• Google the famous line from Madame Bovary — “… human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity” — and you’ll find it rendered into English numerous ways. Reading the variations one after another it becomes amusing to imagine they’re the result of a writer fiddling endlessly with a single sentence: adding, deleting, shuffling, and then changing everything back again.
… language is a cracked kettle on which we bang our tunes to make bears dance, when what we long for is to move the stars to pity.
After a little tinkering:
. . . human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.
“Cracked tin black kettle”? No. Also, “long for”? Calm down there, Heathcliff:
“… human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when what we want is to move the stars to pity.”
Strunk the end of that sentence and we’re there:
“… human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity”
At which point the author begins to wonder if the sentence didn’t really sound better with “hammer” after all.
• I was thinking about that quote last night. I’ve been reading Dear Bunny, Dear Volodya, which collects the letters of Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson during the years of their “bilaterally condescending friendship.” The back-and-forth is entertaining, and reading it I feel great affection for both men but especially old Volodya, with his superciliousness and his puns and his gliding fleet-footedness. And yet admiring him sometimes makes me feel a little like a seal barking after an opera singer, all enthusiasm and flippers, which was what brought to mind Flaubert’s dancing bears.
A couple good bits from the letters to bark at you, the first from a 1942 letter:
I have just had a visit from the secretary of the man — whatever his name — who wrote something called Tobacco Road and who is now writing a novel of Soviet Life. Vous voyez ca d’ici. He wanted to know the English spelling of “nemetzky,” “collhoz” (which he writes “kholholtz”) and such things. The hero is called Vladimir. All very simple. I was half impelled by my private devil to palm him a set of obscene words which he would use for “good morning” and “good night.” (e.g. “Razyebi tvoyu dushu,” said V. gravely.)
In the annotations, the book’s editor Simon Kardinsky identifies this last phrase as “a violent but untranslatable Russian obscenity.”
Another letter, written that same year, describes various “aberrations of Homo sap” met during a lecture tour of American universities:
1) Woman teaching Drama. Hobby: resemblance to the Duchess of Windsor. The resemblance is rather striking. When the Duchess (according to press photos) changes her coiffure, she changes it too (keeping up with her model, as some mimetic butterflies are known to do). Classifies the people she meets into a) those who mention the likeness at once; b) those who take some time to realize it; c) those who speak of it only to a third party; d) (the best) those who, in her presence, automatically refer to Wally without consciously defining the association of thoughts; and e) those who ignore it — or do not see it. She is a spinster with a few Windsors in the past, and this hobby of hers is what makes life worth living.