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Willem Elsschot

Related: Belgium - literature


Willem Elsschot (7 May 1882 - 31 May 1960), was a Flemish writer and poet (pseudonym of Alfons-Jozef De Ridder). Few of his works have been translated into English. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Elsschot [Oct 2005]

Kaas (Cheese)

Last year Ida de Ridder published her memoirs of her father Alfons de Ridder, the man who gained fame as a writer under the pseudonym Willem Elsschot (1882-1960). Oddly enough, it wasn’t until Ida went to 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.

Kaas was Willem Elsschot’s breakthrough. Until its publication he had been a relatively unnoticed writer whose work fell outside the prevailing literary fashions. The editors of the important magazine Forum had encouraged him to break ten years of silence and return to prose. The result was the delightful novel Kaas. The book deals with an episode in the life of Frans Laarmans, a clerk who is suddenly made chief representative in Belgium and Luxembourg of a Dutch cheese company. Laarmans is saddled with a consignment of 370 cases containing ten thousand full-cream Edam cheeses. He stores the cheese in his cellar, sets up an office and waits. But nothing happens.

The book is a successful satire of the hard world of business and the perfect vehicle for Elsschot’s dry humorous style. ‘You can’t go wrong in the cheese trade,’ Laarmans is told at the start of the book, ‘people will always have to eat, won’t they?’ A plausible argument but as different from reality as chalk and cheese. Ultimately disillusioned, Laarmans ends up back in his job as clerk.

Kaas is a brilliant evocation of the thirties and depicts a world full of smart operators and failed businessmen; the book is, above all, about human shortcomings and no one writes about them as well as Elsschot does. In the words of his fellow writer Louis Paul Boon: ‘He loves like a mother and makes assessments like a bailiff.’ The fact that he produced his work in the evenings and without the knowledge of his children is a telling indication of Elsschot’s reticence and modesty. Elsschot is one of the greatest twentieth-century Dutch-language writers and generation after generation has had the pleasure of rediscovering his small but masterly oeuvre.

Elsschot’s joyful narration is full of sparkling sarcasm. This author handles his characters with a delighted, dry, fundamental malice which goes far beyond Jaroslav Hacek and can qualitively only be measured against Jules Renard’s short prose or Italo Svevo’s implacability. One can speak of Elsschot’s oeuvre as great European literature. F R A N K F U R T E R A L LG E M E I N E Z E I T U N G

Elsschot’s tremendous power lay in the despotic rule he imposed on his own feelings. Every sentence has the expressive power of pure poetry. S I M O N C A R M I G G E L T

Selected titles

Villa des Roses (1913) novel Een ontgoocheling (1921) novella Lijmen (1924) novel Tsjip (1934) novella Het been (1938) novel Het dwaallicht (1946) novella Verzen (1947) poetry Verzameld werk (1958) complete works, one volume

Translated titles

Villa des Roses. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1992 (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics). Also in German (Suhrkamp Verlag, 1993) and in Indonesian (Pustaka Jaya, 1977). Three Novels: Soft Soap, The Leg, Will o’ the Wisp. (Lijmen, Het been, Het dwaallicht). Leiden; London; New York: Sijthoff/Heinemann, London House & Maxwell, 1965. Formaggio olandese (Kaas). Milan: Iperborea, 1992. Fuoco fatuo (Het dwaallicht). Milan: Iperborea, 1992. Also in Serbo-Croatian (Prometej, 1994).


© 1996 Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, Amsterdam

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