01 April 2008

April Fish

Here in France, the symbol of April Fool’s is a fish, to the point of shouting out, “Poisson d’avril!” when you play a trick on someone. You’re also expected to give fish to people. This explains the presence of chocolate fish in French candy shops (including, bien sûr, Denise Acabo’s), alongside the chocolate Easter bunnies and eggs more readily recognizable to Americans.

In the spirit of the season, I recently completed Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style, the short, simple story of an encounter on a Parisian bus, recounted 99 different ways. Many of these are amusing, all of them are clever, but it must be said that a single variation more and I’d have thrown the book out the window. Style is one thing, but on occasion one wants substance.

Happily, Queneau provided just that in a real novel, Zazie dans le Métro. In it, a 10-year-old girl wreaks havoc during a weekend in Paris. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, surreal, anarchic, brilliant — and prophetic. Because the book was published in 1959, it takes only simple math to realize that the hellion Zazie was exactly the right age to be a student rioter in 1968. Queneau did try to warn us, but the French are still recovering from May 1968 and its many Zazies, and the fortieth anniversary is the headline on almost every French magazine right now.

Hell hath no fury like a 10-year-old French girl:
Catherine Mongeot, star of Louis Malle’s Zazie film

To honor the season further, I am writing this several days after April 1. But more urgently, perhaps, I note that April also marks tax season — perhaps the biggest and most durable April Fool anybody ever played. And it’s the subject of the happy discovery I made while perusing Mark Twain last night.

Income taxes are not something I’d have expected Twain to know much about, yet his experience of them — in 1870 — turns out to be exhaustive and authoritative. Further proof that Twain is very much our contemporary. In his sketch, “A Mysterious Visit” (which can be found in Volume I of the Library of America’s indispensable collection of short pieces by Twain), he recounts his attempts to impress a stranger. According to Twain, “impress” usually means “exaggerate,” and he inflates his financial worth to figures that are eye-catching even today. Never mind that the guy introduced himself as an agent of the Internal Revenue Service — whatever that is.

“We talked, and talked, and talked — at least I did. And we laughed, and laughed, and laughed — at least he did,” Twain recalls. “Then the gentleman got up to go. It came over me most uncomfortably that maybe I had made my revelations for nothing, besides being flattered into stretching them considerably by the stranger’s astonished exclamations. But no; at the last moment the gentleman handed me a large envelope and said it contained his advertisement; and that I would find out all about his business in it; and that he would be happy to have my custom — would in fact be proud to have the custom of a man of such prodigious income; and that he used to think there were several wealthy men in Buffalo, but when they came to trade with him he discovered that they barely hard enough to live on; and that in truth it had been such a weary, weary age since he had seen a rich man face to face, and talked with him, and touched him with his hands, that he could hardly refrain from embracing me — in fact, would esteem it a great favor if I would let him embrace me.”

Tax Expert: Mark Twain,
a.k.a. Samuel “Long Form” Clemens

The “advertisement” turns out, of course, to be “nothing in the world but a wicked tax return — a string of impertinent questions about my private affairs occupying the best part of four foolscap pages of fine print — questions, I may remark, gotten up with such marvelous ingenuity that the oldest man in the world couldn’t understand what the most of them were driving at — questions, too, that were calculated to make a man report about four times his actual income to keep from swearing a lie.”

How Twain wiggles his way out of this mess is something I urge you to read for yourself — although with equal force I urge you not to follow his example.

Happy April, everybody.

Note: For unknown reasons, Amazon appears to be aware of the existence only of Volume II of LOA’s collection of Twain sketches. To get both volumes, one must go to the source — or to the bookstore.