Archive for July, 2012

Beachcombing:
Summer Hours
July 2012

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

¶ Tom Phillips has served, amazingly, as the British Ambassador to both Saudi Arabia and Israel. His ten-point argument that “There May Never Be Peace” in the Middle East is chillingly convincing. Much seems to depend, however, upon continued US support for Israel. That’s rock-solid now, to judge by appearances, but few things are more fickle than foreign policy. (Prospect; via The Browser) ¶ A number of items appeared during July that helpfully explain just what “Alawite” means in Syrian affairs, and why talk of an “Alawite homeland” is (probably) nonsense. Here are two: Joshua Landis (Eurasia Review; via The Browser); Faisal Al Yafai (The National; via Real Clear World). Plus a very useful essay on the origins of the Alawi “heresy” by Steve Tamari. (Jadaliyya; via The Browser)

¶ Our first response to V X Sterne’s confession that he’s finding it a bit tricky to compose a meaningful profile for online dating sites was to recommend slipping in a link to Outer Life. That way, prospective girlfriends could read all about it. Our instant second response was to scratch that. Would they be “reading all about it,” really? And would VX want them to? For all its discretion and anonymity, Outer Life manages to be rigorously unsparing without being at all self-indulgent. A pleasure to read, but not compliant with generally-accepted principles of advertising. ¶ We’re not sure that we followed everything that Rebeka Cox has to say about identity in the age of WiFi, but the gist of it is certainly intriguing: “I think in its most basic form, your identity is the product of how you manage your attention and others’ access to that attention.” (Quora; via Snarkmarket) ¶ In “Happy Birthday Dad,” Steeforth wishes that his father were still around, for his 86th birthday. A beautiful card. (The Age of Uncertainty)

¶ How nice to see Maria Bustillos at Page-Turner. She confronts the awful truth about not being able to read everything, and confronts it with recommendations by Orwell, Miller, and others. (We would not have picked Ms Bustillos as a likely fan of Ivy Compton-Burnett!) ¶ At the Awl, she interviews Tom Scocca, whose Beijing Welcomes You has just come out. Quite beside the point, but most memorably, Scocca opines that (the Times column) “‘Modern Love’ is, to me, basically an ongoing crime against humanity. (The Awl) ¶ Greer Mansfield considers Lawrence Durrell, whose centenary year this is. (Bookslut)

Durrell fans are still devoted to the series. Current bookchat writers, when they mention it at all, seem fixated on (and a bit embarrassed by) its luxuriant prose style. “Purple prose” is the lazy epithet that critics use for this sort of thing, forgetting that a rich prose like Durrell’s paints with a variety of colors. The merely verbose writer uses an inflated vocabulary to avoid contact with anything graspable; this isn’t the same as a writer who has a sensual love of the language and the things it describes.

¶ At The House Next Door, Odie Henderson argues con brio that Steve Martin’s Roxanne is an improvement upon Rostand’s original. (We’ve always thought so, too.) ¶ At The Hairpin, Kase Wickman talks to Lauren Greenfield about her friendship with the Queen of Versailles, Jackie Siegel. ¶ Also at The Hairpin, Anne Helen Petersen combs out the career of Warren Beatty, with many dishy pictures. ¶ Scott Esposito holds up Geoff Dyer’s Zona to the clear light of Roland Barthes’s S/Z and finds it wanting; but he also makes Dyer’s book sound a lot more readable. But then we always roll our eyes when Dyer talks theory. (Barnes and Noble Review; via Conversational Reading) ¶ Scott also tips us off to another smackdown of sorts, Brian Platzer’s argument that The Art of Fielding is no more “literary” than The Hunger Games. (Salon) ¶ Lesley Downer reviews Timon Creech’s Obtaining Images: Art, Production and Display in Edo Japan, calling it “a beautiful book, full of insights on every page.” If the review itself is any indication, we’ve got to get a copy! (Literary Review; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ Julian Barnes, in a piece about his book-buying life, puts it with the artful simplicity of a great Latin motto: “The dividing line between books I liked, books I thought I would like, books I hoped I would like and books I didn’t like now but thought I might at some future date was rarely distinct.” (Guardian; via Arts Journal) ¶ PEN alert from Turkey: works by William Burroughs and Chuck Palahniuk may be unpublishable as “obscene.” Nobody actually reads Burroughs in Turkey (or out of college anywhere, we’d venture), but “Palahniuk is popular.” It will be interesting to see how that distinction plays out in currently-postponed judgments. (via The Millions) ¶ At the Guardian, P D James answers readers’ questions. Autumn is the season for murder.

¶ Bill Morris extols the Fifth Edition of the (traditionally prescriptivist) American Heritage Dictionary, calling it fun to read; but he wonders how in hell Steven Pinker was assigned the introductory essay? (The Millions)

I can still remember the night in high school when I finished typing up a 17-page paper on my latest passion, Albert Camus. It was due the next morning, and I took it downstairs to present it to my father, terribly proud of myself. He read the opening sentence and immediately reached for the Cross pen in his shirt pocket. I looked on, aghast, as he circled a word in ink. He read the sentence aloud: “Before his premature death in a car crash in 1960 at the age of 46, Albert Camus had cemented his reputation as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.”  Then my father said, “The word premature usually refers to a birth that takes place before the baby is ready. Untimely is the word you want if you’re referring to a man’s death at a relatively early age. Or possibly inopportune.” He continued to carve up my paper with ink marks, then sent me back upstairs to rework it. I spent most of the night editing and retyping the mess. Of course I got an A+ for the paper. Far more important, I’ve never forgotten the difference between premature and untimely.

¶ Three pieces from The Bygone Bureau, jolly, triste, and amazed by turns. ¶ Not just a great letter (to Maurice Sendak, telling him not to mope about his “vagueries“), but a good picture, too, of legendary children’s-book publisher Ursula Nordstrom, @ Letters of Note. ¶ Elon Green writes about the beginning of Maureen Dowd’s long career at the Times, recalling the AIDS beat that never was. (The Awl) ¶ Dylan Nice (still a young man today) looks back to his freshman year of college, and the dent that George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” put in his backwoods armor. ”In the span of a few thousand words over a half-century old, the world got bigger for me in a quiet way.” (The Rumpus) ¶ Maria Popova continues her exploration of not-new books about imagination and discovery with An Anatomy of Inspiration, a “slim” volume from 1942 by Rosamund Harding. How did notions of inborn genius survive books like this? (Brain Pickings)

¶ July 2012 is going to be remembered as the month in which former Master of the Universe Sandford Weill surprised everyone by calling for a restoration of a Glass-Steagall-like barrier between investment banking and deposit banking. We take this as the sign that Big is no longer Beautiful. James Kwak seems to have seen it coming at the end of June: “Who Wants Big Banks?” (Baseline Scenario) ¶ Felix Salmon argues that Smaller is Better because small organizations have to compete for trust, but he is not optimistic about bank breakups. ¶ In another piece from this month, Felix dissects the problem of public education — his dramatis personae is worth the click all on its own — and urges that ”the management” — everyone from the principals to the President — work hard at giving up as much control as possible. Consolidation of power is, once again, a bad thing; yes indeed!   

¶ Sad but true: we remember when  Naked Came the Stranger came out, so to speak. Aside from the naughty bits, which were either improbable or Eeew!, it was a terrible book, a dumptruck of clichés excavated from lower drawers otherwise a-clatter with old bottles of whiskey. As Nicole Cliffe observes (though hardly from experience, one imagines, “the late 1960s were a golden era of terrible writing. (The Awl) ¶ Sadder but just as true: if they legalized marijuana, and it was as cheap as Matthew Iglesias says it would be, we’d be too old to care. (Slate; via The Morning News) ¶ At The Millions, Michael Bourne says grown-up things about the High Line, not that he doesn’t like it. “The underlying aesthetic of the park’s design may be a tad fatuous, girded as it is by unexamined assumptions about working-class authenticity, but the park itself is a gorgeously executed gem.” ¶ Who can tell us what Robert Sullivan is satirizing in “Me and My Adult Stroller“? (The Awl)

In fact, I have a great relationship with my pusher, Paul. Paul just graduated from Cornell, a finance major, and was already my personal assistant when he took on his extra duty. All I had to do was tweak his pay. Now, he gets to stay in shape while on the job, and the new arrangement keeps us at a healthy and ultimately more comfortable distance, since we now mostly communicate by cell phone and text.

New: ¶ John Simon is not only alive and well &c but blogging!

Have a Look: ¶ Ryan Brenizer’s photos of the derecho storm over Manhattan @ GOOD. (That’s exactly what it looked like from our balcony). ¶ What cricket looks like to Americans, @ kottke.org. ¶ The Saddest House in New York City, @ Scouting New York. ¶ Choreography for Plastic Army Men, @ Three Quarks Daily. ¶ Happy Birthday to Milton Glaser, @ Brain Pickings. ¶ Web Browsers Jason Kottke has known. ¶ New American Painting‘s list of ten most important post-2000 American painters. (via The Morning News) ¶ English Church Architecture. (via MetaFilter) ¶ Studio Bumpers. (The Awl) ¶ Higgs Boson Explained @ Brainiac.

Noted: ¶ DIY non-toxic household cleaners (also cheap), @ GOOD. ¶ Nige on Spem in alium. ¶Teju Cole on the “Man in a Turban.” (New Inquiry; via 3 Quarks Daily) ¶ At The Millions, a roundup of new fall books. Also: “A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro.” ¶ Kasia Ceplak-Mayr von Baldegg explains one of the more bizarre modern products, sliced bread. (The Atlantic; via The Morning News) ¶ Popehat’s Bar Exam Story. ¶ Alec Nevala-Lee on The Lehrer Affair. (The Rumpus) ¶ No buyers for Dawn Powell’s diaries. (Page-Turner) ¶ Daniel Gelernter’s blithely bad temper about intellectuals. (Chron Higher Ed), while Sean Collins calmly reconsiders Allan Bloom big book. (Spiked Review of Books; via Arts Journal) ¶ Wallis or Elizabeth? (The Awl) ¶ The gene behind cardboard tomatoes. (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Gotham Diary:
Love My Way
31 July 2012

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

It was time to fill the ice chest — always a bore. As I’ve said before, the state of the ice chest is a reliable gauge of my spirits; if it’s empty, and the ice-cube tray on the top of the stack is partially empty or half-frozen, then you know I’m running on fumes. There is always plenty of ice in the freezer; the question is whether it’s in the chest, with more ice on the way. It’s the difference between subsistence and good housekeeping.

I was up to good housekeeping, but I wanted a reward, and the reward that I wanted was a song that had been floating in my heada for weeks. “Love My Way,” by the Psychedelic Furs. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)

I used to have a 45 of the song, and perhaps I still do, somewhere, but that would be useless, as I haven’t got anything to play it on. It was time to visit the Apple Store and buy the song from iTunes. It had been a while since my last visit, however, and security had been upgraded. I was asked to provide answers to three ranges of questions. In each range, I could choose one of five or six questions, and then answer it. Trouble was, I would have to remember the answers. These weren’t the sort of questions that you don’t have to think about. For example, the question that I chose from the first range asked what was the first thing that I learned how to cook. Another question: what’s my dream job?

For someone my age, these questions are exactly equivalent to passwords that must be memorized. Realizing this, I went straight to the other computer and printed up a Dymo label (two labels, actually, one for the Filofax and one for the address book) with the three answers on it.

I understand why the questions are so fuzzy. I also understand that they’re designed for much younger customers, people who still have a clear idea of the first thing that they ever learned how to cook or what their dream job might be. They might be wrong, but they’d be sure, and their answers would act like little stamps on the virtual passport of their identity. “Once upon a time, you were here.” Ten years on, they might shrug and laugh at the idea that they ever wanted to run an eco-resort in Belize, but they wouldn’t have to try to remember how to answer the iTunes question.

And then there’s the problematic nature of clever answers. Dream job? I have it; I’m just waiting to be paid. Very funny, but how much of that will I remember, when pressed by Apple in some undoubtedly urgent moment to prove that I’m me? How precisely do the answers have to be reproduced? No, I decided not to fiddle with the dream job question. I chose a slightly more objective question instead. (Never you mind.)

The Dymo label printer chose that minute to run out of labels. Don’t worry; I’ll stop there — I can see you sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming “La! La! La!” Downloading ”Love My Way” and getting it onto a Nano was no trouble at all, and soon I was bopping around the kitchen, dumping ice into the chest and filling up the trays, and then looking for other things to do, so that I could justify staying in the kitchen while I listenend to the song again.

“Love My Way” is — what, dreadful? It was a hit in its day; the music video (not one of the more sophisticated ones) got a lot of play on MTV in 1984, which is how I discovered it. We had just bought our first television, Kathleen and I, and hooked it up to cable. I did nothing but watch music videos for six months. I actually stayed up on New Year’s Eve because the MTV Special was hosted by The Producers — I was crazy about “What’s He Got (That I Ain’t Got)?” Then, poof, videos were gone, done. Maybe it was me.

“Love My Way” sets off Richard Butler’s bored, flattish intonation with a basic but catchy xylophone riff. I have no idea what the song is about because I’ve never seen the lyrics, and Butler’s accent is unintelligible to me. Is this even English? Why the equal emphasis on the second syllable of “follow”? The chorus whines instead of singing; the synthesizer emits vaporous chords from Dark Shadows. I can’t believe I like this song — and then the bass kicks in beneath the xylophone and I feel that we are taking off. Suddenly it is 1968 and I am part of the the most glittering bohemian gathering in Soho. I cannot imagine living without this song. I am, in fact, not living without this song. I see lots of productive kitchen reorganization in the near future.

There are things about good housekeeping that Mrs Beeton doesn’t tell you.

Gotham Diary:
Art in the Age of Installation
30 July 2012

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Forget mechanical reproduction. What about art in the age of installation? Put that in your Benjamin and smoke it.

***

The determination to keep early hours while my nighthawk of a wife junketed in Maine added a certain novelty to her absence over the weekend that, for me, began on Wednesday. I would awake very early in the morning, only to find that I had no idea what to do with myself (making Kathleen’s tea and toast is the familiar beginning of my day); and in the evening I would scramble at an unaccustomed hour to get dinner out of the way, so that I wouldn’t have to go to bed the very minute the dishes were washed. This was all so unusual that it was almost like going off to a new boarding school, where the sheer drill of keeping to a schedule numbs one to the shock of having been dropped into a jungle. And I did get a lot done. I more than made up for the lethargic beginning of the week.

But the novelty wore off yesterday afternoon, when, all of a sudden, I felt very lonely. I felt very lonely for Kathleen. Knowing that she was having lots of fun with her old friends in Maine was a considerable consolation, but it did not completely lift the tedium of knocking about an otherwise-unpopulated apartment. So instead of making the interesting dinner that I had planned, I went to the Seahorse Tavern, just to be in a room with other people, and that made me feel much better.

So did reading The Anonymous Venetian, an early Donna Leon than I’ve never got round to. Waiting for my dinner, I wondered how the title would be translated into Italian — if the author permitted translations into Italian, which she quite sensibly does not. (The entire country would mass itself into a forty-part chorus to tell her how wrong she was about every detail, especially the ones that she nailed.) I wondered, because the mystery begins with the sighting of a red pump in the muck outside an abattoir in Mestre. Pretty soon, though, it’s clear that the title would emply the masculine gender.

I keep meaning to write to Donna Leon to tell her something that I read in the London Review of Books on the flight back from London in May. Diarmaid MacCullouch, in a very nice piece about the history of the Book of Common Prayer, mentioned that Sir Henry Wotton, the English ambassador at Venice in the reign of James I, proposed to the Doge and his counselors the conversion to the Church of England of la Serenissima. Balance of power, what. It sounds totally crazy, but from an English standpoint it made marvelous sense. Such fun! From a Venetian standpoint as well, as I should like to hear Guido Brunetti’s aristocratic wife, Paola, argue at the dinner table. I content myself with the hope that Leon is more likely to have read the MacCulloch piece than this blog; it saves the agony of taxing her with a reply and not getting one.

***

Ross Douthat issued a challenge in yesterday’s Times that I am only too happy to gratify.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

Please allow me! I do not respect such freedoms! Scriptural natterings about human sexuality (Jesus’ preaching about the love and respect that we owe one another aside) are no less noxious to the society of human beings today than the rites of animal sacrifice outlined so eloquently in the first chapter of Leviticus. Good and decent such exercise may have been in the Iron Age — a time so remote that only the most childish faith in unchanging human nature can consider its outlook readily imaginable to us — but good and decent it is no more. Although not Jewish — all the more for not being so, perhaps — I should happily join a lawsuit against the successors and assigns of whatever entity or entities consigned my helpless infant body to such mutilation in 1948!

What felt better was someone’s finally asking.

Weekend Note:
Rise and Shine
28-29 July 2012

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

“It was a tough week.” That’s how I put it to myself. But I can’t put it that way here, without the quotation marks, because there was nothing objectively tough about it all. I was unaccountably tired at the beginning, and also worried about something that it took a while to clear up. By Wednesday afternoon, I was celebrating Fossil Darling’s birthday, and very much in the mood. Thursday was not unproductive but somewhat strange, because it dawned on me at about five o’clock that I was going to have to think hard about what I was doing if I was going to get myself into bed at ten. Which I did, although I did not fall asleep at once. Friday morning, I was up at six: success at last.

But it’s tough to be tired, for whatever reason. Fatigue takes on an existential dimension with age: it becomes awfully easy to imagine that you’re never going to shake it. Regular life doesn’t seem worth the effort. Little household tasks seem too tedious and trivial to consider, which is another way of saying that they become disproportionately momentous. (Why even think about putting the laundry away?) There’s an element of clinical depression that would be more than merely elemental if the fatigue were allowed to become chronic. For me, the source of fatigue is very simple: it comes from staying up too late and drinking too much wine. These vices go together; for decades, they were the only route to sleep. Now that I’ve been taking Lunesta for a year, I’m beginning to believe in a healthier routine, but at least thirty years of habit have to be ripped up, and a very attractive part of the habit is the pleasure of talking with Kathleen at and after dinner — dinner which, owing to her hours, rarely occurs before nine o’clock, and never before seven-thirty.   

***

At long last, I figured out how to cook chicken breasts. Why it took so long — well, it took so long because, as with so many little things in life, I tend to believe, like the nitwits in Molière’s Précieuses ridicules, that “Les gens de qualité savent tout sans avoir jamais rien appris.” Use your head, in other words — but, sometimes, using a recipe is better, and it this case it wasn’t even a recipe, just a Mark Bittman sketch about things to do with chicken breasts that appeared in the Times Magazine a few months ago.

I knew that I’d figured out how to cook chicken breasts this time because they were tender and moist and slightly spongy — and full of flavor. Yes, I used curry, but there was a delicious chicken taste underneath it.

Here’s what you do: Heat two tablespoons of butter and a half teaspoon of curry powder in a gratin dish, in a 400º oven, for about six minutes. Take the dish out of the oven, and roll the chicken cutlets in the melted butter. Pop back into the oven, cooking the chicken for six minutes on a side. Then turn the oven off and open the oven door a bit. You can leave the chicken in the oven for up to five minutes.

The trick is to find out what the times for your oven will be.

***

While tidying the flat on Saturday, I found myself in a mood to listen to speaking, not singing, so I rifled through my small collection of audiobooks and came upon a treat: Ben Kingsley reading Sherlock Holmes stories. It has been decades since I last read Conan Doyle. I do not believe that he wrote for adults, and his detective adventures are larded with the most preposterous nonsense. When the incognito “king of Bohemia” refers to his upcoming nuptials, and the reason for his anxiety about a photograph of himself in the company of Irene Adler, for example, I can only burst into hysterics.

“To Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meiningen, second daughter of the King of Scandinavia. You may know the strict principles of her family. She is herself the very soul of delicacy. A shadow of a doubt as to my conduct would bring the matter to an end.”

It’s not the “king of Scandinavia” bit that tickles me. It’s the idea that doubts about a prince’s private love-life would interfere with a dynastic marriage. (In the real world, they just might  — if he didn’t have one!) Such passages let all the air out of the tire for me. I wonder what Princess Alexandra (as she then was) made of this one.

I remember taking especial delight, when reading this stuff in my twenties, in the formal tics, my favorite being Holmes’s heralding the arrival of the client in Baker Street.

     “Precisely. And the man who wrote the note is a German. Do you note the peculiar construction of the sentence — ‘This account of you we have from all quarters received.’ A Frenchman or Russian could not have written that. It is the German who is so uncourteous to his verbs. It only remains, therefore, to discover what is wanted by this German who writes upon Bohemian paper and prefers wearing a mask to showing his face. And here he comes, if I am not mistaken, to resolve all our doubts.”
     As he spoke there was the sharp sound of horses’ hoofs and grating wheels against the curb, followed by a sharp pull at the bell.

Ben Kingsley is, needless to say, divine. As I dust the knickknacks and wipe the bibelots, I couldn’t feel more like Mrs Turner.

***

For breakfast on Sunday morning, I made a pot of cofee the old-fashioned way, with a stove-top percolator. I filled the pot with four cups of water, and then I put four tablespoons of reasonably good, appropriately ground coffee from Fairway in the basket. I set the pot over high heat. The moment a jet of water erupted into the glass dome, I turned down the heat, and kept turning it down, over the course of a minute, to rather low. Once the pot was spouting along nicely, I let it go for ten minutes. The result is very satisfying! It’s certainly nothing like the Kona that I brew in the Chemex, but that’s a weekend specialty for the two of us. Also, I’ve never figured out how to make small amounts of coffee with a Chemex, even with a little Chemex. Now I can start the day with a couple of cups of good-enough coffee.

Also a reminder of childhood. The percolator was the first item of kitchen appliance that I ever noticed, or perhaps the second, after the eggbeater. Did I tell you that Ray Soleil gave me his grandmother’s eggbeater? You can’t get them anymore. I’m talking about the hand-cranked type, of course. It’s really the only way to beat eggs for scrambling. (Because of its wooden handle, this eggbeater cannot be run through the dishwasher, so I soak the blades in warm water once I’ve poured the eggs into the skillet. A little soap, a little beating, a quick rinse — done.)

The soft percussion of a bubbling percolator says “breakfast” like nothing else in the world.

***

By Friday, I was strong enough to do a bit of running around, but not quite strong enough not to feel it. I began with a burger at the Shake Shack — I hadn’t been there in a while. Then I marched to the Museum, where I attended to a dereliction in our membership. The word for my membership renewal policy has been, for several years, “drift.” Originally, probably like a lot of people, we renewed at the end of the year. This is a terrible time for that sort of thing, given all the other expenses of the holiday season. So I took to renewing a day or two after our membership expired, which effectively postponed the following year’s expiration by a month. (Membership is YYMM, not YYMMDD.) This year, I had things just where I wanted them: I was set to renew on the first of June. But June went by without my making it over to the Museum, and so did most of July.

You may wonder why I didn’t simply return the renewal form supplied by the Musem, why I had to renew in person. That’s because of the other drift, which has been upwards through the ranks of membership. We have found the limit, I think; the gulf between our membership and the next rung up is a multiple of what we’re paying now — which is already enough for me to think it better to divide the weight between two credit cards, much easier to do in person. As I did on Friday.

Then, since I was already there, I took in the Schiaparelli/Prada show, which I must drag Kathleen to, since I’ve never seen so many clothes that looked designed just for her. Then I went up onto the roof, really just to take pictures. There is something odd about the Roof Garden; it has, rather, a seaside air, and not in the just the nice ways. So many fagged tourists looking exhausted on the benches! So much sun, or other intense weather, beating down! Instead of sand, the treetops, and, instead of the sea, the skyscrapers. Two kinds of wilderness: the forest that is Central Park, and the riot of development beyond it. Until 150 years ago or so, civilized people anywhere would have found the juxtapositions bizarre and somewhat barbaric.

On my way to the egress, I thought of my knees which are still a bit swollen from my climb-down a few weeks ago (thinking that I’d be late for a movie if I waited for the only elevator in service, I took the stairs almost all the way down to the ground, something that I will Never Do Again except in case of fire), and decided to spare myself the descent from the main entrance. I walked instead to the elevators in Greece and Rome, and went down to the group/Children’s Museum/handicapped entrance. This put me out at 81st Street, which was fine, since I was heading for Crawford Doyle. I’d forgotten, though, that this route would take me alongisde Frank Campbell — not just the front, which is for the living, but alongside, where two staffers were doing something with an empty gurney. Such sights stir one’s mind.  

***

There seems to be something cooking at Crawford Doyle. Whatever it is, it makes me read the books that I buy there right away. It happened with three books a few weeks ago; now it’s just happened with two. Two of the books that I bought on Friday were read by Saturday afternoon. And I loved them both.

The first was J R Ackerley’s We Think the World of You, which I would call a novella, even though NYRB has published it unaccompanied by other material. It appears to be Ackerley’s only work of fiction. Although it is very well put together, and you’re aware of that as you read it, the book feels as wild as the animal at its center — which is either a large sheepdog of some kind called Evie, or a condescending gay twit, depending on your point of view. The twit speaks English of a sort, and holds down a government job in a building “in the neighbourhood of Regent’s Park” (why not just say “Marylebone Road”?), but is as lacking in self-awareness as any beast — as, say, Humbert Humbert, or one of Patricia Highsmith’s more demented characters. That’s where the thrill comes from: Frank, the narrator, is so dangerously presumptuous about the ground that he walks on that he can’t imagine it giving away beneath him, which it very nearly does several times. It’s the danger looming all round him that makes Frank bearable — as a potential human sacrifice. I kept longing for him to be crushed. The book’s ending, according to P N Furbank, is “minatory,” and certainly far from happy, but I wanted blood, which was very shaming.

At the beginning of the book, Frank’s lover, or “lover,” Johnny — a feckless cockney charmer loaded with short-term shrewdness but utterly devoid of long-term intelligence, and also, by the way, saddled with a wife, a son, and a baby on the way — asks Frank to take care of his dog while he’s in prison. Johnny has botched an experiment in housebreaking and will be spending a year behind bars. Frank refuses to help out, which is very typical of Frank, who thinks that he’s very generous but who measures out his gifts in shillings. Only later, when he’s visiting Johnny’s mother, Millie (who used to be his char), does Frank meet, and fall in love with, Evie, a very large dog who is not being properly exercised, not, at least, by Frank’s Country Life lights. Without being aware of what he’s doing, Frank transforms Evie into a substitute for Johnny. That’s to say that he’s too worldly and established to imagine that he can engage in a custody fight for Johnny with HM Prisons, so he takes up instead against Millie and her husband and Johnny’s wife, and even the wife’s daughter by a previous engagement, in a contest for possession of Evie. And the issue, not very thinly disguised, is class. Just as Frank thought that Johnny’s family ought to have yielded Johnny up to him, as the far better companion for their son and husband, before the incarceration, so now he insists that he is the only one who can provide Evie with lots of space for galloping about and being unruly to strangers.

It’s almost impossible to believe that this book came out in 1960, when homosexual practices were still sanctioned in Britain.

I’ve probably made it sound gruesome and sordid, but We Think the World of You is a sparkler that it’s impossible to put down. Here is Frank, after his one and only visit to Johnny in prison, near the end of the sentence, expressing the bipolar contrition that swells up in him after he has indulged his “well-bred” contempt for Johnny’s family:

This interview, when the emotional pleasure of seeing Johnny had worn off, left me feeling unaccountably tired and flat, and as my thoughts, in the succeeding days, reverted to it and wandered dully among its shoals and shallows, I found myself afflicted by a despondency which had nothing to do with the perception that I had been put, to a large extent, in the wrong. Say what one might against these people, their foolish frames could not bear the weight of iniquity I had piled upon them, they were, in fact, perfectly ordinary people behavving in a perfectly ordinary way, and practically all the information they had given me about themselves and each other had been true, had been real, and not romance, or prevarication, or the senseless antics of some incomprehensible insect, which were the alternating lights in which, since it had not happened to suit me, I had preferred to regard it. They simply had not wished to worry Johnny, and, it was plain enough, he had had much to worry him already; he had cared about the fate of his dismal wife and family, as Millie had cared about Dickie, and, for all I knew, Tom about Evie; the tears Johnny had shed over his dog had been real tears and, there was no doubt of it, he had terribly missed his smokes.

(I roared with laughter.)

Their problems, in short, had been real problems, and the worlds they so frequently said they thought of each other apparently seemed less flimsy to them than they had appeared to me when I tried to sweep them all away. It was difficult to escape the conclusion, indeed, that, on the whole, I had been a tiresome and troublesome fellow who, for one reason or another, had acted in a manner so intemperate that he might truly be said to have lost his head; but if this sober reflection had upon me any effect at all, it produced no feeling that could remotely be called repentence,

(See what I mean?)

but only a kind of listlessness as though some prop that had supported me hitherto had been withdrawn. Yet Johnny had been perfectly nice; what better proof of his affection could I have than the thought that had come to him in the solitude of his cell of calling his new child by my name? And I could have his dog. And soon I should have him…. Indeed, I had everything, except the sense of richness, and when the phrase “I ‘ad to do me best to please everyone” recurred to my mind, I wondered why so admirable a sentiment made me feel so cross. Beneath such a general smear of mild good nature, I asked myself, could any true value survive? Where everything mattered, nothing mattered, and I recollected that it had passed through my mind while I spoke to him that if the eyes that looked into mine took me in at all, they seemed to take me for granted.

Now, that’s what I call “Foney Baloney.” I will leave it to you to encounter Evie for yourself; I encourage you to do so!  

About Harriet Lane’s debut novel, Alys, Always, I can say nothing for the time being, because the book is much too exciting to permit discussions that might betray its plot. I shall content myself, for the moment, with observing that, while I agree with whoever wrote passage blurbed from the Independent on Sunday, that the book is “in classic Ruth Rendell territory,” I must insist that it is a great deal more sophisticated in tone than the worthy baroness’s fictions, even the best of them. Alys, Always in in fact well-enough crafted to pass as something that Ian McEwan might have produced. The book is smashingly good, and, as a plus, it was for me a very interesting (and totally serendipitous) counterweight to We Think the World of You, because its narrator is an outsider who weighs and considers her every move and every word. The youngsters of our fair city will profit mightily from the study of this elegant handbook of ambitious restraint.

Friday Commonplace:
Innovation
27 July 2012

Friday, July 27th, 2012

From David Remnick’s Profile of Bruce Springsteen, two excerpts that are largely quotes from the subject:

Doug Springsteen died in 1998, at seventy-three, after years of illness, including a stroke and heart disease. “I was lucky that modern medicine gave him another ten years of life,” Springsteen said. “T-Bone Burnett said that rock and roll is all about ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s one embarrassing scream of ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s just fathers and sons, and you’re out there proving something to somebody in the most intense way possible. It’s, like, ‘Hey, I was worth a little more attention than I got! You blew that one, big guy!’ ”

***

As Springsteen sees it, the creative talent has always been nurtured by the darker currents of his psyche, and wealth is no guarantee of bliss. “I’m thirty years in analysis!” he said. “Look, you cannot underestimate the fine power of self-loathing in all of this. You think, I don’t like anything I’m seeing, I don’t like anything I’m doing, but I need to change myself, I need to transform myself. I do not know a single artist who does not run on that fuel. If you are extremely pleased with yourself, nobody would be fucking doing it! Brando would not have acted. Dylan wouldn’t have written ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ James Brown wouldn’t have gone ‘Unh!’ He wouldn’t have searched that one-beat down that was so hard. That’s a motivation, that element of ‘I need to remake myself, my town, my audience’—the desire for renewal.”

*****

Elizabeth Taylor’s story, “An Oasis of Gaiety,” adumbrates a character, and even a relationship, from her later novel, The Sleeping Beauty, but the gathering of ageing bright young things playing roulette on the floor of an Edwardian, course-side villa is not a foreshadowing. “Auntie,” the hostess, has neither niece nor nephew, but her flighty daughter, Dosie, and her stolid, much younger son, Thomas (unaccountably devoted to his life in the Army — and this is what Taylor picks up for the novel), are both on hand.

In some of the less remote parts of Surrey, where the nineteen-twenties are perpetuated, such pockets of stale and elderly gaiety remain. They are blank as the surrounding landscape of fir trees and tarnished water.

***

But who was loved — in this room, for instance? Mrs Wilson often thought that her husband would not have dared to die if he had known she would drift into such company. “What you need, darling, is a nice, cosy woman friend,” Fergy had said years ago when she had reacted in bewilderment to his automatic embrace. He had relinquished her at once, in a weary, bored way, and ignored her coldly ever since. His heartless perception frightened her. Despite her acceptance of — even clinging to — their kind of life, and her acquiescence in every madness, every racket, she had not disguised from him that what she wanted was her dull, good husband back, and a nice evening with the wireless; perhaps, too, a middle-aged woman friend to go shopping with, to talk about slimming and recipes. Auntie never discussed those things. She was the kind of women men liked. She amused them with her scatter-brained chatter and innuendo and the fantasy she wove, the stories she told, about herself. When she was with women, she rested. Mrs Wilson could not imagine her feeling unsafe, or panicking when the house emptied. She seemed self-reliant and efficient. She and Dosie sometimes quarrelled, or appeared to be quarrelling, with lots of “But, darling!” and “Must you be such a fool, sweetie?” Yet only Thomas, the symbol of the post-war world, was really an affront. Him she could not assimilate. He was the grit that nothing turned into a pearl — neither gaiety nor champagne. He remained blank, impervious. He took his life quite seriously, made no jokes about the Army, was silent when his mother said, “Oh, why go? Catch the last train or wait until morning. In fact, why don’t you desert? Dosie and I could hide you in the attic. It would be the greatest fun. Or be ill. Get some awful soldier’s disease.”

*****

From Francis Bacon, “Of Innovations”:

Surely every medicine is an innovation; and he that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator….

Gotham Diary:
Who Am I?
26 July 2012

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Kathleen is in Maine, enjoying her annual reunion with fellow camp-counselors. I am trying to get to bed earlier. Last night was not the success I envisioned. It wasn’t until half-past eleven that I turned out the light. I blame Fossil Darling (naturally). It was his birthday yesterday, so I took him and Ray Soleil out to lunch. You could see where that was going right from the start, but, happily, the only harm done was to Ray’s duff, because he was held prisoner at the flat watching almost all of the Miranda episodes. Well, he would laugh. “You’re right,” he said at one point, “the show does build.” By the time he couldn’t take any more, it was eight o’clock. I straightened up and made myself some dinner, which I ate while watching In the Loop, about which more anon. Halfway through the movie, I put it on pause, cleaned up the dinner things and got ready for bed. I did not wobble about watching another DVD. I settled down with the New York Review of Books for a while, and then traded that in for the more surely soporific The Last Enchantments, a novel by Robert Liddell, about which I-don’t-know-what anon.

I woke at seven, and was rewarded for not getting out of bed by an unpleasant dream. I went across the street for breakfast, which meant getting dressed first. Back at home, I set Bach in Order III to playing (with an idea that I will at least be ready for bed when it ends, sometime before nine this evening), and sat down to deal with the question that started bugging me yesterday morning, long before lunch, as I was walking to the dermatologist’s office for another little excision, feeling every minute of my age, which is almost eighteen months junior to Fossil’s.

I put it in adolescent terms at the header, but the question that I’m really asking is, who have I become? Because, first and foremost, I feel that the becoming part of my life is over. There will be refinements, I’ve no doubt, and I may have to change my mind on a few issues because, having thought them through more clearly, I realize that my earlier position was unconsidered. But so long as my mind holds its somatic integrity, I will remain the person I am today, and have been for some time. But who is this person? To put it another way, assume that you have been following this Web log for a long time. How surprised would you be to meet the writer? What assumptions would you have drawn, from the things that I say, about the way in which I think? How does what I write fail to disclose how I live?

Since there is no way for you to answer that question, I’m asking my version of it. For the moment, that means trying to figure out the question itself.

***

Philosophy — you ought to know that I have no use for systematic philosophy. I do not believe that there is anything to be learned about the world from mental constructs. Mental constructs serve the purpose of organizing what you know, or think you know. They can’t tell you anything that you don’t know — except, arguably, about yourself.

The exact sciences have taken over the old business of philosophy, which engendered them all, after having been raped (resisting all the way) by mensural rigor in the Sixteenth Century. I look to astronomy, not to Plato’s notions of essence, to tell me about the stars. And I look to cognitive science, not to Freud, to tell me about psychology. I do not look anywhere for morality or ethics: I come equipped with a handful of axioms that readily evaluate all of the choices that I face in my life. I don’t try to assess other people’s choices too much, since I rarely know enough to evaluate them.   

Axioms: Violence against persons, except in self-defense, is wrong. (The death penalty is wrong.) Personal property is part of human dignity, but most possessions do not amount to “personal property.” The people around you benefit from your good behavior to the extent that it is generous. Self-righteousness and indignation are disfiguring states of mind. No principle is more important than any person.

Anti-axioms: There can be no axioms about lying. There can be no axioms about desire. Where these things are concerned, the axiomatic concepts of right and wrong are distractions. It’s the foreseeable consequences that are important. Theft is almost always a very bad idea; sexual infidelity somewhat less often so. What you don’t know won’t hurt you, but, once you’ve decided “not to know,” don’t go changing your mind. It’s for this reason that “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” turns out to be unnworkable when applied to health: at a certain point, you are going to be obliged to know. But then, it’s your health. You’re in charge of that, not your mother.

Rules of thumb: Life is never simple; better to accommodate the complications. Now this is something that, I find, works for me. It works for me in much the same way that sentences with dependent and independent clauses work for me. Another rule: don’t settle for guesswork or wobbly memories. Look things up!

Accidents: Although I have no personal use for athletics of any kind, I believe that team sports absorb the general and observable urge to partisanship (which I also do not share) more agreeably than, say, war. It’s only because I don’t know why I don’t care for sports that I call this an accident. Someone equipped to get to the neurological bottom of it might demonstrate that it was inevitability, my dislike of movement “for the fun of it.” But nobody is equipped for that yet, and it may well turn out to be genuinely accidental. (Memo to self: write page about how a completely determined universe is impossible, given the chaotic nature of state-change. Better know what I’m talking about, first.) Another accident is my personal reconciliation of the love of comfort with an attraction to formality. To people who aren’t drawn to formality, I must seem awfully rigid; whereas to truly formal people, I’m something of a slob.

Disapprovals: There is no reason for me to discuss the things that I disapprove of, unless of course they fall under one of the axiomatic bans. (And it is wrong-headed to say that one ”disapproves” of murder.) It is enough for other people to know that I can live without the things I’m living without with, whether or not disapproval enters into it. That is one of the good things about being old, and having put becoming and “discovery” behind one. One’s way of life becomes implicitly eloquent, to anyone paying attention. And anyone not paying attention quite clearly doesn’t want to know. So I keep my disapprovals to myself. Which is hardly to say that I make a secret of them!  

Gotham Diary:
Taxi!
25 July 2012

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

The other day, I rattled on to Kathleen about an insight that I’d had during the day. It came to me to make a distinction between the problems that exist among human beings, on the one hand, and the problems that exist between human beings and the rest of the world, on the other. The problems in the latter set are serious, but almost impossible to deal with until those in the first set have been cleared up. Because otherwise you just make the problems already existing among human beings worse. The Protestant Reformation was the last sympathetic example of how trying to make people behave better (less sinfully) with regard to a force outside of humanity (God) so easily leads to persecution and atrocity. In the French Revolution, God was replaced by La Patrie; the Holocaust carried this obsession with abstraction to a point that (happily?) we cannot imagine exceeding.

There are two ways of dealing with the problems that exist among human beings, and the right way is to make sure that everybody’s dignity figures in the calculus. The wrong way is to devise solutions that impair dignity. Dignity isn’t the easiest thing in the world to understand (or, for that very reason, to respect), but I would venture a definition that comprised the right to sustain one’s life unmolested by human violence and unburdened by degrading conditions. (The main thing to bear in mind is that dignity is not an abstraction.) My sense of dignity is pegged to the dignity of others, as a result of which currency I sometimes have trouble looking at myself in the mirror.

And for a simple reason. It’s not that I spend a lot of time imagining the hard lives of people who live in the slums of Mumbai or Rio. But I do take a lot of taxis. And the system governing taxis in New York City has aptly been described as “feudal.”

“Now, taxis,” I said to Kathleen, “taxis are a problem that I have to read up on. I need to find out what to read.” “Let me check it out for you,” said Kathleen.

The next day, checking in at the computer, I was amazed to find 20 new items in my inbox. All from Kathleen, each one containing a link. Yesterday afternoon, I copied all the links onto a page that I then posted at my Web Site (but without navigational linking); this made following the links on the iPad a lot easier. I worked my way through about half of them, and even found one on my own. (Actually, I’d come across the New York Taxi Workers Alliance before.) I learned a few things. Simple repetition hammered home the number of medallions in New York’s taxis system: 13,237. I also learned, from Felix Salmon, why the price of a fleet medallion recently climbed to a million dollars. The most that a medallion owner can make in a year — this is set by law — is in excess of $80,000, but of course there are expenses.

But even if you bring the income down to $50,000 a year, that’s still a pleasant 5% yield on your money, and what’s more it’s a yield which behaves much more like a real yield than a nominal yield. Paying $1 million for such a thing doesn’t seem silly to me, especially when there’s a lot of room for capital gains as well. 

In today’s interest-rate environment, 5% is a lot of safe return. It makes a lot more sense to buy a medallion than it does to buy a bond. 

And of course I learned that the new rate increase was not accompanied by a raise in the lease rates. That means that the drivers are going to pocket the increased revenue, which is all for the good. The next improvement ought to enable drivers to do just as well with shorter shifts; in addition to making a more humane day for the drivers, it would end the maddening late-afternoon shift change.

Meanwhile, I continue to tip heavily.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Fleet Street History
24 July 2012

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

All that sobbing over Mozart the other night left me feeling pretty rubbishy yesterday — the weather didn’t help — so I spent the day reading, and, penitentially, reading a book that has lingered in my pile for months. As long as I didn’t feel like doing much of anything, I would at least clear the deck of a dust-catcher. I also hoped that I would learn something about the background of modern Syria from James Barr’s A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the Struggle that Shaped the Middle East, but I didn’t; the Alawites (who seem to be at the bottom of the Syrian problem) are mentioned only once, early on.

Actually, background is missing overall from this book, which begins where there ought to have been an ending, in the wake of World War I. The Ottoman Empire (which was falling apart at its core, in palaces along the Bosphorus) had sided with Germany and Austria in that conflict, and this presented Britain and France with an irresistible temptation that they ought to have known would only bring tears and trouble. What might be done with the Levant and with Mesopotamia, the largely Arab provinces to the south of Turkey?

Barr is happy to tell us what was done, when, and by whom, but his account of events in the Middle East lacks coherence until you grasp that Barr, a former journalist with the Daily Telegraph, is reporting on a game played by bitter enemies. It would be wrong to say that “Britain” and “France” were the enemies, but they did sponsor the teams. The object of the game was to thwart the opponent’s projects in the region, and, if possible, to drive them out of it altogether. The British appeared to win when the French departed from Syria and the Lebanon in 1945, but, at least in Barr’s view, this was not the end of the game, which continued until the British were driven from Palestine by Zionist terrorists — backed by a vengeful France. What made this game more interesting than most such conflicts — a nifty handicap — was that Brtain and France were ostensibly allies throughout the period under discussion.

The book’s colorful tone is somewhat tendentious: the British are alternately naive and grandiose, while the French are snakes. Long before I got to the end, I was wondering what the other side of the story would sound like. I decided that it would sound much the same, only with the attributes reversed. Nothing could conceal the fundamental lunacy.

For the British, the object was to maintain maritime channels between England and India (and beyond). This meant controlling the Suez Canal; it also meant exploiting Iraq’s oil. After 1919, the British ought to have looked in the mirror and asked themselves why they were still maintaining an empire. In 1945, with the empire obviously about to shut down, trying to govern Palestine made no sense at all. But Britain had become a world power on the back of its far-flung possessions, and did not want to hear that what empire had given, it would also take away.

The French, it must be said, were even more deluded. They were still trying to build an empire in the Twentieth Century. Barr writes about “a small but thick-skinned group of imperialists, the Comité de l’Asie Française,” whose secretary general,

an aristocratic diplomat named Robert de Caix, reached for the history books to make his case. He argued that France had a “hereditary” right to Syria and Palestine because it was “the land of the Crusades … where Western activity has been so French-dominated since the beginning of the Middle Ages that all Europeans who live there are still called ‘Franks’.”

You don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

There is, of course, another story that goes untold, a story that puts the Arabs, the Turks, and the Persians in the foreground. That’s the story that I think we need to hear. Barr’s subtitle is almost laughably nonsensical, since his book shows how truly incapable Britain and France were of shaping anything ithe Middle East. It is not impossible to imagine a region that would be just as troubled as today’s is without either the French or the British having shown up to do much more than buy oil.

As it was, Britain and France were the principal parties to the Peace of Versailles, a pact comprised of nightmarish follies that was founded on the humiliation of Germany (which was not a party at all). Almost everything that James Barr writes about was an unintended consequence of that Peace. His book certainly shows how little like true allies the British and the Frednch were prepared to act.

***

 

Gotham Diary:
Lacrimosa
23 July 2012

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Over the weekend, I read Christoff Wolff’s Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune: Serving the Emperor, 1788-1791. It is something less than a book but more than a collection of essays: surely it will inspire a younger scholar to write a thicker, more comprehensive study of Wolf’s thesis, which is that appointment to an official post in the imperial music establishment, something that Mozart had longed for ever since arriving in Vienna in 1781, altered the composer’s outlook and influenced stylistic changes. Wolff also debunks any idea that Mozart “knew that the end was nigh.” The major works of his last four years of life, far from representing the culmination of a career, were more likely to have been the preliminary efforts in an artistic shift that we can only guess at. The effect of reading Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune is to make his very untimely death even harder to take than it usually is. I stayed up way too late last night, listening to The Magic Flute and sobbing into my nightcap.

It is hard to find, let alone define, a common denominator for the musical style of Mozart’s last years, the years in the service of the emperor. There are some general elements that are prevalent in much of the music of this period: grand and sublime statements as realized in the last symphonies and an ambitious increase in the musical format of movements; a more restrained and mellow, yet no less effective approach toward concerto writing, as seen in the last two piano concertos and the clarinet concerto; and, generally, a more open, more adventurous, and more varied application of polyphonic designs as well as truly unusual and untested harmonic processes such as modulations gliding in and out of distant realms and creating shocking expressive effects. Above all, a zeal for innovative compositional approaches is notably dominant.

I have always found the last three concertos to be somewhat regressive, reminiscent of the simpler music of Mozart’s childhood, but Wolff suggests that Mozart was looking even further back than that, to the Augustan majesty of Bach and, especially, Handel. This would explain, too, why the Requiem, which was the first piece of classical music that I knew well (of all things!) never struck me as sounding much like anything else that Mozart wrote; Wolf devotes a chapter to the new style of church music that Mozart was developing in the Ave verum corpus and the Requiem, showing how rooted it was in the Saxon clarity of Protestant music the likes of which Viennese audiences had never heard.

But as we imagine the direction in which Mozart seemed poised to take off at the time of his death, we ought probably to bear in mind that its excitements would have remained enveloped in a charming surface appeal. It is almost impossible, now, to hear what might have struck Mozart’s contemporaries as “difficult” about his music; the handiest guide seems to be Joseph II’s famous complaint about “too many notes.” But there would never, I think have been anything as noisy as the beginning of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or as charmlessly severe as the opening of the Fifth. Mozart could be an awful egotist, and he was extraordinarily ambitious, but he kept these things out of his music. It is hard to imagine him setting out to express himself, as Beethoven was so overtly to do. In short, I can’t see how Mozart would have taken a place among the “romantic” composers, whose innovations were probably made somewhat easier by his premature passing from the scene.

Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune — the phrase is Mozart’s own, written in an appeal to Michael Puchberg for a big loan — is an enormous treat for me, because it tells me that most of things that I “know” about Mozart are wrong. It does no such thing, really, but in making me want to hear everything afresh it effectively gives me a new composer. I will at any rate stop saying that we don’t know if Mozart ever heard the last three symphonies.

Another reason for late-night tears: I was listening to the Karl Böhm recording that features Evelyn Lear as Pamina and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Papageno, two singers who died recently — in respectable retirement.  Poignant, that. No retirement for Mozart!

Weekend Note:
Modest Proposal
21 July 2012

Saturday, July 21st, 2012

Lovely weather, for a change. And on a weekend, too.

On Wednesday afternoon, I decided to run some errands even though I knew that it was going to rain. Dressed entirely in cotton (but for my loafers), I declined to burden myself with an umbrella. My Tilley hat would have to do. Also, I carried a zipped tote bag from Bean’s. I got across 86th Street — only that far — and then the rain came. It was a pounding rain, but intermittent at first. I lingered under awnings and walked out during let-ups. I made my way down First Avenue to 79th Street, where I took care of two of the errands on one side of the avenue before crossing to the other. By that time, there were no more let-ups. The monsoon was upon us, sweeping curtains of rain up and down the road while twisting the trees every which-way. By the time I walked into Agata & Valentina, I was soaking wet.

Or so I thought until the walk home, through pouring rain. The rain was blowing down behind me, and presently I became unpleasantly aware of walking in very wet pants. I felt sure that my back pocket would melt, and that my wallet would spill onto the pavement. It’s one thing to be wet almost everywhere else; being wet in the seat is, well, wrong. Especially now that old enough to wonder how long it’ll be before I’m back in diapers.

When I got home, my clothes were as wet as they’d have been if I’d jumped in a lake. But I wasn’t, strangely enough. I was damp, but not soaking after all.  The same could not be said for my copy of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter, which I’d brought along “just in case.” The top edge of the book got quite wet, zipped tote notwithstanding, and the tops of the pages were decorated with quite distracting draperies of moisture. The book was still wet when I finished reading it, on Thursday.

***

The news from Aurora, Colorado, raises a tidal wave of questions and conclusions, all mixed up and crazy. It tells of the kind of event that, in my idea of a properly-ordered society, would be simply inconceivable. I refuse to see the killer as an isolated rogue, as an instance of spontaneously generated evil. He seems to me, rather, fearfully to embody the outlook of the Dark Knight Rises character played by Tom Hardy. Indeed, no trip to the movie theatre is complete these days without at least a few feet of apocalyptic explosions. The imagination of disaster has clearly metastasized since Susan Sontag wrote her essay on the subject. What used to work like a preclusive charm againstf nuclear holocaust now resembles the dress rehearsal for a Cormac McCarthy festival.

I do have an idea, though.

When Kathleen was in eighth grade, she was something of a troublemaker, but the nuns (madames of the Sacred Heart, thank you very much) knew how to handle her.  They rigged an election and made Kathleen the class president. It was the same logic that transformed Joseph P Kennedy from a stock manipulator into the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Why not try it out on the National Rifle Associaion?

Hand over the regulation of guns to the NRA. No more Second Amendment problems! No more feckless legislation! Who better to make sure that the people who kill people don’t have access to the guns that “don’t.” Just put the NRA in charge, and fine the pants off it every time something like Aurora happens.

Just a thought.

Gotham Diary:
Pleyel 1890
20 July 2012

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Sorry to be late today, and not to have any Commonplace offerings for the week. I do have a treat, though. Feast your eyes on this exquisite piano, a Pleyel made in 1890 (and yours, I’m told, for a mere $175,000) — an instrument that Proust might have seen and heard. You’ll have to take my word for it that the piano sounds at least as good as it looks; in fact, it sounded perfect, yesterday, at an informal lunchtime recital of French chansons (Ravel, Fauré, Debussy). Plans to make a recording of these beautiful songs, using this very piano, are in the offing, and I shall pass on the details as they emerge. For the moment, let the piano upstage the artists.

***

Why nothing for the Commonplace?  Looking back over the week, I recall a lot of magazines, beginning on Sunday. Also, I read Jane Gardam’s 1985 novel, Crusoe’s Daughter — which has just been published by Europa. I’ve read four of Gardam’s novels now, Old Filth (“Filth,” by the way, is an acronym for “Failed in London: Try Hongkong”), The Queen of the Tambourine, God on the Rocks, and this new/old one. I have not read Faith Fox or The Man in the Wooden Hat, both of which I have here somewhere. Gardam is an interesting novelist partly because she still has very little presence in the United States; you will not be reading about her in the book reviews or in The New Yorker. You will not be reading her in The New Yorker; if there is still some sort of house style at that magazine, then Gardam still doesn’t fit it. Having read nothing but British fiction for well over six months now, I shocked by the first few pages of Crusoe’s Daughter; they’re so unlike what one would encounter at the beginning of Elizabeth Taylor or Tessa Hadley. After a while, I began to be aware that the novel was not just set in Yorkshire but set there, on the marshy coast of the “German Sea.” I remembered that the author was born in Yorkshire. And I thought of Shirley, Charlotte Brontë’s irregular but satisfying novel for adults. I haven’t been to Yorkshire myself, but it has a certain literary reputation as a place of some wildness. The wildness of Crusoe’s Daughter (Defoe’s hero hailed from Hull, also in Yorkshire) lies all in the writing. It is the beautiful wildness of a lithe, dangerous animal. There is nothing sad or defeating in Gardam’s heartbreaks. They are, on the contrary, truly awful.

Here shortly before World War I, Polly Flint, the title character, is brought by a family friend to his large estate near the banks of the Ouse. His sister, Lady Celia, is, we will learn, a fierce aesthete, playing the hostess to the likes of Virginia Woolf and detesting the local Jewish magnates not out of anti-Semitism but because they’re philistines. It is difficult to tell, in the following introduction, which is the bird of prey.

          On a yellow silk sofa someone was lying. There was a blaze in the grate of a wood fire that never goes out, and there was also the smell of something else, very sweet. Pot-pourri — there was a heap of it in a great dish — but it wasn’t that. All I could make out on the sofa was drapery and a movement of white hands and a sense of eyes watching me. 
          “‘lo Celia. Back home. Polly. Polly Flint.” Mr Thwaite did the great harumming of the throat and moved to the window. There was a valedictory atmosphere about him. I have done what I have done. I have gone through with it. He looked at the sky. “Splendid day,” he said. “Very poor at Oversands. Continuous rain. Very disappointing.”
          “Polly what?
          “Flint. Emma’s. Flint. Polly. Come for a little break.”
          “Flint,” said the voice. “Well — Arthur. On your own? Arthur ring the bell. Polly Flint. Come over here.”
          On the sofa lay a tiny woman dressed in silk. Pampas grasses in a tall jar bowed over her head like a regal awning. Her face was thickly painted — bright red mouth and cheeks. Her eyelids and brows were painted andher very black straight hair was pulled tight back across the skull like a Dutch doll, and looked painted, too. Her neck was not much thicker than a wrist and her ears glittering with round topazes were little and pretty like noisettes of lamb. 
          Her hands were very, very old and had veins standing on them but they were soft and unused, not as small as all that. Rather determined hands. She held one bravely out — it looked ready to drop with the weight of more topazes.
          “But do come nearer.”
          She examined my clothes one by one — hat to gaiters. She saw my pelisse, cut down from Aunt Frances’s and very special; I had worn it at the wedding. It was draped over my childish serge coat. She seemed to count the buttons down my calves and almost ate the big plate hat. She looked lower and I rememebered that there was an uncertainty about my left knicker elastic which I had meant to see to before I left.
          “Thought of cinnamon scones,” said Mr Thwaite. “About tea-time?” We arrive upon our hour.”
          “Polly Flint,” said (presumably) his sister. “How very interesting. How pretty Emma’s girl. Not at all like Emma. Very different — except perhaps for the cheek-bones. How very sensible of you Arthur. Has she come for a visit?”

 

Gotham Diary:
In 1937
19 July 2012

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

 

You will recall that Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities begins with a mistake. Distracted by an argument with his lover, Maria, Sherman McCoy misses the Manhattan-bound exit at the heart of the Triborough Bridge (which is, naturally, a complex of three bridges) and barrels on into the Bronx, where he simply takes the next exit in order to turn around. Getting back onto the highway turns out to be difficult, and, in a panic, Sherman drives recklessly enough to hit a kid in the street. Thus begins the downfall of this Master of the Universe.

The mistake is not Sherman’s however. Sherman, we are told, is a born-and-bred New Yorker. No one raised in the Metropolitan Area would dream of “taking the next exit.” That may work perfectly well in Nebraska, but any expectation that the next exit will be anything like the one that you just missed is utterly foreign to natives of these parts. The mistake was Tom Wolfe’s. Although Bonfire is an extremely compelling read — or was at the time — it betrays its outsider’s viewpoint at the very beginning, and is manifestly not the purveyor of secret knowledge that it claims to be.

Amor Towles’s The Rules of Civility is a much better book than The Bonfire of the Vanities, and every bit as compelling, but it is haunted by an air of fantasy that is just as sharp as the superficiality of Wolfe’s cluefulness. Narrated by Kathleen Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, raised in Brighton Beach (but a Christian), The Rules of Civility is in many ways a dream about New York City on the eve of World War II, an era that comes easily to mind because Ralph Lauren spends so much money trying to convince us that we’re still living in it (and ought to dress accordingly). The fantasy — the unreal part — is not a matter of gaffes of the “next exit” order, but something more subtle.

It was in an ivory envelope embossed with a scallop shell. On the front, there was no stamp, but it was addressed in perfect calligraphy. I don’t think I had ever seen my name so beautifully inscribed. Each of the Ks stood an inch tall, their legs sweeping elegantly under the other letters, curling at the end like the toe of an Arabian shoe.

Inside, there was a card edged in gold. It was so think I had to rip the envelope to set it free. At the top was the same image of the scallop, while below were the time and date and the requesting of the honor of my company. It was an invitation to the Hollingsworth’s sprawling Labor Day affair. From a a few hundred miles at sea, another act of grace by the right fine Wallace Wolcott.

The fantasy is that people like Wallace Wolcott (a WASP paragon too fine to be played by anyone but Gary Cooper) would find this sort of thing interesting enough to describe. Unlike Kate, Wallace would have seen his name perfectly inscribed before he knew how to read. He would take perfect calligraphy for granted — there was until recently a well-known service that would fill out all the addresses on your wedding-invitation list.  The only comment that Wallace might make, assuming that Kate, in her enthusiasm, has not overlooked the detail, is that the Hollingsworths would surely have requested the honour of her company.

***

The Rules of Civility is such a well-packed book (although not an especially long one) that it is hard to believe that it takes place entirely within the space of a year, 1937. Whenever Kate would return to her flat on 11th Street, I’d be amazed that she was still living there, after all this…. time. The novel is full of lively characters and clearly-drawn scenes, and something is always happening. (New York City demonstrates that the “small town” effect requires a population of many millions.) The action on the surface is in perfect counterpoise to the mystery below, which is a romance between two people who are themselves mysteries. Our narrator is one of these people; she is a fine study in hiding-in-plain-sight. We know a few things about her — very few. We have no idea how she covered the socio-economic distance between Brighton Beach and the typing pool at a venerable Wall Street law firm. We have no idea how or where she acquired the wit and panache to get an important job at a (fictional) Condé Nast start-up. Kate seems to know that it’s best to keep most of her personal history under wraps; if she’s mysterious, it’s for reasons that she’d like to put behind her. Let me be clear that there is nothing fantastical about Kate’s career, improbable though it might seem. New York is the natural abode of many such mysterious people, and it would be wrong-headed to expect Amor Towles to take Dawn Powell’s skeptical scalpel to them.

The other mysterious person is Tinker Grey. He’s so mysterious that he seems always to be enveloped in a slight but photogenic fog. We meet him in the novel’s frame, at the Museum of Modern Art, where an exhibition of Walker Evan’s photographs has opened, in 1966. The photos were taken on the city’s subways, with a hidden camera. Tinker, rather wonderfully, turns out to be the subject of two of them. In one, he is gaunt but lively; in the other, prosperous but world-weary. As Kate knows, the latter picture must have been taken first. So: what happened to Tinker? How did he get flushed out of high life? And was he, despite everything, Kate’s first and greatest love? You will find out the answers to these questions, which Towles has the skill to make urgent, when you get to the end of The Rules of Civility. And you will almost certainly have a good time getting there.

This is a frankly elegiac book, a backward glance at the excitement and uncertainty of young people scrambling about the city. There is a finely-dampered sense of doom (Wallace Wolcott sails off to fight in the Spanish Civil War), of things coming to an end; but what is really coming to an end, of course, is youth, not a way of life. What’s over, at the end, is Kate’s innocence about the glamour of rich people’s lives. She marries one of thoese people, and finds happiness with him, but the awe that her tough-girl patina barely conceals at the beginning of the novel is evaporated by what 1937 has to teach her. The Rules of Civility would have been a better book — a truly great book, I suspect — if Amor Towles had written it in the third person, and not tugged at us to gape sympathetically at the bits and bobs of Red Book snazziness that — more or less attractively — litter Kate’s tale.

When dinner was over, I helped Wallace carry the gifts to the back pantry. Lining the hallway were photographs of family members smiling in enviable locales. There were grandparents on a dock, an uncle on skis, sisters riding sidesaddle. At the time it seemed a little odd, this back hall gallery; but running into a similar setup in similar hallways over the years, I eventually came to see it as endearingly WASPy. Because it’s an outward expression of that reserved sentimentality (for places as much as kin) that quietly permeates their version of existence. In Brighton Beach or on the Lower East Side, you were more apt to find a single portrait propped on a mantel behind dried flowers, a burning candle, and a generation of genuflection. In our households, nostalgia played a distant fiddle to acknowledgment of the sacrifices made by forebears on your behalf.

A third-person narrator could have told you more than Kate is willing to divulge, while recasting the pangs of envy so that you would not feel uppity for not sharing them.

As for mistakes of the “next exit” order, I did find a very small one. There have never been any “once tony brownstones” in Washington Square.  

Gotham Diary:
Badlands
18 July 2012

Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

Pamela Werner seems to have been an interesting girl even before she was murdered in 1937 — almost certainly in a brothel near Peking’s Legation Quarter, almost certainly by a crew of Anglophone sportsmen led by an American dentist. Born, probably to a White Russian refugee in 1917, she was adopted two years later, at the Portuguese orphanage, by a once-prominent couple, E T C Werner and his wife, Gladys Nina née Ravenscroft. In 1922, the adoptive mother died of an overdose of Veronal, but the ensuing scandal yielded no evidence of foul play. (It was probably suicide.) Pamela grew up to be as pretty as the run of blonde Hollywood chorus girls of the day (if her pictures are any guide), and she chafed within the confines of her scholarly father’s respectable house. She seems to have been thrown out of almost every school she attended, and was still going to school when she died, at nearly 20. (To be precise, she was home on winter break.)

Four days before her death, Pamela Werner was photographed at Hartung’s, a studio photography shop in the Legation Quarter. She wore a stylish black evening gown, elegant sandals, and an expression of ironic disdain. It was not the outfit of a schoolgirl. Unremarkable in itself, the photograph tells a familiar story, once you know Pamela’s fate. It’s the story of a girl who yearns to be a sophisticated, independent woman, and who grabs a chance at it without understanding the terrible risks to which acting without family support expose any attractive young woman even to this day. She thinks that she can handle it. She is wrong.

The case of Pamela Werner’s murder was never officially solved. Pamela’s father, strangely passive during the early investigations, began an impassioned and arduous search for justice only when it became clear that Chinese and British officials were not going to identify the culprit or culprits responsible. Years later, Werner and the man whom Werner believed to be guilty were both interned in the same prison camp on the Shandong Peninsula. Other prisoners would remember Werner pointing a finger at that man, Wentworth Prentice, and saying, “You killed her. I know you killed Pamela. You did it.” This is how the movie version would begin. At the end, the scene would be replayed, and now we would see Prentice.

The story of the investigation into Pamela Werner’s death is an interesting one, because its many contingencies dangle from the strange state of China at in the twilight of the warlords, on the eve of Japanese occupation. Because the dead girl was found outside the Legation Quarter, the British authorities, such as they were, lacked effective jurisdiction. At the same time, there was a presumption that the suspect would be a criminal type. At one point, a broken-down former bodyguard of North American background, called Pinfold, was brought in for questioning, He was released, against the investigators’ urging, by a consul who insisted that the evidence against him was inadequate. Properly pursued, Pinfold would have led directly to the murderer, but the higher authorities instintively protected this man — it would be better to say that they protected themselves from finding out anything incriminating about him — and the trails of evidence were ignored, the connections left unmade.

***

At the end of Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, author Paul French tells us how he came to write it.

It was when I came across a photo of [Pamela], on a cold morning in the British Library’s newspaper archives in North London, that I knew her story had to be told. I started writing. And then, by chance, while tying up the loose ends of some research in Britain’s National Archive at Kew, I stumbled across an uncatalogued file in one of several dozen boxes of random correspondence sent from Peking during the years 1941-43. The letters in the file had been recorded, acknowledged, filed and forgotten. There were some 150 pages of close type, with handwriting added by the author in the margin.

It took a while to work out what it all was: the details of the private investigation E T C Werner had conducted after the official one was halted. Peking was by then occupied by the Japanese, yet Werner’s search uncovered more than the detectives had found; it answered questions that they had been unable to, settling nagging doubts and bringing more light than the official inquest ever did. It took these lost letters of Werner’s to bring Pamela’s murder into focus for me.

Perrhaps this would be the first scene.

As those paragraphs suggest, Paul French writes in a style that is both straightforward and supply atmospheric. There is nothing lurid about his tale, no heavy breathing — not even when, in the early pages, Pamela’s mutilated corpse must be described. French’s tone is, on the contrary, inclined to the understatement of film noir. There is much that can’t be known, especially the answer to the question, “What was Pamela Werner really like?” She was almost certainly not like someone who had murder coming; at the same time, she was pretty clearly defenseless once she stepped outside the confinement of propriety and accepted the invitation to a party that her father, had he known of it, would not have permitted her to attend. The setting is exotic; it was thought to be exotic at the time, by the expats who knew it up close. But the crime, far from opening a window on imaginative depravity, is the all-too-familiar confrontation of inexperience with lust and desperation. No: what makes the crime interesting is the fecklessness of the official investigation. To call it a “cover-up” would be a gross exaggeration. But it was infected with all of the ambiguities and misunderstandings that made Beijing into yet another Chinatown.

Possibly because of a superficial resemblance between Werner and Edmund Backhouse, subject of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Hermit of Peking, I’m going to have to hunt down that very wild “Old China” story.

 

Gotham Diary:
Quatercentenary
17 July 2012

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

What goes around, &c: Over the weekend, a friend called me up, to ask if I could pick him up after a procedure. When he’d scheduled it, he hadn’t known that his wife was going to be out of town — so, would I be free? Of course I was free. It tickled me that I’d get to do what Ray Soleil did for me just last Wednesday. I took a taxi to the hospital and met my friend in the waiting room. I’m not quite sure that anyone checked him — or me — out, but in two shakes we were having lunch at Demarchelier, which I intended to be my treat. When the time came to settle, though, my friend insisted on paying, and I could tell that he would be angry if he didn’t. So I had no choice, after we parted warmly on the sidewalk, but to head down to Crawford Doyle and spend my lunch money on something penitential: the quatercentenary edition of the King James Bible, published last year and in stock at the bookshop for about four months. I hadn’t noticed it before.

It is not quite a facsimile; the black-letter typeface has been replaced by something Roman from the early Nineteenth Century. But the new edition is otherwise a perfect copy, misspelled word for misspelled word, line of verse for line of verse; and all of the ornamental capitals have been preserved. Never having seen a King James Bible before, I was hypnotized by the genealogical charts at the front, beginning with GOD and ending, thirty-odd pages later, with CHRIST. The edition is somewhat smaller than the original, with pages of about eight by eleven inches.

The LORD said vnto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand: vntil I make thine enemies thy foote-stoole.

2 The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.

3 Thy people shalbe willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holinesse || from the wombe of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.

4 The LORD hath sworne, and will not repent, thou art a Priest for euer: after the order of Melchizedek.

That’s the first half of Psalm 110, set by Vivaldi and Handel (and many other composers) in Latin, as Dixit Dominus.

***

If the King James Bible has a peer, I don’t know what it is. It seems blasphemous somehow to suggest that it is comparable to the Tanakh (the scriptures in Hebrew); the King James is a translation. But its importance to the English language has no correlative in another language. Because of the tensions that were pulling English society apart when the translation was made, the Bible, “appointed to be read in churches,” was the only universally recognized text. And because Modern English was still developing, still in transition from Chaucer to Johnson, there clings to the translation something of the chthonic murk of the Iron Age original. We can understand it, for the most part, but we haven’t spoken its idiom for a very long time. There is a secular power in the King James Bible that is bottled in the genius of its language.

And the New Testament, for which we have only Greek “originals,” found in English a language that took it seriously. From I Corinthians:

11 When I was a childe, I spake as a childe, I vnderstood as a childe, I thought as a childe; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glasse, darkely: but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know euen as also I am knowen.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charitie, these three, but the greatest of these is charitie.

It is impossible to say which benefits more greatly from the translation: Paul’s meaning or the English language.

Gotham Diary:
What I Call “The Élite”
16 July 2012

Monday, July 16th, 2012

The other day, David Brooks finally came out and said something that I’ve been shouting for years: “The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.”

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

That’s very well put, even if it does suggest that we do have to make a choice between today’s incompetent justice and yesterday’s bigoted stewardship. The WASP élite was rather like the Indian Civil Service of British Empire days, an incredibly small number of professionals overseeing the higher civic functions of a teeming mass of hoi unwashed polloi; in the United States, however, it was the WASPs who were the natives.

They weren’t very good leaders, the WASPs. Men like FDR, patricians who were comfortable standing up in front of the people and exhorting them to be their best selves, were quite rare; duffers like Taft, Coolidge, and Hoover were much closer to the norm. After Andrew Jackson, men from “nice” families tended to keep their families out of the political muck. They ran things, yes, but they did not lead. We still haven’t figured out the leadership thing in this country. It’s arguable that no society anywhere has ever actually “figured it out.” We can grow plenty of corn, but we don’t know how to grow leaders.

So there’s no reason to wax sentimental about the WASP ascendancy, just a few things to learn (the virtues of  a relatively Spartan adolescence prominent among them). We need to take stewardship at least as seriously as the best of the WASPs appear to have done. Beyond that, though, we have to tackle this altogether new problem, which is, essentially, a refusal to take civic responsibility. In the public sphere, everything is somebody else’s fault.

***

If you went looking for leaders today, you would be whistled into Davos or Sun Valley or some other conclave of “business leaders” who would be happy to share their insights into high-minded motivation. But the term is oxymoronic; in business, there are only dictators. Large businesses today are run just as the courts of Europe were run five hundred years ago.  Maurizio Viroli, in a new book about Silvio Berlusconi, describes a court system thus:

any arrangement of power whereby “one man is placed above and at the center of a relatively large number of individuals — his courtiers — who depend on him to gain and preserve wealth, status, and reputation.” Viroli calls the person at the center of the court system the signore.

(Yascha Mounk in The Nation, March 5/12 2012.) When you cut through all the Economist-spun crap about corporate structure and governance, the signore is what you’re left with, and the courtiers include both the subordinate executives employed by the corporation and the ranks of “independent” professionals — lawyers, lobbyists, and even elected officials — who serve the interests of the signore and his interests only. The signore is hardly omnipotent; his power derives from dense networks of mutual obligation that overall tend to favor his assumption of the throne. Failure to honor these obligations will surely lead to a coup. In that sense, the signore is indeed the head of an institution, and not a capricious individualist. But whatever you may say about the virtues and vices of courtly institutions, the simple truth is that the educated amongst us came to the realization, about 250 years ago, that they do not produce model governments.

Maurizio Viroli argues that Italy, looking for a leader, has settled for a signore. Getting back to David Brooks, we conclude that Americans are looking for scapegoats.

Weekend Note:
Figuring in Euros
14-15 July 2012

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Having stayed up late, watching almost all the rest of Miranda but saving the last episode for later, I loitered on in bed the next morning, encouraged to do nothing more constructive by the knowledge that Kathleen, who stayed up even later than I did, wasn’t about to get up anytime soon. Although I’d proposed going to see To Rome With Love this morning, I saw at once that it would never happen, and that the better plan, if plan it would be, would be to make a simple breakfast and keep Kathleen in bed until one or so, when she would (will!) rouse herself for her Saturday-afternoon trip to midtown, to have her hair washed and dried. There was no hurry on the breakfast, either, so I crawled back into bed with Tessa Hadley’s The London Train and read the last twenty pages. A sweet way to begin the weekend!

The London Train is full of magic — magic being entirely a matter of encountering someone else at the right time in the right place. Or not: at the end of the novel, estranged spouses spend the night in one another’s empty houses, and this is precisely what their relationship needs in order to carry on. This almost ritual, but unconscious, separation, each exploring the other’s not-unfamiliar turf. (Cora, the wife, has retreated in the estrangement to her late parents’ house in Cardiff, which she is doing over in order to sell it when it becomes, instead, a haven. But on the very night that Robert comes to visit, she sleeps in the spare room of the Regent’s Park flat that she shared with him for over ten years. What she discovers is that he has been sleeping in the spare room, too.  

***

Variation on a theme: pork chops with pear, honey, mustard, and sage. My everyday pork chop dish, taken from Classic Home Cooking, calls for boneless chops, cut into two pieces if they’re very thick, to be slathered with mustard, brown sugar, and orange juice, with peeled orange slices between the mustard and the brown sugar on the top side. Kathleen is very fond of this dish, and I associate it with winter, not because it’s heavy but because it’s hearty. I wanted something less robust when I made it the other night. I bought a nice hard bosc pair and peeled it; then I grated it into a bowl. I added two spoonfuls of thick local honey, a little more than that of grainy mustard, and a dusting of dried sage. This stirred up into a cohesive paste, which I spread on each side of the chops and which I was delighted to find adhering to the chops when I removed them to the dinner plates with a spatula. Although wary of the novelty at first — that local honey is very strong and earthy — Kathleen decided that she liked it very much. I shall experiment with different honeys, and also with chopped fresh sage.

I served the pork chops with boiled arborio rice — yay! why did I never think to boil it before? — and one of the very first vegetables that I learned how to cook: summer squash steamed with dill.

***

Shortly before leaving the flat on Friday morning to join Ray Soleil for an early showing of Les Adieux à la Reine down at the Angelika, Kathleen, who had just left, called from the street to warn me that the regular elevators were out of service, mostly, and that everyone was crowding into the service elevator. Knowing how long it might take to get out of the building, I decided to descend by stairs. At the sixth floor, I paused to check on the elevators, and was happy to see that one was just about to stop where I was. But I might as well have taken the stairs all the way to the ground, because the damage was done. By Saturday afternoon, I was hobbling about like a foot-bound tai-tai, and my right leg would barely flex enough to step into shorts. I managed to do all my Saturday chores, but there was no thought of making an interesting dinner. I pulled out a small container (ample for the two of us) of Agata & Valentina’s okay bolognese lasagne. Later, I fell asleep in my chair, reading Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession, a fat historical novel about Hong Kong that, when it finally fell to the floor about an hour and a half after I’d dropped off, according to Kathleen, woke me up and sent me to bed.

On Sunday morning, Kathleen and I went across the street to see To Rome With Love. Kathleen wanted me to wait to see it for the first time with her (such a romantic!), and I did, on the understanding that we’d see it on a weekend morning. Everyone at the 11:20 showing was my age or older, and we all liked it very much. It’s not as simply delightful as Midnight in Paris, but it is as full of magic as all of Woody Allen’s movies seem to be lately. The biggest trick of all is that the four plotlines that the movie weaves together run on different time-scales (one lasts hardly more than an afternoon, while another clearly takes weeks) without the slightest cognitive jar. Certain bits made me laugh to the point of tears, but the final scene, a nighttime, overhead shot of a (stationary) marching band playing “Volare” on the Spanish Steps, took me straight to the tears. Just thinking about it afterward, I could feel my face go a bit rubbery. Judy Davis has all the best lines. One of them appears in the trailer: when her character’s husband, played by the filmmaker, preens about his IQ of 156, she tells him that he’s “figuring in euros.” In an even better line, when he brags that his psychology can’t be made to fit the Freudian scheme, she agrees: “You have three ids.”

About Les Adieux à la Reine, my response was more complicated; I was certain that there was much in Benoît Jacquot’s film that I felt going over my head. Such as the dahlia that the central character, Sidonie (Léa Seydoux) a young woman who reads to Marie-Antoinette (Diane Kruger), is asked to embroider for the queen, even as the roof is caving in on the régime. How does Sidonie feel about the unpopular queen? I was never quite sure. I came to feel that I wasn’t expected to be sure. The film is a meditation of sorts on still-controversial aspects of French history. It might be thought of as a masque, if so many of its scenes weren’t shot in dull backstairs locations. The Galerie des glaces figures in one shot, as does the staircase in the Petite Trianon. The queen has a tête-à-tête with her favorite, the princesse de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen) against the background of some very opulent satin upholstery, and Ms Kruger herself is the finest Marie-Antoinette yet to appear in film (if you ask me). But this is not a movie about luxe. What it does capture (I imagine) is the claustral, anxiously gossipy world of the great château in its final days as the seat of government. Nobody really knows what’s going on — a state of affairs that would plague France for years to come.

***

On Sunday afternoon, I attacked the overflowing basket of magazines. I read only five periodicals with regularity: The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, Harper’s, and Vanity Fair. Several times a year — Sunday was one of them — I wade through several issues of BBC Music, a publication that drowns me in information and guilt when consumed in this manner. I ripped out five or six pages from four issues; the next step is to order the CDs written up thereupon. Several hours seemed to pass in this manner. Then I picked up Vanity Fair, and quickly concluded, what’s the use. Every page informed me that I have lived my life to no purpose; I shall never be one of the great and good who glitter so handsomely from its pages. I’m beginning to feel that keeping track of the great and the good is beyond me.

Reading James Wolcott on the celebrity magazines whose headlines I peruse, bewildered, on the checkout line at Gristede’s, I inched a bit closer to understanding what he calls “the Kardashian Imperium.” As I say, what’s the use?

Friday Commonplace:
Honeymoon Bridge
13 July 2012

Friday, July 13th, 2012

In Tessa Hadley’s new novel, The London Train, fortysomething Paul’s life unravels after his mother’s death. Adrift in London, he finds himself at Heathrow.

It occurred to him that he could go anywhere, right now. There were all those thousands sitting in his account, enough to buy himself a ticket; and his passport was — he checked — still in the back pocket of these trousers. On the way to Heathrow, he had had no thought other than returning with Marek into London after the meeting. But Marek could drive himself. Sooner or later, in the next week or so, Paul had meant to go back to Elise and the girls at Tre Rhiw: that was his real life. But what if he didn’t go back? What if his life continued somewhere else, and was real differently? The lettered shutters spelling out the names on the board flickered over with their soft susurration: Dubrovnik, Rome, Odessa, Cairo, Damascus. His idea wasn’t cerebral; the assault of his desire for it, dropping through him like a current, unhinged him momentarily. He had enough money, even if he gave half to Elise, for a ticket anywhere, and a room when he got there. A room while he sorted himself out. Enough money to get by for a while because he knew how to live frugally.

For ten or twenty minutes, while he dwelled inside this possibility, it was so real that he felt afterwards the unfinished gesture in his muscles, his clenched jaw; he had meant to walk over to the information desk, ask about last-minute tickets, find out where he could go, get out his card from his wallet, pay. He would have to take the van keys back to Marek. It was a door that stood open, through which he could walk lightly, carrying nothing. This was the sort of thing he used to do; something unfinished in him, which had been set aside and forgotten, stepped up to the adventure with fast-beating heart. He imaged himself walking out from a room somewhere, in a few hours, into a different light: to buy clothes, toothbrush, razor, which he would not know the names for. He could find a bar to eat in, or buy food on the street. The place might be dirty and paoor, it might have some ramparts where the population strolled to take the air in the evenings, it might overlook the sea, it might not. Paul felt himself at a pivot in his life, swinging dangerously loose: if he moved, he would go over to the information desk and everything would follow from there. He had only to keep still. If he went, he couldn’t be forgiven, or forgive himself — freedom would carve out an empty space in him forever. A message drifted through his cells, from his bones, that he must keep still. Eventually Marek came to find him.

***

At the end of Amor Towles’s The Rules of Civility, Kate looks back on youth.

It is a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time — by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?

In that sense, life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions — we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep the card or discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have jusst made will shape our lives for decades to come.

Gotham Diary:
Uplifting Inversion
12 July 2012

Thursday, July 12th, 2012

We’re running a little late this morning. Just a little. I thought that I’d be in bed early last night, after such an early start, but I was too elated by the two final episodes of Call the Midwife that I watched after Ryan took Will home after dinner. It took an hour to wind down, for lively memories of Jessica Raine, Miranda Hart, Judy Parfitt and the others to subside sufficiently to allow me to pick up Tessa Hadley’s new novel, The London Train. When I got into bed, I wondered if having been knocked out with genuine anaesthesia earlier in the day would blunt Lunesta’s power, but it didn’t.

Call the Midwife was one of those discoveries peculiar to the Internet Age (a fatuous term, I hope, for the rest of human time). It’s the kind of discovery that you make because it’s so effortless. Having been tipped that Miranda is a a very funny show, you see what “people who bought” it have also bought. The buying, by the way, has been going on at a site run for British consumers; miraculously, it is possible for you, a New Yorker, to buy things there, too. (I still can’t quite believe that, fifteen years in.) You have no idea what Call the Midwife will be like, but you’re willing to give it a go because this Miranda person is in it. Something, some unconscious neuronal app, assures you that the show will be interesting at least.

It takes a few weeks for you to get round to watching it. In the end, you select it from the pile in hopes of being distracted from the inadequacy of a Jell-O diet. And, boy, does it ever come through on that score.

***

Let me tell you the shameful thing first: Call the Midwife made me burstingly proud, at least during the first two episodes (there are six), that I had never yielded to the (very slight) temptation to follow Downton Abbey, because instead of wrapping myself up in the sociologically sordid mixings of aristocrats and their servants, back in the day when aristos had not only had servants but also much more interesting wardrobes, I was hooking myself on a paean to the National Health Service (in its early days, at least, when there was so much less that medicine could do for people, beyond keeping them clean and comfortable and deploying a few new antibiotics), cloaked in a well-oiled drama about well-brought-up young ladies serving as nurse-midwives in London’s East End in the late Fifties. It is, in effect, an inversion of Downton Abbey, because it’s the East Enders who are fortunate: despite their poverty and their ignorant ways, they have all the babies, and they have them right on the show, with an explicitness undreamable in 1957. At the appearance of each newborn, everybody laughs and cries, and so do you. It really doesn’t get more uplifting than that, not on television anyway. 

In this upside-down version of the typical Masterpiece Theatre offering, it is the proper young ladies who serve the working class. They are guided by nuns of an Anglican order who mission is the delivery of children. These nuns are a devout but worldly lot, mostly former proper young ladies themselves but not exclusively: we have the great Pam Ferris to leaven the language (which is very much, by the way, the language of Shakespeare and Keats; instead of prayers and metaphysics, the good sisters spout an English that is more robust than the vernacular without being flowery). Call the Midwife is stocked with many familiar characters, but the deck has been dealt out in a new way. Not entirely new, perhaps; you could argue, I suppose, that the show mixes EastEnders with Brother Cadfael, and tells the tale from the perspective of Pride and Prejudice. But you don’t turn to dramatic series for genuine novelty. Call the Midwife ends with a marriage, but it is a mésalliance. And yet this mésalliance, instead of being unspeakably secret (as indeed the bride’s mother would prefer it to be) is a triumph of love and courage, a marriage that might just impress Aunt Jane herself. It is the only kind of happy ending that does not involve the safe delivery of a healthy child.

Call the Midwife ran in Britain in January and February, I believe; whether it will be broadcast on this side of the Atlantic I have no idea. The DVD is already available at Amazuke, and, according to IMDb, some sort of Christmas Special is promised for the end of the year. If you have an all-regional DVD player, I urge you to order a copy of the show at once.

Gotham Diary:
Procedure
11 July 2012

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

No comment!

***

Well, a little postscript won’t hurt. The procedure didn’t, either. Not that it ever has, really, but this time I was completely anaesthetized. Knocked out. It wasn’t the stuff that they’d used on the two or three previous colonoscopies; I could feel myself sinking into oblivion. But it was very short-term. The procedure was scheduled for 8 AM, and that is precisely when it began: I looked at the clock on the wall, moments before losing consciousness. When I came to, it was quarter-to-something; I thought that it must be ten, but, incredibly, it was 8:45. I don’t recall things happening anywhere near that quickly before, but then I haven’t ever actually looked at the clock before. When it was time to get off the gurney and put my clothes back on, I was a little wobbly for a few steps, but that was hardly surprising, given my age, the anaesthesia, and the fasting. By the time Ray Soleil picked me up, I was fine.

The prohibition on patients’ leaving the clinic on their own is very annoying. We are in Manhattan, after all, where taxis and car services abound. I have snuck out several times before, but this time it would not have been possible: a nurse saw me to the street door, and made sure that the passenger in the taxi knew who I was. Poor Ray — I’d told him that I wouldn’t need him for another hour. But the clinic asked for his number, and they called him while I was in recovery. He scrambled up quickly. As it turned out, Kathleen could easily have picked me up; she was still at home when we got back to the apartment. But we thought, as I say, that it would take longer.

As a veteran of umpteen colonscopies, I want to insist that there is only good reason for dreading the procedure: fasting is a great bore. A great bore. But about the procedure itself there is simply nothing to complain. Not any more. If only a visit to the dentist could be half as comfortable!

***

I hadn’t seen Ray in a while, so we had a lot of catching up to do. During lunch, at the Seahorse Tavern, we indulged in the favorite pastime of redesigning Fossil Darling’s apartment. If only he would listen to us! (But, as Mrs Grimmer says, “People are so queer!“)

***

Later on in the afternoon, I went downtown to fetch Will. Something had come up for his mother, and his father couldn’t get away. Of course they would have managed to get him if I hadn’t been around, but I was around. The car was waiting for us when we came outside, and the driver was by now familiar, having taken us uptown two times before, and we all shook hands in the driveway of our apartment building. Even (especially) Will, who had to transfer a toy bus from one hand to the other. 

Will likes to have a quiet time when he gets home, his mother tells me, and I took full advantage of this when we got to the apartment: I filled a bottle with milk, put on Sean the Sheep, and sat him on my lap. And there we were when Kathleen came home. Kathleen’s arrival signaled the end of Will’s rest period; now he led her on a merry dance throughout the apartment, now out on the balcony, now coloring on the living-room floor. When Ryan arrived after work, Will pulled out a story book about a “shark” and demanded that his father read it to him. Trouble was, the book is in Dutch, it was Ted van Lieshout’s Ik ben een held, with great drawings by Silvia Weve that do, in fact, make the eponym of the third story, “Blauw vis,” look like a shark. I am going to have to work up translations.

We had a quick dinner at Viand, the coffee shop on the corner across the street. When it was time to go, Will picked up his plate of French fries, to take it with. Kathleen worked out a compromise, and wrapped up the fries in a napkin. A few of these, transferred to a small bowl, were actually eaten back at the apartment.

Gotham Diary:
Swan Songs
10 July 2012

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

What will it be like when the day no longer begins with fishing up the Times from the floor of the hallway outside our front door? I wondered about that yesterday morning as I looked through the Business section. (That’s how I begin, giving Kathleen first crack at the First Section.) There was a piece by David Carr on the latest mudslides in the newspaper business. The bottom line appears to be that newspapers have been as badly run as most American industries, and suffer from underfunded pension plans and scary debt service. (Close those goddam business schools before the country goes completely broke!) The peculiar problems of print journalism — competition from Internet media both for readers and for advertising dollars — don’t help, but one imagines that, without those generic business problems in the background, solutions might be more hopeful.

What will take the place of what is now called the “Sunday Review,” the weekly think pages of the newspaper, replete with editorials Op-Ed commentary? That’s what I used to wonder. This weekend, I felt that the replacement had arrived: thinking was giving way to nonsense. The lead story, ”Don’t Indulge. Be Happy,” begins with a subtitle announcing that $75,000 is all the income that most people need to be satisfied with life. When you follow this piece into the heart of the section, two other equally dubious items appear: “The New Elitists” and “Why Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals.”

While the “Happiness” piece is loaded with tidbits of good sense, the $75,000 figure looks very odd in a periodical aimed principally at upscale Manhattanites, most of whom would have to find somewhere else to live on a five-figure income, abandoning, in the process, the restaurants and dry cleaners and health clubs and food markets that currently employ thousands of people to serve the neighborhood, not to mention museum memberships and theatre subscriptions. I’m not saying that happiness can’t be found on $75,000. Not at all. I’m just saying that the mass search for it would kill Manhattan. When I see a story like this one, I imagine writers and researchers who either have not or would not care to share the excitement of living on this island; I suppose that we are lucky, here, that more people don’t. What beggars belief is seeing the story printed in the Times, and not in the Styles Section where it belongs, but in the Sunday Review.

Shamus Khan’s essay on “elitists” reads like something sourced by Wikipedia and a content farm, with perhaps some hasty review of university-level history texts. It is hugely wrong on one major point, failing as it does to recognize that audiences for the city’s vibrant classical-music establishment were nurtured more by the public schools, which used to make a much greater use of the city’s artistic resources, than by any socialite philanthropists. (It’s worth noting that those public schools also transported generations of students from low-income backgrounds to six-figure careers — miserable wretches!) Khan falls for a widespread solecism about culture: that it is always “popular” and that people find what they like on their own. This is a picture of the arts in which education has no role — a very convenient premise for conservatives who wish to reduce education to vocational school. Printing such stuff is a disgrace to the Times.

***

By the time I got to the rubbish about conservatives and liberals — no wonder conservatives dislike paying taxes, if they’ve found happiness on $75,000! — I had run out of indignation. I didn’t have to read the piece to be shocked; the byline took care of that. Arthur Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute! To grasp the utlity and reliability of such a person’s remarks on this issue, I ask you to imagine my devoting the rest of this week’s blog entries to the Greatness of Me. I will tell you how super I am, and I will back it up with findings from studies that I have personally conducted. I have never met a happy conservative man in my life. Smug and anxiously sarcastic, yes. Happy, no. (It’s like a bad cologne.) There are many conservative women, right here on this island, who maintain an appearance of happiness, but it depends too much upon disciplined disregard for the happiness of others, not to mention colorists’ fees that would easily gobble up a quarter of that $75,000, to strike me as genuine.  

One thing that the “Happiness” piece got right: Happiness and generosity — open-heartedness — are constant companions.