Excerpts from the notebooks of English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947):

Two impressions remaining, after a life of scientific research:

1. The inexhaustible oddity of nature.
2. The capacity of the human system for recovery.

— J.B.S. Haldane

“With people like you, love only means one thing.”
“No, it means twenty things: but it doesn’t mean nineteen.”

— Arnold Bennett’s Journal

“I simply ignored an axiom.” — Einstein, on Relativity

“Nowhere probably is there more true feeling, and nowhere worse taste, than in a churchyard.” — Benjamin Jowett

Happiness, only a by-product.

The fine flower of stupidity blossoms in the attempt to appear less stupid.

Boy, wanting to be a “retired business man.”

“Stand on the Right — and let others pass you.” — Directions on an Underground Escalator

“My sad conviction is that people can only agree about what they’re not really interested in.” — Bertrand Russell, New Statesman, 1 July 1939

The doctrine of omnipotence means that life is a sham fight with evil.

“All men wish to have truth on their side: but few to be on the side of truth.” — Archbishop Richard Whately

“Half-knowledge is very communicable; not so knowledge.” — Mary Coleridge

“Mastery often passes for egotism.” — Goethe

Character Study

The Art Institute of Chicago has an actual picture of Dorian Gray — Ivan Le Lorraine Albright painted it for the 1946 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel. Working with his twin brother Malvin, Albright started with a pleasant portrait of star Hurd Hatfield and prepared three further canvases reflecting his character’s moral decay.

“For research for these paintings,” reported LIFE, “the twins made the rounds of the local insane asylums, alcoholic wards and hospitals for the incurably diseased.” Even the props in the background were corrupted — the Egyptian cat grows gray and mangy, and Ivan tore the rug and soaked it with acid.

Interestingly, though most of the film was shot in black and white, the portrait was shown in Technicolor — which may have helped the film win its Oscar for best cinematography.


Graham Greene once entered a magazine competition to parody the style of an author named Green(e). He parodied his own style and came in second. His entry, “The Stranger’s Hand,” was made under the pseudonym M. Wilkinson in the New Statesman‘s Week-end Competition No. 999 in 1949:

The child had an air of taking everything in and giving nothing away. At the Rome airport he was led across the tarmac by his aunt, but he seemed to hear nothing of her advice to himself or of the information she produced for the air hostess. He was too busy with his eyes: the hangars had his attention, every plane on the field except his own — that could wait.

‘My nephew,’ she was saying, ‘yes, that’s him on the list. Roger Court. You will look after him, won’t you? He’s never been quite on his own before,’ but when she made that statement the child’s eyes moved back plane by plane with what looked like contempt, back to the large breasts and the fat legs and the over-responsible mouth: how could she have known, he might have been thinking, when I am alone, how often I am alone?

Remarkably, he pulled the same coup in April 1961 (“I’m sorry but I’ve done it again”) with a fragment of autobiography set in verse; in August 1965 with a parodied biography of Sir Hugh Greene (his brother); and in April 1980 with “an extract from an imaginary novel by Graham Greene.” All but the last won prizes for successfully aping his own style. Not one to let good work go to waste, he developed two of these into legitimate projects, the 1949 entry into a script for a 1954 film and the 1980 effort into the opening of The Captain and the Enemy (1988).

(From Christopher Hawtree, ed., Yours Etc.: Letters to the Press, 1991.)

Podcast Episode 360: Haggard’s Dream

In 1904, adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard awoke from a dream with the conviction that his daughter’s dog was dying. He dismissed the impression as a nightmare, but the events that followed seemed to give it a grim significance. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Haggard’s strange experience, which briefly made headlines around the world.

We’ll also consider Alexa’s expectations and puzzle over a college’s name change.

See full show notes …

House Rules

From a letter from Mark Twain to Mabel Larkin Patterson of Chicago, Oct. 2, 1908:

The contents of your letter are very pleasant and very welcome, and I thank you for them, sincerely. If I can find a photograph of my ‘Tammany’ and her kittens, I will enclose it in this. One of them likes to be crammed into a corner-pocket of the billiard table — which he fits as snugly as does a finger in a glove and then he watches the game (and obstructs it) by the hour, and spoils many a shot by putting out his paw and changing the direction of a passing ball. Whenever a ball is in his arms, or so close to him that it cannot be played upon without risk of hurting him, the player is privileged to remove it to any one of 3 spots that chances to be vacant.

At the time his cats were named Apollinaris, Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Tammany, and Zoroaster — “names given them not in an unfriendly spirit,” he wrote, “but merely to practice the children in large and difficult styles of pronunciation.”

“It was a very happy idea. I mean, for the children.”

Out of the Way'lyeh_locations.png
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Point Nemo, the point in the ocean farthest from land, lies in the southern Pacific Ocean at 48°52.6’S 123°23.6’W.

R’lyeh, the fictional city that imprisons the entity called Cthulhu in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, lies at 47°9’S 123°43’W. (August Derleth, a correspondent of Lovecraft, placed it at 49°51’S 128°34’W.)

Lovecraft’s story was written 66 years before Point Nemo was discovered.

Blood Brothers,_2004-044.jpg

In 1900, three years after Bram Stoker published Dracula, a variant of the story was serialized in the Reykjavík newspaper Fjallkonan. When Makt Myrkranna (Powers of Darkness) was published in book form in 1901, the volume credited Valdimar Ásmundsson, the newspaper’s editor, as its translator.

The origins of the Icelandic version of Stoker’s tale remained a puzzle for more than a century. In 2017 it came to light that it had been adapted from an earlier newspaper serialization in Swedish, titled Mörkrets makter.

In fact it appears there were two Swedish variants, one of which seems to have served as the basis for the Icelandic version. All three of these differ significantly from Stoker’s familiar novel, though they include all the main characters.

How all this came about is still the subject of intense research. But despite their mystery, in some eyes the Nordic variants are superior to Stoker’s original. Dutch literary researcher Hans Corneel de Roos wrote, “Although Dracula received positive reviews in most newspapers of the day … the original novel can be tedious and meandering … Powers of Darkness, by contrast, is written in a concise, punchy style; each scene adds to the progress of the plot.”


“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.” — Richard Feynman

“A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” — Samuel Johnson

“Read what interests you. If Scott does not interest you and Dickens does, drop Scott and read Dickens. You need not be any one’s enemy; but you need not be a friend with everybody. This is as true of books as of persons. For friendship some agreement in temperament is quite essential.” — Lyman Abbott

The Fortsas Hoax

In 1840, librarians and booksellers throughout Europe received a catalog describing a unique collection of books to be auctioned: Jean Nepomucene Auguste Pichauld, Comte de Fortsas, had collected 52 unique books, books of which only a single copy was known to exist. The count had died the preceding September, the message said, and as his heirs had no interest in books, the collection would be auctioned off.

Bibliophiles converged on Binche, Belgium, that August for the event, only to discover that the appointed address did not exist. Notices declared that the town’s library had acquired the books — but Binche had no library. In time it became clear that the Comte de Fortsas himself had never existed.

The whole thing had been an elaborate hoax put on by an antiquarian and retired military officer named Renier Hubert Ghislain Chalon. Ironically, the catalog of nonexistent books itself in time became a collectors’ item.

What will happen if someone now writes those books?