Another collection of jokes, stories, and nonsense by French humorist Alphonse Allais, chronicler, in his way, of the Montmartre Bohemia of the 1890s, has been charmed into English by Doug Skinner. It is comparable to the others, comparably good.
The Squadron’s Umbrella is a collection of newspaper pieces and such ephemera, cullings from Allais’s humor column, but it is, I want to note, also a genuine book published in 1893. Inevitably many references have become obscure, the jokes dim or overly familiar, and the humor more theoretical than actually funny.
The same is true of Mark Twain. Such is the nature of humor writing. Later this week I want to write about Mark Twain’s first two collections of his newspaper writing. Exact same problem. The American context is more familiar to me, which helps, and Twain was a greater genius than Allais, although in the specific form of the punchy two-page newspaper anecdote, Allais does a lot better in the comparison than I would have guessed.
Oddly, The Squadron’s Umbrella even includes a Twain story, “Poor Little Stephen Girard,” translated and modified by Allais which I read just recently in the Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1852-1890. The oddest thing is that the story is not by Twain. See p. 149 of Skinner’s book. It’s a good imitation of Twain, and a good fit for Allais.
How Allais works. See “Too Many Kangaroos”:
At the present time, Paris – if I count correctly – holds within its borders no fewer than three boxing kangaroos.
The number three, which would be insignificant were we enumerating stars in the firmament, or grains of sand in the desert, acquires a special importance when the census of kangaroos is the subject.
For a long time, Paris was bereft of boxing kangaroos. We found ourselves no worse, and no better, for that matter. (30)
Allais goes to the zoo to interview the non-boxing kangaroos on the subject. The zoo kangaroos, it turns out, think the boxing kangaroos are kind of trashy. I am employing my usual demotic rhetorical mode, but please note how little of Allais’s humor really comes from any jokes about kangaroos but from his lightly elevated rhetoric – “if I count correctly,” or the comparison to the stars and the sands, or the detached wisdom of “and no better.” That last is the Allais signature. The style can be applied to anything, and make anything funny.
We must have Baudelaire, of course, but we must not have too much. (41)
So true. Or:
I apologize to my female readers for the unpoetical vulgarity of this detail, but when one writes for posterity, as I do, one renounces forever the right to embroider or to change the facts. See in me nothing but a pale slave of the truth (lividus servus veritatis). (137)
Twain has his own version of this exact joke; I plan to supply numerous examples over the next few days, since it makes me laugh every time.
Skinner’s annotations and illustrations are, as usual, exemplary. Tracking down the Oxnard Beet Sugar Company in Grand Island, Nebraska (pp. 61 and 143) – above and beyond, Doug. Skinner has an even newer new book out just now, a 17th century French zombie novel which I will have to see to believe.