I’ve always been fond of tiny triumphs that seem to come out of nowhere to score surprise effects. Let me evoke three such incidents.
One long ago day some of us were cruising the labyrinthine Metropolitan Museum, when a modest-sized painting loomed by itself ahead of us, whereupon I suddenly exclaimed “That is a Benazzo Gozzoli!” That proved right, which amazed my companions, and me even more.
First, at that time, I knew nothing about Gozzoli, as I more or less still don’t. Second, I had never even had a college Renaissance art course. Third, Renaissance paintings have much in common, and there was no way in which that minor effort by a minor painter stood out in the least. Fourth, I made that identification from some distance, and, fifth, on the run, which tends to blur things. Sixth, there was no earthly reason for my making that or any unsolicited call in the first place. My friends, in any case, were duly impressed by my accurately attributing a lesser work, and must have thought I knew quite a lot about Renaissance painting. Even now, I only wish I did.
This does, however, bring to memory a much later event, when the Times’s chief art critic, John Canaday, who liked me and published some of my stuff about art and movies, wanted to take me on permanently. This, however, required the approval of the hated and dreaded powerful Sunday editor, Lester Markel, who had allegedly caused the suicide of one or two subordinates. Wanting to check up on my qualifications, he pointed to an art work on his wall and asked me to identify it. Heaven only knows out of what dark substratum I summoned “Early Raphael sanguine, Portrait of a Man,” and, hang it, I somehow managed to hit it right. But that job I never got, as a phone call from the monster’s secretary, a couple of weeks later, informed me. I guess that was because, in our conversation, the monster asked me what I could tell him about the rivalry between the Met and MoMA, as to which could snatch up some available modern art works, a subject about which I had scant knowledge and less interest.
And then there was that dinner party with friends where the conversation turned to the then very popular movie, Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon.” I volunteered that the film was based on a fiction by the prematurely deceased, highly gifted Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which I hadn’t read yet. What impressed the person who spoke Japanese was not so much that I knew the movie’s provenance, but that in pronouncing Akutagawa I almost elided the U, as, apparently, Japanese speakers do. But this had nothing to do with my knowledge of anything, only with the unstressed U making pronunciation of the long name easier.
However, let not the foregoing be viewed as intended self-praise. In fact, I admit to being on occasion mulishly impervious to justifiable correction. Let me cite a prize example of it, going back many years, when my Polish American friend Stanislas Wellisz and I used to converse in French so as to avoid forgetting it. At that time,
my French was less good than that of Stash, my not yet having assimilated the wit of Sacha Guitry and Jean Renoir on film, and, in literature, such giants as Jules Renard and Guillaume A[pollinaire for charm, Alphonse Allais and Georges Feydeau for wit, and Jean Giraudoux and Anatole France for elegance.
Thus I foolishly insisted on rendering “It rains” as “Ça pleut,” and Stash exasperatedly correcting me with “Il pleut.” I don’t recall how many times I resisted his correction, driving him up the wall, until I finally complied. To this day, I may be prone to similar obstinacy without the benefit of a like tutor. Absolutely nobody could lessen my admiration for Jacques Prévert in the unlikely case it were needed by that wonderful artist. There are cases where obstinacy is justified.