The books of novelist and poet Willem Elsschot (1882-1960) have become classics of Dutch literature. His masterpiece Cheese established him as a sophisticated stylist, and unique in Flemish realism. For the majority of his life, Elsschot was primarily an advertising man. His successful advertising agency in Antwerp provided him with direct inspiration for his best-known works, which often let fly at the publishing world.
Many of Elsschot’s novellas are set in a tough business world with various good and bad-natured characters becoming disillusioned with what life eventually has in store for them. His style is concise and to the point and therefore highly appealing to the modern reader. A dry sharp humour, often turning to cynicism, runs through all his books, but never at the expense of a generous compassion for his characters.
Elsschot’s first novel Villa des Roses was an immediate success, while Cheese marked his definitive breakthrough as a novelist. In Soft Soap/The Leg everything revolves around the tragicomic Chaplinesque character of Frans Laarmans, a small man reaching for the stars. Laarmans was also to appear (for the last time) in the novella Will-o’-the-Wisp.
Just before his death, Elsschot admitted that he had never really liked advertising: ‘I had to work in advertising; I couldn't live from my pen alone.’
Photo © Collection Letterenhuis, Antwerp