For me, his finest achievement was to translate, and bring to our attention, Alphonse Allias (1854-1905). Here’s Kington’s introduction to A Wolf in Frog’s Clothing – the best of Alphonse Allais (Pan, 1989):
“When I wrote the introduction for the original edition of this collection (published by Chatto and Windus with the title The World Of Alphonse Allais), I made three bad mistakes.
I went on and on about about how funny Allais was.
I tried to analyse his humour.
I ended up with an introduction much longer than any of the pieces in the book, rather as the Extras column sometimes outshines all the batsmen in an England side.
The first mistake was the worst, I think. There’s something in human psychology which resents being told how great a film, play or book is. At least, when I follow up rave reviews I always come away thinking: Well it wasn’t that great. Whereas if I am told that something is not half bad, I often come away thinking how great it is.
Alphonse Allais is not half bad.
There is no point in analysing humour, because telling someone why a thing is funny will not make him laugh at it – on the contrary, it is more likely to stop him laughing.
And the length of the introduction came about, I think, because I hoped that people who enjoyed the book would want to know everything there was to know about the author. This was a mistake. The main purpose of information in an introduction is to provide facts for a book reviewer to parade as his own knowledge.
So this introduction will be shorter, unanalytical and modest in its claims. As it is, I have already gone on at greater length than Allais himself did. When he issued a collection called The Squadron’s Umbrella, he wrote the following pithy note to readers:
‘Some explanation of the title is in order.
’1. The umbrella, that useful modern device, is not mentioned in the book.
’2. The role of the cavalry squadron in modern warfare is much debated at the moment. Not by me, though.’