Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Alphonse Allais, pale slave of the truth

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.


  1. "a 17th century French zombie novel which I will have to see to believe."

    A 17th century French zombie novel with a preface by - or allegedly by - Apollinaire which I will have to check and research very carefully to even half-believe.

  2. I thought this was an elaborate joke, but no.

    "the census of kangaroos" is great by itself. It almost needs nothing more.

  3. Ah, glad to hear you like the Umbrella. I find Twain and Allais's approaches thoroughly different; Twain always seems to spring from frontier tall tales, and Allais came of age in Parisian Bohemia. Twain, of course, did get better as he got older, whereas Allais crumbled under deadlines, alcohol, and a bad marriage.

    As for the Zombie, well, here's the original, if you want to see it: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1050610

    And Apollinaire's contribution is easy to research. He wrote an intro to a 1921 edition, which was included in the posthumous collection "Les Diables Amoureux," along with his other intros to libertine writers. In fact, that's where I first heard about the book.

    And here's to Black Scat Books, for publishing such stuff!

  4. I liked Umbrella a lot. This has been a great project. Allais is in print in France in giant thousand-page omnibuses. We're lucky to have your more attractive books, Doug, rather than those monsters.

    Black Scat has done a fine job with them, too.

    I know the Blessebois novel sounds like a hoax - the writer's name sounds like a hoax - but the largely unexplored world of 17th century French prose "romances" is awful strange. I have no doubt that plenty of weird things are lost among those massive multi-volume novels.

    I should make clear that I mean a specific Twain, basically the Twain of Elmira, NY circa 1870. He eventually turns into a much more interesting writer. I wonder if anyone has written a comparative study of humorists. How James Thurber and Dave Barry perfected their shticks, that sort of thing. Twain at age 39 has some interesting similarities to Allais at age 39. Soon after, though, they diverge, do they ever.

  5. Well, I hope to do more. I'd like to take a crack at Allais's one novel, which is a lot of fun.

    The Zombie is often cited in works on the French colonies, as one of the few records of 17th century Guadeloupe (Blessebois mentions many real people and places of the time). I'm surprised it hasn't been translated before, given its rich mix of sexual and racial politics, and its many references to Antillean folklore, all things of interest to contemporary readers. Well, now it is...

    I don't know if there's been a comparative study of humorists. Reading several bios, I note a pattern of declining inspiration and increasing alcohol. That may be true of many writers, though. In some of his later columns, Benchley took to writing about how difficult is was to be funny, or about how he can never read a newspaper without being drawn to the filler items that might spark a piece. I guess it can wear you down.

  6. After reading the post, I went over to Amazon to read a preview and came across the zombie novel. I hope you review it. Anyway, this one sounds like a lot of fun and I'd never heard of it, so thanks for the review.

  7. Guy, I hope lots of people review it. I hope it's nominated for one of these translation awards that are drifting around.

    All right, I have to scrounge around for this imaginary humorists book. If it does not exist, I will think about writing it. I won't write it, but I will think about it.