- French Laughter: Literary Humour from Diderot to Tournier
This book consists of nine essays on writers from the eighteenth century to the present day, including Diderot, Huysmans, Vallès, Beckett, and Tournier. Walter Redfern illustrates, at times rather circuitously, how the humour in the works of these well-known figures stems neither from pratfalls nor comic twists of fate but from a restless, shared addiction to the possibilities of language, a compulsion that marks their genius. With relish he sets about unpicking references and digging out etymologies, generating a linguistic patchwork that, whilst not quite bearing out his theory of 'cross-talk acts' floated in the introduction, does refresh our understanding of some of the great canonical texts of French literature. Through Sartre and Wittgenstein — the latter talked of a 'serious and good philosophical work [. . .] that would consist entirely of jokes' (quoted on p. 144) — he explores the notion that we may better understand a writer's work though his humour. This is because, as he explains in 'Riff on Taste' — one of five brief essays linking different chapters — humour invades all aspects of human experience and thus lies in close proximity to the truth. The thesis is best demonstrated in the final chapter, on Michel Tournier, a writer skilled in yoking together far-flung ideas, thereby illuminating the comic in the cosmic, or vice versa. Some sharp knives lurk in the dishwater. In a chapter on parrots, ranging (perhaps inevitably) across Flaubert, Queneau, and Beckett, Redfern describes the 'klang-effect prevalent in French culture', which, with its 'strong traditions, networks, schools of thought/writing, repetition, and reciprocal feeding leads to a kind of psittacism' (p. 80). Later in the same chapter, psittacism is extended beyond France and Frenchness; it defines, at least in part, the human condition. In contrast to Flaubert's 'homme-plume', though very much in the image of the traffic policeman in Queneau's Zazie, we non-literary mortals are parrots, 'mere uncomprehending transmitters' (p. 89), rehashing tired formulas. Thus one senses a residual insecurity in the style of this book, which is so lively that it frequently parodies its subject matter. As he warns his reader that he might, Redfern does go too far. Brisset, for example, is described as a 'punslinger at pun-point, dancing on a pun-head, for him life was a ceaseless pun-fight' [End Page 520] (p. 57). It is also written from the point of view of the francophile English speaker and demands to be read by the same, as there is evidence of punning confusion between languages. On two separate occasions, connotations of the English word 'gag' are related, for some mysterious reason, to an analysis of linguistic permutations in Jules Vallès's L'Enfant. To the best of my knowledge, 'le gag' in French has nothing to do with 'retching', or 'silencing' someone. Such disconnections point to an area that Redfern doesn't cover, namely the question of how humour does or does not translate from one language to the other. His selection of writers is, he explains, entirely personal. The fact that it doesn't include a single woman, I shall register without further comment; notable male absentees include Vian, the slickest rapper of his day, Pennac, and Georges Perec, the most cunning linguist of them all! Redfern anticipates these and most other quibbles; reviewers are like the social chimpanzees he mentions in his introduction, programmed to pick nits. He need not have been so defensive, as few academics these days are equipped to embellish their work with the erudition, verve, and irreverence that are his hallmarks.