I first stumbled across John Florio when I was 19 or so. He was flamboyant, frothy and, of course florid. He introduced me to the inventor of blogging, Michel de Montaigne, and I was totally captivated by them both.
But the years went by and somehow I lost contact with them until recently, when I sought out the introspective Frenchman on Le FaceBook. I found him a little dry and disappointingly dull. Maybe my French was too rusty. He was as full of himself as ever but somehow I just wasn’t interested any more. There were no pictures of him drunk at a party. No plates of food. No indiscreet selfies.
Then, while loitering in a bookshop in Piccadilly last year who do you think I bumped into but dear old John Florio.
“John, is it really you? You haven’t changed a bit! Still dressed to the nines, I see! Did no-one tell you ruffs went out of fashion 400 years ago?”
“Sir, I am still a scholar, and be circumspect how you offend scholars!”
“No offence meant, my dear old friend.”
“For know, a serpent’s tooth bites not so ill as doth a scholar’s angry quill.”
“Scholars use Apples and BlackBerries these days, John.”
“Possibly. Are you really offended? Your face has turned as red as a radish. What have you been up to? Still translating fusty old foreign bloggers?”
“Shall I apologize translation?”
“No, certainly not. Without your translation I would never have discovered how funny Montaigne was.”
“Why, but scholars should have some privilege of preeminence. So have they: they only are worthy translators.”
“You sound like you have a chip on your shoulder.”
“What, because the best translators do but glean after others’ harvest? Borrow their colours, inherit their possessions? What, do they but translate? Perhaps, usurp?”
“Have you met Michel lately? He’s dull without your company.”
“Yea, marry, but Montaigne, had he wit, it was but a French wit.”
“You didn’t think much of his wit?”
“I’m not familiar … Did you just make that word up?”
“Ferdillant, legier … ”
“Ah, lightweight, you mean?”
“He was certainly that. He spent a fortune doing up his country seat. That great house of his never was finished, I believe.”
“He betook him somewhat oftener to his library where, without order, without method, and by piecemeals he turned over and ransacked now one book, and now another.”
“Didn’t he have an inscription on the wall next to his library? What did it say? I can’t remember now.”
At this John Florio cast his eyes to heaven and, leaning rakishly on his ornate cane, recited the following extraordinary statement as if reading from a Latin inscription on the ceiling.
“In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the service of the court and public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in the calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat; and he has consecrated to it his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.”
“How the world must envy him,” I said.
“And should or would any dog-toothed Critic or adder-tongued Satirist scoff or find fault that, in the course of his discourses or web of his posts or entitling of his blog articles, he holdeth a disjointed, broken, and gadding style; and that many times his posts answer not his titles and have no coherence together, to such I will say little, for they deserve but little.”
“I quite agree,” I said. “He doesn’t shine on Le FaceBook. His true genius is in his essayes.”
“But if they list, else let them choose, I send them to his blog post On Vanity, where himself preventeth their carping, and foreseeing their criticism answereth them for me at full.”
“Oh, really? You must send me the link.”
“What say you we betake us to a coffee house and discourse further, my old fellow.”
“Yes, yes. But don’t forget to send me the link.”
“You may have my email and eftsoones know my meaning. But let me pray and entreat you for your own sake to correct as you read, to amend as you list.”
“Oh, you write in nothing but the most flawless English. One would never know you were an Italian.”
“I am an Englishman in Italian.”
“You are that, John, and still the same, still the same. Let’s go to Patisserie Valerie and have a fat French cake with our coffee. I can’t wait to hear more of your discourse on this old man of letters, Montaigne.”
And we strolled up Piccadilly towards the Ritz where, on a corner, you can find Patisserie Valerie and look out on the weird and wonderful foreigners bustling along in some of the most extravagant clothes you could imagine. But what we said there will have to wait for another time. I’ve imposed on your patience long enough.