Cheese: A Novel by Willem Elsschot review – self-improvement through edam

Deadpan humour abounds in this absurdist tale of a useless, cheese-hating clerk who tries to become ... a cheese merchant

A bit over halfway through this short novel, Frans Laarmans, an ineffectual clerk at an Antwerp shipyard, has visitors from his office. He has supposedly been off sick from nerves for weeks, but what he has really been doing is trying to establish himself as a cheese merchant. This is not going well. His co-workers, or possibly ex-co-workers, paint a vivid picture of the excitement he is missing.

There had been quite a number of changes at the office in those few weeks. They were now facing away from the window instead of the other way around. They’d also each been given a new roll of blotting paper, and Hamer was wearing glasses.
“Just imagine Hamer with glasses,” said Erfurt. “It’s a scream.”

We have not yet encountered any of the people named, but we get the idea of just how thrilling life is at their office.

It’s a typical moment of deadpan humour in this quietly absurdist and surprisingly rich, even enigmatic novel. Laarmans – conscious of his lowly position in society, and the fact that a clerk “has no sacred aura” and “faces the world as naked as the day he was born” – seeks self-improvement. He finds it when an influential friend of his brother arranges for him to take delivery of and sell 20 tonnes of full-cream edam. There are only a couple of snags: Laarmans has no idea how to go about this, and he hates cheese. He doesn’t even like the word “cheese”. He spends ages thinking up a name for his company, trying to find a typewriter, marvelling at his new telephone, writing advertisements for agents (his own adverts impress him so much he feels like answering them himself). Meanwhile, his cheese sits stinking in a warehouse. Sisyphus, you feel, had a more productive relationship with his boulder.

First published in 1933, Cheese could be taken as a parable of Marxist alienation (there are a couple of references to Soviet Russia); or you could notice the dates mentioned and make a connection between Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and Laarman’s journey into the land of cheese-based fantasy (his colleagues visit him on 15 February, so the dates coincide quite neatly). Or you could read it simply as a funny satire on the business world – Elsschot was the pseudonym of Alphonsus Josephus de Ridder, who had the same job as Laarmans before going into advertising.

It reads, in Sander Berg’s translation, limpidly enough, and you get the impression that all the humour in the original has been safely transmitted; but there are quirks in the story, which begins with the narrator telling us of the death of his mother: “She was old, very old. Although I only have a rough idea of how old exactly. She wasn’t really ill or anything, just utterly worn out.” I was reminded of Meursault’s vagueness about the date of his mother’s death in Camus’s The Outsider, or of the decrepit mother in Beckett’s Molloy.

The narrative starts with the words “At last I am writing to you again”, but we never hear who is being written to, and any notion that this is an epistolary novel is soon forgotten. At the front there is a half-page titled “Elements”, listing the various iterations of cheese that occur in the novel: “cheese dream, cheese film, cheese enterprise, cheese day, cheese campaign”. It is as if we are being driven mad by cheese, by the word’s innate absurdity (“Kaas” in Dutch) before the book even begins, and I think this can be read as a straightforward comic tale (with a tragic twist; the flaw in Laarmans’ character being his uselessness), and can be placed in the modernist tradition.

Which didn’t stop the book being a success in Elsschot’s native Belgium: it cemented his reputation. Congratulations to the publisher for bringing this little classic to our attention.

Cheese: A Novel is published by Alma. To order a copy for £6.79 (RRP £7.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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