There are cult classics and cult classics. You might quote Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk at me, or maybe The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, or if you are really way out there A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. But for my money one of the cultest classics (or classical cults, or whatever) is a little-known masterpiece that goes by the name of Mots d’Heure, Gousses, Rames. It was written by Luis d’Antin van Rooten (1906 – 1973), who, if the evidence of the book is anything to go by, was something of a genius. Mexican-born Van Rooten gave up a career as an architect to seek his fortune as a Hollywood actor at the height of World War II. He had an amazing facility with languages and moonlighted as a military radio announcer during the war, in French, Italian and Spanish. He was also in demand for screen roles that required someone with an accent or was adept at speaking dialects.
His book Mots d’Heure Gousses, Rames, as you might expect from the title, is written in French – but rather odd, archaic-sounding French. The book ostensibly contains a collection of poems, which have scholarly footnotes attached to them. In fact, the brilliant idea behind this book is that if you read the French poems aloud they sound exactly like English nursery rhymes spoken with a French accent. This is called homophonic writing and here’s an example from the start of the book:
|French poem||Nursery Rhyme||
|Un petit d’un petit
S’étonne aux Halles
Un petit d’un petit
Ah! degrés te fallent
Indolent qui ne sort cesse
Indolent qui ne se mène
Qu’importe un petit
Tout gai de Reguennes.
Sat on a wall.
Had a great fall.
All the king’s horses
And all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty
|A child of a child
Is surprised at the Market
A child of a child
Oh, degrees you needed!
Lazy is he who never goes out
Lazy is he who is not led
Who cares about a little one
All happy with Reguennes
The footnote to the phrase “un petit d’un petit” reads: “the inevitable result of a child marriage.” The rest of the footnotes are similarly hilarious and as you read through the poems it is enormous fun trying to work out which nursery rhyme you are reading. Here are a few more examples. See if you can guess which rhymes they are:
Chacun Gille / Houer ne taupe de hile
Eau la quille ne colle / Oise à me rest haulte de soles
Et qui rit des cures d’Oc? / De Meuse raines, houp! De cloques.
Yes, you probably guessed that these are in fact:
Jack and Jill went up the hill
Old King Cole was a merry old soul and
Hickory dickory dock. The mouse ran up the clock.
A friend of mine once had a native French speaker read some of these poems out during an international conference. It was amazing just how like the French pronunciation of nursery rhymes should have sounded that the poor chap had to give up after a couple of minutes, drowned out by Anglophone laughter.
The book is illustrated by very attractive colored prints of medieval woodcuts, and introduces Part One with a picture of a disconsolate-looking, bandy-legged bagpiper chasing a stolid, apparently sardonic goose down the road with all the urgency of a two-week-old cheese flan (see above). Someone with very little else to do, a certain Lawrence Whiffin, has even set ten of the Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames to music (not sure whether they are yet available on iTunes).
It appears that there are also other manuscripts of a similar whimsical and tongue-in-cheek timbre such as N’Heures Souris Rames (Nursery Rhymes), published in 1980 by Ormonde de Kay, among which are Coucou doux de Ledoux (Cock-A-Doodle-Doo), Signe, garçon. Neuf Sikhs se pansent (Sing a Song of Sixpence) and Hâte, carrosse bonzes (Hot Cross Buns).
There is also an earlier English-to-French work by Howard L. Chace, who collected his stories and poems in the book Anguish Languish (which sells for over $100), one of which is entitled Frayer Jerker (Frère Jacques). Chace has a number of different English homophonic transformations, as they are called, in the book, for example: Mural: Yonder nor sorghum stenches shut ladle gulls stopper torque wet strainers, which translates into “Moral: Under no circumstances should little girls stop to talk with strangers.”
To me the latter seems a tad forced and lacks the light touch of van Rooten’s Mots d’Heure Gousses, Rames. This kind of intellectual versification certainly needs a light touch if the author wants to retain the interest of the reader. And besides, half the fun of van Rooten is the amusing asides, preposterous explanations and pseudo-academic comments in the footnotes.
If you have even a smattering of French and have a couple of brain cells to spare, do yourself a favor and order this cult classic from anywhere you can get your hands on it. In these days of post-election shocks and alarums, do something to cheer yourself up: buy a copy of Mots d’Heure Gousses, Rames (I collect my sales commission at the end of every month) and spend a happy hour chortling in a corner, while the rest of the world looks on bemused, but nervous, about what crusty French witticism you’re going to come out with next. As they say in French, si yeux, les terres!