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Willem Elsschot (1882–1960)

Author of Cheese

41+ Works 2,837 Members 53 Reviews 39 Favorited

About the Author

Willem Elsschot is a classic example of a dilettante turned professional writer. He wrote his stories in his spare time while working as an advertising agent in Antwerp. His profession explains the themes of his most successful stories LijmenLijmen (Soft Soap) and Het Been (The Leg), published in show more 1924 as parts of the same collection of novelettes. Until this time he had never intended to publish anything he wrote and had to be persuaded to do so by the editors of Nieuw Vlaams Tijdschrift, a Flemish journal established to specifically promote the cause of Flemish literature and culture. It is his total lack of interest in anything academic, even literary - he claims never to have read a literary work of art - which lends to Elsschot's work the very fresh and original quality for which it is known. He humorously satirizes the dubious techniques of salespersons in marketing and selling their wares. In addition to his prose works, Elsschot has written some poems which have become a unique part of the Dutch literary heritage. (Bowker Author Biography) show less

Works by Willem Elsschot

Cheese (1933) 705 copies
Lijmen ; Het been (1938) 403 copies
Verzameld werk (1957) 398 copies
Villa des Roses (1913) 312 copies
Het dwaallicht (1969) 218 copies
Tsjip ; De leeuwentemmer (1934) 114 copies
Pensioen (1937) 88 copies
Een ontgoocheling (1921) 80 copies
Het tankschip (1941) 79 copies
De verlossing (1921) 75 copies
Lijmen (1979) 56 copies
Verzen (1982) 46 copies
Brieven (1993) 29 copies

Associated Works

My little war (1947) — Foreword, some editions — 244 copies
Bericht aan de reizigers (1975) — Contributor — 81 copies
Dichters van deze tijd (1977) — Contributor — 21 copies
Het gevleugelde hobbelpaard (1961) — Contributor — 18 copies
54 Vlaamse verhalen (1971) — Contributor — 17 copies
Vlaamsche verzen van dezen tijd (1934) — Contributor — 5 copies
Over Multatuli — Contributor — 3 copies
je leest het zó — Contributor — 2 copies


Common Knowledge



A very succinct tragi-comedy; quick to read and enjoyable.
Kimberlyhi | 15 other reviews | Apr 15, 2023 |
Villa of Characters
Review of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback (1993) translated with an introduction by Paul Vincent of the Dutch language original (1913)

No one had ever come up with an acceptable explanation for the descriptive tag 'des Roses'. True, there was a garden attached to the house, which in itself is quite a rarity in Paris, but since Monsieur and Madame Brulot had moved in - more than sixteen years previously - no one had lifted so much as a finger towards its upkeep, so that all roses and other flowers were things of the past. Moreover, it got very little sun, as the neighbouring houses cast their giant shadows over the whole plot. The only thing able to survive such conditions was the grass, thriving as it does all the more the less it is cared for, and delighting in neglected masonry and incipient ruins.

I had never heard of Belgian writer Willem Ellschot (penname of Alfons de Ridder [1882-1960]) when I was able to borrow a copy of this now out-of-print Penguin Modern Classics edition of his first novella. Granta Books seems to be the only current publisher of Ellschot in English and then only with the two editions of Villa des Roses and his most popular novella Cheese (1933), both in their Paul Vincent translations. Wikipedia says that Cheese is the most translated Flemish novel of all time.

See cover at https://i.pinimg.com/564x/af/9d/c7/af9dc70ffbeb584bcce5c3a4675c5b55.jpg
A particularly colorful book cover of one of the Dutch language editions showing Chico the monkey and Villa des Roses proprietress Madame Brulot. Image sourced from Pinterest.

Villa des Roses presents a motley crew of inhabitants at a somewhat down at its heels boarding house establishment in early 20th century Paris. Ellschot wrote the book in 1910, having based it on his own real-life experiences while working in Paris and living in a similar situation. Monsieur and Madame Brulot preside over their varying clientele with a sliding scale of daily rates, usually based on the ability to pay.

Some of the characters are in quite desperate circumstances though, which they are barely able to conceal from their fellow boarders. The story mostly centres on the seduction of the maid Louise by an unscrupulous German businessman Grünewald, but there is room for some even darker situations as well with the suicidal Monsieur Brizard, the absconding Monsieur Martin and the vengeful kleptomaniac Madame Gendron. In fact some of the scenes and lines here were quite shocking due to their casual delivery. The brutality of one line will likely live in your memory forever once you know the context:

It was a simple funeral: he went to Mrs Wimhurst's pension by a roundabout route and, on the way, in a deserted street, threw the package with the thing in it over a fence.

See DVD cover at https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BNTIzMTU2MjI0Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODk1NDAz...
DVD cover for the 2002 film version of "Villa des Roses". Image sourced from IMDb.

Villa des Roses was an insightful portrayal of a variety of character types which encompassed the full spectrum of comedy through to tragedy. My thanks to friend Tony Souza for the loan of this rare book!

Trivia and Links
I highly recommend reading this very informative review by my GR friend Ilse which contains further background on the novel including a link to research about Willem Ellschot's time in Paris.

Villa des Roses was adapted into the English language same-titled film in 2002 directed by Frank van Passel, which starred Julie Delpy as Louise and Shaun Dingwall as Richard Grünewald. There is no trailer on YouTube but you can see the trailer at IMDb. The tone of the trailer leads me to suspect that the movie adaptation plays up the romantic over the comic elements of the book.

Villa des Roses was also adapted as a 3 hour Dutch language TV series in 1989 directed by Marc Lybaert. You can watch the entire 3 hour series in 3 parts on YouTube (but without subtitles) starting with Part 1 here.
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alanteder | 5 other reviews | Aug 6, 2022 |
Title: A Disillusion

We had seen this as a play by a Flemish theater group The atmosphere did justice to Willem Elsschot.
An ordinary man who suffers from his desire for a little luck in his life. Partly due to his character and partly by the circumstances and bystanders.
Sober and effective designed in word, setting and events.
We could sympathize with the characters.
EMS_24 | 1 other review | Nov 24, 2018 |
The long-serving office-worker Frans Laarmans suddenly gets the chance to set up in business on his own account as a cheese importer. He's essentially a Flemish Mr Pooter, a kindly, mild-mannered husband and father who achieved his maximum promotion level in the shipyard office many years ago, but who can't resist this one last chance to bite off more than he can chew. Laarmans has a lot of fun picking a name for his business, ordering headed notepaper and setting up an office, but then the first batch of twenty tons of Edammer arrives and it becomes all too clear that he is not psychologically equipped to go into grocers' shops and persuade them to order his cheese, even after a session with an expert motivator.

A gentle little social comedy, no real fireworks, but an engaging central character and a lot of charming period detail about commercial life in the thirties.
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thorold | 15 other reviews | Feb 14, 2017 |



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