I’m reading Sybille Bedford’s splendid novel-memoir Jigsaw, and she tells a funny anecdote about a hazard with a homophone:
A friend once told me that as a small boy — he was the son of Aldous Huxley and thus not exactly reared in an intellectually deprived environment — he had read through a French two-volume history of Anne of Austria under the unwavering impression that the subject was a female donkey: Âne d’Autriche.
I was reminded of a misunderstanding of mine, when I was a college freshman taking a class on the French novel somewhat over my head. The professor devoted an early lecture to the genre of the novel and its antecedents, which, in retrospect, owed not a little to Georg Lukács. Letters, of course, and plays had made their contribution, but I was pleased to learn how much the novel owed to dolls. I imagined he was referring to some kind of puppetry that I, as an eighteen-year-old, had never heard of; I knew that Punch and Judy did go back. I was a little surprised to hear that passion for dolls had risen in the ancient era to the level of high art, but I took notes diligently — dolls in ancient Greece, dolls in ancient Rome — until the professor began to go into detail about the well-known dolls of the Odyssey, and the contribution of the trickster tale-teller Odysseus, and at last the realization dawned, to my chagrin, that the professor was talking about l’épopée (epic poetry) not les poupées (dolls). The study of literature was never the same after that.