The Notebook of M. Ravel

I DID not have the pleasure of knowing M. Ravel in the days when he was still struggling with the first principles of the English language. Like everyone else, of course, I had heard of him, and had smiled at his difficulties with the idiosyncrasies of our tongue, as reported in the newspapers of the time. You will recall, for example, his remarks in excited and broken English concerning the absurdities of the word ‘fast.’ A horse was fast when he was tied to a hitching post. The same animal was also fast under exactly diametric circumstances — when he was running away. A woman was fast if she smoked cigarettes. A color was fast if it did n’t fade. To fast was to go without food. Et cetera. What a language!

To-day, M. Ravel speaks English with only the faintest of French accents, but what he has to say is ahvays salted with Gallic gestures and mannerisms. The other evening, after listening with polite incredulity to an account of my own present difficulties with the French language, he shrugged his shoulders.

‘Perhaps. But when you have mastered it, you will understand. Like everything that is French, our language is always logical, you see. But this English! Ah! I know it; but I do not understand it.’

‘Logical’ is the last adjective I should use in describing the French language. But I had no chance to say so.

‘Listen!’ said M. Ravel. ‘Last winter I had a very bad cold. A friend said to me, “Jules, your voice is very husky.” Husky? As an adjective I did not know the word. As a noun it is an Eskimo. What does this mean, my voice is husky? J consulted my dictionary. “Husky,” adjective. . . . Ah! To be sure! “Powerful, strong, burly.” Like an Eskimo. Logical enough. Very neat! . . . Then, to myself, I frowm suddenly. Husky? It is my voice my friend was speaking of. And that — most positively— is not husky! It is not strong. It is not powerful. With my cold, it is so weak I can hardly use it. Is this some American humor my friend employs? I look in the dictionary again. Ah! I discover a second meaning: “dry, harsh, hoarse.” So! I see what my friend means. He says my voice is husky. He means my voice is hoarse.’

M. Ravel shook his head.

‘But what a language! To have a word that means “strong” and to use it to describe a voice that is weak! Husky! It should be the voice of a man who roars like a bull. But no! In English one cannot reason out like that what one should say. One must hear first and then remember word for word. You see? For instance: to look at them, — to analyze their component parts, I mean, — “shameful” should be the antonym of “shameless.” Should it not? But no; it is not.’

I opened my mouth.

‘Wait!’ he said. ‘I shall finish the attack and then you shall launch the defense — if you will.

‘I remember reading a description of a view from a mountain top — in English. Very prettily written. But it started by saying that from where the man stood he could overlook the whole valley. At that time I was even less able with English than I am now. I knew but one meaning for “overlook.” You overlook something you forget to pack up — your opera hat, perhaps. Or you ignore something. \ou don’t realize it is there. That is “to overlook.” But here was a man overlooking a whole valley! There it was, spread out at his feet; and yet he overlooked it! Or rather, he was saying that from where he stood he could overlook it. In other words, as I thought, he said lie could ignore it. I was baffled. Why should he want to ignore it? What advantage to him? The thing was pointless. To the dictionary I went. “To overlook.” . . . Ah! I learn something. Something extraordinary. Overlook! It means to see, to see something from a point of vantage — or it means not to see the thing at all.

‘Again I say, my friend, what a language! To see or not to see! And how is one to know which is meant?'

The ensuing silence was momentary.

‘Once more. We Latins tell you Anglo-Saxons that you are too stiff. Sometimes you acknowledge the accusation. You say: “Yes, yes; it is true. We do not unbend enough.” Unbend? What is that? You mean you do not bend enough, since you are too stiff. But you say, “We do not unbend enough.” And yet when a man is stiff and firm you also say he is unbending. What an idiom!’

‘Look here, Jules,’ I managed to interpose at last. ‘Have you been collecting these — these paradoxes?’

‘I have a notebook full of them. I will give you another one, the word “temper.” What a baffling word that is! You must admit it. The Lord “tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.” He softens the wind, ncst-ce pas? But “to temper” means to harden, does it not? When you harden steel, your idiom says that you temper it.’

His speech grew more rapid, his gestures more abandoned.

‘And what is the difference between “to loosen” and “to unloosen”? Will you tell me that? To fasten and to unfasten; to pack and to unpack; to do and to undo — all those are logical. But. to loosen and to unloosen — can you explain? They mean one and the same, do they not? And yet they should be opposites, the one destructive of the other.’

T —well—’

But he had rushed on.

‘There are other words like those two, “loosen” and “unloosen.” “Un-” is a prefix of negation; yet when you remove the husk from an car of corn I find that — according to the dictionary — it is quite correct to say either that you husk the corn or that you unluisk it. Surely the latter is the logical way! To husk an ear of corn should mean to put the husk on. To take off the husk should be to unhusk it. Yet in the common idiom “to husk” means what should be “to unhusk.” Only a fool or a foreigner would say “unhusk.”’

His eyes flashed. ‘ ft strikes me that here it is you, the native, who is the fool! ’

The next instant he was all apology.

‘Ah, my friend! Forgive me! I do not mean it as it sounds. It is impertinent of me to talk like this!’

‘ Impertinent? Why no, Jules, not at all. It’s all very interesting to me, and quite to the point.’

Then I grinned.

‘To the point! In other words, Jules, quite pertinent. There, put that in your notebook. “In-” is a negative prefix, and yet very often the most pertinent remark a man could make is the most impertinent.’

My broad smile brought no echo to his face. Instead, he looked now so suddenly and completely unhappy that I hastened to add: —

‘Don’t mistake me, Jules. You have n’t offended me at all. I’ve enjoyed every word you’ve said. Of course the English idiom is full of absurdities.’

His gloom deepened.

‘And I have no doubt,’ I lied in further haste, ‘that if ever I do really master your language I shall find that it, on the contrary, is as logical as mathematics.’

Still he did not smile. I became aware that something extraordinary had happened to him. His face was like the face of a boy whose favorite toy has just snapped in two.

‘What’s the matter, Jules?’

He seemed to hear my voice from afar. He turned his curiously luminous eyes upon me.

‘Pertinent! Impertinent!’ he said at last. ‘I never thought of them before.’ He spoke slowly. ‘ It is very strange. I am confounded. Perhaps — perhaps it is not so illogical — the English — after all.’

‘No, Jules?’

He shook his head.

‘No. You see, it — it is the same thing in French. We have those two words also.’