Gazza on the menu at Les Deux Magots

Everybody seems to want a copy of 'Que signifie Gazza?' But does the book really exist?

I have recently collaborated on a small literary joke (The Meaning of Cantona, Mainstream, pounds 9.99) which has turned out to be too subtle not only for everyone who has come across it but for me as well. Indeed, it has been pointed out to me by Professor Laurie Taylor that it isn't a joke at all.

I wasn't disposed to argue the point, since Professor Taylor had just introduced me on his afternoon radio show as reader in aesthetics at the University of East Anglia, and I was in any case wearing, at Professor Taylor's invitation, one of those strips of nasal tape which are supposed to make it easier to breathe.

How did this come about? Easily enough, as it happens.

Six months ago, it was suggested to my friend Terence Blacker than he might like to write a book about Eric Cantona. Blacker is a distinguished novelist (Fixx, Fame Hotel, Revenance) and he would have haughtily declined the offer had he not remembered suddenly that my life had recently gone pear-shaped and that it would be an act of kindness, therefore, to sub- let the enterprise to me, without the publishers necessarily being aware of this arrangement.

"You must understand," said Blacker, "that it would not be sensible now - or at any time, perhaps - to mention your name."

Fair enough. One should not allow pride to get in the way of paying the rent, so, and on the assumption that the book was expected to be humorous, I dusted down a few old jokes - some about John Motson, others not - and sought the help of my other friend, Craig Brown.

"Do you have any jokes about Eric Cantona?" I said.

Brown had not heard of Cantona, but after I had explained who he was, he said that it might be amusing to suggest that the British are in thrall to him simply because he's French. Having pointed out that the French are no doubt equally impressed by Paul Gascoigne just because he's English, Brown produced off the top of his head an excellent joke, which survives (under Blacker's name) in the finished book.

Cantona is considering an offer to play the beautiful game in England. Outside Les Deux Magots, philosophy students are deconstructing Que signifie Gazza? Les pensees d'un idiot savant (Gallimard, 1990). Cantona's football skills are not in doubt, but can he compete with England's most lucid contemporary poet of disillusion - and with his ever-present Boswell, M Cinq Estomacs?

Cantona joins the debate; he reads out extracts from Que signifie Gazza? "Quand Sheryl m'a dit que je serais un papa j'ai chie mes pantalons." It would sound better in English, of course.

At which point, Blacker himself became more interested in the project, submitting aphorisms which seemed to me brilliant parodies for rive gauche intellectuality - some so perfectly judged that they might have been lifted straight from Barthes or Camus (indeed, as I have now discovered, they ... but you're ahead of me).

"Screamingly funny!" I said.

"What do you mean, funny?" said Blacker, managing to maintain a straight face, which made me laugh even more, of course - though I did become a little apprehensive when he suggested that we should try to buy the English translation rights to Que signifie Gazza?

The Meaning of Cantona - consisting of Craig Brown's unacknowledged contribution, my three jokes - two about Motson, one not - and Blacker's hilariously enlarged reflections - was published last week, and the reaction has been rather weird.

The Sunday Times and The Observer declined to serialise it, but both have sought to purchase English extract rights to Que signifie Gazza? from Gallimard: one of WH Smith's thin, ambitious women (formerly of paper- clips) has been on the telephone to Gallimard from Swindon, hoping to satisfy the store's clamouring customers with a bulk purchase of Que signifie Gazza? and Blacker has lost his temper on radio and television with anyone who has described the book as funny - not that anyone has.

Never mind. This week, Blacker is attending the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, as serious novelists do, allowing me to step into the limelight and put the record straight - my first attempt being with Professor Taylor on Radio 4's Afternoon Shift.

"This book," said Professor Taylor, "The Meaning of Cantona ..."

"Very funny, don't you think?" I said.

Professor Taylor drew back and looked at me warily. "That hadn't occurred to me," he said. "You don't know where I could get a copy of Que signifie Gazza? do you?"

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