Catholic West Flanders. The Seynaeves are anti-semitic (though until the outbreak of war Louis has never set eyes on a Jew), anti-socialist, anti-French, anti-Protestant, anti-Brussels and anti-government. Their right-wing Flemish Nationalist sympathies are restrained only by Louis’s grandfather’s anxiety to protect his monopoly over the sale of school supplies to the local convents. After the defeat in 1940, Louis’s friends and relatives are quick to enlist in Hitler’s Flemish brigades, in the National Socialist Youth Movement and in the labour units sent to work in the German armaments factories. Louis’s mother becomes the secretary and mistress of a highly placed Nazi officer, while his father, a printer, produces offical leaflets and cultivates the Gestapo. Louis, too, is briefly moved by the vision of a New European Order based on an ideal synthesis of Dietsch and Deutsch, or Dutch and German. After the Liberation several of the family go into hiding, and Louis’s father is thrown into jail. Yet their war has been, for the most part, a struggle to survive the cold, the hunger and the American bombing raids, just like everybody else’s. All this is seen through the furiously observant eye of a drifting, disconsolate teenager.
But while Claus’s novel is a major exercise in the recovery of buried historical experience, it is weirder and more idiosyncratic than this summary suggests. It is a chronicle not only of the years of social deprivation and darkness but of the ‘slimy, inner civil war’ in the protagonist’s consciousness. Louis is initially seen as the leader of the Apostles, a boys’ secret society, and his behaviour throughout the novel is a byword for furtiveness. Where the nuns at his boarding-school have an elaborate Book of Rules, the Apostles collect Forbidden Books which have been placed on the Vatican Index thanks to their quotient of freethinking, smut or socialism. The Book of Rules is reputed to include a list of devils in alphabetical order; Louis, however, has his own private demonology in the shape of the mysterious Mizzlers, pagan gods which leave no trace and have no name. The Sorrow of Belgium dips in and out of Louis’s phantasmagoric world, and the Mizzlers, or some other force, are constantly playing tricks with the story. Finally it is no surprise that the haunted schoolboy turns into an autobiographical novelist more or less deliberately manipulating his narrative.