In nature, tragedy resides in the things that actually happen. In art it is more a matter of style than of what happens. A herring can be depicted tragically, even though there is nothing intrinsically tragic about such a creature. On the other hand it is not sufficient to say ‘My poor father is dead’ to achieve a tragic effect.
The words of Belgian writer Willem Elsschot (1882-1960) in the preface to his 1933 novel Cheese (Kaas), which I read in the translation by Paul Vincent. I could have picked one of any number of fine Belgian novels, I’m sure, but who can turn down the opportunity of reading the book that, according to the blurb on the back, ‘marks Edam’s great moment in world literature’? Not me.
Elsschot doesn’t achieve tragedy through saying ‘My father is dead’, but the book does open with its protagonist, Frans Laarmans, relating the death of his mother, who, having peeled her life’s share of potatoes, gives up the ghost. I thought it might be a nod to Camus (‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’), but it turns out that L’Étranger wasn’t written until 1942, so presumably Camus was inspired by Elsschot. At his mother’s funeral Laarmans, a lowly clerk, meets the mysterious Mr Van Schoonbeke (‘the cause of all the trouble’, according to the cast list at the front of the book), and before too long he finds himself in possession of 20 tons of Edam that he has to shift somehow.
Laarmans, who has never sold anything in his life, is not an obvious candidate for such a job. He begins by scoping out the cheese world.
I stopped outside a cheese shop to admire the window display. In the bright light of a host of bulbs lay cheeses of all shapes, sizes and origins, next to and on top of each other. They had converged on this spot from all our neighbouring countries.
Huge Gruyères as big as millstones served as a base, and on top of them were Cheshires, Goudas, Edams and numerous varieties of cheese that were entirely unknown to me, some of the largest with bellies slit open and innards exposed. The Roqueforts and Gorgonzolas lewdly flaunted their mould, and a squadron of Camemberts let their pus ooze out freely.
An odour of decay wafted from the shop, but this decreased after I had stood there for a while.
I didn’t want to give way to the stink, and would only leave when I thought the time had come. A businessman must be as tough as a polar explorer.
‘Go ahead and stink all you want,’ I said defiantly. If I’d had a whip I’d have set about them.
Laarmans is a fun character. Some compare him to Walter Mitty or Charles Pooter. In his moments of hubris and dramatic self-pity (‘My battery is empty. I have bled dry.’) I thought of Adrian Mole. At any rate, he is a fool, and sympathetic primarily for that reason. During the hours when he should be out there making business contacts, he is focusing instead on working out what to call his company so he can start ordering his headed stationery. He plans the layout of his office in mundane detail.
An austere, plain background without flowers or anything, with nothing else hanging up except a tear-off calendar and, for instance, a map of the Dutch cheese area.
The Dutch cheese area! I hope David Nobbs knew this book. The image came into my head of Reggie Perrin drawing the outlines of a waste paper basket and Joan’s handbag on Tony and David’s sales maps.
Planning is not Laarmans’ forte. He is out when the deliveryman calls, and because the message is garbled he is briefly in the position of having lost 20 tons of Edam sight unseen. In order to be able to concentrate on his cheese work he takes three months’ feigned sick leave from his paid job, without realising that if he wants to maintain the façade of being ill he will have to be constantly on his guard for colleagues if he ever leaves his house. His resolution to sell his cheeses only in boxes of 27 restricts his marketplace.
The farce builds steadily. Laarmans is astonished to be elected Vice-President of the Association of Belgian Cheese Merchants. In an important budget meeting with the association’s Director-General, feeling drastically underqualified, he stands up, apparently on the verge of coming clean, but the D-G takes his stand as a bargaining tactic and grants him more money. The decaying smell of cheese infects his life. He comes to realise he will never ‘vanquish the cheese dragon’.
The word Kafkaesque is bandied about more than most in literary discussions, but it may be appropriate here. Who is the shady presence (the eminence cheese, if you will) behind Laarmans’ bizarre new career? The friends of Van Schoonbeke, who appear periodically, are an interesting phenomenon. They appear to be successful businessmen, and to begin with Laarmans feels out of place in their presence. They talk of swanky eating establishments, and the only comparable place Laarmans can think of to mention is a restaurant a friend of his visited in Dunkirk that, one of the others witheringly points out, has since been turned into a cinema. As Van Schoonbeke begins to talk up Laarmans’ prestige, he feels more comfortable, eventually becoming the life and soul of the party. Once the cheese dream is up, he continues to spend time with these people. Is there a hint that they may all be former protégés of Van Schoonbeke now fallen on hard times?
That a crisis eventually comes to Laarmans isn’t a surprise; what does surprise, perhaps, is that when it happens it is more moving than it is comical.
I stand there for a moment and a great feeling of acceptance fills my whole being. It’s as if I’m being tucked up in bed by a loving hand.
But I have to go to the kitchen.
My wife is standing there doing nothing and looking into our back garden.
I go to her and take her in my arms. And as my first tears fall on her weathered face, I see that she is crying too.
Another poignant detail is that in the early days of his new enterprise Laarmans laments the death of his mother because she would have been proud to see him as a success; by the end he realises it is a blessing she cannot see what a failure he has become.
The line dividing tragedy from comedy is one Elsschot treads with skill. Paul Vincent’s fine introduction notes Elsschot’s gloomy response to the news that a producer wanted to put the book on stage: ‘I’m afraid he’ll play it for laughs.’ Vincent does an excellent job of translating the deadpan humour, so that there are moments when you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Generally the former. It’d make a fine film.
I’ve been on the Reblochon recently. Good stuff.