Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more

(or “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”)

It is astonishing that the score to Allegri’s Miserere Mei was such a closely guarded secret by the Holy See — it was considered to be “too beautiful” — that whoever was caught copying it was threatened with excommunication (which nevertheless didn’t stop Mozart, who else, from transcribing it from memory at age 14).

Performances today are probably less ornate than what the Roman school would have recommended back in the 17th century, but it remains a work of breathtaking beauty.

 

• • •

Readers

Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.

Harold Bloom — How to Read and Why

• • •

Rott & Mahler: Fellows, Masters or Students

Hans Rott, a fellow pupil of Mahler at the Vienna Conservatory, managed not only to publish before him, but to also influence Mahler himself: his Symphony No.1 in E major eerily announces Mahler’s early work.

Rott died insane at the age of 26. Too much beauty?

• • •

Helpless Child

Often a man can play the helpless child in front of a woman, but he can almost never bring it off when he feels most like an helpless child.

F. Scott Fitzgerald — Tender is the Night

• • •

The Silent Sea

(or, my first true gesamterfahrung of the French language.)

Il fut précédé par un grand déploiement d’appareil militaire. D’abord deux troufions, tous deux très blonds, l’un dégingandé et maigre, l’autre carré, aux mains de carrier. Ils regardèrent la maison, sans entrer. Plus tard vint un sous-officier. Le troufion dégingandé l’accompa­gnait. Ils me parlèrent, dans ce qu’ils supposaient être du français. Je ne comprenais pas un mot. Pourtant je leur montrai les chambres libres. Ils parurent contents.

Vercors — Le Silence de la Mer

I did have some contact with it before that, but not at the level of actually analyzing literary works. As a portuguese high-school student my experience of it had been a very formal and limited one, where many grammatical rules were taught, verb conjugations were reviewed with an iron resolve and vocabulary was an afterthought. It is little wonder that I consistently and predictably flunked the class, year after year after year.

It was more a source of concern for my parents than it was for me, seen that my grades were generally acceptable but for French and I really couldn’t see the point of the whole thing.

All of that changed very quickly: from nowhere it was announced to us that we would be moving to Belgium. In seven days. As in, leave-everything-behind-that-you-cannot-carry-and-ship-to-a-country-that-you’ve-never-even-heard-of-seven-days which, at age thirteen, sounds adventurous rather than disquieting. We were ecstatic: among many others, language was certainly a concern, but we were moving there as a whole family and if you combine that with the fact that Portugal invented the very concept of desenrascanço, what could possibly go wrong?

As expected, the whole thing became markedly less amusing once we arrived in Brussels.

We, or at least I, seemed to have overseen a small but crucial detail: every single person was a stranger to me with little incentive to correct my very approximate command of the language. This was at times funny but infuriating most of the time: I retributed by hating them all immediately.

School of course was a whole different matter: for one, with the exception of Dutch and English classes, all of the syllabus was in French. Mathematics, History, Geography, Physics, Chemistry all of them in French. French in French, obviously. Even Physical Education was in French. It was assumed that I was sufficiently adroit as to follow along, which I mostly did. Not that I hated any of them any less, mind you.

I will never forget the first lines of Le Silence de la Mer as long as I live. The memory of the anguish they produced in me when I first read them is etched so deep in my brain that I can remember the temperature of the room, the cover of the book, the colour of the teacher’s shirt and the sudden sweat in my forehead, as if it had all happened five minutes ago.

I couldn’t even begin to understand it. Grand, deux, maison and français vaguely rang a bell but that was about it. And yet Il fut précédé par un grand déploiement d’appareil militaire, incomprehensible as it was, was under a 3/4 sway which was hard to ignore, like a charming valse musette (but I only found out about those much later.)

It took me months to get past that first paragraph, but I finally managed to not only get past it, but more importantly to enjoy it immensely. The way Vercors prepares a story in a single paragraph, transmitting at the same time a feeling of triviality and impending doom with so few and so well-wrought words is mesmerizing. What first astonished me was: Ils me parlèrent, dans ce qu’ils supposaient être du français. Je ne comprenais pas un mot or, They spoke to me in what they supposed to be French. I didn’t understand a word. It sounded as if he was describing me.

I can’t objectively claim that the whole novella is as brilliant as I think it is. It is to me, if not for the language (which is wonderful), at least for the simple fact that, for once in my life, I can place an exact date, location and feeling to what would become a life-changing event.

At some point, after many books and many teachers I finally dreamt in French. Not by choice or determination, but because the music was irresistible. And I didn’t hate them at all, how could I?

I was them now.

(Dédié à Nath, à qui j’aurais dû raconter cette histoire il y a bien longtemps☺)

• • •

The whole and the part

Whoever reaches into a rosebush may seize a handful of flowers; but no matter how many one holds, it’s only a small portion of the whole. Nevertheless, a handful is enough to experience the nature of the flowers. Only if we refuse to reach into the bush, because we can’t possibly seize all the flowers at once, or if we spread out our handful of roses as if it were the whole of the bush itself—only then does it bloom apart from us, unknown to us, and we are left alone.

Lou Andreas-Salomé — Lebensrückblick

• • •

To All You Newly Minted Gin Pedants

gindiet_reddit

Up until not long ago, ordering a Gin & Tonic was a simple affair, as it consisted of saying: “I’ll have a Gin & Tonic, please”.

Much to my dismay, and since the other option would have been to stop drinking them altogether, this is how I have to order it these days:

“I’ll have a Gin & Tonic, please. Wait!

I’ll have it in a highball glass, with just ice, gin, tonic and a lime wedge. I do not want the coupe glass, or giant bucket, or whatever the crap you call that ice-filled thing. You can skip the straw (two, sometimes!), as well, seen that I’m not twelve and you’re not serving me a Tang.

Please avoid adding juniper berries, pepper corns, basil, cucumber, thyme, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, lavender, or any other ingredient, even if it has been lovingly harvested under the full moon, on the altitudinal zones of the Swiss Alps, by a herd of enchanted unicorns.

You can skip the stupid pouring of the tonic over the twisted stir spoon, “to avoid bubbles”. You’re not “avoiding bubbles”, you’re just feeding your smugness. Remember that I’m the one paying for this drink, so go be a pompous fool on someone else’s money.

Actually, don’t pour the tonic at all, bring the opened bottle. You may have read the many opinions on gin-to-tonic ratios, and your bar even has a Gin & Tonic “menu” to indicate how confident you feel in your skills in treating the people you serve as ignorant nitwits, but since it is my drink, I’ll determine the ratio, thank you.

As to the gin itself, and keeping in mind that this is a cocktail with more tonic and ice than actual gin, any decent London dry gin will do. Stop with the endless discussions of the peculiarities of gin A, B and C, and how their bouquets, aroma and distillation process differ from each other in, oh, so subtle and magical ways. The truth of the matter is that in a mixture raped by too much ice, fancy tonics and herbal mixtures concocted by a self-important apothecary, the particulars of any gin are lost to the taste buds of most of your clientele, not to mention your own; you could probably replace the gin with vodka and they wouldn’t even notice. Those of us who truly care about gin differences drink proper dry martinis, anyway.”

I usually avoid ranting about how I’m not looking for the “truly premium experience” of enjoying “boutique gins that offer affordable luxury”.

One wouldn’t want to come across as rude, after all.

 

• • •

Superior Persons

In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Literary Supplement and the Nancy Poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of ‘Marxism for Infants’–all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

George Orwell — The Road to Wigan Pier

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