Reading Note:
Confrontation; Craftsmanship
20 March 2015

A bad morning. David Brooks’s column in this morning’s Times is sinking in.

At these moments, tough guys do well. Cooperative skills are less valued while confrontational skills are more valued. Benjamin Netanyahu wins re-election in Israel. The pugnacious Nicolas Sarkozy, of all people, is staging a comeback in France. Putin is in his element.

Barack Obama started out as a hope-and-change idealist, but he has had to toughen to fit the times. Angela Merkel is the paradigmatic leader of the age: shrewd, unemotional, nonidealistic, austere and interested in power. As the former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum told George Packer of The New Yorker: “If you cross her you end up dead. … There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.”

In these moments, right-leaning parties tend to do well and have a stronger story to tell on national security. They speak the language of nationalism and cultural cohesion. People who are economically insecure (and more likely to lean left) drop out of the political process.

When Brooks goes on to speak of good times for Chris Christie and Scott Walker, all I can think of is Virginia Woolf, at about this time of year, in 1941. Nothing degrades humanity faster than fear, and life in a climate of fear is, as Hobbes put it, nasty and brutish. Short begins to look like a plus.

***

I’ve been reading about confrontational times of long ago, Hobbes’s day, in fact: the crisis of 1637-41 that led up to the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I. This is not a particularly favorite period of mine, but Ray Soleil brought back a book from his trip to England last summer that I fell into reading despite my own better judgment. (I mentioned it the other day.) Eventually, I couldn’t stand any more, and had to turn to my bookshelves for CV Wedgwood’s account of the same period, The King’s Peace: 1637-1641 (Oxford, 1956). I read it as an undergraduate, without any real understanding, and no sense whatever of Wedgwood’s artistry, but I managed to hold onto the edition, a now-battered first.

Wedgwood (1910-1997) was the great-great-great granddaughter of Josiah Wedgwood. She earned a First at Lady Margaret College, Oxford, and in no time at all presented the world with the richly comprehensive Thirty Years War. It’s probably not irrelevant to note that her mother was also a writer. The King’s Peace begins with a brief acknowledgment of thanks to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which enabled her, she says, to write it sooner than she had expected.

The King’s Peace is divided into three sections, the first of which provides the background to the crisis. This background is very spacious. We are taken on a survey of the dominions under Charles’s rule — industry, resources; courtly life and the arts; and so on — that would not seem underdeveloped as an introduction to the history of the Seventeenth Century overall; as the prelude to four turbulent years, it risks seeming overkill. But it establishes a pace of fine-grained scrutiny that the interested reader will find reassuring: Wedgwood has an almost uncanny sense of detail that prevents her ever being tedious. There is, therefore, no impatience for her to begin. The Queen does not appear until the seventy-third page, and almost at once this opening section comes to a close.

The second section of the background report is entitled “Faith and Foreign Politics.” It runs from page 76 to page 133. The hinge between the two subject issues is so quietly clever — for now I was paying as much attention to Wedgwood’s craftsmanship as I was to her story — that I memorized the page number: 110. Having covered the irreconcilable differences between the Arminian clergymen of the Church of England and their Calvinist opponents, Wedgwood wraps up with a few cases of High Commission sanctions against men who would later be known as Dissenters. One of these was a brash young man called Thomas Shepard. Effectively defrocked, Shepard lost an appeal. “Uprooted, Shepherd fled to Yorkshire where he took refuge in a private household, but his retreat was discovered and he sailed for the wider freedom of New England.” We have arrived at Foreign Policy.

The North American colonies do not long detain Wedgwood; it’s enough to know that the king seriously considered outlawing further emigration. Foreign policy began very much at home, with a Catholic queen whose marriage treaty guaranteed her right to worship as she saw fit, and whose husband, initially chilly but later enthralled, confused making her life agreeable with appearing to tolerate not only Catholics but their priests.

The popular argument was ignorant, incorrect, but deadly: if the King, the head of the Anglican Church, persecuted honest Protestants and smiled upon the Papists, it followed that the Church itself was being led back to Rome. The King’s indiscreet and harmless relations with his wife’s friends made his, and Laud’s, religious policy suspect, not only to extremists and fanatics, but to the substantial majority of his Protestant subjects.

This is the best kind of writing: it presents a thorny complication (the king’s confusion) in an agreeably comprehensible manner. (“Smiles” is particularly fine.) But there is something else, something peculiar to this moment in my reading.

Once, he had been in love. At least, he had wanted desperately to go to bed with the girl and thought continuously of her, which fitted descriptions of the state. Mercifully, he discovered that there was already another man before he exposed himself to the humiliation of rejection. Now, he couldn’t remember what she looked like.

He wished, sometimes, that he had married. Sex he would have enjoyed, and a wife would have been armour against the more aggressive female parishioners. He stood in the aisle, still holding the red glove, and pictured the wife he did not have; she swam into the rose window above the west door, a realistic figure, nothing like Mrs Paling, but dumpy and rather plain, wearing a brown raincoat and carrying a pile of organ music, not an arousing figure but a reassuring one. (96)

That’s from Judgment Day. Penelope Lively (born 1933) read history at St Anne’s College, Oxford, graduating with honors. It is not necessary for her undergraduate path to have crossed Wedgwood’s to make out, if not a connection, then a relatedness. Both women write with the same muted geniality.

***

If Monday comes and goes without an entry’s appearing here, and Tuesday does the same, and so with the rest of the week, that will probably be because I will be taking a break in Palo Alto. Kathleen will be participating in an event at Stanford, and of course I must take the opportunity to visit my daughter and her family in San Francisco. (Although at the moment I’m very tempted to hide under the bed.) I hope to return to weather more springlike, and less punishing, than what afflicts us now.

In the current issue of The New Yorker, a gentleman of my age shares his experiences as a picker-upper of coins in the street. He claims that his haul has swollen since the spread of smartphones.

Bon weekend à tous!

Reading Note:
Judgment Day
19 March 2015

Partly, it’s the cold that I’m on the edge of. It has knocked me down on two days in the last month, but, for the most part, left me walking wounded. Mostly, though, it’s the impending trip to San Francisco. In a perfect world, I would never travel; people and even places would come to me. In this imperfect world, I start shutting down about a week before departure, so that, by the time we leave (for I never travel alone), I’m numb to most anxieties. Airport terminals are, increasingly, places of terror, with authority figures playing the part of terrorists. Everything that I dislike about the way we live now is concentrated in queues of apparently miserable wretches. I don’t want special treatment. I just want to be spared the hugely demoralizing sight of drab, careworn people.

The worst thing about this shutting-down is that it becomes harder to take an interest in things. That, in turn, makes it harder to judge the things that do engage my attention. Are they mere escapes?

Last night, I sat, stunned, for about twenty minutes, after finishing an early (1981) novel by Penelope Lively, Judgment Day. I had fetched it out of the pile the day before and swallowed it whole. Many of the earlier scenes were funnier than anything that I had read in Lively. But there were some very strong notes, too, of understated darkness, and, in the end, it was this darkness that prevailed. I was desolated by the ending — as desolated as if I were all, and all at once, of the characters who were desolate at the end. It was not a good feeling at half-past eleven at night, with Kathleen, unusually, long since asleep.

Lively’s characters are socially defined. We get to know them primarily through their relationships and interactions with others. (Regular readers won’t have any trouble understanding why I find this arresting.) In Lively’s later work, events, the things that happen, are also determined by things that have happened before. That sounds rather obvious, but it is actually uncharacteristic of long fiction in English, which relies on the introduction of new characters and unexpected developments, however plausibly foreshadowed, to maintain the pitch of excitement. In The Photograph, a widower discovers a photograph that he was not meant to see, and everything that happens afterward is a result of that discovery. Of that discovery by him, I ought to say, for it’s really the effect of the photograph on a particular man that sets off a chain reaction among a particular set of acquaintances, who themselves constitute the chain. It is in the light of this chain of events that we see all of the other characters. Everyone in Lively has a private life, but there is no privacy with regard to the world of the novel itself. Because Lively writes very generously, scrupulously registering everyone’s good qualities while letting the bad speak for themselves, her novels do not suffer from the suffocating rage that gives Ivy Compton-Burnett’s fictions their somewhat ludicrous, even autistic atmosphere. You do not want to escape from Lively’s novels. Although, in her later books, Lively quite strictly omits all the irrelevancies, she leaves the world large enough for comfort.

In Judgment Day, we see the characters in light of each other, but there is no chain of events, only a sequence. The plot is ignited by the need to raise funds for the repair of a village church. Almost all of the characters happen to live on the Green over which the church, flanked by a tavern and a petrol station, somewhat humbly presides; but they don’t necessarily know each other well. In fact, there is even a new household, headed by Clare Paling. Clare, a stand-in for the author to the extent that she is an Oxford-educated stay-at-home mother, is happily married to Peter, but Peter is a busy executive, always dashing off to a day at the factory or to a week in Brussels. The fragility of the Palings’ marital arrangement is so delicately hinted at that I can’t locate any actual hints; they consist primarily in the breeziness of Peter’s tone. You would not be surprised to learn that he is having an affair, nor that Clare would forgive him. But Peter is never linked to the slightest misbehavior. Such unrealized potential would not occur in a later Lively.

Naturally, the vicar has a leading role. I have never run into anyone like George Radwell. In George, the laughter and the darkness are united, with the laughs that respond to his early appearances drying up completely as the end approaches. George is a mediocrity, or perhaps something even worse. His being a vicar at all is the result of clerical error. Neither notably good-looking — he is pink-skinned and flabby — nor particularly intelligent — he’s not stupid, but he can never think of the right thing to say until the moment has passed — George is unattractive without being repellent. We laugh at him at first (he makes a fool of himself over Clare), but then we sense, and soon taste, the terrible loneliness of this man whom no one would miss. It begins to seem a living death.

The novel’s true stoic is Sydney Porter, a retired accountant. Porter keeps to himself and cultivates his garden. He has already experienced the living death of surviving the death of his wife and young daughter in the Blitz. Off somewhere else on naval duty, he was close enough to come to London afterward.

He’d asked to go, though there was no need, the identifying had been done already, before he came up from Portsmouth, done by the ARP Warden, who was a neighbor, who knew them well. They were side by side, and the attendant had pulled back the sheet that covered Mary first and for a moment he’d been shattered anew, thought wildly that perhaps there could have been a mistake, because her hair was gray, quite gray, her short, fine, brown hair. And then he’d realized it was the plaster, the plaster dust that had spewed out of the house as it fell about them, covering them, drowning them, suffocating them. And he had stood there staring not at her face, which was gray-white too, but at her dusty hair, until at last someone put a hand on his arm and steered him away.

I’d never read anything like that, either. Just how people died in the Blitz was never made very clear. Did it need to be made clear? But here it is. Drowning in plaster dust. Like the dead at Pompeii. Not burned by flames or boiling lava. Not concussed by falling bricks. Suffocated. Like George Radwell’s mediocrity, Sydney’s loss is expressed with shocking vividness in a very few words.

One other character whom I can mention without spoiling the story is Mrs Tanner. Mrs Tanner is a monster, no doubt about it, and all the more monstrous for having no idea whatever that this is the case. She is the one who deserves the living death of an isolated, unminded existence, but of course she is married to poor Mr Tanner and she even has a grown daughter. She appears in George’s study, “a massive figure in blue crimplene” with a “doughy, expressionless face,” to seek help with her “illness.”

“It’s this phobia, see. It’s been ten years now — ten years this spring. The doctors haven’t ever been able to do anything, so my husband said the other day, why not try the vicar? See what he’s got to suggest, if anything. Can’t do any harm, can it, he said, and that’s what they’re there for, that sort of thing.”

This scene occurred early enough for the idea of George Radwell as a faith healer to convulse me with laughter. Whither could this possibly lead? Several pages later, it leads to Mrs Tanner phoning the vicar to tell him that she’s going to take the place of his housekeeper, who’s off having a baby. So that’s what her “phobia” was all about: the opposite of “meet cute.” This is funny, too, but not quite so funny. Mrs Tanner’s barging around the vicarage with doughy inexpressiveness that nonetheless can’t keep silent turns out to be a very effective device for making sympathy for poor George at least imaginable.

I don’t believe that Penelope Lively was a young mother when she wrote Judgment Day, but the novel is haunted by any young mother’s anxiety about vehicular traffic. Clare herself is oddly immune to this dread. She drives, in fact, rather recklessly, too fast at least, and indeed she drives herself and a carful of children into a ditch. (This accident turns out to be providential, as George tries to counsel her, sparing her a much worse accident occurs at Clare’s intended destination — hardly a recommendation of providence, Clare retorts.) The village Green is vandalized by midnight motorbikers who can’t be caught; eventually, the marauders invade the church and put an end to the plot. (Except the story is not quite over.) Despite the appearance of Old England, the people of this town, like people everywhere who want things to be both convenient and picturesque, have failed to create a safe world. Inevitably, a child riding a bicycle is struck and killed.

This death either destroys or ruptures the two relationships that have grown in the course of the story. I can mention only the one between Clare and George. Working together for the good of a church in whose doctrines neither of them believe, these two, whose early encounters were marked by contempt and equally hostile lust, also work past their belaboring first impressions, but this appreciation culminates in a respect that prevents them from coming together.

Make sure that you do not finish this book alone, late at night.

Gotham Diary:
Plunge
18 March 2015

Picking up the current issue of The Nation this morning, after finishing with the Times, I had a sort of reverse sauna experience, plunging from an agreeably cool thought into a madly passionate screed — a juxtaposition that made the thought even more attractive. Both appeared in the “Books & the Arts” section at the back, which is not just the only section that I regularly read but the reason for continuing my subscription. The screed, an exaltation of the team of cartoonists that was massacred in January, was written by the editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, Stéphane Delorme. (“Team” is his word, and the subject of his fourth and final bullet point.) I don’t know if the now-venerable Cahiers was ever quite as edgy as Charlie Hebdo, but its subject matter has always been as graphic as Charlie‘s contents, and Delorme writes as if prepared to climb on board the younger vessel. “Now that literature in France has primarily become an unimportant society game, drawing brims with an understanding of the world.”

If you’ve read the piece, then you won’t be wondering why Delorme is so dismissive of literature, because the immediately preceding paragraphs concern the succès de scandale of Michel Houellebecq’s new book, Soumission. (I’m not going to translate that. You ought to have a dico on your phone if you don’t know what it means.) (Delmorme’s pep talk is entitled “Insoumission.”) I’d like to reproduce the entire essay, because it is so French, but a bit of the Houellebecq put-down will do nicely.

So Houellebecq becomes a word, an idea, the anti-Charlie. With his obsession for sullying everything, he is the embodiment of “meh” France, the rancid, depressive France of the beginning of this century. A France already anachronistic. A France represented by this intellectual without conviction, who tries things out “just to see,” to be less bored, who writes out of boredom. He is the typical French embodiment of a vintage trend, with his prose lifted from Flaubert, Céline and Sartre, but completely flattened out, deadly boring. He is the very picture of the writer without a conscience. Another sinister book was released at the same time, Jean Rolin’s Les Évenements, which shares Houellebecq’s petit-bourgeois fantasy of a civil war led by extremists coming along to entertain us. Now we must hold tight and not let these opportunistic vultures prowl around. Every one of these uninspired writers mired in the sordid and the police blotter merely gathers the crumbs left behind by journalists. We have to put an end to these so-called X-rays of French society, which only reveal their authors’ sad bile. If Charlie could make us understand once and for all that our era needs courage and conviction, and that we’re done with spinelessness — that would be a step in the right direction.

My problem with French journalism is that I have no taste for this kind of rousing, I-feel-better-now excitement, even when it makes me smile, as this certainly did. A strong current of magical thinking — Writing makes it so — charges this sort of work, which nevertheless must eventually fall back on old-fashioned exhortation: we must cease being spineless. Now is the time for courage. Well, now is always the time for courage, and there hasn’t been a moment in the past several centuries when some Frenchman wasn’t writing this sort of thing. For all the good it does…

(For a surprisingly interesting, and not at all unfavorable, review of Soumission, see Mark Lilla’s piece in The New York Review of Books. But don’t be tempted to read Houellebecq in French; he really is deadly boring. That’s his style, and, happily, it fades to invisibility in lower-key English translation. In case you find the author’s pseudonym daunting, just remember Welbeck Street in London, but try not to emphasize the first syllable.)

Nicholas Elliott’s translation of “Insoumission” immediately follows a round-up review by Thomas Meany, “The Great Chastening.” I don’t want to say a word about this fine piece today — I wrote an entry of twice the ordinary length yesterday, and I have errands to run before lunch — but the cool thought that I mentioned is expressed in one brief snippet. Meany is writing about John Dunn, author of Breaking Democracy’s Spell — a book that I think I should like to read.

His prose is intellectually bracing, sometimes opaque, but often flashes with insight. He is a late expositor of what Cyril Connolly called the Mandarin style: “Its cardinal assumption is that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry, that both are in possession of a classical education and a private income.”

If the shoe fits, sit up in your chair. The problem here, of course, is that I am forever barraged by the common-sense urge to soften the mandarin manner, to open up the seams here and there with a bit of (surely unnecessary) explanation, to concede that I am in possession of an education that is not quite classical — not to mention hurrying along to those errands before lunch; sometimes, just to use meaningless and inelegant expressions, such as “sort of.”

Reading Note:
The Buried Giant
17 March 2015

It’s an extraordinary image, isn’t it? Especially if you know that, the work of one Giovanni Battista Bracelli, it dates from 1624, nearly three hundred years before the word “robot” was introduced. I copied it from the current issue of the New York Review of Books, where it adorns Sue Halpern’s review of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, a piece that I referred to yesterday. The figure on the right is very dramatic — reminiscent, for me, of Paul Taylor’s dance, Cloven Kingdom. But it’s the figure on the left, composed in part of six compasses, that tickles me. Six compasses, a bit of baroque scrollery, and what looks awfully like the bells mounted in school hallways. Done!

It can’t quite go without saying that these drawings do not anticipate robots, but rather create (or further), in the venerable tradition of capricci, or fanciful doodles, the imagery to which illustrators would recur when robots did arrive, as fancies of a rather different kind. Bracelli’s characters are not anthropomorphic but just the opposite; they envision men with the gift of fleshlessness. These fellows stumble around painfully, but they will never bleed. It is difficult to suppress the idea that Bracelli’s drawing is “futuristic,” but we must make the effort, and not only because popular illustrators tasked with creating “futuristic” designs drew on very old ideas (if not necessarily Bracelli’s drawing itself). Futuristic images are so rarely predictive.

***

I thought about running the picture atop yesterday’s entry, where it might have been more apposite, but I’m glad that I didn’t, because I see it more clearly than I did yesterday, now that I have read The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel. The Buried Giant is also about images and their recurrence. This is not immediately obvious — as I must conclude on the basis of two of the four reviews of the novel that I read as soon as I was done with it. (I plead guilty to the charge of reading The Buried Giant, somewhat against my current inclinations, simply in order to deal with the reviews that were piling up, and that I could not read until I knew the book itself.) These rather unfavorable reviews, by Joyce Carol Oates and Adam Mars-Jones, appeared in the two Reviews, New York and London respectively. Oates and Mars-Jones are fairly unhappy to find that The Buried Giant is remarkable neither as a narrative nor as a piece of writing. In their disappointment, they dismiss the novel as second-class fantasy. (Mars-Jones is by far the harsher. Of the novel’s most stirring action sequence, he writes, “From the reader’s point of view, it’s like excavating the supposed site of a medieval abbey and discovering the ruins of a multiplex cinema.” This judgment is not nearly as clever as it sounds.)

The other two reviews that I had on hand, by Christine Smallwood, in Harper’s, and Nathaniel Rich, in The Atlantic, were favorable. Smallwood’s piece is a conspectus of “Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels of remembering” (as the subtitle has it), and at least it left me feeling that I wasn’t a complete fool to have enjoyed The Buried Giant. It was Rich’s piece, however, that woke me up to what I’d liked about it.

From subsequent clues, we can deduce that the year is approximately 450 AD, but despite our unnamed narrator’s anthropological tone, we are not in England as it actually was then, but as it was imagined seven centuries later by Geoffrey of Monmouth and the other mythologizers who gave us King Arthur, Sir Gawain, and the wizard Merlin.

This is exactly right, and I shall try to explain why it is also very interesting.

In The Buried Giant, the people of Britain — the “Briton” (Celtic) and Saxon inhabitants of the island — are afflicted by a kind oblivion that, in Ishiguro’s hands, is pregnant with thought about the nature of memory. This oblivion, unlike the cruel caprice of Alzheimer’s Disease, does not make its victims forget their own names, or the faces of their loved ones. They simply forget what is no longer around to remind them — a bit more quickly than we all do. Axl and Beatrice, the elderly couple at the center of the novel, cannot remember why their son no longer lives with them; they decide to set out to visit him even though they have no idea where that might be. The implication is that Axl and Beatrice no longer remember that the world, even the world of England, is a big place. Beatrice occasionally visits a Saxon settlement that is about a day’s journey distant, and she seems aware of other villages that lie beyond it; surely their son lives in one of these. So their adventure begins, and it soon becomes a quest — Beatrice’s quest — to put an end to the cause of this oblivion. Beatrice believes that recollection will bring understanding, and Ishiguro maintains our loyalty to Beatrice even as he makes it clear that recollection will bring other, much less desirable things, most notably the longing for revenge.

When what literary historians used to call the matière de Bretagne, the bundle of stories surrounding a late-Roman warrior known as Arthur, were being polished for courtly appreciation by poets and “historians” like Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the middle of the Twelfth Century, there was no real evidence of who the important people of 450 might have been. There were no documents, no inscriptions, no tombs. Bit of weaponry and coinage and other such knickknacks told an ethnological, but not an historical, story. Instead of the kind of evidence that modern historians insist on, Geoffrey and his French counterpart, Chrétien de Troyes, had stories, oral ballads one supposes. We don’t know much (if anything) about how twelfth-century writers transformed this matière into the written works that have come down to us, not because the process was embarrassing but because it was of no interest.

There was no critical voice asking Geoffrey to produce his sources. Geoffrey’s job was to create a satisfying account of what no one doubted — for everyone was familiar with parts of the matière — must have taken place. It is certainly arguable that Arthur and Merlin were “based,” over generations of retelling, on men who existed in 450, but those men were not like Arthur and Merlin. Arthur and Merlin, like snowflakes, grew during and were shaped by centuries of changing conditions. By Geoffrey’s day, a line had been drawn beneath most of those centuries by the Norman Conquest. The old changes, from Roman to Saxon Britain, were over.

Like the villagers among whom Axl and Beatrice live, at the beginning of The Buried Giant, the men and women who “retold” the stories that became the stories of Arthur and Merlin had forgotten everything about the great warriors of the mid-Fifth Century — everything but that there had been great warriors. The stories were the product of oblivion. Kazuo Ishiguro, studding his new novel with ogres, pixies, and a she-dragon, is perfectly aware of this, and he assumes that his readers are perfectly aware of this, too. His she-dragon is not the sort of accoutrement of fantasy literature that it would be in Tolkien. It is a small monument not only to the inability but also to the unwillingness to remember that no one has ever seen a she-dragon.

***

I have always thought of Ishiguro as a “Japanese” novelist, complete with scare quotes. I know that he grew up and was educated in England, and that he did not revisit Japan (having left it at the age of five) until he was an adult. What I mean by “Japanese” is a synthetic, imaginary quality that is self-consciously imitative of illustrious exemplars. It supposes an aesthetic at odds not so much with Western practices of art as with Western ways of talking about those practices. The Western artist is thought to require “new forms.” He goes out into the garden and looks closely at a peony blossom. He studies it to the exclusion of every other consideration. Then he returns to his studio and paints what he saw: his vision of a peony blossom. The Asian aesthetic, embodied in such treatises as The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, assumes that you must know how to paint a peony blossom before you can actually see one. Therefore you must study all the best paintings of peony blossoms before you consider an actual flower on your own. When you paint what you saw, you strive to make it look as much like other, great, pictures of peonies as you can. If you, too, are blessed with greatness, this will manifest itself almost as an error, as a falling-short of the exemplars, or, just as problematic, a falling-beyond. Your peony painting will be judged only by connoisseurs, men who may or may not be painters themselves but who are familiar with all the exemplars.

I don’t think that Western art is much different, but ever since Vasari, it has been presented in terms of progress and advance. Connoisseurs know better. Or, rather, they understand that “progress” and “advance” have nothing to do with beauty, and are therefore of no interest.

So what I mean when I say that Ishiguro is a “Japanese” artist is not that he has embraced the culture of his ancestors, but simply that — helped, perhaps, by an awareness of that culture — he has dumped a lot of European claptrap. His books, even the most gripping ones, are never about new forms. On the contrary; they are studies of old forms. Christine Smallwood, wondering why, as a “recent convert,” so many of her acquaintance either think little of Ishiguro or take him for granted without content, quotes a letter from a friend.

I think he’s very good, yes, although to be honest there is something snobbish in me that never quite lets myself say he is one of my favorite writers. What is that? I think it’s something about feeling very clearly manipulated, maybe.

That’s our world in a sentence: the writer is too much a snob to admit being the kind of snob who might be called a connoisseur: someone who cannot be manipulated. The big difference between Europe and Asia in this regard is that, in Europe, people who don’t know much about anything will be heard, their opinions “respected.” I hope that I don’t sound too much like Nietzsche when I say that this is ridiculous nonsense.

The pleasure of reading The Buried Giant is very much that of the connoisseur. This can be described in two ways. Positively: the connoisseur grasps a network of objects that becomes more powerful, and even overwhelming, as more connections are made. Negatively: connoisseurship is derivative, preoccupied with the past; ultimately, the connoisseur becomes an oppressive, completist bore. The difference is temperamental, and I don’t see the point of trying to convince people who are impatient with connoisseurship that they are wrong. The pleasure was in any case genuine for me. During the action sequence that I mentioned earlier, I was remembering the excitement of the climax of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose — both scenes of tumult in a monastery; but I was also remembering the fractured narrative, which I didn’t enjoy at the time, of Robert Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice. I was often reminded of Boccaccio, because the archaic style of dialogue adopted by Ishiguro is that of translations of the Decameron — musty and earthy, with nothing left out or taken to be understood. This very quality also reminded me, but negatively, of the King James Bible, a book of many mysteries. If I did not, like the reviewers, make a connection between Ishiguro’s Sir Gawain and Lewis Carroll’s White Knight, that is because, to my shame, I am not conversant with the Alice books. (And if Monty Python and the Holy Grail occurred to me at all, it flashed by very quickly, because I should never allow satire, no matter how exhilarating, to cause collateral damage.) It’s probably no accident that I was reminded of many things that I can only halfway recall; I am no model connoisseur. But the pleasure of sensing connections was constant and quite intense.

I have been describing what I consider to be Ishiguro’s overall style, which I call, cheekily, “Japanese.” What makes The Buried Giant distinct, and not just a medium for memories, is its ongoing dramatization of memory and memory loss. What I mean most by “dramatization” here is that neither memory nor its loss is an absolute evil, the bad man in the play. Axl, who only dimly remembers that he and Beatrice may have had violent disagreements in the past, causing one another pain and even estrangement, wonders if oblivion has not, by healing those old wounds, allowed his love for her to grow robust and even indomitable. The Saxon knight, Wistan, with whom Axl and Beatrice travel — Canterbury Tales! — wants to put an end to the oblivion precisely to sharpen his people’s resentment against the untrustworthy Britons, who, as we know historically, will be beaten back beyond the marches of Wales and the borders of Scotland. We can argue, with Beatrice in turn, that understanding removes the sting of memory: tout comprendre est tout pardonner, a maxim that the Holocaust, however, appears to have derailed. There is no getting to the bottom of this conundrum, because there is no getting to the bottom of the fact that we are little more than what we remember, and that we shall all disappear in the oblivion of others. What makes The Buried Giant exciting to read is the unceasing prospect of betrayal: whom can Axl and Beatrice trust? Can they even trust one another? This, too, is a problem of memory, for we cannot remember what has not yet happened. We can only remember, and that very imperfectly, what has happened in like cases. For the experienced reader, the number of like cases is immense, and Ishiguro’s low-key prose does little to steer you among them.

The Buried Giant ends on a quay by a river, across which lies a special island that can be reached only by the offices of a ferryman, and the ferryman can carry only one passenger at a time. The hope nursed by Beatrice and Axl, that an exception might be made in their case, and both might be ferried across in a single crossing, is as heartbreaking as the hope of those Hailsham students, in Never Let Me Go, that love calls for the special treatment of lovers. It is so easy to forget that love is itself the special treatment.

Que Faire Note:
It Works
16 March 2015

The weather warms by inches. It has ceased to be too cold to spend more than a minute on the balcony, and I have straightened things up out there. If it were warmer, I’d clean it up as well, so that we could sit out there in comfort. That will happen in due course. For the moment, it’s enough that the balcony doesn’t look like a dump — which it did, for most of the winter. If in doubt, put it out(side) — that was our policy. It must have been a dispiriting spectacle for our neighbors across the street. I hope that, what with our just having moved in and the frigid air &c, they haven’t minded too much. We also hope that they won’t notice, when the weather turns balmy and we can sit on the balcony in the dark, that we’ll be going into full rear-window mode, spying on everything that we can see through their windows. (Technical note: all the windows that are visible from that end of our apartment face front.) The building across the street, which is older than ours, has fire escapes, despite its size, but no balconies. So our neighbors won’t be sitting outside in the dark spying on us while we’re spying on them. Awkwardness averted.

***

The quiet weekend was clouded by sniffles that intimated colds, either past or to come, and by two pieces, one in the New York Review of Books, one in the London, concerning the third phase of the Industrial Revolution. The first phase introduced steam-powered factories and railroads. The second phase brought us the modern conveniences (electricity, telephones, and indoor plumbing). In the third phase, the capitalists will finally attain their holy grail, which is zero human employment. Robots are about to replace us all, where they haven’t done so already. In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, a novelist who seems to have given up fiction in order to write about economic dislocations that are stranger than fiction, tells us about robots that are both designed by robots and capable of repairing themselves. If these marvels have not quite yet been realized, it won’t be long before they take their place beside drones that, for the moment, require remote human pilots, but that any day may graduate to the status of autonomous mobile weapons. In the New York Review, Sue Halpern critiques a rather sanctimonious open letter, signed by Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking among others, that calls upon AI developers to bear human consequences in mind when they develop their projects. Halpern and Lanchester are both perfectly aware that nothing — under current socio-economic arrangements — is going to prevent capitalists from developing any and all machinery capable of replacing human labor, no matter how dangerous, and no matter how destructive to the social fabric.

The only question is whether the political will to resist these developments can be brought to bear before it has been so fueled by toxic grievance and resentment that it is incapable of moderation. Forget “capitalism” as a system; the deployment of hefty capital investments is an essential part of economic life. Who is to own, and who is to direct, this capital? We have seen enough to know that governments are even worse than plutocrats — just as craven but vastly less competent. We also know that small businesses, which require capital investments, too (if rather modest ones), function better if they are operator-owned. I would venture to add that small-business owners would be more inclined to provide their human employees with robotic tools than to replace their human being altogether. And I would suggest further that such robotic tools would be best designed, or at least perfected, by cooperatives or not-for-profit organizations funded by small-business owners — and not, that is, by large mass-producers.

There I go again, sketching ideas on the back of an envelope. What good does that do? Well, I may say something that inspires someone else to think of something not only better but also more effective.

Optimism wilts, however, whenever I consider the social scene in which something better and more effective would have to be implemented. The last paragraph of Sue Halpern’s piece is enough to chill any hope.

We live in a technophilic age. We love our digital devices and all that they can do for us. We celebrate our Internet billionaires: they show us the way and deliver us to our destiny. We have President Obama, who established the National Robotics Initiative to develop the “next generation of robotics, to advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.” Even so, it is naive to believe that government is competent, let alone in a position, to control the development and deployment of robots, self-generating algorithms, and artificial intelligence. Government has too many constituent parts that have their own, sometimes competing, visions of the technological future. Business, of course, is self-interested and resists regulation. We, the people, are on our own here—though if the AI developers have their way, not for long.

The problem is not business or government or the National Robotics Institute so naively established by the President. The problem is “we.” If it is true that we live in a technophilic age, that does not necessarily mean that we are technophiles. It does not seem to me that anyone is terribly mature about what “our digital devices” “can do for us.” The smartphone, the top device of the day, reminds me of Hollywood: it’s high school with money. The smartphone is an adolescent toy that permits users to play games and to exchange gossip. (The Apple Watch will open a gym wing, accessing all sorts of physical data that ought to be of no concern to healthy young people.) Sure, I have one. I use it as a phone, and to send the occasional text (usually telling someone where I am and when I’ll get to where I’m going). I check the weather, and I practice Mandarin character recognition. I take the odd photograph and post it at Facebook. At the end of the day, though, my battery is still 90% charged. I don’t read email on it, nor do I see what other people are up to at Facebook. I don’t look up movies on IMDb or search Wikipedia for information. These are things that I do at my desk, where serious thought is unlikely to be disturbed — and I am much less likely to post a fatuous comment at Facebook. It’s true that I’m having a hard time building the habit of registering questions that occur to me throughout the day, whenever I am not at my desk, on an iPhone Evernote. But I’m working on it.

In another NYRB review, this one of William Gibson’s new novel, I learned that it is already the case that, according to reviewer Lagaya Mishan, “people have hired stand-ins to play the tedious early rounds of games as a shortcut to higher levels.” (Ew!) How long before those stand-ins are replaced by robots?

Our Inner Life :
Solitude
13 March 2015

Where to begin. I was going to sketch the current state of my thinking about “the inner life.” And I shall, presently. On the way to the computer, however — at lunch, to be exact — I read the Folio essay in the new issue of Harper’s. (April 2015) It’s a piece by Fenton Johnson, “Going It Alone: The Dignity and Challenge of Solitude.” What with the thoughts already running through my mind, my reading of “Going It Alone” was something of a train wreck. I found myself in a sea of paradox and confusion. There: the train just sank to the bottom. Let’s swallow a paradox or two.

Isn’t spirituality something that ought never to be mentioned? Never preached or written about, or lovingly described in ecstatic poetry? It’s not that spirituality is private (although it is), but rather that the speaking, writing self dissolves in the experience. There is no ego capable of framing a report. Indeed, much writing about spirituality announces that very conclusion. Words cannot express or capture, so we’re told, the measure of spiritual life. All that can be discussed is a sort of hangover, an afterimage. Or perhaps some sort of koan.

Here’s another. Writing of the resolution to lead a celibate life, Fenton Johnson says, “I salute the courage of those who make such declarations in public, but I admire more deeply those who honor their vows in the solitude of their hearts.” Where does that leave the writer whose subject is the experience of celibacy?

What confuses me is the nature of Johnson’s intended reader. Who is he talking to? In our society, the solitary, celibate life is available to everybody who wants it, but Johnson’s solitaries don’t just pass the time in quiet rooms or spacious deserts. No: they write. Sometimes they paint (Cézanne); sometimes they preach (Jesus); but, mostly, they write. Now, it doesn’t take an essay such as this to inform us that writing, serious writing, well-packed with thought, requires extensive solitude. Everybody who has ever written a novel worth reading, for example, has spent a lot of time alone, or, in the cases of Jane Austen, Louis Auchincloss, and others, tuned out. My dear Kathleen has the gift of creating utter solitude wherever and whenever she needs to draft a document. Or when she wants to read a book. She will not hear music that happens to be playing in the same room. A video will not distract her. She is temporarily unaware of her body. I myself, in complete contrast, am helplessly responsive to the the slightest disturbances. Libraries have never been good places for me because, by their very nature, they make no provision for actual solitude. I require strict radio silence — voluntary solitary confinement. And I’m habituated to it. I need to be alone a great deal. The careful reader will quickly grasp that I can be alone when Kathleen is around because she isn’t around. Except when she wants to be, which is, I can happily say, not quite as often as I’d like.

I gather that none of the claims that I have made about my wife or myself would tempt Johnson into regarding us as living solitary lives. They are claims that could probably be made by most readers and nearly all writers. Celibate writers are rare. Great as my esteem for Henry James may be, I cannot allow the suggestion that his celibacy puts him in a higher heaven of writers. (On the contrary: James’s writing draws much of its power from sublimated sexuality. I think it safe to say that James was sexually troubled, and I would argue that the act of writing served as his sedative.) We’ll agree with Johnson that there have been some fantastic celibate writers. The question is how incidental this celibacy is to the writing.

I began by asking about spirituality because Johnson’s theme seems to be to praise the consecration of life to something other than love and companionship, but not just any something other — no. The consecration of life to meditation and then to writing all about it. Johnson praises James and his other writers for giving us the fruits of their solitude. What they wrote is “their gift to us, their spiritual children,” Johnson writes, and by “us,” he makes it clear that he means solitaries like himself. Is he trying to say that those of us who don’t live solitary lives can’t appreciate Henry James fully?

I am not going to try to straighten any of this out. I enjoyed reading “Going It Alone,” and could not more emphatically agree with Johnson about the importance of solitude in our mindlessly overconnected lives. But I could not grasp, and in fact probably refuse to grasp, what it might mean “to define, explore, and complete the self by turning inward rather than looking outward. “

***

Here is my thinking about the inner life: it is vital, but uninteresting. Essentially uninteresting. I must somehow conduct an inner life, simply to know what I’m working with here, but I don’t think that I can make it interesting to you. It is not very interesting to me, either, which is why habits are so important. I used to believe that habits were regrettable, because they were robotic. You’re not really living if you’re doing something habitual. But I have since learned that what goes on in the bathroom, for example, is of no real interest at all — unless it’s alarming, whereupon we act upon that alarm by calling the doctor; and even then, it is of interest only to us, our loved ones, and the doctor. What goes on in the bathroom is often vital, and, from the standpoint of society, it is vital that it go on in the bathroom. I am not going to argue that what goes in the bathroom could never be transformed into interesting reading matter, but I think we can agree that the subject is not going to become common anytime soon. My point is that the bathroom is a site of highly habitual behavior. It is not “really living,” but you’d be dead otherwise.

Thinking is also an act of the inner life, but it is no more interesting to others than what goes on in the bathroom. It is not thinking that is interesting. (Unless you’re Mozart.) It is what thinking inspires you to do. It’s what you say, or write, or commit to smoke signals, that is interesting. Or that might be interesting. Interesting things happen, always and everywhere and only, between people. Some of whom — note to literary solitaries here — are dead.

More to come. Meanwhile,

Bon weekend à tous!

Spring Note:
Paul Taylor Returns
12 March 2015

If Paul Taylor is at Lincoln Center, it must be spring.

First, a bit of math. What is the value of N, where N represents the number of New York seasons of performances by the Paul Taylor Dance Company that Kathleen and I have shown up for, including the current one? It is not a very high number, unfortunately — to enjoy myself thoroughly, I have to stamp down a demon who barks What took you so long? first. But it is high enough for one’s merely mortal mind to equate it with “forever.”

N turns out to be seven, as I thought. I figured that we had to have seen the Company for at least three seasons at City Center, on 55th Street, and Kathleen read in last night’s program that the Company moved to Lincoln Center in 2012, making this their fourth there. It occurred to me that the Web site that you are currently reading would allow me to determine the matter. According to this Web site, there is no mention of Paul Taylor prior to 2010. It took a few minutes, however, to remember that there is no mention of anything prior to 2010 on this Web site, because that it when it was inaugurated. Looking into its predecessor (which is still out there, if neglected), I found, yes indeed, an account dating from 2009.

In that earliest related entry, I talk about a ticket-buying spree that took place prior to the performance. Kathleen and I visited the box offices of several Broadway theatres and got seats for several shows, one of which closed before we could use them (a revival of Guys and Dolls), and one of which was a dud (The Philanthropist). About the Paul Taylor dances I said just about nothing. “Delightful,” I said. In 2010, I said even less, because I was too wrapped up in my newborn grandson. These silences don’t surprise me. For a long time, I had no idea what was going on in any given Paul Taylor dance. I just knew that I liked them, and Kathleen made it very clear that she liked them. So we went back, some seasons more often than others. We almost missed last season entirely, and it would have been quite understandable if we missed this one. But we are not going to miss this one, because one late night in January, after Kathleen had gone to sleep, I sat down at the computer and did what you’re never supposed to do after a couple of glasses of wine. I bought a boatload of tickets. To five performances, no less. To save money, I took seats on the side of the front row, but the tickets added up, and I felt quite guilty about the impulsive expense the next morning. I felt even worse when I realized that we might be unable to attend one or more of the shows, owing to Kathleen’s commitment to attend a Bitcoin event at Stanford at the end of March.

The tickets duly arrived by mail, all on the same day, and they sat unopened for weeks. I finally opened them a few days ago, and good thing, too, because, shortly afterward, Kathleen was finally booking our flights to San Francisco, and if I hadn’t put in my two cents, we’d have missed three shows instead of just one. Phew. Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil will take our tickets for the Saturday evening on which we’ll get to Palo Alto.

Last night, we discovered that seats to the side of the front row are perfect. I shouldn’t like to be any farther back. Row A is ideally distanced from the dancers — by the orchestra pit. (For there is live music once again at Paul Taylor.) This is one of the first things that I learned about Paul Taylor dances: you ought to be close enough to talk to them. Not because you’re going to do any such thing, but because you’re going to want to read all the expressions that accompany conversation. Unlike most choreographers, Paul Taylor does not work from the neck down. In the middle of a new dance that we saw last night, Sea Lark (set to Poulenc’s music for another ballet, Les Biches), two dancers stood upstage, perfectly still but for their rolling eyes. You can’t really see that from Row R.

Row R is fine for classical ballet. You don’t hear the stomping (not that Paul Taylor’s dancers were very audible in the first row), and all the dancers in the corps de ballet look just alike, a lovely flock of indistinguishable swans. Classical ballet can be thrilling, because, like almost everything developed in the Nineteenth Century, it breathes a dream of mechanical precision. At its best, classical ballet is perfectly coordinated.

It took me a long time to figure out that what interests Paul Taylor is salvaging the moves of classical ballet (and combining them with other moves) while eliminating the exactitude. The coordination is studiedly imperfect. This is not the result of careless or sloppy dancing. It is the inevitable consequence of Taylor’s choice of dancers. For there is no Paul Taylor “look,” no type. There are, to be sure, no fat or even remotely unfit dancers. Nor are there any usually tall people in the company. But some dancers are considerably shorter than others. Some dancers are nowhere near as slim and fine-boned as others. Michael Trusnovec is an Apollo; Sean Mahoney looks as though he might be a construction worker. Laura Halzack stands out among the women not just for the glamour of her face but for her penchant for demented abandon: sometimes, the lady looks just plain nuts. (And very beautiful.) Moments when Robert Kleinendorst looks responsible enough to be trusted with a pack of matches are very rare. George Smallwoods substantial head (shaved, but not close enough to conceal a big bald spot) makes him look stocky, although he isn’t. In short, the Paul Taylor Dance Company comprises sixteen different human beings. They dance very well together. They run through intricate, quickly-shifting configurations without running into each other. Whenever a girl takes a flying leap, there’s always a boy to catch her. But they remain sixteen different people. And at least two are in the neighborhood of forty years of age.

Some dancers are more prominently featured than others, or so it seems, but there is absolutely no corps, no clump of lesser dancers condemned to assist the stars. One of the amazing things is how well Paul Taylor has made seniority work for his company. Members are listed by seniority, and they take curtain calls in reverse seniority. Some dancers move out, leaving the company, but most seem to move up, as older dancers retire. (We were sad to see the last of Annmaria Mazzini and Amy Young, and we can’t imagine what it’s going to be like when Michael Trusnovec withdraws.) Seniority, which is meaningless artistically, has the odd leveling effect of making everyone look different. Over time, you get to know who each dancer is by name, and while every dancer appears to be capable of doing anything, no dancer leaves his or her personal uniqueness in the dressing room. Full appreciation of such full-charactered dancing requires a seat close to the stage.

It took me until last night figure out that Paul Taylor and his dancers have taught me more than anyone else about what I understand humanism to be.

Gotham Diary:
Entitled
11 March 2015

Whilst ironing napkins yesterday, and generally tidying up the bedroom, I watched Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher. I had hoped to see it in the theatre, but upheavals intervened, so I sent for the DVD and, as soon as the movie ended, regretted not having simply rented the thing from the Video Room. (Have I heard of Netflix? Oh, yes.) When will I watch Foxcatcher again? During a DIY Bennett Miller retrospective? (I’ve got Capote; what about Moneyball?) I remember news of the true crime that inspired the new movie. It was weird — a du Pont under arrest? In the movie, it all becomes much too creepy to be merely weird. (It’s interesting, though, that Bennett Miller makes movies about real people.)

Steve Carell really deserves some sort of Academy Award. It’s not just the facial prosthesis that buries his well-known persona, which, as we know from Dan In Real Life and The Way Way Back, can be disagreeable as well as lovably goofy. The impersonation of John DuPont is full-body acting, with a special walk (nerdy but feline), a ritzy Pennsylvania accent, an entitled way of slouching in chairs, and that incredible manner of sniffing the air, as if wondering what delightful treat — or irksome frustration — the world were about to serve up next. It is clear that this John du Pont would be swept to the margins of society if it were not for his family’s wealth. He is not just spoiled, but damaged in some biological way that rarely permits its victims to survive adolescence. He ought to have been institutionalized. Instead, he was allowed to play the munificent patriot. Steve Carell captures the compleat horror of this miscarriage, and he does so very quietly, by conveying, for example, du Pont’s inability to have a true conversation with anyone. Bradley Cooper was excellent in American Sniper, and a more real-world Academy would have awarded him the best-actor Oscar. But Carell deserved it. Maybe he’ll get it next year, the way that Jeremy Irons got it for Reversal of Fortune — truly an award for his unwatchably superb portrayal of the Mantle twins, in Dead Ringers, made the year before.

Everyone else in Foxcatcher is very good — not just the three other stars, but also the actors who play du Pont’s various henchmen. Guy Boyd and Anthony Michael Hall behave with the casual but cutthroat courtliness that surrounds America’s rich and powerful; it is their deadliness that makes John du Pont possible. They keep flashing messages, never properly interpreted, to the Schultz brothers, warning them to clear out while they can. I’d have liked to see more of Sienna Miller, who, here as in American Sniper, polishes off a gift for playing the strong man’s sweetheart. I sensed early that Channing Tatum’s gift for brooding (he can make resentment look manly and even admirable, even though it never is either) would show his character an escape route, and that Mark Ruffalo’s open manner would mark him as uncomprehending fodder for a domesticated predator, but because I was confused about which brother John du Pont shot, I watched the movie somewhat quizzically. I’ll have to see it again. But when?

***

In Sunday’s Times, Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soul Craft, an appealing book from a few years back, published a complaint about inescapable advertising at airports.

Silence is now offered as a luxury good. In the business-class lounge at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I heard only the occasional tinkling of a spoon against china. I saw no advertisements on the walls. This silence, more than any other feature, is what makes it feel genuinely luxurious. When you step inside and the automatic doors whoosh shut behind you, the difference is nearly tactile, like slipping out of haircloth into satin. Your brow unfurrows, your neck muscles relax; after 20 minutes you no longer feel exhausted.

Outside, in the peon section, is the usual airport cacophony. Because we have allowed our attention to be monetized, if you want yours back you’re going to have to pay for it.

This is not exactly news. Luxurious precincts have long been known for their well-upholstered hush. But Crawford is right to point out that the “usual airport cacaphony” is out of hand. What bothers me is the suspicion that most people find this reassuring, as though the constant racket signified and guaranteed their safety. Whether or not that’s the case, it’s clear that nobody can afford to pay much attention to all the noise, and that is truly alarming. More and more, the public sphere punishes the attempt to pay attention. Without attention, there can be no memory, a point that I expect Kazuo Ishiguro wants to make in his new novel about a bleak and blasted world.

Consider what advertizing has done to architecture: visit Times Square. This bazaar of signs is both there and not there. It is not there because it is pointing to thousands of other places, other weathers and times of day. Indeed, it creates an alternative time of day every night. Buildings, hidden behind the signs, might look like anything, if you could see them, and indeed one remaining relic of the old days is a Beaux-Arts palace loaded with pediments and cornices. Spruced up — what one can see of it is reminiscent of a firetrap — it would be very jolly to look at. Instead, we get signs that we more or less ignore. Times Square blazes at the point where too much information becomes no information at all.

Crawford compares the proliferation of advertizing to the environmental pollution that we have learned to curb. I think it’s a little worse than that; to me, it’s more like smoking. We are more than a little complicit. Too many of us rely on television for companionship, a vice that makes genuine human interaction more difficult than it ought to be. Too many of us abuse our privacy by introducing the presence of a talking screen. If this were not the case, then we should all see the blaring spread of public advertizing for the invasion that it is.

Gotham Diary:
Bedtime Reading
10 March 2015

Early this morning, I fell out of bed. I was trying to get up, but I fell in a heap instead. I slipped, it seemed, as I was trying the chancy back-out maneuver that always makes me feel like I’m trying to climb down from a Tiepolo ceiling. I’m still new at it. Until recently, I slept in one position only, half sitting-up. Immobile for the entire night, I eventually contracted painful bedsores. Then, on our trip to San Francisco in January, I discovered that, with the help of long, king-sized pillows, I could sleep not only in a more supine position, thus taking some of the stress off my duff, but also on my right side, at least for an hour or so, until my shoulder got sore. As soon as we got home, Kathleen ordered similar pillows. No more bedsores! But I could sleep on the right side only, with my back to the edge of the bed.

Unwinding from this side-sleeping position, into a standing-up position, will require further thought, if I am to avoid further tumbles.

I was able to get up from the floor without pain  or ado. Presently I was lying on my back, in bed, wondering what the damage was going to be. Over the next couple of hours, what would begin to throb or burn or spark? What muscles had been pulled, what tendons torn? Would I have to use a cane? Would I be able to use a cane? What would become of my tightly-organized householding schedule? Well, that one was easy. I knew what would happen to it. Pffft is what would happen. Presently I fell back to sleep.

When I woke up, I felt fine. I still do. No: what I feel is insanely lucky. That can’t happen again!

It was a long evening. Dinner was late because because. Kathleen came home an hour later than she thought she would, and because this is precisely what I expected, I allowed it to put off my starting in the kitchen. Then what I thought would take fifteen minutes took thirty-five. The food was good, and we ate slowly. We continued talking after our plates were clean. I said that I was going to watch a movie, which was fine with Kathleen. While washing up the dishes, however, I decided that it was too late for a movie, and that, instead, I should read a chapter of Sperber’s Marx, and, not only that, but, sticking to my schedule, do the laundry. This meant that I wasn’t in my sleepies (a Thomas Jefferson shirt from Peterman and a pair of fleece shorts) until half-past midnight.

I was restless, not tired. I had read the chapter (“The Editor,” about Marx’s career as a newspaperman in Cologne, during which he was an acerbic free-trade Hegelian who actually advocated military action against communist insurrectionists), but couldn’t settle on what next. Having finished Munich Airport — for some reason, the ending didn’t go down properly, and, while not positively unsatisfactory, it wasn’t satisfying, either — I thought I’d give The Buried Giant a try, but it was too intense, in the way that Never Let Me Go was intense: not at all difficult on the surface but nevertheless disturbing. I’ve learned from reviews what the “giant” really is, and can already see the novel, like its immediate predecessor, as a parable of what we take to be our ordinary modern life. Not, so not, bedtime reading.

I turned to Making It Up, Penelope Lively’s anti-memoir. This is a series of stories in which characters start out in positions taken from Lively’s life, but only to be drawn in quite different directions. The first story, “The Mozambique Channel,” concerns the evacuation of British women and children from Cairo, where Lively was born in 1933, in the face of Rommel’s advance across North Africa. Some went to Cape Town; others went to Jerusalem. Lively’s mother took her and her nanny to Jerusalem, so the story is about a nanny on board a ship bound for Cape Town. I had just finished that, and was about to begin the next one, which involves, I take it, an unwanted pregnancy in the early 1950s, when abortions could be deadly. Again: not bedtime reading. I got halfway through an essay by Tony Judt that heaped contumely upon the imperialism of Ariel Sharon, but I had to put it down. (Everything on that front has simply gotten worse!) Finally, I crawled into bed with A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, by Katie Whitaker. This is not my sort of book at all. Its central, unforgivable sin is the anachronistic portrayal of a seventeenth-century political marriage as a romance filmed at Shepperton or Pinewood. Almost as bad, Whitaker takes the letters exchanged by Charles and his French bride at face value, when in fact they’re largely courtly boilerplate. I’m reading, or not reading, A Royal Passion because Ray Soleil gave it to me when he was through with it. When he sees what I’ve just written, he’s going to tell me to throw the book away. But I can’t. For all its faults, Whitaker’s book does tell the important story of the quite deservedly “turbulent” career of one of those arrogant idiots who have occasionally worn the English crown.

Interesting, the way the English have always had of getting rid of arrogant idiots. Edward II, Richard II, Richard III, Charles I, Edward VIII. In France, they’d have been allowed to Ruin Everything. But not in Merrie England! (Never you mind what they did to Edward II.)

At dinner, Kathleen and I talked a little bit about humanism. My humanism, as I’m beginning very reluctantly to call it. I have mentioned in the past that “Humanism” is currently claimed by two groups, neither of which I belong to. There are the atheist humanists, who are really more interested in atheism than in human beings; and then there are the neo-Thomists, who are more interested in eternal souls than in human beings. Both are colored by Enlightenment humanism, which holds that we are all more or less alike, and could  get on better than we do, if only malefactors of every stripe were not profiting from our divisions. I’m not an Enlightenment humanist, either.

I think that we are all very different, partly because of what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” The more alike any two people might be, the more intensely they’re going to focus on their differences (no malefactors required). Sociologists and other abstract thinkers like to put people in groups, but groups only exist in situations of mob frenzy. The members of an exclusive country club may look pretty much the same to you, but you can be sure that that’s not how they see themselves. We band together not to form groups but to surround ourselves with a range of varieties small enough to be lived with. In some unfortunate people, the sense that they’re not like anybody else and that nobody understands them is a cause of pain and disconnection, but for most people, I believe, it is a source of the most profound satisfaction — at least when things are going well.

Consider: when was the last time that you were happy to hear that “You’re just like my good friend X“?

Reading Note:
Conflict of Laws
9 March 2015

For months now, one of the little books on the counter at Crawford Doyle has been Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I’ve resisted — and resisted. But I caved last week and bought a copy. It was inevitable, I suppose. “Decluttering” is one of my big subjects, and I’m in no position to disdain professional advice. Especially when it’s so delicious. Kondo writes with an elfin briskness that all by itself suggests that getting rid of stuff not only ought to be easy but will be immensely gratifying. Her mantra: Don’t hold onto anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” Ergo:

My basic principle for sorting papers is to throw them all away. … After all, they will never inspire joy, no matter how carefully you keep them. (96)

She doesn’t — phew! — mean all papers. She concedes that there are papers that “must be kept indefinitely,” and she recommends setting all “sentimental” papers aside for later triage. (You’ll be throwing all of them away, too, but for different reasons.) But what a joyous idea! Certainly nothing floods me with pleasant relief more than bidding adieu to bags and bundles of paper.

With regard to books, Kondo is more perspicacious, even if her net-net advice is (as always) the same. She has some very good things to say about the possession of books, and I am meditating on them round the clock. One observation, however, stands out for immediate, explicit consideration. I reproduce it in its original boldface.

The moment you first encounter a particular book is the right time to read it. (95)

Although I can’t think of any titles at the moment, I know that I have encountered numerous exceptions to this rule. After years of sitting on a shelf, this book or that one has emerged not only as the one to be reading right now, but, more than that, as a book that I shouldn’t have properly understood had I read it when I bought it. Although I say “numerous,” however, such books don’t amount to a serious fraction of my library. On the whole, I agree with Kondo. Here is my corollary, which I assure you I’ve been struggling to obey for some time now:

Don’t buy a book that you’re not prepared to read, all the way through, right now.

But, stuff happens. I was bringing my reading pile down to size last week when boxes began arriving. Plus the equivalent of a box: a phone call from Crawford Doyle informing me that a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant was being held for me. (In the process of liberating it, I purchased not only Tidying Up but the Coralie Bickford-Smith edition of Wuthering Heights, a novel that I haven’t read since the age of fifteen. Bickford-Smith had a lot to do with my good behavior during the reading of Great Expectations.) Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life arrived — precisely the sort of book that, if not read at once, moulders away for years in the limbo of “unread” books. So I’ve read two chapters all ready. It’s excellent, and precisely the kind of biography that I want: the subtitle is deadly serious.

Nevertheless, I broke my rule when I ordered Sperber’s book. I was following a conflicting rule, one that was very deeply imprinted on my character by a suburban upbringing in the age of bomb shelters.

Stock up now, while you’re thinking about it.

As you can see, I no longer approve of this rule, which wreaks havoc in the kitchen as well in in the library. I knew at once, when I unpacked the life of Marx, that I should have to finish off Sven Beckert’s The Empire of Cotton double quick. Which I did, over the weekend. Cotton is an important book about capitalism — a very important book, I think — and it is reasonably well-written. But the plush profusion of facts and figures in support of Beckert’s assertions (about which I needed no persuading) clotted the narrative, making one feel rather stuck in traffic. (It occurs to me that such books would be vastly improved by moving all, or most, of those facts and figures to an appendix, perhaps in graphic or tabular format. I also found it interesting that Beckert ended his book without any apparent sense of leaving his story in the middle: the current configuration of the Empire of Cotton is hardly likely to continue indefinitely.)

There were two recent acquisitions, also purchased at Crawford Doyle, that had to be dealt with: the new (the last?) Tony Judt, and the latest Greg Baxter. I’ve already chewed off the first portion of Jennifer Homans’s collection of her late husband’s uncollected essays and book reviews, and I’m in no danger of not reading the rest: this is exactly what I long for between issues of the New York and London Reviews, and no wonder, since that’s where many of them were published. When the Facts Change is a great book to take to lunch.

Greg Baxter’s last book, The Apartment, arrived last summer — right before our Fire Island vacation and all the upheaval that followed. I liked it a lot, which made it one of the very few novels by a contemporary American male that I should recommend. The new novel, Munich Airport, is a longer, darker version of The Apartment, with fewer tangents. Once again, the account of a short period of present time is punctuated by extended flashbacks. The flashbacks run to a handful of earlier times, and are never complete. As they pile up, a picture emerges, and it is not, so far, a pretty picture. I have not quite finished Munich Airport, so I can’t say much more right now. Looking over the entry about The Apartment, however, revealed a big difference between the two novels. Of the first novel’s narrator, I wrote that “he was more interested in the world than in himself.” I shouldn’t say that of the second novel’s narrator, not because he is too interested in himself but because he is not interested enough. He hates himself too deeply to take an interest in the world. But enough of that now; I’ll have more to say when I finish the novel. And I shall finish the novel, very soon!

Marie Kondo all but recommends chucking her book when you’re done with it, but I don’t think that I’m ever going to be done with it, no matter how much stuff I get rid of. Cathy Hirano’s translation is too much fun to read.

Gotham Diary:
Of Fathers and Sons
6 March 2015

What I wanted to do on Wednesday, I allowed myself to do yesterday: nothing. Nothing but reading, watching a DVD, and preparing a couple of minimal meals. Kathleen, who thought that she might have contracted my little cold, and who had been up very late the night before, working on a project, decided to sleep in as well, and to work from home (the dining ell) in the afternoon. Suspended in the aspic of convalescent domesticity, I had the sense not to try to write.

I had spoken of reading Fathers and Sons in the comfort of bed amply propped with pillows and quilts, but the comfort quickly lulled me to sleep, and I got little reading done until I tired, as I always do eventually, of being in bed at all. After lunch, I coursed through the middle of the novel, pausing on the morning of the duel to watch François Truffaut’s Vivement Dimanche. (More about that some other time.) Then I went back to Fathers and Sons and finished it. After dinner, I read the first chapter of Paul Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life, and, after that, the first quarter or more of Penelope Lively’s Spiderweb. (My Lively hiatus did not last very long, did it.)

***

When I was in college, I read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but not Turgenev, because Turgenev, unlike the other two, was “ambivalent,” or, in other words, lightweight and wishy-washy. Timid — the one thing you could say that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy weren’t. Dostoevsky was a Slavophile pessimist, and Tolstoy a patrician idealist, but they both somehow knew that Western liberalism (an economic outlook only dimly related to the political liberalism that emerged after the American struggle for equal civil rights) was going to lead Russia to catastrophe, if only because it was too indigestible an import. Turgenev had more faith in good intentions. He was also, at the time when he was writing Fathers and Sons (1860-1), very optimistic about the reforms that the new Tsar, Alexander II, was expected to introduce. He could not know that Alexander would be assassinated, twenty years later, by revolutionary terrorists who were impatient with liberal compromises. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in short, knew, or divined, what was coming; Turgenev did not.

In those days, during the high noon of the Cold War, one read Russian novels in order to learn something about the enemy. What could Turgenev, who spent much of his adult life not only outside Russia but inside anothers’ marriage, tell us about that? A wealthy aristocrat who lived in France and elsewhere in order to be close to the married opera diva he loved (and, necessarily, to her husband), Turgenev was obviously too much the playboy to know much about the volcanic suffering that made Russians crazy, drunk, and miserable. Turgenev had a life! That his novels were said to be lovely, charming, and so forth was hardly recommendation. One wasn’t reading Russian novels for pleasure!

When I finished the novel yesterday, I read Rosamund Bartlett’s introduction to the Penguin edition (translated by Peter Carson), and I was very surprised to learn that Fathers and Sons caused a sensation when it was published. How could such a sweet — yes, charming and lovely — novel upset anyone’s equanimity? Bartlett quotes the novel’s first translator into English, Eugene Schuyler.

Each generation found the picture of the other very life-like, but their own very badly drawn.

That’s where ambivalence will get you. The fathers, the “men of the Forties,” very much resented being told that they had had their day, while their sons, who were going to do great things under the new Tsar, felt ridiculed and caricatured in the portrait of the novel’s apparent hero, Bazarov. I had missed all of this while reading the book, and I wondered what knowing of the resentments that Turgenev incurred (all were united in detesting him) would have done to the pleasure I had taken in it. More than that, though, I wondered what reading Fathers and Sons, with this background in mind, would have been like had I read it alongside Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, back in college, in the Sixties.

I can’t quite answer that, of course, but the question immediately highlighted a huge difference between the world of Fathers and Sons and the one I grew up in. The fathers and sons of the aristocratic and professional elite in mid-nineteenth-century Russia disagreed about means, but they were of one mind about the end, which was that Russia must reformed. The question was whether this reform would entail “modernization” — making the peasants more like Western Europeans. But the question’s terms showed that fathers and sons alike were blinkered about the role of commerce in this reform. Neither generation appears to have found it very important. Industry, such as it was, could have little to do with the fight for the Russian soul. The Russian soul was rooted in the land. Relations between those who owned the land and those who worked it would have to be sorted out before Russia could advance. Or so it was thought. In fact, the swelling urban proletariat that was excluded from this calculus of reform would overpower the landed interests. Fathers and sons alike would be shown to have trained their eyes on the same wrong ball.

In contrast, the struggles of the American Sixties, a century after Turgenev, were social, not economic. Remarkable prosperity encouraged demands that would never have been made in leaner times. These demands were not so much twofold as made on two distinct planes, and tensions generated by the way in which these demands rubbed in contrary directions would result not in explosive revolution but in the perplexed but fruitful fatigue of the Seventies, during which changes began to take hold. One of the planes was that of the fight for equal civil rights. No amount of legislation could settle this fight, but the laws that were enacted at least cleared the ground on which African Americans could claim equal opportunities. On the other plane, young people sought to put an end to respectability, that bogus and hypocritical portmanteau that had zombified the three cardinal civic virtues of decency, self-respect, and generosity. The tension between the two conflicts arose when black men and women, seeking to be treated as fully American, presented themselves in garb that seemed, to critical whites, to be merely respectable.

The demolition of respectability in the late 1960s was, of course, a generational fight, similar to the one seen whenever hazing rituals are contested. The elders say, “We endured it; so can you.” Just as hazing rituals are corruptions of rites of passage, so respectability was a corruption of civic virtue. Everyone knew this, but the fathers did not believe that change was feasible. The issue of civil rights was not generational at all, but it did involve fathers — the political leaders who believed that the status quo must be maintained in order to see the nation through the Cold War — and the victims of racial condescension who were infantilized by them. In Russia in the 1860s, it was agreed that Russia must be reformed. In the United States in the 196os, it was agreed that the fathers must be got rid of.

But Russia was not reformed, and the American fathers are still finding replacements (Jeb Bush, for example). Turgenev was right: Plus ça change…

Gotham Diary:
A Little Cold
3 March 2015

It’s Wednesday, so I must have a doctor’s appointment. Yes — the dermatologist again. I’m on the verge of canceling, because I have a little cold, my second in three weeks. It would be great to fluff up the pillows, climb back into bed, and plow through Fathers and Sons. (I feel a Turgenev binge coming on.) Why, I am wondering, does Turgenev feel so relaxed, where Dickens seemed so crabbed? The comparison prompts me to consider Dickens as an experimental writer, if you can imagine. This poses great problems for my understanding Shirley Hazzard’s judgment that Great Expectations is “the most greatly realized novel in English.” I’m not sure that Great Expectations is a novel at all. There’s too much parable in it, and of course too much advocacy journalism. (One answer to my Where’s Compeyson question might well be that the actual villain of the piece isn’t Compeyson at all, but the English establishment.) There is a measure of journalism in all good fiction; novelists must observe their chosen corners of the world with critical intelligence. But we do not read novels for news of the world. We read novels to test our understanding of human nature by judging how people fit into stories. Turgenev is one of the great natural novelists, which is to say that he writes novels that define the form. Most satisfying!

(It ought to be clear, I suppose, that I do not subscribe to the view that a novel can be anything that a writer wants it to be.)

I have never been to Russia, and the Russia that Turgenev writes about was swept away long ago, at least in its visible details. But the setting of Fathers and Sons seems very familiar, or exotic in a very familiar way. There’s the house in the country, which ought to be idyllic but can’t be, because there’s not enough money. There’s the drawing room “in the latest style,” and there’s Pavel Petrovich in his tailored English clothes. There’s naive, youthfully fatuous Arkasha, and boorish, troublemaking Bazarov. There’s the question, why doesn’t the sweet-tempered Nikolay Petrovich marry Fenechka, the mother of his newborn son? The possibilities for comic but rueful disappointment stretch out before me like a field of Russian snow, and my bed, with its pillows, blankets, and quilts, would make the perfect sled in which to cross it.

The little cold hit me yesterday afternoon, as I was finishing the tidying in the book room. I had meant to go on with some paperwork, and even to do some ironing, but I could do none of this. I felt exhausted. But it was not just exhaustion, I see now.

***

When you get to be older, there are days when dying doesn’t seem so very bad. One isn’t going to live forever, so what would be the harm in missing a rough patch or two, not in one’s own life but in the larger world. There are days when things really do seem to be going to the dogs, and sometimes this impression is created by what seem to be new and unimagined developments, such as the oafish thoughtlessness of young people with their devices (knowing that one would have been just as bad); and sometimes it rises from the sheer tedium of watching things happen over again, such as the crossness and dislocation of the Sixties. Young people have no idea how like boomers they are in their hope — I think that it’s a hope, not quite a belief — that the world’s problems can be fixed without resort to political activity. By “political activity” I mean “organized compromise.” Young people aren’t alone in disdaining it. Tea Partiers don’t believe in it, either; they’re convinced that their compromises have loaded them with burdens but withheld benefits. If fewer and fewer Americans believe in government, government has less and less interest in Americans. Look at the way government has allowed itself to be captured by business organizations, how addicted it has become to governing by means of obscure, coded laws buried in haystacks of legislation. Look at the way government has sent waves of volunteer servicemen and -women off to foreign lands to engage in pointless and ill-conceived battles, none of which seem to have changed anything. Something must be done in Syria, clearly, but there is no reason to look to the United States for any good ideas. As in the Sixties, we have come to an impasse: the old ways don’t work, and the new ways aren’t new. Who wants to go through it a second time?

But my political despair is but a passing fancy compared with my horror of American violence.

In a recent piece in The New York Review of Books, Nathaniel Rich asked, “What, then, explains football’s appeal among Americans?” His enumeration of possible factors concluded thus:

I thought about this as I watched this year’s Super Bowl, which was one of the most thrilling sporting events in recent memory. My fandom has only increased in recent years, against my better judgment (and even as my New York Giants have foundered). I didn’t have to think very long. The source of the game’s appeal is obvious. It’s the violence. The NFL understands this. Why else would it risk lawsuits and moral indignation? If violence wasn’t a crucial element in the sport’s appeal, the league would institute two-handed touch tomorrow.

Rich’s final paragraph begins, “America is addicted to violence; America is addicted to football.”

Every now and then, some sociologist prances along with findings that fail to establish causality leading from the violence vicariously experienced in video games, superhero comics, and “sporting events” to acts of criminal violence. But this reminds me of an exchange that I had with a European who complicated my country on its relative lack of corruption. “But you see,” I replied, thinking of lobbyists, “in this country it is all quite legal.” So with violence. To be sure, we don’t tolerate criminal gangs’ running amok and breaking each others’ bones. Put those gangs in uniform, however, and oblige them to follow a few simple dance steps, and they can thrash away while pretending to chase a ball. We don’t tolerate holdups, but we make firearms easily available to disturbed individuals — men who are already challenged by the violence in the air. You tell me: Why is American Sniper such a hit? Because it has tapped a nerve of patriotism? In your dreams! American Sniper is a movie about a guy who gets to shoot people, bang, bang, bang, they’re dead, and be praised for it! Hallelujah! The horror is not so much the extent of American violence — all violence is horrible — as it is the extent of okay violence.

I know where it comes from. It comes from the angry disenchantment of white men. I can remember when a white man who acted responsibly would almost certainly be granted a place at the table as of right, and not only that, but also the automatic respect of all those who were not white men. These privileges have been inexorably eroded during my lifetime, with the tacit permission of elite white men at the top of the socio-economic heap. As another bit of fallout from the Sixties, American white men stopped acting in solidarity and began adhering to different class and cultural norms. (Archie Bunker was a figure of fun.) Sauve qui peut!

But now I’ve got to get ready to pay a visit to the dermatologist.

Reading Note:
Sadly, No
3 March 2015

Six weeks or so ago, I quoted a paragraph that included the following sentence.

I would say that Great Expectations may be the most greatly realized novel in English (though I steer clear of that sort of competitive judgment).

This was Shirley Hazzard, in a Paris Review interview, refusing to name novels that she might like to have written (a silly question indeed). “Rather, I might speak with a joyful envy of passages that I myself would not have conceivably written.” The first book that she speaks of is Great Expectations.

It was too obvious a challenge to resist, but, its obviousness notwithstanding, it also became a very complex challenge. Of course I should have to read Great Expectations (which I hadn’t done before) to see if I could figure out what Hazzard was talking about. What would Great Expectations tell me about Shirley Hazzard’s idea of a “greatly realized” novel?

The complication was that I should have to read Great Expectations as if I were enjoying it. I should be obliged to forbear from interrupting my reading with expostulations upon Dickens’s incompetence, his treacly sentimentality, his half-hearted formulaism, his inability to create fully human characters — and so forth and so on. In addition to sparing Kathleen hours of bloviate denunciation, such as I once regaled her with in connection with The Prince of Tides, almost every one of whose supernumerary words prompted two or three explosive ones from me, I should have to observe a inward, mental quiet, as if my mind were a public library. Or as if, say, Shirley Hazzard were sitting next to me. I should have to try to forget my Dickens in order to read hers.

Now, there is not much to “my Dickens.” What have I read? David Copperfield in school — hated it. A Tale of Two Cities. This I quite liked, but it was the first novel that I ever read, aside from the Hardy Boys mysteries. When I had another go at it a few years, I became so exasperated with Miss Prosser at one point that I put the novel down and never picked it up again. Bleak House — Esther Whatshername gave me boils. I could tell that I’d be rooting for Lady Dedlock, just as I did for Lady Audley. Oh, and The Pickwick Papers, which I also had to read for school, but didn’t. A Christmas Carol of course, which of course I read with a heart of stone.

As is the case with authors who don’t excite a positive enthusiasm, I pretended, for the most part, that Dickens didn’t exist. In casual conversation, I might say, “I loathe Dickens,” and complacently nod if my interlocutor agreed. That was about it. I do not understand the appeal of Dickens. The most constructive thing that I have to say is that, to the extent that Dickens’s delineations of the hell that was mid-Victorian England are righteous and powerful, they sap his work of beauty.

And I say that after reading Great Expectations.

I did not come to understand what Shirley Hazzard was talking about. I remain as mystified as I was when I first read the Paris Review interview. I try in vain to imagine ways in which one might hold Great Expectations to be “greatly realized.” (Not to mention its being the most greatly realized novel in English!) The more I turn the question over, the more Great Expectations strikes me as perfectly un-realized. Dickens goes on and on about irrelevancies while scanting the meat of his tale. It seems more than possible that all I could see of Great Expectations was the negative of Shirley Hazzard’s impression.

But this entry is not about Great Expectations so much as it is about a novel literary experience. If I quickly rose to meet the challenge of Hazzard’s judgment, that is because I had never been able to figure out what Great Expectations is about. I knew about Miss Havisham, the jilted bride who extends the moment of her rejection to the term of her natural life. (Miss Havisham is such a well-known literary curiosity that I tended to place her in The Old Curiosity Shop.) But Pip and Estella were merely names, and Magwitch hardly even that. Herbert Pocket came as a complete surprise — I’d never heard so much as a whisper about him. Nor Wemmick, nor Jaggers. As for Joe Gargery, I might have come across the name, but never a hint that he is the moral touchstone of the book.

I had never picked up, as one does pick things up, the least idea of what Great Expectations is about.

***

Midway through the middle volume, or Book II, I sent myself an Evernote, in which I made three points. Here they are, fleshed out, in slightly different order.

First, I didn’t care about Pip. As best I can make out, Pip fails on two counts. First, he has no idiosyncrasies, no hobbies, no personal color. Second, his voice is implausible — the not-uncommon mishap of first-person narratives. How did a rather oppressed little boy from the marshes of Kent learn to speak so “well”? Because Pip wasn’t real enough to care about, I was never very excited by the drama of his great expectations.

Second, Dickens’s prose, especially where it ought to have been exciting, was, in comparison with Wilkie Collins’s, dead in the water.

Third, I wondered what Trollope would have had to say about Magwitch’s project of making a gentleman out of Pip by showering him with money. This is what I should address at length if I were to study Great Expectations. The greatness of Trollope’s fiction is its preoccupation with the ordeal that young men of limited means go through when they try to do the right thing vis-à-vis the women they love. What does it mean to be a gentleman? It is much more than a matter of spending money and fresh linen. This problem, or challenge, does not, however, interest Dickens at all. Pip’s London life, which apparently involves more than a few pieces of jewelry and a habit of running up debts, is given the most cursory treatment. We have none of the vivid illustrative scenes in which Trollope would have shown us the hero’s conscience wrestling with irresistible metropolitan lures.

Nor — and this seems almost perverse to me, but then I don’t get Dickens — is Estella’s creator very interested in her. Trollope managed to kill my the pleasure that I took in his books with his fetishistic idolatry of innocent young ladies (who could never be allowed to admit that they’d made a mistake, and permitted to find a happier love), but his fiction is liberally seasoned with bad girls. How intriguing it would have been to see the full-length portrait of Estella that Trollope painted of Lizzie Eustace!

And what about Compeyson, that cipher of a villain, who appears only to drown, and whom we never once hear? Compeyson is the sort of thing that I have in mind when I charge Dickens with incompetence. Here is a man who has betrayed both of the novel’s victims, Magwitch and Miss Havisham. Surely we ought to see at least half as much of him as we do of Adolphus Crosbie (in The Small House at Allington). Compeyson, in addition to being very wicked, is the archetypal non-gentleman, the pattern of what Pip, with his great expectations, ought to avoid. (It ought to have been Compeyson, not Orlick, in the limekiln.) But, as I say, he’s hardly there at all. Dickens’s handling of this character, from introduction to finish, seems extraordinarily maladroit.

But I did find out what Great Expectations is about, and in the only proper way: by reading it, quietly and with an open mind. That was the novel literary experience, and I can’t say that it wasn’t a pleasure.

Media Critic:
Job Description
2 March 2015

Last week witnessed a very odd cluster of three deaths, all of them taking Notre Dame men — as one would have put it in the days when such specification was unnecessary — out of the world. In descending order of age, there was Father Hesburgh, president of the University during both of my careers there; Charlie Rice, our Torts and Con Law professor in the Law School; and classmate Hal Moore, long a partner at Skadden, Arps here in New York. These passings would be individually momentous, but, coming all at once, they’re overpowering, so that it’s hard to believe that they’ve really happened. Hal was my age, more or less. I have no idea what felled him; Kathleen and I have been out of touch with the Moores ever since — well, never mind. But it’s a strange shock. Even though they were not part of our present lives, the world seems a smaller place now that Father Ted, Charlie, and Hal are no longer in it. That’s what getting old means for those who haven’t yet died. And I’m still mourning, if very quietly, the death of my colleague from radio days earlier last month.

But the death that disturbs me most is that of Times Media Critic David Carr. Just days before Carr collapsed on the newsroom floor and died of lung cancer — didn’t know you could do that in the modern world! — I charged him with striking, as I think I put it, a note of moral bankruptcy in his commentary on the Brian Williams scandal. When Carr died almost immediately afterward, I felt rather ghastly for about ten minutes, as though my accusation (although I very much doubt that he ever read it) had been fatal. But in contrast to my experience of last week’s deaths, I can say that Carr’s has not left the world a smaller place. On the contrary, his dying made things clearer, at least to me, and in that sense it was additive. Now that he was gone, it was easier to see how he had done his job — and how, arguably, it ought to be done.

It now seems obvious, painfully obvious to me that the media critic at a major newspaper, especially in a time of dramatic media transformation, ought to be making the case, self-interested though it might be, that long-form journalism is the only means of communicating the complexity of the world to intelligent readers. That, by the same token, no intelligent person ought to be caught dead or alive watching TV news. Waste your time on anything else that the boob tube has to offer, but don’t clutter your mind with the amyloid proteins of television news! Just as Paul Krugman tirelessly argues for neo-Keynsian solutions to our economic problems, attacking the proponents of austerity with the manic ferocity of the computer in War Games, so David Carr ought to have made it his business to persuade readers of The New York Times that (a) they were already doing the right thing by reading the paper, and that (b) television news would therefore be as unnecessary as it is (c) undesirable.

Reading Carr’s response to the Williams scandal, it was impossible not to recall his much-publicized problems with addiction. They ought to have had nothing to do with anything, but wasn’t Carr writing about the relationship between viewers and anchors as one of dependency? Viewers needed this, and demanded that, from their newscasters. Carr did not question this; it did not seem to occur to him that there was anything to be done about it. This is the way in which most of today’s “media critics” cover their field. The prevailing note is helplessness. We are always checking our emails, we are always following Twitter, updating our Facebook status — you really can’t expect us not to. This is who we are.

If it is indeed who we are, if we are indeed helpless to resist the lures of advertisers and other self-promoters, then let us do the rest of the world a great big final favor. Let’s acknowledge that our exceptionalism has collapsed, that we have squandered our immense resources on a weakness for the instant gratification of our most casual curiosity, such that we are no longer capable of thinking through the awesome issues that we have claimed as ours to decide throughout the Cold War and beyond. Americans are just not up to the job. Too many of us can’t be bothered to learn that Toronto is in Canada, not Italy, or that California and Nevada, despite remarkable differences in population, each has only, or as many as, two senators. We have undermined our democracy by insisting that entitles us to be stupid.

Let’s try to figure out how to tell traumatized veterans of the guerilla wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that we’re sorry, that we should have known that those battles made no sense, that the insurgencies that fought them were created in response to their very presence on other men’s native soil. We went to war over there so that we could feel good about it over here. The Bush Wars mark the end, or at least the disappearance, of American intelligence. I think that most smart veterans already know this, but perhaps they would like to hear an apology or two.

Perhaps we are too stupid now even to apologize. Instead, we stupidly thank veterans for their service. That makes us feel good, too. As David Carr knew, we are keen on feeling good.

***

Does anybody out there who can’t imagine not watching television news happen to have kicked a smoking habit? Tobacco is much harder to cut off than television, but that’s for another time. All I want to say now is that you, you former smokers out there, you can’t really believe that you ever did anything so dirty, at least in the literal sense, for long enough for a habit to develop. Now, when you walk into a hotel room in which someone has been smoking, or when you see (but, again, mostly smell) an ashtray full of butts; when you remember how anxious you used to be about maybe running out of cigarettes or, just as bad, matches, you can’t imagine the satisfactions that compensated for such grossness.This is what I was told by one reformed smoker after another, until I myself gave it up (after twenty years — and this was over thirty years ago) and found out how true it was.

It’s harder, as I say, to stop smoking than it is to stop watching television. But, believe you me, once you’ve given up television, especially television news, once you have managed to keep it out of your life for a while, you will be so astonished by its screaming vulgar obscene banality that you will wonder why there aren’t laws against it — as there are now against smoking. Appalled, you will wonder. Believe you me.

Labor Relations Note:
Hot and Cold
27 February 2015

There are too many books in the pile beside my reading chair. I’m not keen on any of them, but I’m also by no means disposed to relegate any to the limbo of lectio interrupta. At times like this, I choose the book that I’m likeliest to get through quickly and then hunker down, not to be distracted. At the moment, that book is Lee Standiford’s book about the Homestead Strike of 1892, Meet You In Hell. (It masquerades as a book about Carnegie and Frick.) I stayed up rather late last night, almost thrilled by Standiford’s harum-scarum account of the deadly but somewhat farcical intervention of the Pinkerton men, and drawing solace from the evidence that American humbug, which is all our political class has to offer these days, has at least the patina of a venerable tradition.

During the strike, the argument was made more than once that, just as Carnegie and Frick had property rights in their steel mill, so the workers had rights in, or to, their jobs. I want to agree with this, but I can’t. Jobs are too evanescent, at least in the long term. They come out of nowhere, and then they disappear, usually long before the people doing them stop collecting paychecks. Perhaps this will not always be the case; perhaps we will settle into economic patterns as unchanging as those that governed the European peasantry until the late Eighteenth Century. But we are in no position at the moment to try to identify the jobs that will always be with us.

The steelworker’s job, in the 1890s, whether skilled or unskilled, was not likely to be pleasant or healthy. Strong men were used up before they reached fifty. Talking about the right to have such a job sounds rather like insisting upon a good seat in hell. Men spent their own lives, literally, so that their wives and children would eat and perhaps prosper. The luckier children would push through the education barrier and never have to worry about manual labor. Everything about steelmaking in those days screamed short term. The mills themselves, huge and capital-intensive as they were, were constantly remodeled, and even replaced entirely, to accommodate changes in the market and in technology. Steel manufacture today bears little resemblance to Frick’s operation — so little, in fact, that the only common element may be the production of steel. Workers are immensely more productive — business-speak for expressing the fact that you can do the job with far fewer of them.

Always remember that the capitalist’s ideal number of employees is zero. Two things tend to happen when capitalists reduce their workforce, but these two things have an unsteady  relationship. Sometimes, the price of the product goes down. More often, the profits realized by the capitalist go up. Lower prices have always been thought to be a prima facie good. but the low price of gasoline at the moment is leading a lot of observers to question that assumption. It seems to me that the ideal price is “affordable.” That is, the people who need the product can pay for it without making unseemly sacrifices. Need is a key part of this calculation. Nobody needs a very large hi-def screen. (Quite the reverse, it may well be.) People need transportation; they do not need particular vehicles. Affordable health care is far more important. So is healthy food, something that is now available only to the affluent. And to get back to cars for a moment: the price of the automobile is socially negligible. Socially salient are all the other costs of operating a private vehicle: maintenance, insurance, and parking. We think too much about stuff. What if all the stuff that we needed were just given to us, but we remained responsible for all the upkeep. This is a serious vision: in the ideal economy, everything would be capable of updates and upgrades (rather than”repairs”), and nothing would need to be replaced. The ideal economy would be less mechanical and more organic.

“Affordable” is one of those concepts that defy definition while being instantly recognizable in everyday experience. Ideally, everyone can have a job paying a wage that makes a secure and healthy life, with something left over for discretionary fun, affordable. I’ll take that one step further: a good definition of the humane life is the affordable life. Anything less is stunting and wrong. Which is not to say that lives lived below the threshold of affordability are the result of anybody’s fault. But because of the entrepreneurial origins of even our most stolid utilities, we still put profits first, because that is how new businesses not so much flourish as just plain survive. As new businesses, that is.

I do believe that, if a job needs doing, then the incumbent who is doing it satisfactorily has a better right to continue doing it than a less expensive worker has to take it over. Has there been research, philosophical or otherwise, into how much profit ought to go to workers? It seems to me that this rate would be a figure that shifted with time. At the beginning of an enterprise, workers might quite fairly be ill-paid, or even asked to work for free (ie “equity,” which may well turn out to be a big piece of nothing). In a new business, it is typically necessary to plow most revenues into the enlargement and enhancement of operations. But as dividends rise — and by “dividends” I mean not just (re-)payments to investors but the “salaries” and “bonuses” of upper management as well — as the puddle of money that is not required to improve the business gets bigger, so, it seems, should the worker’s wages, and very much in some sort of proportion. Ultimately, capitalists ought to disappear from businesses entirely, replaced by credentialed, professional managers who have no interest in profits at all. Ultimately, a business is run as a social utility, committed to providing useful products or services at affordable prices (meaning prices that support affordable wages) while not harming the environment. That is where the Industrial Revolution ought to take us.

I’ll have a rather different report to file when I finish reading Standiford’s book. It’s not my sort of thing at all, but I couldn’t resist buying it at the Frick Collection gift shop. O the irony! For Henry Clay Frick was not himself a humbug. He was rather a very cool customer who knew how to exploit everyone else’s willingness to be one. An honest devil, really: “Meet you in hell” was his reply to Carnegie’s request for a deathbed reconciliation.

Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Hung Up
26 February 2015

Ray Soleil came up after work last night and hung pictures on the last empty wall — the vertical sliver, a little more than two feet wide, behind the bookroom door. As I rarely close this door, even I will rarely see the pictures, but they’re safe, hanging neatly as they’re meant to do, and not slumped in a stack behind a sofa or voluminously wrapped up at the back of a closet. Now: to deal with the pictures that won’t be appearing on these new walls.

Three are handsome photographs from Jen Bekman, handsomely framed for the gallery in the old apartment. That they worked well in the old apartment is but a clear sign of the subtle disorganization that reigned in those rooms — the disorganization of accretion. Over thirty years, Kathleen and I acquired a lot of things, one at a time, and fit them in with what was already there. Every now and then, I would take apart the corner of a room and put it back together more coherently. Five years go, I even had the old foyer and the corridor leading to the blue room repainted — the corridor became the “gallery.” But although I was often moving things around, I was never moving everything around. In the bedroom, there was on one wall a crazy pavé of pictures large and small, most of them placed to hide the nail holes from earlier decorating schemes. There was a similar patch in the blue room as well.

The move, hellish as it often was, gave me the chance to re-place everything, and what couldn’t be placed was gotten rid of. The Bekman photographs — a pair of quietly arty shots of a pond in different weathers, and a long shot of a swimming hole in California, taken by somebody else — don’t work in this apartment because they’re not quite interesting enough to fit in any of them rooms, where pictures have been grouped with great deliberation. As to the long entry corridor, I have made it a very different kind of gallery, a miscellany of graphic images of all sizes, all of them important to me, and all of them requiring a close view. This is not the space for dreamy nature photography, to be seen at a distance. That three rather lovely pictures didn’t find a place down here, out of the dozens and dozens that did, is really no cause for regret. I’ll take them Housing Works and hope that they’ll find nice homes.

That leaves two groups of rejecta. There are pictures that have been used up. In one case, literally: it’s a print of that painting in Rome that is the centerpiece of Sacred Heart iconography. I can never remember its name (it’s a picture of the BVM), but it was given to Kathleen when she was a girl, and it is now almost unintelligibly faded, to shades of gold and cream. Then there is the “Bodley Plate” graphic of the principal buildings at Williamsburg, together with sketches of flora and fauna; copies of this eighteenth-century illustration are sold by Colonial Williamsburg, mounted in good-looking plastic frames. I had it in my bathroom for years, and I’d probably hang it in my bathroom down here, if that were possible, but it isn’t, because the tile goes almost all the way up to the ceiling. I have perhaps had my fill of the Bodley Plate. Then there’s the oval frame.

The oval frame, made out of a dark wood that I used to assume to be mahogany, is Victorian, about eight by ten, and pleasingly turned. Four ogival ridges surround the picture plane, rising to a crest about an inch above it. From this crest, four deeper ogival folds descend to the outer edge of the frame. I bought the frame a very long time ago, during one of my summer jobs on Wall Street. The shop that I bought it in was at the basement of one of the twin buildings that flank Thames street, just above Trinity Church. I recall a musty room with the air of an abandoned curiosity shop. I don’t know why I bought the frame, exactly, but I’m sure that I meant to replace the image that it came with (as frames always do), a bland botanical, no doubt cut from a rectangular page, showing a plant with small, pale yellow orchidy blooms, and leaves like Italian parsley. I’m familiar with the image, because I never did get round to finding something else to put in the frame. I’m reluctant to get rid of the frame, precisely because of the senselessness with which I’ve held on to it all these years. I feel bound to keep holding on to it, until it finally tells me the secret that it was always meant to impart. Perhaps it is telling me that message right now (it’s a lesson that I have really, seriously learned): don’t buy things just to buy things.

The final group is made up of gifts, many of them given to us in their nice frames! I review the pictures that are hanging on the walls. There are a few items of inheritance, but gifts? Here’s a little paper sculpture, showing a vine against a lattice. Kathleen, to whom it was given, was surprised to see it up on the corridor wall: “This isn’t very interesting.” (I disagree.) There is the two-page storyboard for an AT&T ad that a friend then at Young & Rubicam gave me — signed by the creatives — when I told him that I’d seen this ad on a plane and really liked it. That’s also in the corridor. There is a lithograph in the dining ell, showing a “woodie” — an old cabin cruiser — tied up on the Thames River at Mystic. It might be a gift, but it might also be a purchase, as we were taken to visit the artist, right aboard that boat, one day long ago. I’d like to think that it was a gift, because then I wouldn’t feel so bad about disposing of another picture, a gift for sure this time, from the same friend. Finally, there is the striking photograph of what turns out to be the Budapest Opera House, now finally hung for maximum visual effect. A friend of mine ran it on his blog and I asked him if I could download it. Permission granted, I had the print made myself. And then I had it framed. The extent to which this photograph is a gift, and not something that I paid for with a peppercorn, seems largely technical; certainly it lacked the element of surprise.

In the old apartment, I tended to hang anything that was presentable. Down here, you would never know how riotously we used to live. I sometimes feel that an art director has set up the apartment for a biopic. But whose? I’d like to think that it’s about a person I’ve yet to become.

Aesthetic Note:
The Design of Modern Machines
25 February 2015

Last night, I read Ian Parker’s profile of Sir Jonathan Ive, in the current issue of The New Yorker. Ive wears his knighthood lightly enough to be known either by his last name or by “Jony” — surely “Jonny” would have been preferable? He is in charge of design at Apple, which makes him a very important person indeed, the fons et origo, now that Steve Jobs is gone, of Apple’s spectacular valuation. I had never heard of him.

In the accompanying photograph of half of Ive’s stubbly face, the designer vaguely resembles a friend of mine, and I had great fun imagining my friend in Ive’s shoes, or, more exactly, in the back of his luxurious Bentley, sighing “Oh, my God” when learning that a colleague drives a Camry. My friend, you see, reads Monocle. He still reads Monocle. In case you haven’t seen it, Monocle serves readers who believe that the key to paradise will be turned when everyone is finally drinking perfectly-brewed espresso from the perfect teacup. My friend does not believe this, but I think he would like to.

The usual New Yorker profile ends by leaving you feeling that you know all that you want to know, thank you very much, about the subject. Not so this one. It is possible that Ive has learned something from aesthetes of the past: talking about your refined sensibilities makes you look ridiculous. So he will not tell us what books he reads or what movies he watches. What is it like to see the world as he does? He can’t say. He can’t say more than that talking about how he feels is very hard for him. So we cannot linger over the person of Sir Jonathan Ive, much as Parker’s persistent buzz tries to hold our attention. We drift over Ive’s smooth, understated edges (stubble notwithstanding — another puzzle) and on to the consideration of excellent design, which, as everyone knows, is what makes Apple products so desirable.

Aside from my iPhone, which I bought in order to be able to have FaceTime chats with my daughter and her family when they moved to San Francisco, and a clutch of iPods, I own no Apple products. I gave my iPad to my grandson when he left town — and I had already given him one when iPads first appeared. To me, the design of an Apple product — and I’m talking about the way it works now, not what it looks like — is repellent. It reminds me of the French, whom I do not find repellent at all, because their conviction that there is one right way to do everything is the product of generations of trial and error. Apple’s convictions in this regard must obviously spring from a much shallower well of experience, and in fact Apple’s operating conventions strike me as having very little experience behind them at all. Perhaps it would be better to say that they reflect the rather narrow experience of very intelligent men who happen to be fascinated by the machinery of automobiles.

Sir Jonathan comes by his wizardry as naturally as possible: his great- and grandfather were precision metal workers, and his father a teacher of engineering. He was a prodigy in his youth; Apple snapped him up about twenty years ago. He would have left Cupertino not long afterward, but then Steve Jobs came back to head the company, and he and Ive clicked as few colleagues have clicked in this sublunary world.

The profile, in case you were wondering why The New Yorker was given access to Apple designers who have never spoken to journalists before, appears to be occasioned by the impending release of the Apple Watch. This will be the first big post-Jobs release, and without Jobs’ dark-side charisma to introduce it, Tim Cook is being resourceful.

***

I have only two things to say about design. First, nothing really good-looking has appeared since 1939. Second, I have never adopted the modernist belief that there is virtue — or even interest — in a machine’s good looks. Not being a spiritual person to begin with, I am not uplifted by the shine and swell of a piece of metal. The only emotional effects that appliances can have on me are negative. An ugly thing is regrettable, certainly; but as the ugliness is corrected and made to disappear, so does the object itself. My ideal machine does its job somewhere out of sight. Machines that we have to use — computers, stand mixers — ought to be stowed out of sight when we’re not using them.

Do I hate machines? No. But I know how dangerous they are. Their speed, their regularity, their reliability, their sheer obedience — these can be intoxicating characteristics, in comparison with which human beings might well be dismissed as, well, very poorly designed. Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, there have been movements aplenty to reduce human beings to bits of machinery. We seem to have been unable to design workplaces for human beings — to conceive of the display and exercise of responsibility in non-mechanical terms. Although we understand that a great team, in any line of endeavor, is a collaborative commitment of variously-gifted people, we treat larger, more stratified groups as so much undifferentiated mass, incapable of self-direction; and we punish the human beings who stick out from it (ie, the variously-gifted).

The modern machine is an appliance that helps us to do things that are difficult, dangerous, or simply impossible by merely human means. We have not been living with modern machines for very long, roughly two and a half centuries. Until very recently, our response to the modern machine was the unreflective impulse to be wowed. Critical understanding does not go very far back. Only in my lifetime, for example, have numbers of human beings awoken to the possibility that our way of using modern machinery is endangering, and might even destroy, our planet’s ability to sustain life. (And of course the immediate response to that has been a splashing, unhelpful panic.) Meanwhile, there are more cars than ever, and if the ads that were shown during the Academy Awards presentation the other night are any indication, heaven on earth may be at hand as soon as cars come equipped with their very own drones, filming you from above while you drive along mountain highways. (The heaven part comes in when you drive off a cliff because you couldn’t take your eyes off the little movie of your own car being driven by you.) The idea that well-designed machines are endowed with salvific potency is very much with us.

But do think about it. Every time you make use of some cool gadget, are you hoping to be more of a machine yourself? If so, my counsel is: give it up. It never works. You’ll never work. Not like that gadget.

Gotham Diary:
Not Intellectual
24 February 2015

Il y a quelques jours, il me semblait que je … que j’oops! En anglais, s’il vous plaît! Quelques jours se sont passés depuis qu’on a pris une verre avec le prof!

A few days ago, it struck me that I am now old enough to read about Karl Marx — to read a biography, that is. Among the giggles, I hear gasps of dismay from those who shudder to recall last year’s apparent infatuation with Hannah Arendt. I shouldn’t worry about my falling in love with Marx and his ideas. I’m certain that I’ll find in Marx an interesting critic of his own times (and what interesting times they were!) but an almost lunatic visionary when it came to the future (it is difficult to make forecasts in interesting times). The inevitabilities that Marx foresaw have become not only implausible but unimaginable. That is, you can share Marx’s visions only to the extent that you can overlook what you know, or ought to know, about human nature.

Nevertheless, Marx was on the ground in the white water of the Industrial Revolution, a passionate observer of the metamorphosis of just about everything by the entrepreneurial power of capital, a transformation unlike any seen before, and never to be repeated unless everything is forgotten. That’s why he intrigues me: I’d like to know more about what he thought he saw. And that’s what I mean when I say that I am old enough to read about Marx — perhaps even to read what he himself wrote. The old, overarching antagonism is dead. We no longer live on a pole between Bourgeois and Bolshevik. Personal property is no longer the issue that it was when few people had very much of it. No, our fault line runs very differently: between the cosmopolitan and the orthodox.

Which makes relatively recent history difficult to understand. I’m talking about the days of my youth. This came up yesterday, when I wrote about my refusal to to attend the premiere of The Sound of Music. The mere consideration of that episode unleashed the vivid memory of a whirlwind of arguments and contentions that blasted me whenever I tried to distinguish right from wrong. There was, of course, the right and wrong of my parents’ understanding. But there was another, very different standard, according to which my parents’ way of life was corrupt, incoherent, self-deluding, and very bad for the health of society — at least insofar as society itself was not condemned as a criminal enterprise. It would be wrong, very wrong, to associate this upsetting standard very closely with Marxism; it owed much more, as I would learn later, to Nietzsche and the intellectuals — among whom John Carey, quite rightly in my view, puts Adolf Hitler. And trust me: the middle classes, c 1960, were not a pretty sight. They were still immured in Balzacian anxieties about status and respectability. There was still the paralyzing dread of vulgarity — which was nothing other than the fear that one’s origins would be found out to be (as indeed they were) common.

Almost immediately, first American, then European, and finally global civilization experienced one of those origami folds that reassesses everything. Suddenly, there was nothing to fear about being middle class, because everybody who could afford the minimal accoutrements was middle class, and just as middle class as anybody else. There is no such thing as “common” anymore. That concept is defunct. The only alternative to middle class today is poor, and very few people really believe that poverty reflects a want of virtue. Billionaires, meanwhile, are just middle class folks with too much money.

But that’s now. When I was growing up, as I say, the middle class was still producing intellectuals. Before I continue, has anyone out there north of thirty-five noticed that intellectuals have disappeared? (There is something today called the “public intellectual,” but I believe that that’s quite different.) The intellectual was not necessarily a very smart person who knew a lot about the world, but often, au contraire, an ideologue, someone who had crammed a lot of more or less indigestible systematic thinking into his brain. And, as John Carey has taught us, the intellectual was usually as horrified by his bourgeois origins as his parents were by their common antecedents. As a result, the intellectual spouted frenzies of bad faith. There was the bad faith of the bourgeoisie, but there was also the bad faith of his own pretense that he was cut from some superior cloth, that by dedicating his intelligence to the cultivation of conceptual ideas he was purifying himself of his upholstered upbringing.

It’s hard to believe that intellectuals used to be so obnoxious — but, worse than that, they were, like all ideologues, exhaustive, orthodox. They alone knew what was really right, and everyone else (in America, anyway) was a fraud.

I’m going through all of this because I want to make it clear that my dismissal of The Sound of Music, yesterday, was in no way doctrinaire. The movie was fake, all right, but not because it exploited workers or constituted capitalist propaganda. No. The Sound of Music was, like so many artifacts of that artistically neutered decade, sheer junk.

I was accused of aristocratic sympathies in those days, and I should have been happy to acknowledge them, had I not understood, especially as an adopted child, that there is nothing elective about Western aristocracy. Once upon a time, there might have been, maybe (one always thinks of William Marshall), but for hundreds of years the only way for an outsider to penetrate the aristocracy has been in the person of his offspring, with an accent on great- or great-great-grandchildren. After a few generations, your commonness washes out like a bad dye. But your yourself do not, by virtue of your aristocratic sympathies, become a member of the aristocracy — ever. A class — moreover! — which does not exist in the United States. Where were my aristocratic sympathies going to get me?

Well, they did get me this: I was no longer a target of Marxism. Marxism, like Barbara Bush, had done with me. As a putative aristocrat, I could settle down comfortably with my true character, which was, just like everyone else’s, totally bourgeois.

It will not surprise the regular reader to hear that I am re-reading, painstakingly this time, Georges Duby’s study of The Three Orders.

Gotham Note:
I Can Tell
23 February 2015

How nice it is, to wake up without any shards of cold-syrup hangover lodged lingeringly in my brain. I judged, before going to bed, that I should be able to breathe through the night without the aid of turquoise tonic, and, for the first night in four, I fell back on the regular pill. I was asleep soon enough — relative to the time of swallowing it, that is. It was nonetheless awfully late.

People don’t believe us when we say that we don’t watch television — except for the Academy Awards, but it’s true. (Although I do mean to watch more TV5 in future, surely that won’t count as watching television until my fluency in French is complete?) It was terribly true in this year’s case. I had gone nowhere near the new cable setup since it was installed one night in November. As a good housekeeper, I should have made sure that I knew how to work it before the Oscars rolled around, preferably a visit from Tech God JM. But there were always plenty of other things to worry about, and, besides, I didn’t think I was interested in seeing this year’s show. I hadn’t been going to the movies very often, and there wasn’t anybody that I was keen to see win. (Or so I thought.) So I waited until five o’clock, yesterday afternoon, to see what would happen when I turned things on.

At first, not much. No signal, said the screen. After a bit of scrambling, I learned the the “Input” is not what it was upstairs, because our signal has been upgraded to HD. Having got a picture, however, I couldn’t get sound. Eventually, I turned the screen around to check its inputs. They seemed to be fine. As I was putting the screen back in place, it slipped out of my hands and dropped onto its supports, shutting off in the process. Great, I thought; now I’ve broken it. But when I turned it back on, the sound came on with it. You tell me.

I found WABC, adjusted the volume, and wondered what to do next. I didn’t dare shut anything off, now that I had it just the way I wanted it. So I muted the sound. Every now and then, during the next three hours, I would drift into the living room to undo the mute, and be relieved when sound came up to match the picture. Then I would mute it again. Shortly after ten, in the middle of the Academy Awards presentations, a warning appeared on the screen: the cable box would go into power save mode in one minute, if I did not “press any button.” I found the remote, which of course my failure to touch in the past five hours had triggered this warning, and pressed a button. The box disappeared.

So we watched the Oscars after all. I was thrilled when Alexandre Desplat won, for The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Two of his scores were nominated.) Desplat is one of the great film score writers, and I’ve been noticing him ever since De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (2005). He writes powerfully synesthetic music, capturing now the nervously ironic grandeur of The Queen, now the reasonable, headachy paranoia of The Ghost Writer. Not since the late, great Jerry Goldsmith has there been such a consistent producer of knockout scores.

When Scarlett Johansson showed up and began chirping about The Sound of Music, I could sort of tell what was going to happen. She looked much too pleased, too excited merely to be announcing a musical number. And, when this number began, I somehow knew that Lady Gaga was not going to inject transgression of any kind into her medley of airs from The Sound of Music. (And that this would be the transgression.) I knew, in short, that Julie Andrews was going to show up. Fifty years ago, said Scarlett, said Julie. Sixty — said I. And in fact it’s Sixty-One: The Broadway production of The Boy Friend opened in September, 1954, starring the then-unknown Miss Andrews. That’s how long Julie Andrews has been working.

No, I wasn’t there. But I could have been at the premiere, in March, 1965, of the film version of The Sound of Music.

I was supposed to go. My father, who had just joined the board of directors of Twentieth Century Fox, was given four tickets to this gala, reserved-seating event. If my mother wasn’t beside herself with excitement, she was close. My sister, I seem to remember, was wearing the kind of party dress that she might have liked at the age of twelve, and I remember it this way not because I paid a lot of attention to my sister’s outfits but because it tipped me off that something infantilizing was going on. That wouldn’t have been my word at the time, of course. The word would have been wholesome, for that in fact was the word that people used in the Sixties when they wanted to coax youngsters into infantilizing positions. I had seen The Sound of Music on Broadway, and quite liked some of the songs, but there was no denying the musical’s overall wholesomeness. I put my foot down and refused to go.

Quel tohu-bohu! The uproar couldn’t have lasted very long, though, because my parents had to bundle my sister into the car and drive into the city and get to the Rivoli Theater on time. And off they went, no doubt relieved not to be carting me along with them. I don’t know why I was at home at the time, actually, because this would have been in the middle of my last semester at Blair. Except that we had trimesters at Blair, and this might have been the break between the second and the third. My parents were no doubt congratulating themselves — as I was correspondingly grateful — for having shipped me off to boarding school. As they took their seats in the movie palace, were they afraid that I would burn the house down or blow the house up? Probably not. For I had found myself at Blair. I am sure that my refusal to go to the premiere was accompanied by an articulate, if tedious, dismissal of The Sound of Music as wholesome dreck — although dreck would not have been in my vocabulary at the time, either.

To this day, I have never seen that movie. I can’t say that it has been a matter of principle. My revolt at the premiere was just an early instance of my ability to avoid experiences that I won’t like to have. People say, how can you tell you won’t like something if you haven’t given it a try? I can’t explain, but I can certainly tell. The clips from The Sound of Music that were shown last night made me gasp, the film was so awful. No wonder audiences deal with it by treating it like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The show ended at some time past midnight. This meant, of course, that I wouldn’t wind down enough to be ready for bed until some time after two; and it was twenty past that hour when I remembered to take my pill. As usual, it did what it was supposed to do without my feeling its onset. But I did catch out what I had long suspected and now knew to be one of its ancillary effects: I was aware that it was calming my bladder. And that was more or less the last thing I was aware of.

Reading Note:
Lively Nº Six
20 February 2015

This morning, I finished reading Family Album, the sixth novel by Penelope Lively that I’ve read in a little more than a month. At the opening, I expected to dislike it, largely because it promised to compare unfavorably with Heat Wave, which I had just read. The big, shabby-prosperous English family, with the distracted, book-writing father and the Laura Ashley-clad mother, with plenty of delicious meals and one very juicy scandal, and with six children, all of them vaguely hostile — the set-up threatened to be an awful cliché, requiring only a murder to serve as the ironic backstory of an Inspector Morse episode. (The menace of ennui was heightened by the fact that Heat Wave, a morally thrilling book, had just climaxed with a homicide.) But one of Lively’s great strengths is the ability to refresh familiar, even stock figures, making them new and different and themselves.

I was drawn in fairly quickly. The children (soon adults) turned out to be not so much hostile as wary, and their wariness was directed at their parents, not at each other. The parents were indeed highly self-indulgent — irresponsible, really. Mum wanted a big family, much as you might want an arrangement of flowers for a party; that a family would necessarily be composed of individual human beings who would grow up to have their own lives was of little moment during the planning stages and grounds for complaint later on. Dad couldn’t have cared less about any of it. He liked having sex (apparently) and had a trust fund to pay for the consequences. Add to this parental pediment a Scandinavian au pair who, in Barbara Vine’s hands, would either kill or be killed, but in this case simply stayed on as a member of the family — for good reason. How can one resist a family album with nine subjects?

But in the end, the nicest thing about Family Album, circumstantially, was that I did not finish it with the feeling that it was the best of the bunch. A nice change! I’d begun to worry that I was becoming weak-minded. Hitherto, each novel seemed better than the one I’d just read. That was the other nice thing: my regard for the other books leveled off a good deal. How It All Began bobbed to the top only slightly faster than According to Mark; Heat Wave struck me as an accomplishment of such a different order that I had to judge it separately; The Photograph, understandably popular, is nonetheless crowd-pleasing in the same way that Family Album is; while the appeal of Moon Tiger continues to elude me. I’m glad that I read it first.

Perhaps it is finally time to read The Blue Flower, and to be done with the other Penelope (Fitzgerald). I’ve reached the point where the familiarity of some of Penelope Lively’s themes might curdle immediate further reading. Garden centers, authors (and their well-known problems with the quotidian world), cheating husbands and ambitious women — these seem to pop up in all the books with contemporary settings. Also the passage of time, or, rather, the passage of generations. This is a problem for both Lord Peters (How It All Began) and Charles Harper (Family Album): in the twilight of their careers, they can no longer find sympathetic readers among the publishers. They are vieux jeux. Experience warns me to lay off Lively for a while. I want to keep her as fresh as she does her Harlequins and her Columbines.

***

A favorite passage from Family Album:

Alison is a homemaker, a housewife, that now outmoded figure, but her management skills are not highly developed. She does not plan ahead enough, she runs out of things, she forgets to get the boiler serviced or the windows cleaned, children berate her because they have grown out of their school uniforms or she did not give them the money for the charity raffle. Ingrid is frequently reminding her (“What would I do without you?”); Charles merely looks resigned, and detached.

She is aware of these deficiencies but not particularly concerned. After, all, everyone is fed, everyone is housed and cherished and listened to and helped and supplied with pocket money and birthday parties and love and attention and a real four-star family life, which is what matters, isn’t it? Never mind if there is the occasional blip; never mind if this is not one of those homes that are run like a machine, what matters is being part of a family, isn’t it? One lovely big family. For Alison, Allersmead is a kind of glowing archetypal hearth, and she is its guardian. This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them — a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog. And Denby ovenware and a Moulinex and a fish kettle and a set of Sabatier knives. She has all of these things, and knows that she is lucky. Oh, so lucky. (30-1)

Regular readers will not wonder why I single this out for attention. In the first paragraph, the author indicts Alison (“her management skills are not highly developed” — as a housekeeper, she’s a flop) — while, in the second, Alison indicts herself, with her warping way of talking, her rhetorical questions and tendentious dismissal of alternatives. In fact, her children are not “listened to.” Alison has a peculiarly successful way of dealing with inconvenient home truths. Whenever her children start conversing sharply about the reality of life at Allersmead, Alison flusters imperviously: Now don’t be so silly, children; I don’t know what you’re talking about. As a character “up denial,” she’s right out of Tennessee Williams.

In Alison’s defense, we can absolve her of the fetishism that afflicts so many women in her position (and men, too). For Alison, things do not have to be just so. She very much wants two things to be true: she wants her elder son, Paul, to be present at all family celebrations (he is, she has actually told him, her favorite), and she wants to keep her mother’s Limoges service intact. When Paul, stoned or drunk, shows up late for her silver wedding anniversary party and drops a pile of the dessert plates into a smash, it becomes something that Alison can cry about years later. But, for the most part, Alison is almost eagerly flexible.

I never quite worked out how this woman became such a good cook. At the end of the story, her expertise allows her to teach classes that have waiting lists. How did such a disorganized person ever master the discipline of getting dishes to the table all at the proper temperature? How did she learn to deal with “blips” — of which there must have been many? Maybe the explanation is that Alison is truly a monster.

Bon weekend à tous!