Soft Soap / The Leg
A little man reaching for the stars
The novellas, Lijmen (Soft Soap, 1924) and Het been (The Leg, 1938) are two highlights of Elsschot’s fiction, linked by a common narrative and featuring the tragicomic Keatonesque character of Frans Laarmans, a little man reaching for the stars, who also appears in Het dwaallicht (Will-o’-the-Wisp, 1946).
In Soft Soap Laarmans is a disillusioned idealist who falls under the spell of the charismatic business guru Boorman. The pact he enters into with the Mephistophelian Boorman gives him new purpose, a new identity - with the rather impressive name of Texeira de Mattos - and the promise of riches, but at what price? Laarmans helps edit the grand-sounding General World Review, actually a glossy compilation of articles pasted together from a database of clichés and sold in vast numbers to gullible businesspeople like the disabled Madame Lauwereyssen, owner of a modest lift-making works. She swallows their story hook, line and sinker and promptly orders 100,000 copies of the worthless magazine. This leads her to financial ruin, to the immediate remorse of the young, inexperienced Laarmans. The seasoned Boorman, on the other hand, couldn’t care less.
In the later sequel, The Leg, the tables are turned. When, a couple of years later, Boorman accidentally knocks Madame Lauwereyssen over in the market, he discovers that she’s lost a leg. His conscience begins to prick and in a sudden bout of humanity, the con man stakes everything to pay back his victim. She turns out to be none to keen on the idea. Comic highlights include Boorman’s mock-sermon to his sorcerer’s apprentice and the anonymous narrator’s final headlong flight from the monstrous Laarmans - successful, plausible, but without principles or scruples.
Soft Soap / The Leg was inspired by Elsschot’s own experiences in business (he owned a successful advertising agency in his native city Antwerp), elevated to a unique form and written in a concentrated style. Elsschot’s works are recognizable for their easy-going sour humour overlying strong compassion. To this day, this tragic-comic dry humour has retained its freshness and its bite, making Elsschot a much-loved author. Soft Soap / The Leg was made into a movie in 2000.