I was reading Dostoyevsky's hilarious novella The Crocodile, and I was curious about the epigraph 'Ohé Lambert! Où est Lambert? As-tu vu Lambert?' ('Hey Lambert! Where is Lambert? Have you seen Lambert?) which also turns up in 'A Raw Youth'. So I googled and translated various French documents, and I thought I'd put the results here for anyone else doing the same. In a nutshell, it seems to have been a popular Parisienne catchphrase of the era (Dostoyevsky spent some time in Paris), some sort of chant or banter of the streets.
From the document here:
'Tous les ans, depuis plusieurs annees, nous avons vu un mot, une chanson, eclore soudainement dans Paris. Qui a invente ce mot? qui a fait cette chanson? Nul ne le sait: ce qui n'empeche pas que cette chanson, ce mot, se trouvent, en un rien de temps, dans la bouche de tout le monde. Ainsi, on a vu apparaitre successivement le 'Sire de Framboisie', 'As-tu vu Lambert', 'Le pied qui r'mue' et d'autres. Et ici-meme, n'avons-nous pas vu de pareilles scies eclore tout-a-coup? plusiers se rappellent, qu'il y a quelques annees, deux Quebecquois ne pouvait se recontrer dans nos rues sans se dire: 'Chez vous sont ben?' - Nul autre qu'un Francais ne pourrait inventer de pareilles betises, si ce n'est peut-etre un Irlandais; car, encore une fois, pour trouver des niaiseries pareilles, il faut une dose d'esprit qu'ordinaire.'
Which run through an online translator says:
'Every year, for several years, we have seen a word, a song, eclore suddenly in Paris. Who A invents this word? who made this song? No one does not know it: what empeche not that this song, this word, are, in one nothing time, in the mouth of everyone. Thus, one saw apparaitre successively the ' Lord de Framboisie', 'have you seen Lambert', ' the foot which r' mue' and others. And here-same, didn't we see similar saws eclore all-A-blow? plusiers remember, that a few years ago, two Quebecquois could not recontrer in our streets without saying itself: ' On your premise are Ben?' - No one other that a French could not invent similar silly things, if it is not perhaps an Irishman; because, once again, to find sillinesses similar, it is necessary an amount of spirit that ordinary.'
Here are extracts from the journals of the 19th Century writer Jules Vallès describing a visit to Britain, in which he recounts (I think) his urge to shout "Ohé! Lambert!" in the faces of solemn Englishmen.
A couple of other references I found:
An inscription on a drawing by the Australian poet George Gordon McCrae.
A passing reference in a modern French document, so I suppose the phrase is at least still known there.
Finally one wonders idly whether Andrew Lang was making a reference to it in his 'Ballade of Dead Cricketers'.
That's all I could find on Google, as of August '04. My unhealthy obsession with it is over now, but if you happen to know anything more concrete, by all means drop me a line.
Update, March 2007:
Many thanks to Jon for the following extract found on an academic Journals site, www.jstor.org, which will be inaccessible unless you have university or library access, from an article by Katia Dianina:
PS later -
Related phenomena to Lambert mania (the Frenchman quoted above is mistaken to say only the French or Irish could propagate such silliness).
[My website of juvenile humour]