A great many of the writers whom I admire were supposedly fluent in several languages. I say “supposedly.” I have my doubts. Fluent is a big word.
In my own life, when I meet Americans who “speak French” or “speak Spanish,” I like to put up at least a little bit of resistance. “Okay, so what’s the word for belt buckle?”
I admit I am partly animated by a mean desire to expose as a sham any accomplishment to which I myself can lay no claim. Such vileness of temperament is commonly appeased by recourse to mutterings. My own bad character prefers a show trial, in which any single piece of prejudicial evidence is sufficient for instantaneous sentencing. If you do know the word for belt buckle, I will find some word you don’t know. Oarlock, fidgeting, the shoulder of the highway …
I have a number of collected-letters sets in my apartment. Many, many eighteenth-century people: Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Mary Wortley Montagu, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Gray, William Cowper. I can’t tell you how much it displeases me when I see whole letters in there, in French. The editors always helpfully provide the satisfaction my heart yearns for. Specialists in eighteenth-century literature invariably know a hundred times as much French as their charges did and so can confidently describe Swift’s French as “execrable” or Johnson’s as “passable,” et cetera. I have to take their word for it, though, ’cuz I know about as much French as did Beowulf.
A wonderful thought occurred to me, though. What about finding the collected letters of people like Baudelaire and Mallarmé, who supposedly spoke and read English fluently, and sit in judgment of them? I can’t judge Johnson’s French, but I can definitely judge, say, Cavafy’s English. Or Freud’s.
Yet, look what happens.
For years I thought I should check out Cesare Pavese’s correspondence—because I knew some of his last letters (written in the six months before he committed suicide, age forty-one, in Rome) were in English, and were addressed to one of his very last loves, an American actress named Constance Dowling …
You’ll need a little more background than that, actually. Not everyone over here knows that Pavese was deeply interested in American literature, especially twentieth-century American literature. He apparently translated Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner … and, to go back to the nineteenth century, Moby-Dick. (He also translated Dickens and Defoe and James Joyce and I don’t know what all.) So he must have known a shit ton of English, right?
Look at the Moby-Dick case. Pavese published his translation of that three-eyed, web-footed dolphin-man of a book, when he was twenty-three years old. All that Shakespearean English, with its weird diction and jungly syntax—no problem. He had it for breakfast.
Oh, how I would love to pull up some quote from Melville’s original and set it side by side with Pavese’s translation. And I could easily do it, too! I have Pavese’s version right here:
But there’s no point, because I don’t know enough Italian to judge whether he’s making a botch of the Melville or what. But I can do this: I can show you the first two paragraphs of a letter that Pavese wrote in English, ’bout a year before he began translating the Melville. The letter is to Pavese’s Italian American friend Anthony Chiuminatto, and I am transcribing my copy text very exactly. Note that it was written almost exactly four score and seven years ago:
12 January 1930
Dear Mr Chiuminatto,
I’m befuddled, all in a daze, with your titanic kindness. I’m now seeing the world only through a veil of pink sheets, all bristling with slang-phrases which are meddling together, re-echoing and staring at me from everywhere. I’ve got now I can no more take a pull out of a bottle together with my gang, without thinking I’m going on the grand sneak. And how flip I get sometimes! My whole existence has got a slang drift now. You could almost say I’m a slang-slinger. (Ha!)
But I must, for the first thing, give utterance to a whole row of thanksgivings for your long-yearned, hard-hoped, fast-sent and all- surpassing answer to my letter, with all its flippancy and hardboiled guyness. But you were so widely christian as to ship your hand to the poor sinner hearkening to him.
Not so fast, though. I’ve neglected to mention something of great importance. As the reader may have guessed, Pavese entered into this correspondence with Chiuminatto partly because he (Pavese) was looking for help with American slang. So, when his American friend teaches him an idiom, Pavese is eager to show he has learned it. He’s also giddy with pleasure.
He makes me giddy. For starters, nothing else in Pavese’s correspondence is lighthearted like this. Not even close. Readers of Pavese’s famous diary (translated in the 1960s as This Business of Living; the American edition was called The Burning Brand) will watch, openmouthed, as Count Dracula says things like:
I skulk away and on the bargain sting you in the rear: here’s a list of some words from Babbitt I yet am puzzled about and some others gleaned from Van Velton, O. Henry and Anderson.
I guess you are muttering: ‘Damned fool! I’m too late onto his intentions now. He has made a shipping clerk of me and, what’s the worst, he teases me with the very words I taught him. Blow him!’ Don’t you, Mr Chiuminatto?
But think it out: ain’t you enticing people with your unearthly serviceableness?
and signs off with—
Now pardon me my long silence and have a friendly wallop on the shoulder by your—
Good night old socks and keep remembering your
The adventurous blend of Gatsby-era slang (“toodle-oo,” “hunky dory,” “old chap,” “doggone,” “corking”) and archaisms (“methinks,” “ ’tis,” “beseech,” “sportful”) along with really funny mistakes like thinking that posthumously means “later than was scheduled or promised” (as in: “So you’ll receive, in a few days since, there in Chicago, a little present I dare to make you, to sweeten—posthumously (it’s my habit)—your birthday. It is some liquor-center chocolates you wrote me once you are so fond of”)—all this made me so happy, I forgot to sit in judgment. And then, when I remembered, I felt myself befuddled, lost in a daze, seeing the world only through a veil of pink sheets.
One final note. My copy text for the letters quoted here was Cesare Pavese: Selected Letters 1924–1950, edited and translated by A. E. Murch (1969). I discovered too late, in the process of writing this piece, that Pavese’s correspondence with Chiuminatto has been edited and footnoted, all by itself, with both participants’ contributions left absolutely intact: Cesare Pavese and Anthony Chiuminatto: Their Correspondence, edited by Mark Pietralunga (2007). Fifty bucks, used, but I ordered it instantly; however, it hasn’t come yet. Just the same, I felt it would be wrong not to mention it.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book of poems is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.