Summer Investigations(3) Works on the PLT: Cheese

For the last of these recommendations, a work composed in Dutch by a Flemish author, A.J de Ridder, writing under the pseudonym, Willem Elsschot.  To my knowledge, Cheese, has not appeared on any IB Language A: Literature syllabus, and I’d like to make the case that it might be very apt, particularly when people are looking for something to include that is not ‘dark and depressing,’ a request that often comes up in discussions and workshops.

Originally published in 1933, this short novel–novella, if you will–tells an entertaining story of a man who lives a pretty ordinary family and work life and becomes an entrepreneur of cheese, hired by a Dutch company to represent them in Belgium and the ‘Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.’  Taxed with the selling of ‘ten thousand full cream Edam cheeses,’  Frans Laarman undertakes to set up a business and act as the agent for twenty tons of cheese.  The mix of comedy and poignancy takes the work in the direction of tragicomedy, something that adds a dimension of complexity.  Along with satire, this witty examination of aspiration offers many diverse attractions.

The novel is comprised of numerous wonderful scenes: the dying days of Laarman’s mother, the interactions with his wife and children, setting up an office (which consumes many hours and days while the cheese languishes in a storehouse), Larman’s attempt to sell the cheeses one by one, and his final desperate moments in the role of agent, hiding from his employer.  As I re-read the novel, I was constantly thinking about the many directions Written Assignments could take out of this work.

Additonally, there are two complementary elements in the Granta edition which provides the translation into English: the ‘Translator’s Preface’ by Paul Vincent, and at the conclusion, the ‘Author’s Original Preface.’  The informative preface includes the following from a letter written by the author: ‘My intention was to make an extremely humdrum, completely run-of-the-mill event gripping through intensity. In other words to make something out of nothing.’  The latter ‘original preface’ is a provocative and challenging essay on style which would certainly provide some discussions in the direction of Theory of Knowledge.  Additonally, there is a poem of dedication at the beginning, which itself is worth examining.

Maybe it’s a work you should take a look at; some have even commented on the striking bright red cover of the Granta edition, itself an invitation to open the book out of curiosity.

Here are a few links to reviews and comments about these and other aspects of Cheese that might whet your interest (appetite):

http://mostlyfiction.com/humor/elsschot.htm

This lengthy review which covers the plot ends with the comment: ‘Cheese is a full fat Edam.’

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/14/cheese-novel-willem-elsschot-review-self-improvement-through-edam

Some other ideas about the nature of the satire and reference to a different translation.  Also refers to a page in this translation that lists references to ‘cheese’ found in the novel.

There is a also quite a comprehensive entry in wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willem_Elsschot

Finally, the Dutch artist, Dick Matena, has produced a graphic novel in Dutch, based on Cheese.
And the illustration accompanying this reference also appears as a graphic mural in Antwerp.

https://www.deburen.eu/programma/445/willem-elsschot-039kaas039-a-graphic-novel-by-dick-matena

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