Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Spanish Beech Trees and Presidents

Reading again a Spanish translation of The Hobbit – I noted it down inside the back cover, apparently the last time I read it was in July 2001 – to try to clean some of the rust off my Spanish. And because I love the book, and have read it countless times in English, both to myself and aloud to my children. I pretty much know it by heart. I catch the translator out, occasionally, but by and large it's a good job. Each day I make a list of 25 Spanish words I had to look up, and I go over them a bit. My Spanish vocabulary is in a strange, hazy state. It's often hard for me to say whether I know a word or not. An haya, now, that's a beech tree, did I know that? Well, sort of. If you tell me there's three trolls sitting around a bonfire of troncos de haya, I do. But if I met an haya standing by itself in a new poem, I bet I'd have to look it up.

Finishing reading a biography – it's always a melancholy business, the finish of a biography – of George Washington. Obama is often compared to Lincoln by his admirers, but really the predecessor he most reminds me of is Washington: particularly in his patience, in his extraordinary ability to leave unripe fruit on the tree. I disagree with him about a great many things – he is after all a center Democrat, the sort of creature we used to call a moderate Republican – but I often feel, as I often do reading about Washington, that he's the only grown-up in the room: the only one who recognizes other people's good intentions, and the only one who understands thoroughly that we don't actually know what's going to happen if we follow one policy or another: we're only guessing. Poor old Washington, who thought that Hamilton and Jefferson would be able to work together in harness, because they were both patriots! There's something very sweet about being able to make a mistake like that.


Zhoen said...

I do agree with you about Obama. I don't agree with him rather often, but he's about the only one on this side that could even manage the balancing act he is doing. He's smart, capable, that he is able to do anything at all speaks to an amazing character.

Anne said...

We are reading a biography of John Adams just now, and at the same time watching lectures about pre-revolutionary American colonies. Both are fascinating, and it is interesting to see the lecture on the colonies and then skip 100 years ahead and see how things have changed.

And I agree with you entirely about Obama. I'm much farther left than he, but he is, as you say, the only grown-up in the room.

Do you recommend your biography of Washington? Who's the author?

Dale said...

It's old, written in the late 60s or 70s I think. Flexner, "Washington, The Indispensable Man." (He wrote a much longer biography in 4 volumes, earlier: this is the good parts version.) But it seems still to be mentioned with respect.

Another really wonderful read is "The Crucible of War," about the 7 Years' War and its consequences for the North American colonies. One of the most illuminating histories I've read in a long time.

Kathleen said...

A GROWN-UP, yes! (Sorry, I accidentally had all caps on, but it sort of fits!)

Peter said...

I"m glad you said that about Washington and Obama! I've been thinking the same thing: the comparison is more apt than the one between Lincoln and Obama. Obama the moderate Republican, the only grown-up in the room, the one who recognizes (even acknowledges) others' good intentions, the one not afraid to say with Lincoln, "I confess plainly that events have controlled me!" -- I agree with it all. Oh, that's right; my point (and yours) was Washington. Washington and Obama are both members of what Howe and Strauss define as recessive Nomad generations -- get-the-job-done people who are scorned as non-idealists by other generations. (Generational theory is one of my character flaws, along with personality theory and how-to books on writing.)