Alphonse Allais

alphonse allais

I was avid to visit the town of Honfleur, up on the damp coast of Normandy, when Partner and I visited France in 2012, because one of my favorite composers – Erik Satie – was born there. (I should note that, to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, Satie left Honfleur as soon as he realized where he was.)



Honfleur is a dour little fishing port with boggy streets and old sad-looking houses. Satie’s childhood home has been converted into a very neato little museum, good enough to be featured by Rick Steves on his excellent European travel TV show, but once you’ve seen the museum – as Partner and I quickly realized – you’ve seen the shank of the town, and the best thing you can do is bid Honfleur a modest au revoir.

Except that one little detail caught my attention: a life-sized plastic cow in the visitor center, with a bande dessinee painted on the side. (Two Rick Steves-type comments: Normandy is a farm region, so the cow motif is everywhere, and Partner begs me to remind everyone that the restroom in the Honfleur visitor center was the most toxically horrible he ever came across in Europe.) Anyway, the comic strip on the side of the cow depicted Erik Satie and Honfleur’s other favorite son, humorist Alphonse Allais, grabbing one another’s chin and singing a little children’s song. Then one slaps the other on the cheek, very hard (I have no idea if this is part of the children’s song or not) and runs away, leaving the other in tears. I was so baffled by this that I don’t even remember which one does the slapping and which one runs away.



This led me to Alphonse Allais, whose “oeuvres anthumes” I purchased on an appropriately soggy day in Paris about a week later. (“Anthumes” is meant to be a cute parallel to “posthumes,” meaning “posthumous” – see, I bought the stuff he published while he was still alive, get it?) It turns out that Allais was an essayist / journalist / humorist in a way that no longer really much exists. (If you can imagine the New York Times’s Gail Collins without the politics, or “CBS Sunday Morning”‘s Bill Geist without the peripatetic folksiness, you’ve almost got it.) Allais created characters and situations and wrote about them for a page or two. Generally there’s a punch line. If the characters or the situations amused Allais, he revisited them.




He was, in a word, a feuilletonist.


Do they exist in American literature? Did they ever? Most assuredly. It was a late 19th / early 20th-century thing to be and do. Mencken was a feuilletonist, as were Don Marquis and H. Allen Smith and Harry Golden. See? You haven’t been reading those guys recently, have you? But it’s not because they’re not entertaining or that they don’t write well; it’s only that the style has fallen out of fashion.



Allais had the famous dry Norman sense of humor, the “pince-sans-rire” (“pinch without laughing” – basically, “tell a joke all the way to the punch line, but tell it so seriously and drily that no one is sure if you’re joking or not.” Isn’t French neat to be able to put all of that in three words?) Satie used pince-sans-rire all the time in his music, writing pieces of fantaisiste music with titles like “Dried Embryos,” and ending them with long strings of Beethovian tonic-dominant-tonic chords.



Allais needs to be translated for a modern American readership.



Now who could do something like that?






I used to have a spectacular memory. I remembered everything: lists, conversations, details, names, embarrassing stories.

But now I am getting old, and my memory is getting all Swiss-cheese. Proper nouns are the first things that seem to be getting jettisoned. I can’t remember the name of the eldest son of Pandu in the Mahabharata. I can’t remember the name of the character who begins “Anna Karenina” with his very entertaining dream of “tables who are women.” I can’t remember the name of the actress who played Katniss in “The Hunger Games”!

So I am trying to rely on mnemonics, for what little good it will do me.

One is “the house.” Picture the floorplan of the house you grew up in. Now: walk around the house, in your mind. Put something you want to remember in each room. If you go back later (in your mind), you’ll find those things there.

This works pretty well for me (when I remember to do it). My childhood house had a long hallway, with rooms on either side, and I put things in the beds, and in the toilet, and on the sofa in the living room.

Also there’s the Peg Bracken method: flagpole, underwear, tricycle, pig.

A flagpole is vertical, like the number one. Underwear come in pairs, like the number two. Tricycles have three wheels. Pigs have four legs.

So let’s say you want to buy butter, and yogurt, and flour, and ground beef.

The flagpole is flying a flag made of butter. The underwear has a big picture of yogurt on it. There’s a big bag of flour on the tricycle. The pig is eating a big trough full of ground beef.

I’ll stick with the “house” method, thanks.

For New Year’s Day: I’m going to reform!


You know I try to provide something different for holidays.

Well, here it is, New Year’s Day 2013, and I have nothing.

No songs, no pertinent video clip, no nothing. This is my fifty-sixth New Year’s Day on earth, and I find that I have nothing inspirational to share.

Well, maybe one thing: a quatrain from Don Marquis, written by the cockroach Archy. Archy kept slipping, and repenting, and rebelling, and falling into line again. This is from one of his more repentant periods:

i sing the glad noo year

that s tending toward the norm

my song is one of cheer

i m going to reform

That’s a nice all-purpose resolution.

Happy New Year, kids.

For Sunday: “archy at the tomb of napoleon,” by Don Marquis

The first time I went to Paris was in March 1984. I was hopping from the USA to Morocco and had only about six hours to waste, so I raced into the city from the airport, had a cup of coffee and a brioche, and visited the Hotel des Invalides, which houses the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Why? Because Archy the Cockroach went there back in the 1920s and wrote a whopping good poem about it.

Partner and I visited the Invalides again in October. Napoleon is still there, in his gigantic stone tomb that looks like a cross between an overstuffed sofa and an enormous old-fashioned radio. And, like Archy, we left feeling “solemn but likewise uplifted.”

Herewith: “archy at the tomb of napoleon,” by Don Marquis.

paris france

i went over to

the hotel des invalides

today and gazed on

the sarcophagus of the

great napoleon

and the thought came

to me as i looked

down indeed it

is true napoleon

that the best goods

come in the smallest

packages here are

you napoleon with

your glorious course

run and here is

archy just in the

prime of his career

with his greatest

triumphs still before

him neither one of us

had a happy youth

neither one of us

was welcomed socially at

the beginning of his

career neither one of

us was considered much

to look at

and in ten thousand years from

now perhaps what you said and did

napoleon will be

confused with what

archy said and did

and perhaps the burial

place of neither will be

known napoleon looking

down upon you

I wish to ask you now

frankly as one famous

person to another

has it been worth

all the energy

that we expended all the

toil and trouble and

turmoil that it cost us

if you had your life

to live over

again bonaparte would

you pursue the star

of ambition

i tell you frankly

bonaparte that i myself

would choose the

humbler part

i would put the temptation

of greatness aside

and remain an ordinary

cockroach simple

and obscure but alas

there is a destiny that

pushes one forward

no matter how hard

one may try to resist it

i do not need to

tell you about that

bonaparte you know as

much about it as i do

yes looking at it in

the broader way neither

one of us has been to blame

for what he has done

neither for his great

successes nor his great mistakes

both of us napoleon

were impelled by some

mighty force external to

ourselves we are both to

be judged as great forces of

nature as tools in the

hand of fate rather than as

individuals who willed to

do what we have done

we must be forgiven


you and i

when we have been

different from the common

run of creatures

i forgive you as i know

that you would forgive

me could you speak to me

and if you and i

napoleon forgive and

understand each other

what matters it if all

the world else find

things in both of us that

they find it hard

to forgive and understand

we have been

what we have been

napoleon and let them laugh that off

well after an hour or so of

meditation there i left

actually feeling that i

had been in communion

with that great spirit and

that for once in my

life i had understood and been


and i went away feeling

solemn but likewise

uplifted mehitabel the

cat is missing


Sunday blog: Death by pollen


For the past week or so, things have been blooming. Crocus. Snowdrops.  Squill.  Witch hazel, with its spectacular alien-looking blossoms.  The forsythias, and the magnolias.


And I have been getting a little draggy and congested.



Aha! Pollen!



The evil Plant Kingdom launches its yearly stealth attack



Don Marquis wrote a poem about his garden, in which an indeterminate plant expresses its hatred for the human race:


but cheer brothers cheer

perhaps before the year

dwindles to winter drear

we ll poison someone here

i know not what i am

parsley from siam

a vegetable ham

or a long island clam

but this i know i hate

my miserable state

and all human beans

i hate life and fate

i hate hens and grass

i hate garden sass

who gets me on a plate

shall learn how i hate

i hate chards romaine

children and goats

old men and young men

people and oats

and i m full of ptomaine

who puts me within him

scorpions had better skin him

who puts me inside her

had better eat a spider

i know not what i be

alfalfa corn or pea

but cheer brothers cheer

before the glad new year

we ll poison someone here




Sunday blog: The harps of spring


Spring begins at 7:21 this evening, Eastern Daylight Time.



So here’s Don Marquis, from “archy does his part”:



the harps of spring

are in the air

the blackbird


i do not care

a damn if school

keeps in

or not

the jonquil says

all work is rot

the pollywog

has hours to spare


let us rejoice

and from us tear

in glee

our winter


and let us


and let us


the harps of spring



the lilies there

how do the wicked

ploughmen dare

to lard

their fields with sweat

and plot

increase of gear

by toil begot

we scorn them

we that dance

and bear

the harps of spring




A moment with Mehitabel: “Lousy and enjoyable”




This blog is still brand-new, so I can still set some ground rules.


Ground Rule #1: Sundays I’ll take as a day for contemplation. Instead of Something Original, I’ll just post a little text written by someone else.  Also, maybe I’ll bake something.


Today’s selection is from Don Marquis’s “The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel.” Archy was a human being who’d been a bad poet; when he died, his soul went into the body of a cockroach. He still managed to write poetry by jumping around on the keys of Marquis’s typewriter at night (he had trouble with capital letters and punctuation, as you’ll see). Mehitabel was the office cat; she was very disreputable, but full of spirit, and always a lady.


This section was probably written 1934-35, soon after the Hays Code had cleaned up the “immoral” movie industry.


mehitabel the cat

says she is not scared

by the cleanup in the moving pictures

cheer up says mehitabel

television is coming some time

and who knows but what television

will be lousy and enjoyable

and by the time television is

cleaned up

the pictures will get immoral


there is always hope says


if you don t weaken

the artistic purpose

of these periods of reform is

to give

greater zest to the relaxation

which follows




%d bloggers like this: