Have the Tarringtons had their mice?

From Saki’s The Talking-Out of Tarrington:

“Heavens!” exclaimed the aunt of Clovis, “here’s some one I know bearing down on us. I can’t remember his name, but he lunched with us once in Town. Tarrington—yes, that’s it. He’s heard of the picnic I’m giving for the Princess, and he’ll cling to me like a lifebelt till I give him an invitation …

“I’ll fight a rearguard action for you if you like to do a bolt now,” volunteered Clovis; “you’ve a clear ten yards start if you don’t lose time.”


The new-comer smiled weakly, as one who is not to be put off by mere flippancy, and began again with patient persistence:

“I think you ought to remember my name—”

“I shall,” said Clovis, with an air of immense sincerity. “My aunt was asking me only this morning to suggest names for four young owls she’s just had sent her as pets. I shall call them all Tarrington; then if one or two of them die or fly away, or leave us in any of the ways that pet owls are prone to, there will be always one or two left to carry on your name. And my aunt won’t LET me forget it; she will always be asking ‘Have the Tarringtons had their mice?’ and questions of that sort. She says if you keep wild creatures in captivity you ought to see after their wants, and of course she’s quite right there.”

Caught in the treadmill of their own maladies and eccentricities, their futile endeavours to escape serve only to actuate its mechanism

From Du côté de chez Swann (pg 166-167 of the new Pleiade).  The translation is Moncrieff’s, though I also give the same sentence in Lydia Davis’ immediately below since I think she does a better job of sticking to the precise imagery of engrenage and déclic (while still – as ever for me – missing Proust’s cadence).

Presently the course of the Vivonne became choked with water-plants. At first they appeared singly, a lily, for instance, which the current, across whose path it had unfortunately grown, would never leave at rest for a moment, so that, like a ferry-boat mechanically propelled, it would drift over to one bank only to return to the other, eternally repeating its double journey. Thrust towards the bank, its stalk would be straightened out, lengthened, strained almost to breaking-point until the current again caught it, its green moorings swung back over their anchorage and brought the unhappy plant to what might fitly be called its starting-point, since it was fated not to rest there a moment before moving off once again. I would still find it there, on one walk after another, always in the same helpless state, suggesting certain victims of neurasthenia, among whom my grandfather would have included my aunt Léonie, who present without modification, year after year, the spectacle of their odd and unaccountable habits, which they always imagine themselves to be on the point of shaking off, but which they always retain to the end; caught in the treadmill of their own maladies and eccentricities, their futile endeavours to escape serve only to actuate its mechanism, to keep in motion the clockwork of their strange, ineluctable, fatal daily round. Such as these was the water-lily, and also like one of those wretches whose peculiar torments, repeated indefinitely throughout eternity, aroused the curiosity of Dante, who would have inquired of them at greater length and in fuller detail from the victims themselves, had not Virgil, striding on ahead, obliged him to hasten after him at full speed, as I must hasten after my parents.

Davis (pg. 173) has:

I would find it again, walk after walk, always in the same situation, reminding me of certain neurasthenics among whose number my grandfather would count my aunt Leonie, who present year after year the unchanging spectacle of the bizarre habits they believe, each time, they are about to shake off and which they retain forever; caught in the machinery of their maladies and their manias, the efforts with which they struggle uselessly to abandon them only guarantee the functioning and activate the triggers of their strange, unavoidable, and morose regimes.

Bientôt le cours de la Vivonne s’obstrue de plantes d’eau. Il y en a d’abord d’isolées comme tel nénufar à qui le courant au travers duquel il était placé d’une façon malheureuse laissait si peu de repos que comme un bac actionné mécaniquement il n’abordait une rive que pour retourner à celle d’où il était venu, refaisant éternellement la double traversée. Poussé vers la rive, son pédoncule se dépliait, s’allongeait, filait, atteignait l’extrême limite de sa tension jusqu’au bord où le courant le reprenait, le vert cordage se repliait sur lui-même et ramenait la pauvre plante à ce qu’on peut d’autant mieux appeler son point de départ qu’elle n’y restait pas une seconde sans en repartir par une répétition de la même manœuvre. Je la retrouvais de promenade en promenade, toujours dans la même situation, faisant penser à certains neurasthéniques au nombre desquels mon grand-père comptait ma tante Léonie, qui nous offrent sans changement au cours des années le spectacle des habitudes bizarres qu’ils se croient chaque fois à la veille de secouer et qu’ils gardent toujours; pris dans l’engrenage de leurs malaises et de leurs manies, les efforts dans lesquels ils se débattent inutilement pour en sortir ne font qu’assurer le fonctionnement et faire jouer le déclic de leur diététique étrange, inéluctable et funeste. Tel était ce nénufar, pareil aussi à quelqu’un de ces malheureux dont le tourment singulier, qui se répète indéfiniment durant l’éternité, excitait la curiosité de Dante et dont il se serait fait raconter plus longuement les particularités et la cause par le supplicié lui-même, si Virgile, s’éloignant à grands pas, ne l’avait forcé à le rattraper au plus vite, comme moi mes parents.

The religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.

From Saki’s short story Reginald On Christmas Presents:

Personally, I can’t see where the difficulty in choosing suitable presents lies. No boy who had brought himself up properly could fail to appreciate one of those decorative bottles of liqueurs that are so reverently staged in Morel’s window–and it wouldn’t in the least matter if one did get duplicates. And there would always be the supreme moment of dreadful uncertainty whether it was creme de menthe or Chartreuse–like the expectant thrill on seeing your partner’s hand turned up at bridge. People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.


Haste to the mountain to strip off the slough that lets not God be manifest to you

From Canto 2 of Dante’s Purgatorio (lines 115-133), as Dante meets a friend at the base of Mount Purgatory and the two enjoy some music together until Cato bursts in.  Below are both Longfellow’s verse and Charles Singleton’s prose renderings.  At bottom is the helpful note on line 122’s lo scoglio (slough) from Singleton’s accompanying commentary.


My master and I and that folk who were with him appeared content as if naught else touched the mind of any.  We were all rapt and attentive to his notes, when lo, the venerable old man, crying, “What is this, you laggard spirits?  What negligence, what stay is this?  Haste to the mountain to strip off the slough that lets not God be manifest to you.

As doves, when gathering wheat or tares, assembled all at their repast and quiet, without their usual show of pride, if something appears that frightens them, suddenly leave their food because they are assailed by a greater care; so I saw that new troop leave the song and hasten toward the hillside, like one who goes, but knows not where he may come forth; nor was our departure less quick.


My Master, and myself, and all that people
Which with him were, appeared as satisfied
As if naught else might touch the mind of any.
We all of us were moveless and attentive
Unto his notes; and lo! the grave old man,
Exclaiming: “What is this, ye laggard spirits?
What negligence, what standing still is this?
Run to the mountain to strip off the slough,
That lets not God be manifest to you.
Even as when, collecting grain or tares,
The doves, together at their pasture met,
Quiet, nor showing their accustomed pride,
If aught appear of which they are afraid,
Upon a sudden leave their food alone,
Because they are assailed by greater care;
So that fresh company did I behold
The song relinquish, and go tow’rds the hill,
As one who goes, and knows not whitherward;
Nor was our own departure less in haste.


Lo mio maestro e io e quella gente
ch’eran con lui parevan sì contenti,
come a nessun toccasse altro la mente.

Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti
a le sue note; ed ecco il veglio onesto
gridando: «Che è ciò, spiriti lenti?

qual negligenza, quale stare è questo?
Correte al monte a spogliarvi lo scoglio
ch’esser non lascia a voi Dio manifesto».

Come quando, cogliendo biado o loglio,
li colombi adunati a la pastura,
queti, sanza mostrar l’usato orgoglio,

se cosa appare ond’ elli abbian paura,
subitamente lasciano star l’esca,
perch’ assaliti son da maggior cura;

così vid’ io quella masnada fresca
lasciar lo canto, e fuggir ver’ la costa,
com’ om che va, né sa dove rïesca;

né la nostra partita fu men tosta.


Ought to be condemned to keep company with Sisyphus and the Danaids

The concluding paragraph to Frank Cole Babbitt’s introductory essay to his Loeb edition of Plutarch’s Moralia:

The statement is not infrequently made in histories of Greek literature that Plutarch is the one Greek author whose work is improved by being translated.  Those who make or repeat this statement ought to be condemned to keep company with Sisyphus and the Danaids, and to spend their time in the futile attempt to demonstrate how such a statement can be true.

A breeze from a more civilized time.

I could not allow myself to give the child anything that was not well written

From Du côté de chez Swann, the translation is Moncrieff’s.  It is a long thought but too lovely to cut into parts.

Mamma went to find a parcel of books … It contained La Mare au DiableFrançois le ChampiLa Petite Fadette, and Les Maîtres Sonneurs. My grandmother, as I learned afterwards, had at first chosen Mussel’s poems, a volume of Rousseau, and Indiana; for while she considered light reading as unwholesome as sweets and cakes, she did not reflect that the strong breath of genius must have upon the very soul of a child an influence at once more dangerous and less quickening than those of fresh air and country breezes upon his body. But when my father had seemed almost to regard her as insane on learning the names of the books she proposed to give me, she had journeyed back by herself to Jouy-le-Vicomte to the bookseller’s, so that there should be no fear of my not having my present in time …. and had there fallen back upon the four pastoral novels of George Sand.

“My dear,” she had said to Mamma, “I could not allow myself to give the child anything that was not well written.”

The truth was that she could never make up her mind to purchase anything from which no intellectual profit was to be derived, and, above all, that profit which good things bestowed on us by teaching us to seek our pleasures elsewhere than in the barren satisfaction of worldly wealth. Even when she had to make some one a present of the kind called ‘useful,’ when she had to give an armchair or some table-silver or a walking-stick, she would choose ‘antiques,’ as though their long desuetude had effaced from them any semblance of utility and fitted them rather to instruct us in the lives of the men of other days than to serve the common requirements of our own. She would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or of beautiful places. But at the moment of buying them, and for all that the subject of the picture had an aesthetic value of its own, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography. She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether their commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to substitute for the bulk of it what was art still, to introduce, as it might be, several ‘thicknesses’ of art; instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius she would inquire of Swann whether some great painter had not made pictures of them, and preferred to give me photographs of ‘Chartres Cathedral’ after Corot, of the ‘Fountains of Saint-Cloud’ after Hubert Robert, and of ‘Vesuvius’ after Turner, which were a stage higher in the scale of art. But although the photographer had been prevented from reproducing directly the masterpieces or the beauties of nature, and had there been replaced by a great artist, he resumed his odious position when it came to reproducing the artist’s interpretation. Accordingly, having to reckon again with vulgarity, my grandmother would endeavour to postpone the moment of contact still further. She would ask Swann if the picture had not been engraved, preferring, when possible, old engravings with some interest of association apart from themselves, such, for example, as shew us a masterpiece in a state in which we can no longer see it to-day, as Morghen’s print of the ‘Cenacolo’ of Leonardo before it was spoiled by restoration. It must be admitted that the results of this method of interpreting the art of making presents were not always happy. The idea which I formed of Venice, from a drawing by Titian which is supposed to have the lagoon in the background, was certainly far less accurate than what I have since derived from ordinary photographs. We could no longer keep count in the family (when my great-aunt tried to frame an indictment of my grandmother) of all the armchairs she had presented to married couples, young and old, which on a first attempt to sit down upon them had at once collapsed beneath the weight of their recipient. But my grandmother would have thought it sordid to concern herself too closely with the solidity of any piece of furniture in which could still be discerned a flourish, a smile, a brave conceit of the past. And even what in such pieces supplied a material need, since it did so in a manner to which we are no longer accustomed, was as charming to her as one of those old forms of speech in which we can still see traces of a metaphor whose fine point has been worn away by the rough usage of our modern tongue. In precisely the same way the pastoral novels of George Sand, which she was giving me for my birthday, were regular lumber-rooms of antique furniture, full of expressions that have fallen out of use and returned as imagery, such as one finds now only in country dialects. And my grandmother had bought them in preference to other books, just as she would have preferred to take a house that had a gothic dovecot, or some other such piece of antiquity as would have a pleasant effect on the mind, filling it with a nostalgic longing for impossible journeys through the realms of time.

Maman alla chercher un paquet de livres … C’était la Mare au Diable, François le Champi, la Petite Fadette et les Maîtres Sonneurs. Ma grand’mère, ai-je su depuis, avait d’abord choisi les poésies de Musset, un volume de Rousseau et Indiana; car si elle jugeait les lectures futiles aussi malsaines que les bonbons et les pâtisseries, elles ne pensait pas que les grands souffles du génie eussent sur l’esprit même d’un enfant une influence plus dangereuse et moins vivifiante que sur son corps le grand air et le vent du large. Mais mon père l’ayant presque traitée de folle en apprenant les livres qu’elle voulait me donner, elle était retournée elle-même à Jouy-le-Vicomte chez le libraire pour que je ne risquasse pas de ne pas avoir mon cadeau … et elle s’était rabattue sur les quatre romans champêtres de George Sand. «Ma fille, disait-elle à maman, je ne pourrais me décider à donner à cet enfant quelque chose de mal écrit.»

En réalité, elle ne se résignait jamais à rien acheter dont on ne pût tirer un profit intellectuel, et surtout celui que nous procurent les belles choses en nous apprenant à chercher notre plaisir ailleurs que dans les satisfactions du bien-être et de la vanité. Même quand elle avait à faire à quelqu’un un cadeau dit utile, quand elle avait à donner un fauteuil, des couverts, une canne, elle les cherchait «anciens», comme si leur longue désuétude ayant effacé leur caractère d’utilité, ils paraissaient plutôt disposés pour nous raconter la vie des hommes d’autrefois que pour servir aux besoins de la nôtre. Elle eût aimé que j’eusse dans ma chambre des photographies des monuments ou des paysages les plus beaaux. Mais au moment d’en faire l’emplette, et bien que la chose représentée eût une valeur esthétique, elle trouvait que la vulgarité, l’utilité reprenaient trop vite leur place dans le mode mécanique de représentation, la photographie. Elle essayait de ruser et sinon d’éliminer entièrement la banalité commerciale, du moins de la réduire, d’y substituer pour la plus grande partie de l’art encore, d’y introduire comme plusieures «épaisseurs» d’art: au lieu de photographies de la Cathédrale de Chartres, des Grandes Eaux de Saint-Cloud, du Vésuve, elle se renseignait auprès de Swann si quelque grand peintre ne les avait pas représentés, et préférait me donner des photographies de la Cathédrale de Chartres par Corot, des Grandes Eaux de Saint-Cloud par Hubert Robert, du Vésuve par Turner, ce qui faisait un degré d’art de plus. Mais si le photographe avait été écarté de la représentation du chef-d’œuvre ou de la nature et remplacé par un grand artiste, il reprenait ses droits pour reproduire cette interprétation même. Arrivée à l’échéance de la vulgarité, ma grand’mère tâchait de la reculer encore. Elle demandait à Swann si l’œuvre n’avait pas été gravée, préférant, quand c’était possible, des gravures anciennes et ayant encore un intérêt au delà d’elles-mêmes, par exemple celles qui représentent un chef-d’œuvre dans un état où nous ne pouvons plus le voir aujourd’hui (comme la gravure de la Cène de Léonard avant sa dégradation, par Morgan). Il faut dire que les résultats de cette manière de comprendre l’art de faire un cadeau ne furent pas toujours très brillants. L’idée que je pris de Venise d’après un dessin du Titien qui est censé avoir pour fond la lagune, était certainement beaucoup moins exacte que celle que m’eussent donnée de simples photographies. On ne pouvait plus faire le compte à la maison, quand ma grand’tante voulait dresser un réquisitoire contre ma grand’mère, des fauteuils offerts par elle à de jeunes fiancés ou à de vieux époux, qui, à la première tentative qu’on avait faite pour s’en servir, s’étaient immédiatement effondrés sous le poids d’un des destinataires. Mais ma grand’mère aurait cru mesquin de trop s’occuper de la solidité d’une boiserie où se distinguaient encore une fleurette, un sourire, quelquefois une belle imagination du passé. Même ce qui dans ces meubles répondait à un besoin, comme c’était d’une façon à laquelle nous ne sommes plus habitués, la charmait comme les vieilles manières de dire où nous voyons une métaphore, effacée, dans notre moderne langage, par l’usure de l’habitude. Or, justement, les romans champêtres de George Sand qu’elle me donnait pour ma fête, étaient pleins ainsi qu’un mobilier ancien, d’expressions tombées en désuétude et redevenues imagées, comme on n’en trouve plus qu’à la campagne. Et ma grand’mère les avait achetés de préférence à d’autres comme elle eût loué plus volontiers une propriété où il y aurait eu un pigeonnier gothique ou quelqu’une de ces vieilles choses qui exercent sur l’esprit une heureuse influence en lui donnant la nostalgie d’impossibles voyages dans le temps.


Encircle your heart with twenty glasses of wine

From Moliere’s Sganarelle ou Le Cocu Imaginaire (lines 229-240)


Yes, but a good dinner will be vital for you to clear up this business, Monsieur. And through it your heart – without a doubt – will become all the stronger to resist attacks of this kind. I judge by myself. When I am hungry the smallest displeasure takes hold of me, lays me out flat; But when I have eaten well, my spirit is ready for everything. The greatest setbacks will not overcome it. Believe me, stuff yourself and show no reserve. Against the blows Fortune can bring upon you and to close yourself against the entry of grief, encircle your heart with twenty glasses of wine

Oui ; mais un bon repas vous serait nécessaire
Pour s’aller éclaircir, Monsieur, de cette affaire,
Et votre coeur sans doute en deviendrait plus fort
Pour pouvoir résister aux attaques du sort.
J’en juge par moi-même, et la moindre disgrâce
Lorsque je suis à jeun, me saisit, me terrasse ;
Mais quand j’ai bien mangé, mon âme est ferme à tout,
Et les plus grands revers n’en viendraient pas à bout.
Croyez-moi, bourrez-vous et sans réserve aucune,
Contre les coups que peut vous porter la fortune,
Et, pour fermer chez vous l’entrée à la douleur,
De vingt verres de vin entourez votre coeur.

Being the most elegant of writers in the Greek, he will not wish to appear lacking in taste in Latin

I’m reading last year’s updated reissue of N.G. Wilson’s From Byzantium to Italy: Greek Studies in the Italian Renaissance.  In a slight digression into early approaches to translation – important since using bilingual Latin/Greek texts was a valid learning method for many scholars – Wilson quotes a letter of Leonardo Bruni’s on his approach to rendering Plato’s Phaedo into Latin:

I am keeping close to Plato.  I call up a vision of him, one that speaks Latin, so that he may judge, and I will ask him to bear witness to the translation of his own work.  I translated him in a way that I understand will give him most pleasure.  So first of all I preserve every statement without the least deviation from its meaning; then if a word-for-word rendering is possible without oddity or absurdity, this is most welcome; when it is not possible, I am not so timid as to fear accusation of lese-majeste if I depart a little from the working while preserving the sense, always avoiding absurdity.  This is what Plato by his speeches obliges me to do; being the most elegant of writers in the Greek, he will not wish to appear lacking in taste in Latin.

While Wilson doesn’t give the Latin text he does cite a 1741 Florentine edition of Bruni’s letters edited by L. Mehus (Epistle 1.6).  This edition has conveniently been digitized by Google but I couldn’t manage to match the citations.  Fortunately I have a book buying fund to hand and there’s a 2007 facsimile edition (edited and with a new preface by James Hankins) available.  Likely no one will ever use it again but it will satisfy a morning’s whim.

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands / God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping

In off the moors, down through the mist-bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.
The bane of the race of men roamed forth,
hunting for a prey in the high hall.
Under the cloud-murk he moved towards it
until it shone above him, a sheer keep
of fortified gold.

Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf – already the greatest translation of anything I’d have even the pretense of boldness to judge the quality of – is made even better by his doing a reading himself.

It’s missing here but I feel the version I first listened to years ago – BBC radio, I think – also included a quality conversation on the process of translation, specifically his creation of archaizing/exoticizing effects through inclusion of Irish regional vocabulary remembered from his youth.


He has lived well who has remained unknown

From Ovid’s Tristia (3.4 lines 11-26).  The title is my own rendering, the (mediocre) translation below is the Loeb edition (pg. 116-117).

Thou seest how the light cork floats atop the wave when the heavy burden sinks with itself the woven nets. If I who warn thee now had once myself been warned of this, perchance I should now be in that city in which I ought to be. Whilst I lived for myself, whilst the light breeze wafted me on, this bark of mine sped through calm waters. Who falls on level ground—though this scarce happens—so falls that he can rise from the ground he has touched, but poor Elpenor who fell from the high roof met his king a crippled shade. Why was it that Daedalus in safety plied his wings while Icarus marks with his name the limitless waves? Doubtless because Icarus flew high, the other flew lower; for both had wings not their own. Let me tell thee, he who hides well his life, lives well; each man ought to remain within his proper position.

aspicis ut summa cortex levis innatet unda,
cum grave nexa simul retia mergat onus.
haec ego si monitor monitus prius ipse fuissem,
in qua debebam forsitan urbe forem.
dum tecum vixi, dum me levis aura ferebat,
haec mea per placidas cumba cucurrit aquas,
qui cadit in plano—vix hoc tamen evenit ipsum—
sic cadit, ut tacta surgere possit humo;
at miser Elpenor tecto delapsus ab alto
occurrit regi debilis umbra suo.
quid fuit, ut tutas agitaret Daedalus alas,
Icarus inmensas nomine signet aquas?
nempe quod hic alte, demissius ille volabat;
nam pennas ambo non habuere suas.
crede mihi, bene qui latuit bene vixit, et intra
fortunam debet quisque manere suam.

To be honest I only care for the one line here – bene qui latuit bene vixit.  It has the honor of being enough a favorite of Descartes – who lived its advice – to have been included on his first tombstone (but not in his later reburial at Saint-Germain-des-Prés).  But I found it through a lucky purchase several years back – it features on the bookplates of my Pleiade editions of Saint-Simon’s Memoires, alongside a tastefully appropriate instance of what I believe is termed a negative-space font.