There is only one way to fight absurdism and that is with absurdism. This art was understood by the Dadaists when they responded to the absurdism of the First World War. It was also understood by President Macron when he invited President Trump for the celebrations of Quatorze Juillet last week and confronted him, in-between all kinds of innocent niceties such as a dinner on the Eiffel tower and his wife Brigitte so that Trump could make a nonsensical remark about her good physical shape, with a marching band playing a medley of Daft Punk songs, bless him. But the all-time master of absurdism, if not the king, must no doubt be Alphonse Allais.
Allais, for those that are unfamiliar with him, was a peerless French humourist, who was born in Honfleur in 1854 and died in Paris in 1905. He was a writer of absurdist texts for newspapers such as Le Chat Noir and Le Journal, but also the little-known inventor of conceptual art by way of his titled monochromes (see below) and the composer of the earliest known silent musical composition Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man (1884). As described by Black Scat Books “[h]e was a crucial influence on Alfred Jarry, as well as on the Surrealists: Breton included him in his Anthology of Black Humor, and Duchamp was reading him on the day he died. Allais’s fascination with wordplay, puns, and holorhymes led Oulipo to call him an “anticipatory plagiarist”; the Pataphysical College dubbed him their “Patacessor”.”
Black Scat Books and its translator (composer, writer, performer) Doug Skinner have had the brilliant idea of sharing Allais’ absurd texts with a wider audience for years now and it is no surprise that Allais heads their list of authors (if only because his name conveniently starts with the letters AL which makes the next author the infamous ANONYMOUS). To the list of books translated by Skinner and published by Black Scat Books can now be added I am Sarcey. This is a large collection of translated columns that Allais wrote for Le Chat Noir pretending to be the famous theatre critic Francisque Sarcey. In the columns by Allais it quickly becomes clear that there is at least more than one Sarcey, if not two or three, and at least one former butcher impersonating him. Anyone who wants to learn invaluable information about Sarcey’s love for young women, the weather at the end of the 19th century (which seems surprisingly similar to that of today), his love of food (and doubtful vegetarianism) or his beloved umbrella, is highly advised to read I am Sarcey. Skinner thankfully has added some notes on the various people mentioned in these columns to keep us up to speed.
Funnily enough the real Sarcey, nicknamed ‘our uncle’ and probably quite used to being caricatured, was quite taken by Allais’ take on him and wrote a preface to the second volume of Tales from the Chat Noir. Or did he, “the old fraud”? Find out for yourselves by buying a copy and support Black Scat Books in their effort to keep absurdism alive. It is needed more than ever.