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Obscure Objects of Desire

I used to be a fountain pen fetishist, craving pretentiously named (Dostoeyevsky, Mozart, Oscar Wilde, ?) limited editions of Mont Blancs that always ended up leaking into my breast pocket when I leaned more than 3 degrees away from the vertical. I could never understand why Mont Blancs looked so good but worked so bad. I had a Pelikan that you could throw in the air and juggle with and it wouldn’t leak. But not Mont Blancs. They live to leak.

I would resist fountain pen temptation for many months, sometimes years, and then eventually give in in order to stop the torture. Sometimes I bought cheaper Lamys that looked very modern, sometimes a faux 1930s Parker, sometimes, just once actually, a (disappointing) vintage bakelite Conway Stewart like the first pen I ever had when I was in high school, which I wish I could find. Once in South Africa at university I owned a Sheaffer PFM (Pen for Men, indeed), a masculine instrument with a not entirely unexpected snorkel filling system that rose up out of the back of the nib and ejected ink (it’s true). A few years ago I found it in disuse and nostalgically sent it to Sheaffer for repair, and they kindly emailed me back to say they couldn’t repair it,and gave me a lousy cheapo modern trashy Sheaffer as compensation. Like Sheaffer, so GM, an early warning — can’t even repair their own products. Eventually I got it repaired at the Fountain Pen Hospital in New York, who did a great job.

In the end, all the pens were disappointing. By dint of great willpower and the exercise of inborn character, not to mention professional help from Graf von Faber Castell and his wife the elegant Gr?fin Namiki, I eventually overcame this addiction. Now I write only on computers, except for making lists of things to do.

Nevertheless, relapses are always possible, and you have to be on your guard. I am in Frankfurt for a day, and in the lobby of my hotel is a glass display box that contains a beautiful black pen with an unpretentious and really modest silver top. Plain and elegant, modern and classic, simultaneously, what more could you want except a nice feel and no leaking? I went over to the store on Rathenau Platz nearby that sells it to take a look. The hotel concierge who directed me to Rathenau Platz didn’t know that Rathenau was a Weimar Minister who was assassinated in the 20s — something I learned from my son — and when I informed her she said “Sorry, I don’t know much history.”

The elderly German gentleman in the pen store who served me very graciously interrupted a conversation with five other German gentlemen who all wore suits and ties, as does almost everyone in downtown Frankfurt. I can understand some German and they were coming by to chat, which is to say that the store was empty, another recessionary sign. But he was gracious indeed, and he let me try out Fs and EFs to my heart’s content, unafraid to actually fill them with ink the way they fear to in American stores.

While I was writing my name over and over again in various thicknesses on the 40 lb tester paper, I sudenly looked up and at the man and saw that he was running the tip of his index finger over the upper side of his left lip and looking directly at me. I took this to mean that I had gotten some ink on my face from the pen, and, as though he were my mirror image, rubbed my own finger on the corresponding spot on my face and looked at him quizzically. (We had a sort of unspoken agreement to speak as little as possible in either English or German.) He looked back at me, and then ran his finger across his lip again, a little lower. Thinking I had missed the spot of ink, I then did the same. He then moved his finger along the corresponding path. I repeated it. Etc. Finally, I said to him: “Do I have something on my face?” “Oh nein,” he answered, “I thought you were pointing out to me that I had something on mine.”

I started out this blog intending to say something very positive about local volatility models and calibration, which I have been thinking about for a while, but given the energy I have put into fountain pens, I will postpone that to a future day.

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