Tag Archives: writing

Goethe: It Depends On the Vintage

Wine rejoices the heart of man and joy is the mother of all virtues.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832)

 

On a clear and beautiful day in late December 1999, wandering around the town of Malcésine on the north-east shore of Lago di Garda (Lake Garda, Italy) we happened to see a bronze plaque on a building and, as I always do, walked closer to investigate. It was one of those “a famous person slept here” signs. In this case it was for Goethe and I was delighted because the stop became a featured episode in his escape-from-official duties-journey that had been spawned by a period of mental turmoil.

Here J.W.Goethe made a drawing of the castle in Sept. 1786

Here J.W.Goethe made a drawing of the castle in Sept. 1786

Goethe’s visit to the city on September 13, 1786 was unplanned. Intending to travel by oared boat from the north end of the lake, at Torbole, to the south near Sirmione and thence to Italy’s archaeological wonders, he encountered a storm with contrary winds. Lacking sufficient manpower, the boat pulled into port at the city of Malcésine to wait it out. Always a man of industry, Goethe assembled his drawing instruments at a quiet spot on Via Castello to sketch Scaliger Castle. The plaque above commemorates the location.

Finding a man with a German accent engaged in detailed drawing of the fortress, local citizens thought he might be an Austrian spy and reported his sketching activity to authorities. Goethe recounts the story in Italian Journey, his book published many years (1816-1817) after the incident:

This evening I could have already been in Verona, but here nearby there was this majestic wonder of nature, this delightful picture called Lake of Garda, and I did not want to miss it. I was profusely rewarded for having taken the longer way.

Rowing was impossible against the strong wind, so we were forced to land at Malcesine. This is the first Venetian village on the eastern shore of the lake Garda… I want to take full advantage of this stop, especially to draw the castle beside the lake, which is a good subject…I made a sketch today when I passed in front of it.— September 12th, 1786, Malcesine, Italy.

Next day: As usual, I spent some time at the old castle which is open to all because it lacks windows and doors and has no custodian or guards. In the castle courtyard I sat in front of the tower built upon a rock. I found a cozy place to draw, sitting near a closed door three or four steps above the ground…

Goethe was brought before the local magistrate based on the suspicion he was an Austrian spy. He was saved from imprisonment, or worse, by a man familiar with Frankfurt, Goethe’s hometown. The man testified that Goethe was, indeed, German and and not Austrian. (The Habsburgs ruled much of northern Italy and there were always tensions with the independent bordering states such as Venice that controlled eastern shore areas of the lake.)

Scaliger Castle has a small museum about Lago di Garda, Goethe and Monte Baldo, the peak that towers over the town. The museum has a room dedicated to Goethe and his visit with copies of the sketches that caused all the trouble. Goethe said that it was in Malcésine that he began to write Iphigenia.

The internet has many instances of a story about Goethe that I have been unable to ferret out in an original source. All the instances of the story must have been originally copied from one source as they all read alike, word for word:

Goethe, a famous German poet, once was asked, which three things he would take to an island. He stated: Poetry, a beautiful woman and enough bottles of the world’s finest wines to survive this dry period! Then he was asked what he would leave back first, if it was allowed to take only two things to the island. And he briefly replied: The poetry! Slightly surprised, the man asked the next question: And Sir, what would you leave back if only one was allowed? And Goethe thought for a couple of minutes and answered: It depends on the vintage!

As a side note about the area, three kilometers south of the town is the village of Cassone, home to the Aril River, the world’s shortest at 175 meters long!

Ein echter deutscher Mann mag keinen Franzen leiden,
Doch ihre Weine trinkt er gern.

A true German can’t stand the French,
Yet gladly he drinks their wines.

— Goethe, “Auerbach’s Cellar”, Faust, Part 1 (1808)

R.I.P. Elmore “Dutch” Leonard

To some of us, the wresting of beauty out of language is the only thing in the world that matters. – Anthony Burgess

 

I met Elmore Leonard (11 October 1925 − 20 August 2013) around 1999 and, knowing I was going to meet him, pocketed a small paperback bibliography of his works for him to sign. When I pulled it out and asked him if he would autograph it he looked at the cover, frowned and quipped, “Am I getting royalties on this?” After both of us took a close inspection of the sixty page book we determined that, no, he was not. He signed it anyway. As a reward for bringing the unknown book to his attention he also signed and gave me a sheet of his 10 Rules of Writing that he later expanded and published in 2007.

Leonard’s humorously delivered money question never bothered me, unlike that of two other writers whose books I mildly collected. Not long after meeting Leonard I went to a reading and signing of Robert Parker’s and then one with, well, a living writer best unnamed. Parker was forthright in mentioning his writing as his means of income and urged us all to buy his books. The other gent was even more forward and candid on this issue saying he could use the money and stressing that we ought to purchase his books early and often. His prominent and repeated emphasis on this aspect of the evening left a distinctly distasteful memory. It was not that I believed all writers toiled at their craft for the exalted (or unsung) glory of presenting literature before the masses, it was, rather, my perception that these authors seemed to imply they were simply slinging words that we should consume so that they might go on living in the manner to which they had become accustomed.

Fair enough, I suppose, as some folks choose to make their living as bankers, some as cowboys and some as writers. Some because they feel drawn to the work and love it, others because it’s their day job and pays the bills. Years ago I read Anthony Burgess’ You’ve Had Your Time, the second volume of his autobiography. He wrote a lot about his writing from the pressures of (forever) needing money. He churned out book after book to keep his finances afloat, not always successfully. I used to look forward, myself, to royalty checks and a good one would elevate my day while a bad one was a cause for self-criticism: why didn’t I work harder, do more, etc.?

Nowadays, I just deposit the check and move on.

Fifty Shades of Grey Matter: A Novel Approach

From “Spotted Dick” to a Toasted One

Anyone familiar with the ‘cuisine’ of England has heard of the dried fruit and steamed suet pudding “Spotted Dick”. Well, London firefighters have found another, more interesting, variation.

In an Associated Press report from London this morning “firefighters say they have freed hundreds of people with body parts trapped in household objects in the last three years, including … 79 people trapped in handcuffs… speculat[ing] that the popularity of erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey may account for a rise in handcuffs-related emergencies.”

“Since 2010, London firefighters have treated … nine with rings stuck on their penises, and one man with his penis stuck in a toaster.”

The AP article ends with the fire brigade’s advice, “to keep the keys nearby when using handcuffs.”

It is hard to argue with common sense advice in the face of really idiotic human behaviour. Clearly, the old saw, “Don’t believe everything you read,” ought to have been expanded to include, “Oh, and don’t try everything you read, either.”

Shattered by Dick Francis

Encounters with the Famous: Authorship as Collaboration

In 2000 I went to hear the mystery author Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis (1920-2010) read a selection from his just released book, Shattered. All of us in attendance were fortunate in that he was accompanied by one of his sons, Felix, and his wife Mary Margaret.

Francis, born in Wales, was a one-time jockey, including for horses of the Royal Family. Like most jockeys who ride for any length of time (it’s the most dangerous sporting profession), he suffered through many accidents and so turned to covering the horse racing circuit for a newspaper. After completing his autobiography he became a professional writer and published a book every year between 1962 and 2000, the year we met him for the first time.

(Dick Francis’ whole life was wrapped up in horses. His first horse related injury came when a pony fell on him when he was 12 years old. He volunteered for the English calvary in WWII, but instead ended as a sky jockey piloting bombers and fighters. Mary became a pilot, as well.)

When we met in 2000 Dick Francis said he thought he might retire. There was an audible groan in the room. Fortunately, he did published five more books after Shattered, four of them with his son Felix. I was surprised – but not. It is difficult to retire from something you, if not exactly love, do not loathe. What no one foresaw was that Mary would die shortly thereafter. And she was essential in his work.

Mary Margaret Francis was as important in the writing of Dick Francis’ novels, a co-equal, if you will, as Mr. Francis himself:

“Mary and I worked as a team. … I have often said that I would have been happy to have both our names on the cover. Mary’s family always called me Richard due to having another Dick in the family. I am Richard, Mary was Mary, and Dick Francis was the two of us together.”*

So why was Mary important in his writing? Along with editing the manuscripts she did all of the research for those interesting jobs in the books. Shattered features a glass blower, Reflex features a photographer, Rat Race revolved around an air-taxi service, Straight has a jewelry business theme. Mary investigated all these fields in-depth to lend veracity to the books. (Elmore Leonard, for instance, uses the same technique but has an employee do the research for his dialects, vocations, etc.)

Unusual, for me, in thinking ahead, in 2000 I thought to take along a wood horse, cut out of a board with a jigsaw, to the book reading. I planned to insert it into the lintel of a built-in book case where my signed Francis titles were kept. (I have since moved and took the horse and its mate with me!)

Dick Francis signature on my wood horse
Dick Francis signature on my wood horse

When the reading ended and people lined up to get their books signed I began talking to Mary about the world of art glass. She said she had found the research fascinating. Suddenly it occurred to me to ask her if she would sign my copy of Shattered. She was, after all, an enormous part of this, and many other Francis titles. She reddened in the face and tittered like a young schoolgirl, saying no one had ever asked her to sign one of the books. She then wondered aloud if she really should as she was not the author. I pointed out that she was responsible for the verisimilitude in the work and so she agreed.

All we had at hand was one of the short, stubby pencils the bookstore used for people to write their names on a pre-made form so Dick Francis would not have to ask whose name to sign the books to. (A great system for the hard-of-hearing and for those with names that are difficult to spell!) We used this nubbin of a scribe and Mary, in a shaky hand, added her name after her husband’s. She then made a joke about this copy being worth more now that it had a unique combination of autographs. Six months later she had a heart attack and passed away.

I cherish my unique copy still.

* Swanson, Jean; Dean James (2003). “An Interview with Dick Francis”. The Dick Francis Companion. New York: Berkeley Prime Crime. pp. 1–10.