"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

April 24, 2013

Cheese (1933) by Willem Elsschot (Best Novellas)

Being Dutch by birth, I love this cheesy novella which is Edam's great moment in world literature. Willem Elsschot (1882-1960; in real life called Alfons de Ridder) was a Belgian writer and businessman who because of the combination of these two functions, has been dubbed the “Flemish Italo Svevo.” Born in Antwerp, he also worked in Brussels, Paris and Rotterdam and managed his own advertising agency. More than his business endeavors, which he didn't enjoy so much – although he seems to have been quite successful – , his real vocation was literature. He wrote eleven short novels, notably Lijmen (1924), Kaas (1933), Tsjip (1934) and Het Been (1938). His main themes are business and family life and his stories are told in a mildly cynical style, a combination of comedy and pathos. His books also contain good sketches of life in Antwerp during the 1930s.

Cheese ("Kaas"; 1933) is a gentle fable, timeless in its skewering of the pretensions and pomposity of businessmen. Frans Laarmans, a humble shipping clerk in Antwerp, “getting on for fifty,” becomes the chief agent in Belgium and Luxembourg for a Dutch cheese company. Thrilled at the change in his status (and income), he goes on leave and sets up an office at home. He desperately wants to get some respect, as “thirty years of servility have naturally left their mark on me.”

Laarmans takes delivery of ten thousand full-cream wheels of this red-rinded Dutch delight. But he has no idea how to run a business, or how to sell his goods. He is more focused on setting up his office with a proper desk and typewriter, rather than doing the hard-selling that is needed. But as the bulk of the cheese sits in storage, crates and crates of it, the stinking and ripening substance starts to haunt him. And when his employer, the brusque Mr Hornstra, wires him to say he is coming to Antwerp to settle the first accounts, Laarmans panics...

Cheese is a gentle, humorous story of small-time ambition faced with too grand an opportunity, told with brisk efficiency. It is also a warning not to wander away too far from the trade we know.
English translation and preface by Paul Vincent. Published by Granta, 2002. Dutch original available here.

Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau