Willem Elsschot


(Reviewed by Chris Baker JAN 9, 2003)

Cheese by Willem Elsschot

I will never eat another wedge of Edam and think that it is just cheese. Its red rind and yellow-orange flesh have been forever altered, especially after reading Willem Elsschot's Cheese. Originally written in Dutch, Cheese has been recently translated by Paul Vincent, who has also translated another of Elsschot's novels as well as other Dutch writers. Elsschot, a pseudonym for successful Flemish advertiser Alfons de Ridder, wrote Cheese in two weeks. It can be read in two days, perhaps less. And, like any good cheese, its aroma and flavor lingers.

Cheese opens ostensibly as a letter from Frans Laarmans to an unnamed correspondent. Laarmans has decided to leave his position at the General Marine and Shipping Company as a clerk, a job in which "there's nothing really sacred about." Through Van Schoonbeke, a recent acquaintance who has introduced Laarmans to a circle of businessmen, he is offered the sales district of Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, a country smaller than its name. He will sell cheese, tons of it, even though he has no sales experience.

Upon his wife's advice, Laarmans asks his brother, a doctor, to give him a certificate for a leave of absence due to medical reasons. His brother decides that "neurosis" will enable him to take three months off and still have the ability to return to his old job should the cheese business venture fail. Laarmans begins his business, which--after neurotic hours of agonizing over a name--he calls General Antwerp Food Products Association, or GAFPA. But, before he can start selling cheese, he has to set up his office. For the ensuing weeks, he tracks down office supplies--second-hand desks, typewriters, a telephone--and gets his office arranged. He places an ad for salesmen, but he never sells cheese, a product that he eventually admits his dislike for. He finally makes a small sale to the businessmen in Von Schoonbeke's circle.

It turns out that his reason for leave of absence, neurosis, is an apt description of Laarmans. He cannot sell cheese because he is afraid of what people will think of him. This is ably illustrated in when Laarmans tries to make his first sale: "I can't go charging in while all those customers are there and bring the whole business to a halt while hold forth about my full-fat cheese. Because then it will turn into a lecture. But if I don't launch straight into it, then perhaps they'll ask, 'How can I help you, sir?' And the roles will be reversed." He doesn't quite make it into the shop. Instead, he skips down to a bar and has a few drinks. Eventually, he makes a small sale of two cases to the cheeseshop, leaving him still with tons in storage.

Laarmans is elected vice-president of a cheese association, a job he doesn't want due to the likely publicity it will attract. He has tried to keep his moonlighting as a cheese man secret so that he doesn't loose his job. But as inept as cheese man he is, he is even more so as a delegate to the Department of Trade. With four other representatives, Laarmans is expected to convince the Director-General to lower import duties. Laarmans' neurotic panic will be familiar to anyone who's ever felt surrounded by people who know their jobs better than you do: "All four of them respected names in cheese, people with a past, a cheese pedigree, people with authority, money. And into their midst had strayed Frans Laarmans who knew as much about cheese as about chemistry. What had these disgusting cheeseworms done to this poor man? Suddenly my chair slid backward, as though of its own accord. I stood up and, looking furiously at the four cheesified dolts, declared loudly that I had had enough." With this outburst, Laarmans unwittingly intimidates the Director-General into lowering the duty. I especially love the use of "cheesified," a neologism that enriches the English language. If the Dutch language can add more amusing words to English, as it has with pinky, poppycock and cookie, then we need more translations of Dutch fiction.

Paul Vincent is an able translator. He translates Elsschot economically and tersely with relatively few Briticisms, and those that do appear shouldn't distract American readers whatsoever. In fact, it heightens the realism. Anytime I've heard the Dutch speak English, they say lorry for truck and cheek for guts.

In an odd move, Vincent places "The Author's Original Preface" after the novel's last chapter, giving the impression of a modernistic coda. This "Preface" is Elsschot's treatise on style and tells an unusual fable about blue skies and clouds. While interesting to writers, it will leave most readers confused.

Cheese is one of the very few comic novels that is able to escape its era and its culture. Though written almost seventy years ago, its situations are as fresh as today's office place. I suspect that there is a bit of Laarmans in everyone. Everyone eventually daydreams about leaving our daily jobs and making it on our own. Cheese may be a light alternative to those serious, weighty tomes everyone's dragging along on vacation. It could also be a perfect read the week after the sunburn peels. A succinct comic satire, its dry humor should be cherished and kept within easy reach on anyone's bookshelf. So many comic novels, and comic writings in general, feel as if they were plastic-wrapped American singles. Cheese is a full-fat Edam.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

  • Villa des Roses (1913; 1992 in English)
  • Three Novels: Soft Soap, The Leg, Will o’ the Wisp (1924; 1965 in English)
  • Fuoco Fatuo (1946, reprinted in 1992)
  • Cheese (1933; April 2002)

Movies from Books:

  • Villa Des Roses (2002)


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Willem ElsschotWillem Elsschot and is the pseudonym of Alfons Josef de Ridder, who was born in 1882 in Antwerpen. His daughter recently wrote her memoirs of her father and in it she says that it wasn't until she was in secondary school that she found out that her father and the extraordinary Flemish writer were one and the same person. Suddenly his "unapproachable" hours were explained. Alfons de Ridder, the head of a successful advertising agency, had never said a word about his writing at home.

Elsschot is considered one of the most distinguished twentieth century Flemish writers. His novels are mainly characterized by a laconic, sparse and often cynical style, but are full of insight and humor. Unfortunately few of his writings are available in English translation.

He died in 1960.

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