The Footsteps of Elsschot
Kloosterstraat 15, Antwerp
Derek Blyth takes you on micro adventures to L-Spots, hidden and exciting places in the Low Countries. This week he goes on a literary pilgrimage in Willem Elsschot’s Antwerp.
Kloosterstraat 15. The address means nothing unless you have read Willem Elsschot’s strange last novel Het Dwaallicht (“The Will o’ the Wisp”, in English). In it, the author describes Frans Laarmans’ meandering journey through Antwerp in the company of three Afghan sailors. They are searching for a mysterious woman named Maria van Dam whose name is written on a scrap of cardboard along with the address Kloosterstraat 15.
Willem Elsschot’s fiction is rooted in Antwerp just as James Joyce belongs to Dublin and Fernando Pessoa could only survive in Lisbon. It is easy to track down the places he mentions in his novel such as Kloosterstraat 15.
A Dwaallicht literary pilgrimage is particularly appealing now that texts by Elsschot have appeared in eight locations. Created in 2009, the Citatenroute Elsschot (Elsschot Quotation Trail) includes lines from the novella on a stone, a bench and a neon sign.
Standing in front of Kloosterstraat 15, I read the line: “This is the street,” I explained. “And here is number fifteen. The nice girl is waiting for you here.”
Not too far away, the words Adieu, Adieu appear on a large bluestone slab in the middle of the street ’t Zand. On the other side, an inscription in English. “I can no longer stay with you,” it said. “I hang my harp on a weeping willow-tree, and may the world go well with thee.”
The words come from the old Irish song There is a Tavern in the Town. Laarmans recalls the words at the end of the novella, which was published in 1946. It could almost be Elsschot’s farewell to the world.