MARK TWAIN TO REFORM THE LANGUAGE OF ITALY
He Tells His Neighbors in Florence of His Proposal to Furnish the Government with a Standard Grammar.
Special Correspondence THE NEW YORK TIMES.
FLORENCE, Italy, march 18. - Outside the Prato Gate, in the flat part of the Arno Valley, only approached by traversing some of the slums and workmen's quarters of Florence, on a slight rise of the ground stands the so-called royal villa of Quarto. It acquired this title of "royal" from the fact that it was for a while owned by the Grand Duchess Maria of Russia, who bought it and enlarged and embellished it, though in so doing she deprived it of its medieval character, for it was originally a stately fifteenth century pile. The gardens, too, have been modernized in the manner Mrs. Edith Wharton so justly condemns in her articles on Italian villa gardens.
Nevertheless, despite these defects, it is a stately pile, with room to turn about in both inside and out of the house. This is the place that was taken for Mark Twain upon his second visit to the City of Flowers. Its latest inhabitant, before the present owner, who is an American, was the King of Wurtemberg, who spoiled a number of good rooms to build a fine stairway, and so there is not, perhaps, quite so much room as Mark Twain and his family require. But for the moment they are located. As to the large amount of room required by this small family, Mark Twain tells a funny, long-winded tale.
It seems while still out West he knew a family of the name of Morley. This family numbered some twenty or more of direct descendants only. As time wore on they married and multiplied until the family took on formidable proportions. Of each member of this huge tribe Mark tells all the life history before he reaches his point, which is that it is his fixed purpose to invite them to join him in Florence, and look out for a villa big enough to harbor them all. When that is found, he will bid them go their way, and he doubts whether the villa even then will suffice the needs of the Clemens family.
The Return of the Humorist.
It was in November last that Mark Twain came back among us after an eleven years absence, but through circumstances I did not go out to call till early February. I found him looking well, and not at all changed, if anything looking stronger. Of course I welcomed him back to the fair land.
"And how do you like Italy again after your long absence from here?" I asked.
"Oh, Italy is right enough. The best country in the world to live in. Perhaps England runs it rather close, but here all is quiet, town and country alike. In England there is always London with its great unquiet pulse."
"And the Italians?"
"Right enough, too. I love to watch them, and to study their gestures and their ways. That is why I do not object to the slow pace of our horses, like my daughter there, even if they do take a time to land us in town."
"And the language?" I asked, vividly remembering an incident that occurred when he was last here.
It was this. One day Mark returned home to Settignano, where the family then had a villa. To the horror of his wife, his beautiful white mane was cropped close to his head, after the manner of Italians in the Summer. When asked to account for this mutilation, he explained in his comic way that he had resorted to this as a forlorn hope, a last desperate effort to learn the Italian language. He had, he said, slept for weeks in vain with an Italian dictionary under his pillow. Finally, it occurred to him to watch the natives and see if he could catch any peculiarity of theirs that might account for their capacity to master the language. Then he noticed that their heads were all as smooth as billiard balls. Who knew whether the secret did not reside there? Perchance his heavy crop prevented the tongue from filtering through. So he went straight to a barber, with this result. However, this drastic measure does not seem to have proved successful, for he expresses himself as much as ever at sea with the tongue.
Never a Whole Sentence.
"I never get hold of an entire sentence," Just a word here and there that comes in handy, but they never stay with me more than a day."
"How about 'Dov' e il gatto'?" I objected.
"What do you know about 'Dov' e il gatto'?" he said with one of his merry twinkles.
I have read your paper in Harper's on 'Italian Without a Master,' " I replied.
"There is one person who always understands me, and that is our old kitchen scrub. She was with us last time, too. We have quite long talks together and exchange no end of compliments. I talk English; she rattles along in her own lingo; neither of us knows what the other says; we get along perfectly and greatly respect each other's conversation."
The entrance of Prof. Willard Fiske of Cornell changed the current of our talk, and very naturally libraries and books came on the tapis. Carnegie's princely donations were referred to by me, and I then learned for the first time that the millionaire does not really donate libraries, but only buildings to house them, which is quite a different matter.
"And he has just given one to - I forget the name of the town - and now Carnegie is about to add a new terror to my life and to ruin me and my poor family," said Mark Twain.
"How is that?" we asked.
"Well, they have asked me to write something to be read at the opening. Just think, if I am to keep track of all Carnegie's gifts and write about them, why where shall we be for a living?"
Some Book Criticisms
This brought us to talking of books in general, and he expressed his wonder at the expensive editions of so-called standard authors that publishers are always bringing out.
"Who reads them?" said Mark.
"They are the sort of thing 'no gentleman's library should be without,' as the saying is," I put in. "Then, too, remember that the publishers have to pay nothing to the authors, as these are dead and have no rights."
"All the same," he persisted, "it is strange that it pays them. Now would you, for example, read a novel of Walter Scott's for pleasure?"
"I must confess I could not read them even as a child," I answered. "Their long descriptions, their false Wardour Street air of antiquity repelled me even before I could critically give my reasons."
"Just so," he said. I was once ill and shut up and there was nothing but Scott's novels to read, so I had another try. Well, when I got through 'Guy Mannering' I wrote to Brander Matthews and asked him if he would be good enough to point out to me the literary and stylistic merits of the work, for I could not find them.
"Fact is," he went on, "nothing is eternal in this world, and literature is as much subject to the character of the times as any other intellectual manifestation. Books reflect the mental atmosphere in which they were born, and on that account cannot expect to live forever. Every generation has its own authors. Look at Dickens. At one time nothing went down that was not a little tinted with the Dickens style; now who would allow that? And the same for all the others. Is there a more tiresome and unnatural book than 'Pendennis'? All the people are exaggerated, caricatures, with no intention of being so. It's like when they show us some weird old picture and say it's wonderful. I dare say it is wonderful, for its time; but its time is past."
Praises Marion Crawford.
Henry James and Crawford were then discussed.
"I once heard James define Crawford," said Mr. Fiske. "He said that Crawford was a story-teller, but no novelist."
"How like James," we all exclaimed, "always a hair splitter. As if it mattered. The purpose of a novel is to amuse, and if Crawford attains his end, and he undoubtedly does, his existence is justified."
The was between China and Japan could not fail to crop up. I expressed my surprise to Mark Twain at the sympathy I had found existed in the States for Russia.
"Could there be a more unnatural alliance," I said, "than between a free Republic and the most tyrannous of Governments?"
He was good enough to explain at some length the origin of this sympathy, but added that is obtained no longer after their late behavior about Manchuria. He then expressed his earnest sympathy with the plucky little Japs and his sincere hope that they would win in the fight they were undertaking on behalf of half the civilised world.
A few evenings after this an amateur performance of "Cousin Kate," the play that has had such a vogue at the London Haymarket, was given for the benefit of the local British Relief Fund. After the proceedings had opened with an overture played by an amateur band, to the delight and surprise of the Audience, Mark Twain stepped on the platform, introduced by Mr. Gregory Smith. We were told that the great humorist had consented to furnish an extra number and was about to give us a lesson in Italian grammar.
The New Grammar
Speaking with the curious drawl that distinguishes him, but which, by the way, is less accentuated in his home and home relations, he began by stating it as his opinion that the Italian grammar was susceptible of vast improvement, and that, in fact, he was about to write a national grammar and to sell it to the Italian Government.
To begin with the verbs. They had for verbs too many ways of expressing themselves; even the regular verbs were irregular. To take the simple verb "I love." There were fifty-seven ways of conjugating this verb, and not one is able to convince a girl who wanted to marry a title. The verb "Essere," (to be,) too, might be improved beyond recognition. That unnatural way of saying "e' stato," (has been,) which is literally "is been," wouldn't do, anyhow. As for himself, he got on very well. When conversing wit a stranger he was always taken for an Italian, but not so when he speaks with friends, for the friends were jealous. Members of his household had studied Italian at the Berlitz School, and he got the language out of them at no expense whatever. Woe to them if they should try to mislead him. One can't be betrayed by one's own family.
He always aired his Italian whenever a chance occurred. Thus he had met an Italian a few days before in the big square where the Vecchi tower is and the statues. It was raining hard, and he had his umbrella up, but the Italian, who was wearing one of those unimaginable, inflamed overcoats, had no umbrella. However, in the polite Italian way he listened to the remarks Mark Twain addressed to him in order to air his Italian, and also in the polite Italian way tried to agree with him.
The conversation began by Mark saying to the stranger, "Io apro il libro," which he had been taught to believe meant "None but the brave deserve the fair." He then went on to remark, "Noi chiudiamo le nostre finestre, (we close our windows,) which of course means, "He tempers the wind to the shorn lamb." The Italian listened with quiet courtesy as these phrases were poured over him, but at the next remark, "Quale differenza vi e' fra questi due libri?" (what difference is there between these two books,) which according to Mark meant, "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad," the stranger began to look puzzled. However, he was cornered between two carts and could not break away, so the rain continued to pour down and the expressions to pour out. Mark then bethought him to show some interest in the stranger's family, and so asked him how his mother was, or in Italian, "Questro libro e' rosso," (this book is red.) The bewildered expression on the stranger's face, his look of admiration plainly showed that he took Mark for an Italian. When suddenly he asked what was the matter with him, "Che ha Lei?" (what has she literally.) Now coming from a damp, sloppy, disagreeable stranger, he did not like this. He objected to having his sex reversed. Well, he was a peaceable man, largely pacific, as largely as the ocean, and he restrained himself still he could stand it no longer, when the stranger continued, "Che ha Ella?" (What has she?") literally, a more formal mode of address.
It was bad enough to be called "She" be a sloppy, sullen, saturated stranger, but "Ella" was beyond all bearing. Ella! What a name! "He might," said Mark, "have called me Nancy at once." Ella! Why not Daisy or some pretty name. But Ella! It was beyond bearing. He was prepared to come to blows, to heaven knows what, but somehow or other he found himself under one of the carts. Nevertheless, he went on formulating his just objections until looking up, he found the stranger had gone. But he was resolved he should not be let off thus easily. He would find him again and call him to account But when he got home and recounted the matter his ideas of summary vengeance were somewhat damped. He has been persuaded to believe that the stranger meant no offense. It was the grammar that was at fault, which removes a poor stranger to the third person and corrupts his sex. All the more need for his grammar. When that came out there would be a real reform.
With this Mark Twain bade his hearers "good night," excusing himself for not remaining for the play, but explaining that he had illness at home and was anxious to get back. It had indeed been good of him to come, for that very afternoon his dearly loved wife seemed to be at death's door.
Loud applause had greeted the recital from beginning to end, for all its points were at once taken up and fully understood by an audience composed almost wholly of Anglo-American residents n Florence.
Since that night I have not seen him again. When I last went out to the villa, he was laid up with a sharp attack of bronchitis, and is still confined to his room. As he will not take proper care of himself, and eschews the usual remedies, I fear that it may be some weeks ere he is about again. To give some idea what sort of a patient he is, it may be mentioned that his doctors told him to smoke more moderately. He is never without a cigar, and a strong one at that.
"How can I smoke too much," he replied in his pathetic drawl, "there are only twenty-four hours in the day to do it in."
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