A while ago a short and, in an old-time but accurate turn of phrase, curious work came my way from a small publisher in the United States. How I Became an Idiot is by Francisque Sarcey. Not a name that was familiar. Not even a real name, or rather not the author’s name. Alphonse Allais chose that pseudonym, or alias (that had to be said) for a reason.
Before getting to that, a few words need to be said about the book itself. How I Became an Idiot is a 36-page book published by Black Scat Books, which is run by Norman Conquest. The press is situated in California, and its website is here. There is no ISBN for this limited edition. The book is obviously brief, too brief (more on that later), but even in this short form creates a delightful buffer from the travails of work or anything else that might be assailing a reader. Allais’ conceit, as taken from the introduction provided by translator Doug Skinner, is this: there existed a real Francisque Sarcey (1827-1899), described as “the most powerful theatrical critic in Paris. He was the perfect model of the blunt bourgeois, championing common sense, traditional values, anti-intellectualism, and conventional taste.” Ibsen? No time for him. Alphonse Allais (1854-1905) decided to adopt Sarcey’s name and started writing a column that broadcast opinions as contrary to the real Sarcey’s views as possible. In Skinner’s words, this “pseudo-Sarcey became a grotesque caricature of the smug middle class, a sort of proto-Ubu,” with everything that promises. Allais wrote the column not once or twice, but from 1886 to 1893. What began as ridicule and maybe vengeance turned, it seems to me, into a kind of love. And indeed, Sarcey-the-Real, known as “our uncle” by those whose works he would not support, proved good-natured enough that this type of attention provoked no legal action.
Whatever his critical tastes, that says something about his sense of self and the secured position he had within the newspaper world. Picking up this book I didn’t know what to expect, beyond a short exposure to a satirist. A few paragraphs into the first column (most were published in a paper called Le Chat Noir), from 1889, there is this: “I can see you all shrug your shoulders, and say, ‘Here we go again! Fat old Sarcey is going to talk about things he knows absolutely nothing about, and stick his foot in his mouth.’” Pseudo-Sarcey agrees, and hopes “that I’ll keep on doing it.” The entire column has him trying a medical treatment that would be useful for an older theatre critic when “young actresses… come ask my advice,” but it would spoil things to spell matters out. The second column is filled with self-praise at his successful campaign to get people to wash their feet. Some people made fun of him, but the letters he received prove he’s not “some doddering fool.” Sarcey’s girth inspires Allais to come up with this throwaway line: “When I was young, I could have eaten whole piles of rocks; and, even now, I don’t do badly.” The abuse is one thing, but this image struck me as unexpected and hilarious, perhaps partly because I live in a place made of sandstone.
There are two more set pieces—in truth, all the columns are set pieces—and one involves imagining Sarcey on an amorous adventure, set on a train to Manchester, with an unexpected travelling companion—an English rose—and her basket of costly crayfish. While a long tunnel along the route is put to use by both, the payoff rests in the last line. The final entry introduces Allais updating readers in 1897 about how his target is doing, and introduces a device, the “auto-clyster.” Wikipedia states that clyster is an old word for enema. Sarcey is in need of a purgative, and Allais is with him in a bathroom. What is described? Among other things, that due to his “rather short arms” Sarcey “has invented, for his own use, the clysto-accordion. The name of this device alone excuses me from further description.” As accordions are ubiquitous in France, and are now accompanied by small amplifiers for buskers to board the metro who beg you to stop them with coins and bills, this image struck me as living up to some words on the front cover that designate this book as part of a collection: “Absurdist Texts & Documents.” The picture Allais doesn’t paint stands out in the mind.
How I Became an Idiot reminds me of Félix Fénéon’s excellent Novels in Three Lines, which came out in 2007 from NYRB Classics. In both cases, the unexpected is suddenly present, and there is rudeness, as well as a savagery of attack that we, sadly, can’t imagine anyone doing to a well-known columnist of today and getting away with it. While too much of this sort of roughhousing can tire one, another 50 pages would have been appreciated. Perhaps there’ll be a second, and longer, volume. But for now, this title is unfortunately out of print. You can get other Allais works from the same publisher via their website.
How I Became an Idiot, by Francisque Sarcey, trans. Doug Skinner | Black Scat Press | 36 pages | limited ed. of 60 copies | paper | no ISBN