by Steve Steinbock
Storytellers have long memories. We are also expert at playing with our memories, combining and connecting our recollections, ideas, and observations to create new stories.
Last week I wrote briefly about the new issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Among the stories in that issue is a haunting one by Art Taylor, “A Voice from the Past.” It’s a dark tale of boyhood cruelty with a Hitchcockian twist. The protagonist was an interesting counterpoint to Rob Lopresti’s hero in “The Shanty Drummer.” Much like what Rob did last week, Taylor tells the story behind the story in his blog.
A few weeks back I read P.G. Wodehouse’s novel Code of the Woosters, which deals with crossed lovers, domineering aunts, and the attempts of Bertie Wooster to steal a silver cow creamer. It’s essentially the same plot Wodehouse used in nearly every book and story he wrote; and it’s essentially marvelous. The novel concludes with a happy Bertram (after Jeeves has set everything aright) mangling the words of Robert Browning:
Jeeves was right, I thought. The snail was on the wing and the lark on the thorn – or, rather, the other way round – and God was in His heaven and all right with the world.
A delightful end to a delightful book.
The Browning reference sent me to the original. While reading about the work, I learned of a colorful faux pas on the part of the poet. In part IV (Night), Browning makes reference to “owls and bats, cowls and twats,/Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods. . .” In much the same way modern readers sometimes assume that a “gunsel” is a gun-slinging crook, Browning thought that a “twat” was part of a nun’s habit. When the editors of the OED questioned Browning about his use of the vulgar term, he referred them to an old children’s rhyme that mentioned an “Old Nun’s Twat.”
Suffice it to say that the word in question (likely derived from an Old Norse word for “slit”) meant the same thing in Browning’s day as it does now.
Which reminds me of the most embarrassing faux pas I ever made in another language:
I was living in Jerusalem. It was early December and I’d been given a brass oil-burning Hanukkah menorah. I’d never used an oil-burning menorah before. I knew I needed to find wicks and oil, but didn’t know where to find the wicks. (Little did I know that one week before Hanukkah, merchants all over town would be selling them). The word for “wick” isn’t one I used every day, so I had to look it up: p’teel. I memorized the word, saying it to myself as I marched around Jerusalem looking for a box of them.
On my wanderings, I happened past Heichal Shlomo, a huge synagogue on King George Street that at the time served as the seat of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. I found an old man taking a cigarette break from guard-duty or house-keeping or whatever he was supposed to be doing. I gathered up all my Hebrew speaking resources, but in the process I changed the p to a b, and the ee to an oo, and in the process added the wrong plural ending. I asked Efshar liknot b’toolot po?
The man laughed hard, holding himself, dropping his cigarette, and then went to tell another old-timer. The two men came back to me, and the second one explained me error. I’d asked if it was possible to purchase virgins there. The second man laughed and answered, “My friend, we haven’t seen any of them for a long time!”
The phrase faux pas, incidentally, is French for “false step.” I sure stepped in it that time.