Ida de Ridder published her memoirs of her father Alfons de Ridder, the man who gained fame as a writer under the pseudonym Willem Elsschot (1882-1960). Oddly enough, it wasn’t until Ida went to secondary school that she found out that her father and the extraordinary Flemish writer were one and the same person. Suddenly his ‘unapproachable’ hours were explained. Alfons de Ridder, the head of a successful advertising agency, had never said a word about his writing at home.
Kaas was Willem Elsschot’s breakthrough. Until its publication he had been a relatively unnoticed writer whose work fell outside the prevailing literary fashions. The editors of the important magazine Forum had encouraged him to break ten years of silence and return to prose. The result was the delightful novel Kaas. The book deals with an episode in the life of Frans Laarmans, a clerk who is suddenly made chief representative in Belgium and Luxembourg of a Dutch cheese company. Laarmans is saddled with a consignment of 370 cases containing ten thousand full-cream Edam cheeses. He stores the cheese in his cellar, sets up an office and waits. But nothing happens.
The book is a successful satire of the hard world of business and the perfect vehicle for Elsschot’s dry humorous style. ‘You can’t go wrong in the cheese trade,’ Laarmans is told at the start of the book, ‘people will always have to eat, won’t they?’ A plausible argument but as different from reality as chalk and cheese. Ultimately disillusioned, Laarmans ends up back in his job as clerk.
Kaas is a brilliant evocation of the thirties and depicts a world full of smart operators and failed businessmen; the book is, above all, about human shortcomings and no one writes about them as well as Elsschot does. In the words of his fellow writer Louis Paul Boon: ‘He loves like a mother and makes assessments like a bailiff.’ The fact that he produced his work in the evenings and without the knowledge of his children is a telling indication of Elsschot’s reticence and modesty. Elsschot is one of the greatest twentieth-century Dutch-language writers and generation after generation has had the pleasure of rediscovering his small but masterly oeuvre.