You sometimes wonder why a particular book is published. Usually, it's because a book is particularly bad. But in the case of Mots d'Heure: Gousses, Rames, you wonder where they expected to find enough people to appreciate its brilliance. The province of Quebec, of course. And English speakers who knew how to pronounce French (though not to be able to translate it, since a translation misses the point).
But if you know your high school French, the book is a pure delight.
Let's start with the title. Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames. Say it out loud. Say it again (if you're not familiar with French pronunciation, "Mots" is pronounced like "moe," and "d'heures" is pronounced "deur," with the "eu" drawn out a bit). Try it a few times (aloud; it doesn't work unless you hear it).
Get it? Yes, the title of the book is pronounced like "Mother Goose Rhymes."
And that's what it is. Van Rooten took a bunch of well known nursery rhymes, used French phrases to approximate the sounds, and produced the book as a scholarly analysis of a French book of sayings.*
The result is both hilarious and delightful. Each poem is a treasure hunt, where you say them aloud to find out what they really are. Consider, for instance:
Coulis nos fête.
Et soif qui dites nos lignes.
Pomme qui n'y terre
"Adieu, notes laïque," dit d'acteur frêle
D'horizon Hawaii canot tel
Baux, dix anneaux en tonneau. Filou elle,
Adieu, notes laïque," dit d'acteur frêle.**
The book is addicting, especially since that you will often forget what the poem actually is and have to puzzle it out again.
What's even more fun is the fact that the translations aren't entirely gibberish. Van Rooten's footnotes indicate some of the more esoteric terms, and the meaning is a bit cryptic, but it does say something (and the footnotes are a guide).
Van Rooten had an interesting career. He was best known as a radio and TV actor, and also appeared in some films and on Broadway. Toward the end of his career, he switched from acting to writing, and put out several successful books of humor.
I just found out about this one a few weeks ago. My parents had visited Quebec (the perfect audience for this, of course) and my mother gave me a copy. It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on, but once I did, I was delighted.
I'm sure that many people will not be able to get the joke, of course. If you don't know French, you're out of luck. But if you do, the book is a wonderful look at how sense and sound interact.
* Complete with footnotes.
**(drag mouse over to read) Jack Sprat, Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater, and "I don't not like thee, Dr. Fell.