The Heart of the Scorpion
Erudite and multifaceted
In Het hart van de schorpioen, Claes has written an unusual autobiography, in which he largely satisfies ones curiosity as to the author behind the intriguing, creative imitations. Instead of a conventional, often chronological narrative, Paul Claes has opted for a series of short paragraphs based on key words, interspersed with lists, musings, bald statements – which he describes as ‘scryptograms’ rather than aphorisms – and snatches of translation.
For him, language has been the driving force behind his intellectual development. Born into a traditional Belgian family, at home and at school he learned to be seen and not heard. It was reading that opened up the world of language for him and, via imitation, he grew to master the art of words. The achievements this generated gained him recognition and admiration. He is gifted in every aspect of language, in its meaning, its power of expression, the mastery of its form, as a means for acquiring knowledge and of unveiling the intricacies of the world. His thirst for knowledge, his indefatigable urge to fathom the mysteries forged by language and his fascination for languages and translating emerge in this book as his major motivations. As an author he is an uncompromising advocate for ‘formal restrictions, rules and styling’. As a critic and translator his philosophy is that ‘the poet encodes in imagery that requires deciphering’. He finds entirely new meaning in Rilke’s epitaph and, after more than a century, throws light on Rimbaud’s Illuminations, long considered inexplicable. His fascination is itself fascinating.
Striking, however, is the way he distances himself. He divulges extremely personal details regarding his parents and his youth, even in the form of a Freudian dream analysis or the results of a psychological test. When he speaks of himself, however, it is as ‘he’ or ‘you’ and others he refers to as ‘the parents’, or ‘the friend’. You cannot catch him out in emotionally charged expression; his timidity or melancholy is simply acknowledged, not expressed. ‘You can do anything. Anything except put feelings into words,’ he says of himself. Language is a goal in itself for Claes, not a medium for expressing mood. This makes Het hart van de schorpioen not only impressively erudite and multifaceted, but also a paradoxical book: the author’s timidity transforms into shy exhibitionism. Claes, who considers the biography of the author behind the work irrelevant, has written a revealing book about himself. Wise, cautious and stoical, but nonetheless not devoid of the irony and ambiguity so typical of him.