Sometimes even the master nods. In Tolstoy's War and Peace (where, like Napoleon before Moscow, I'm still making slow progress) Chapter 13 of Book II Part Three contains a charming description of the scene as sixteen-year-old Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova (aka Natasha) comes to her mother the Countess at bedtime to talk about boys. At one point:

Natasha did not let her finish. She drew the Countess's large hand to her, kissed the back of it, then the palm, then turned it over again and began kissing first one knuckle, then the space between the knuckles, then the next knuckle, whispering: "January, February, March, April, May . . ."

And a page later, as the conversation continues:

"Don't laugh --- now stop!" cried Natasha. "You're shaking the whole bed. You're just like me, an awful giggler! . . . Stop it! . . ." She seized both the Countess's hands and kissed one knuckle of the little finger, saying: "June," and went on kissing. "July, August," on the other hand. "Mamma, is he terribly in love? What do you think? Was anybody ever so much in love with you? And he's very sweet, really very sweet. Only not quite to my taste --- he's narrow, like the dining-room clock. . . . Do you understand? Narrow, you know, gray --- pale gray . . ."

"What nonsense you're talking!" said the Countess.

Don't you understand?" Natasha continued. "Nikolai would understand. Bezukhov, now, is blue --- dark blue and red, and foursquare."

You're flirting with him too," said the Countess, laughing.

Aside from the delightful language, what catches my eye in this extended image is the throwaway line, She seized both the Countess's hands and kissed one knuckle of the little finger, saying: "June," and went on kissing. "July, August," on the other hand. With the earlier passage above, it's a sketch of the only memory aid I know involving the human body.

All of the other mnemonics that I carry around in my cluttered mental baggage compartment are language-based. The digits of pi (3.14159...) correspond to the number of letters in each word of "May I have a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy chapters involving quantum mechanics." The labels for stellar spectral types from blue-white supergiants through the Main Sequence to red dwarf stars (O, B, A, F, G, K, M, R, N, S) are brought to mind by the initials of either "Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me right now. Smack!" or alternatively "On bad afternoons fine grapes keep Mrs. Richard Nixon smiling." The colors of the bands that label electronic resistors with their ohmage values (black, brown, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, gray, white) are encoded by the leading letters of words in various silly sentences, often obscene.

But the knuckle mnemonic is different. To remember which months have 31 days one can use the classic doggerel poem, "Thirty days hath September / April, June, and November / ...". But simpler and faster is to make two fists and hold them out palm down. From left to right, the high points of the bones correspond to the long months; the notches between indicate the short months.

So what's going on in that second excerpt from War and Peace? The little finger knuckle has to represent January, not June. The crossover between one hand and the other falls between July and August. Did Tolstoy, master of detail, somehow make a mistake? Could the Julian calendar used in Tsarist Russia have been that different? (Does, or should, anybody care? No! But it's always fun to spot a slip ...)

(from the Ann Dunnigan translation of 1968; see also MentalBandwidthBoosters (26 Jun 1999), TruthInBattle (11 Feb 2001), MemorySupport (31 Jan 2002), OozeOnVerst (22 Sep 2004), IrresistibleAttraction (4 Oct 2004), InfiniteSky (15 Oct 2004), UntutoredVoice (3 Nov 2004), StrippedThreads (15 Nov 2004), ...)

TopicLiterature - TopicScience - TopicHumor - 2004-12-04

(correlates: Comments on BodyMnemonic, StrippedThreads, Eight Days a Week, ...)