Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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One of the Oddest Books I’ve Ever Read

It looks for all the world like a stuffy little volume of arcane French verse. It’s a slender paperback barely 70 pages long. Its cover, seen here, is printed on uncoated buff paper, albeit by a major publisher (Penguin). In the Foreword, author Luis d’Antin van Rooten describes, in dry, academic prose, how he came to inherit a packet of cryptic French manuscripts from a distant relative, and how he has labored to make sense of them. Sample excerpt: “…they may be the creations of some Gothic cultural link midway between François Rabelais on the one hand and James Joyce on the other…”

Each page of the book offers a French verse at the top, followed by the author’s annotations, translations, and theories as to what the verse means to convey. It all seems quite mystifying until one realizes what’s going on. You see, it’s all a put-on.

There was no distant relative. All of this has been composed by Mr. van Rooten for our amusement and his. When one reads the French verse aloud, it sounds like English nursery rhymes spoken with a French accent, except that the actual meaning in French has nothing whatsoever to do with its English sounds. A few examples:

Reseuse arête, valet de Tsar bat loups
Joue gare et suite, un sot voyou.

The annotation theorizes that this is a description of an incident at the Russian Imperial court and draws deep socio-political inferences from the story. One more example:

Reine, reine, gueux éveille.
Gomme à gaine, en horreur, taie.

The annotation translates this one verbatim: “Queen, Queen, arouse the rabble, who use their girdles, horrors, as pillow slips.”

If you know any French at all, even if it was only years ago when you studied it in high school, this book offers some of the most uniquely giddy, geeky fun you’re likely to come across. I can’t say that it’s like this book or that book; it simply isn’t “like” anything else I’ve ever read.

A bit of background: This book was originally published in 1967. I don’t know whether it’s actually still in print, but it is widely available quite cheaply in used form. The author, Luis van Rooten (I believe the “d’Antin” part was an affectation assumed specifically for this book), was an actor of some accomplishment. He appeared in many dozens of Broadway plays, movies, and TV shows in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. From the evidence of this book, he was an exceedingly articulate and clever fellow.

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