He then seemed to hesitate between a glass of fine champagne and one of Chartreuse. (p. 17)
I have had the great luck to read the latest volume of Doug Skinner’s translations of Alphonse Allais, humorist, prankster, man about Montmartre. This time it is Allais’s only novel, The Blaireau Affair (1899), one of those books that sounds minor and weightless, like it should be a dead period piece, yet in practice – meaning, reading – is effervescent and flavorful, perfect in its way.
And in France, it is alive and well. The most recent film version is from 2010! The most recent non-pornographic version. Despite having read Skinner introduce Allais four times now, his introductions remain eye-openers. Or eyebrow-raisers. I suppose my eyes were already open, given that I was reading.
The novel is about a woman who likes bad boys (mildly bad boys), the gymnastics instructor who must prove himself to be (mildly) bad, the poacher , Blaireau, who is mistakenly tossed in the klink as a result, and the complications that ensue from this miscarriage of justice. A B-plot about a Paris courtesan and her boyfriends is at least as funny as the main plot. Some theorizing about courtesans:
“Their reputation may not be intact, but they’re dishonored under such charming conditions! And besides, they lead lives of activity and surprise, whereas we… The ideal, you see, Baron, would be to reconcile the old family values of the provinces, with a somewhat ruined life… But it’s very difficult.” (30, ellipses in original)
A footnote, though, reminds me what Allais thinks of his plot:
I probably shouldn’t tell you this now, but, too bad, I just can’t help myself. Know then that Arabella will get married near the end of the novel, and will be very happy. (32)
Bookish controversies are eternal.
The art of the book is in the voice, even more than the characters or the jokes, Allais’s literary simulation of genial conversation:
So, here we are in Paris.
In the Étoile district.
In a cozy little apartment occupied by a young woman, one of those young women who… one of those young women of whom…
This person who is not a young girl, because she is a young woman, as I said, is also not the wife of some individual.
Widow? Not in the least.
And besides, it would be inelegant to insist upon this inquiry, which is perfectly unnecessary anyway, and more suitable for some mercenary working for the census, because the lines that follow will establish soon enough the regrettable civil status of the pretty little sinner. (81-2, ellipses in original)
The punchy little paragraphs are the signature of a newspaper man. The hesitations, the indirection, the rhetorical shift in the last sentence, those are French, delightfully, irrepressibly French, champagne and Chartreuse.