His death by euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium, led to considerable controversy.
Hugo Claus was born on 5 April 1929 at Sint-Janshospitaal in Bruges, Belgium. He was the eldest of the sons born to Jozef (Joseph) Claus, a printer who had a passion for theater; his mother was Germaine Vanderlinden. Three more sons were born into the family within the subsequent decade: Guido (February 1931 – 9 November 1991), Odo (born January 1934), and Johan (November 1938 – 13 February 2009).
Educated at a boarding school, the young Hugo Claus lived in Belgium during the German invasion of the country in World War II. Several of Claus' schoolteachers during the half-decade of the German occupation of the country were right-wing nationalists eager to support the pro-German government; his father was briefly held in custody for pro-German activities after the end of the occupation, and Hugo was himself swayed into supporting the pro-German Flemish fascist youth movement. Claus' experience with the wartime nationalist right would later become a source for his 1983 book The Sorrow of Belgium, a novel which tells the story of Claus' alter ego Louis Seynaeve. A sympathizer of the political left at a more mature period in his life, Claus lauded the socialist model after a visit to Cuba in the 1960s.
Claus' prominence in literary circles and his debut as a novelist came in 1950, with the publication of his De Metsiers at age twenty-one. His first published poems had in fact been printed by his father as early as 1947. He lived in Paris from 1950 until 1952, where he met many of the members of the CoBrA art movement.
From February 1953 until the beginning of 1955, Hugo Claus lived in Italy where his girlfriend Elly Overzier (born in 1928) acted in a few films. They were married on 26 May 1955, and had a son, Thomas, on 7 October 1963. In the early 1970s, he had an affair with actress Sylvia Kristel, who was 23 years younger, with whom he had a son, Arthur, in 1975. The relationship ended in 1977, when she left him for actor Ian McShane.
He was a "contrarian", of "anarchist spirit". Journalist Guy Duplat recalls that Claus had organized in Knokke the election of a "Miss Knokke Festival", which was a typical beauty contest, except for the Claus ruling that the members of the all-male jury would have to be naked.
Hugo Claus was considered to be one of the most important contemporary Belgian authors . Claus published the novel Schola Nostra (1971) under the pseudonym Dorothea Van Male. He also used the pseudonyms Jan Hyoens and Thea Streiner. The 1962 De verwondering (The Astonishment) and the 1983 Het verdriet van België (The Sorrow of Belgium) rank among Claus' most significant works as a novelist. Lee views Het verdriet van België as a postmodern critique of national identity.
Most prolific in literary endeavors as a dramatist, Claus wrote 35 original pieces and 31 translations from English, Greek, Latin, French and Spanish plays and novels. His dramatic sketch Masscheroen was first staged at Knokke Casino and featured an all-nude cast: three naked men were given the task of portraying the Christian Holy Trinity of God the father, God the son, and the Holy Spirit; the work also made light of the Holy Virgin, a Belgian saint, and the Three Wise Men. Attacked as blasphemous and deleterious to the public's moral well-being, the light-hearted play's performance triggered a notable legal case in which Claus was prosecuted: convicted on charges of public indecency, Claus was ordered to pay a ten-thousand-Belgian franc fine and serve a four-month prison sentence. The prison term was reduced to a suspended sentence after a public outcry.
Claus also wrote the script of a satirical comic strip, "De Avonturen van Belgman" ("The Adventures of Belgian Man") in 1967, which spoofed the Belgian bi-lingual troubles. The strip itself was drawn by artist Hugoké (Hugo de Kempeneer).
Hugo Claus' name had been put forward many times for the Nobel Prize in literature, on which he would casually comment "this prize money would suit me fine".
As a painter, Claus was a participant in the CoBrA art movement from 1950. He had developed friendships with some of its members, and illustrated a book by Pierre Alechinsky in 1949. He collaborated with key figures in the movement including Karel Appel and Corneille and participated in some exhibitions. He later used his experiences of this time in his book Een zachte vernieling (Mild Destruction).
Claus directed seven films between 1964 and 2001. His film Het sacrament was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.
Claus suffered from Alzheimer's disease and requested his life to be terminated through euthanasia, a legal procedure in Belgium, at the Middelheim Hospital in Antwerp on 19 March 2008.
The Flemish Minister of Culture stated "I knew him well enough to know that he wanted to depart with pride and dignity." Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said that he imagined the onset of Alzheimer's must have been "inevitable and unbearable torture". "I can live with the fact that he decided thus," he said, "because he left us as a great glowing star, right on time, just before he would have collapsed into a Stellar black hole."
His death by euthanasia has received criticism from the Roman Catholic Church and the Belgian Alzheimer League. The Roman Catholic Church criticized the media coverage; Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels referred to Claus' euthanasia in his Easter Homily. The Belgian Alzheimer League respects Claus' decision, but believes the media coverage of his death neglects other options for Alzheimer's patients.
Amongst others:1952 — Arkprijs van het Vrije Woord for De Metsiers
1964 – August Beernaertprize for De verwondering
1965 – Henriëtte Roland Holst-prize for all his plays
1967 – Edmond Hustinxprize for all his plays
1979 – Constantijn Huygens Prize
1985 – Cestoda-prize
1986 – Herman Gorterprize for Alibi
1986 – Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren
1994 – Prijs voor Meesterschap
1994 – VSB Poetry Prize for De Sporen
1997 – Libris Prize for De Geruchten
1998 – Aristeion Prize for De Geruchten
2000 – Premio Nonino