French Laughter: Literary Humour From Diderot to Tournier

Christie Davies admires a playful look at the sly, carnal and punning humour of France

March 27, 2008

Walter Redfern has provided us with a splendid survey of French laughter, covering Diderot, Rousseau, de Sade, Brisset, Huysmans, Flaubert, Queneau, Valles, Celine, Sartre, Beckett and Tournier. Some are deliberate manufacturers of laughter, and some the source of laughter in others. I had long thought of Rousseau as a buffoon, but it is good to find that the French have had so much fun at his expense.

In between the essays on particular sets of authors, Redfern has provided "Riffs", accompaniments, disquisitions on "Laughter", "Dreams", "Black humour", "Politics" and "Taste". As might be expected from the world's authority on puns, the book is suffused with them. Some of his chosen authors are punsters and Redfern even sneaks unexpected puns into the text, as when he writes of Marcel Proust's character Dr Cottard:

As a receiver of humour
Cottard invariably wears a knowing
smile or smirk, just in case
what others say turns out to have
been a witticism. He does not
want to be taken, as some

Proustian characters do, from behind.

Can this be a snide reference to Palamede de Guermantes, Baron de Charlus and his catamites? Likewise Valles becomes "Blague Hard!", and combined with Celine, "Upping the Anti/e", although Redfern does manage to refrain from calling de Beauvoir and Sartre Castor et Bollux, or Flaubert Perro! ... Que?.

It is always pleasing to have our national stereotypes of France - the land of les bons mots de Cambronne, where l'arriere pensee, c'est derriere pincee - confirmed. It is clear from Redfern's tour of authors from Diderot, that schmuck who wrote Les Bijoux indiscrets, onwards that a large part of the humour of that nation is about sex in some way or otherwise obscene or else blasphemous.

This quality is even emphasised by the book jacket of French Laughter, which is based on La Femme au perroquet by Gustave Courbet; it manages to combine Redfern's chapter on parrots with Rousseau's obsession with the trigonometry of breasts.

One of Redfern's earlier works, Puns, had on its jacket Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres, which has the back of a naked woman inscribed with the markings of a musical instrument to show that she was Man Ray's principal hobby. Nothing like visual puns on a Botticelli. I was once arrested on a bus in Communist Bratislava by a man with a gun who took exception to the jacket of Redfern's Puns and I was taken in for questioning, though later released with an apology. In fairness, they were having a lot of problems with undercover Bible smugglers at the time. We can only hope that the cover for Redfern's next book is not Courbet's L'Origine du monde; if it is, don't take it on holiday to Iran.

French Laughter's strength is that it is a book about words by a scholar who understands how they work and fail to work. The section "Bad Jokes and Beckett" is particularly insightful in this respect. He is rightly scornful of philosophers of humour such as the muddled Bergson who defined comedy as being "du mecanique plaque sur le vivant", yet also saw it, in Redfern's words, as "a killjoy gendarme policing citizens' behaviour". It is the rigid laughing at the inflexible. Yet disdain for the systematic leads Redfern to speak of "the incomparable Gershon Legman". Incomparisons are odious. Things you can't compare are by definition shapeless - yes, that's Legman.

An excellent jaunt, but one that requires rather more knowledge of French than would a day trip to Boulogne.

French Laughter: Literary Humour From Diderot to Tournier

By Walter Redfern
Oxford University Press
256pp
£25.00
ISBN 9780199237579
Published 21 February 2008

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