Every time I write about Doug Skinner’s translations of Alphonse Allais – the new one is I Am Sarcey (2017, contents 1886-97) – I say that the Allais’s humor columns and so on ought to be period pieces, historical ephemera, but are better than that, are good. Still funny; still fun. This is my only idea about Allais, apparently. If anything this is even more the case with I Am Sarcey – more ephemeral yet not, but even more so.
Francisque Sarcey was for decades the most powerful theater critic in France, like Frank Rich in the distant old days in New York City. A rebel in his youth, he became more plump and bourgeois as he aged. To the young cabaret Bohemians and artists of Montmartre, he was made for mockery.
Alphonse Allais mocked him by writing a newspaper column under Sarcey’s name. I don’t know much about the “real” Sarcey, but Allais’s Sarcey is a great comic creation. Conventional, banal, inadvertently self-revealing, lecherous, pompous yet deeply ignorant.
Zola doesn’t commit obscenities in his life, but fills his books with them.
Me, in my articles, never a dirty word, but how I make up for it in private!
For – and this is no secret to anyone – I’m a bit of a pig, a lot, even.
Well then! I’d rather be the way I am, than be like Zola. (30, 1887)
Allais has no qualms about being vulgarly insulting, but the banality is the primary insult. There follows a digression about where to buy chickens:
… go see my cousin in Dourdan. He’ll take care of you, and it won’t be expensive.
He also sells little baby chicks, and eggs to be hatched.
But I’m chattering, chattering, and I forgot what I was talking about. (31)
Sarcey is as digressive as Tristram Shandy. He has the habit of digressing into explanations of the most ordinary things – common card games, or how steam power works (“Few people, outside those in the profession, know what steam is,” 111). He spends an entire column describing how he was out without an umbrella, and got “as soaked as soup.”
So what do I do now, after that adventure?
I’ll tell you.
Whether it’s a fine day or a bad one, I don’t go out without an umbrella. (155, 1893)
That is the main source of humor, I suppose – that this powerful man is a friendly, talkative idiot. What is funniest is the conversational, self-satisfied voice applied to trivia.
A terrific running joke involves Sarcey 1) bragging about how he no longer writes any of the other columns that bear his name, meaning those written by the “real” Sarcey, having handed them off to ghostwriters like a butcher from his neighborhood, and 2) complaining about people writing fraudulent columns, filled with the grossest stupidities, as if they are by him. Sometimes Allais seems so stunned by the “real” Sarcey’s genuine idiocies that he has trouble inventing fake idiocies.
I suppose these pieces benefit from more notes than usual, more identification of newspaper and Bohemians and so on. Skinner’s notes are themselves amusing and surprising, so this is hardly a problem. But Allais’s Sarcey becomes plump and lifelike without much extra help.