Honor—A Man’s Gift to Himself

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Professor Giovanni Gullace gave me my first real lesson in honor.

Our paths crossed early in my life, late in his, when I entered graduate school at a university in upstate New York to study French Literature. I’m guessing he was in his mid 60s when we first met. But his crumpled expression and shuffling gait, along with a dull bald pate, thick glasses, and grizzled salt and pepper beard, endowed him with an ancient air which, I suspected, made him a sworn enemy of modernity. He was cantankerous, gravelly, and brilliant.

“Blabbermouth”

Dr. Gullace’s scholarship crossed six centuries of Italian and French literature and philosophy. I first came under his tutelage when I signed up for his semester-long seminar on 18th century literature, specifically the philosophe Denis Diderot—whom on the first day of class Professor. Gullace, to my delight, labeled a “blabbermouth.” After that, I made myself alert to everything he said, both in and out of class.

He, in turn, took a rough, avuncular interest in my behavior, mostly critical. At our first faculty-student party, the music started, and some of us got up to boogie down. As we bumped and swiveled to the beat, I noticed Gullace shaking his head in disgust. I sidled over to him. “What’s the matter, Professor Gullace? You don’t like the music?”

“Ah! You all’a dance’a like animali,” he snorted in his halting Italian accent. “You’a know nothing of grace and beauty.” With that, he swirled a scarf around his neck and bee-lined for the door. Continue reading

Russia’s Happiest and Saddest of Instruments

Everything you didn’t think you needed to know about the balalaika

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Say “balalaika” to most Americans, and they think of “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago — where no balalaika was actually played — or a cheesy 1930s Nelson Eddy movie of the same name.

And from this they might conclude that the three-stringed, triangle-shaped instrument is either a folk relic of limited musical range or, worse, a quaint purveyor of string-laced schmaltz.

But the humble balalaika can, in the hands of a master, produce a sound and richness unequaled by any other musical instrument. And its virtuosity is celebrated not only by brilliant soloists, but entire orchestras as well. Continue reading