Friday, February 24, 2017

Tout va (très) bien

I'm in the early stages of a long slow re-read of Cortázar's Hopscotch, and this time I'm making a point of annotating some of the many allusions scattered through the pages of the novel, allusions which would have been time-consuming to identify in the pre-internet when I read it for the first time (c.1978?), but which can now generally be tracked down in a matter of seconds. (There's even at least one Spanish-language blog specifically devoted to the task, Mi Rayuela.)

More on that project, perhaps, another time; this morning I looked up a scrap of French that can be found in Chapter 71: Tout va très bien, madame La Marquise, tout va très bien, tout va très bien. Here's a performance of the song from which those words were taken: [Video no longer available]

For those with no French or whose French is as creaky as mine, the gist of the song is that Madame la Marquise (here played by a man in drag) has been away from home for a few weeks and calls her servants on the phone to check on things. Everything's fine, they assure her, well, except for one little incident: her gray mare has died. How did this happen?, she asks. Well, it happened when the stables burned down. In succeeding verses we learn that the stables caught fire when the château burned to the ground, and that the château in turn was set ablaze by the candles her husband knocked over in the process of killing himself, having discovered that he was ruined financially. Other than that, tout va très bien!

The song was new to me, but not the comic routine, a staple of American folklore, renditions of which I heard various times when I was growing up. A version from Missouri, for example, begins as follows:
An old Missouri farmer hardly ever leaves home. He is one of those people who doesn't trust the world to keep on turning if he doesn't keep an eye on it. But this one time he must go to the city for a few days. His first evening in his hotel, he calls home, and his hired man answers. And our farmer says, "So, everything all right at home?"

"Jus' fine, Boss, 'cept you know your dog? Ol' Shep got holt a some dead horse meat, and it kilt 'im."

The farmer is upset, of course, that dog was a good old friend. But then it occurs to him to wonder, "Where did Shep get holt of dead horse meat?"

"Well, Boss, the horses died when the barn burned, and ol' Shep got holt a some dead horse meat, and it kilt 'im."
In the US the candles that set the fire are usually on the coffin of the mother / husband / mother-in-law of the person who has been absent.

To round out this story, a few moments after I identified the source of Tout va très bien, madame La Marquise, I visited (as I do regularly) a nice slice of tororo shiru, the blog maintained by a French copain who writes under the name Tororo, and read his most recent post. The subject was a dream he had in which someone dear to him died; the title of the post: Tout va bien.

Update (2022): There's a passing reference to the song in Georges Perec's novel La vie mode d'emploi. In Chapter 44, Perec describes how, during the liberation of Paris, a young member of the resistance, Olivier Gratiolet, receives and transcribes what are supposedly encoded messages using a clandestine radio receiver hidden in the basement of the apartment building where he lives. The messages include (in David Bellos's translation) the likes of "the presbytery has lost none of its charm nor the garden its splendour," "the archdeacon is a past master at Japanese billiards," and (in the original) "tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise."


Tororo said...

Synchronicity? What I'm currently reading is Mahendra Singh's American Candide, a book that highlights and exemplify how things that can only get better, perhaps better than best.

Chris said...

I didn't recognize the name at first, but I have Singh's edition of The Hunting of the Snark somewhere in the house. I'll have to dig it out again.

Tororo said...

Uuugh! In my comment, a that sneaked to some place it had no business. Beware of that!