Idling through a London bookstore in the summer of 1937, I came upon a little book called `Collins’ Pocket Interpreters: France.’ Written especially to instruct the English how to speak French in the train, the hotel, the quandary, the dilemma, etc., it is, of course, equally useful – I might also say equally depressing – to Americans. I have come across a number of these helps-for-travellers, but none that has the heavy impact, the dark, cumulative power of Collins’. A writer in a London magazine mentions a phrase book got out in the era of Imperial Russia which contained this one magnificent line: `Oh, dear, our postillion has been struck by lightning!’ but that fantastic piece of disaster, while charming and provocative – though, I daresay, quite rare even in the days of the Czars – is to Mr Collins’ modern, workaday disasters as Fragonard is to George Bellows, or Sarah Orne Jewett to William Faulkner. Let us turn the pages of this appalling little volume.
Each page has a list of English expressions one under the other, which gives them the form of verse. The French translations are run alongside. Thus, on the first page, under `The Port of Arrival,’ we begin (quietly enough) with `Porter, here is my baggage!’ – `Porteur, voici mes bagages!’ From then on disaster follows fast and follows faster until in the end, as you shall see, all hell breaks loose. The volume contains three times as many expressions to use when one is in trouble as when everything is going all right. This, my own experience has shown, is about the right ratio, but God spare me from some of the difficulties for which the traveller is prepared in Mr Collins’ melancholy narrative poem. I am going to leave out the French translations because, for one thing, people who get involved in the messes and tangles we are coming to invariably forget their French and scream in English anyway. Furthermore, the French would interrupt the fine, free flow of the English and spoil what amounts to a dramatic tragedy of an overwhelming and original kind. The phrases, as I have said, run one under the other, but herein I shall have to run them one after the other (you can copy them down the other way, if you want to).
Trouble really starts in the canto called `In the Customs Shed.’ Here we have: `I cannot open my case.’ `I have lost my keys.’ `Help me to close this case.” I did not know that I had to pay.” I don’t want to pay so much.” I cannot find my porter.’ `Have you seen porter 153 ?’ That last query is a little master stroke of writing, I think, for in those few words we have a graphic picture of a tourist lost in a jumble of thousands of bags and scores of customs men, looking frantically for one of at least a hundred and fifty-three porters. We feel that the tourist will not find porter 153, and the note of frustration has been struck.
Our tourist (accompanied by his wife, I like to think) finally gets on the train for Paris – having lost his keys and not having found his porter – and it comes time presently to go to the dining car, although he probably has no appetite, for the customs men, of course, have had to break open that one suitcase. Now, I think, it is the wife who begins to crumble: `Someone has taken my seat.’ `Excuse me, sir, that seat is mine.’ `I cannot find my ticket!’ `I have left my ticket in the compartment.’ `I will go and look for it.’ `I have left my gloves (my purse) in the dining car.’ Here the note of frenzied disintegration, so familiar to all travellers abroad, is sounded.
Next comes `The Sleeper,’ which begins, ominously, with `What is the matter ?’ and ends with `May I open the window?’ `Can you open this window, please?’ We realize, of course, that nobody is going to be able to open the window and that the tourist and his wife will suffocate. In this condition they arrive in Paris, and the scene there, on the crowded station platform, is done with superb economy of line: `I have left something in the train.’ `A parcel, an overcoat.’ `A macintosh, a stick.’ `An umbrella, a camera.” A fur, a suitcase.’ The travellers have now begun to go completely to pieces, in the grand manner.
Next comes an effective little interlude about an airplane trip, which is one of my favourite passages in this swift and sorrowful tragedy: `I want to reserve a place in the plane leaving tomorrow morning.’ `When do we start?’ `Can we get anything to eat on board?’ `When do we arrive,” `I feel sick.’ `Have you any paper bags for air-sickness?’ `The noise is terrible.’ `Have you any cotton wool?’ `When are we going to land ?’ This brief masterpiece caused me to cancel an air trip from London to Paris and go the easy way, across the Channel.
We now come to a section called `At the Hotel,’ in which things go from worse to awful : `Did you not get my letter ?’ `I wrote to you three weeks ago.’ `I asked for a first-floor room.” If you can’t give me something better, I shall go away.’ `The chambermaid never comes when I ring.’ `I cannot sleep at night, there is so much noise.” I have just had a wire. I must leave at once.’ Panic has begun to set in, and it is not appeased any by the advent of `The Chambermaid’: `Are you the chambermaid ?”There are no towels here.” The sheets on this bed are damp.” This room is not clean.” I have seen a mouse in the room.’ `You will have to set a mouse trap here.’ The bells of hell at this point begin to ring in earnest: `These shoes are not mine.’ `I put my shoes here, where are they now?” The light is not good.’ `The bulb is broken.’ `The radiator is too warm.’ `The radiator doesn’t work.” It is cold in this room.” This is not clean, bring me another.” I don’t like this.” I can’t eat this. Take it away!’
I somehow now see the tourist’s wife stalking angrily out of the hotel, to get away from it all (without any shoes on), and, properly enough, the booklet seems to follow her course – first under `Guides and Interpreters’ : `You are asking too much.” I will not give you any more.” I shall call a policeman.” He can settle this affair.’ Then under `Inquiring the Way’ : `I am lost.” I was looking for-“Someone robbed me.” That man robbed me.” That man is following me everywhere.’ She rushes to `The Hairdresser,’ where, for a change, everything goes quite smoothly until: `The water is too hot, you are scalding me!’ Then she goes shopping, but there is no surcease: `You have not given me the right change.’ `I bought this two days ago.’ `It doesn’t work.’ `It is broken.’ `It is torn.’ `It doesn’t fit me.’ Then to a restaurant for a snack and a reviving cup of tea: `This is not fresh.’ `This piece is too fat.’ `This doesn’t smell very nice.’ `There is a mistake in the bill.” While I was dining someone has taken my purse.” I have left my glasses (my watch) (a ring) in the lavatory.’
Madness has now come upon her and she rushes wildly out into the street. Her husband, I think, has at the same time plunged blindly out of the hotel to find her. We come then, quite naturally, to `Accident’, which is calculated to keep the faint of heart – nay, the heart of oak – safely at home by his own fireside: `There has been an accident!’ `Go and fetch a policeman quickly.’ `Is there a doctor near here?’ Send for the ambulance.” He is seriously injured.” She has been run over.” He has been knocked down.” Someone has fallen in the water.’ `The ankle, the arm.’ `The back, a bone.” The face, the finger.’ `The foot, the head.” The knee, the leg.” The neck, the nose.” The wrist, the shoulder.” He has broken his arm.”He has broken his leg.’ `He has a sprained ankle.’ `He has a sprained wrist.’ `He is losing blood.’ `He has fainted.’ `He has lost consciousness.”He has burnt his face.”It is swollen.”It is bleeding.” Bring some cold water.’ `Help me to carry him.’ (Apparently, you just let her lie there, while you attend to him – but, of course, she was merely run over, whereas he has taken a terrific tossing around.)
We next see the husband and wife back in their room at the dreary hotel, both in bed, and both obviously hysterical. This scene is entitled ‘Illness’: `I am feeling very ill, send for the doctor.’ `I have pains in-‘ `I have pains all over.’ `The back, the chest.’ `The ear, the head.’ `The eyes, the heart.’ `The joints, the kidneys.’ `The lungs, the stomach.’ `The throat, the tongue.’ `Put out your tongue.” The heart is affected.” I feel a pain here.” He is not sleeping well.’ `He cannot eat.’ `My stomach is out of order.’ `She is feverish.’ `I have caught a cold.” I have caught a chill.” He has a temperature.” I have a cough.’ `Will you give me a prescription ?”What must I do?’ `Must I stay in bed ?’ `I feel better.’ `When will you come and see me again?’ `Biliousness, rheumatism.’ `Insomnia, sunstroke.’ `Fainting, a fit.’ `Hoarseness, sore throat.’ `The medicine, the remedy.’ `A poultice, a draught.’ `A tablespoonful, a teaspoon-ful.’ `A sticking plaster, senna.’ `Iodine.’ That last suicidal bleat for iodine is, to me, a masterful touch.
Our couple finally get on their feet again, for travellers are tough – they’ve got to be – but we see under the next heading, `Common Words and Phrases,’ that they are left forever punch-drunk and shattered: `Can I help you? ‘Excuse me.’ `Carry on!! ‘Look here!’ `Look down there!’ `Look up there!’ `Why, how?’ `When, where?’ `Because.’ `That’s it!’ `It is too much, it is too dear.” It is very cheap.” Who, what, which ?”Look out !!’ Those are Valkyries, one feels, riding around, and above, and under our unhappy husband and wife.
The book sweeps on to a mad operatic ending of the tragedy, with all the / rings and brasses and wood winds going full blast: `Where are we going?’ `Where are you going?’ `Come quickly and see!!! ‘I shall call a policeman.) ‘Bring a policeman!’ `I shall stay here.’ `Will you help me?’ `Help! Fire!’ `Who are you?’ I don’t know you.” I don’t want to speak to you.” Leave me alone. “That will do.” You are mistaken.” It was not I. “I didn’t do it. “I will give you nothing.’ `Go away now!’ `It has nothing to do with me.’ `Where should one apply?’ `What must I do?’ `What have I done?’ `I have done nothing.’ `I have already paid you.’ `I have paid you enough.’ `Let me pass!’ `Where is the British consulate?’ The oboes take that last, despairing wail, and the curtain comes down.