2, 3. 5 May
In the Sunday Review section of the Times, there was this, by Gerald Marzorati:
Most of us got good early on at something that took time and devotion. For me it was reading. My mother, a blue-collar homemaker, saw that I liked looking through books and began teaching me how to read before I turned 4; I entered kindergarten reading at a second-grade level. I had a sixth-grade English teacher I wanted to please, which meant hours and hours of conjugation drills. I was placed in advanced-reading classes in high school, where I was forced to articulate what I comprehended; majored in English in college, where I learned the theoretical aspects of reading; and always had a book on my night stand. I went on to spend nearly 40 years as an editor, reading and reading. I loved it, still do. But I doubt I improved at it much after college. (I probably peaked trying to unravel “Finnegans Wake” in my James Joyce seminar.) I suspect you are not unlike me, whatever you’ve done with your life. The gradual, continuous improvement petered out before you reached midlife.
I know that this is what usually happens, but why? And how do we change it? (And what are the “theoretical aspects of reading”?) The bulk of Marzorati’s essay concerns the new life that he has discovered by making a commitment to improving his tennis game. He does not expect to become any kind of champion — he’s beyond proving himself to other people. He finds the challenge, the exercise, the whatnot rejuvenating. He hopes that the endeavor will prolong his life, not by months but by years. If nothing else, “Better Aging…” made me feel sublimely wise about never having tried to enter the world of publishing and journalism. I have yet to begin petering out.
I doubt I improved at it much after college. I shudder. I know that people thought I was pretty smart when I got out of college — that I’d read a lot, knew a lot — but I was just beginning. For me, college was a preparation for a life of the mind. That is what it is supposed to be but so rarely is in our ill-conceived economy. In fact, I knew next to nothing in 1970, and a lot of what I did know was wrong. I don’t want to consider the nullity of my grasp of anything at the age of twenty-two. But I had made a commitment to keeping my mind alive — no, that sounds too noble. My mind had made a commitment to staying alive, dammit, and somehow it survived the decades of carousing that followed.
The night before reading Marzorati’s piece, I had been shaken to my bones by Helen Vendler. I mentioned her book about Wallace Stevens, On Extended Wings, last week. I’ve since begun to read it. Oh, I did the usual thing when I bought it, ages ago. I wanted some insight into “Credences of Summer,” so I jumped into the chapter devoted to that poem — and jumped right out. It is a bad idea to pick up one of Vendler’s books in the middle. She builds her work carefully, and every page is prerequisite to the next. I set On Extended Wings aside. Until last week.
As I read the book now, a dismal through-bass sounds: On Extended Wings was published in 1969, when I was still an undergraduate. Vendler, about fifteen years older than I am, was not yet forty. And yet she writes as if she had been dipped into the marinade of Stevens’s poetry fifty years before he started writing it. She knows it better than he did. As I read Vendler’s discussion of “The Comedian as the Letter C,” I thought to myself, my life is nearly over, and yet I am only now learning this. By which I mean that what Vendler has to say strikes me as, literally, elementary: it’s stuff that you have to know if you’re going to get anywhere in thought. Her authority is immensely persuasive.
I had not read “The Comedian as the Letter C,” so I spent a half hour glancing through it. I didn’t not try to understand it, or even respond to it; I simply wanted the lay of the land. I noticed a curious onrushing quality in the blank verse, as line ran to line after line, narrating an account that, personally, I should prefer to have had in prose.
His western voyage ended and began.
The torment of fastidious thought grew slack,
Another, still more bellicose, came on.
He, therefore, wrote his prolegomena,
And, being full of the caprice, inscribed
Commingled souvenirs and prophecies.
I always hear Hiawatha in the background when poets go on in this way — Hiawatha in the counting-house, calculating meters. But I liked the canto about the four daughters; it reminded me, in a jolly way, of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that is always fun when you don’t have to look at it. Then, when I had read the whole thing, I returned to Vendler. The jolly daughters soured and curdled. I’ve since recovered from the shock; now, two days later, what she has to say seems obvious and refreshing. But on Saturday night I had not conceived the possibility of giving Wallace Stevens a dressing down.
Stevens’ resolute attempts to make himself into a ribald poet of boisterous devotion to the gaudy, the gusty, and the burly are a direct consequence of a depressing irony in respect to the self he was born with and an equally depressing delusion about the extent to which this self could be changed. These ribaldries take two stylistic forms in Harmonium — the willed and artificial primitivism of poems like “Earthy Anecdote” and “Ploughing on Sunday,” and so on, and the verbal mimetic reproduction, persistent only in the Comedian, of the actual density of the physical world. Neither is destined to become Stevens’ persistent mode. Stevens as ironist never fades entirely … but the corrosive deflations of the Comedian are nowhere else so relentless. (52)
By “corrosive deflations,” Vendler means, I think, “mistakes.”
A page or two earlier, Vendler ascribes to Stevens
the vantage point of the man for whom the senses do not provide transcendent moments, who is repelled as the provocations of the senses reach excess, who is almost indifferent by temperament to any world except an arranged or speculative one — and who nevertheless “knows” that this world is all there is, that this is the unique item of ecstasy. (50)
This was an electrifying line, for I felt that Vendler was talking, somewhat, about me. Not me now, but the younger me who struggled to experience all sorts of things that he had read about. Real life, this younger me believed, was something that everyone else seemed to understand much better than he. He “needed to get out more.” But when he got out, he discovered only that his “comfort zone” — the thing that we’re all exhorted to leave in order to discover the richness of life — was not only not a plush fainting couch on which to daydream but the very portal to thought and understanding, a portal through which, on his best days, he passed quickly and surely, entering another zone that was too cosmic for comfort.
There is a moment in the film A Beautiful Mind in which John Nash is beguiled by the flashing of lighted panels, in which he detects, or thinks he detects, occult patterns. I am never deluded by the majesty of inexpressible harmonies; if I can’t write something down, it doesn’t exist, except as a phantasmic scrap of neuronal goo. But I often feel Nash’s thrill. My ecstasies are also interior.
I’ve just read “Ploughing on Sunday” for the first time.
Remus, blow your horn!
I’m ploughing on Sunday.
Ploughing North America.
Blow your horn!
For years, I was beset by the occasional urge to sing this kind of song, but it always came out as Stevens’s next lines,
I ought to say right now that I have yet to read most of Wallace Stevens’s poems for the first time. When I was young, instead of being roused by adolescent yearning, I preferred childish play with words, so I liked Pope and Sitwell best. I’ve been ashamed of that preference, but now I understand that I was only listening — listening, that is, for music, rhythm, pulse, antiphon and response. I didn’t care what poetry said, if anything; I wanted an armature for my prose. Once I had built one, I could read the real thing, but I was too old to be exhaustive. I have not yet got over the embarrassment that flushes through me whenever I read a great poem for the first time and think, oh dear, I ought to have known this a long time ago, and I wonder if I ever shall.
I mentioned “the life of the mind.” In most cases, this phrase is a richly-upholstered pipe-dream, signifying not much. The life of the mind is like any modern life: it has its beginning (ignorance), its education (training, or, in the much better French term, formation), and its career (thinking critically about the world). Its career, unlike Gerald Marzorati’s, apparently, is the real workout. I do not understand why or how Marzorati failed to apply the zeal that he is bringing gratuitously to tennis to the work that he did for a living. Is there, as many artists have believed, something dulling about negotiating — exchanging — one’s work for a salary? Does the figure on a check surreptitiously take the place of less liquid criteria? I don’t think so. The problem is collegiality. Anybody who is great at anything needs to spend a lot of time alone, and solitude is heavily discouraged by modern economy. Modern economy likes to have people show up in a certain place at a certain time; it wants them to produce a certain amount of something in a certain number of hours. Modern economy would prefer to gather a number of workers together for a perfectly pointless meeting — modern economy regards meetings as essentially productive — than allow individual to wander off into their own minds. Modern economy is preoccupied by common denominators. Participants in modern economy are at risk of being degraded by the infection of common ideas.
No two lives of the mind are the same. Each mind must create tools for evaluating its own performance. This is to say that everyone must develop a personal style of writing, for it is only in writing that thinking is manifest. The quality of writing reveals the quality of the life of the writer’s mind. Anything that the writer does not write down is almost a kind of madness, a private, unanchored wildness, the incoherence of which, if approached too closely, is terrifying. I’m thinking of what John Nash thought but could never express.
I wish I knew more people to talk to about the things on my mind, but after a lifetime of banging my head against a wall I see that this is like wanting to win the lottery. It is difficult to understand why one won’t win the lottery, because winning is so easily envisioned. Even though we know perfectly well that the numbers are stacked against us — massively against us — we think that we know just what it would be like to win. Such excitement! such pleasure! All we’re doing is enlarging small moments of good luck that we have actually experienced. So it is with important conversations. Their likelihood is very small. The interlocutors must be strangers, at least in the sense that friends are not, and yet they must share certain familiarities in order to be mutually comprehensible. They must have read much of the same sort of thing but each must have read certain unexpectedly important things that the other has not. And, at the risk of sounding new-agey, I’d venture that important conversations can occur only when two bodies are biorhythmically in some kind of synch.
That’s why writing is so much better — any kind of published writing. You send things out: that is your contribution to the conversation, a conversation which may not begin in earnest until after you are dead. The life of the mind has at its disposal everything ever written down by anyone, everything that survives to be read.
The world’s maladies can be remedied by two things only: acts of generosity and the expressions of lively minds.
I should like to write an entry about something without ever using the word that serves as its label.
After work and lunch yesterday, I hoped to spend some time with various kitchen papers, to make up a list of common weeknight and weekend dinners for two and divide the ingredients into “fresh” and “staple” categories, the better to organize my shopping. It’s the old problem: on any given day, I’ve got no idea what to make for dinner. What do I want for dinner is countered by what did we have last night and the night before that; less often, I’ve got to consider a dinner that’s coming up. How hard to I want to work at it is, in its turn, countered by what do you mean by ‘hard’? Pretty soon my mind a blank, with epicycles turning on epicycles, and the idea of lying down almost overpowers me. Yesterday, I thought, a bit of overview might help. What are the dishes in my current repertoire?
Well, that didn’t happen. I sat there with the LRB, which I’d been reading at lunch, and just continued to sit there. I read Jacqueline Rose’s very long piece, “Who do you think you are?” If I quote the article’s subtitle, I shall be obliged to use the word that I want to avoid.
Rose writes, with a comprehensiveness that outdoes even Andrew Solomon on the same subject (although his work is more penetrating), about confusion and clarity in matters of sex and gender. We can agree, for present purposed, that “sex” is an absolutely flesh-and-bone issue: your body presents your sex, which is almost always either male or female, at birth. For most people, the clarity of that presentation remains unproblematic. (I gather that some of the people about whom Rose writes — Susan Stryker, for example — might contest this assumption.) We can also agree that “gender” is less clear, more fluid. Gender, it is commonly thought in advanced circles, is socially constructed. Your sex may be male, but for your gender to be male as well there are things that you have to do. You must learn a body language — a way to stand, a manner with unoccupied arms, a tilt of the head — or at least exclude from your body language those gestures that are commonly associated with the female gender. You must walk and talk like a man. You must have at least a few of the skills that are strongly associated with men (even if there are plenty of strong women who demonstrate those skills as well or better). You must respect certain taboos; you must profess not to notice certain things. I remember finding it very funny, once, that a marriage announcement in the Times told readers the name of the fabric out of which the bride’s gown was constructed (peau de soie) before it revealed the name of the man whom the bride married. A woman standing nearby eyed me with anxious disapproval. A real man, I could tell she thought, simply wouldn’t have seen “peau de soie” on the page. And a clever man would have kept it to himself.
Gender does, of course, find sexual expression. Jacqueline Rose quotes Jennifer Finney Boylan: “it is not about who you want to go to bed with, it’s who you want to go to bed as.” In general, however, gender manifests itself in everyday behavior that everybody can see; it has little to do with caresses. Kathleen and I have been leading, for thirty-five years in October, lives that defy one of the key gender markers: Kathleen goes to the office, while I stay home and keep house. I do the cooking; Kathleen closes deals. But the confusion, if that’s what it is, is pretty confined to that one swap. In her free time, Kathleen knits and beads, while I read the classics and bloviate about social problems. But just as we are well-matched in opinions and outlook (and the ability to express them), we are, as a couple, really bad at wedding presents: each one thinks that the other ought to choose them. In short, there are matters in which we observe gender conventions, matters in which we defy them to the point of negation, and matters — our conversation, for example — in which we ignore difference altogether.
If people think that Kathleen and I are doing something wrong — something even remotely immoral — by spending our respective days where we do, she at the office and I at home, then we are utterly unaware of it. There must be people who do, but we don’t know them, or they don’t speak their complaints. I’m sure that my father-in-law has wondered what the hell is wrong with me, that I don’t earn a living, but he is more inclined to express gratitude that I take good care of his daughter. Kathleen and I grew up in an affluent, highly-educated world (which both of us nevertheless regarded as provincial, its “sophistication” but the merest of veneers), and we live in that world still. We have a great deal more personal freedom than do people at the other end of the socio-economic scale, freedom that we have done nothing to deserve. I believe that it is this freedom that has spared us the doubt that we might have been born with bodies of the wrong sex. Kathleen does not want to be a male, and she does not want me to be a female. And vice versa. Each of us is quite comfortable with the sex situation in our household. I can be a male and a good cook. My father-in-law, in his early nineties, fully approves — he used to be a good cook himself. For my mother, however, my culinary interests were always a worry. Her ideas about the alignment of sex and gender were rigid. The fact that I noticed the mention of peau de soie because I’m a reader and a writer would have meant nothing to her, either. But she died forty years ago next year. Things have changed a lot since 1977.
Reading Jacqueline Rose prodded me with an observation that I had also gleaned from Andrew Solomon’s chapter on this subject, in Far From the Tree: few of the witnesses come from backgrounds like the one that Kathleen and I share. Few of those who have undergone what I am going to call sex-alteration procedures of any kind (I include cross-dressing) seem to have enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom as children. A great many seem to have been physically abused, and a great many seem to have been bullied, a complementary form of abuse. Rose wonders if many young people who seek sex-alteration procedures do so under pressure from parents and other adult advisers who seek the arguable protections of clarity, as if a sissy’s problems will be solved by uncomplicated femininity. Most of all, sex-alteration procedures appear to be undertaken with a view to bringing sex into alignment with gender. As a complete reversal of the cruelties of the traditional priority, which has always rather brutally subordinated gender to sex, this sounds like a good thing, but the more I think about it, the more I doubt the wisdom of trying to solve a broad miscellany of gender problems, about which there is, by the way, no overarching consensus, by playing Frankenstein with the body. I take the reference to Victor Frankenstein from Susan Stryker, who loudly proclaims the unnatural state of her sex-altered, stitched-over body.
Jacqueline Rose winds up her long essay with a thought that chimes with my own judgment, but before quoting it I shall break my restraint in order to suggest that my “problem” with the “transsexual” is very largely an aesthetic rejection of the term itself. Almost all the words ending in “-sexual” are more or less revolting to me. They pretend to give a mere fact (genital endowment, “sexual” preference) as much weight as fully human possibilities, whereas humanity begins where the facts of the human body and its inborn or unconscious proclivities stop (by having expressed themselves as inexorable). I always stumble in the middle of sentences that begin, “I’ve been reading about transsexual —” Transsexual what? “Transsexualism”? If there is a word with a more retrograde redolence, then please don’t tell me what it is.
On the other hand, I would tentatively suggest that we are witnessing the first signs that the category of the transsexual might one day, as the ultimate act of emancipation, abolish itself. In “Woman’s Time” (1981), Julia Kristeva argued that feminism, and indeed the whole world, would enter a third stage in relation to sexual difference: after the demand for equal rights and then the celebration of femininity as other than the norm, a time will come when the distinction between woman and man will finally disappear, a metaphysical relic of a bygone age. In the second Transgender Reader, Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade call for a trans and queer movement which would set its sights above all on a neoliberal agenda that exacerbates inequality, consolidates state authority and increases the number of incarcerated people across the globe.
I’ll vote for that. It seems obvious to me that sex-alteration is, fundamentally, a form of political protest, even if — hell, especially if — the politics at stake are utterly local. (Those particular bullies are to stop abusing this particular child.) To the extent that a scalpel can enhance human happiness, I cannot object to the procedure. But to the extent that it is raised as a proxy for prison reform, I can only hope that our pursuit of clarity will advance beyond uncertainties about the sex and gender of individuals.
In the same issue of the LRB — the first to appear (here) since the death of Jenny Diski; perhaps not the first to carry an ad for a book by Jenny Diski but nothing by her name in the list of articles — there is a review, by Alice Sprawls, of a show, or installation, at London’s National Portrait Gallery, celebrating the centenary of “Brogue,” or British Vogue. More than a review, Sprawls’s piece is a capsule history of the magazine, which was inaugurated when U-boats interfered with transatlantic shipping. According to Sprawls, the NPG show attains nothing like the success of recent photography exhibitions about Lee Miller (at the Imperial War Museum) and Horst (at the V&A), but the catalogue is a must. Sprawls herself is full of fun stuff. For example, owing to paper shortages during World War II, Vogue’s subscription list had to be limited, so that the only way a new subscriber could get a copy was for an old subscriber to die. (I’m not sure that I really believe this, or that it was a policy in force for more than a fortnight, but it’s certainly fun.) Also fun: it was the robust market for Vogue patterns that kept Condé Nast financially afloat after the Crash wiped out his extensive speculations. I see that Vogue patterns still exist, but at a web page belong to McCall’s. During the past thirty years, has Anna Wintour been in the same room with one?
Sprawls does not mention Wintour, which must mean something. She glides from Beatrix Miller to Alexandra Schulman, overlooking the chance to deploy “Nuclear Wintour,” which is also fun, if pretty predictable, given The Devil Wears Prada. Coming home last night in a taxi, Kathleen, who has quite given up looking at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and wonders why they still appear on the coffee table, got stuck in the traffic created around the Museum by limousines ferrying guests to the Met Gala at the Anna Wintour Costume Center. In the Times online today, Sarah Jessica Parker talks about her “Hamilton look.” The theme of this year’s gala, as it has been for every season since Wintour took the gala under her wing, is “Commerce By Night.” I’d like to know what Anna Wintour thinks about Germaine Greer’s opinion of MTF transsexuals, which Jacqueline Rose cites at almost incredulous length. It appears that Greer does not recognize sex alteration, at least in cases involving a body born as male. To her, these former males are “pantomime dames,” imperialists for the masculine cause trying out a new gambit. My suspicion is that Wintour agrees, but doesn’t mind.
I don’t know what the alternative to Brogue is, but I prefer Harper’s Bazaar, which always seems to have been more literary than fashionable (and I’m talking about the staff, not the paid outsiders). Diana Vreeland was much cleverer at the Bazaar than she was at Vogue, or perhaps I mean much less; I am still waiting for someone to publish the compleat Why don’t you…” The only other point that needs to be made about the superiority of Bazaar to Vogue is that it is an issue of the former that Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) is really reading at the end of Rear Window. Paid product placement, perhaps, but still — Grace Kelly.
What is to be thought? About a week after proposing Carly Fiorina as his running mate, Ted Cruz has folded his tents and departed. So has John Kasich. The improbable Donald Trump alone remains, a genuinely popular candidate, at least among Republican Party voters. Already, the Times is helping us to imagine what Trump’s first hundred days in office will be like.
In a series of recent interviews, he sketched out plans that include showdowns with business leaders over jobs and key roles for military generals, executives and possibly even family members in advising him about running the country.
Shortly after the Nov. 8 election, President-elect Trump and his vice president — most likely a governor or member of Congress — would begin interviewing candidates for the open Supreme Court seat and quickly settle on a nominee in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia.
It sounds like a movie. Which is why I repeat the question: what is to be thought? How much conviction are we to invest in this prospect? How earnestly ought we to prepare for change in the political culture of a magnitude not seen since Andrew Jackson’s day?
Many think that the White House now belongs to Hillary Clinton. I’m not so sure. Which is more reason to be thinking. Thinking — but not concluding. Conclusions are premature. What has ended is the scrimmage on the right. The horse race there is over. There may be an insurrection, forcing Trump to run as a third-party candidate. Now that the voters have spoken, how will the Party establishment settle its stomach? There are so many problems with Trump, problems on different levels. There is the burlesque aspect of his demeanor, which some people see and others don’t. He is a clown to many. He is also a tyro, incapable of speaking articulately about anything, but probably not because of stupidity. No, probably because articulateness means little to his supporters. If Trump wins the election in November, his mandate will be to tear down the house. Coherent policy statements will mean nothing in the smoke and dust. How eager are Republican mandarins, and the organized money behind them, to participate in the pillage?
Is it possible that there will be no pillage? If Trump has a truly “presidential” mien up his sleeve, he is probably not going to display it until after the election.
All this must be thought about. What must not be thought about is “how this ever happened.” We’ll leave that question to the historians; with their longer perspective, they’ll see things that we cannot. I myself have been mildly surprised by the extent of Trump’s success, but the success itself does not surprise me at all. What surprises me — and it oughtn’t — is the shock and awe that seems to have been dealt to political commentators. For too many of the men and women who tell us what to think, Trump’s advance has made Aleppos of their workspace. They cannot function without saying panicky things. A Times editorial yesterday castigated the Republican Party for allowing Trump to happen. Not so fast! I would bet that a big chunk of Trump’s supporters either used to be Democrats or are the children of people who were Democrats until the Civil Rights/Nixon disaster.
I hope that Hillary Clinton and her supporters will not embark on a wild vilification of Donald Trump. Without doing much to recognize Trump’s existence, the Democrats need to create a welcoming but realistic political atmosphere that will draw every conceivable voter to the polls, while conferring by implication the air of a sideshow monstrosity on Trump’s berserkers. I have my doubts about Clinton’s ability to oversee a project of this kind; her character is marred by a profound arrogance that seems to me to be pregnant with tragic possibilities.
Here’s what I think: if Donald Trump is able to present himself as the more generous candidate, more sincerely committed to the welfare of the American voters of today than his Democratic rival, then he will win in November. Other issues pale to insignificance beside this one.
It may be that generosity is much on my mind anyway. Thinking, late last night, about Mavis Gallant’s novel, A Fairly Good Time, I was tickled by the ease with which I could dissolve every scene, every confrontation, and every plot point in a colloid of understanding and generosity. “Understanding” is generally another word for “sympathy,” but not in Gallant’s world. Again and again, the heroine, a twenty-something called Shirley, runs up against generosity withheld by people who claim to understand her, while she herself is generous without understanding.
Because the novel is set in Paris, in the early Sixties — still the late Forties, in other words, in all but the most superficial appearances — the dissonance between understanding and generosity might easily be seen as a comic take on French cynicism. Gallant certainly plays this card. The two principal men in the story, Philippe, Shirley’s vanishing husband, and Papa Maurel, the unhappy patriarch of a discordant family, treat Shirley with a contempt bordering on sadism; they are virtuosos in turning her arguments of self-defense against her. As a disheveled North American of undeveloped habits, Shirley lacks the ideal personality profile for would-be Parisian expats. But she runs into much the same hard-heartedness in fellow North Americans, such as her quondam friend Renata and her touring godmother, Mrs Cat Castle. The only truly gentle people in the book, aside from the rackety heroine herself, are the Higginses, Mr and Mrs and their son, Pete. Shirley was married to Pete, briefly. Gallant makes you wonder about the “why” behind the “briefly,” but then discloses the history in the tumorously outsized, seventy-page twelfth chapter: Pete died in a stupid vehicular accident. The sweetness of the Higginses is a small cloud of dust in the bedlam of Shirley’s protracted apology. The Higgenses belong to the relatively distant past, and they are completely effaced by such supporting characters as Madame Roux, the inexplicably malignant shopkeeper on the ground floor of Shirley’s apartment house.
Speaking of “generosity,” I do not have money in mind. Shirley is not rich by any means, but she is not needy, either. Shirley is not turning to people for financial help. She is looking for friends, for people who will make sense of her life in Paris. Too often, she is told that bad things will happen to her, and the warnings are not meant in a friendly or generous way. Here are two passages, a page apart, taken from Shirley’s recollection of her first dinner with Philippe.
All these rude questions have a reason [says Philippe], and you are certainly as conscious of it as I am. Otherwise you would not have bothered to see me again. I have another question — I hope not the last. Between the time I met you and today, and I have been asking other questions about you. Your friends tell me that you give everything away. Why do you give everything away? It sounds like a kind of imbalance. Has anyone ever tried to stop you? (240)
He spooned two strawberries on to my plate and insisted I taste them. I wondered if he had been raised to think that women need to be coaxed. It seemed to me an extraordinary physical gesture, as if we were already lovers. I didn’t know then that we could not be friends. I don’t know why, but we never became friends. (241)
One is reminded of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal: a novel that begins with the disappearance of a husband climaxes with the insight of a first date observed. We never became friends. By page 241, the reader is well aware of this; the reader has known it from the start, when Shirley, alone in the apartment, goes through Philippe’s desk drawers and reads bits of the strange novel that a female friend, somehow not a mistress (she is perhaps not physically robust), hopes that Philippe will be able to publish. Philippe holds this woman in higher regard than he does his wife. Looking back from page 241, we may nod: Geneviève Deschranes and Philippe are friends, just as Philippe and Shirley are not. Shirley claims to love Philippe, but she never says anything about liking him. This may be the failure of her generosity: it is indiscriminate. She gives everything away, to anybody. And she does not understand that, for that and other reasons, she and Philippe could never be friends.
A tangential encounter that no one of ordinary discretion would allow to blow out of proportion thrusts Shirley into the bosom of the Maurel family. If Shirley fits in with the Maurels, that’s because the family is already running a substantial friendship deficit within itself. The force of bourgeois custom is all that holds the Maurels together. Papa, a thinnish man who closes his eyes in frequent exasperation and who forbids what he cannot ignore, was bought by Maman Maurel’s rich father. When the marriage didn’t work out, Papa moved in with his rich uncle. But Maman’s father was a friend of Papa’s uncle, and Papa was sent back to Maman, whereupon they actually became the parents of two girls, eight years apart. Marie-Thérèse, the elder, is stern and correct, the mother of four boys of her own. (Maman, a delicate eater, loathes the Alsatian in-laws with whom Marie-Thérèse’s husband, Gérald, has brought her into contact.) Claudie, the younger daughter, is something of a wild child. She has borne a child out of wedlock; Papa and Maman are raising little Alain as their own (they moved to a new neighborhood to avoid the disgrace). I never did decide what was wrong with Claudie, but something was. Something involving the imbalance of a strong will in a weak mind.
The Maurel’s live in Boulogne-Billancourt, far away from Shirley’s flat in the 6ième, but Shirley seems to spend every free minute with them, at least for a while.
The Maurel family were still trying to overtake their first failed invitation. Shirley had now sat down to four meals in their dining room, each a disaster. The Maurels quarreled so violently that no one save Gérald had time to swallow. Only Shirley seemed to be distressed by it; to the Maurels, normal conversation was either a whine or a scream. Except for Papa, who never looked at her, and Marie-Thérèse, who mistrusted Shirley with all her heart, Shirley had become everyone’s tutelary saint. (141)
Giving it all away yet again.
A Fairly Good Time is itself marked by the tension between understanding and generosity. A famous and highly-accomplished short-story writer, long published in The New Yorker, Gallant wrote only two novels; this one is the second. When short-story writers produce novels with odd shapes and strange focus, it is difficult to distinguish the experimental from the incompetent. A Fairly Good Time is certainly not an incompetent novel; its very irregularities (and these are considerable) are engrossing. They reproduce, without annoying insistence, the irregularities of twenty-something life, when overwhelming possibility engenders limitless procrastination. It is hard to tell who one’s friends are. What I mean by raising the idea of incompetence is the uncertainty, betrayed by the tale’s unexpected emphases, of affect attempted and achieved.
The title is taken from Edith Wharton: “If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.” I don’t think that I’ve ever read a more characteristic line: the bleak irony behind Wharton’s decision to let beauty stand in for joy infuses all her work. But I am not aware that Shirley has made up her mind about being happy, or about much of anything else. Shirley accepts that, as a plain woman, she is not entitled to top-drawer treatment, but her search for personal satisfaction does not suggest that happiness has been crossed off her list. Does she have a fairly good time, amidst all the disaster of a novel that, while set in Paris, is chilled by the frontier gusts of empty west Canada? Gallant is replete with understanding; like Diane Johnson after her, Gallant delights in showing us the French bourgeoisie at home, with its rabbity misgivings and its mindless disdain for Americans. (There are good reasons for looking down on Americans, but these little people are not in possession of them.) Gallant is not criticizing the French so much as warning Anglophones against trying to be chummy. She does this best by inflicting the Maurel’s chumminess on Shirley.
But, perhaps haunted by modernist fashions, Gallant doesn’t want to tell us too much about Shirley. In an almost slavish adherence to fictional modes of the Sixties, she allows Shirley to say goodbye to everything in the story that she has just lived, but tells us not a thing about what’s next for her heroine. Shirley leaves her old apartment for the last time; she posts a hastily-improvised letter to Philippe that could mean anything. “She supposed that they would see each other again in time, in dreams and recollections.” We are allowed to follow Shirley no further. This is an arguably stingy way to end a story about a woman who gives everything away.