Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Chapter 24

This is the shortest chapter in the book. It is one page long. Laarmans is back at home, where Edam cheese is no longer served. The faces are relaxed, and he is grateful for his wife and children as they are.

With this, the book ends. This blog ends in a few days.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Chapter 23

In a way, this chapter takes us back to the beginning. Frans Laarmans is headed to the cemetery, where he goes every year. This is the first year he's going to see both parents.

On the way there, he buys some flowers. As in the beginning of the book, he is far from perfect. While carrying them around, he wonders about how he looks to others. Is he beyond reproach, or is the bouquet so big that he looks silly? Similarly, once he is before his parents' graves, he makes a conscious effort to grieve in the correct way, doffing his hat for a minute of silence.

While looking around for their graves, there is some surprise grief as he passes by the marker that reveals the existence of a second daughter who died as a little girl.

Once again, Dick Matena's scenery brilliantly adds to the story without being distracting. My favorite scene is on p. 279. We see Frans from the side, and he is looking away. Our attention is directed to what he is looking at, a grey scene of hats, umbrellas and bowed heads as Antwerp gets pounded by rain and snow.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Chapter 22

This is another very short chapter.

In spite of the resignation, Van Schoonbeke invites Laarmans to yet another gathering. He had been concerned about his absence.

There, he finds out that the old lawyer has died, and a younger man has taken his place there.

The gathering ends on a cordial note.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Chapter 21

Two out of three.

Laarmans begs off again, citing illness. In this very short chapter, he sends in his resignation to Hornstra, "For health reasons." Three days later, he gets a letter from his rep in Bruges saying that sales are going well. "Perhaps I'll get my five percent."

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top 10 Things to See and Do in Belgium

Well, this is my top 10. If you start learning a language, you inevitably want to go where it's used. Reading about places also makes me want to go there. In my last blog, I mentioned wanting to see the Mak family's Schiedam and Medan. Now, I would like to see Willem Elsschot's Antwerp. I would like to see a lot of things in Belgium.

  • The HergĂ© Museum. Often, I am more interested in the trivia surrounding something than I am in the thing itself. I lost interest long before the end of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, but I went on a guided tour of Holmes' London, which started from where his address would be, had it ever existed. So it is with HergĂ©. I did not grow up with Tintin. Although I find the comics boring, I like the drawings. From what I have seen, the museum looks great.
  • The Brabo Fountain. Going there would be the beginning of seeing Willem Elsschot's Antwerp. I would like to walk around the area I have seen in so many of Dick Matena's drawings. I would attempt to recreate the wanderings of Frans Laarmans. A beer and some cheese would definitely be included.
  • A Baseball Game. There are lots of clubs. Sports are best when they're played for the love of the game.
  • The Beach. I like to go to the beach whenever I'm at a place that has one. I have been to beaches in Scotland and Chicago. Even in bad weather, a walk on the beach is great.
  • The Waterfront. I have always liked looking at boats in the water.
  • Bicycling. I have been to Europe a few times, but I have never ridden a bike there.
  • Waffles. One of my most vivid memories of Belgium is buying waffles from street vendors. We don't have anything like them in the US. Our Belgian waffles are just giant flavorless things that look the part.
  • In Flanders Fields Museum How come the Doughboys became the Bonus Marchers? What can we learn from this largely forgotten generation? They were pushed aside early on. Why? What have we been avoiding all this time?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chapter 20

Back to work.

In this short chapter, Frans Laarmans returns to his old job. He is hailed by everyone, and he settles into his old desk and routine. It becomes clear that he was well liked and had friendships there.

I found this chapter unusual in a way. In the stories I have seen in this vein, the protagonist either goes straight to the top of his new profession or sets a new record for depths of ruin. Willem Elsschot takes a more realistic approach. While the cheese venture didn't go well, some sales were made. The old job may have been a dream crusher, but it wasn't so bad that he couldn't go back.

Dick Matena's drawings show what has changed and stayed the same since 1933. The office interiors at General Marine look like any modern office in an old building. Just add computers, and you're in 2010. The exteriors are another matter. Outside, there is the heavy cast iron, steel and brickwork of old industrial Europe.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Chapter 19

This is another poignant chapter, but there is some comic relief. Mr. and Mrs. Laarmans get a visit from Mr. Hornstra. Rather than face the owner of the cheese company, they hide behind drawn curtains.

While Mr. Hornstra is looking in to see if anyone is home, Mrs. Peeters helps out by pressing her face to the doorbell and ringing it herself. Horstra offers her cash, but she turns it down.

At the end, Mr. and Mrs. Laarmans cry together, alone. It's as if the whole world has been blotted out. It is always nice to see some love between them.

On another note, while I'm against filling in back stories and making this longer on film, I have to say that Mrs. Peeters has the greatest potential for a spinoff. She is the classic nosey and annoying neighbor, long before such things became cliches. She could carry her own project.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How to promote Cheese, a graphic novel in English.

1. Send Dick Matena and his drawings to Comic-Con. This is where most of the likely audience can be reached. There are lots of similar events.

2. Promote to the academic world. This helps build prestige. Belgian literature is not well known here.

3. Promote to the art world. Art in museums always gets respect. Print signings at galleries would also be a good idea.

4. Do cross promotions with other Belgian products. Beer congescenti would be especially receptive. Belgian chocolate is also a good starting point. Also, there is travel, which always attracts attention. "Win a trip to Willem Elsschot's Antwerp!" The same trip could also be raffled off as Dick Matena's Antwerp, depending on whether the promotion emphasized the text or the drawings. So far, I have been able to pair the book's cover and a scene where Laarmans takes a nighttime walk in Chapter 14 with photos of the Brabo Statue.

5. Finally, cheese should be served at all promotional events. Dutch Edam cheese is a must, because it is mentioned so much in the book. Belgian cheese is also a must, even though the book concerns imported cheese from the Netherlands. With the book's title and origin, people will expect it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chapter 18

This is one of the longest, most poignant chapters in the book. As a result, it's hard to read.

It opens with another cliche endemic to stories of failing businesses. This time, it's a man proposing a complicated takeover deal.

Laarmans feels like an idiot. He takes stock of everything, looking at his office and everything in it. He continues in this vein, heading for the basement, where he repackages his cheese to send it away in a taxi. Half a ball of Edam is positioned flat side down, so that the crate will look complete at first glance.

From there he goes walking through a rainy Antwerp, stopping at a bar. There is a great interior monologue about his responsibilities to his family. He is very remorseful over what has happened. Best line: If I weren't such a miserable free thinker, I wouldn't have a prayer.

It is during this walk that Dick Matena shows his mastery. While the text is strictly internal, Matena sends Laarmans walking through Antwerp without being distracting. The reader gets into the text, looking on the people around Laarmans with a bit of wonder and envy, the way a person under a lot of stress might. Are they going through all this? Are their lives any better? There are enough extras in this story to make one wonder, but they offer no consolation nor additional pain. The protagonist is still very much alone.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Reading this book raises so many questions.

Is it really cinematic?

In many ways, it is. Again, it's very visual, even though the text doesn't lend itself to such an adaptation. The problem of how to fill space remains. In comics different shaped panels are used to fill the page. Each panel is a different screen ratio. There are high narrow rectangles, squares, along with some wide flat rectangles that mirror the cinema's current ratio. A frame can take any shape.

Are wide screens wide?

No, there are just screen ratios projected in different sizes. This is especially true now. Theater screens are getting smaller, while home screens are getting bigger. TV shows are often played through computers, presentation projectors, and high quality sound systems. This can make the viewing experience more enveloping than what one finds at many theaters.

Purists used to complain about TV prints of movies, which cut off the sides of the screen. Now, we have wide screen prints, that cut off the top and bottom of movies shot in the old ratio. Recently, I saw a trailer for a European theatrical rerelease of Casablanca. I knew something was wrong, but I had to watch it a few times to figure out that it had been cut up to look wider.

Film historians often look back to This Is Cinerama and the scene where the screen suddenly widens, exploding with color and lush visuals.

So, why aren't wide screens wide? Because there is no variation. With no comparison, it's just a surface for a projected image. There are many ratios, but none are spectacular.

Why are movies based on comics often flat?

Because, an artist's tool is no longer used. In movies, there is only one frame shape from beginning to end. Dick Matena is a master of the close-up, but he doesn't waste space. Often, a small fraction of a page is used to show a face. By comparison, a camera has to blunder in for a close-up, filling the screen with a lot of extraneous scenery, because nobody has a face shaped like a wide low rectangle.

What can be done?

The screen ratio can change during a film. In the silent cinema, filmmakers often used irises. Instead of moving in, the camera would keep its distance, and an iris would close around a particular object. Back then, almost all screens were big.

The iris fell out of favor before television, but the prevalence of small screens meant that such a technique was out of the question. Now, screens everywhere a big enough for irises, ratio changes and other shape shifting. The question of how much is too much can only be answered by trying out various techniques, but the wide low rectangle has clearly run its course.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Chapter 17

This is one of the book's shortest chapters, coming in at 3 pages.

Frans Laarmans is back at home, and his kids are fighting. His son has sold a case of cheese. He taunts his younger sister, because she hasn't sold any. She finally physically attacks him.

The chapter ends as Frans intervenes by sending his son to his room and kissing his daughter.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Chapter 16

Frans Laarmans is never confident. Each piece of news is greeted with an internal, "Oh no," and panic. The chapter begins with a letter from Hornstra, the Dutch company he sells for. They're coming for an inspection. His panic leads to a cliche well known to employees of sinking companies: He goes to a consultant. He describes himself as, "Like a man going behind his doctor's back and running off to a quack."

The advice given is fairly standard. He is told to carry himself with confidence, and speak as though he had the backing of the entire Dutch cheese industry.

From there he goes to a cheese shop, and stops to gaze in the window. His visit is ill-timed, coming when the store is clogged with customers. He tries again when it's empty. He tries again, with a perfected pitch that is not understood. He wonders why this only happens when he tries to sell something.

Still, he gets a meeting with the boss. He is ushered into the office, where an order is placed for 14 tons. Then, the boss finds out that Frans is with Hornstra and decides to forget the whole thing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Some of Belgium's Cultural Near Misses

Reading about Belgium reminds me of Portugal, always overshadowed. Amalia Rodrigues was overshadowed by Edith Piaf, and so on. These cultural near misses almost put the country front and center in the world's consciousness.

Les Damoiselles d'Antwerpen, Pablo Picasso, 1906. Picasso first got the idea for his famous painting in Antwerp. Unfortunately, he suffered the painter's equivalent of writer's block, painting several studies before burning them in frustration before his horrified friends. On the train ride home through France, he calmed down after a meatball sandwich in Avignon. He started sketching again and changed the title.

Party i Belgien, Stig Dagerman, 1950. Dagerman took an extended vacation to Belgium in 1949. He excitedly wrote about it for days, putting a roll of paper in his typewriter in an innovation parallel to Kerouac's. Dagerman's publisher said the manuscript ran counter to his image, in that it was, "Too festive."

Gidget Goes Belgian, 1964. After the movie was edited, producers decided that the genre was long in the tooth. It was shelved and nearly forgotten about. There was a resurgence of interest among film scholars once it leaked that the scene where she waterskis through the canals in Bruges inspired the waterskiing scene in Apocalypse Now.

A Briefcase Full of Oats, Sergio Leone, 1975. At the suggestion of Salvador Dali, Leone decided to shoot a surrealist western, set in modern Europe. A moody Clint Eastwood was filmed, dressed in a duster and cowboy boots carrying a briefcase overflowing with oats through seedy bars in Dunkirk. Financing fell through after the first day of shooting. Some of Leone's silent footage survives on YouTube.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Chapter 15

The action begins at Van Schoonbeke's perpetual party. For Laarmans, the endless congratulations are wearing thin. He senses that any prestige is for his host, not for him. Van Schoonbeke ups the ante by proclaiming to all that Frans Laarmans is the new chairman of the cheese trade association.

The next morning, he gets a letter confirming what he was told. From there, he meets with four other members who have been in the business their whole lives. They go to a meeting with a government minister, who proposes that 10% of their profits go to local cheesemakers.

Frans blows up, saying that he has, "Had enough." Surprisingly, the minister proposes a better deal, and the cheese men thank him on the way out.

Before the meeting, he had tried to beg off for the reason that got him a leave from his old job, illness. Afterwards, he asks if his chairmanship has come to an end. "We don't need you anymore," is the ominous reply.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Is this a new genre?

Maybe it's at least a new subgenre. If this is not a new idea, it's definitely different. I would call it a, "Graphics added novel." The original text of Willem Elsschot's work is there in its entirety. Dick Matena drew around it.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapter 14

I have always been fascinated by the difference between period pieces and works produced at the time. With too many TV channels, everything is a rerun, but it's still easy to tell the difference. Period pieces fixate on details people want to remember. Watch Mad Men, and you'll see the camera linger on the furniture. Cars are beautiful, and the camera lingers there too. For contrast, watch Breakfast at Tiffany's. Cars and furniture show up in the background, and they stay there. Although the movie was clearly made at the time, it was as well produced as Mad Men. The attitude towards its surroundings gives it away. In Breakfast cars are polished, but many of them are ugly. Off-brand makes and models show up. Cars simply go by, as they do in real life.

Dick Matena's adaptation of Kaas falls into both categories. The text was written in 1933, while the drawings were copyrighted in 2008. To his credit, Matena does not beat The Depression to death. He could have populated his drawings with the Belgian equivalents of veterans selling apples and, "Brother, can you spare a dime?" but he didn't. Instead, he stayed true to the author's vision of the events as they unfolded. As a result, I was a bit surprised to finally see The Depression become part of the story in Chapter 14.

Until he leaves his job at General Marine, Frans Laarmans lives in a closed world. He goes home and to work. When his mother dies, he meets different people, and his world starts to open. He decides there might be more money and glory in the cheese business.

In this Chapter, his world opens enough for him to see society's margins. All sorts of people come to his house, looking for jobs or a ball of cheese. Even his youngest brother-in-law shows up, a diamond cutter trying to live in an era when work is way down.

From there, Frans goes to Brussels to look in on his reps. He is unable to find either of them. One would seem to have given a bogus address, though the mail gets there. He goes to the other's house, only to find a man who says he's, "Not interested in the cheese story."