There are words that I don’t know, of course. When I encounter one, I look it up in the dictionary. But there are also things of which I never knew, things for which there turn out to be words that I have never bumped into, so that the new word, instead of screwing in comfortably with all the others, continues to thrum with unfamiliarity. Such is the Italian word sdrucciolo, which I ran into yesterday.
Now, most Italian words correspond to English words that I know as well as you do. Sdrucciolare — sdroo-cho-LAR-ay — means “to slip.” Sdrucciolo, however, which is derived from this verb, does not mean “slippery.” The word for “slippery” is sdrucciolevole — sdroo-cho-LAY-vo-lay. According to my dictionary, sdrucciolo — SDROO-cho-lo — means two things, one of them a chemical, the other “trisyllabic verse.” Neither of these has anything to do with what I learned yesterday.
The default accent in any Italian word is on the penultimate syllable. Remember those adjectives from last week? ScorRETTo, ImbarraZANte? That’s normal. But there are some words that are accented on the antepenultimate syllable, and you just pick them up as you learn the language. BruTISSimo — again from last week. CAmera (room), FAcile (easy), PosSIbile (possible). Sometimes I’m not sure, and, when I’m reading aloud, I make lots of mistakes. I’m certain that I’ve said “FaCIle.” Another thing that I didn’t know until yesterday is that it is customary, when dubbing a foreign film into Italian, to indicate stupid characters — eg, The Three Stooges — by having them get their accents wrong. I’ve always been aware of a vague uncertainty about some words, though, mostly verbs, verbs in their infinitive and third-person plural forms. I know enough Italian to know that a lot of these particular forms are spoken with the accent on the antepenult. But I didn’t look into it until yesterday.
Yesterday, you see, I was reading on in Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole (In Other Words), and the uncertainty that I just mentioned ceased to be vague, and became annoyingly insistent. Two words that appear with great frequency in Lahiri’s book are leggere (to read) and scrivere (to write). Although I was not reading aloud, my confusion about where to place the accent on these words was disruptive. I was pretty sure that the accent fell on the first syllable in both words, but LeGEre sounded right, too.
For a good reason. If you accent the second syllable of leggere, you say the word for “light,” as in “lightweight.” Leggerevole can mean “somewhat” or “slightly.” In the infinitive of the verb “to read,” however, the accent does indeed fall on the first syllable. Leggere and scrivere belong to a class of infinitives, all of them ending in -ere. They do not end in -are (parlare, amare) or -ire (partire, empire). The word for these -ere infinitives, and all the other words with an accent on the antepenult, is — yes! — sdrucciolo. These words have un accento sdrucciolo.
And you just have to learn them. It is a testament to my haphazard way of going about things, or of having gone about them in my wasted youth, that I have been fooling around with Italian for fifty years or more, and even taken a course or two, without ever having had the faintest suspicion of sdrucciolo. Yes, I was uncertain about accenting certain words, but it never occurred to me that they formed a class, with its own label. I never saw a list of sdrucciolo words.
Not until yesterday, that is. I found a very handy cheat sheet yesterday, in response to the last of about five Google searches. I thought about copying it into an Evernote and having it on my phone, but I decided to print it out, and to keep it handy while I’m reading In altre parole, and who-knows-what I’ll read in Italian next.
I suppose that this sdrucciolo thing is also testament to how surprisingly easy it is for me to read Italian, after years and years of practically no effort. Having the English on a facing page certainly makes things easier, but as I’ve gotten further into the book I’ve made a greater effort to work things out for myself. The result is that I’m bothered not by meanings but by accents. But I’m only talking about reading Italian. Not speaking or writing in it.
Lahiri tells of how, one day, in a library where she never felt comfortable, she suddenly had the idea for a story. She wrote half of it then and there, and then came back the next day and finished it. Then —
I don’t know how to read the story. [As in standard Italian, Lahiri writes about the ongoing past in the present tense. I'm not sure that Ann Goldstein was right to translate so literally.] I don’t know what to think about it. I don’t know if it works. I don’t have the critical skills to judge it. Although it came from me, it doesn’t seem completely mine. I’m sure of only one thing: I would never have written in English. (65)
So when, in the very next chapter, she gives us the story, “Lo scambio” — The Exchange — I read it with this in mind: not only how “Italian” it sounded (and what kind of judge am I of that?), but also how “not-English.” I decided to take Lahiri at her word: she wouldn’t have written it in English. It’s not that the story doesn’t work in English; it’s just not the sort of thing that you’d expect Lahiri to write, going on her work so far (all of it in English). It is hard to imagine her even dreaming of the story in English. But it is Italian to this extent: it reminds me of The Other Language, the collection of short stories in English by Francesca Marciano, stories that struck me as having been designed to capture an Italian sensibility in English.
“Lo Scambio” reads, frankly, like the scenario for a film by Michelangelo Antonioni. A woman who is a professional translator is disturbed by the conviction that everything that she remembers about her life could have been better. (Ogni volta che aveva un qualsiasi ricordo della sua vita passata, era convinta che un’altra versione sarebbe stata migliora. — 66) She is too fond of life to consider suicide, so she decides to vacate her circumstances instead. She says good-bye to everybody and gives everything away, except for a little black sweater.
In the strange city where she knows no one, she walks everywhere. Her life is very simple, but it is the simplicity of an Armani suit. It is a very affluent simplicity, buying a nice piece of fruit and then enjoying it on a pleasant park bench. Nobody writes this way in English; in English, this sort of thing seems weightless and inconsequential. (Needless to say, the translator is unnamed.) It can even seem to be precious. And perhaps it’s no longer stylish in Italian. (Why, though, did I just now think of early Paul Auster?) Be that as it may, the central event in the story has a fairy tale quality that fits perfectly. Standing under a cornice in the rain, the translator notices that women are entering and leaving the palazzo across the street. She decides to follow them. She rings and is admitted. She walks through a courtyard and up a grand staircase. No, I made that up: it’s “dark stairway, the steps slightly uneven.” The translator climbs the stairs, leaves her purse along with the others’ on a table in the hallway, and enters a large living room.
The tone becomes even more dreamlike at this point, not because odd things happen — not at all — but because the fact that the translator has gatecrashed what is essentially a trunk show held at a designer’s home is never announced, as it certainly would be in English. Instead, we gather as much from an accumulation of details — the rack of clothes against the far wall, the three-screen mirror.
Some women were already undressed, and were trying on clothes, asking the others for their opinions. They were a collection of arms, legs, hips, waists. Unceasing variations. They all seemed to know each other. (73)
The translator undresses, too, and tries on a lot of outfits — “all the garments in her size.”
She studied her own image. But she was distracted by the presence of another woman behind the mirror, at the end of the hall. She was different from the others. She was working at a table, with an iron, a needle in her mouth. She had tired eyes, a sorrowful face.
The clothes were elegant, well made. Even though they suited her, the translator didn’t like them. After trying the last thing she decided to leave. She didn’t feel like herself in those clothes. She didn’t want to acquire or accumulate anything more. (73)
The crisis is that the translator cannot find her little black sweater. A search of the premises turns up something that looks rather like it, but isn’t — its material is rougher, and it doesn’t quite fit. The translator actually finds it revolting. By now, the translator is the only woman in the apartment, aside from the owner and the woman with the iron. In search of the sweater, the designer calls up each of her clients, but nobody took it home by mistake. (The idea that someone might have stolen it out of spite does not occur.) The translator, feeling defeated, leaves with the substitute sweater. Her certainty that it is not hers is overwhelmed by an uncertainty about everything.
In the morning, a transformation. The black sweater both is and is not the garment that the translator brought with her to this new city. The alien aspect of the sweater is no longer revolting. “In fact, when she put it on, she preferred it. [...] Now, when she put it on, she, too, was another.” (81)
The end. Now let’s go back to the end of the previous chapter, in which the story was written.
Odio analizzare ciò che scrivo. Ma qualche mese dopo, un mattino mentre corro in villa Doria Pamphilj, mi viene in mente, tutto a un tratto, il significato di questo strano racconto: il golfino è la lingua. (64)
I hate analyzing what I write. But one morning a few months later, when I’m running in the park of villa Doria Pamphili, the meaning of this strange story suddenly comes to me: the sweater is language. (65)
You might wonder if Lahiri had better kept that interpretative key to herself until the reader had a chance to read the story. But what I find telling is that the critical experience occurs in a context that is unfamiliar to Lahiri’s writing (so far as I recall it): fashion. Fashion, that is, at one of its pinnacles. Not the brand-name “couturiers” but rather designers like the one in the story, who have a little list of women who look good in her clothes and who can afford them. Every now and then, she opens her doors and sells what she has. It is very discreet. The clothes are designed for women who travel; they can be washed in cold water by hand. They don’t wrinkle. Lahiri could be describing the dresses that Kathleen hunted down in an out-of-the-way corner of Hong Kong, twenty-odd years ago. That such an event should occur, convincingly, at the heart of a Lahiri story is proof that she has at least left New York behind. Her New York, that is — we have trunk shows like that, too. But in New York, writers do not “do” fashion. They do not do “girly” things. (A great deal of Joan Didion’s enigmatic aura owes to the fact that, as a writer, she almost completely suppresses her lively interest in womanly things, such as buying clothes and shopping for dinner. The Joan Didion known to her women friends would not, at least until recently, have been respected by male writers.) In “Lo Scambio,” there is an utter lack of the irony with which an American writer would treat the designer and her clients.
When I sat down this morning, this Italian note was going to be short, and then I was going to write about Vladimir Putin as a gangster. Over the weekend, I read yet another review of the Owen Report, which is based on an investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by a cup of tea laced with polonium in 2006, almost certainly at Putin’s behest. As it so happens, I was also getting into John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor, which I’m reading not in continuation of my Cornwell craze but because a filmed adaptation, starring Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, and Stellan Skarsgård, is going to appear in the not-too-distant future. And the novel gave me an idea. How do you go after a gangster? You hire a better gangster.
It’s not really much of an idea. The Litvinenko murder took forever to “clear up,” if that’s what the Owen Report means, because Litvinenko was more or less a nobody. If you took out Putin, you’d be killing the top public official in Russia. The Russians could hardly respond to such an assassination in gang-war terms. But maybe the better gangster could make life — gangster life — more difficult for Putin, perhaps not worth living. Putin’s henchmen could begin disappearing, instead of just his enemies.
The way things are going, defecting Russian millionaires and billionaires may indeed be investing in the development of such a gangsteer, one to rival not Putin’s thugs but Putin himself. One thing seems clear: you do not go after gangster heads of state in the United Nations, or by any other combination of conventional diplomacy followed by war. We learned that in the Thirties.
The problem with gangster heads of state is that they’re always appealing at the beginning, because they maintain a semblance of law and order. Order, anyway. Mussolini, Hitler, Erdoğan, Putin all seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. With Stalin, it was more the peace of the sepulcher, but even he had his gets-things-done fans. One has to wonder about Donald Trump in this line-up. Trump talks like a gangster, or rather he speaks with a gangland accent, but he talks too much to be mistaken for a gangster. Way too much.
And, say you got rid of Putin? Then what?
On Saturday, I saw Paul Taylor’s Spindrift for the first time. The dance made a great and immediate impression. I recognized not only that it belongs to the grand tier of Taylor dances, but that this tier carries the label, “Sublime.” Other Sublime dances include Cloven Kingdom, Arden Court, and that old favorite, Esplanade. I’d be inclined to include Roses, if it weren’t for the relative monotony of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll; the other dances in this class draw their music from multi-movement compositions with their roots in the Baroque, meaning that fast and lively music alternates with grave and solemn music. There are tears and there are smiles. Every now and then, a laugh. If the dances are death-haunted, they are all about being alive, with a comprehensiveness that seems exhaustive. That comprehensiveness is an illusion, of course, but the power of the illusion is what makes the dances Sublime. The power is generated by the choreographer’s skill at forging an organic whole out of a miscellany.
I say this, and yet I remember nothing of the particular movements of Spindrift. I saw that Michael Trusnovec had the leading role (no surprise), but I can’t retail his interactions with the other members of the company, as I can with Beloved Renegade, which was presented a little later. Performances of Beloved Renegade, which was new when Kathleen and I discovered Paul Taylor, had always eluded us. It was always appearing on an adjacent bill, not the one for which we’d shown up. I was relieved finally to see it. I’m sure that there are many who would include it among Paul Taylor’s Sublime dances, if they were to recognize the category. But I wouldn’t. Having seen Beloved Renegade, I needn’t see it again. It is an elegy for the company’s senior dancer, now in his eighteenth year with Paul Taylor. It also seemed to be an elegy for Robert Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney; like Michael Trusnovec, they’re fortyish. These men, magnificent as they are, cannot go on doing this much longer. I was annoyed with myself for noticing an AIDS connection, mediated no doubt by the program’s explicit references to Walt Whitman, who so famously nursed wounded soldiers in Washington, during the Civil War. In the dance itself, there was a passage in which Trusnovec appeared to be succoring wounded men; I remember thinking that it was full of grace.
But I remember nothing from Spindrift. Once I had recognized its greatness, it slipped through my fingers. So I hope to see it again.
We did our weekend thing. On Saturdays, during its three weeks at Lincoln Center, Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance presents afternoon and evening programs. Generally, each program features the performance of three dances. On Saturday, however, the first segment was given to two short works, separated by a brief pause. First, we had Snow White, which is no end of fun. I have never seen a British pantomime, and I have trouble even imagining what it might be like, but Paul Taylor’s Snow White can’t be so very different. It is, briefly, a burlesque of Walt Disney’s version: the title character (danced adorably by Parisa Khobdeh) wears the same little red bow in her hair. The mean old queen stomps about in her voluminous cloak, clacking her blood-red fingernails and panting for wickedness; I quickly discerned that Sean Mahoney was dancing the part. He was much more obviously also dancing the part of the Prince. “Dancing” is an exaggeration. The Prince paces solemnly, one arm raised in conciliation, the other placed across this breast. From time to time, he frowns, and, with placid gravity, switches hands. It is very witty.
There is a nonstop, vixenish Bad Apple (Heather McGinley), and of course a passel of dwarves — but only five. Robert Kleinendorst was one of them, and as he and the others crouched through their acrobatics, I was reminded of an interview that he gave last year (I think it was) in which he complained of not being able to get a full night’s sleep, such was his back pain. I tried not to dwell on this. I tried to remember what Snow White was reminding me of, but I didn’t figure that out until just now (the elaborate curtain call in Lend Me a Tenor, which recapitulates the entire comedy in less than a minute). The whole dance is very witty: look, it says, at how clever our romping can be. Paul Taylor can get away with this, probably because he resorts to it sparingly.
Nothing could have been less like fun than what followed the pause: Profiles, a dance to scratchy and dissonant string-quartet playing. If I had to categorize Profiles, I should call it Sixties Serious, but you could probably do better. Bodies in Space? The four dancers (Michael Trusnovec, Eran Bugge, Laura Halzack, and Michael Novak — to list them, as the company is scrupulous to do, in order of seniority) are costumed in skintight outfits that I gathered must be stepped into, as there was a conspicuous lack of zippers. The intention behind this aesthetic, once so ubiquitous, seems to be half salacious (nudies!) and half despoiling (stripping away our bogus disguises &c &c). It also makes possible a sort of architectural treatment of the body, as if anatomy could be bent into structure. I was reminded of the days of my youth, when art went out of its way to be anhedonic.
Just how far we’ve come from those days was measured by Offenbach Overtures, which closed the afternoon program. The music consists of bits and pieces taken from the title’s sources, and the tone is therefore somewhere between ooh-la-la and Swan Lake. The costumes are cherry red, with black accents. For the ladies, low heels, cloth hair ornaments, bloomers, and can-can skirts. For the gentlemen: tank tops, tights, and boots, with hats suggesting either army or navy. Oh, and moustaches, lovely waxed curlicue moustaches, rendering the men indistinguishable, at least at first. The note of burlesque was struck again, this time by Parisa Khobdeh as an intoxicated chorine, vaguely reminiscent of Rosalind Russell, and by Laura Halzack, as a vamp who is rattled by the missteps of her partner (George Smallwood). In the middle of the dance, there is a duel scene, with Michael Trusnovec and Sean Mahoney indulging in a dance-off instead of a shoot-out, and of course falling in love in the process, while their seconds, Robert Kleinendorst and Francisco Graciano, descend into partisan fisticuffs. You really don’t know where to look, because each couple is doing a perfect job of upstaging the other. Offenbach Overtures became an immediate favorite. I may have made it sound somewhat more jocular than it is, for the prevailing mood (the duel aside) is sweetly reminiscent of classical ballet. Glazounov on the sly.
In the middle third, we had Three Dubious Memories, which we’ve seen before. It, too, is recent, dating from 2010, when I suppose we saw it the first time.There is a man in green (Mr Kleinendorst), a man in blue (Mr Mahoney), a woman in a red dress (Eran Bugge), and a “choir,” led by a choirmaster (James Samson), in grey. In each of the first two of the dance’s four sections, the woman in red is coupled with one of the men, and the couple is interrupted by the other man, who tears the woman in red away. In the third section, the two men are the couple, and the woman in red is vexed. Then there is a “threnody,” which wraps things up. The choir, as Kathleen remarked afterward, has a much bigger role than you remember. Is it true that, whenever two people fall in love, they make a third person miserable? Not “whenever,” but often, and perhaps more often in New York than elsewhere. With the lightest possible hand, Three Dubious Memories highlights the selfishness of happy couples.
I’ve already described two of the ballet on the evening program. In between, we had Sullivaniana, which is new this year. The music consists of the overtures to Iolanthe, The Pirates of Penzance, and Patience, played back to back in that order. There is more fabric in each man’s outfit than is worn by the entire quartet of Profiles. Frock coats in a loud check, vests in a the same check, but on the bias, solid trousers, shoes, and bowler hats. The colors are very vivid; I’d wear them (especially the green and the mauve), but most men wouldn’t. The ladies wear plain tops and tartan skirts with seductive little bustles. The look, like the music, is pert. I’d have to see the dance again to say anything about the choreography, which was pleasant enough but not (as I recall) pointed in any direction. At one point, there was sort of a group-grope pile-up on the floor. I could imagine Sullivan peeking at it through his fingers, shocked but approving, while Gilbert, fuming, telephoned his solicitor. The bowler hats made the men even less distinguishable than the curlicued moustaches. It took me forever to recognize Michael Novak.
Michael Novak seemed to be guided by a single thought all day. He danced as beautifully as ever, but as if determined to avoid giving the impression that we don’t have to worry about what will happen when Michael Trusnovec retires, because he’ll be there to step into the shoes of Apollo. Now, that’s artistry.
I wish we’d seen more Paul Taylor; of course I do. But I didn’t get round to buying tickets until early last month, and I wanted to be safe, not sorry — not to miss anything on a weeknight because something kept Kathleen at the office or I was worn out for one reason or another. And there were no boffo programs; there are quite a few Paul Taylor dances that we don’t want to see, such as Promethean Fire. Aside from Esplanade, none of the other Sublime dances was given this season. I shall hope for more encounters next year. As for this season, I feel unusually obliged to mention the dancers whom I have passed over. The ones that I’ve mentioned are all superb. Parisa Khobdeh impressed me more than ever, and I finally had a sense of Eran Bugge’s artistry; she was no longer eclipsed, in Three Dubious Memories, by the three men. (I already knew all about them, as it were.) George Smallwood is a very important asset, if a still-undeveloped one. What I mean by this is that every great Paul Taylor dancer is a fine dancer from the start, but becomes great by growing not only better as a dancer but more peculiarly him- or herself. I have not yet seen this in Jamie Rae Walker, and her immediate junior in seniority, Michael Apuzzo, has left me with the impression of a grinning strongman; I am always waiting for a dropped dumbbell to wipe the Da-DA! off his face. I ought to have mentioned Christina Lynch Markham, for her fine work in Beloved Renegade. And Michelle Fleet appeared in a brief solo in Offenbach Overtures that reminded us, instantly, who she is. This year’s newbie, Madelyn Ho, made a particularly strong debut, and, I noticed, was given plenty of room in which to do so. Among other things, she was paired with Michael Trusnovec in Offenbach Overtures. For the moment, however, she is just another pretty and talented former Harvard Medical School student.
To return to Gilbert & Sullivan: Until just the other day, more or less, I regarded The Gondoliers as a sort of cuckoo in the Savoyard nest, grandiose, empty, and, most of all, bogus. The music I found flashy rather than beautiful, the book both perfunctory and unfunny. Then, quite recently, the four root notes of the repeated dominant seventh chords that begin the tarantella in the overture somehow pierced my skin, and I was infused by a work that got lovelier and laughtier every time I listened to it. At the same time, I was reading more about the Savoy operas, and what I was hearing about The Gondoliers was invariably a confirmation of my former views. Oh, everyone admitted that The Gondoliers is radiant and sunny, deliciously appealing; but beyond such generalities the tone became more critical. Sullivan’s music, however pleasing, is set at such a pace that most numbers come off as unintelligible patter songs. Gilbert’s text is certainly regarded as a disappointment. The prosody is not up to the almost Shakespearean standard of the earlier works (or at least the great four in the middle, Patience to Mikado), and everybody — everybody — hates Marco’s line (in the barcarole, “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes”) about the “tender little hand fringed with dainty fingerettes.” “Dainty fingerettes” is off-putting; it makes me think of lobsters. But I kind of like it anyway, just because it’s so awful. I’m in that giddy moment of discovery, when everything that’s good about Gondoliers is great, and everything that’s awful about it is great, too. It took a while for that nautically protracted “Ah” in the finale to stop causing horripilation, and for the sugar shock of “List and Learn” to wear off. I know that they’re both dreadful Italian clichés — but they’re kind of wonderful. I have clearly fallen off the gondola into one of the deeper stretches of the lagoon.
The music is much more than pleasing. It’s as though the other Savoy operas had been written by somebody else, somebody somewhat inferior to Sullivan, and now Sullivan were going to show us how it ought to be done. I don’t mean that The Gondoliers sounds better than the others, not at all. But it sounds different, as if it included a critique of the whole general idea of Topsy Turvy. It’s a matter of countless little moments, such as the low clarinets that now and then carry the Duke and the Duchess through “Small Titles and Orders.” Or the strange chords that lead into the reprise of the dance that follows “I Am a Courtier Grave and Serious.” Or the big, dumb “Oh!” in the refrain of “Rising Early in the Morning.”
I could go on and on. But it won’t, this infatuation. It will come to an end. It must. For an entire year, within the past ten, I went without listening to any opera other than Bellini’s I Puritani. For a year, it was not only the perfect opera, it was the only opera. I have not entirely recovered; if I listen to one thing from the opera, I have to listen to the next, and the next, and then start at the beginning. (I am devoted to the Riccardo Muti recording.) That’s how it is with the second act of The Gondoliers now. If possible.
The response to being named in the Panama Papers, which broke a few days ago, has been shame, denial, or silence — so far. We can be glad about that. We can take some comfort in the fact that members of the global élite do not want their names in the papers in connection with this story. How long they will continue to react in this way seems to me to be a function of the ongoing power of the state.
And, by “state” here, I mean the somewhat abstract institution that is believed to represent the will of most of its citizens. I mean, not Russia, which increasingly looks like the personal property of Vladimir Putin.
Now, Putin has rolled out the usual denials. That a few chums of his appear to have been clients of Mossack Fonseca, the “boutique” Panama City law firm (with a staff of five hundred) that specializes in shell companies, is, according to Putin, a lie concocted by the West (meaning the United States), out of sheer disappointment that he is making Russia so happy and prosperous. This tale is for domestic consumption only; no one else is expected to believe it. Perhaps even the Russians aren’t expected to believe it: Putin’s explanation is merely a facet of their happy prosperity. There is indeed something worrisome about the brazenness of the lie. It could be taken to mean, “So what?”
That’s what Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson might be saying when he insists that he has not stepped down, but only stepped aside, after it became impossible to ignore the clamor calling for his resignation. Gunnlaugsson was an investor in a fund that is currently suing Iceland’s banks for massive losses in that country’s notorious financial meltdown in 2008. As prime minister, he is participating in the negotiation of a settlement of the dispute. The complaint against him is one of conflict of interest; to me it looks more like loaded dice.
What does it mean for an elected leader to step aside — for reasons other than poor health and so on? For reasons like Gunnlaugsson’s? Has there been much stepping aside in the two centuries of liberal democracy? Even Putin didn’t step aside. When then-current term-limit laws prevented him from continuing as president of Russia, he switched jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A few years later, they switched again, and things haven’t changed since. It now appears that Putin is not going to be stepping aside until he steps into his coffin. Those of us who haven’t been bitten by the power drug, and who wonder why people like Putin don’t retire when enough is enough, must remember that we haven’t been bitten.
If Gunnlaugsson’s bluff succeeds, I foresee an amendment to Iceland’s constitution. If, that is, anyone is still paying attention to such niceties.
In retrospect, it looks like a miracle of timing. Or a perfect storm. On Tuesday, I finished reading Our Kind of Traitor, and was very upset by it. The next day, I looked at the Panama Papers story with new eyes, and at the same time understood that what was so upsetting about Le Carré’s novel wasn’t the plight of the characters but the story in the background. It’s a story that frightens me a lot more than the Cold War ever did. The story in the background presents Great Britain with a new kind of enemy within: the City. The City, which in view of its status as the would-be global financial capital has taken to calling itself “London,” wants all the big money, from whatever source derived, and it wants the owners of that money to feel comfortable about entrusting it to City bankers. The City wants to be Panama. Or the US — Delaware, perhaps. (If the Panama Papers disclose few American names, that’s because Americans don’t have to go abroad to shelter their money.) It wants to be whatever will bring in that money.
Le Carré doesn’t go into it; he doesn’t belabor his belief that money is power — political power. He leaves that to the imagination. My imagination is receptive. I forget when it was, last year, that I began to worry about the ability of very rich people to buy their own armies. This has been a movie fantasy since the days of early James Bond, and it is given fantastic play in Kingsman: The Secret Service, where the minions of the sociopath played by Samuel L Jackson wear Star Wars-white armor. At some moment, however, it ceased to seem merely fantastic to me. What would stop a pharma king from defending his discoveries, and denying them to the rest of the world, with a conventional army? He would be safe from almost any kind of bombing. We might say, why go to so much trouble? But then, we haven’t been bitten by the power bug. For the moment, however, the pharma king would not need to go to so much trouble. He could buy the support of the state.
States are abstract, which is just another way of saying that they exist only in the minds of human beings. If we all believe in the state, and act as though it exists, then it does exist, embodied in countless personal interactions. It is embodied in countless acts that people decide not to commit. But this magic act lasts only as long as it is kept up by a determined plurality of citizens or subjects. We saw what happened in 1789, when masses of Frenchmen not only stopped believing in the power and authority of Louis XVI, but began regarding their king as their enemy. As Americans, we decided to have done with kings. We produced one of the most impersonal constitutions of all time, so full of its famous checks and balances that it has now become impossible to do anything, or at least anything that most people are aware of. But there is still no getting around it that our office-holders are men and women, just like us. The business corporation, for all the clout of its constitutive legal fictions, is still run by men and women, just like you and me. We expect these men and women to behave according to a very high standard of public interest. We have also depended upon a journalistic inclination to protect us from too much evidence to the contrary — it’s for our own good. Would Americans have made FDR a four-term president if they had known (as everyone in the upper socio-economic reaches, my late aunt once assured me, did know) that he was unable to walk from here to there? Our leaders have behaved pretty well, and our newspapers have shielded us from scurrilous gossip. But wait! It’s not 1970 anymore, is it?
What happens when and if Americans become so disgusted with the abuse of official institutions that they support a leader willing to bypass the state altogether, and to constitute power in himself?
We saw this happen, or should have done if it hadn’t happened so slowly, at the end of the Roman Empire in the West. The idea that Rome fell to a host of invading barbarians is the most arrant nonsense. The barbarians did everything they could think of to imitate Roman ways. It was the Romans who stopped believing in Rome — a loss made easier by the removal of “Rome” to Constantinople. Rome got too big not to fail. The barbarians simply stepped into a series of power vacuums.
(We really ought to pay more attention to our use of this “too big to fail” conceit. It means nothing unless it means “too big to be allowed to fail,” and that, of course, invokes a greater power, one capable of implementing the decision to prevent failure. There was, obviously, no such entity to prevent Rome’s decline and fall. We can only hope that we understand enough about money and commerce to warrant our faith in the government’s ability to forestall financial catastrophes. It’s by no means a sure thing.)
But the barbarians were — well, different. They were warlike. That is, they liked war. Rome had grown by enforcing peace behind its borders. Roman aristocrats were distinguished by their disdain for military swagger. The barbarians, in contrast, and notwithstanding their Roman-ish duds, gathered around chieftains and indulged in feuds. Bloodshed was a very personal business; nobody went to war on principle. The Church, child of Rome no less than of Christ (an understatement), cried out for peace, but it could never be established for long. From the fifth century until the tenth, European kingdoms were either short-lived or ineffective. Peace was broken everywhere and regularly — sending a virtual invitation to invaders (and these were barbarian invaders) from Scandinavia, the Hungarian Plain, and North Africa. This invitation, by the way, appeared after the forging of the vast Carolingian expansion and the establishment of the new Holy Roman Empire, so soon did Charlemagne’s glory follow him to the grave. It took well over a century to get back, as it were, to Charlemagne.
It helped that making war got more and more expensive, making it available to fewer and fewer players. The history of Europe until 1789 is the story of an ever more concentrated class of noblemen by inheritance, determined to keep the fight going despite all the obstacles, from gunpowder to inflation. The aristocrats kept insisting on the honor of warfare even after the Bourbon collapse; indeed, their finest (that is, blackest) moment may have been the outbreak of the Great War, which was incited by a rather gothic-looking assortment of officer-class war bands.
The question for us is not whether we, too, are warlike. It doesn’t seem that we are. The taste for war has been drummed out of us, at least for the time being. The question for us is whether we are freelike. Do we like to be free? The barbarians who succeeded to Rome in the West certainly liked to be free. The most successful bunch of them went by that name, and came to call their country “France” — “free.” We have followed them in declaring freedom to be vital.
Like everything else, though, freedom has gotten complicated. There’s freedom from and freedom to. Many Americans seem to believe that the freedom to bear arms will take care of the freedom-from problem. Few of these Americans live in cities. (The Carolingians, their Merovingian predecessors, and their Capetian successors, didn’t care much for cities, either.) Urban Americans, at least on the East Coast, tend to prioritize the freedom from other people bearing arms. In any case, as the title of the new Richard Linklater movie shouts, everybody wants some! Meaning, the peace and quiet in which to enjoy it.
We may be too unlike the warlike barbarians, much as I hate to say it.
The Panama Papers present a certain conundrum. Among the clients of Mossack Fonseca were several heads of state and even more near relations of heads of state. (Or chums.) Their reasons for sheltering their money from public view — the view of the public back home — were certainly various, and not necessarily illegal. Nevertheless, hiding the money was deceptive in intent, and it was subjects or citizens, as the case may be, who were intended to be deceived. In some cases, certainly, tax laws were violated in order to keep money out of the public account. In other cases, the money came from bribes, which are if anything worse than tax dodges, as China’s too-booming construction industry keeps demonstrating in terms of collapsed or blown-up buildings. (The world was sickened by the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, which seemed to target elementary schools for destruction.) In these cases, officials use their position to act against the public interest.
It is hard to see how they are not traitors. For it seems to get clearer every day that the global ring of Big Money is an enemy of the people with whom the leaders of the people ought not to be consorting. Big Money knows no nation; it owes no allegiance. Big Money does not unite or organize the people who own the big money; it controls them only with the view to expanding itself. And just how does it do this, you may ask? With opulence and exclusivity. With comfort and safety. An example:
Late one afternoon, I was having X-rays taken at the Hospital for Special Surgery. It was a slow time of day, or would have been had there not been a commotion of security agents opening every door and looking in every room. We would read in the papers, a few days later, that the dying king of Saudi Arabia was in New York, undergoing medical tests; some of them, it was later averred, at the HSS. The security agents were sweeping the joint. That’s what I mean by “safe.” I don’t have to mention that the king belonged to Very Big Money.
Compare this with the time, of which I never tire of telling, when I found myself in the office of a maxillofacial surgeon (impacted wisdom tooth) at the same time as the Nixons. Pat, it turned out, had rather bad teeth, but Dick tagged along and got as checkup, too. If you want to hear the rest of the story, not even two years have passed since I last told it, so I can’t tell it here. There may have been no one else in the waiting room, but I was still there, and nobody checked me out. Tricky Dick may have lived in the White House, but he was not Big Money. He probably would have been, though, by now.
Big Money provides entrée to the bubble of resorts, high-rises, and private islands that was consolidated, for edifying purposes, into a luxurious space station in the movie Elysium. You don’t have to worry about terrorists there. You don’t have to worry about political implications. You and the Big Money that owns you can leave those unpleasant things to ordinary people.
On Wednesday, I did something partly new. I stretched out my arms on a stack of pillows in front of me and exposed them to the Blu U lights. I’ve had about half a dozen sessions sitting under the lights, exposing my scalp to the healing rays, but this was a first for my arms, and the results are certainly more visible to me. The backs of my hands are disfigured by preppie-pink blotches that itch like mad. (A moisturizer seems to help, but the dermatologist offered to prescribe an oral steroid.) More interesting is the difference between my forearms. The left arm is far more “afflicted,” with a rash of acne-like spots, only pink. There are a few spots on my right arm, too, but not nearly so many. Most interesting of all: the spots stop at just about the place where my skin is exposed when I roll up my shirtsleeves. I have always understood that the foundation of the precancerous cells that the Blu U lights deal with so effectively was laid in childhood. Perhaps not. When Kathleen looked me over, she said, “Ah, your driver’s arm.” Meaning my left arm, not the arm that I use to hold the wheel but the arm that I lean out the open window. Everything now points to Houston, where I drove a lot even when I didn’t own a car.
There’s a photograph that I ought to dig out for the dermatologist. It shows me in August 1977, and it is hard to describe my color. That year, which closed up my radio days and took me to law school (and Kathleen), I decided to see if I could build up a tan. My default response to sunlight is a quick burn, but I was told that, if I started early, and controlled my exposures, I would tan, and not burn. This turned out to be true. In Houston, it’s usually warm enough in March to sit out by the pool for an hour in bathing trunks. I would drive from the radio station to my father’s house, which I had moved back into when my mother got sick, and catch some rays. By June and July, I could spend all day in the sun and not get burned. But when I took a good look at myself in August, I saw that tanning was really not for me.
For I wasn’t really tan. My skin was too red — a very deep, mahogany red — to be mistaken for bronze, as the French describe a tan. There was the same uncanny effect that’s produced by Donatella Versace, a southern Italian if there ever was one, who likes to pretend that she is Scandinavian. Perhaps I’m mistaken about that, but in any case the color of her hair and her bone structure are an obvious mismatch. So it was with me. I had always wondered what the Mikado’s “permanent walnut juice” would look like. Now I had an idea.
Suntans are funny. In the days of peasant labor, they were eschewed by the fashionable: one didn’t want to look like a wizened old fisherman. Then work moved mostly indoors, and the lower quintiles went pale. Suddenly a tan was a conspicuous way to advertise one’s acres of free time. Golden brown skin became the look of health. My arduously tanned skin was not golden brown. I was not the picture of health. The picture of radiation poisoning, more like. However: I never burned, never peeled, never itched. Also: never again. From 1978 on, I kept myself well covered-up. And now this, the ghost of a very peculiar tan line, in ironic preppie-pink.
I don’t know how the Blu U lights work, and I have never seen the aftermath of treatment, because I have not got eyes on the top of my head, and, even if I did, they probably wouldn’t help. I don’t want to read about the lights until I’ve watched this reaction subside — I want to be surprised. And to marvel yet again, as the Blu U lights join fiberoptics and Remicade as techniques and medications that keep me alive. I think of myself as an old person, but not as a sick person, and yet without these medical advances I should have died five years ago at the latest. The marvel is not that these advances work. The marvel is that I’m surfing their introduction. If I had been born in 1938 instead of ten years later, they probably wouldn’t have been so effective. Orinoco!
Tanning salons were still new when I went to law school, and it took me longer than it did everyone else to realize that one of our classmates was paying regular visits to one. In the middle of winter, he looked as though he’d just returned from the Bahamas. There were reasons to suppose that he might very well have spent the weekend in the Bahamas, which I’ll leave it to you to work out, so I didn’t think anything of it. I was surprised only when I heard about the tanning salon. Suddenly, this guy’s tan looked as bogus as the one that had only recently faded from me. A tan that was developed in South Bend in the middle of an Indiana winter simply could not be real, however glowing. Come to think of it, the glow died out when I found out how it got there. When the lights went out beneath my classmate’s tan, he went from golden brown to grey. We see what we know.
It’s hard to believe that I was ever a guy in car, driving around Houston with my elbow sticking out the driver’s side window. To quote my favorite Woody Allen movie, Who do you think you are, an astronaut? (Hint: the line is delivered by Betty Boop.)
In the kitchen, on the stove, there is a pot of tomato sauce. The sauce cooked last night; now it must be strained. The onion, the sprigs of basil and oregano, and anything else that’s not smooth and silky must be filtered out. Tonight, I shall spread some of the sauce on a round of pizza dough. I shall sprinkle “low-moisture” mozzarella on the pizza, along with, perhaps, some sautéed mushrooms and some thin-sliced pepperoni. I hope that the pizza comes out tasting like a cliché.
I’ve been making pizza regularly for about a year, and I have mastered all the basic production issues. That was my first goal; only after I met it, I thought, would I tackle the sauce. But I’ve been procrastinating. It’s so easy to buy a bottle of sauce! I schmear a smidegeon of it on the dough, because I’m secretly dreaming of pizza bianca, and then sprinkle on the toppings: sausage, mushrooms, and oil-cured olives. (I cook the sausage and the mushrooms and then go after them with the mezzaluna, throwing in the olives.) The pizzas come out great and Kathleen loves them. But I am disappointed. These pizzas don’t taste like pizza. And the reason for that is, largely, the sauce.
I finally looked for a recipe, and I came across one for “New York Style Pizza,” at Serious Eats. The sauce is a relative of what I call butter sauce: tomato pulp, a peeled onion sliced in half, and lots of butter. When the sauce is has slowly bubbled for a while, you throw away the onion halves. How could something so basic be so complex? But then, what is simple about the flavor of tomatoes? The protean magic of onions? The richness of butter? For the pizza sauce, the “lots of butter” is replaced by a teaspoon each of butter and olive oil. Pinches of salt and red pepper flakes are added along with a teaspoon of sugar. Oh, and microplaned garlic cloves. I had never grated garlic with the microplane. Intense, but not overpowering: it’s as though garlic were revealing its quiet inner soul.
The night before, I used the same pot for cooking a lavish morel sauce. I picked up a package of dandy-looking morels at Agata & Valentina, and decided on the spot to make a pasta sauce out of them. Again, it was a matter of treating complicated elements simply. Having read the pizza sauce recipe, I microplaned a clove of garlic into melted butter, then a chopped shallot. When these were ready, I tossed in the sliced mushrooms. When the mushrooms were limp, I poured in a tub of Agata & Valentina’s lovely veal stock — about two cups. When the stock was reduced by half, I added some heavy cream. When the cream thickened, we ate. I tossed into the sauce some cooked cavatappi (I’ve also seen them called cellentani) — the grooved helical tube that I discovered in law school. The dish was earthy and meaty but neither heavy nor wintry.
The night before that, I cooked in the same pot a chicken and wild-rice soup. I made this up but wrote it down. You cook a handful of mirepoix, together with a quarter teaspoon of something called “red poultry seasoning” (I got it at Fairway), in a knob of butter. Then you stir in four tablespoons — a third of a cup? — of something called Royale Rice mix. It’s a blend of brown, red, and (very little) wild rice. Pour on a quart of boiling chicken stock, bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat to a bare simmer, put the lid on the pot, and cook the rice for forty minutes. You can do all of this ahead. When it’s time to eat, cut a skinned and boned half chicken breast into bite-sized pieces, and throw it into the soup, along with a slurry of one tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in one tablespoon of water. Bring to the simmer, cook for a minute, and serve. (Cook a bit longer if your chicken pieces are bigger than you meant them to be.) With a nice piece of cheese — we’ve been crazy lately about a double-crème brie called Affinois — a hunk of liver mousse, and toasted baguette slices, the result is a very hearty meal for three.
From my last visit to the storage unit on 62nd Street, I brought back nine boxes of documents. They sat in the foyer, still in the big Bean tote bags that I use for these operations, for about a week. The other day, I began to tackle them. One box was empty — ideal! There were three others that didn’t seem particularly heavy. One was stuffed with newspaper clippings, mostly from the Times and most dating to the Eighties. All of them were quite yellow, and I expect that they’re friable as well. Another box held a few folders relating to the rent — the rent on other apartments that we have tenanted in this building. Also, floor plans. There was even a thank-you note from Rose Bialek! There are still some people in the building who remember jolly old Rose, the building’s long-time rental agent. We used to kid Rose about writing her memoirs. Impossible, she would always reply. She knew too many crazy stories about too many residents.
Rose told us a story that pertained to us, in a way. At the time, Kathleen had let Rose know that we were looking for a larger apartment. So, one day we had a call, and Rose said, there’s this guy on eighteen who just died — in the hospital, don’t worry! You won’t believe it, Rose said, but he isn’t even cold yet and three tenants have already called to ask for the apartment. Isn’t that disgusting? So I’m giving it to you. Whether that was the move that prompted Rose’s thank-you note, I can’t tell. Kathleen would always present Rose with a nice scarf, under which was tucked some valuable consideration. Rose did not identify the supplicant tenants, as was right and proper.
We heard a few more stories, not from Rose, about the late tenant who preceded us, but never you mind about those. It’s enough to repeat what we found. There was deep shag carpeting everywhere, and it was not new. Much less understandable was the closet situation. The sliding doors had been removed from the large closets in both bedrooms, and the interiors had been stripped down to the walls. Then they’d been painted pitch black. The building removed the carpet and restored the closets, but we were permanently curious about the late tenant’s décor.
The fourth lightweight box that I opened was full of crinkly onion-skin paper. This is not the time to dilate on my sometime passion for onion-skin paper, but I was very surprised to see that I had used for papers written for a history course that I took at Notre Dame. That this was what I had submitted, and not a copy, was proved by the grade on the last page. It was a very good grade, together with a note from the professor asking me to stop by after class. I remember that well. He was surprised by my grasp of history, already honed as a kind of obsessive hobby at Blair. He was pleased that I seemed to know so much. Well, everything has its down side, so that when we got to the English Civil War, and I found that I could not stomach the idea of going through that yet again — history was still very much a hobby, I remind you, and I took it all quite personally — I stopped going to class and ended up with that funny grade that you get for failing to show up for the final exam. It counts as an F, of course. I accumulated at least four of those over the years, all in electives. It never occurred to me that this failure of mine must have been very disappointing to the history professor.
I have not re-read the paper. I’m working up the nerve.
Bon week-end à tous!