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?




Jewish after all!

jewish, the genome-reading company, let me know recently that one-tenth of one percent of my DNA was (maybe) of Ashkenazi Jewish origin.

Aha! I knew it!

I looked through my list of “relatives” (people with snippets of the same DNA) on, found a few who self-identified as Jewish, and wrote to them to see if they’d be willing to share DNA results. One, a guy my age in upstate New York, wrote back; he was skeptical, but promised me that he’d check.

Well, guess what? He and I share a snippet of DNA. And the same snippet of DNA is shared by almost all of his relations.

Aha! Aha!

What this means is that some ancestor of mine, at some point many generations ago, was Jewish.

I’m delighted. I know this is silly, but I can’t help it.

I grew up in a rural area of the Pacific Northwest. In my (very large) high school, in the early 1970s, there were exactly two Jewish students. (I remember a note in the school paper in my high-school years: “Merry Christmas to everyone, and Happy Hanukkah to Isaac and Rebekah Birnbaum.”)

As a result, I knew next to nothing of Judaism, until I read Leo Rosten’s “The Joys of Yiddish” in high school. I discovered a whole world that lay beyond the rural Pacific Northwest: urban, civilized, European, witty.

I kept reading: Rosten’s “Hyman Kaplan” stories, and Harry Golden’s essays from North Carolina, and everything Isaac Asimov ever wrote, including his Bible-commentary books.

I loved it all. I didn’t quite understand all of it, but I loved the feeling of it, and I wanted to share it.

Then, one evening, while helping my mother do the dishes (she washed, I dried), I said, “I wish I were Jewish.”

And, good Polish/Italian Catholic/nonobservant girl that she was, she blew her top at me.

Well, of course it was a stupid thing for me to say; you can’t be something that you’re not.

But it was interesting that my mother was really that furious at me. (The Poles, you know, are famous anti-Semites. Go read Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” for more information on this topic.)

And now – what do you know? I’m one-tenth of one percent Jewish after all!

And (assuming it came through my eastern European ancestry) so was my anti-Semitic mother!

To the world at large: Shabbat shalom!

And maybe also mazel tov!

The continuing story of Peyton Place




The late lamented Harry Golden wrote that, when he was a boy, he kept a scrapbook of all of the top news stories of the day. Years later, when he rediscovered it, he found that the news stories weren’t really that interesting; the really interesting stuff was on the reverse side of each clipping – peaches for two cents a pound, a fire on 43rd Street, a birth, a death. History is one thing; everyday life is another thing, and a greater thing.


A few weeks ago I found a DVD set of the first season of “Peyton Place” – thirty-one episodes – for a couple of bucks. Peyton Place! My god, my mother and sisters used to live for that show in the mid-1960s. I wasn’t allowed to watch; it was too racy. Since the 1960s, the show has mostly been just a memory; there have been a few airings – apparently the Romance Classics Network (!) showed it some time back. But getting my hands on this DVD set was too good to be true. Finally, at last, forty-six years later, I was going to get to see what my family wouldn’t let me see in 1964.


It has been a revelation. The pacing is slow, much slower than modern shows, and the dialogue goes in misty circles. It is amazing how much gets said without even using the right words. One of the characters, Betty Anderson (a lovely young Barbara Parkins), gets P-R-E-G-N-A-N-T by town playboy Rodney Harrington (handsome Ryan O’Neal) – and somehow the show gets the message across without using the word, or even a euphemism. Betty looks troubled. She walks around the old pillory in the town square and meditates on being shamed publicly. She goes to the doctor. She’s upset. “Does Rodney know?” the doctor says sympathetically. And there you have it.


I generally think of soap operas as slow, slow, slow. Not “Peyton Place.” In the first couple of episodes – the first disk of the set – I was treated to teen pregnancy, infidelity, spousal abuse, alcoholism, and “frigidity,” not to mention broad hints about intimations of illegitimacy, mental illness, and lots of other spectator sports. (Am I the only one who thinks Norman Harrington was maybe gay? Or as close to gay as 1964 TV could make him?) Censorship is jabbed at early on by Constance Mackenzie, the owner of the town bookstore, who wishes that a book would be “banned in Boston” so that it would sell better. (Don’t forget that the original novel was pretty scandalous in its day, with heaping helpings of incest and rape on top of everything else.) Matt Swain, the avuncular newspaper editor, makes a thoughtful little speech about the Bill of Rights. Rodney joshes about joining the Peace Corps. We get constant reminders that, in a little New England town like Peyton Place, everyone knows everything about everyone, and scandals and rumors lie thick on the ground.


Now I understand why my mother and sisters ate up this show so eagerly. It was real life, everyday life, dressed up with a fancy hairdo. It was actually smart sometimes. The young people are dreamily beautiful. The older people, like characters in a mystery play, look exactly the way they’re supposed to look: tired, intense, severe, gentle, thoughtful, troubled, angry. The street scenes and exteriors are Anytown USA. There are pregnancies, and marriages, and romances, and breakups, and estrangements, and reconciliations.


At one point, Alison Mackenzie, talking about her dreams for the future, says: “I want everything to happen.”


And everything does.


And that’s everyday life, in the continuing story of Peyton Place.



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