A while back the National Book Critics Circle asked its member to write brief appreciations of their favorite books on work. Here’s my contribution:
Even people who don’t get the giggles when they hear the English word for fromage will love “Cheese.”
Willem Elsschot’s wry 1933 novel (Granta Books, translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent) tells the story of Frans Laarmans, a 50-year-old clerk who’s offered the chance to become a big cheese in the moldy milk trade. Displaying none of Bartleby’s wisdom, our feckless hero leaps at the opportunity, dreaming of status and wealth in his garden of Edam. The novel has two phases, captured in these sentences.
First, the boom:
“The cheese movie has begun.”
“God damn it, you either mount a cheese campaign or you don’t.”
“And now the cheese world is mine for the taking.”
“The cheese fantasy had become reality.”
Then, the bust:
“My cheese will is made.”
“[The children] show nothing of what they’re feeling, but I’m sure that between themselves they are discussing the outrageous cheese fantasy as a pathological symptom.”
“What good is my family to me now? Is there a wall of cheese between us?”
“And now I ask myself whether I deserved all this. Why did I jump on the cheese bandwagon?”
“I’m paying the price for cowardice. I deserved my cheese ordeal.”
“The cheese tower has collapsed.”
“Cheese” is a sweet, funny book about an ordinary man given the chance to become somebody. It is a business story that pays unlikely dividends as our hero learns that being himself may just be gouda enough.