Tuesday, July 22, 2014


            One of the useful things about being sick is that it’s disconcerting. Routines are ignored, or at any rate sneered at. How dare you expect anything normal, anything useful from me? I’m sick, and alternately freezing cold or clammy hot, and my cough and aching back imperiously set me at a distance from the self I take to be normal. There is something ghostly about the state, and ghosts are notoriously casual about time. They wander at nights when sane folks are asleep, or at least in bed. They obsessively repeat actions which long ago lost meaning and consequence. As doppelgangers, they turn up before they died and startle their living selves.
            In this untuned, inharmonious state, I had spent several days and at last recovered enough that I could do such things as make soup for lunch. A sandwich would have been easier, but I had a sandwich every day at work, and surely non-work days call for something not easily put between two slices of bread.? A bowl of mushroom soup into which an egg has been tossed does  not usually make a good sandwich, so that is what I made. As I did so, I reflected that the person who taught me to beat an egg was my mother. Crack the shell just so on the side of the bowl and pour out the contents; tilt the bowl at an angle and thrash the egg viciously with a fork. (Because I am not the natural my mother was, I generally tap the shell with the fork to break it; she’d have scorned this).
            My next thought is about the book Madeline. A disappointing book, it has always seemed to me. It begins well enough, and I can remember how my mother read the first few pages, which tell of a horribly constrained method of child rearing – girls being raised in two straight lines, in uniforms, doing everything in order. Then – and my mother used a voice which left no doubt that we had reached the heroine who would do something about this dreadful situation – one of the girls has a name (none of the others do. The woman in charge of them who is clearly a nun in full habit in the illustrations, is called Miss Clavell, which seems strange; surely she would be Sister Something or Other?). “The smallest one was called,” and my mother would briefly pause, to underline that someone special was about to enter the scene, “Madeline.”
            But what does Madeline do? She shows very faint traces of individuality (saying “pooh pooh” to the lions in the zoo, and such like things). But her big adventure is that she gets appendicitis, (I think; it’s a long time since I’ve heard these books and she may have had tonsillitis) which calls for her to be rushed to the hospital. As a result of this, she is showered with gifts from her papa (who apparently doesn’t care enough to actually come see her), making the 11 other little girls wish they could have appendectomies (or tonsillectomies, as the case may be) too.
            The promise inherent in the book’s beginning is broken. There is to be no escape from the world of two straight lines, where everything is done communally.
            As a grownup, I’ve become fond of Bemelmans, who was himself something of a wild man, who left Austria because he shot a head waiter (this is always how I’ve heard about it. Apparently there are many things about which Middle Europeans are willing to be tolerant, and the young Ludwig could have shot any number of busboys, or even, perhaps, a sous-chef. But a head waiter? Off to New York, where headwaiters can  be shot with impunity!) His book on travelling in Central America is wonderful. I recently learned that his mother was raised by nuns who took their charges for walks in two straight lines. She must have been something of a rebel since Bemelmans’ father was an artist and a Belgian. That father later ran off, leaving his wife behind. As Bemelmans tells it, he ran off with Ludwig’s governess (the actuality is, I’ve read, a bit more complicated; he had gotten the governess pregnant but ran off with yet another woman, leading the despondent governess to attempt suicide). As Bemelmans laments, he wishes that his father had run off with his mother, leaving the governess behind to care for Ludwig. So perhaps he didn’t like his mother so very much? Or wishes she had wandered a bit further away from those two straight lines?
My father’s comment:
If you had read Madeline more closely you would have gotten your facts straight.  Bemelmans agreed to take the rap when the governess, attempting suicide, missed and shot the head waiter instead.  He fled to America not to avoid prosecution but to protect the honor of his governess whom he loved.  The key is Miss Clavell - surely Bemelmans, by naming her Clavell wished us to see a key - who indeed is wearing a nun's outfit.  Sopmewhere, I'm sure, there is mention of Miss Clavell doing something "as is her habit", a clear indication.  She is in fact the disguised governess, and is not nearly as innocent as Bemelmans portrays her.

Did this cure your cold?

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