Category Archives: Favourite passages

Rossini’s little train


When I look at of the books in my library, the only thing I can remember in most cases is whether I have read them or not. Books in the second-largest category trigger one single anecdote or image and nothing else. One image which has been in my head for decades now comes from a book by Alberto Savinio (the brother of the painter Giorgio De Chirico), who was a fine writer and music critic, but of whom the only thing I recall is this passage he wrote about Gioacchino Rossini:

When, in Rossini’s symphonies, the allegro theme with the repeated little notes starts up, followed by one of his famous crescendos, I close my eyes and I see an ancient train with the steam engine in front, an ostrich-neck smoke stack with something like a pasta colander on top and the open-sided carriages behind, the curtains flapping and all full of fat Rossinis, paunchy and chuckling, who blow kisses to the crowd and shout out witticisms. The train starts giving off slow puffs, which then pick up pace, until they reach a steady, blistering speed, and the train races through the countryside, which is green with astonishment.

I often think about that when I hear Rossini’s music.  Here are some of his famous crescendos. Try and see the train going by. Or get on and stand behind all the Rossinis as you go through the greenly astonished countryside.

Rossini retired from writing operas when he was 37. He wrote some other music, including some pieces which he called “Old Age Sins”, one of which is about peas (Ouf, les petis pois!).

He was famous for his witticisms. Just like the images from my books, I recall one in number. It’s about Wagner (look away now, Wagner fans):

“Mr. Wagner has some wonderful moments, but some awful quarters of an hour.”

(Note: the caricature of Rossini is by David Levine. You can see several other outstanding examples of his art here.)

Montaigne berates his “membre”










“One commonly notices the unruly independence of this member, interjecting itself so inopportunely when we have no need for it and failing us so inopportunely when we most need it, and contending so imperiously for authority with our will, so haughtily and stubbornly rejecting our urgings, both mental and manual.”

(“On a raison de remarquer l’indocile liberté de ce membre, s’ingerant si importunement, lors que nous n’en avons que faire, et defaillant si importunement, lors que nous en avons le plus affaire, et contestant de l’authorité si imperieusement U avec nostre volonté, refusant avec tant de fierté et d’obstination noz solicitations et mentales et manuelles.“)

I can’t think of anyone who could have written such a classically phrased sentence about such an unclassical topic. Actually, Montaigne goes on to say (in his essay on the Imagination) that in fact this criticism is unfair since all the parts of our body act without our consent. Do we command our hair to stand on end? Or our hearts to beat faster? And he goes on to mention a number of different organs. I can’t help thinking, though, that the one of the main reasons for his adding this was to be able to report the exceptional case of someone who could fart in tune.

Similarly, I find it hard not to mention an anecdote I was once told about “le membre”. At an international committee meeting, a British delegate decided to introduce the new Belgian delegate to the French chairman.

British delegate: Puis-je avoir le plaisir de vous introduire le membre belge?

French chairman: Oui, mais doucement. 

“Introduire” in French is a bit different from “introduce” in English, so I suppose you could render it as follows:

British delegate: May I have the pleasure of introducing the Belgian member into you?

French chairman: Yes, but gently.

“I’ve shot hares.” Patrick Leigh Fermor


After a moment, I heard Baron Pips laugh quietly and asked why. He said : ” You sound just like Count Sternberg.” He was ancient and rather simple-minded Austrian nobleman, he explained. When he was on his death-bed his confessor said the time had come to make a general confession. The Count, after racking his brains for a while, said he couldn’t remember anything to confess. “Come, come, Count!” the priest said, “you must have committed some sins in your life. Do think again.” After a long and bewildered silence, the Count said, rather reluctantly, “Habe Hasen geschossen”—”I’ve shot hares”—and expired.


from A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh-Fermor

Slowly her tower crumbled – Nabokov’s Ada

I remember a Russian once telling me that when he read Nabokov in Russian it felt like he was eating words. I have since found that imagining that you are doing just that is one of the best ways to read (and imagining that you are dealing with single words may be one of the best ways to eat). Nothing is tastier or takes its place more interestingly in the mouth than the opening paragraph of Lolita :

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palette to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Read more…

Tough questions

(This is a passage from Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Big Country” which makes me laugh every time I think about it. It is the start of a chapter entitled “Drowning in Red Tape”.)

I’m not even going to begin to tell you about the frustration of trying to get a foreign-born spouse or other loved one registered as a legal resident in the United States because I haven’t space and anyway it is much too boring. Also, I can’t talk about it without weeping copiously. Also, you would think I was making most of it up.

You would scoff, I am quite sure, if I told you that an acquaintance of ours – an academic of high standing – sat open-mouthed while his daughter was asked such questions as ‘Have you ever engaged in any unlawful commercial vice, including, but not limited to, illegal gambling?’ and ‘Have you ever been a member of, or in any way affiliated with, the Communist Party or any other totalitarian party?’ and – my particular favourite – ‘Do you plan to practise polygamy in the US?’ His daughter, I should point out, was five years old.

Sei Shonagon’s Things – Lists from the Pillow Book (1)


(Sei Shonagon was born in Japan around the year 965 CE and served as a lady in waiting to Empress Sadako. In her Pillow Book, she gives an account of the things she saw and her feelings. Every now and then she provides a list of things, which are like tiny exhibitions organised by an unpredictable curator).

Elegant Things

A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat.
Duck eggs.
Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl.
A rosary of rock crystal.
Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow.
A pretty child eating strawberries.

Things That Should Be Large

Priests. Fruit. Houses. Provision bags. Inksticks for inkstones.
Men’s eyes: when they are too narrow, they look feminine. On the other hand, if they were as large as metal bowls, I should find them rather frightening.
Round braziers. Winter cherries. Pine trees. The petals of yellow roses.
Horses as well as oxen should be large

Things That Should Be Short

A piece of thread when one wants to sew something in a hurry.
A lamp stand.
The hair of a woman of the lower classes should be neat and short.
The speech of a young girl.

(Translation Ivan Morris – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon – Penguin Classics)

Two Richards – A hard day’s discontent

Richard III, through Shakespeare, famously complains that “Dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” A walk once in the South of France gave me a vivid and lasting feeling of empathy with him. Every house had a dog which raged at me as I walked past (even without halting) and at the end of my hour-long  walk I was so out of sorts that I could have stifled any number of princes I might have found in a tower. If I were to put on a production of Richard III, I would make sure that there were dogs barking at him every time he made a stage entrance or exit.
Below I am going to invite you to compare two versions of Richard. The first one is Laurence Olivier and the second is Peter Sellers pretending to be Laurence Olivier doing almost the same speech (actually the Lennon-McCartney version, sometimes known as “A hard day’s night”.

Lu Xun – Hope

Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many pass one way, a road is made.



Lu Xun – My Old Home (January 1921)


(You can read the story this quotation is taken from as well as others by Lu Xun on this page. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there is no really good translation of his work into English available. In my opinion Lu Xun was from the same family of writers as Orwell. He thought things out acutely and honestly for himself however  uncomfortable the conclusions he came to were. Lu Xun died in 1936. I doubt, despite claims you may read to the contrary, that he would have accepted to be the mouthpiece of anybody had he lived longer.)

Instructions on How to Climb a Staircase

click on picture to enlarge

cortazar staircase
It took me a long time to write this out following the curves of the staircase and it will probably take you quite a long time to read it. But when you've finished climbing the stairs will never seem easy again. 

Patrick O’Brian – “I do love a blow” – Aboard HMS Surprise

hms surpriseI hesitate to write about Patrick O’Brian since he is one of the most popular authors there is. But then  I remember  reading glowing reviews of his books and thinking  “This can’t be true . How interesting can an endless series about a naval captain during the Napoleonic wars and his travelling companion an Irish surgeon be ?.” Seeing the film Master and Commander did nothing to encourage me to change my mind. And then one day, I  read an article which claimed that if you started reading these books you would not  be able to stop. I thought I would give it a try. I remember being sceptical  as  I read page one  and then all  I remember is  that  I  read eighteen  of  the Aubrey/Maturin  novels in less than  a year and that in every book I marked passages  I wanted to read again.  The first thing you notice  is  the  masterful way  O’Brian describes the sea.  When  you  read  a description of a storm you have to go and get a towel to dry off.  But he also provides wonderful descriptions of scenes on land. There are two I remember in particular. The first is when  Stephen (the Irish surgeon) is  taken  round  Bombay by an untouchable girl  who  decides that he must be a holy man because he is so ugly. The second when he walks up  into the mountains  on  an  island  in  the East Indies and stays at a Buddhist monastery. Here he finds that the animals, having never been disturbed by the monks, do not avoid him but mill around him.

It is hard to list all the things O’Brian is good at. He has created two  characters , Jack  Aubrey (the captain) and Stephen Maturin who interact wonderfully.  He portrays their very different natures with great sympathy. In fact one thing  I noticed about  O’Brian is the sympathy and respect he has for every country and culture he describes in the book – and there are a great many because Jack and Stephen travel all around the world. It is not just people he shows a sympathy for (and there are dozens of interesting minor characters among the crew) but also animals. Stephen is constantly bringing specimens aboard and they are all described with great fondness. Stephen is a window onto the natural sciences, medicine and philosophy of the period. O’Brian’s books are also a kind of encylopaedia of knowledge on the border of the 18th and 19th centuries. One more thing he is a master of is period speech. Only once, in the thousands of pages  I  read did I think he might have used a term which was from a later age. The phrase was “Bob’s your uncle”, but considering all the things O’Brian knew the odds that I was right and he was wrong are very slim. There are many passages I would like to copy out, but I shall start with the first one which truly amazed me. This is from the third book of the series called HMS Surprise. On Stephen’s  request, Jack has instructed the sailors not to capture and kill albatrosses. The crew is upset -(albatrosses bring luck and protect against drowning) and is  convinced bad weather and bad luck  will ensue.  Here the bad weather starts below the Cape of Good Hope. (The sloth which is mentioned is an animal which Stephen had brought on board  after landing in Brazil. It had spent a lot of time hanging from the ship’s rigging until Jack in a move to gain its sympathy had started giving it wine to drink. After which Stephen decided to leave it with some priests on the mainland). Here’s the passage:

Many a grizzled head was shaken on the forecastle, with the ominous words, profoundly true and not altogether outside Stephen’s hearing. ‘We shall see what we shall see.’ South and south she ran, flanking across the west wind, utterly alone under the grey sky, heading into the immensity of ocean. From one day to the next the sea grew icy cold, and the cold seeped into the holds, the berth-deck and the cabins, a humid, penetrating cold. Stephen came on deck reflecting with satisfaction upon his sloth, now a parlour-boarder with the Irish Franciscans at Rio, and a secret drinker of the altar-wine. He found the frigate was racing along under a press of canvas, lying over so that her deck sloped like a roof and her lee chains were buried in the foam; twelve and a half knots with the wind on her quarter – royals, upper and lower studdingsails, almost everything she had; her starboard tacks aboard, for Jack still wanted a little more southing. He was there, right aft by the taffrail, looking now at the western sky, now up at the rigging. ‘What do you think of this for a swell?’ he cried.

Blinking in the strong cold wind Stephen considered it: vast smooth waves, dark, mottled with white, running from the west diagonally across the frigate’s course, two hundred yards from crest to crest: they came with perfect regularity, running under her quarter, lifting her high, high, so that the horizon spread out another twenty miles, then passing ahead, so that she sank into the trough, and her courses, her lower sails, sagged in the calm down there. In one of these valleys that he saw was an albatross flying without effort or concern, a huge bird, but now so diminished by the vast scale of the sea that it might have been one of the smaller gulls. ‘It is grandiose,’ he said.

‘Ain’t it?’ said Jack. ‘I do love a blow.’