| the ledge files
the ledge - nl - uk
|Lijmen / Het been
publisher: , 1924 / 1938
Three Novels: Soft Soap, The Leg, Will-O’-the Wisp (Het dwaallicht)
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1965
translation: Alex Brotherton
|The three short novels brought together in this volume originally appeared separately, in 1924, 1938 and 1946 respectively. They are hard-headed unsentimental stories full of black humour, but with a soft spot. They also share the same protagonist, Laarmans, and can be read as representing successive stages in Laarmans’s life. Laarmans is very much your average man, an erstwhile idealist stuck in a dead-end job, an impressionable opportunist hungry for success but kind-hearted enough to be plagued by pangs of conscience. His nemesis is Boorman, the ruthless businessman who swindles and blackmails his way to fame and fortune until he too is brought up against his own humanity.
The earliest of the three novels, Soft Soap, shows us Laarmans being singled out by Boorman as his assistant and designated successor in a curious business venture. Boorman is the owner and director of a publication called the World Review of Finance, Trade, Commerce, Industry, Art and Science, a magazine about everything under the sun but without a single subscriber. Indeed Boorman doesn’t want subscribers. With an unerring sense for people’s vanity and gullibility he identifies companies that can be talked into purchasing tens of thousands of special issues of his World Review featuring an article about them. Whatever the company’s line of business, the same standard article written according to the same template will do the trick. Boorman is interested in selling printed paper, not in content. As soon as the victim has signed a contract he pursues them mercilessly until every last penny is paid. The small Lauwereyssen firm, manufacturers of food-lifts, is bankrupted as a result of Boorman’s sharp sales techniques, but both he and Laarmans remain untouched by the human misery they cause.
The Leg takes up the story five years on, as
| Mrs Lauwereyssen has had a leg amputated and lives in poverty. That leg now haunts Boorman, who, recognizing the immorality of his former business practices, comes out of retirement to try and undo the evil he did. But Mrs Lauwereyssen has her pride and refuses to be reimbursed. The tussle between proud victim and repentant sinner turns into a grotesque inversion of their earlier encounter. In the end Laarmans closes down the World Review and returns to the dull but honest desk job he used to hate.
By far the most subtle of the three novels is Will-o’-the-Wisp, a taut, mysterious tale involving a middle-aged Laarmans, now an uninspired family man, and three Asian sailors roaming the streets of Antwerp’s harbour district in a fruitless night-time search. Laarmans meets the three Asians by accident, as they ask for directions to a nearby street where a beautiful girl named Maria is supposed to live. As the men are strangers in a strange city, Laarmans decides on impulse to accompany them to their destination. They never find Maria, but as they gradually get to know one another and each side learns about the other’s hopes, fears, dreams and beliefs, feelings of friendship overcome the initial uncertainty and distrust. The sailors turn out to be from landlocked Afghanistan, and they are Muslims. Their quiet dignity contrasts with the crude racism of most of the native Belgians they come across. Laarmans may not be able to help them find Maria, but they return to their ship with their dream intact, and he goes home a morally richer man.
As a tale symbolizing the value of cross-cultural respect and a common humanity, Will-o’-the-Wisp is a real postcolonial gem, which owes its brilliance as much to Elsschot’s laconic style and flippant humour as to the nobility of the theme.
|BOOKS BY WILLEM ELSSCHOT:|
Villa des roses
|[Tsjip] and [De leeuwentemmer]|
|Will o' the wisp|
Laarmans chases a fantasy through night-time Antwerp. (Published in English translation together with Ellschot's Soft Soap and The Leg)
An ambitious clerk in 1930's Antwerp goes into the cheese business, with disastrous results (and he doesn't even like cheese).
|ON WILLEM ELSSCHOT'S BOOKSHELF|
Lodewijk van Deyssel, 1887
Psychology of a melancholy woman with a difficult love life.
The Deeps of Deliverance
Frederik van Eeden, 1900
A woman who gives up a life of affluence to be with an artist is increasingly plagued by psychoses.
Louis Couperus, 1889
The demise of an extremely sensitive and overly refined young woman in the upper-class milieu of nineteenth-century The Hague.
The Book of the Small Souls
Louis Couperus, 1901
A penetrating analysis of the commercial and psychic unraveling of a prominent Amsterdam family.
Reynard the Fox
A clever satire of feudal society. The tale uses animals to represent the members of various classes.
[Dit zijn Vlaamsche vertelsels]
'La Comédie Humaine'
Honoré de Balzac, 1830-1850
Multi-volume collection of interlinked novels and stories (nearly 100!) depicting French society in the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy 1815-1848.
7 volumes, containing essays, short stories, aphorisms, a play, and a novel of the author's childhood, Woutertje Pieterse.
|Three Novels: Soft Soap, The Leg, Will-O’-the Wisp (Het dwaallicht)|
1924 / 1938
Three first-person novellas, in which Elsschot features in the guise of the timid, respectable Frans Laarmans, with shifty businessman Boorman as his alter-ego.
|WHAT TO READ AFTER SOFT SOAP AND THE LEG?
(FLEMISH) URBAN NOVELS
[De voorstad groeit]
Louis Paul Boon, 1942
Realistic panorama of a factory town in times of moderization.
[Het goddelijke monster]
Tom Lanoye, 1997
A burlesque parable of mythical and festering Flanders.
The Coming of Joachim Stiller
Hubert Lampo, 1960
A mysterious person, named Joachim Stiller, appears as a redeemer, under circumstances reminiscent of the death of Jesus.
REMINISCENT OF ELSSCHOT'S STYLE
[De uitvreter / Titaantjes / Dichtertje]
Nescio, 1911/ 1915/ 1918
Ironic sketches about failed idealists.
A. Alberts, 1974
During a board meeting, an old man's thoughts continually wander.
[Dood weermiddel en andere verhalen]
F.B. Hotz, 2005 (heruitgave)
The Confidence Man
Herman Melville, 1857
Male, female, deft, fraudulent, constantly shifting: which of the "masquerade" of passengers on the Mississippi steamboat Fidele is "the confidence man"?
Nikolai Gogol, 1842
In this quintessentially Russian novel, the reader follows Chichikov, a dismissed civil servant turned con-man, through the countryside in pursuit of his shady enterprise.
Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man
Thomas Mann, 1954
Recounts the enchanted career of the con man extraordinaire Felix Krull - a man unhampered by the moral precepts that govern the conduct of ordinary people.
The Legend of Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak and Their Adventures Heroical, Joyous and Glorious in the Land of Flanders and Elsewhere
Charles de Coster, 1867
Freely adapting the traditional tales of the folk heroes Till Eulenspiegel (Ulenspiegel) and Lamme, De Coster set his story in the 16th century, at the height of the Inquisition; the hero's father is burned at the stake as a heretic, and Ulenspiegel swears an oath to avenge his death.
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