Some few mistakes are actually charming. A bunch of us Harvard undergraduates were fans of the delightful French soprano Lily Pons. So we sent her an ardent fan letter, naively hoping for a handwritten response. Instead, we got a typewritten reply from her secretary, with--Ossa on Pelion—the envelope address mistyped as Lowell Gouse. But we, her forgiving fans, went on amusedly calling our residence Lowell Gouse.
Speaking of which, the then housemaster of Lowell House, Eliot Perkins, upon being apprised that I had, for some reason, moved to another house, allegedly exclaimed, “Good riddance to that Hungarian Horsethief!” Now, although I speak Hungarian, I always correctly thought of myself as originally Yugoslav, and chuckled at a master who clearly preferred alliteration to the truth.
My maternal grandmother, who. like me. also knew German, once laughingly told me about a quondam schoolmate, who in class, about to recite Uhland’s poem “Die Kapelle” (The Chapel), proudly announced it as Die Rapelle. This because, in the Gothic script of many German books, the capital K looks a lot like the capital R. So, whenever I craved an easy laugh, I just used to raptly utter, “Die Rapelle.”
Archetypal, but, alas, also apocryphal. is the story of the elderly American couple in Paris, whose female member suddenly dies. Her husband, wishing to look proper at her funeral, wanted to buy a black hat. In the haberdashery, confusing chapeau (hat) with capote (condom) he asked the clerk for a capote noire, appropriate for his wife’s funeral. The French clerk, enthralled, exclaimed: “Ah! Quel sentiment, monsieur! Quelle delicatesse!”
Charming, or at least amusing, mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. At a screening of “Black Orpheus,” the greatly awarded and hugely overrated Brazilian movie, I had the misfortune of sitting behind a bunch of Brazilians who never stopped chattering. Enraged, I circumambulated the whole vast auditorium, to be able to come more or less face to face with the culprits, and, in passing, loudly addressed them as “porcus,”(swine), careful to pronounce it the Brazilian, not the Portuguese, way. Now, in retrospect, I find it amusing to have thought clods able to learn from a reprimand.
Take a capital, and funny, mistake of the ineffectual and unpopular French president, Francois Hollande. All good French presidents are expected to honor the tradition of having, bachelors or married, a mistress. But Hollande chose wrong in picking for mistress the journalist Valerie Trierweiler, and later ditching her for the younger actress Julie Gayet. Scandale! But some journalists can actually write, and so Ms. T., as Adam Nossiter relates in the Times, in a book of her own “took ‘revenge’ in a tell-all recounting of Mr. Hollande’s frailties and prejudices. [H[e habitually referred to the poor as ‘the toothless ones’—she wrote—a devastating revelation for a Socialist president.” That’s what you get when you unwisely bed a journalist. Surely there must exist enough attractive young women in France who, if not necessarily illiterate, at least would, when dropped. more likely choose to avenge themselves with a kitchen knife or rolling pin.
Then again an entire nation can commit a laughable error, like the Phillipines, allowing themselves to be saddled with a president who, to quote David Victor in the Times, “cursed Pope Francis for creating traffic delays, made light of the 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary and boasts of sexual conquests.” Not so charming mistakes not requiring a tell-all book to reveal their president’s flaws.
But back to my own mistakes. Once in London, confronted with an attractive film maker, I asked her how she could have collaborated on a movie with an untalented phony. The critic Alan Brien, who introduced us, was amused: “It’s her husband,” he chortled. Uncharming, I’m afraid.
More charming was my mistake committed as a child in Abbazia, the Italian resort we used to visit for Easter vacation, lovely and warm. There I fell for a little girl my age, who owned a butterfly net with which she tried to fish, needless to say unsuccessfully. But one day it slipped from her hand, and floated tauntingly on the Mediterranian waves, not too far but just enough.
The girl was frantic, and I, like the perfect cavalier or idiot, trudged fully clothed into the sea, which luckily was not too deep there, and gallantly retrieved the net. A lady friend of my mother’s, horrifiedly noticing what happened, dragged me off to her room, removed the wet clothes and, while undressing me, also delivered a friendly dressing down. That I consider to have been a mistake as charming as reckless.
Merely amusing was another youthful mistake. In Belgrade, I attended a bilingual Serbian and German elementary school. On a class outing, I produced an orange from my satchel. Walking next to me, young Christoph von Heren, son of the German ambassador, lusted after the orange, which I had already peeled. Perhaps impressed by that “von,” I gave him the fruit, which he unthankfully devoured, as I contented myself with chewing on the orange peel. “Isn’t it convenient,” said the young bastard, “that while I prefer the orange, you favor the orange peel.” That mistake may have been more laughable than amusing.
To this day, it fills me with regret, as does my having used my BB gun to shoot at sparrows, of which I am often reminded when there are sparrows around. (This corresponds roughly to a feature of a play by Jean Anouilh, where, to be sure, it is more vicious.) I also tried to shoot lizards with a toy pistol, but those, happily, eluded me. Thus I felt innocent later on when purchasing a lizard-skin belt or wallet.
Just sometimes a joke manages to be both funny and horrendous. Thus the pos-sibility of Donald Trump being elected president. But, as the German saying has it, “Ich hab schon mehr gelacht”–-I’ve been known to laugh more.