In 1991 I wrote an essay for the American Scholar called “The Ignorant Man’s Guide to Serious Music,” in which I was both the ignorant man and the guide. The essay was about my love for classical music and my hopeless inability to get beyond the stage of a coarse admiration of it. Midway through the essay I remarked on the vast quantity of great music available from the past, and as an example mentioned a composer I had not hitherto heard of named Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709). At a concert I had heard Torelli’s Sinfonia for Two Trumpets in D Major and thought it splendid. This Torelli, I noted, was no ordinary Giuseppe, adding, “yet, a month from now I shall have quite forgotten his name.”
Turns out that I have not been allowed to forget the name Giuseppe Torelli. Nor, as I shall explain, will I ever. The reason is that, since writing the essay, I have, for nearly 25 years now, every month received a postcard on which appears the name, writ large, TORELLI. Sometimes the composer’s first name also appears. Always the name is set out in an interesting design from the school of high doodling.
Two of these postcards are before me. The one from last month has the name Torelli printed vertically and on its side, outlined in red, filled in with yellow against a blue background, surrounded by stripes of red, yellow, and blue on both sides. This month’s card shows four large T’s, in red, one pointing up, one pointing down, two horizontally on their sides, all nearly touching, the four forming an unenclosed box with the letters O-R-E-L-L-I set out around the cap T’s. The other sides of the postcards are invariably noteworthy. Last month’s showed the Civil War ruins of Montgomery Blair’s house in Silver Spring, Maryland; this month’s card has a lovely madonna from the Hospital de Tavera in Toledo, Spain. The postmark, which never varies, reads “North Texas, Dallas. 750.”
I have toted up the cost of this project to my unknown correspondent. Assuming an average postage over the years of 40 cents per card and another 50 cents for each postcard, the sum, over a 25-year period, comes to roughly $270 and counting. Rather expensive, I’d say, for a joke the response to which the joker isn’t around to register.
Who is the person doing this? And with what intent? Is it a man or a woman sending out these cards? I suspect a man; no woman would be so meshugga. How old is he? What impels him to continue over so long a period? All I know about this person is that he combines a sense of humor that relies heavily on repetition and that he is a man of astonishing diligence. As I think of him, sending out these Torelli postcards month after month, does he wonder what my reaction to them might be? Winging off another of his postcards, does he think that this will teach the old boy—me—to forget the great Torelli? Is he wondering if I am going out of my gourd trying to discover who is sending all these cards? Does he ever think about one day revealing himself to me and letting me in on the joke?
Is my correspondent aware that well before my music piece mentioning Torelli, I wrote a story called “Postcards”? The story is about a man, a poet manqué named Seymour Ira Hefferman, who each month buys and sends off postcards to cultural figures, novelists, critics, poets, angry feminists, college presidents. On these postcards he tells them off for their toadyism, pretensions, arrogance, stupidity, and foolishness generally. Unlike my correspondent, the character in my story does not send off his postcards anonymously but instead signs them with false names. One day he sends off one of these poisonous little missives on which he mistakenly has affixed his correct return address, which leads to what I hope are interesting complications.
That is fiction, but my Torelli man exists in real life. Might the moral here be that one can’t invent anything and that life, as advertised, really is stranger than fiction?
I have no notion of whether or not my anonymous correspondent is a reader of The Weekly Standard. On the assumption that he might be, I should like him to know that each month, as I shuffle through mail, consisting of bills, useless catalogues, and letters requesting I send money to help save the armadillo, and discover another of his Torelli postcards, I smile and think the world is not without its charm. Unlike Queen Victoria, who was famous for saying “We are not amused,” I am amused, highly so. My question is with whom do I get in touch at the Guinness Book of World Records to report this surely most longstanding of impractical jokes?