The Sincerest Form

Excerpt from Beer in the Sergeant Major’s Hat, a parody found in Raymond Chandler’s notebook:

Hank went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

‘The hell with it,’ he said. ‘She shouldn’t have done it.’

It was a good bathroom. It was small and the green enamel was peeling off the walls. But the hell with that, as Napoleon said when they told him Josephine waited without. The bathroom had a wide window through which Hank looked at the pine and larches. They dripped with a faint rain. They looked smooth and comfortable.

‘The hell with it,’ Hank said. ‘She shouldn’t have done it.’

He opened the cabinet over the washbasin and took out his toothpaste. He looked at his teeth in the mirror. They were large yellow teeth, but sound. Hank could still bite his way for a while.

Hank unscrewed the top of the toothpaste tube, thinking of the day when he had unscrewed the lid of the coffee jar, down on the Pukayak River, when he was trout fishing. There had been larches there too. It was a damn good river, and the trout had been damn good trout. They liked being hooked. Everything had been good except the coffee, which had been lousy. He had made it Watson’s way, boiling it for two hours and a half in his knapsack. It had tasted like hell. It had tasted like the socks of the Forgotten Man.

‘She shouldn’t have done it,’ Hank said out loud. Then he was silent.

He had written it on Aug. 7, 1932, and dedicated it to “the greatest living American novelist — Ernest Hemingway.”

Truth in Advertising

In 1866 Mark Twain embarked on a lecture tour in California. He wrote the handbills himself:

twain lecture handbill

In Nevada City, he proposed to perform the following “wonderful feats of sleight of hand” after the lecture:

At a given signal, he will go out with any gentleman and take a drink. If desired, he will repeat this unique and interesting feat — repeat it until the audience are satisfied that there is no more deception about it.

At a moment’s warning, he will depart out of town and leave his hotel bill unsettled. He has performed this ludicrous feat many hundreds of times, in San Francisco, and elsewhere, and it has always elicited the most enthusiastic comments.

“The lecturer declines to specify any more of his miraculous feats at present,” he wrote, “for fear of getting the police too much interested in his circus.”


Notable cross-references in the index of Donald Tovey’s Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume VI, 1939:

Agnostic, see Dachsund.
Appendicitis, see Cadenza.
Critics, see Experts.
Experts, see Critics.
Giraffe, see Berlioz.
Hedgehog, see Brahms.
Monster, see Loch Ness.
Noodles, see Brahms on plagiarism.
Pope, see Bruckner.
Sneeze, see Cherubini and Beethoven.
Sugar, see Grocer.
Witchery, see Mendelssohn.

Evelyn Waugh owned a translation of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection for which someone had composed “a particularly felicitous index. The first entry is: ‘Adultery, 13, 53, 68, 70’; the last is ‘Why do people punish? 358’. Between them occurs such items as: Cannibalism, Dogs, Good breeding, Justification of one’s position, Seduction, Smoking, Spies, and Vegetarianism.”

See Memorable Indexes, More Amusing Indexes, Reference Work, and “He Suddenly Dropt Dead of Heart-Disease.”

Object Lesson

In 1969, Sufi scholar Idries Shah published a volume called The Book of the Book. Its opening pages told of a king whose people would not listen to his teachings, as he lacked an instrument with which to teach them.

The king meets a stranger who tells him of a revered wise man who attributed his knowledge to a tome kept in a place of honor in his room. When the wise man died, his followers eagerly opened the book and found writing on only one page. “When you realise the difference between the container and the content,” it said, “you will have knowledge.”

The rest of Shah’s 200-page book was blank.


In 1859, Harvard treasurer Henry G. Denny sent out an appeal for funds to buy books for the college library. Among the replies he found this:

Dear Sir,

Enclosed please find five dollars, for the object above described. I would gladly give more, but this exceeds my income from all sources together for the last four months.

Y’rs respectfully,

Henry D. Thoreau


Between 1932 and 2002, messages addressed to 221B Baker Street in London were delivered to the Abbey National Building Society, whose headquarters occupied that address. The society received hundreds of letters each year from around the globe and employed a secretary to answer them. Many concerned rather ordinary mysteries (Can Mr. Holmes suggest how a girl might find out if a boy likes her? Mr. Holmes thinks you will have to ask the boy outright), but in 1985 this telegram arrived:




It had been sent from Raunheim, West Germany. No further messages followed.


Eunoia, by the Canadian poet Christian Bök, uses only one vowel per chapter:

Awkward grammar appals a craftsman. A Dada bard as daft as Tzara damns stagnant art and scrawls an alpha (a slapdash arc and a backward zag) that mars all stanzas and jams all ballads (what a scandal). A madcap vandal crafts a small black ankh — a hand-stamp that can stamp a wax pad and at last plant a mark that sparks an ars magna (an abstract art that charts a phrasal anagram). A pagan skald chants a dark saga (a Mahabharata), as a papal cabal blackballs all annals and tracts, all dramas and psalms: Kant and Kafka, Max and Marat. A law as harsh as a fatwa bans all paragraphs that lack an A as a standard hallmark.

Mark Dunn’s 2001 epistolary novel Ella Minnow Pea is set on an island that successively bans letters of the alphabet. Its discourse begins with “Thank you for the lovely postcards” and dwindles to “No, mon, no! Nooooooooo!”

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1938 novel The Gift ends with the main character, a writer, resolving to write a book about his experiences in the novel, thus promoting himself from a character to the author.

In Norman Mailer’s short story “The Notebook,” a writer’s girlfriend accuses him of being only an observer, not a participant in life. This gives him an idea, which he scribbles into his notebook: Writer accused of being observer, not participant in life by girl. Gets idea he must put in notebook. Does so, and brings the quarrel to a head. Girl breaks relationship over this. The girl breaks up with him over this.

The first story in John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse is a strip of paper: One side bears the words ONCE UPON A TIME THERE, the other WAS A STORY THAT BEGAN. The reader is instructed to cut this out and fashion it into a Möbius strip that reads “Once upon a time there was a story that began ‘Once upon a time there was a story that began “Once upon a time there was a story that began …”‘”

“It’s short on character, it’s short on plot, but above all, it’s short,” Barth told an interviewer. “And it does remind us of the infinite imbeddedness of the narrative impulse in human consciousness.”

In Jean-Louis Bailly’s 1990 novel La Dispersion des cendres, an embittered mystery writer publishes a sensational novel whose cover bears the warning IF YOU BUY THIS BOOK, YOU ARE A MURDERER. IF YOU READ IT, YOU WILL KNOW WHY. When the royalties reach a certain sum, they automatically send into action an assassin who shoots the writer.

Who done it? You did! “As cause and instrument of the murder, fully aware of perpetrating it, the reader — or at least the buyer — is in every sense the guilty party.”

(Thanks, Ole and Harold.)

Three Tales

Here are three items that I haven’t been able to confirm — I expect the first two are false, but I’m posting them here for what they’re worth. The first is from Henry Thomas and Dana Lee Thomas, Living Biographies of Great Poets, 1941:

An interesting and touching story is told about the manuscript of the first Jungle Book. Kipling gave this manuscript as a present to the nurse who had cared for his first-born child. ‘Take this script,’ he said, ‘and someday if you are in need of money you may be able to sell it at a handsome price.’ Years later, when the nurse was actually in want, she sold the manuscript and managed to live in comfort for the rest of her life.

I can’t verify that anywhere. The second item is from Robert Hendrickson, American Literary Anecdotes, 1992:

Some 5,000 copies of [Steinbeck’s] The Wayward Bus (1947) went up in flames when the truck taking them from the bindery collided with a bus — yes, a wayward bus — travelling on the wrong side of the road.

San Jose State University’s Center for Steinbeck Studies repeated that story in a 1995 newsletter, but it cited Hendrickson as the source. I haven’t been able to confirm it independently.

This last one may be true. The Oxford Dictionary of Thematic Quotations claims that Millvina Dean (1911-), the youngest survivor of the Titanic disaster, while visiting the Kansas City house in which her family would have lived, said, “I can’t bear iced drinks … the iceberg, you know. Perhaps some champagne though.”

The dictionary cites the Times, Aug. 20, 1997, for this quote, but I haven’t tracked that down to confirm it.

No Fare

Letter to the Times, Feb. 10, 1970:


My husband, T.S. Eliot, loved to recount how late one evening he stopped a taxi. As he got in, the driver said: ‘You’re T.S. Eliot.’ When asked how he knew, he replied: ‘Ah, I’ve got an eye for a celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: ‘Well, Lord Russell, what’s it all about,’ and, do you know, he couldn’t tell me.’

Yours faithfully,

Valerie Eliot

Paradox Lost

Marcel Bénabou dreamed of producing a book-length literary work, but something always prevented him.

So in 1986 he wrote a book called Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books.

“The conceit produces a kind of large-scale demonstration of the principle of antonymy,” notes Harry Mathews in The Oulipo Compendium. “His failures as a writer are what make his success possible.”