“The House”

“Two years ago,” she said, “when I was so sick, I realized that I was dreaming the same dream night after night. I was walking in the country. In the distance, I could see a white house, low and long, that was surrounded by a grove of linden trees. To the left of the house, a meadow bordered by poplars pleasantly interrupted the symmetry of the scene, and the tips of the poplars, which you could see from far off, were swaying above the linden.

“In my dream, I was drawn to this house, and I walked toward it. A white wooden gate closed the entrance. I opened it and walked along a gracefully curving path. The path was lined by trees, and under the trees I found spring flowers — primroses and periwinkles and anemones that faded the moment I picked them. As I came to the end of this path, I was only a few steps from the house. In front of the house, there was a great green expanse, clipped like the English lawns. It was bare, except for a single bed of violet flowers encircling it.

“The house was built of white stone and it had a slate roof. The door — a light oak door with carved panels — was at the top of a flight of steps. I wanted to visit the house, but no one answered when I called. I was terribly disappointed, and I ran and I shouted — and finally I woke up.

“That was my dream, and for months it kept coming back with such precision and fidelity that finally I thought: surely I must have seen this park and this house as a child. When I would wake up, however, I could never recapture it in waking memory. The search for it became such an obsession that one summer — I’d learned to drive a little car — I decided to spend my vacation driving through France in search of my dream house.

“I’m not going to tell about my travels. I explored Normandy, Touraine, Poitou, and found nothing, which didn’t surprise me. In October, I came back to Paris, and all through the winter I continued to dream about the white house. Last spring, I resumed my old habit of making excursions in the outskirts of Paris. One day, I was crossing a valley near L’Isle-Adam. Suddenly I felt an agreeable shock — that strange feeling one has when after a long absence one recognizes people or places one has loved.

“Although I had never been in that particular area before, I was perfectly familiar with the landscape lying to my right. The crests of some poplars dominated a stand of linden trees. Through the foliage, which was still sparse, I could glimpse a house. Then I knew that I had found my dream château. I was quite aware that a hundred yards ahead, a narrow road would be cutting across the highway. The road was there. I followed it. It led me to a white gate.

“There began the path I had so often followed. Under the trees, I admired the carpet of soft colors woven by the periwinkles, the primroses, and the anemones. When I came to the end of the row of linden, I saw the green lawn and the little flight of steps, at the top of which was the light oak door. I got out of my car, ran quickly up the steps, and rang the bell.

“I was terribly afraid that no one would answer, but almost immediately a servant appeared. It was a man, with a sad face, very old. He was wearing a black jacket. He seemed very much surprised to see me, and he looked at me closely without saying a word.

“‘I’m going to ask you a rather odd favor,’ I said. ‘I don’t know the owners of this house, but I would be very happy if they would permit me to visit it.’

“‘The château is for rent, madame,’ he said, with what struck me as regret, ‘and I am here to show it.’

“‘To rent?’ I said. ‘What luck! It’s too much to have hoped for. But how is it that the owners of such a beautiful house aren’t living in it?’

“‘The owners did live in it, madame. They moved out when it became haunted.’

“‘Haunted?’ I said. ‘That will scarcely stop me. I didn’t know people in France, even in the country, still believed in ghosts.’

“‘I wouldn’t believe in them, madame,’ he said seriously, ‘if I myself had not met, in the park at night, the phantom that drove my employers away.’

“‘What a story!’ I said, trying to smile.

“‘A story, madame,’ the old man said, with an air of reproach, ‘that you least of all should laugh at, since the phantom was you.'”

— Andre Maurois, 1931

Forward and Back

In 1996, Will Shortz invited the listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday to submit word-level palindromes — sentences that remain unchanged when their words are read in reverse order, such as “King, are you glad you are king?” Runners-up:

  • Fall leaves after leaves fall.
  • Will my love love my will?
  • Herb the sage eats sage the herb.
  • Please me by standing by me, please!
  • “Rock of Ages” preceded ages of “rock.”
  • Escher, drawing hands, drew hands drawing Escher.
  • In order to stop hunger, stop to order in.
  • Blessed are they that believe that they are blessed.
  • Parents love to have children; children have to love parents.
  • Says Mom, “What do you do?” You do what Mom says.
  • Family first sees Holy Father secretly father holy see’s first family.
  • You know, I did little for you, for little did I know you.
  • Did I say you never say “Never say never”? You say I did.
  • Good little student does plan future, but future plan does student little good.
  • Better doctors like people treated well because well-treated people like doctors better.
  • Celebrate! Why not? If happy birthday’s your hope, I hope your birthday’s happy! If not, why celebrate?
  • Pain increase to aching back strikes, and sufferer finds no doctor. Doctor No finds sufferer and strikes back, aching to increase pain.

The grand prize winner, by Peter L. Stein of San Francisco, was “First Ladies rule the state, and state the rule — ‘Ladies first!'”

(Will Shortz, “New Word Palindromes,” Word Ways 30:1 [February 1997], 11-12.)

For the Record

The 1983 Guinness Book of World Records found the “Longest Sentence in Literature” in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, of all places. It’s in Chapter 6:

Just exactly like Father if Father had known as much about it the night before I went out there as he did the day after I came back thinking Mad impotent old man who realized at last that there must be some limit even to the capabilities of a demon for doing harm, who must have seen his situation as that of the show girl, the pony, who realizes that the principal tune she prances to comes not from horn and fiddle and drum but from a clock and calendar, must have seen himself as the old wornout cannon which realises that it can deliver just one more fierce shot and crumble to dust in its own furious blast and recoil, who looked about upon the scene which was still within his scope and compass and saw son gone, vanished, more insuperable to him now than if the son were dead since now (if the son still lived) his name would be different and those to call him by it strangers and whatever dragon’s outcropping of Sutpen blood the son might sow on the body of whatever strange woman would therefore carry on the tradition, accomplish the hereditary evil and harm under another name and upon and among people who will never have heard the right one; daughter doomed to spinsterhood who had chosen spinsterhood already before there was anyone named Charles Bon since the aunt who came to succor her in bereavement and sorrow found neither but instead that calm absolutely impenetrable face between a homespun dress and sunbonnet seen before a closed door and again in a cloudy swirl of chickens while Jones was building the coffin and which she wore during the next year while the aunt lived there and the three women wove their own garments and raised their own food and cut the wood they cooked it with (excusing what help they had from Jones who lived with his granddaughter in the abandoned fishing camp with its collapsing roof and rotting porch against which the rusty scythe which Sutpen was to lend him, make him borrow to cut away the weeds from the door — and at last forced him to use though not to cut weeds, at least not vegetable weeds — would lean for two years) and wore still after the aunt’s indignation had swept her back to town to live on stolen garden truck and out of anonymous baskets left on her front steps at night, the three of them, the two daughters negro and white and the aunt twelve miles away watching from her distance as the two daughters watched from theirs the old demon, the ancient varicose and despairing Faustus fling his final main now with the Creditor’s hand already on his shoulder, running his little country store now for his bread and meat, haggling tediously over nickels and dimes with rapacious and poverty-stricken whites and negroes, who at one time could have galloped for ten miles in any direction without crossing his own boundary, using out of his meagre stock the cheap ribbons and beads and the stale violently-colored candy with which even an old man can seduce a fifteen-year-old country girl, to ruin the granddaughter of his partner, this Jones — this gangling malaria-ridden white man whom he had given permission fourteen years ago to squat in the abandoned fishing camp with the year-old grandchild — Jones, partner porter and clerk who at the demon’s command removed with his own hand (and maybe delivered too) from the showcase the candy beads and ribbons, measured the very cloth from which Judith (who had not been bereaved and did not mourn) helped the granddaughter to fashion a dress to walk past the lounging men in, the side-looking and the tongues, until her increasing belly taught her embarrassment — or perhaps fear; — Jones who before ’61 had not even been allowed to approach the front of the house and who during the next four years got no nearer than the kitchen door and that only when he brought the game and fish and vegetables on which the seducer-to-be’s wife and daughter (and Clytie too, the one remaining servant, negro, the one who would forbid him to pass the kitchen door with what he brought) depended on to keep life in them, but who now entered the house itself on the (quite frequent now) afternoons when the demon would suddenly curse the store empty of customers and lock the door and repair to the rear and in the same tone in which he used to address his orderly or even his house servants when he had them (and in which he doubtless ordered Jones to fetch from the showcase the ribbons and beads and candy) direct Jones to fetch the jug, the two of them (and Jones even sitting now who in the old days, the old dead Sunday afternoons of monotonous peace which they spent beneath the scuppernong arbor in the back yard, the demon lying in the hammock while Jones squatted against a post, rising from time to time to pour for the demon from the demijohn and the bucket of spring water which he had fetched from the spring more than a mile away then squatting again, chortling and chuckling and saying ‘Sho, Mister Tawm’ each time the demon paused) — the two of them drinking turn and turn about from the jug and the demon not lying down now nor even sitting but reaching after the third or second drink that old man’s state of impotent and furious undefeat in which he would rise, swaying and plunging and shouting for his horse and pistols to ride single-handed into Washington and shoot Lincoln (a year or so too late here) and Sherman both, shouting, ‘Kill them! Shoot them down like the dogs they are!’ and Jones: ‘Sho, Kernel; sho now’ and catching him as he fell and commandeering the first passing wagon to take him to the house and carry him up the front steps and through the paintless formal door beneath its fanlight imported pane by pane from Europe which Judith held open for him to enter with no change, no alteration in that calm frozen face which she had worn for four years now, and on up the stairs and into the bedroom and put him to bed like a baby and then lie down himself on the floor beside the bed though not to sleep since before dawn the man on the bed would stir and groan and Jones would say, ‘Hyer I am, Kernel. Hit’s all right. They aint whupped us yit, air they?’ this Jones who after the demon rode away with the regiment when the granddaughter was only eight years old would tell people that he ‘was lookin after Major’s place and niggers’ even before they had time to ask him why he was not with the troops and perhaps in time came to believe the lie himself, who was among the first to greet the demon when he returned, to meet him at the gate and say, ‘Well, Kernel, they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit, air they?’ who even worked, labored, sweat at the demon’s behest during that first furious period while the demon believed he could restore by sheer indomitable willing the Sutpen’s Hundred which he remembered and had lost, labored with no hope of pay or reward who must have seen long before the demon did (or would admit it) that the task was hopeless — blind Jones who apparently saw still in that furious lecherous wreck the old fine figure of the man who once galloped on the black thoroughbred about that domain two boundaries of which the eye could not see from any point

It’s 1,288 words altogether and, strictly speaking, not a complete sentence.

Noted

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Umarells.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Marvelously, the Bolognese have a dedicated word to describe retired men who pass their time watching construction sites: umarells. (Wikipedia says they stand “stereotypically with hands clasped behind their back and offering unwanted advice.”)

The word was first offered with this meaning by writer Danilo Masotti in 2005, but increasingly it’s being used in other parts of Italy. Within Bologna, it was honored in 2017 with a public square dubbed Piazzetta degli Umarells — which, ironically, was under construction at the time.

Related: A gongoozler is someone who enjoys watching activity on the canals of the United Kingdom. Presumably these two groups intersect.

Twice True

SEVEN PLUS TWO = EIGHTEEN MINUS NINE = EIGHTEEN OVER TWO

That’s true enough on its face. But Susan Thorpe discovered that if each letter is replaced with the number of its position in the alphabet (A=1, B=2, etc.), then the equivalence persists — the values in each of the three phrases total 191.

(Susan Thorpe, “Number Name Equations,” Word Ways 30:1 [February 1997], 34-36.)

10/25/2020 UPDATE: Reader Jacob Bandes-Storch has found many more of these:

SIX OVER TWO PLUS TEN (277)
= FOUR MINUS ONE PLUS TEN (277)
= EIGHT OVER TWO PLUS NINE (277)
= ONE PLUS FIVE PLUS SEVEN (277)
= TWENTY SIX OVER TWO (277)

ONE PLUS ONE PLUS TWELVE (291)
= ONE PLUS TWO PLUS ELEVEN (291)
= TWO PLUS TWO PLUS TEN (291)
= FIFTEEN OVER THREE PLUS NINE (291)
= EIGHT MINUS THREE PLUS NINE (291)

FIFTEEN OVER THREE PLUS ELEVEN (312)
= EIGHT MINUS THREE PLUS ELEVEN (312)
= TWELVE OVER TWO PLUS TEN (312)
= ELEVEN MINUS THREE PLUS EIGHT (312)

FIFTEEN PLUS FORTY THREE = TWENTY NINE TIMES TWO = SEVENTY MINUS TWELVE (273)

THIRTEEN PLUS FIFTY SIX = TWENTY THREE TIMES THREE = EIGHTY EIGHT MINUS NINETEEN (285)

NINETEEN PLUS FIFTY THREE = THIRTY SIX TIMES TWO = SEVENTY THREE MINUS ONE (276)

TWO PLUS SEVENTY THREE = ONE HUNDRED FIFTY OVER TWO = NINETY THREE MINUS EIGHTEEN (292)
SEVENTEEN PLUS FIFTY EIGHT = ONE HUNDRED FIFTY OVER TWO = NINETY THREE MINUS EIGHTEEN (292)

FORTY PLUS FORTY FIVE = TWENTY EIGHT TIMES THREE = NINETY SIX MINUS ELEVEN (278)

TWO PLUS NINETY SEVEN = THIRTY THREE TIMES THREE = ONE HUNDRED FIVE MINUS SIX (also 278)

He says he hasn’t found any quadruplets where each phrase uses a single function and all are different, but this may yet be possible. (Thanks, Jacob.)

Podcast Episode 299: Ursula Graham Bower and the Nagas

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dzukou_Valley.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1937, Englishwoman Ursula Graham Bower became fascinated by the Naga people of northeastern India. She was living among them when World War II broke out and Japan threatened to invade their land. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Bower’s efforts to organize the Nagas against an unprecedented foe.

We’ll also consider a self-censoring font and puzzle over some perplexing spacecraft.

See full show notes …

Update

Hi, all. Just another update here — all the libraries here are still closed, so I need to keep the Futility Closet website suspended through June, as I can’t do the research until they reopen. We’re fine here otherwise, and we’re still producing the podcast each week in the meantime. At the moment there’s no word on when things might return to normal; if I can’t start up the site again in July then I’ll post an update here. If you have any questions you can always reach me at greg@futilitycloset.com. Stay safe!

Greg

Podcast Episode 295: An Unlikely Attempt on Everest

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maurice_Wilson.jpg

In 1932, Yorkshireman Maurice Wilson chose a startling way to promote his mystical beliefs: He would fly to Mount Everest and climb it alone. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Wilson’s misguided adventure, which one writer called “the most incredible story in all the eventful history of Mount Everest.”

Well also explore an enigmatic musician and puzzle over a mighty cola.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 292: Fordlandia

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fordlandia.JPG
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1927, Henry Ford decided to build a plantation in the Amazon to supply rubber for his auto company. The result was Fordlandia, an incongruous Midwestern-style town in the tropical rainforest. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the checkered history of Ford’s curious project — and what it revealed about his vision of society.

We’ll also consider some lifesaving seagulls and puzzle over a false alarm.

See full show notes …