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Holland, the other country for cheese.

October 2, 2014 15 comments

Cheese by Willem Elschott. 1933. French title: Fromage (Translated from the Dutch by Xavier Hanotte)

Pour aborder les problèmes sérieux, le lit conjugal me paraît l’endroit le plus approprié. Là au moins, on est seul avec son épouse. Les couvertures amortissent les voix, l’obscurité favorise la réflexion et puisqu’on ne peut pas se voir, aucune des deux parties n’est soumise à l’émotion de son interlocuteur. Là, on aborde toute ce qu’on n’ose pas vraiment dire à visage découvert, et ce fut donc là que, bien allongé sur mon côté droit, après un silence inaugural, j’annonçais à ma femme que j’allais devenir négociant. To tackle with serious issues, the conjugal bed always seems the most appropriate place. There, at least, you’re alone with your wife. The blankets cover the voices, the darkness makes thinking easier and since you can’t see each other, no party is subjected to the emotions of the other. There you can deal with anything you can’t say face to face. So this is where, lying on my right side and after an inaugural silence, that I disclosed to my wife that I was becoming a merchant. (My translation)

 elschott_cheeseLast year I visited Brussels and of course ended up in a bookstore. I wanted to read something Belgian that wasn’t a comic book. That’s where I bought Cheese by Willem Elschott, attracted by the title and the quote by Le Monde saying “C’est Woody Allen au pays du gouda. Un véritable regal!” (It’s Woody Allen in the land of Gouda cheese. A real treat) The sole mention of Woody Allen would have sold me the book. The cheese did the rest.

The other day Max told us about his days as a pick-and-mix employee. I had mine as a fromage à la coupe employee. It’s working in a supermarket and sell cheese that you cut on demand for customers. That’s probably a French thing. While I was fulfilling my school obligation to have a sales internship, I learnt several things about cheese: Roquefort leaks, Munster leaves your fingers stinking and Holland cheeses are bloody difficult to cut, especially mature Mimolette. But back to the book.

Frans Laarsmans works as a clerk at General Marine and Shipbuilding Company in Antwerp. When his mother dies, he strikes an acquaintance with Mr Van Schoonbeke, a friend of his brother Dr Laarmans. Frans becomes a frequent visitor at Van Schoonbeke’s house where he mingles among bourgeois from Antwerp. They’re out of his league, he struggles to keep up with them and Van Schoonbeke pushes him to become the sales representative of the Dutch firm Hornstra in Belgium and Luxemburg.

C’était sans doute un peu cavalier de sa part, car à mon avis, personne n’avait le droit de voir en moi l’homme de la situation avant que je ne m’y sois vu. It was without a doubt a bit cheeky from him. In my opinion, no one had the right to see the man of the situation in le before I’d seen myself as such. (my translation)

elschott_cheeseA little pushing from Van Schoonbeke and here’s our Frans loaded with ten thousand full-cream Edam cheeses to sell in his sales territory. The poor man doesn’t even like cheese. The novel relates with a great sense of humour the adventures of a clerk in the land of commerce. Frans is our narrator and his candidness shows that he’s totally delusional about the world he lives in. Frans is completely at loss as how to start the business, cover the territory. He knows nothing about selling, visiting clients, setting up a sales plan and shipping cheeses. The Edam whole cheeses are heavy and he’s barely able to lift one. He has no client database and knows nothing about sales techniques.

This new experience as a cheese merchant after a 30 year time as a clerk will be an eye opener. Frans is a funny character but not always likeable. He loves his wife but despises her…on principle, because she’s a woman. He’s not much impressed by his teenage children even he’s a loving father. He didn’t think much about his former job but will discover a side of his colleagues he never imagined. His wife is a lot less stupid than he thought and his children are supportive in his new career.

In appearance it’s light and funny. Yet it shows in a comical way all Frans’ flaws and it lashes out on the bourgeois society in Antwerp who need to puff up their members to respect them. Status is a virtue in itself. Without Van Schoombeke’s shame of Frans being a simple clerk, he wouldn’t have suggested that he started a business. It was written in the 1930s but so many details are still true about people avid search for status and about business practices.

Bref, I had a lot of fun reading this little gem and I have a new incentive to put a photogenic grin on your face : “Read Cheese !”

PS: The English cover is a lot better than the French. It represents the book: Frans overwhelmed by a huge quantity of cheese.

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