In my German conversation class at the Goethe Institut we have a weekly slot in which a member of the class gives a Vortrag or lecture on a subject of their own choosing. It is generally a light-hearted and interactive affair. The element that differentiates a conversation class from a more traditional language class with its accent on grammar and syntax, is that the conversation can go off at a tangent into unknown and unpredictable regions, for which you can’t prepare. For „Jims Vortrag“, for example, we each had to bring along a paperback book, any book. “In English or in German?” we asked. “Any paperback book!” said Jim, with an expression of mock exasperation.
I picked off my shelf, more or at less at random, an ancient and dog-eared paperback of Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice. Now, I mused, would I be required, in the language of managerial break-out groups, to “talk to it”? Better prepare a few stock phrases. The title, for example. I settled for, Nur zweimal lebst du. Same number of syllables as in the English. That, after all, is quite important, because the title is the first line of a haiku, or poem of seventeen syllables, which James Bond composes after the fashion of the Japanese poet Basho.
You only live twice:
Once when you are born,
And once when you look death in the face.
Bond’s Japanese mentor in all things cultural, head of the Japanese secret service Tiger Tanaka, enchanted, claps his hands softly. He scribbles a few ideograms in Kanji to see if the haiku will work in Japanese, but no, too many syllables. The haiku form is quite strict – three lines of five, seven, and five syllables respectively. It occurred to me to see if, with a little poetic licence, I could get it to work in German. I came up with
Nur zweimal lebst du:
Einmal geboren, einmal
Vor Todes Gesicht.
I’m very fond of You Only Live Twice. It is late Bond, psychologically damaged, bruised and battered Bond who has somehow retained his humanity, and a sense of humour. It is as much a travelogue, ein Reiseführer, as a thriller. What else might I be able to tell the class about it? It is really part three in a trilogy, concerning Bond’s arch-Nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the head of SPECTRE. Blofeld is, naturally, a megalomaniac. How do you say that in German? Ein Größenenwahnsinniger, apparently. SPECTRE is the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion.
Der besondere Vorstand für Gegenspionage, Terrorismus, Rache, und Erpressung.
So there we are. I attended the class, armed to the teeth. And of course, true to form, the conversation went off completely at a tangent. I should have known. Jim did say, bring a paperback, any paperback. So the content didn’t matter. His Vortrag was, timeously, a lesson on how to wrap up a book in Christmas paper. We were issued with paper and sellotape, and directed with close instructions in German. I really ought to have paid more attention, because I am the world’s worst wrapper of Christmas presents. Captain Maladroit. I have this notion that the constituents of parcelling conspire against me. First, I allow the end of the sellotape on its roll to adhere to itself, and completely disappear. I can’t find the end, and when I do, I can’t figure out which direction on the roll to direct my gouging fingernail. If I can get past this hurdle, I generally attempt to cut three generous lengths of tape, and adhere their ends to the edge of my worktop, for subsequent use. The lengths of tape generally curl underneath the table there to adhere. Meanwhile I align my book on its sheet of wrapping paper, cut more or less to size, and fold two opposing ends across the front of the book along its long axis. I pinion this first fold with my left hand, and must now, with my right, extricate the first length of sellotape from the clutches of the table’s underside, and secure the first fold of paper with the tape. This is of necessity a one-handed manoeuvre, and it has to be my right hand, because I am an incredibly right-handed person. Truth to tell, my entire universe is right-handed. I won’t say I suffer from spatial neglect. I wouldn’t go that far. I know the left-hand side of my world is there. I just don’t pay it too much attention.
There are various things that can, and do, go wrong, in the transfer of sellotape from table to book. Generally the sellotape attempts to adhere to itself. The adhesive is so strong that this is a terminal event, requiring a fresh start. If I can get the sellotape to the paper in an uncurled state, the next challenge is to affix the first fold, one-handedly, with the sellotape running parallel to the paper edges. This I achieve rarely. But at least, at this stage, the paper’s fixation is serviceable.
I turn my attention now to the short axis of the top of the book. This is a complex piece of origami requiring me to infold the two ends of the paper in two triangular shapes, then to fold the rest of the length over the top of the book, then to repeat the pernickety task of transferring sellotape to paper. It becomes clear at this stage that I am using too much paper; there are redundant wrinkles and creases, and the inner aspect of the paper is visible, like the underwear of somebody who has dressed too hurriedly.
Repeat stage two, at the bottom end of the book.
An absolute pig’s breakfast. Jim told me as much. I handed the wrapped book on to the class teacher, who double-wrapped it, perfekt.
I can’t say I’m too phased. Maybe I’m just not that interested in Xmas wrapping. I do as little DIY as possible and I hope never to assemble another flat pack. I was complaining to somebody the other day about my clumsy ineptitude, railing about the sullen recalcitrance of things, and they replied, “What are you talking about? You play the viola, you can stitch people up!” True enough. This profession of incompetence, it’s really an affectation, like women who say they can’t do mathematics. I said to another friend on another, other day, “D’you know, I’ve never done a jigsaw in my life.”
She said, “Do I sense a certain pride in that assertion?”
“Ah!” said I. “You see through me.”