An Extract from Willem Elsschot’s Cheese
1933 sees the publication of Willem Elsschot’s short novel Cheese (Kaas). His protagonist Laarmans, a clerk working for a port authority, is inveigled into setting up as a dealer in cheese, but comes to grief because the work goes against his abilities and his nature. And so a novel about business becomes in fact a textbook on unsaleability.
I’m incapable of working and have lived through the last four days as if in a dream. Do you suppose I’m really falling ill now?
I’ve just been visited by that son of Van der Zijpen the solicitor, whom Van Schoonbeke had talked about.
He’s a distinguished young chap of about twenty-five, who smells strongly of tobacco and can’t stand or sit still for a minute without trying out a dance step.
‘Mr Laarmans,’ he said, ‘I know you’re a friend of Albert Van Schoonbeke, and hence a gentleman, I’m counting on your discretion.’
What was I supposed to reply to that, especially in a mood like mine? So I just nodded briefly.
‘My father is prepared to buy a partnership in your Gafpa business. I reckon we can take him for two hundred thousand little ones, perhaps more.’
He paused to offer me a cigarette, lit one up himself and looked at me as if to see what impression his preamble had made on me.
‘And what then, sir?’ I asked him coolly, because I did not like the sound of ‘little ones’ and ‘take for’.
‘Well, then it’s very simple,’ he said impudently. ‘I become your partner, for a fixed monthly sum of four thousand francs. You take out four thousand francs a month too, obviously. But I have absolutely no aptitude for business and I certainly don’t intend to drag out my days here. So I propose that you give me only three thousand each month and I sign receipts for four thousand, on condition that I don’t have to set foot in your office, not even to get my money. I’ll tell you where you can deliver it. At any rate we’ll be able to get through a couple of years with that two hundred thousand and when that’s gone we can see what happens. Perhaps we’ll decide to inject some more capital. As far as my share of the profits is concerned, I make you a present of it. Isn’t that a splendid offer?’
I told him that I would have to think it over and that I would let him know via Van Schoonbeke.
When he had gone I took off the wall my festively flagged map of Belgium, on which the cheese area of the local agent was marked out around each flag, and put it away.
Should I write another letter to my agents?
Come on, let’s get it over with. It’s time the cheese misery came to an end.
I had a thousand sheets of Gafpa headed notepaper. I cut off the blank bits. They may come in handy for Jan and Ida. The other bits are for the toilet.
Then I went down to the cellar.
There are still fifteen and a half cheeses in the case.
Let’s just check: one stayed with the customs and Blue Hat, a second was shared between Van Schoonbeke and myself; seven and a half rounds went to Van Schoonbeke’s friends, I gave one to that cadging agent and one to my brother-in-law. Twenty-seven minus eleven and a half. That’s right. Hornstra won’t be able to complain about my meticulousness.
That half-round is bothering me. Anyway, why did that old fellow have to take only a half round? I pick up the piece and stand there dithering. I can return whole rounds, but not half-rounds. It would be a waste to throw it away.
I hear my wife going upstairs – to make the beds, I expect. I wait until she’s upstairs, then creep quietly into the kitchen and lay the red half-moon on a board, round side up. To stop it drying out. Then I go back to the cellar, count the Edams once again and nail the case shut. I hammer as carefully as possible so as not to alarm my wife upstairs. She might think I was hanging myself.
Right, that’s that. Now to the office to phone for a taxi, which arrives at the door soon afterwards.
Along with the case the remaining fifteen cheeses still weigh over thirty kilos. And yet I am able to lift the monster, carry it up the cellar stairs and then down the hall to the front door. I open the door and the taxi driver takes the case from me. He has the greatest difficulty in getting it four more steps into his car.
I go and put my coat on, get my hat and join the case. Mrs Peeters, our neighbour, stands at the window and follows the whole operation with the greatest interest. Upstairs I see my wife appear between the curtains.
I deposited the case in the patent store and paid off the taxi.
My cheese will is made.
I can’t understand why, but my wife, who saw the taxi drawing up, didn’t ask a single question and my brother seems to have no interest whatsoever in sold and unsold quantities. He talks about his patients, about my children, about politics. Has he discussed things with my wife, I wonder?
And so Hornstra will be here tomorrow.
The proceeds from the case Jan sold and from the eleven and a half rounds is ready in my office in an envelope.
Wouldn’t it be best to tell my wife what awaits us tomorrow? No, she has worries enough as it is.
However much I am dreading that conversation with Hornstra, I’m starting to long for it as a martyr yearns for redeeming death, for I imagine my prestige as a man and a father is diminishing daily. And what kind of situation is this anyway?
My wife is left with a husband who is officially a clerk with General Marine, but who is playing the role of director of Gafpa, under cover of a doctor’s certificate. A neurotic who has to sell cheese unheard and unseen, as though it were a crime.
And then there are the children. They show nothing of what they’re feeling, but I’m sure that between themselves they are discussing that outrageous cheese fantasy as a pathological symptom. After all a father should be consistent. Whether he’s a mayor, a bookmaker, a clerk or a casual labourer, is less important. But someone who does his duty for years, whatever that duty is, and then suddenly, and without being asked, starts acting out an operetta the way I did with that cheese – is he still a father?
It’s definitely not normal. In this sort of predicament a minister resigns and bows out. But a husband and father can only resign by doing away with himself. And what about my brother, who has so suddenly and obviously stopped asking how sales are going? He knew from the beginning how it would turn out. So why didn’t he refuse to give me that certificate? That would have been more sensible than bringing samples of medicines every day that no one needs. The wimp. I can almost hear him asking my wife discreetly if it’s over yet, the way one asks after the health of a dying man. And she probably replies that I’ve already taken the case out of the cellar.
I’m overcome by a frightening feeling of abandonment. What good is my family to me now? Isn’t there that wall of cheese between us? If I weren’t a miserable freethinker, I’d say a prayer. But can I, at the age of fifty, suddenly start praying about a cheese issue?
I suddenly think of my mother. It’s lucky she has not witnessed this cheese catastrophe. Once upon a time, before she started picking kapok, she would have paid for those ten thousand cheeses to spare me this suffering.
And now I ask myself whether I deserved all this. Why did I jump on the cheese bandwagon? Was it because I was urged on by the desire to improve the lot of my wife and children? That would be noble, but I’m not that much of a saint.
Was it to cut a better figure at Van Schoonbeke’s? It wasn’t that either, because I’m far too vain to be satisfied by such a thing.
But why did I do it then? Cheese makes me sick. I’ve never wanted to sell cheese. I think it’s bad enough going into a shop to buy cheese. But wandering round with a load of cheese, pleading for some Christian soul to relieve you of the burden, is something I just can’t do. I’d rather be dead.
So why? It’s not a nightmare – it’s bitter reality. I had hoped to bury the cheeses in that patent store for ever, but they have broken out; they are looming in front of me, weighing on my soul and stinking.
I think it happened to me because I’m too easily led. When Van Schoonbeke asked me if I would take it on, I didn’t have the guts to reject him and his cheese, as I should have done. And I’m paying the price of that cowardice. I deserved my cheese ordeal.
From Cheese (Translation of Kaas, 1933). London: Granta Books: 2003. pp. 105-111
Heirs of Alfons Josef De Ridder / Amsterdam: Em. Querido’s Uitgeverij b.v.
By Willem Elsschot
Translated by Paul Vincent
Published in The Low Countries, 2007