Miles Kington: A jester at the court of the French avant-garde

He invented a hearse called the necromobile, which cremated the body and used the energy to power the engine
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The Independent Online

Every week in The Week, a star guest is invited to choose a handful of favourite books, and this week artist Quentin Blake has chosen five books, all French. Two books by fellow artists (Sempé, André François), a book on art by Baudelaire, a Balzac novel and - good heavens! - what is this? "Any of the works of Alphonse Allais".

Sacre bleu! Alphonse Allais! I am so used to people not knowing who Alphonse Allais is that to see him being mentioned, let alone championed, is liable to bring on a heart attack.

"In case you thought it was invented more recently," says Quentin Blake, "here is eccentric humour flourishing in Paris a hundred years ago. In his newspaper pieces, Allais developed the interesting concepts of the kangoocycle, the one-centimetre bicycle race, and made the first mention of an all-white picture ('anaemic girls on their way to their first Communion, in a snowstorm') ..."

Good on you, Quentin! But that was not all. He also painted the first all-black picture (entitled "Africans fighting in a cave, at night"). He invented a new, improved kind of hearse called the necromobile, which cremated the body of the late lamented on board and used the energy derived therefrom to power the engine ...

He also said, very wisely: "What is the point of getting your hair cut? It only grows again."

I know this because once, years ago, I translated the first and so far only selection of Allais's pieces into English, so if anyone is inspired by Quentin Blake to rush out and buy some Allais, it will either be in French or a second-hand copy of my book. But this is a good chance to tell the story of how I came to do the book, as I thereby learnt several very valuable lessons about life, which it is not too late to pass on.

I spent three years at Oxford doing French, during which time I never heard anyone speak a sentence in modern French (medieval, yes, plenty) nor heard a reference to any writer from the 20th century. After Oxford I therefore spent the next few years exploring the huge territory ignored by the university syllabus, and came across a gripping book called The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck. This contained long essays on four important avant-garde figures from the Belle Epoque (Erik Satie, Henri Rousseau, Alfred Jarry and Guillaume Apollinaire) and in each of the four portraits the unknown (to me) name of Alphonse Allais kept cropping up as a kind of court jester of the time.

Then one day in a French bookshop I found a paperback of some of his pieces. I bought it. They were wonderful. I was hooked. French had been worth learning after all. I bought some more. I was more hooked. When publishers began to ask me if I was ever going to do a book, I would always say: "Yes! I want to translate an unknown French humorist!" and they would back away as if from a nutter.

In the mid-1970s, hoping to break into radio, I sent Radio 3 a list of 30 programmes I wanted to do. One of them was a talk on Alphonse Allais. It was the only one they were interested in. I went ahead and did a 20-minute talk on Alphonse Allais, and in the next two weeks no less than four publishers rang me up and said: "Hey! Why don't you do a book of his pieces!"

I went with Chatto & Windus, where my editor was DJ Enright, and where, I later learnt, my Allais book was referred to as "Enright's Folly".

Lessons learnt so far

1. If Oxford University doesn't teach it, doesn't mean it's not worth learning.

2. Radio 3 is only interested in people it has never heard of.

3. Publishers seldom have ideas of their own; they much prefer to take them from newspapers, television, radio or film. If Lynne Truss had suggested off her own bat doing a book on punctuation, she would have been locked up; as it was, she did a series on punctuation on Radio 4 and someone heard it and thought - Ah, there's a book in this!

I shall return to this vital learning curve at the first opportunity.