Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chapter 13

This chapter has a lot of comedy, like a 1960s movie. It begins with some irony, as he goes to visit his neighbor, Mrs. Peeters. She is sick in bed, looking very ill. In Chapter 11, Frans had been put off by her nosiness. He had said, "As far as I'm concerned, Mrs. Peeters can drop dead!"

From there, the chapter goes on in the same vein, with too many people coming over at the wrong times and saying the wrong things. The only thing missing from the movies that would popularize this later is the long hallway, with excess people running in and out of the rooms, opening and closing doors.

The first visitor was his brother. After listening to a summary of the business, he points out that it will take 30 years to sell the first shipment of cheese.

Then, he decides to double down, and he runs an ad looking for salesmen. Tons of letters come in. The doorbell rings, and it's people from his old job, with some commemorative gifts. They hope he'll come back.

The chapter ends with his wife wistfully cooking dinner.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

More reasons to visit Belgium

A busy street in Antwerp is filled with giddy tourists. An announcer interviews one after another.

Anncr: Hey! What brings you to Belgium?

A: I'm here for the weather!

Anncr: We already talked about that. How come you're in Belgium?

B: We're here for the great works of art!

Anncr: Boooring. You! What do you like about Belgium?

C: Antwerp is de stad van Elsschot!

Anncr: You're a cheap plant! Hey, why are you two in Belgium?

D: We're here to lose weight!

Anncr: Really? Tell me more!

E: The food is fantastic. Great fries, killer waffles and the best chocolate in the world!

Anncr: Is this part of a diet?

D: Yes, we're on the Snikta Diet, which calls for carbs and chocolate. Belgium is the best place to stick to your diet!

Anncr: What if it doesn't work?

D: Then we'll have to come back!

Everyone in the area breaks into wild applause.

Anncr: Come to Belgium anyway!

Applause continues.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chapter 12

Chapter 12 is a triumph of polyphony. The interaction set up between the text and illustrations is masterful. Matena's drawings show what happens to Frans as he walks around Antwerp. Meanwhile, Frans' thoughts are in the office at his old job, tracking the day's progress.

In this chapter, Frans starts pounding the pavement to sell his cheese. He is soon distracted by his earlier obsession of getting office accessories. He starts looking for a desk and a typewriter to go with his stationery. To help his sales, he buys a St. Joseph statue, which he soon discards, leaving it on a windowsill.

After a day of aimless walking around, he takes some cheese to Von Schoonbeke's, where it meets with great approval. His image starts to become undone when he asked about GAFPA's other products. He doesn't want to tell the truth, that he only sells cheese.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Chapter 11

Frans goes home. There is one crate of cheese for sampling. There is no ceremony, but great anticipation as they finally open it and taste it.

His brother walks in as usual, and he says it's the best cheese he's ever tasted.

Frans himself is the one person who doesn't want any. He tries it because everyone is looking.

The chapter closes with his brother pointing out that Frans needs to get started. They will be expecting him to sell lots of cheese, and this order is just the beginning. From there, he heads out into the streets of Antwerp.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Conveniently located, only 3700 miles from New York

Yesterday, anabasisx commented about the above slogan for visiting Belgium. It would be perfect if Paris had no airports. Sadly, it does, and there are many train stations within 40 minutes of Paris.

There has to be something better than, "Come to Belgium, and leave." Anabasisx said that it should be, "The heart of Europe." They could talk about being the place where Latin and Germanic cultures meet. It would be sold on the basis of luxurious efficiency. Instead of wandering all over Europe for different things, tourists could go to Belgium and see it all. The people at Visit Belgium shouldn't make the country seem like it's in the middle of nowhere. Instead, they should turn Belgium's borders to their advantage. "15 minutes to France, Germany or Holland," would be much better.

Still, I would sell Belgium as a destination in itself.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chapter 10

This was a short chapter, but the reading was slow going.

Frans takes delivery of his load of cheese. While trying to look like he's in charge, it becomes apparent to everyone that he's a rookie. He questions the delivery expenses and the opened crate. One of the warehouse men explains that the crate was opened by customs. He also hears that there was a "gift" along the way, and that the manifest is falsified, with less high tax cheese written up than is actually included.

Once again, there is more great scenery. The warehouse is a giant underground room, with a big arch. Frans also goes walking in the port area, where we get to see more people, machinery and fog.

While I have joked a lot about Belgian weather, Matena's drawings point to how Belgium might be promoted. In current travel advertising, there is a prevailing orthodoxy that everything has to be a bright tropical day or a sunny ski trip. Matena's Belgium has a calm cool beauty that would translate well to travel posters and a larger campaign.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some Observations

I wonder what inspired Dick Matena to make Kaas into a graphic novel. Was it the movies? It's hard to say, never having seen any of them. The main character and his brother look exactly like pictures of Elsschot himself at different stages of his life. I'm guessing it wasn't the movies.

It's hard to say what moves an artist. I suppose Matena was born to draw, and he was able to visualize Kaas as a graphic novel.

That being said, it's a great achievement. This is not a visual story at all. Most of the action takes place inside Frans' head. He thinks over social situations and wonders what is on the minds of others. There is almost no action. Still, as I wrote about Chapter 6, the reactions and expressions of the letter reader fit remarkably well. The drawings bring Antwerp in the 30s alive with great detail. Matena's other artistic achievement is that he knows when to stop drawing. His visuals help carry the story forward, but they are never cluttered.
Because this book is relatively short, there is a lot of room for back stories. Again, I hope anyone who adapts the graphic novel to the cinema resists the temptation to fill in details as to the achievement gap between the brothers and why the doctor seems to be a bachelor. Any such additions would make the story drag.
It seems that for Frans, being Flemish adds weight to his almost hapless existence. As the book begins, he works for an English company. The big boss is a Francophone. The cheese business happens in Dutch, but it's across the border in Amsterdam. Although it was a big modern city, Elsschot's Antwerp was a backwater.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Chapter 9

This post also includes the end of Chapter 8.

It seems that my volume is a collectors' edition. There are missing pages. In their place, pages from earlier in the book are reprinted. Anyway, I got through it using links from deBuren. The drawings and the complete text are free on the web. They are also great tools for anyone who wants to follow along and lives in an area where Dutch language books are hard to find.

Chapter 8 ends with the protagonist's bossy wife getting accustomed to using the phone to harangue local businesses.

Chapter 9 opens with another trip to Van Schoonbeke's, where he gets to show off his new stationery.

All of his holding forth comes to a halt as his kids show up. The cheese he ordered is due to arrive. Suddenly, he's like the speculator joked about in economics classes, faced with taking delivery of an impossibly large order of a commodity. From there, it's back home, where everyone remains mad at him.

In this chapter, his wife addresses him directly, and we find out that his name is Frans.

One thing I don't quite understand is how he refers to his daughter. He says, "She looked like a hinny.*" At another point, she is referred to as, "The young donkey in question." I wonder if this is particular to Elsschot or if referring to little girls this way is a common Belgianism. I remember a Spanish teacher who talked of her days learning English with dismay, "Why should clams be happy?**"

*A hinny is a hybrid animal similar to a mule, but it is made from the opposite gender combination of horse and donkey.

**In Spanish the saying is, "Happy as a worm." Feliz como una lombriz.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Belgian tourism through the years.

White title on black screen: THE BIG TRAVEL AGENCY- 1965.

The camera shows two well dressed people in period clothes on what looks like the set of Mad Men.

A: We overbooked the Paris flight. What can we do?

B: Just give them tickets to Belgium. Lots of people speak French there, and they'll never know the difference.

A: OK.

White title on black screen: THE BIG TRAVEL AGENCY- 1977.

This time, the set and the clothes are in exaggerated 70s styles.

A: We can't send the overbooked Paris people to Belgium any more. They found out about the Eiffel Tower. First they can't find it; then they get mad.

B: Hmm. Maybe we could tell people to make Belgium their first choice. They have great fries, the best beer in the world, and The Death of Marat hangs there. A lot of people think it's in Paris.

A: You're right. They have lots of European architecture too. It's in Europe, you know.

2 seconds of silence.

B: It'll never work.

Belgian tourism logo.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Chapter 8

I have always liked scenery. I started watching for it when I bought a used travel book with a 1957 postcard of Veracruz inside. Shortly after that, I saw the movie Danzón. It's about a woman in Mexico City whose dance partner disappears. She goes to Veracruz to look for him. She falls in love with someone else, and the camera leaves her and her new acquaintance alone to wander the city.

In Chapter 8, Dick Matena takes us on a walk through Antwerp. While the main character is thinking of what to name his company, we go people watching. There are people running errands, walking their dogs, and chatting. The scenery behind the inner dialog is fantastic.

The decision process runs through Dutch names, French and finally, English. He settles on the far from idiomatic "General Antwerp Feeding Products Association," whose acronym, "GAFPA" appears to sound good in Dutch. He translated a slightly deceptive cognate too literally. It should have been, "Food Products..." In the context of 1933, the name he chose sounds like a company selling accessories for feeding livestock, though the word would have been, "Feed." In a modern context, it sounds like a specialized medical supply house that would sell products having to do with G-tubes, which as far as I can tell, were invented in 1979. In considering names, he goes up the local socioeconomic scale, from Dutch to French to English. His old job was at an English company run by a Francophone.

In a surprisingly modern twist, we see him deciding on a home office, instead of one in the city. He proudly orders a phone, letterhead stationery and some office supplies.

In this chapter, there is a break in his wife's unwavering dismay and skepticism. We see her resigned to go along for the ride.

There is an interesting bit where he decides on a telegram address, consisting of a few letters. The format makes me wonder how technology took a different route in Europe. American telegrams were sent to physical addresses, while what he is mulling over looks more like what would evolve into Telex in later years. I vaguely remember hearing of Telex as a child, but when I went to Europe for the first time, it seemed like every business had a phone and Telex number.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chapter 7

Tension rises in the protagonist's home as his move is viewed more as giving up his job, instead of a transition to something new. His wife is petrified, and his children have long faces.

His older brother, an overachieving doctor, who rides a bicycle even though he can afford not to, comes in. He is a calming influence on the house, coming every day for a glass of wine and looking after everyone's health. After listening to both of them, he counsels a three month leave and leaves a certificate so that he can get it.

From there, it's off to the offices of his old job to line things up. He returns home, reporting that he will not take any paid sick leave. The chapter ends with his saying, "And now, the world of cheese was open to me."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ladyface and the GPS

Yes, having been there on the same trip that took me to the Netherlands, I can say that Belgium is truly a land of great fries. Recently, the GF discovered another Belgian restaurant in Southern California, which brings the total I know of to two.

Ladyface is located in Agoura Hills, just off the Kanan Rd offramp. It's in a strip mall, of all places. Malls are generally soulless holes, but as the chains fall on hard times, vacancy creeps up, and independents start sprouting up again.

It's a very upscale pub, transplanted here. Menu items are fish and chips, and burgers and so on, but it's all very high quality. My burger was made from grass fed beef, and it had bleu cheese melted over it.

When you order fries, there are choices of sweet or regular potatoes, and a variety of options for seasonings and dipping sauces. We got regular potatoes with salt and pepper. One of the dipping sauces is a Belgium meets the US ale and ketchup sauce that was incredible.

While driving around, I reset the GPS to speak "Nederlands-Belgie." During the blog about Geert "Big" Mak, I drove around with it set on Dutch from the Netherlands. I was amazed to hear a difference through my limited understanding. If the GPS is correct, Dutch in the Netherlands is more monotone, while the Belgian variety is more animated.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Belgian weather. Always a good reason to visit.

A couple is sitting on the beach. We can only see the edges of their chairs, which frame a table between them. On the table, there two Coronas. Each one has a green onion sticking out of it. They are on a sunny empty beach, typical of Corona commercials.

A: I need better weather. This isn't scenery. This is a screen saver.

B: Honey, you should have told me you wanted better weather. We can vacation at a place where the seascape is more dynamic.

A: Good. The ocean should move, not just sit there. Are you sure things will be different?

B: Not just different, better! From now on, we're going to Belgium!

Cut to the same furniture on a wet Belgian beach during a driving rainstorm. There are two Belgian beers on the table.

A: Now that's dynamic! Look at the whitecaps and the energy!

B: And there's no heat problem!

Announcer: Come to Belgium for the weather.

Copyright notice: Same as for the other commercials.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Chapter 6

When you do something in a new language, you always hit limits. As I neared the end of De eeuw van mijn vader (My Father's Century) I overcame many limits and ran into one when Big Mak started quoting Lucebert. Poetry can be hard in your own language.

This time, I ran into Dutch legalese for the first time. While I was able to read past the redundancy endemic to the field, I was unable to understand all of it as well as I would have liked. It was some consolation that the main character, who had experience typing contracts, also didn't understand it until his wife pointed out paragraph 9.

Even so, I wanted to understand all of it. As you learn a language, it's like listening to a faraway radio station start to come in, or looking through a lens that finally starts to focus. When you hit your limits, the faraway station fades to static.

Chapter 6 is an extension of the book's dynamic, alternating between the protagonist's great luck when he's out and his skeptical wife at home. This time, he comes home with a great salary and a contract. He has missed dinner, and his wife is unhappy. He points out in the letter that makes up the book that he's experienced in high register Dutch, while his wife is not. Then, she finds a flaw in the contract having to do with how at the end of employment, he will not be able to make any claims against the cheese company. During this ego deflation, his son chimes in.

Every so often, we see the letter reader, and I wonder who he is. I remember learning that half of acting is reacting. The reader's reactions fit, but I wonder what he's doing there. Does he have a role later, or is he a stand-in for us?

A pun?

Maybe it's just an expression. I just made a connection. At the end of Chapter 5, our hero says he felt like a knight, "Ridder" in Dutch. Elsschot's real last name was, "de Ridder." I wonder if it's a pun or a coincidence, which happened as a result of the protagonist's use of a common expression. If it is a pun, I wonder if it was part of the original text or something added for this edition.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chapter 5

Big business.

Our hero is climbing, even though he doesn't know why. He's off on a business trip to Amsterdam, all expenses paid. It's a step up socially. He's a businessman among businessmen. He is better at holding his own in conversations where status is important.

His hesitance and silence is often taken as great wisdom. When asked how much product he needs to start, he hesitates. The man he is talking to nods and says, "Yes, little by little is the way to go."

At one point, he stops by a cheese shop and gazes in the window. It's different now that he looks at it from the point of view of one in the business.

I saw him looking in awe, and saw something different. Cheese shops are all but extinct in the US. They have been subsumed by cheese sections at larger stores. Those that do exist are exercises in snob appeal, not going businesses. The store he sees is extremely small, and the cheeses are extremely big. Nowadays, a couple of pounds is usually as big as it gets. The wheels he gazes upon are enormous. Also, he rattles off the names of a number of varieties in the window. The American cheese market is mainly American and cheddar. You can find all of the other varieties, but they aren't prominently displayed.

Once he returns to the business clique at home, Van Schoonbeke introduces him as one in the food wholesaling business, as opposed to one who deals in cheese. Once again, it's a verbal promotion for unknown reasons, and he leaves, "Feeling like a knight."