Ernest Claes, storyteller who drew from his own experiences
Often identified by and narrowed down to De Witte ('Whitey'), the book about rascals through which he became extremely popular after WW I. But he certainly did prove himself capable of poignant psychoanalytical sketches.
In 1885, Ernest Claes came into the world in a large but simple farming family in the Flemish Brabant village of Zichem. Worries and fears of poverty and illness were hallmarks of his childhood. His early childhood formed his personality and laid the foundation for his later authorship. While studying Germanic Philology at the University of Leuven, he was persuaded by friends to publish his and other people's pranks and the experiences, circumstances and events of his native village in the student magazine Ons Leven ('Our Life'). It was 1908 when he made his first sketches about Whitey. After World War, I they appeared in the series World Library, supplemented with extra chapters. In 1920, his first great and best-known book, Whitey, came out.
Whitey is partly autobiographical, partly a reflection of what his brothers, schoolmates and others had been through, and partly purely fictitious. Claes wanted to describe the life of 'the rascal' everywhere down the ages, in which each of us unconsciously recognises something from our own childhood, whether or not it really happened. And he did so with humour, affection and endearment for his region, the landscape, the humble people, the common types and their lifestyle in a closed rural environment. He countered the criticism that the book is merely an accumulation of anecdotal pranks, set in a narrow village backdrop, by arguing that it is the universal rascal's way of defending himself against the grown-up world. "While we laugh at what he's doing, the boy himself cries, he's angry and bitter," he said. Wordcraft or pure style are not relevant here, but authenticity is. With the obligatory phrases and dialect words and expressions from the vernacular.
Whitey, which had already been reprinted more than 100 times, led many lives, the best known of which being the films of the same name (1934 and 1980) and in the unusually popular Wij, Heren van Zichem ('We, Gentlemen of Zichem', 1969-1971), an absolute hit in viewing figures. This TV series is a skilful compilation of more than ten of Claes' fifty works. Other work of his was also made into films.
Ernest Claes has certainly shown depth in his literature and broadened his theme. Think, for example, of Clementine (1940), the development of a pathologically avaricious woman, Jeugd ('Youth', 1940), an ode to his country which had almost completely disappeared, Daar is een mens verdronken ('There a man drowned', 1950) about the emotional climate in WW I or Floere het fluwijn ('Floere the Polecat', 1951), in which he identifies with the stone marten who, like him, is fighting for his existence.
Ernest Claes has been translated into Afrikaans, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Turkish and Swedish.
Picture © Ga HetNa (Nationaal Archief NL) / Wikipedia Dutch