Archive for November, 2015

Gotham Diary:
Manlie Constancy
December 2015 (I)

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Monday 30th

Kathleen said, this morning, “I had a headache for most of the day yesterday, but I didn’t tell you, because I could tell that you were having a bad day.” Really? We talked about it for a moment, because I thought that I’d been more or less fine until the smoke alarm malfunctioned, in the late afternoon, and its unstoppable shrieking threw me into a momentary panic. But Kathleen saw through my good behavior. “You were sad.” And I might have been; we often misunderstand our own emotional climates. I should say rather that I was frightened, that I don’t feel safe, that, much of the time, I should rather not know what’s going to happen next, because, now that I’m an old man, it’s going to be meaningless to me. Worse, I’m meaningless to it. And that’s just the part about “safe” that isn’t material, that doesn’t involve loss of electric power or running water, things that I worry about somewhat inordinately, but also helplessly.

I often wonder how long I shall have to live before I make an impression on my grandson that he will carry with him through the rest of his life, instead of relying on stories from his mother. That worry immediately brings up the much closer anxieties associated with flying out, in just a few weeks, to San Francisco and back. Greatly foreshortening this dread is Kathleen’s trip to Sydney. She will leave this Thursday, and be gone for a week. That fourteen-hour flight from Los Angeles — what an insane, unnecessary risk! That’s how I feel it, even though I know that the feeling is unreasonable. Aren’t feelings usually?

My sleeping pill didn’t work last night. I have my theories as to why (they’re reassuring), but I also have recollections of a very bad hour. My fears, which I have compressed into a few lines here, burgeoned and blossomed and luxuriated with nightmarish density, and it seemed that death would be the only way to wake up. Hasn’t anyone my age lived long enough? Must there be more? Another unreasonable feeling, but for a while it was stronger by far than my fear of flying.

There were two more hours of wakefulness. The pinpoint of my consciousness would not relent. But the agony subsided, as it always does, and finally settled into a melancholy that made me very grateful for the warm and comfortable bedclothes.

No, it was my impression that I was doing well yesterday afternoon. We had a very late breakfast, and then we settled into the end of the living room by the window, where Kathleen stitched (not the best thing for her headache, perhaps) and I put down “the book that I’m reading” — in this case, a book about Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie Chotek, as told in a manner that would not be out of place in Vanity Fair — and picked up Donald Frame’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays. I read “Of Books” and “Of the Art of Discussion” (as Frame has it). Then I located a book that I haven’t yet read, Saul Frampton’s book about Montaigne, When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know that She Is Not Playing With Me? In the chapter that mentions, without quite discussing, what Frampton calls “Of the Art of Conversation,” I discovered the word “proxemic.”

The proxemic sense is a faculty we have largely lost or become unconscious of since the Renaissance. But it is an awareness that was second nature to people of Montaigne’s time, what might almost be called the sixteenth century’s sixth sense. [...] Montaigne’s boast that Henri de Navarrre slept in his bed when he visited his house might stirke us as a slightly embarrassing assertion, but for Montaigne there could be no clearer expression of the closeness of their amitié.

“Of the Art of Discussion” struck me as a thorny, typically freestyle presentation of Montaigne’s ideas, their bearing on what we could consider “conversation” shifting into and out of focus. I should have to re-read the essay before saying anything general about it. But I do think that Frampton is right to make a point of the “proxemic” nature of friendship, the most intimate relationship that can be discussed in words. This spatial or physical intimacy is a precondition, chez Montaigne, for conversation. Several times, Montaigne mentions ostentatiously learned people who distance themselves by way of special robes and windy utterances; such would-be authorities are not interested in conversation. Montaigne also complains about the deadly sports that men play, such as jousting, that can cost lives (as, for example, that of Henri II); the implication is that conversation is the game for him.

But opportunities for real conversation are rare. Montaigne never got over the loss, early in life, of the great conversational partner, one might almost say love, of his life, Étienne de La Boétie, even if he never abandoned hope that another man might come along to take his place. Montaigne spent a great deal of time alone at the top of his tower, surrounded by the books to which he makes constant reference in the essays. Were the essays a substitute for conversation? It seems to me that they begin as such. As one finds ones pace, my experience tells me, the dissatisfaction of faute de mieux passes away entirely, and the essay becomes something that has little or nothing to do with conversation. But the project of writing things down would probably never be undertaken if good conversation were always on tap. I suppose that, for those of us who do write essays, there is a persistence or intensity of thought that no conversation could tolerate.

Who can read Montaigne, these days? There have been very good books about Montaigne lately, Frampton’s among them, along with Sarah Bakewell’s excellent How To Live. But it is obviously much easier for today’s reader to read these books through than to dip into Montaigne himself. After all, Montaigne wrote a very long time ago. His French is not as archaic as Chaucer’s English, but it is not as accessible as Shakespeare’s (not to mention the French of Racine or Voltaire), and although the content of his thought speaks to us whenever we can grasp it, its flow is pre-modern. As how could it not be? The Essays as a collection is the edge of the cascade over which writers have been flying ever since, each generation learning a little more about how to organize ideas in a piece of writing. Before Montaigne, every writer was an authority, setting out to tell you what to learn, not to provoke you, as Montaigne does, to think your own thoughts. Yes, conversation was his model, and almost any literate conversation, even today, would, if transcribed verbatim, be as difficult to follow as the most dense of Montaigne’s pieces.

“Proxemics” again: we may, as Frampton thinks, have lost our sense of this faculty, but it is still the case that being physically proximate makes face-to-face encounters more powerful (even if that power purrs gently) than the plethora of virtual contacts in which so many people seem to be sunk today. Indeed, one test of friendship, which I think everyone is at least unconsciously aware of, is whether physical proximity adds anything of value to an acquaintance.

And then there are Montaigne’s references, which are really nothing less than the points in his intellectual universe. It is not our universe, certainly. The Latin classics, some more recent historians — in “Of Books,” these range from Froissart, a friend of Chaucer, to Guicciardini, a contemporary of Machiavelli: Montaigne did not have to read mountains of books to consider himself an educated man. We are supposed to know who his “authorities” are, but Horace is no longer the common possession of gentlemen everywhere, as he was in the later centuries of the ancien régime; and very, very few people with degrees from the very, very best schools have read all of The Aeneid or The Metamorphoses in Latin. For that matter, I fear, very few people have read Montaigne, at least since some mandatory exposure as students. How interesting it would be to have some Big Data about the number — the mere number — of readers who spent more than an hour reading Montaigne in this calendar year.

The essay as we know it is no longer a substitute for conversation, because it is not only one-sided but broadcast: I write not to make a point especially salient to one reader but to make everything that I have to say intelligible to many different readers. Perhaps it would be better to say that that is the skill of the essay, the techniques that writers have developed since Montaigne’s day, to achieve his ends more clearly and more quickly. (Readers have developed corresponding techniques of comprehension.) This is not to say, however, that Montaigne is primitive. He may be the first, he may still be somewhat cru, but he is génial — engagingly brilliant. He is very much worth the effort.


Tuesday 1st

One day this weekend — I forget whether it was Friday or Saturday — I read most of the new issue of the NYRB, boom boom boom, feeling guilty about going through a box of chocolates all at one go. Everything was good, but one piece stuck out, probably because it makes a point that I’ve tried to make, too. That it was made by an eminent historian of science certainly gives it superior credibility.

Steven Weinberg’s “Eye on the Present — The Whig Interpretation of Science” takes up Herbert Butterfield’s celebrated critique of progress-accented history (“history is written by the winners”) and argues that it cannot be allowed to apply to the history of science. Progress-accented history (my term) highlights developments in the past that adumbrate or foretell arrangements that the historian regards as successes of his own day. Whiggish historians, to pick an easy example, are far more likely to see Magna Carta as an adumbration of today’s liberal democracy than their more objective colleagues, who will try to tease out what the Charter meant at the time to the barons who forced it upon King John. Whig history winds up telling us more about ourselves than about the past. The objective historians whom Butterfield admired tell us more about the past, which is, after all, the whole point of history. Losers can be just as important as winners.

The history of science, Weinberg insists, is different. Being right is everything. In the course of his essay, Weinberg says some important things about what being right actually means.

Weinberg cites the work of the late David Lindberg, a historian of science who shared Butterfield’s scruples. Lindberg:

it would be unfair and pointless to judge Aristotle’s success by the degree to which he anticipated modern science (as though his goal was to answer our questions, rather than his own).

Weinberg replies, “To me this is nonsense.

The point of science is not to answer the questions that happen to be popular in one’s own time, but to understand the world. Not that we know in advance what kinds of understanding are possible and satisfying. Learning this is part of the work of science. Some questions like “What is the world made of?” are good questions but are asked prematurely. No one could make progress answering this question until the advent of accurate measurement of chemical weights at the end of the eighteenth century. [...] Other questions like “What is the natural place of fire?” or “What is the purpose of the moon?” are bad in themselves, leading away from real understanding. Much of the history of science has been a matter of learning what sort of questions should and should not be asked. [Emphasis supplied.]

It is the final statement there that interests me. The central problem of science, the first step that determines everything else, is knowing what questions to ask — and, especially, to recognize those questions that are premature. This calls for a mastery of ignorance, as Stuart Firestein has shown in his brilliant book on the subject (Ignorance: How It Drives Science). Paradoxically, we have to know what we don’t know. To put it more messily, we have to be aware of all the different things that we don’t know, and then we have to figure out which areas of ignorance are more approachable, given what we do know, and which are less.

In other words, progress in science is far more problematic than it appeared to be to the geniuses of the Nineteenth Century, for whom each new discovery seemed to present the next question that ought to be asked. For a while, the sequence of great discoveries (and their subsequent practical applications), reeking of “progress,” seemed to inhere in the nature of science itself. But it was a windfall. The measurements that Weinberg mentions set scientific inquiry on a new course; measuring everything in its turn profoundly altered our understanding of the world — and also of our capacities to alter the world. Eventually, however, everything that could be was measured. “Progress” slowed. What got it going again was a new alteration: the theory of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics posed a new set of questions, which in turn revealed new things to be measured.

The history of science began as nothing more than a narrative of theories and discoveries that began with Copernicus in astronomy, Galileo in physics, and a swarm of brilliant experimenters, working for the better part of a century, in chemistry. The narrative’s first sentence declared that everything “understood” prior to these pioneering figures was wrong. Then it marched through the several tracks of discoveries, showing how each notable figure built on the work of his predecessors. The practice of science constituted the history of science, which was little more than a committee organized to celebrate the progress of science.

Small wonder that this approach to the more or less recent past appealed to scholars in the newly-developed “human sciences.” Our modern way of doing history was one of the first of these. Formerly, history was a narrative sequence of great events, most of which featured great men. While these events influenced subsequent events, they were shown as taking place in the eternal present of unchanging human nature. In Gibbons’s hands, the Byzantines of the Nika Riots (532 CE) look pretty much like the Englishmen of the Gordon Riots (1780) — riots are riots.

With the fall of the ancien régime in 1789, however, a world-order relating kings to priests to people was utterly swept away. A different approach to history was called for, and one was found in prestigious concept of scientific progress. Henceforth, it would be very difficult to convince anybody that the fall of the ancien régime was a bad thing. It was this progressive history that Herbert Butterfield sought to discredit. “Whig” historians were English writers invested in a narrative that traced liberal democracy from its unlikely beginnings in illiterate Germanic “war bands” to the triumph of the Victorian Parliament. Factors tending to impede this wonderful development — bad kings and worse popes — were portrayed unattractively.

Interestingly, this back-to-the-future approach began to be rejected by historians of science even before Butterfield’s critique appeared. The modern history of science began by erasing that first sentence, about all prior science being wrong. It took a deep interest in the natural inquiries of Greeks and Romans; it examined astrology and alchemy. It struggled to explain why the empiricism that powers most scientific work today did not appeal to ancient and medieval thinkers. In the middle of the last century, Thomas Kuhn set out to demonstrate that progress doesn’t exist even in science. His theory of paradigm shifts refuted the rather simple-minded idea of science as mere problem-solving. The origins of modern science were shown to be much murkier than a troupe of brainy heroes shouting, Fiat lux!

Nevertheless, the history of science, as Weinberg argues, is not really like the history of humanity. Nobody knows what the point of humanity is — Weinberg would call that a bad question, and I certainly agree. But we know what the point of science is: to understand the world in a demonstrable way. The point of science is not to produce plausible explanations of phenomena. To put it better, science has rejected armchair theoretizing. It demands proof, replication, verification. To be recognized as “scientific,” a theory must be falsifiable: it must be capable of being disproved. So the history of science must evaluate every would-be contributor to science with these criteria in mind. In the process, someone like Aristotle largely fails to measure up. He is a very interesting failure; he tells us a great deal about the comfortable habits of an ill-equipped intellect. Science may have a point, but the world does not. At the very least, the question what is the world for? is totally premature.

The problem of distinguishing good questions from bad ones is particularly pressing in connection with the degradation of the environment. There are a lot of bad questions out there, and many of them involve a tincture of misanthropy: they want solutions to environmental problems regardless of human cost. They do not regard humanity as a part of nature. We are going to have to be careful to distinguish questions about scientific approaches to environmental repair from questions about human approaches to the same problem, and we are going to need thinkers capable of keeping abreast of both without confusing them.

It often seems to me that cancer remains a killer because we don’t know how to think about it; there is something that we’re missing. In The New Yorker, Jerome Groopman recently assessed the latest theory-of-everything about illness: inflammation is at the root of every malady. (I remember reading not too long ago that the same was said about infection, which is actually not a very different thing. Inflammation is a side-effect of the body’s attempt to defeat infection.) Even if that is shown to be true, it does not immediately offer a solution to the cancer problem; but it would focus attention on the relationship between inflammation and mutation. (It might also show, further along, that understanding the cause of cancer is irrelevant to developing a cure.) And yet, I wonder if the hypothesis could not be shown to be true until the cause of cancer were understood. Happily, I am not involved in the research; at least I know that I don’t know what I’m talking about in this paragraph. But I stick with my intuition: there are good questions about cancer that we haven’t hit on yet.


Wednesday 2nd

Regular readers will be aware that Mozart’s Così fan tutte is a work of art close to my heart. I was given a recording when I was thirteen, because it was recommended to my mother by a Sam Goody’s salesman. Odd as I was, it nevertheless took a few years for the opera to grow on me, but by that time I knew the music backwards and forwards, just as I knew all the music in my record collection backwards and forwards: the relatively few LPs that I had got played all the time. Mozart’s score has held up quite well to extreme familiarity.

What keeps Così fresh for me is the libretto, Lorenzo da Ponte’s masterpiece. Da Ponte is a significant important figure in Italian literature; although Venetian by birth, he was an exponent of what we might call Classical Tuscan. There is a little joke here, just as there always is with da Ponte, because he was so helplessly clever. Classical Tuscan is the official language of Italy, for one thing; for the other, in da Ponte’s hands it resounds not only with a thoroughly domesticated Latin but also with extraordinarily understated learning. Così fan tutte sparkles with quiet erudition.

Take, for example, the marriage contract that Despina, the maid who is disguised as a notary, huffs her way through just before the climax. The new lovers cut her off when she gets to the part about dowries, but she has managed to clear up a mystery of which we were probably unaware. The old lovers, Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Ferrando and Dorabella, mention one anothers’ names all the time, and the men continue to refer to their increasingly unfaithful girlfriends by name throughout the opera, during most of which they are disguised as “Albanians” (think Turks). The impalpable mystery is that, as Albanians, they have no names. They are amanti or crudeli, but they are also anonymous — until Despina reads the marriage contract. From her we learn that these Albanians are called Sempronio and Tizio. These may sound like Italian names, but you won’t find anybody who answers to them, because, as I learned from my readings in medieval law, they are the equivalent of “the party of the first part” and “the party of the second part.” Or, if you like, “Blackacre,” that fictional manor that has changed hands millions of times in the teaching of English property law. If Fiordiligi and Dorabella were more learned, this parade of notional nomenclature would have exposed the deception then and there, but that’s the sly joke. The meaning of the Albanians’ names flies right over their heads, as it does the heads of almost everyone in the audience. I wonder if Mozart himself was in on it.

I came across another little joke the other day, whilst reading Saul Frampton’s book about Montaigne (see above). In a discussion of the appeal of Stoicism to aristocrats, Frampton quotes an emblem from Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britannica (1612).

Amid the waves, a mightie Rock doth stand,
Whose ruggie brow, had bidden many a shower,
And bitter storme; which neither sea, nor land,
Nor JOVES sharpe-lightening ever could devoure;
The same is MANLIE CONSTANCIE of mind,
Not easily moov’d with every blast of wind.

We are to understand that Peacham’s verse restates a cliché — that’s what emblems were all about. The image of the immovable rock rising impervious to the sea would have been a well-worn metaphor, imparted to every well-born young man in any one of Christendom’s many tongues. My authority for this inference is Frampton himself; I’m assuming that there is more scholarship than gratuitousness in his quoting from Minerva Britannica in a book about a French writer.

Here is the beginning of Fiordiligi’s rebuke to the Albanians, when they make their first appearance and claim to be hopelessly in love with the sisters. (It is difficult for me to resist copying the original, but I daresay J D McClatchey’s translation will do.)

Like a rocky fortress I stand,
No wind nor wave may command.
My soul can weather any storm
With loyalty and love.

It is very clear to me now that da Ponte is playing with a well-known trope about manly constancy, putting it in the mouth of a woman who will not live up to it. I expect that many gentlemen in the audience at early productions of Così fan tutte (not very numerous) got the drift of da Ponte’s irony. For me, the current ran in the opposite direction: reading the Peacham, I laughed because I recognized the (later) da Ponte. Which is better than McClatchey:

Come scoglio immoto resta
Contra i venti e la tempesta
così ognor quest’alma è forte
Nella fede e nell’amor.

Now, there are lots of people who find Così fan tutte to be irremediably sexist and offensive, not to say downright cynical — and there always have been. Beethoven, for example, professed to be shocked that Mozart had lavished such beautiful music on so worthless a text. The plot derives from commedia dell’arte frou-frou. Two gentlemen are persuaded by a dirty old man to test their lovers’ fidelity. They tell the ladies that they have been called to war. Having marched off as officers, they reappear as outlandishly turbaned Albanians. Each makes love to the other’s fiancée. One sister’s resistance crumbles pretty quickly; the other’s lasts long enough to make the opera’s second act as hefty as the first. Just as the realigned parties are about to wed, a military flourish announces the return of the officers. When the test is revealed to the sisters, they all but die for shame. The text is not clear about what, if any, order is restored thereafter.

For about a century, Così fan tutte was regarded as a disgrace. When performed at all, it was bowdlerized, so that the sisters knew what was up from the start, and played along. But the opera would not go away. It is now regarded as Mozart’s finest score, for one thing. For another, there is something about this project that caused Mozart to veer from the implications of the title — “women are like that” — to Così fan tutti — “everybody is like that.” Because if the women are susceptible to heartfelt declarations of love, then men are determined to produce them. These boys may imagine that they remain secretly constant, but competition — a masculine weakness — induces them to act, quite persuasively, otherwise. It is not their cynicism that wins over the ladies. It is the sincerity of their appeal, particularly Ferrando’s. Despite what we know about Ferrando’s participation in a nasty stunt, our ears tell us something else.

I have long believed that the state of play at the beginning of the opera doesn’t mean very much; the attachments are somewhat juvenile. (“Matrimonio presto,” says Fiordiligi, reading Dorabella’s palm.) I don’t think that the gentlemen had to work nearly as hard to gain the sisters’ affection when they were officers as they do when they are pretending to be Albanians. There is no flicker of self-recognition in the libretto, no sign that the men have learned anything about themselves — but then isn’t that a sign of manly constancy?


I’ve just re-read Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave. I was very impressed with it the first time, earlier this year; the second reading revealed a masterpiece. If I resist hailing it as Lively’s best novel, that’s only because it is in so many ways unrepresentative of her work. There is an austerity about the storytelling that seems uncharacteristic, perhaps even somewhat experimental. The setting is unusually remote. There is a quite palpable marbling of Jamesian reticence. And the tense, unspoken drama is relieved in perhaps the best dark-and-stormy-night scene outside of crime fiction.

Pauline is a wise old owl of fifty-five. She has made enough of a success of her career as an editor to afford to buy a row of three stone cottages, plumped in the middle of a wheat field, and to convert them from peasant tenements to comfortable weekend retreats. She herself occupies one of the refurbished cottages. the other two have been combined into one unit that Pauline has rented out in the past; this summer, she has made it available, rent-free, to her daughter, Teresa, and her family. Teresa is married to Maurice; they have a toddler, Luke. Pauline has also decided to spend the entire summer in the cottage, which is known as World’s End, and so have Teresa and Maurice.

Pauline knows how to make this arrangement work; she keeps to herself for the most part, working in her study, but she is always available to take care of Luke. She knows that her daughter is very much in love with Maurice, but she doesn’t give much thought to Maurice himself, even though she inadvertently brought them together, when Teresa decided to stand up her boyfriend of the moment and attend Pauline’s New Year’s Eve party, to which Pauline invited Maurice, whom she knew through work. Maurice is closer to Pauline than to Teresa in age, and Pauline seems to have a slight resistance to treating him as a son-in-law.

Until, that is, Maurice’s editor, James, spends the weekend at World’s End with his girlfriend, an intelligent but callow blonde called Carol. Carol’s presence almost instantly resets Pauline’s focus on Maurice. Suspicions fueled by her own unhappy experience immediately preoccupy Pauline. It takes forever for the nature of these suspicions (and their cause) to be made explicit, but the reader knows all about them anyway. As a display of show-don’t-tell, the virtuosity of Heat Wave is arguably unexcelled. The Jamesian wrinkle is brought about by Pauline’s determination to say nothing — more not-telling — to Teresa. She hopes that she is wrong, but she knows that she is right. Eventually, Teresa herself catches on, but Pauline knows this only from her motherly reading of a daughter’s face. The women share one unambiguous reference to Maurice’s conduct, after which Teresa resolves to talk about it nevermore.

The background, while limited, is not austere. There is the lush agriculture that surrounds World’s End. There is the summer of relentless, uncharacteristic sun. There is Pauline’s work, which entails counseling a writer on his domestic problems, which can be openly discussed on the phone. There is Pauline’s old friend and former lover, Hugh, an antiquarian but globe-trotting bookseller. There is even a dash of London. In the book’s middle, there is a good deal of past background, as Pauline remembers life with Teresa’s father, Harry, an historian who now lives rather well in California. The contrast between Pauline’s unhinged misery as a jealous wife and her present unruffled self-possession turns up the tension even more.

Finally, in the middle of a thundering tempest, someone falls down a steep flight of stairs. Is it an accident? Is it a homicide? Since this is not crime fiction, the question is not explored. No policemen conduct investigations; the book draws to a swift close. Nor is the sinner caught in the act; the possibility that there was no sin remains open to doubt — open to doubt, that is, by anyone but a reader of the novel.

As a token of Lively’s low-key bravura, I offer Pauline’s imagination of what it must have been like when Harry and Maurice had their one meeting, at dinner with Teresa.

Harry is twelve years older than Maurice, but he has weathered well, by all accounts. Maurice would have seen in him an unwelcome reminder that he, Maurice, is no longer to be counted among the young, that he has crossed the divide, that he is of Harry’s generation rather than of Teresa’s. He would have felt one of those surges of panic. Would have wanted to distance himself from Harry, to push the disagreeable raw fact to one side. Pauline does not have the same effect on him because although standing in the same relation to Teresa she is a woman, and also a person previously known. Pauline’s age is somehow less relevant. Maurice would have talked copiously to suppress his dismay.

And Harry, looking across the table at Maurice, would have seen a reflection of the self he is leaving behind, the Harry who still had a foothold in youth, who was still — just — something of an enfant terrible, a gadfly to his elders, a subversive element. He would have been reminded that within a short while he could become a grandfather, for Christ’s sake. He too would have talked effusively, and no doubt in the process the two of them struck up some sort of accord, for they are both clever and responsive men. They would have responded to one another, recognized a potential affinity, and recoiled from the idea of it. (90)

Make haste to read Heat Wave. That way, you can have the incomparable pleasure of reading it again.


Thursday 3rd

In the middle of trying to follow the unusually incoherent story of the San Bernardino shootings yesterday, I chanced to read a note that was sent by special adviser David Hart to his boss, Margaret Thatcher, as a coal strike was about to end in 1985.

We are on the brink of a great victory. If we don’t throw it away at the last moment. Much greater than the Falklands because the enemy within is so much harder to conquer.

Thatcher underlined the emphasized words. I sat back in a kind of shock. No surprise; just a deeply reverberant shock. Here was a head of state, affirming the proposition that political opponents are “enemies within.” Not just “enemies,” but fifth columnists, subversives, traitors. What would it mean, to “conquer” such “enemies”?

It occurred to me that such language is categorically inappropriate in a liberal democracy, except when directed at the agents of hostile foreign powers — most certainly not the case here.

What I don’t want to do right now is to generalize about conservatives and their progressive opponents. As it happens, conservatives are far more likely, these days, than progressives are to behave as though they were defending a beleaguered castle. This tendency dates to the beginning of the Cold War at the latest. It has resulted, in the United States, in the near-total breakdown of political conversation, as conservatives cannot be seen to participate in conversation with others. Meanwhile, progressives, having saddled themselves with a perceived need to “look tough” — a look thoroughly at odds with their political projects — acquiesce to the embattled landscape instead of insisting that conservative talk of “enemies within” is itself treasonous. Such insistence might not convince any conservatives to change their ways, but it might very well rouse an otherwise apathetic body politic. But this is the configuration of the moment. It can just as easily be otherwise, as in “progressive” revolutions that damn “reactionary elements.” The point is that demonizing fellow citizens in a democracy — fellow voters — is always wrong. Always.


When I was in school, the two essential characteristics of the sovereign state were held to be monopolies on taxation and violence. To put it quaintly, there could be no robber barons in an effective state, and dueling was also forbidden. Dueling! I should be happy to bring back dueling, if it would put an end to the kind of violence that we’ve got instead. The United States has effectively ceded the monopoly on violence, largely through its failure to restrict commerce in weapons, but also by entertaining the discourse of “enemies within.” Such discourse ought to be suppressed; like shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, it does not deserve First Amendment protection. It is a gross libel that the state ought to punish. Unfortunately, it can be very entertaining. Joe McCarthy demonstrated that sixty years ago; that he was also brought down on television did nothing to check the parade of successors, culminating (so far) in Donald Trump, also a loathsome bully.

That is the worst that I have to say about the Donald. His campaign may very well stir up so much rowdy violence among his supporters that the electoral process breaks down — who would dare to cast a vote, if polling stations were surrounded by snipers? — but I am not going to accuse the man of treason. He may be an idiot, but he is not an enemy. He is, I’m sorry to say, a fellow New Yorker — but there you are.


I am in the middle of several thick books at the moment. One of them is Chapman Pincher’s Dangerous to Know, the autobiography of a Fleet Street scooper written shortly before the author’s death, at the age of 100. Pincher retails an anecdote about Winston Churchill that belongs up there with the famous, if apocryphal, exchange with Lady Astor.

Lady Astor: If you were my husband, I should poison your coffee.
Churchill: If you were my wife, madam, I should drink that coffee.

According to Duncan Sandys, who was Churchill’s son-in-law, and present at the meeting, Churchill became so exasperated with General De Gaulle during a wartime discussion that he slammed the table and shouted, “Si vous m’opposez, je vous get riderai!

It’s the little things in life.


On the evening before Thanksgiving, Kathleen and I went to the theatre. We went to see Old Times, a Harold Pinter play from 1970. We went to see it because of the cast: Clive Owen, Eve Best, and Kelly Reilly. I’ve wanted to see Eve Best onstage for some time, but it was my huge crush on Kelly Reilly that overcame my resistance to Pinter.

In the theatre — the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater on 42nd Street — there was a dreadful noise. It turned out to be a motif whipped up by Thom Yorke of Radiohead. It looped over and over at an uncomfortable volume. Kathleen tried, with some success, to drown it out with her Nano.

Then the house lights went down, and the drumming yielded to the sound of the surf, with seagulls. Actually, the surf sounded more like a roller coaster to me.

Then strobe lights flashed in our eyes, several times. Most annoying.

There were the three actors, arranged on the set: two chaises longues and an armchair. Also two tables, serving as bars and places to stow cigarettes. There was a lot of smoking, which dated the play enormously. Young people can have no idea what it was like, to say something Delphic, strike a pose, and exhale a plume of smoke. As long as the smoke was visible, nobody could reply. The smoke was part of the remark; to interrupt it would be rude. In this production of Old Times, the smoke took the place of those inexplicable Pinter “beats,” or pauses, that filled his plays with bogus portentousness.

The play lasted a few minutes more than an hour. As we walked out, on our way to Pigalle (our favorite after-theatre restaurant), Kathleen seethed with relief. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there.” She was a “philistine,” she insisted; she had no idea what the play was about. It seemed to me that the play was “about” a certain disaffection that was fashionable in the early Cold War period. It was vaguely Marxist and definitely Brechtian. It was too comme il faut, really, to mean anything. You struck a pose, and exhaled a plume of smoke. That’s what it was about.

I’d never have had the courage to think such a thing when the play was new, had I seen it then. Had I seen it then, I’d have tortured myself for being too thick to understand the symbolism. Seeing it now, I thought — not unamused — quel crock! But cheeky; I had to give it that. While Kathleen was longing for it to be over, I had a pretty good time.

When we got home from dinner, I brought up some reviews. Ben Brantley liked it, with reservations (I’ll get to them in a minute). Marilyn Stasio, who has been covering crime fiction for The New York Times Book Review for as long as I can remember, wrote about the play for Variety. She liked it, too. She called it “sexy.” I couldn’t see that. It seemed about as sexy as a really bad hangover to me. In The Observer, Rex Reed didn’t like it. He came right out and called Old Times Pinter’s “worst play.” His remarks captured Kathleen’s sentiments almost perfectly.

Now that I’ve read several “interpretations” of Old Times, posted at the Wikipedia entry for the play, I understand Brantley’s reservations better. It seems that everybody in the play is dead! Or, in the alternative, that the two women are the split personalities of one woman. There may be more, but I had to stop there. The point is that these interpretations point to sombre production values, which obtained, it seems, at the premières. The Roundabout Old Times was not sombre. It was exuberantly lugubrious — yes. The backdrop was a gigantic pink and purple suggestion of those open-shutter photographs that show stars wheeling about Polaris. The furniture was maroon, with steel and wood notes. Somewhat off-center at the rear, there was an enormous chipped block of ice. It can’t have been, actually, but that’s what it looked like. One of the critics called it “the bathroom door,” which made me laugh. It just stood there. At the beginning, Eve Best was planted in front of it, her back to the audience; she was on stage even though her character (Anna) had not made its entrance. While she stood there, Clive Owen and Kelly Reilly bantered about the latter’s (Kate’s) friends, about whom Owne (Deeley) seemed to know more than he was letting on. The idea that such twaddle could hold an audience’s attention seemed startlingly ludicrous. I could see why the production values had been turned up to the “circus” setting.

By the way, actor Douglas Hodge — philistines will recall his memorable portrayal of Tertius Lydgate in the 1994 Masterpiece Theatre production of Middlemarch — directed. Whatever that means.

It was huge fun, really. The actors performed with vehemence, which is always exciting. And I was laughing, a lot. Perhaps more than was well-mannered. It was like watching someone trying to get away with old tricks. Old Tricks! That’s what the play really was. Did Deeley really meet Anna at a party twenty years ago, sitting across the room from her and staring up her dress? Did Deeley sob in Kate’s bedsit? Has anybody seen Odd Man Out? Did Eugene Ionescu write this play? Who the hell, as Kathleen put it, cares?

The audience did not jump to its feet. The applause was somewhat warmer than merely polite, but not quite enthusiastic. The actors took what seemed to be a very muted bow. I applauded lustily, leaning forward in my seat. If they noticed me, they probably thought I was drunk; I’d been the one laughing inappropriately. I felt chastened. I wanted to shout, Allez, courage! I wanted to thank them for making such an entertaining show out of this prehistoric carcass. They were the reasons I’d come, and they had not disappointed.


Friday 4th

At least once every two weeks, I have to strangle the impulse to write, “This entry will be brief.” I know from my experience of letters begun with that announcement that, quite often, it won’t be true. After a few rushed, summarizing sentences, I’ll dilate on some tangent in a goiterish paragraph that, because, hey, I’m being brief, sprawls incoherently over the back of my mind. I may be able to grasp, later, what I was trying to say, but then again I may not. I might as well have said, “This letter will be rude and ill-behaved.” The promise of brevity might belong at the beginning, but it ought to be the last thing written.

For it is really an attempt to reassure myself. Don’t worry about having nothing to say, or no time in which to say it. Just make an appearance and then quietly step off-stage. Show that you’re alive and still thinking, and then wish everyone a good weekend. Hi. I’m alive and still thinking. But I have a terrible hangover. Not from the wine, although I did drink too much of that as I sat up, waiting for Kathleen’s flight to land in Los Angeles. The hangover is a kind of exhaustion — I’m always talking about being tired, aren’t I — that follows prolonged suspense. Follows? The suspense is very much ongoing. Kathleen is somewhere over the Pacific; she won’t land in Sydney until late this afternoon, my time. Then she’ll be in Sydney, surrounded by people I’ve never met (well, maybe one or two, but not to remember), for a week. She’ll leave on what’s Friday in Australia, but spend most of what’s Friday for me in the air, landing an hour or so into Saturday. If she were on a moon mission, I could not be more displaced.

I expect I’ll settle down a bit over the weekend. There’s plenty to do, and I actually did some of it yesterday. I catalogued four shelves of hidden books — books ranged behind other books. The shelves were not particularly long, just a little over two feet. But there were a few books that I’d been looking for. When I’m looking for a book, it’s almost guaranteed that I won’t find it. I’ll remember that its spine is blue when in fact it’s red, or white with a blue patch. In order to see books that aren’t readily visible, I have to get the books in front of them out of the way. I have to put them somewhere — in a room with few empty surfaces. I usually move a handful, and then shift the remaining books from side to side: not a very good method, I assure you.

The books are not very intelligently shelved to begin with. The books behind the books, I mean. They were placed where they are in the bustle of settling into the new apartment and emptying boxes as quickly as possible. They have sat in their disorder for a year. In four or five instances, I have bought new copies of books that I couldn’t find. One turned up yesterday, Ivan Morris’s translation of Sie Shonagon’s Pillow Book. I had looked for it last summer, I thought. Not very carefully, though, because there it was, yesterday, at the back of a shelf that’s one of the most active in my library. “What do you mean by ‘active’,” you will ask; I feel a tangent coming on. Before swerving, I’ll just say that I’m glad that I couldn’t find it, because I wouldn’t have discovered Meredith McKinney’s lucid translation if I had.

The big bookcase in here is what’s called a breakfront. The central section, which is about four feet wide, protrudes by eight or nine inches from two narrower flanking sections. Because this room is so small, and I had to put my writing table somewhere, even though I never write at it, the central section of the big bookcase is almost inaccessible. The flanking section to the right, however, is easy to reach, and it has become a default bookcase for new books that are neither fiction nor history. Nor poetry nor drama. This is where you’ll find Joan Didion’s nonfiction, and Marilyn Robinson’s. A couple of books about the Duchess of Windsor — history, arguably, but really not. Julia Child’s correspendence with Avis De Voto — how well I remember falling in love with Avis De Voto. Jonathan Franzen’s nonfiction. Criticism by James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn. 7 Types of Ambiguity, Lucas on Style, and Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal. Maeve Brennan, and a clutch of books about New Yorker people. A row of Oxford World’s Classics (which used to be in front but got put in back yesterday). These are the books that I paw over.

(On the left flanking section, I’ve put all the Penguin Classics and the NYRB editions. Also the Loebs. I don’t really need to catalogue these because for some reason that I’d like to understand better, I remember that a book is a Penguin Classic better than I remember how to spell the author’s name. Ditto NYRB.)

There is a sort of shelf just for Hannah Arendt. “What do you mean by ‘a sort of shelf’?” But we shall not go there. Not today. Lined up together, Hannah Arendt’s books, and the books about her, are a domestic librarian’s nightmare, because some are much taller than the others, and to range them on a proper shelf wastes a lot of space. So: “a sort of shelf.” I’ll explain it some other time. Hold your breath.

I kept note of the books’ locations in Evernote. Each shelf, or section of a shelf (front or back — in the big central section, there is also a middle), has its own note, and in the note there is a table. I could wish that Evernote’s tables were more flexible. (I believe that they are, in their Apple incarnation.) You can’t alphabetize the rows, and you can’t insert rows in the middle of the table. So I have to line up the books, in alphabetical order, so that I can fill in the table in order. I’m not really sure that alphabetization is all that important; I’ve used it in the past because it gives me an idea of which end of the long central shelves to excavate when in search of a title.

But searching Evernote is easy-peasy. I just tested it. Pretending to be looking for Josef Pieper’s best-known work, I typed “Leisure” into the search box, and voilà: up came the note (C3R) with its table, and the search term highlighted in yellow (Leisure, the Basis of Culture). If I type in “Sontag,” two notes are returned, because her critical work is in one place, and the first volume of her diaries in another. Mind you, I’ve done only a few shelves so far.

I worked on the library as a way of keeping busy. I also did two loads of laundry. I made spaghetti alla carbonara for dinner. Then I sat down with Chapman Pincher and nearly finished his book, sipping wine as I read. I tried to follow Pincher’s somewhat complicated argument that Sir Roger Hollis, sometime head of MI5, was a Soviet agent. In the end, I was persuaded, but I was mindful, too, that the kind of British treachery that was exemplified by Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, et alia, originated in the deepest ideological murk, and flourished during the War, when Britain and Russia were allies. It was also fueled by a strange brew of contempt for and resentment of Americans, who within the space of a generation displaced the United Kingdom as top dog — and who had the temerity to think that they spoke English to boot! It’s very complicated, and I can well understand why the British establishment has dragged its feet about outing its traitors.

I saved the last two chapters of Dangerous to Know for later. Kathleen called; I took my pill; I slept through the night. It’ll be a few hours before I get wound up again. And, on that note…


Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Points of View
November 2015 (IV)

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

Monday 23rd

Although I spent almost all of yesterday in bed, and felt rather better than I had the day before, the cold that won’t go away bayoneted me early this morning. “Bayoneted” is not a word in my standard vocabulary, but I’ve been reading about the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, and the word comes up fairly often. The book is Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottoman Empire. Oh, that it were. What it really is is a military history of Ottoman participation in World War I. Lots of primary source material, drawn from diaries in all the relevant languages. Aside from the interest of comparing the gung-ho but secular and even witty style of the Allied sources with the pious entries of the Turks, which suggest that they were still living in the time of the Crusades, a little of this sort of thing goes a very long way with me. I’m sure that the book is very good of its kind, but I ought to be reading something called The Transformation of Turkey: 1900-1930. If it exists. My experience with The Fall of the Ottoman Empire feels something like trench warfare, except that nobody is shooting at me and, when I’ve read a chapter, nobody takes it back. But still. I am, however, determined to win this battle.

After the failure of the August offensive, Lord Kitchener went out to Gallipoli to have a look for himself. The terrain into which he had poured tens of thousands of men (hundreds, really) turned out to be a lot rougher than he had thought. Well, gee. There you have that ghastly war in a nutshell.

I ought to be reading something more cheerful, I know. I tried the current issue of The Nation earlier. It’s devoted to “Fall Books,” and there are four or five really long pieces. I read the one on James Merrill, a poet whom I wish I liked more than I do, and the one on Walter Benjamin, a thinker whom I shall never understand. I do wish that Benjamin had made it across the Spanish border in 1940, and made his way to the United States. He seems to have been an unusually vulnerable man, and I always want someone to come along and protect him.


Whilst abed, I tried to digest what I’d read, in The New Yorker, of the thinking of Nick Bostrom. As best I can make out, Bostrom is a Swede who runs an institute at Oxford. He wants to live forever, but/and he wants to make sure that artificially intelligent machines do not interfere by becoming smarter than he is and either enslaving or exterminating him. He calls himself a philosopher, but he devotes his time to keeping the AI conversation going. The difficulty is that the men who are involved in this project (creating machines that are at least as intelligent as human beings) fall into two groups. One believes that the achievement of their aims is very distant, while the other believes it to be close at hand. The first group doesn’t see a need for immediate concern about mechanical usurpation. The second expects that problems will be dealt with effectively as they arise. Insofar as I have a position in this discussion, it’s aligned with the skeptics. While I have no doubt that we already have the skills required to produce murderously destructive robots, it also seems clear that we don’t really know what human intelligence is. How can we think of designing it?

Nor is there any reason to doubt that intelligence, especially at the higher levels, is just as personalized in human beings as everything else is; no two people are bright in quite the same way. Most honest people, moreover, will readily confess that they have no idea why some things occur to them; some accidental or chaotic agency seems to be working in the mental background. I know as a writer that if I had to consider every word, or even more than a fiftieth of the words that I use, I should not be able to think — it would be impossible to keep up with the elusive notions that lure me onward through the links in my brain. Then there is what’s called “emotional intelligence.” Every time I read a philosopher on the subjects of sympathy or empathy or just plain caring, it is clear to me that the writer has never had to look after an infant for a week.

I’ve been giving immortality some thought, recently, and I’ve decided that it is just not on for human beings. Humanity is an ongoing development — one in which, by the way, I hope that we are today in the earlier stages. Humanity develops by the succession of generations. Old ones die off; new ones, in Hannah Arendt’s marvelous conception, “invade.” It used to be, I think, that things did not change much from one generation to the next; nor was human life rich in personal options. But still, each generation left its own trace, however slight, on what it inherited from previous ones. To me, this is rather like the genetic changes that, in theory anyway, make us more adaptable to life on Earth. Lately, of course, the development of human society has evolved at a pace many orders of magnitude faster than that of genetic alteration. Also far more unevenly, as William Gibson quipped about the future. It would be nice if we could slow down a bit and work on distributing the future more evenly. It would be even nicer if we could get serious, as a global society, about reversing environmental degradation. But the “we” who would see to these objectives is largely not yet born. If it were up to those of us alive today, I don’t think that we’d get very far. Hardly anybody alive today has been raised to deal with the problems that face us.

Is Nick Bostrom aware that, personal conceit aside, his desire to live forever privileges his experience, or the experience of our times, over that of all past and future generations? How can he believe that any human being alive today possesses virtues that ought to be preserved for all time? What’s so special about now?


Raffi Khatchaduourian, in The New Yorker, tells us that Nick Bostrom is “arguably the leading transhumanist philosopher today.” I sit here wondering what kind of a response transhumanism would get from Barry Lopez. Lopez is an acclaimed nature writer, which means that I’ve never read very much of his work, because nature writing defines its niche by excluding everyday human society. Also, I take a very traditional view of nature: it’s dangerous and uncomfortable. Great natural wonders — waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains especially — always make me uneasy, because all I can think of when I behold them is the violence to which I know my home planet to be prone. My interest in flora is confined to those that provide nutrition or ornament. And, as for fauna, as to which nutrition is also an important matter, I find no species other than my own to be genuinely ornamental.

Barry Lopez has the lead piece in the new issue of Granta, the theme of which is portended by its title: “What Have We Done.” It is very short — five pages — but it is packed with a very interesting wisdom. I believe that, while you can forget just about anything, you can’t methodically unlearn anything, so I was warmed and even a bit exalted by Lopez’s concise but lyrical account of working back through and against the habits of mind inculcated in any intelligent member of modern Western society. He speaks of traveling with “indigenous people,” something that I believe he has done a good deal of in his life; he refers to an encounter with the sight of a bear devouring a caribou. When he was young, he says, he analyzed, summarized, and prioritized his experiences in the wild, just like any good observer; but he learned from his native companions to avoid breaking experience down, to resist talking about it immediately, and to regard it as the unfolding of life in which he himself figured, as part of the unfolding. The moral is that the reduction of experience to information is short-sighted and, if persistent, possibly degrading. I couldn’t agree more.

Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilization, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world, patterns that are ever present and discernible, and which incorporate the observer, undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or meaningless in it. The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit somewhere.

As I say, hear, hear! But I get that sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world every time I walk up and down East 86th Street. The complexity that unfolds every minute of every day, very little of it witnessed by me, on a strip of high street that I have known for thirty-five years, can be overwhelming when I contemplate it from the thick of the crowd. I hope that I am not sounding like a wannabe urban anthropologist. I don’t photograph the interesting creatures, or make note of the difference, say, between those who are out shopping from those who are on their way to the Museum. I’m aware of all these things, that’s all. I’m aware of as much as I can sense. That is, I try to be. The therapy lies in putting my feet on auto-pilot and then forgetting why I’m on the street or — much more likely — what I’ll do as soon as I get home.

Some people are impatient with being human. Some people are impatient with other people’s being human. If there were alternatives, I’d understand.


Tuesday 24th

A few words about Paul Torday, the author, most notably, of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

I hope that you’ve seen the movie. I liked the movie so much that I got a copy of the book. But I haven’t read it. I understand that it is not quite as sweet as the movie, but I look forward to reading when I unearth it. I bought another book by Torday at the same time, More Than You Can Say, and I did read that. It was very readable but odd, as if following a genre with which I was unfamiliar. I remember it as being quite harum-scarum. The central figure was an ex-army officer with a weakness for gambling (and an insouciance, I recall, about liquor). He got into terrible scrapes as the story progressed, and seemed to have a lot of enemies. The main thing is that he lingered on in my mind, thanks to the fictional detective Cormoran Strike, who often reminded me of him. When I was through with the latest Strike novel (Career of Evil, written by Robert Galbraith/J K Rowling), the Kindle Store suggested another Torday book, and I snapped.

This book was nothing like More Than You Can Say, a feature, I was to learn, shared by all of Torday’s seven novels. It was called Bordeaux. (I prefer its British title, The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce.) It tells the story of a man called Wilberforce in reverse. The four “vintages,” as the original subtitle has it, are dated 2006, 2004, 2003, 2002. In 2006, Wilberforce is a figure of black comedy, a man so addicted to the great wines of southwestern France that he has gone through a small fortune. He has also gone through his body’s ability to withstand an intake that averages four or five bottles of wine a day. He has somehow evaded cirrhosis so far, but only to contract something called Wernicke’s encephalopathy.

The 2006 vintage begins with Wilberforce stumbling into a restaurant and ordering two extremely rare and very expensive bottles of 1982 Pétrus. There are hints, scattered like shards of glass across a marble floor, that Wilberforce is a troublemaker.

I liked to go to restaurants early. It meant that I could stay in them a very long time, if I felt like staying — for example, if there were several different wines on their list which I wanted to try. Then again, if there was only one wine I was interested in, I liked to eat my dinner and drink my bottle or two of claret in and be out again before the place filled up and I risked being distracted from what I had come to taste.


It was odd how often these difficulties arose when I ate out.

Wilberforce’s focus on wine and on a small rotation of memories is humorously monomaniac at first, like the ramblings of one of Evelyn Waugh’s more irascible aristocratic coots, but those hints of trouble, in addition to the worrying amounts of alcohol (“my bottle or two”) that our solo diner is consuming, keep the froth off the fun. In fact, the atmosphere is too charged with impending horror — Torday is very good at giving explanations that are obviously incomplete — to be that of a black comedy. Surely something truly awful is about to happen. Where else can a book that begins in this manner go? (A glance at the Table of Contents answers the question: backwards.) Wilberforce hallucinates; he sees a woman called Catherine and tries to sing Bach with her. Eventually, inevitably, he passes out.

The vintage ends perhaps moments before Wilberforce’s demise, or at any rate his mental decomposition. But we don’t really know that, the first time through. We might be forgiven for thinking that Wilberforce has escaped from Britain to Colombia; we leave him on a rainy street in Bogotá.

At several points in the first part, Wilberforce has bothered by a string of capital letters, TNMWWTTW. This, he senses, is some sort of acronym. Now, in Bogotá, he remembers what the letters stand for. It involves the Catherine person, and it explains why she might be a hallucination. The next part, 2004, explains a great deal. We are more aware than we were that Wilberforce’s life has a “before” and an “after,” and that the “after” isn’t working out as well as it might have done, given Wilberforce’s wealth and his happy marriage. He has already become addicted to the wine that, just a few years before, he knew nothing about and didn’t even like. The question that the novel presents is whether the wine has so deformed Wilberforce that he is capable of two irremediably horrid (and quite criminal) acts, or whether he was always wicked. If put another way, it is clear that volumes of wine eventually disinhibited Wilberforce. But was the evil that gripped him a pre-existing part of his character?

The novel does not answer the question; rather, it enlarges upon it. In the last two parts, we see Wilberforce’s “before.” This is where the reverse chronology pays off: the Wilberforce’s future casts a dark shadow over his past. We have been given shards of information about this past, but now they are presented coherently. Wilberforce is something of an ingénu. He was brought up by foster-parents. They never adopted him — did they know something? We’re told that the foster-mother really wanted a child, something the father wasn’t keen on at all. Once she had her baby, however, the foster-mother lost interest, and merely went through the motions. Wilberforce was saved, if that’s the word, by growing up to be a maths whiz. In due course, he became an excellent software developer, and, with the help of a much more personable assistant, developed a very successful firm.

As the firm grows to a delicate size — it must either sell itself to something larger, or go public and expand — Wilberforce is distracted, and eventually (in my view) altogether undone by his contact with some members of the local gentry. They live “up on the hill,” above the city where Wilberforce toils. Wilberforce stops in at the shop of a decayed gentleman who lives by selling off the contents of his forebears’ cellars. Through this man — who does seem to adopt Wilberforce, and possibly with reason — Wilberforce meets a group of young ladies and gentlemen, one of them heir to a great estate, another the beautiful Catherine. They take him up as an amusement, something the “before” Wilberforce can no more imagine than he can enjoy wine; taking up people as amusements is a pastime unknown outside the circles of the leisured. Catherine, however, develops a genuine interest in Wilberforce; it’s possible that she’s attracted to his ability to work hard. Unfortunately, it is this very ability that contact with the swells undermines. There are more than a few moments when Torday seems most interested in showing how treacherous Britain’s upper classes can be to outsiders. At the end of the book — but the beginning of his story — Wilberforce overhears himself being described as “Mr Nobody.” It is heartbreaking to follow his meditation on this insult, which he resolves with the “realization” that he can be “Mr Anybody.” Like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, Bordeaux doesn’t come to and end, but shatters instead.


When I finished Bordeaux, pretty much in one gulp, I googled Torday and, along with a bevy of photographs, I saw that he was a writer. That caught my eye. Torday died almost two years ago, of cancer. He learned of the diagnosis shortly after his first novel was published, in 2006. That was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen — a surprise hit. Torday had always wanted to be a writer, but his commitment to the family business prevented him from pursuing his literary interests until what seems to have been semi-retirement. It was his experience on a committee to clean up the River Tyne that inspired him to spin a bureaucratic satire from one of his favorite pastimes, fly-fishing.

The cancer diagnosis seems to have galvanized Torday’s determination to write as much as he could, and when he died, in 2013, he left seven novels and the fragment of an eighth — just about one per year. None of the novels did as well as the first, and although I haven’t read Salmon Fishing, I’d venture to say that the others were disappointing at least in part because they simply weren’t like it. Nor are they like anything else, especially if you’re talking genre. One writer who does come to mind is the very successful Michel Faber; like Faber, Torday is unembarrassed about moving seamlessly from genre tropes to what might be called philosophical meditations — if they weren’t so lively. Equally unfraught is the shift from realism to — well, something else. The something else in Faber’s Under the Skin, for example, is presented as deadpan reality. Torday’s The Girl on the Landing is not quite so unequivocal about the old magic of the Scottish hills, but an incarnation of that magic plants a foot in the real world at the end.

Paul Torday’s father and grandfather emigrated from Hungary in the Thirties. They settled in the North, and established an engineering firm. Paul was born in 1946, and read English at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is said to have written two novels in his youth and to have put them away. It would be interesting to see them, just for glints, if any, of the writer’s peculiar verve. Torday clearly read a great deal during his executive life. The one problem with his fiction is that he did not develop — probably did not bother to develop — a prose style as distinctive as his sense of story. Sometimes, this enhances the oddness of his narratives, as rather strange doings are bracketed by sentences that move with the workmanlike familiarity of beach books. But Torday is too interesting a writer to warrant fussing over greatness.


Wednesday 25th

I decided to read The Girl on the Landing next because Julian Fellowes, the writer of Gosford Park and the household god of Downton Abbey, was said to have bought the film rights. It would be amusing to imagine how he might shape a screenplay from the book. And it might have been, had The Girl on the Landing not been so gripping. Imagine screenplays, ha!

Actually, it wasn’t all that gripping at first. I began it late at night, and got through the first two chapters in a somewhat sleepy state; I would have to go back and reread much of the first chapter. The narrating voice alternated between a husband and wife linked by a rather listless marriage. The man needed one last chance at love; the woman needed a provider. It didn’t sound very promising, but a minor mystery had been planted. Visiting friends in Ireland, the man, Michael Gascoigne, is drawn to a small painting, an interior scene in which a woman in green emerges from a murky background. Complimenting his hosts, he is surprised when they recognize and even disparage the picture, but declare that there is no human figure in it. Sure enough, a second look the next morning backs them up. The man concludes that he was deceived by the darkness of the room.

But of course the woman in green is a portent, or rather a summons.

When the fun was over — great fun while it lasted — there were two very interesting things to think about. First was a meditation on psychotic delusions. What if they weren’t delusions? It turns out that Michael Gascoigne, at the start of the novel, is under heavy medication. Without the drug, wryly called Serendipozam, Michael would be dangerous to himself and to society. We hear this judgment from two of his doctors, and both accounts, retold by Michael, understandably present the doctors as would-be jailers. Serendipozam makes Michael “normal,” but it also makes his marriage rather listless. This is, of course, the complaint of countless victims of various mental illnesses, from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia: the drugs relieve them of the worst sufferings, but they also take the joy out of life. Existence is muted somehow; feelings are dampered. At the beginning of The Girl on the Landing, Michael sounds like a stereotypically correct English gentleman (Scottish, actually), a committee member at his club and a good-enough sportsman. He is exactly what he ought to be, and nothing more. Or so it seems. It is also the case that he has not “been himself” lately.

Dare I tell you why?

The other interesting thing about The Girl on the Landing is how marvelously well Torday handles the first-person voice. As a rule, I find first-person narrative to be a mistake for several reasons, one of which, almost always, is that ordinary people are obliged to sound like writers. They are given insights that people who are not writers rarely articulate. But Torday overcomes this problem ingeniously: one of his narrators is not ordinary, and the other is — a writer! True, Elizabeth Gascoigne, Michael’s wife, and a journalist who covers residential real estate, is no novelist, but her fluency is precisely that of an intelligent writer for glossy magazines. She uses the clichés of her trade with weary irony. She has “settled” for the life that she leads, and can’t conceive of anything better.

Torday’s mastery goes beyond providing his narrators with plausible diction. Each chapter is written as if the narrator were keeping a diary, capturing experience as vividly as possible but without knowing what’s to come. This allows for Michael and Elizabeth to change. Neither, at the end of the book, is the person he or she was at the beginning, and the transformation is right there in what they say. Michael and Elizabeth have gradually — and then, not so gradually — awakened, come to life. For a while, this new life is joyful for both of them. But joyfulness is just a stage for Michael; he keeps on changing, which is of course where the suspense and horror come in. Elizabeth comes to love passionately a man whom she couldn’t be bothered to leave. Then she is racked by divided loyalty — ought she to save him, or to save herself? (Torday’s solution is nothing if not gentlemanly.) The sadness in both voices at the end is not an unhappiness, but rather warm regret for a brief encounter.

Along the way, the woman in green makes more vivid appearances than as a figure in a painting. At the end, she shows herself to someone who is not Michael Gascoigne.


How do you make a joke about Turkey and Thanksgiving? An American joke it would be, one with no foreign currency. We Americans have our Thanksgiving holiday. This year, we also have occasion to think about Turkey as well as turkey. Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane. On two earlier occasions, Turkey complained about such planes flying across its borders; on the third, it fired. Russia, which swaggers through geopolitics these days with an insouciant recklessness that would have brought the Cold War to a swift climax, replied with vague menace. The two countries have now promised not to make war on one another. I can’t believe that such promises are worth very much. If Russia eventually responds with an escalated attack on Turkey, then NATO will be obliged to take notice. “Playing with matches,” Kathleen muttered, as she invariably does about President Putin’s antics.

A propos of the Schleswig-Holstein war with Denmark, Bismarck quipped — and, while I’m not making this up, I’m not checking it out, either — that only two people in world fully understood the legal complexities surrounding the sovereignty of the disputed regions. He was one of them; the other was in a madhouse. The Syrian morass is not quite so complicated, but it is definitely beyond the understanding of the West’s vernacular citizens. The temptation to seize a part of the problem and take it for the whole is irresistible. Here in America, it has morphed — and I use the cartoon word deliberately — into a fear of Syrian refugees. It’s as if day were night.

Take away the violence, and Belgium looks to be no less a mess than Syria. I’ve cast my eye, throughout the life of this site, on the fracturing of Belgium, a broken consortium of two cultures under one king that has been without an effective central government for about eighteen months. The Belgians have dealt with this by managing things locally, which works well enough so long as the locale isn’t Brussels. Brussels is a Francophone downtown surrounded by Flanders, and cooperation between those who speak different languages is pretty meager. Most failed states are afflicted by weak or non-existent security forces, but that is not the problem in Belgium. The problem in Belgium is that terrorist threats are always somebody else’s problem. It’s hard to know to what extent the lockdown in Brussels is intended to foil the plots of Moroccan residents.


We were going to have a small Thanksgiving dinner here, just for three, but Kathleen decided that I shouldn’t be “running around,” so she made a reservation at a good restaurant around the corner. On Friday, we’ll go to an even better restaurant, down in the Village, to celebrate the first anniversary of the wedding of Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil. There’s something on for Saturday, but nothing very demanding. But then, this cold of mine makes everything demanding. I can’t tell how much of it is the cold and how much of it is “retirement.” How do you retire from doing nothing? I’m working on it.

I hope to be back here on Monday. I wish everyone on the receiving end a warm and happy Thanksgiving; I hope that everybody everywhere has a really good book to read. I remind everyone that the world is made up of small places with gripping stories: try to hear as many of them as you can.

Gotham Diary:
After Bataclan
November 2015 (III)

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Monday 16th

Last night, I said to Kathleen, “Are you warm?” She said, “I’m very warm. I’m hot.” That’s when we knew I was sick, or something. I was cold. A dead sort of cold — the kind that’s internal. It’s true that I was sitting in a draft, but I was also close to the HVAC, which ordinarily keeps me quite toasty. The other thing was that I hadn’t eaten since four, but still wasn’t hungry at ten. Kathleen told me to scramble some eggs, so I did, and then I took a couple of Advil, and, when I felt a little better, I took a shower. I got the bathroom steamy first, and when I stepped out of the shower I turned the faucet to hot again. Having avoided the chills, I crept back into the bedroom and eventually into bed. I awoke in the night less often than I usually do. This morning, I felt rather pale. After reading the Times, I piled up the pillows, got back into bed, and watched a movie.

It would probably be a mistake to talk about the movie right now, but I have to say that it made me laugh — a lot. I had never heard of it until I scrolled through Saoirse Ronan’s credits, but I’d ordered it from Amazon. I have acquired a lot of odd movies that way. Watching an unknown comedy while resting in bed was obviously the right thing to do, so I put it on, and I cried at the happy ending. I’ll tell you more about it later.

On Friday night, I got out my phone to call Kathleen at eight o’clock, as we had agreed, when I saw a message from my daughter. “Stay safe.” This is how I came to learn about what had just happened in Paris. Since I thought that Megan must have been worried about something going on in New York, I called Fossil Darling before going online, and he told me. He had heard about it from Ray Soleil. I went ahead and called Kathleen, and she knew about Paris, too. When she got home, I replied to Megan’s text.

Kathleen and I had a lovely, utterly quiet weekend, the last for two months perhaps, as she’s going to be traveling, the holidays will intervene, and then we’ll be traveling, to see Megan and her family. We had a nice Face Time talk with them yesterday; Will surprised us by sitting still on the sofa for some considerable time. His parents looked great. I can’t wait to see them. At the same time, I feel a kind of despair at the onset of the holiday season. Only a kind of despair. Despair lite. Chalk it up to this strange cold, this cold without congested sinuses or a sore throat. Just: cold. I’ve felt much worse about the prospect of Thanksgiving/Christmas before.

What happened in Paris was horrible, but I can’t help feeling that it happened because the people who are supposed to make sure that such things don’t happen are even more horrible — horribly ill-equipped to do their jobs. They don’t know how to lead, they don’t know how to govern, they don’t know how to inspire, they don’t know how to nurture prosperity for all. And they don’t seem to care about any of that. They know how to lock down; they know, or they think they know, how to seal the gates to their empyrean remoteness. That, they care about. This is how Rome falls.

And now it will be ISIS everywhere. Most Americans will probably imagine — and imagine it so clearly that no amount of news reporting will correct their misapprehension — that a detachment of suicide bombers was dispatched from somewhere in the Middle East, infiltrating its way to Europe amidst a horde of refugees. One man appears to have done something like that. But the other terrorists were settled Europeans. My firsts question was, Why didn’t this happen in Germany? My quick answer was, Because Germany doesn’t have a large settled population of ISIS-sympathizing young men of Arab descent. The Muslims in Germany are Turks. It is true that, through his inactions, the Turkish president has opened his government to the charge of allowing ISIS fighters into southeastern Turkey, to fight the enemy that Turkey and ISIS have in common, the Kurds. But I haven’t heard anything about unrest among the Turks in Germany. Then again, what do I know? I didn’t know that there are disaffected Arabs in Belgium. I had never heard of Molenbeek, “a poor section of Brussels,” according to the Times, “that is home to many Arab immigrants and that has been linked to past terrorist attacks.”

But I am almost certain that most, if not all-but-one of the terrorists will turn out to be European citizens. This is reassuring in one way: Europe is not being invaded by foreign warriors. But of course it is dreadful news in every other way, because the only way to deal with terrorist citizens is to revoke their civil rights before they do anything. And this is something that non-terrorist citizens are often unwilling to wait for governments to do. As we know from our experience in the South, terrorist acts need not even occur for citizens to “respond” by taking matters into their own hands. I am not going to spell out any of the scenarios that come to mind, but I will remind readers that the Arab populations of Europe are for the most part confined to concentrated housing projects — ghettos of a sort. Europeans have a long history of inflicting devastation upon ghettos, and government protection of the inhabitants of those ghettos has quite often failed to do them any good.

The worst that we on the other side of the Atlantic have to deal with right now is an awful smell in the room — the stink of relief that all thoughtful observers of politics felt when we heard the news from Paris: Now, at last, the presidential campaign is going to be run by the grown-ups. But, really, the grown-ups are no better. <Insert fart.> The Republicans are sure to lie, I’m afraid, about the maximum power that the United States has in its fight against ISIS. It cannot put men on the ground, not unless they are all clones of the natives. Its hands are tied when it comes to allying with anyone who is on the ground in Syria or Iraq, except for the Kurds — and who knows where working with the Syrian Kurds (quite effectively, as it happens) will take us when the Kurds occupy the whole of northern Syria, right on the Turkish border. It seems that we cannot support the very determined government of Bashir al-Assad, because to do so would make our friends in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates unhappy; serious American strategists are perhaps positively happy to leave that job to the Russians. I’m not sure that American voters want to escalate any kind of conventional warfare. But I expect that American adolescents of Arab descent are going to be subjected to intense and often wrong-headed scrutiny. I hope that their parents will find a social solution that blunts such interference while also making sure that disaffected kids are closely monitored from within the community. Most of all, the grown-ups must effectively and demonstrably refute the terrible ISIS claim that it and it alone speaks for them and for their families. Some readers might consider it illiberal of me to say so, but I’m trying to speak from the vantage of history.


Now, maybe, it’s okay. The movie that I watched this morning came out in 2007. It was Saoirse Ronan’s first film (she had appeared in two TV series). She was twelve or thirteen (both, perhaps) when it was shot. The movie was written and directed by Amy Heckerling, best known for Clueless. It is called I Could Never Be Your Woman, which is unfortunate. It sounds like the sort of thing a man would say, except, of course, for the “woman” part. And naturally the woman, played by a Michelle Pfeiffer who has never looked lovelier, or nearly as lively, changes her mind, and decides to be the guy’s woman after all. The guy is Paul Rudd. They meet cute on a set — she’s a writer and producer, and he’s an actor — and no sooner click than they begin lying about their ages. She, as the mother of the snappy young teenager played by Ronan, is obviously somewhat older than he is. He doesn’t care, but this is not reckless indifference. Rudd, who has a gift for making things look easy (even being dumb), projects a certainty that his character, Adam, has actually given the age issue some serious thought and then decided that he doesn’t care. All without breaking a sweat; he’s just that kind of guy. Rosie (Pfeiffer) doesn’t really care, either, but she is vain enough not to want to look ridiculous. The probability that she will look ridiculous is insisted upon by her closest confidant, who turns out to be Mother Nature herself, as played by Tracey Ullman. Mother Nature has a pet peeve: baby-boomers who want to change everything and never to grow old. As a sly wink to boomers in the audience, Heckerling has draped Ullman in an outfit last seen on — Mother Nature, the one who didn’t like to be fooled by Chiffon Margarine. The new Mother Nature pops up at the oddest times, and it turns out that she’s addicted to snacks. I found the shtick hysterical. By the way, Pfeiffer is almost exactly eleven years older than Rudd, and no more. Big deal.

I haven’t seen Brooklyn yet; I’m giving it a chance to show at a theatre nearer me than Bloomingdale’s. Otherwise, I can’t wait. I’ve read the novel twice. I’ve stopped reading Ronan’s interviews. I don’t know why I expect her to say something intelligent about Colm Tóibín’s novel. Ronan is a real pro; she knows what readers want to hear, and she gives them that. It must make life much simpler. But it leaves a sticky feeling.


Tuesday 17th

The new issue of The Atlantic arrived yesterday, and I promptly read Hanna Rosin’s piece about the suicide clusters at Palo Alto’s two high schools. I’d heard about these before, shortly after our visit to Palo Alto last spring, during which I saw one of those Caltrain grade crossings that provide such a convenient way of doing away with yourself. Having thought about them then — Why would bright students with even brighter futures kill themselves? is not a question that I can imagine asking seriously; anyone who does sincerely ask it is, in my view, a dim bulb with no business teaching or caring for young people — I took about two pages to come up with an answer. It is not really an answer, but just a hookup, a way of connecting one apparently isolated phenomenon with a number of others.

People pay fortunes for ordinary houses just so that they can send their children to the excellent public schools in Palo Alto. These parents have been through good schools themselves; some high percentage of students have at least one parent with an advanced degree. It takes Rosin a bit longer than it ought to to blame the suicides on the parents, whose displays of affection are often conditional upon good grades. It’s not so much the immense pressure to do well in school as the qualified warmth of family life that leaves students feeling worthless. Well, duh. It’s no surprise, by the way, that the two high schools, Gunn and Palo Alto, have excellent STEM programs. The “values”taught in these schools tend to be measurable in points, and competition for points takes the place of personal growth. Students who want to know what’s important in life must make do with what the curriculum tells them. Parents are proud to be able to give their children this kind of education — and they expect to be thanked! It’s a testament to our will to survive that entire classes do not line up on the Caltrain tracks when they hear the toot of a horn.

But the crazy parents of Palo Alto are not alone. They have just carried the so-called American Dream as far as it will stretch. Perhaps I ought to call it the American Pipe Dream. In this pipe dream, there is no such thing as luck.

Americans have constructed a culture in which the idea of luck is firmly planted in the world of gambling. The country is dotted with what might be called metropolises of luck. Las Vegas is of course the largest, but you don’t have to go Nevada anymore to get lucky.

Elsewhere, however, the acknowledgment of luck is confined to a whispered cry. “Good luck!” we shout as quietly as we can, whenever someone embarks on a challenge. But it would be an insult, upon our friend’s meeting that challenge successfully, to pat him on the back and congratulate him on his good luck. No; what we say is quite the opposite: we say, “I knew you’d do it!” Knew! We confine luck to uncertain situations; the resolution of these uncertainties exorcises luck. Luck can’t have had anything to do with the fact of success or the fact of failure.

And why should it be otherwise? You do not have to subscribe to luck. Luck does not send out monthly bills. Luck does not show up ten years later like a crying woman with the babies that you abandoned. Luck leaves no trace. And Americans have taught themselves not to see it, at least where it is not glaringly obvious, as in a semi-miraculous “save.” What Americans see is personal accomplishment. I did it. My way is just the cherry on top.

Now, it is quite true that you have to be ready for good luck when it comes. You have to command the skills and the resources that will allow you to make the most — which is often the same as making anything at all — of a lucky break. You have to keep yourself in good shape. But you have to learn that your lucky break may never come. You have to find satisfaction in standing at the ready. Luck is protean. Sometimes it falls on you like a brick; sometimes you can sense that it’s just around the corner. For really good luck, you have to be in the right place at the right time, but the where-and-when is often unclear.

My point, however, is not to catalogue the myriad manifestations of luck. It’s enough to mention just one: to be born healthy to loving and capable parents. Or not.


It is generally believed, I think, that what used to be called progress has reduced the role of luck in life. If your mother gets good pre-natal care, and you are born in a decent hospital, you will probably come out all right. But I should say rather that advances in science and technology and so forth have usually been designed to favor lucky outcomes. That is the proper way to think about it. Within the past fifty or sixty years, we have learned as no previous generations ever could that some luck-maximizing techniques, while successful in the short term, have terrible long-term consequences. Let’s just point to environmental degradation and move right along. Consider Alzheimer’s Disease. I don’t think that anybody knows yet whether this terrible disorder is appearing more frequently than it ever did before because (a) people are living longer and surviving former health-threats or (b) there’s something in the water, something toxic in our environment. Either way, it is clear that we do not know very much about maximizing lucky outcomes in this area. We’re as helpless as our distant ancestors.

I expect — I certainly hope — that this will change. That will continue the trend of our civilization, which is to spread good fortune by amplifying the general readiness to make the most of it. It will also continue the corresponding trend, which is to minimize exposure to bad luck. Once upon a time, not too long ago, almost everyone was born to be a peasant; only the thinnest crust of human beings enjoyed life without having to worry too much about subsistence. Even when cities began to swell with people who were neither rich nor poor, most people were peasants. That did not change until the Industrial Revolution, and then only in certain places. There are still pockets of humanity in which it hasn’t changed. And of course the Industrial Revolution created its own breed of poor people. There is still plenty of bad luck going around.

People who don’t want to acknowledge these truths like to mutter about “socialism,” as if the effort to ameliorate the general welfare required the impoverishment of the successful. It is certainly true that many efforts to improve social welfare have failed, or led to unintended results; people who don’t like to acknowledge the immense role of luck in life have been making the most of these mistakes for thirty years or more. They have blackened words like “socialism” and “welfare” so much that the words are no longer useful, or even really meaningful — and yet no new words have emerged to take their place. Well, words don’t just emerge on cue. New words reflect new thinking, and I haven’t seen much of that. (By which I mean that too much effort is going into devising new solutions to old problems, and not enough into recognizing new problems, which are, given the human condition, simply old problems in new configurations.) The thing to remember, however, is that the Enlightenment program that has inspired governments since 1789 has always had as its first objective the increase of general welfare, and that its best successes have depended on empowering people to make the most of lucky breaks, as well to avoid the worst of unlucky ones. No government has succeeded in the long term by the mass redistribution of property. We know that society doesn’t work if material goods are simply handed out gratis. But we must also remember that every personal accomplishment is assisted by good luck, even if it is only the good luck to be born healthy to loving and capable parents. In fact, there are many things that no man, however full of himself, can be said to have done for himself.


I was thinking of a monument to luck. What would it look like? Something like a war memorial, I suppose, something to humble the present generation in the enjoyment of its prosperity. Unlike a war memorial, however, it would remind us that luck is everywhere all the time. You might still trip and fall as you cross the street to get a closer look at it, but the competence with which the city has been paved makes this unlikely. You go through life, through an invisible cloud of good and bad chances, helped to avoid the bad ones and to take the good ones by the world that we have all built together. You feel safe, and although safety can lead to complacency it is nevertheless the necessary precondition of civilization. In our civilization, you are unlikely to have the misfortune to encounter someone who thinks it funny to stick out his leg and trip you as you approach the monument to luck. Everything, good and bad, is still possible — but the bad things are less likely, sometimes vastly so.

What on earth would the monument to luck look like?


Wednesday 18th

If the Secretary of State calls ISIS “Da’esh,” then so shall I.

I notice that concern for the Syrian refugees has mushroomed, at least in my part of the Web, since the Bataclan massacre. A good deal of this increase owes to indignation, directed at American states that have determined not to accept refugees. But it seems to me a kind of displacement, as if the refugees were the top-priority problem. Pressing as the humanitarian crisis is, the real problem remains the civil war from which the refugees have fled. Syria is the top-priority problem. Happily, refugees are easier to deal with; it’s a matter of making available adequate but temporary food supplies, medical resources, and shelter — an effort to which almost everyone is capable of making a contribution. What to do about Syria itself is not simple. Indeed, it is so far from simple that I question the wisdom of advancing an opinion.

When I wrote on Monday about the constraints on American power in Syria, the source of my observations was a piece by the formidable Patrick Cockburn, in LRB 37/21, dated 13 October. Cockburn’s conclusion is that all the participants are both too strong and too weak, creating an Iraq-like stalemate in which only the US/Kurdish alliance in northern Syria (along the Turkish border) is making any headway (against Da’esh). On the larger scene, however, America, like Wotan in the Ring, is hampered by arguably ill-advised promises. For all our talk of spreading democracy &c &c, the plain truth is that we have been backing the Sunni side of the Arab division since practically forever, certainly since 1979. We are all for democracy, so long as Shia leaders aren’t involved. We have this commitment painted on our forehead and stitched on the back of our T-shirt; it really doesn’t matter what comes out of our mouth. The only way to convince the Shia that we were truly neutral would be to turn against Saudi Arabia (which by the way is funding, however obliquely, Da’esh). Our alliance with the rotten satrapy of Riyadh is more than just another bad hangover from the Cold War; it is an iridescent token of our grievous sins against the environment.

As Cockburn points out, Bashir al-Assad, however unsavory, is the de facto spearhead of the Shia cause.

Shia states across the Middle East, notably Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, have never had much doubt that they are in a fight to the finish with the Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia, and their local allies in Syria and Iraq. Shia leaders dismiss the idea, much favoured in Washington, that a sizeable moderate, non-sectarian Sunni opposition exists that would be willing to share power in Damascus and Baghdad: this, they believe, is propaganda pumped out by Saudi and Qatari-backed media.

Who can doubt this? Has such a “Sunni opposition” emerged, even with all our nursing, in Baghdad?

I do wish that President Obama would change his mind about Assad, at least to the extent of recognizing that getting rid of Da’esh is a lot more important — especially given that getting rid of Da’esh is something that we’re actually on the road to achieving. I never thought I’d live to see the day of effective American airstrikes, but our cooperation with the Syrian Kurds has been so effective that Jonathan Steele, writing in NYRB LXII/19, has devoted an entire piece to it, dated 4 November and entitled “The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!” This, too, is something that anyone who wants to get a grip on Syria ought to read. Steele recalls witnessing the first instance of the alliance in action, as American planes supported Kurds in the fight for Kobani, a town quite close to the Turkish border, in September 2014.

This was the first sustained engagement between US airpower and ISIS, and reporters from across the world who were camped just inside Turkey filmed ISIS artillery strikes and the much larger plumes of smoke caused by US bombs and missiles. With most of Kobani’s civilian population fleeing into Turkey, cameras also braodcast the first pictures of vast streams of Kurdish Syrian refugees escaping northward, a harbinger of the broader flight of refugees [that] was to come a year later. Meanwhile, Turkish tanks and armored personnel carriers patrolled the Kobani border within a few hundred yards of the battle and did nothing.

Emphasis emphatically supplied. The Bataclan massacre puts a sharp twist on the scene that Steele recalls. Turkey may not be aiding Da’esh, but it has yet to hinder it. This has got to stop. This time, not just the West but all the world’s powers must prevent another Armenian atrocity. Turkish President Erdoğan must be persuaded to seize the chance to prevent Turkey’s making another black spot that has to be denied. Everyone has an interest in defeating Da’esh; only Turkey wants to hold on to Kurdistan. European leaders must be especially vocal here, taking care to remind Obama that friendship with Turkey ought not to enable the umpteen-thousandth instance of an American ally’s gross misbehavior. Most especially, the United States must be strongly discouraged from weakening its support of the Rojava Kurds (that’s what they call their strip of Syria) in the event that Turkey asks it to.

It was floated in the Times somewhere this morning that the Bataclan massacre was intended to avenge setbacks that Da’esh has been experiencing in northern Syria. The act of revenge is supposed to raise the question whether the fight against brutalist reactionaries in Syria and Iraq is more important than a hundred or more Parisian lives. Unfortunately, it is.


Over the weekend, I read two novels. They were both quick reads. Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, a 1950 novel by Barbara Comyns that NYRB has just reprinted, is a hoot, an unlikely picaresque romp through the ruined pavilions of the jeunesse dorée of London’s Twenties. Ruins, because it’s now the Thirties, and everyone is broke. The free spirits are merely untidy and irresponsible. I don’t want to say much about this lovely little thing, because everyone ought to come to it fresh and unawares. (The first paragraph gives a good indication of what’s coming, but in the very act of reading it you become almost as faux-carefree as Sophia herself, and so you don’t “go home and cry” until later.) The book is funny even when it’s bleak, a stunt that we associate with cynical Slavs but that, here, pipes out of the mouth of a rather sweet English twentysomething. I was reminded of Wilde’s infamous paradox about needing a heart of stone to keep from laughing at the death of Little Nell. More on Comyns anon.

The other book was Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, which I was not going to read. The nerve! I thought. Here’s this guy who is young, attractive, brilliant, a major literary agent before he learns how to shave — and he trashes his whole life with drug abuse and whatnot. This is followed by the obligatory: he rehabs and repents, plus of course he writes two memoirs. Then he puts his whole life back together, almost as if nothing happened, and he writes a novel, which is a big success. There’s something wrong here, I thought.

And there may well be, but it isn’t in the novel. The novel is very good. Here is the sentence from Adam Mars-Jones’s review in the LRB that changed my mind about reading it.

The book’s success derives less from any individually overwhelming moment than its strength of construction, the author’s skill in drawing out a filament of molten narrative and twisting it as it cools to form a satisfying pattern.

That’s not how I’m going to put it, but it’s close. The characters in Did You Ever Have a Family are interesting enough, but they’re interesting as people in relation to the other characters. They make good friends and even better enemies. It goes without saying that they don’t even understand themselves, much less anybody else. There is no hero or heroine, no truly central figure. I don’t mean to compare Clegg to Austen and Tolstoy, but I think it’s fair to say that his novel does not have the profoundly intimate power of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn or Nora Webster, each of which studies one Irishwoman. But it is just about as well-written as they are, and there is something about Clegg’s web of humanity that feels new. As you know unless you live under a rock, the novel begins with a terrible explosion that kills four people, two of them bound to be bride and groom later the same day. There are questions about this explosion that Clegg circles, but does not answer, until the very end, and, when he does answer them, the effect is not that of a whodunit but just the opposite. Everybody did it. What Clegg has given you throughout the book is an intricate weave of causations, any one of which might have averted the disaster had the choice been otherwise. Clearly, however, nobody did anything remotely in the nature of planning a big boom. Everybody caused the explosion, but nobody intended it. When you consider all these chains of causation, the very idea of free will dissolves into chaos. That might be what Mars-Jones means by “molten.”

This chaos is something that we’re all aware of in life, and something that we’re always talking about clarifying, although none of us would know where to begin. We say that things are confusing, or that they’re complicated, but in fact the net effect of countless deliberate (and half-deliberate) decisions is chaos. Ordinarily, this chaos doesn’t cause any harm; it just washes away with everyday oblivion. Clegg does an excellent job of demonstrating that it is there just the same. The power of Did You Ever Have a Family derives from its proof that we are connected not by our intentions but by massive, unimaginable complexity.

Two of Clegg’s characters don’t believe in chaos, either. Both of them take full responsibility for the disaster, which is ridiculous but that’s how we are, that’s how strong our need to make sense of things is — especially bad things. (Had she lived, I’m sure that the bride-to-be would have made a third self-guilty party.) You find your head nodding — of course they feel that way; I would, too. This is another thing about the novel that feels new. I’ve read books in which the reader is made complicit in the action, pulled down from the observer’s lofty, disinterested plinth and plastered with a gooey sense of responsibility for what happens. Then We Came To the End, by Joshua Ferris, is a stunning example. Here, however, the engagement is milder but somehow deeper. We’re observers, but we’re looking at people like ourselves — Clegg’s capacious collection of first- and third-person reports works a very inclusive magic — and we’re so close to them that when their connections are shown to be wildly unpredictable, despite all the best intentions, we’re almost undone by the shock of understanding. There is an overflow of sympathy, empathy, sheer fellow-feeling.

I wish I could say that this is a significant book about the human condition. It is — it is a significant book about the human condition. But the claim is stale. I wish it weren’t. The novel, at any rate, isn’t.


Thursday 19th

In a perfect world, a new book like JK Rowling’s Career In Evil would appear every week, and I should always have something fantastic to read at bedtime. On my Kindle, of course, so that, when I turned out the light and got into bed, I could read a few lines before falling asleep. Did I say “JK Rowling”? I was wondering why neither of the previous Cormoran Strike novels has been adapted for the movies, and it occurred to me that Rowling’s insistence that the writing credits go to her pseudonymous alter ego, Robert Galbraith, might get in the way. Then again, the Harry Potter people might not like it — all those grisly bits. I’m perfectly happy with the books as they are. They’re well-written and very well-constructed. Although I’m in no hurry for Robin Ellacott to realize that she can never be happy with any man but her boss (Strike), I wish that her fiancé would step into an open manhole, sooner than later. I realize that Matthew Cunliffe is a handy tool for the author — whenever Robin isn’t in some mortal danger that Strike’s investigation has stirred up, she lives in fear of annoying the man she’s going to marry. I will give Matthew this much: he can tell that Strike is by far the better man. That he responds with jealousy, sadly, proves it.

As an alternative to crime, I’d be happy to re-read Penelope Lively. But you can’t always get her on Kindle.

There were two things that I forgot to say yesterday about Bill Clegg’s novel. The first is that the chaos that I was talking about — the literal incomprehensibility into which the book’s multiple chains of causation dissolve at the end — severely blunts the possibility that a reader might find the story over-plotted, leaving that awful feeling that a writer has invented characters just to make the clockwork go round. Of course the book is very cleverly put together. But each decision, whether good or bad, is utterly sincere, made by a character who seems both real and endowed with free agency.

The second thing is that I hope that nobody asks Daniel Mendelsohn to review Did You Ever Have a Family. It’s possible that he might like it, but it seems more likely that he would discover its hidden defect, a defect so pervasive that the book would crumble into dust, leaving me feeling both sad and stupid. I say this because I had a horridly good time reading Mendelsohn’s report on A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, in the NYRB. This is also a big-noise book that I decided, on the strength of early reviews, not to read. It’s got that Peter Hujar photograph on the jacket that makes me think of a dying faun but that turns out to be “Orgasmic Man,” one of a series, it seems, of photographs that Hujar took of men experiencing orgasm. The young man’s frown is so petulant that the overall mood is one of complaint, not transport.

Mendelsohn is so devastating about A Little Life that my mind is very unlikely to be changed (as it was vis-à-vis Did You Ever Have a Family). “The writing in this book is often atrocious…” “But the problem with Jude is that, from the start, he’s a pill…” “If anything, you could argue that this female writer’s vision of male bonding revives a pre-Stonewall plot type in which gay characters are desexed, miserable, and eventually punished for finding happiness…” It would not be too much to say that Daniel Mendelsohn finds A Little Life to be simply disgusting. Good thing it didn’t win the National Book Award.

Which reminds me: there is no sex in Did You Ever Have a Family. There are memories of sex, and a few embraces that will lead to sex, but Clegg’s discretion is exemplary. His characters do not appear to be much driven by lust. Loneliness is a far more powerful aphrodisiac. The relationships tend to be companionate, even when they’re also abusive: people get together to share interests and laughter, and the sex sorts itself out. This makes for truly post-adolescent literature. The thought of all those stiffies in Jonathan Franzen’s Purity reminds me that a lot of male writers seem determined to plaster their baggage with stickers proving that they have been to SEX, an erotic Las Vegas in which it is impossible to think about anything else. I’m not saying that these men are making things up. But their tales of carnal challenge are just as boxed-in stunted as they would be if they were about gambling instead. Sex is not the attraction. Some other human being is.

In Penelope Lively’s Heat Wave, which I pulled out yesterday and tossed into my bag when I went out to lunch, centers on a mother in her summer house. The summer house is divided into two separate abodes, and the daughter occupies the other half, with her husband and child. The daughter is blatantly unaware that her husband is fooling around with other women, or at least on the verge of doing so, but the mother sees it all too clearly. She recalls her own heartbreak, occasioned by a philandering husband, and she wants more than anything to spare her daughter the same misery. For the most part, however, she can only watch. Heat Wave established itself immediately as one of Lively’s best, but I hadn’t actually read very many of her books at that point. So: premature praise. Now it won’t be, if I still feel the same. There is of course a heat wave in Heat Wave — it’s the perfect correlative of the mother’s banked rage — and I’m in the mood for one. It’s dark and chilly, and heavy rain is expected. Oh, to crawl up into bed!


Friday 20th

All week, I’ve been up early, because Kathleen has been up very early. Today, she is flying down to North Carolina for a visit with her father. I tried to go back to sleep after she left, but couldn’t. So I read the paper, and after reading David Brooks’s column, I really couldn’t.

I read David Brooks’s column faithfully because I am intrigued by the difference between us, which isn’t so much a matter of views as it is a disagreement about tradition. I believe that traditions are a mirage, usually a self-serving one. People find traditions comforting because they suggest timelessness. But traditions are never actually timeless. They all begin somewhere, usually with a lie about the past. Don’t get me wrong — I’m all for carols and lighted trees at Christmas. I do like familiar things, very much. But I understand that it is their familiarity to me that makes them agreeable and even, sometimes, important — and not their inner world-historical significance. People find in tradition an opportunity to participate in something larger than themselves. But the thing that is larger than themselves is simply the bulk of other people who have felt the same. As David Denby put it in Great Books, every generation has to decide for itself that Jane Austen is a great writer.

So, I believe in decision, not observance. Almost every year, I decide that putting up a Christmas tree is worth the trouble. On a few occasions, though, I’ve been too sick (colds, flu) or too distracted (death in the family, job change) to “do Christmas.” I’ve missed the trees and the music and the cards when that has happened, but I haven’t felt that I’ve broken with tradition. The more you know about Christmas traditions, the more bogus and commercial they appear, and you’ve got to have a sense of humor, or at any rate a sense of history, to stave off the blackest cynicism.

Why on earth am I talking about Christmas when my topic is the war in Syria? Because it’s the clearest way of explaining my exasperation with today’s Brooks column. We needn’t linger over its ostensible subject — the maturity of Hillary Clinton’s thoughts about what to do in Syria. The meat of the piece is Brooks’s endorsement of the larger geopolitical status quo. Perhaps it would be better to call it Cold War Nostalgia.

For a time, the Middle East was held together by Arab nation-states and a belief in Arab nationalisms. Recently Arab nationalisms have withered and Arab nation-states have begun to dissolve from their own decrepitude.

Along comes ISIS filling that vacuum and trying to destroy what’s left of Arab nations. ISIS dreams of a caliphate. It erases borders. It destroys order.

The Arab nation-states were not great. But the nation-state system did preserve a certain order. National identities and boundaries enabled Sunnis and Shiites to live together peaceably. If nations go away in the region we’ll get a sectarian war of all against all, radiating terrorism like we’ve never seen.

The grand strategy of American policy in the Middle East, therefore, should be to do what we can to revive and reform Arab nations, to help them become functioning governing units.

I don’t see any reason to agree with Brooks’s opening proposition. What held the Middle East together was the high pressure of the Cold War, which focused international political energies on selected hotspots. Other regions were effectively bribed into quiescence. In the Middle East, the hotspots were Israel and Egypt, with related flares in North Africa. The “Arab nation-states” that Brooks says were “not great” didn’t even exist. There were borders, but the borders contained warlords, not “nations.” And the borders had been drawn by Europeans, carving up the Arab bulk of the Ottoman Empire. They were nothing more than lines in the sand. And the moment the tumultuous Twentieth Century’s long Great War (1914-1989) came to an end, the flimsiness of European arrangements became obvious. Any lingering faith in the borders that they created was crushed by the failure of the Arab Spring movements.

The “order” that Da’esh is destroying is an order that exists only in the minds of strategists outside the Middle East. The real Middle Eastern order that has been destroyed is the modus vivendi that Sunni and Shia Muslims maintained for centuries before the beginning of European interference. It was not enshrined in any national constitution but, instead, worked out over time, in towns and provinces. I can’t say that everyone was happy with the old accommodations, but they seem to have kept the peace. Da’esh may be butchering thousands, but it hasn’t touched the abstract political entities. Those were already rotten and crumbling. If it weren’t for the material support of Russia, there would be no Syria to speak of — just as Iraq collapsed as a state when American support was withdrawn after the Gulf War.

Brooks posits a parity between Da’esh and Bashir al-Assad: they’re equally awful. As a matter of body counts, Assad is certainly much more awful than Da’esh. But this does not mean that fighting one without fighting the other is pointless, as Brooks argues. Nor does it mean that Da’esh is to Sunni what Assad is to Shia. And we see that in the Syrian refugees, so many of whom led middle-class lives before the war. The Assad regime may be brutal, but Da’esh is brutal and reactionary. It intends to create a theocracy in which sinners are liquidated. Assad is a very conventional tyrant in comparison. Da’esh reinstates the Terror of the French Revolution; it inflames the hearts of disaffected young men with little or nothing to lose. It has no use for actual civilization.

I’m reminded of Simon Winder’s remarks about the vital importance of “the second step.” Everybody agreed, in the early days of the Arab Spring, that Assad had to go, but nobody could imagine who or what would take his place. History teaches that, if you can’t propose a viable second step, it is better to leave things as they are — and to keep thinking! The only thing worse than the abuse of power is the vacuum that the absence of power creates. Da’esh is that vacuum. This is why the United States ought to reverse its wrong-headed opposition to Assad; this is why the United States ought to learn the lesson of Iraq. (Americans ought to bear in mind, too, that when it comes to kidding ourselves about foreign policies, we are the world champions.)

Fighting for Assad, curiously, is not necessarily the same thing as fighting for Syria. Maybe Syria is an artificial construct that ought to be reconsidered. (There’s no “maybe” in my mind.) But Assad, as I say, is a conventional tyrant. He doesn’t rule Syria; he rules “Assadia.” And, to the extent that he really rules it, we do not have to worry about the second step. He may be awful — he is awful — but he is not worse than nothing.

Da’esh is nothing. It spreads nothing wherever it passes.

It would be a good idea to envision a second step for the Middle East. I hope that the grown-ups have abandoned the silly idea that liberated people will spontaneously form democracies. The Arab Spring has made it clear that they don’t, or that the democracies that they do create are tyrannically oppressive to minorities. (This is a lesson that we ought to have learned from the after-effects of the Treaty of Versailles.) A second step would have to be far more mindful of Arab culture and history. For one reason or another — but surely not foreign oppression — Arab cultural identity seems actually hostile to the idea of the nation, or at least hostile to the enormous and very public compromises that functioning nations require. While the Turks, the Iranians, and the Israelis have effectively nationalized themselves, bridging internal divisions with the supreme commitment to national integrity, Arabs continue to live more locally. There is also the glaring problem that Arabs are hardly of one mind about “Westernization” and its accoutrements. A second step for the Arab world just might have to work without national superstructures.

The provinces of today’s Middle East are pretty much hold-overs from Ottoman Empire. They’ve been around for a long time. How about a Federation of Arab Provinces? The federal level would consist of the army, and it would operate in desert territories, so that centralized armed forces would not be present in the provinces as a matter of course. Real power would be local, and cohere in the towns and villages.

But: The task of filling up the list I’d rather leave to you.


Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Marlow and Mevlut
November 2015 (II)

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Monday 9th

Last week, there was a book review in the Times that I read even though I now can’t think why. Perhaps it was the photograph of Sam Phillips with Elvis Presley. I don’t know much about Sam Phillips, but I believe that the world would have been lovelier without him. And something inside me twisted with curiosity: what would Dwight Garner say? Would he say exactly what I expected him to say? It would turn out that he did. Perhaps I read the review because I was ready to take issue with what Dwight Garner had to say, not about Peter Guralnick’s new biography of Phillips, but about the cultural impact of Phillips’s career. Garner puts it all in one sentence: “It’s worth pausing, for a moment, to consider how lucky it was that Presley walked into Phillips’s studio and not someone else’s.”

It may have been lucky for Presley and Phillips, but it was a dismal conjunction for mankind. The brainlessly naughty confection of sex and music that flowed out of Sun Records’s Memphis studio was probably just as harmful to American minds as the chorus of disapproving clergymen and public officials feared that it would be, and no less unwholesome than that fountain of sugary drinks from which we are slowly weaning ourselves.

The following lines from Garner’s review manage to contain all the objectionable bits:

Phillips already had an aesthetic ethos. In some ways, he had prepared his whole life for Elvis’s arrival. Part of Phillips’s ethos, Mr. Guralnick writes, was his “sense that there were all these people of little education and even less social standing, both black and white, who had so much to say but were prohibited from saying it.”

Phillips wanted to pull music out of the drawing room. He sought maximum spontaneity, minimum polish. “To Sam,” the author writes, “if you weren’t doing something different, you simply weren’t doing anything at all.”

I don’t plan to complain about rock ‘n’ roll. All I mean to do is to point to the fantasy, the daydream, the sheer spell of magical thinking that is required for anyone to believe that “people of little education” are ever going to be capable of “maximum spontaneity, minimum polish” in the pursuit of grace.

I spell grace with a small g because there is nothing sacred about it. It is, however, a state of physical well-being second to none, and it ought to be no surprise that the harmonious alignment of the universe that occurs in moments of grace, radiating from one’s nervous system outward, is so often a response to music.

One such moment comes to mind. I wrote about the concert at which it occurred, a bit more than five years ago, but I didn’t say what I am going to say now. After a terrific performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with Orpheus, Garrick Ohlsson came out for an encore. He played Chopin’s best-known waltz. It might have been a trivial moment, a cliché of classical music, but it was just the opposite. Ohlsson played the waltz, which everybody in the audience had heard doezens of times, as if it had never been played correctly, not even by Chopin: Ohlsson alone knew how it ought to be played, and he was demonstrating this to us as persuasively as a hypnotist. But instead of putting an authoritative spin on it, Ohlsson contrived to make it clear that the perfection of his rendition was a matter of the moment: he knew how the waltz ought to be played right now. That he was only playing a waltz was part of it, too. The music springing from the piano was too good to be “important.” It carried no baggage at all. That was maximum spontaneity, delivered with minimum polish.

How many hours, in years, had Garrick Ohlsson spent making music prior to that moment? And how many had I spent listening to it? But why bother with serious pleasures that take years to appreciate when a cheap thrill is instantly available?

My argument is not with Sam Phillips. There will always be uneducated people, and they will always find their satisfactions. My argument is with the educated people who believe that Elvis Presley’s impact on American life was culturally positive. It wasn’t. It was of a piece with the ossification of “high culture” that is implicit in Dwight Garner’s use of the term “drawing room.” It was a reaction, against the attempt to make a substitute religion out of art, that, instead of simply abandoning that attempt, devalued the art, dismissing it as “phony” — which of course it was, qua religion. Art had a problem, yes; but Elvis was not the solution.

Art has a different problem now. Who, after the decades of screaming fun that we’ve had since we took up singing about hound dogs, commands the neuronal fortitude for serious pleasures? When I ask that question, I consider the legions of smartphone-bound zombies stumbling about town, doomed to solitary, disengaged lives, and all but incapable of looking up and out. Do I think that smartphones are a blight? Not at all. They have simply allowed a massive cultural dislocation to express itself, much as the upper reaches of the Congo taught Conrad’s Kurtz who he really was.

“I am not disclosing any trade secrets. In fact, the manager said afterwards that Mr Kurtz’s methods had ruined the district. I have no opinion on that point, but I want you clearly to understand that there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there. They only showed that Mr Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him — some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last — only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude — and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core . . . I put down the [spy]glass, and the head that had appeared near enough to be spoken to seemed at once to have leaped away from me into inaccessible distance.”


The problem of education — what is it for? — takes on an interesting light in the nonfiction writing of Orhan Pamuk. For Pamuk, education is a matter of Westernization. Traditional Turkish life appears to have no more need of higher education than European life did as recently as three centuries ago. You learn to read and write, and to sing a few patriotic songs, and then you are apprenticed into a business, if you are lucky. If not, you work in the fields. The idea of higher education is Western, and so is the course load; even a class in the sociology of life in Turkish villages is profoundly un-Turkish. Pamuk, who seems to have learned of and read the great European novels on his own, has set out to write European novels in Turkish just as Flaubert wrote them in French and Tolstoy in Russian. I expect that he is read mostly in translation.

It is ironic — almost unpleasantly so — that the novel advanced in high European culture at the same time that nationalism was undermining its social foundations. The central idea of nationalism was that every “nation” — tribe, clan, race, whatever; just don’t try to make too much sense of this concept or it will dissolve in your hands — is different, and ought to be allowed to govern itself. The main idea of the novel is that all nations are the same (comprised of human beings), notwithstanding colorful local variations. For a long time, it was hoped that nationalism had climaxed in the long Great War of the Twentieth Century, but not only is it resurgent today, it has taken on an extra dimension. There is a feeling abroad that rulers — political élites — are as foreign to their subjects as the Viennese were to nineteenth-century Hungarians. Nor is this feeling inexplicable. The Syrian refugee crisis has thrown a harsh spotlight on the confusion within Western élites, as well as an unflattering one on those who, like Angela Merkel, seem determined to ignore the confusion. The irony here is even more unpleasant: “Syria” is a Western concoction, the result of a scheme devised by a man from France and a man from Britain. How nice it would be for the West if the Sultans and the Shahs resumed control of those regions. (It’s a pity that they weren’t very good at it before the Europeans stepped in. But they seem to have been more effective, and in any case less lethal.)

Thanks to American “pop culture,” in fact, it is not unreasonable to speak of “Westernization” is something that even Europeans and Americans must undergo if they are to understand where they actually stand. They must teach themselves somehow — for who is there to teach them? — about the core Western value: impatience with ignorance. No one, in the proper West, has the right to be stupid, or to remain uneducated. There is only the misfortune.


Tuesday 10th

Yesterday afternoon, I finished reading Heart of Darkness — for the third time, I suppose — and I immediately felt that I had missed it somehow. Well, I had missed it by picking it up here and there at various hours and reading on for many pages or a few. I had read too much of it late at night. What I had missed was the impact of Conrad’s narrative blow. I could see that it was there to be felt, and that I’d missed it by not paying attention in the right way.

Conrad’s obliquity is, to me, the heart of the story. I understand that Heart of Darkness is “about” the evils of colonialism and the illusion of moral progress. It is also about the silliness and uselessness of women. Several times, Marlow surmises that the world would simply come to an end if European women knew what their men got up to on their adventures. It is very easy to brush this apparent misogyny aside, and it is just as easy to overlook the implicit sermonizing about colonialism and depravity. What makes Heart of Darkness great is not the gruesome confrontation between Marlow and Kurtz, or Marlow’s appalled encounter with the bloody paganism to which Kurtz has “descended.” These revelations always mark the climax of dramatizations of the tale, and they make for very good cinema. But they don’t occur in Conrad’s book.

There is a linear thread in Heart of Darkness, in which chronological order more or less determines the arrangement of the scenes. Marlow takes his leave of Europe — Belgium — sails down the coast of Africa to the mouth of a great river, the unnamed Congo, and then proceeds on foot (if I am not mistaken) to an upriver station where he finds the ruin of a paddle-wheeler that he is expected to repair and then sail further into the interior. He has been hired to take the place of a captain who was killed in a fracas with the natives. All this has nothing to do with Kurtz. Kurtz is introduced to Marlow by various agents of the company that has hired him. Marlow is alternately piqued and bemused by this Kurtz fellow, and begins to look forward to meeting him. Meanwhile, the Marlow who is telling the story, years later, so shades things that we gradually understand, as the younger Marlow couldn’t have done, that Kurtz is at the center of the story.

The linear thread proceeds through the novella’s three sections. Marlow goes up the river; he comes down the river and goes back to Europe, where he has the somewhat chilling, hallucinatory meeting with Kurtz’s “Intended” — to call her a fiancée would miss the point. But more about her some other time. My interest is in the packets of information about Kurtz that Marlow-the-narrator discloses from time to time. At first, he shares the contents of these packets as and when the younger Marlow receives them, as information from the agents. But then, in the middle of the second section, and also in the middle of a violent attack on the paddle-wheeler, Marlow opens an enormous parenthesis and spreads out the contents of another packet of information.

It happens when Marlow’s helmsman is killed by a spear hurled from the shore, and a passenger comments that Mr Kurtz is probably dead by this time, too. All the younger Marlow can think of, in his frenzy to remove blood-soaked shoes, is the disappointment of not getting to meet Kurtz, about whom he has overheard some very intriguing things. Marlow-the-narrator quickly takes control of the parenthesis, filling it with details about Kurtz’s background and attaching accounts of conversations that have not yet taken place. It is from these that we learn of Kurtz’s high-minded purpose, of his intention to bring the glory of European order and civilization to the benighted tribes. Marlow tells us about the exalted tract that Kurtz has written on the subject, noting that there are “no practical hints” as to how the suppression of savage customs is to be accomplished — unless, he concludes mordantly, it is the “post scriptum” scrawled at the end of the tract, “Exterminate all the brutes!” But the real brute is of course Kurtz himself. Kurtz has given up high-mindedness and taken the low road to the acquisition of mountains of ivory.

We filled the steamboat with it, and had to pile a lot on deck. Thus he could see and enjoy as long as he could see, because the appreciation of this favour had remained with him to the last. You should have heard him say, “My ivory.” Oh yes, I heard him. “My Intended, my ivory, my station, my river, my — ” everything belonged to him. It made me hold my breath in expectation of hearing the wilderness burst into a prodigious peal of laughter that would shake the fixed stars in their places. Everything belonged to him — but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.

Presently the parenthesis closes, and the body of the helmsman is thrown overboard into the river, a “simple funeral.” It is now that Marlow paddles the boat up to Kurtz’s station, where, in the third section, he finally meets the dying Kurtz.

What fascinates me is that it is the middle of a melée, a skirmish that is not easy to follow (they never are), Conrad piles on to the harried reader the essence of Kurtz’s lurid crimes. It is true that he will flesh this out in the final section, with the shamans, Kurtz’s acolytes, wearing horns that are silhouetted by blazing fires — all the rigmarole of hell. The ornamental finials atop the palings that surround Kurtz’s residence turn out to be human heads. There is enough gore to make the first-reader’s hair stand on end. But Conrad has drawn the shock of this nightmarish scene by telling it to us in advance.

What I am trying to make out is that Marlow-the-narrator prevents the reader from experiencing “the horror” as he himself did. He tells us the nature of the horror before letting us see what it looks like. This is an “error” that the movies correct. Probably wisely. But books are different. They contain a very different kind of information. Sometimes, the information in a book and the information in a filmed adaptation of that book overlap perfectly — I’m thinking of the “We’re going to Europe” scene, complete with tornado warnings, from Mr and Mrs Bridge (I forget which novel the scene appears in). Mostly, however, this does not happen. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad deposits some very disturbing but quite lucid information about Kurtz in the middle of a very disturbing and anything-but-lucid shoot-out. What we learn about Kurtz prepares us for the fragmentary sequences of the third section, not only telling us something about what to expect but trailing the violence in which we were told. I’m not sure why Conrad goes to the trouble to diffuse his story, but I believe that he makes the most of it.

To read Heart of Darkness properly is, at a minimum, to read each section in one sitting. Preferably in broad daylight.


Heart of Darkness is familiar to filmgoers as the source for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. There is also Nicolas Roeg’s 1993 adaptation, with John Malkovitch and Tim Roth. But no one ought to miss the 1958 Playhouse 90 version. Roddy McDowell is Marlow and Boris Karloff is Kurtz — now, how can you beat that? Unfortunately… Stewart Stern’s teleplay is something of a Frankenstein: it is possible that there are no scenes at all that can be said to taken directly from Conrad. There is a great deal of sheer fabrication. A character called “Maria” (Inga Swenson) seems to be based on The Intended, but it’s a lot more complicated, you see, because in this version Marlow grew up in Kurtz’s house, and played with his daughter, who fell in love with him (but not he with her, it seems). The poor girl may also be dotty. Marlow must find his father-figure, so he crosses a forbidding threshold only to be confronted by Cathleen Nesbitt, cast quite against type, and Oscar Homolka, who plays himself. All of this is wrought on a dark set that is powerfully redolent of a genuine bad dream. Next thing you know, McDowell is stripped to the waist and shackled with a neck iron. Eartha Kitt appears as “the Queen,” then retires to her curtained sedan chair, in which she is discreetly slaughtered. I happened to watch this farrago before re-reading the book, and was therefore condemned to a semi-demented attempt to remember whether this bit or that bit could have come from Conrad’s pen. It gave me the worst headache.

Of course, the production values are threadbare. Part of this is the technology — I expect that the recording was made on a kinescope, not film — but part of it is the aesthetic of the day; I can remember seeing things much like it on my first forays onto Off-Broadway. Were Stewart Stern to turn out to be an alter ego of Paddy Chayevsky, I shouldn’t be at all surprised. Most of this production makes little or no sense, but it is highly symbolic and obviously important. I found it a compelling document of the confusion into which the Cold War plunged most thinking Americans. It also records politically incorrect ideas about deploying African characters in a drama about Europeans. On the whole, it is more interesting than it is awful.

The DVD is a complete entertainment experience: you are there, huddled in front of the tube. There are station breaks for Channel 2 New York (CBS), and there are two commercials, both of operatic length compared to today’s quick spots. One is an infomercial about kitchen appliances powered by natural gas. It stars Fred MacMurray and June Haver as thrilled homemakers. The other commercial is genuinely weird. It’s for Kleenex napkins, and it features this miniature butler person who recommends Kleenex napkins to gigantic human beings because the product doesn’t slip off your lap. It could pass for a fragment of The Twilight Zone.

Did I mention that Boris Karloff is also stripped to the waist? We see him as we never do in the book, with a cute crown of bones on his head.


Wednesday 11th

M le Neveu came to dinner last night. We haven’t seen much of anybody in the past year or more, what with all our upheavals, but we really haven’t seen anything of my cousin, whom I speak of as a nephew because of the generational space between our ages. My conscience was quite pricked, but weeks would go by without my doing anything. Finally, I sent a text, and it was that simple. Le voilà. While we waited for Kathleen to get home from work, we talked about matters high and low; I had recently read Patrick Coburn’s piece about Syria, in the current LRB, and was anxious to see if I’d learned anything from it, so we talked about the futility of the American program there, and then about the Kurds. I have always believed that Kurdistan is the ultimate Middle Eastern problem, one that nobody really has to deal with now, because of other crises, but one that will have to be settled before than can be real peace in the region. I floated my latest what-if, which I touched on here the other day (scroll up): What if we simply gave up on the idea of Arab self-governance and redistributed the territories created by the Sykes-Picot agreement to Turkey and Iran, with Iraq’s Anbar Province serving as the desert boundary between them. Perhaps this enlarged Turkey, or Turkish Empire, or Sultanate, or call-it-whatever, would find the confidence to grant the Kurds autonomy in their own region. M le Neveu found all of this very unlikely. Of course it’s unlikely — now! (Erdoğan can’t live forever.) (Nor is Saudi oil unlimited.)

Closer to home, I surprised myself by saying something that I found I really believe: the American voter deserves to be spanked, or at least shamed in public. The case needs to be argued (there’s no need to trouble to make it) that American voters have really let democracy down. Otherwise, campaign finances wouldn’t be the issue that they are. The awful truth is that the movement to limit campaign funding is really aimed at cutting down the number of atrocious advertisements. But these paid-for messages have no intrinsic power at all. It is only when some moron plops down in front of the television, watches one, and lets himself be persuaded by it that we have a problem.

I was tempted to speak just now of the average American voter, of course, because I am an American voter, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job of voting with my brain. But there are two kinds of average American voter, and one of them doesn’t even bother to vote. Another scheme that I floated, just for my own entertainment, was one for buying American votes. Or rather, for paying people not to vote. Quite aside from the, er, legal problems confronting such a scheme, how might it play out? We could call it the Cultivate Your Garden project, and extremists on both sides would have the lushest gardens, because they’d have to be paid more to stay at home. Billionaires would be offered tax credits instead of cash bounties — for as long, anyway, as billionaires were tolerated at all.

M le Neveu mentioned Andrew Jackson at one point — the president who would take the place of Brutus, if I were rewriting The Inferno. Jackson effectively eradicated the influence of the Framers in American politics: they stand their on their marble plinths, but the élitist democracy that they envisioned was scrapped forever by Jackson’s populism.

I don’t know how people can bring themselves to watch the Republican Party debates. I read about them in the paper next day and I shudder at the ugliness and the incompetence. I have no desire to see demonstrated what I already knew, which is that Jeb Bush is simply not scrappy enough for real political competition. He may be the family’s genius, but he’s a back-office man, a policy wonk. You don’t put people like him in front of the cameras and the commentators for long. It’s nice to read that Trump actually got booed, even if it was for picking on Carly Fiorina, a woman who deserves, at the very least, the torments of Prometheus. I remain terrified of Ted Cruz, simply because he reminds me of Richard Nixon, the president whom I would partner with Andrew Jackson in the depths of Hell. I ask myself: how will Ben Carson disappear? Will he fade away, or will a yawning pit of disgrace open beneath his feet? He seems so vague that, if indeed the latter were to happen, he might not actually fall in. Either way, it will be an embarrassing spectacle, and I’d prefer to read about it afterward.

But behind all of these cardboard ogres stands the Republican Party voter. Or rather, a voter who, we are told, wants to stop government. How this does not add up to treason is beyond me. But I don’t want to indulge the online writer’s zest for imaginative insult and contumely. My real problem with the American voter is football. I can remember when football was weekend entertainment, something that happened on crisp (sometimes rainy) fall Saturdays. Now, like so much entertainment in this country, it has degenerated into a tribal hearth before which brutal, life-threatening rites are performed in antic slow motion. Rich white guys cheer as big black guys knock the crap out of each other. In the current issue of Bookforum, Matt Hinton writes about a book by Florida State professor, Diane Roberts, Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. The only thing wrong with the title, as Hinton points out, is that there’s no secret.

But for Roberts, as for nearly all fans who remain in thrall to the game against their more-enlightened cultural judgment, the lure of the stadium and the tailgate is something akin to a genetic imperative.

In fact, there is no genetic imperative, and there isn’t really a tribe, either, just the televised simulacrum of one, a bogus, self-generating excitement that requires little more than a wave of noise in the background. There is nothing, nothing at all authentically primitive about American football. It is entirely contrived, manufactured to distract its participants from the unpleasant realities of social injustice and inequality and, more to the point, of pointless consumption. Football feeds America the flattest, if loudest, possible “good times.” Yelling until you can’t hear yourself think is the point.

Hinton tells us that Diane Robert quotes Hazlitt: “Without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” It seems to me that the whole point of a humane education is to overcome this impulse, and to learn how to care for and about things without being prodded by hostility or possessiveness. As always, what grieves me is the enthusiastic participation of a college professor in this orgy of self-bullying.

How can such a populace, so addicted to such pastimes that they are no longer pastimes, cope with the issues facing a democratic electorate? And let’s bear in mind that the issues that come up for public discussion are all issues that concern voters directly, or that journalists have convinced voters to regard as central. So far as I know, no Republican candidate has bothered himself or his listeners with the Export-Import Bank, or with the wave of anti-competitive mergers that is sweeping the health, beverage, and railroad sectors — all of which actually do impinge on voters. What about the lousy record that we’ve racked up over the past fifty years — since Korea, really — as military losers? Why have Americans been so slow to realize that what they mean by a “strong military presence” is almost invariably an ineffective one? It’s appalling to think that our policies about dealing with China’s occupation of the South China Sea are in the hands of people who could barely find the Spratly Islands in a dictionary.

This is what I’m talking about when I complain that Americans apparently maintain a belief that they have the right to remain uninformed and ignorant, itself a manifestly stupid way of looking at the world. I’m not surprised that Americans or anyone else are more concerned about local excitements than about abstract policies. But abstract policies have very real consequences, and I believe that the whole point of democracy is to give men and women a reason to pay attention to such things. If democracy itself is not a form of education, then it cannot amount to more than a demented beauty contest. It ceases, in effect, to be democracy at all, and loses its status as better than all those worse forms of government.


Dinner was terrible, I thought. It had been a long time since my last stab at steak, potatoes, and green vegetables. I seem resistant to the idea of simmering frenched green beans in a large pot of water — why? So the beans were underdone. As for the potatoes, they used to be a specialty that M le Neveu was very fond of: chunks of sweet potato roasted in oil and rosemary, with just a touch of honey. I seem to have lost the knack — I never wrote down a recipe. Last night, I forgot the honey, failed to butter the baking dish, and ran the oven too low. On top of everything else, the potatoes were tepid when they reached the table. There was nothing wrong with the steak, but nothing very right about it, either; it didn’t taste like much of anything. A menu that I used to turn out week after week, to M le Neveu’s delight, reappeared pallidly at best. Kathleen thought that my criticism was exaggerated, although she agreed that the beans were underdone.

Last Saturday night’s dinner was another story. Aside from setting an unusually handsome table, complete with my late mother-in-law’s monogrammed linen napkins, I served at least one boffo dish. It was really the marriage of two everyday preparations. To a the purée of a very nicely-done curried butternut squash soup (with apples) I added spoonfuls of fresh corn sautéed in butter and oil with tarragon. (Ordinarily, I season the corn with oregano, but tarragon worked better, as I thought it would, with the overall sweetness of the soup, instead of pointing it up as I fear oregano would have done.) The blend of smooth and crunchy was perfect. I wasn’t nearly as pleased with a warm tortellini salad, with chopped cherry tomatoes and oil-cured olives. The olives were a mistake; I ought to have used milder green olives. And the tortellini — this is a bone that I’m always picking with Agata & Valentina — were doughy. But it was a start. I’m drawn to the idea of a pasta dish that does not involve a sauce, especially a cream sauce. The veal that followed, made according to Elizabeth David’s method, was a hit.

What will it be for dinner tonight, pizza or stir-fry?


Thursday 12th

The weather is dark, but I don’t mind. I’m in a very wrapped-up state. Partly, it’s The Strangeness In My Mind. Last night, as I was waiting for Kathleen to come home, some helicopters were making a racket overhead and I wondered, rather inconsequently, if I were in Istanbul or New York.

Hüzün, I believe, is the word that Orhan Pamuk uses to describe his feelings for his home town. According to my dictionary, it means sadness, sorrow, grief and only then melancholy. In Pamuk’s hands, this melancholy is a pleasure. Well — in my hands, rather, as I read Pamuk’s book in my tidy apartment. I am not surrounded by dust and broken glass and chipped marble and all the other signs of physical decay that Pamuk lingers over. I think that I should find them simply depressing, perhaps hideously depressing. My hüzün is purely poetical. It is very quiet here, but it is not the quiet of a remote farmhouse. It is the sweet melancholy of solitude in the city.

It has been a while since I read The Black Book, Pamuk’s first succès d’estime. I don’t think that it was ever much of a success in Anglophonia; it’s the kind of vaguely absurd, vaguely nightmarish novel that one associates with experimental European fiction. As I recall, some poor sap has to find some papers and bring them to a certain place by a certain time, or else. This wild goose chase provides the armature for meditation on many secular matters, mostly pertaining to old, Ottoman Istanbul. Wasn’t there an assassinated columnist in there somewhere? These curiosities have reappeared in Pamuk’s nonfiction, notably Istanbul and Other Colors, but they also reappear in The Strangeness In My Mind, if in a new dimension. At the macro level of criticism, Strangeness is a novel about the interior immigrant who moves from rural poverty to urban opportunity. Such novels have proliferated in every developed country, and in every country the story is slightly different, because rural customs are peculiar. But there is more to it in Istanbul. In the European, American, and even Asian versions of this basic story, the city is not very old. There may be an old building here or there, but the city is new; that is its great point of distinction from the country. Istanbul, in contrast, has not been new for several millennia. Istanbul itself is a migrant, an ancient town, with crooked streets and crooked history, trying to hold on to its identity in the modern city that has sprouted alongside it and that tends to pave over it. The old Istanbul was built of vulnerable, breathing wood; the new is a pile of dead concrete. The Anatolians who come up from the country live on edges of the city that will themselves soon become centers within the city; these newcomers rarely see the old Istanbul.

Our hero, Mevlut, is different. As a street vendor working the neighborhoods around Beyoğlu, the part of town that used to be populated by Europeans and Greeks and Armenians (the Genoese called it “Pera”), straddling the hills on the other side of the tidal inlet known as the Golden Horn from the heart of old Constantinople, Mevlut knows what passes for the old Istanbul, the houses and the wrecks of houses built at the end of the Nineteenth Century and the apartment buildings thrown up between the wars. But there are plenty of buildings older than that, and they are all shabby and neglected, because the Europeans and the Greeks and the Armenians have at one point or another been evicted. Today’s old Istanbul is the husk of a once-cosmopolitan city. As in Shanghai, however, it was always the foreigners who were cosmopolitan, not the Turks themselves. Mevlut’s problem is that he finds this jumble mesmerizing. I don’t think that he knows very much about history or foreigners, but Beyoğlu not only allows but encourages Mevlut to let his imagination play upon what he sees.

Instead of putting himself into his career, Mevlut daydreams about other people. His behavior, however, is conservative, bound by what I think of as the hygiene of tradition. Tradition, in this case, militates against the social intercourse of men and women. As such, it constitutes an array of obstacles that no novelists could disdain. Pamuk has concocted a love story for Mevlut that has an agreeably fabulous edge to it; it serves the purpose of providing a bridge for Pamuk’s interesting characters to cross from the beginning to the end of the book. To me, this love story, while charming in places and not without heartbreak, seems more nakedly a function of the sexual imperative than love stories are in the West: happy Turks do not ride off into the sunset alone; they have children, and their children have children, and so the wheel turns. To put it another way, love is not envisioned as the individually transformative thing that it is thought to be in the West. It goes the other way: love is an expression of the person you already are. Therefore, while Mevlut can nurse a passion for his loves that is as obsessional as passion anywhere, this passion does not really change him. Instead, its gratification allows him to slip happily into his traditional adult role.

As I think I’ve already said, The Strangeness In My Mind reads very straightforwardly. It presents none of the obscurities of The Black Book; one can almost imagine a Disney adaptation. I wish I were knowledgable enough to take the measure of Pamuk’s Turkish, which I suspect is not quite so artless as Ekin Oklap’s English. I also suspect that the text is rich in unobtrusive allusions that only a Turkish reader could be expected to catch. What I cannot decide is whether Strangeness is more than a vehicle for the author’s encyclopedic grasp of Istanbul’s moods. I am also intrigued by the possibility that this novel is intended to appeal, frankly and invitingly, to Turkish readers. Mevlut’s godliness is a key element of the story because it signifies Mevlut’s acceptance of his world. As a byproduct of his active imagination, perhaps, Mevlut is the character, among all his friends and neighbors, who is least altered by the move to Istanbul. Most people who know him think that Mevlut is innocent; Pamuk tells us at one point that this innocence is actually optimism. But I think that Mevlut is simply imaginative. Not in making things up, but in imagining the lives of others — including the lives of the dead. Imagination allows Mevlut to inhabit his world more fully than others do.

And yet one cannot silence the thought that, in Mevlut, Pamuk has drawn a what-if self-portrait. What if Pamuk had grown up poor? What if he had not had a father who urged him to read Flaubert and Tolstoy? What if no one in his family had understood the point of education, but merely regarded it as useful? What if Pamuk had started working at the age of eleven?

It’s this that makes me wonder how Pamuk knows how people like Mevlut live. How can he? Only through his imagination, I suppose — which is why I wish Turkish criticism of the novel were more accessible.

I have two chapters and forty-odd pages to go.


Last night, Kathleen and I watched a video of Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. We were not sure what the story was. If the heart of the film is Turner’s relationship with Mrs Booth, the Margate landlady with whom he eventually settled down in Chelsea, we don’t hear its beat quite often enough. Leigh makes no attempt to present or describe the demons, so to speak, that put Turner’s work so far ahead of its time; we are simply to take him as a genius. Turner’s role as a Cockney rebel against the grandees of the Royal Academy is blunted by his rather magnificent (if somewhat peculiar) decorum. Timothy Spall, playing the artist, gives us a rhinoceros in a frock coat — a force of nature, but, like all forces of nature, profoundly conservative. I wish that Leigh had gotten him to say more than just “Claude Lorrain was a genius!” I mean, something more about Claude.

There are more characters that the story knows what to do with. John Ruskin and his parents make an appearance that, like Turner’s association with Lord Egremont at Petworth, seems illustrative of a point that is never made. (Although Joshua McGuire is deliciously fatuous as Ruskin.) Then there is the sex — the opportunistic sex that Turner has with his deformed housekeeper, the sex that is alleged to have produced the two daughters of a harridan former lover, and of course the sex with Mrs Booth. Happily, the sex with Mrs Booth is not just sex, but companionate affection, and we don’t see much of it. That’s to say that we never see any part of Marion Bailey that we oughtn’t. Kathleen especially thought that Bailey was the star of the show. I suspect she regarded Mrs Booth’s combination of flexibility and reassurance with keen fellow-feeling. Certainly, if I add Mr Turner to our DVD library, it will be because of Marion Bailey’s performance.

I’ve just pulled out the catalogue from the 2008 Turner show at the Museum. It opened to what was my favorite thing in that show, for some no longer excavatable reason, the watercolor of Merton College. “The Sun is God!” — Turner’s last words. The sun is hiding today, and I’m in no hurry for it to reappear.


Friday 13th

As usual, I had cheated. I’d read the last page of The Strangeness In My Mind long ago. Or at least I’d glanced at it; and a glance was enough to make out the last line, “I have loved Rayiha more than anything in this world.” For some readers, this may be a sweet resolution of Mevlut’s life. For me, it jangles with horrible ironies.

For Rayiha is dead, and has been dead for a long time. A lot of good this love will do her. We have known since the end of the first chapter that her life would be “brief.” I did not cheat there. I did not try to find out, ahead of time, the reasons for Rayiha’s untimely death. For a while, I entertained the guess that she would die as collateral damage in a shootout between her brother-in-law and her husband’s cousin, not over her but over her younger, prettier sister Samiha. That would have been exciting. But Orhan Pamuk had something darker in mind, something almost tragic. And although it is true that Mevlut loved Rayiha, and loved her from the first moment that he saw her smile, he did nothing to help lift the misery into which circumstances dropped her. His contribution to her despair was twofold: he refused to clear up the matter of the letters that he had written to her before their marriage, and he did nothing to help her out with an unwanted pregnancy. In my view, Mevlut killed the woman he loved more than anything in the world.

This may not be a Turkish view — it may not be imaginable to Turkish readers. After all, Rayiha did take things into her own hands; Mevlut never laid a finger on her. Rayiha would not let the matter of the letters drop. (They had in fact been intended for Samiha — that cousin of Mevlut had tricked him about the sisters’ names. This same sneak would later poison Rayiha with intimations of the truth.) Rayiha was something like Elsa in Lohengrin: she wanted an assurance that would not be granted. I felt terribly sorry for her in those last chapters of hers, as she floundered in her wretchedness. And all the while, money worries. I am not certain that this novel would not have been better titled Mevlut the Lovable but Improvident.

The problem is that Mevlut’s behavior was perfectly correct — correct for a loving husband. I don’t mean to suggest that he was a hypocrite; he always believed that he was doing the right thing. It is true that his good behavior had a distinctly passive tinge. Mevlut always hoped for the best. He hoped, for example, that once it became too late for Rayiha to obtain an abortion, she would come round to accepting her pregnancy, and he would at last be the father of a son. At the same time, this behavior was utterly free of macho posturing. Mevlut was almost incapable of insincerity. But the culture in which he grew and made his way deprived him of the ability to assess the danger in which Rayiha struggled. So his melancholy but contented summing-up at the end struck me — smack! — as brutally complacent.

For the time being, I’m done thinking about this novel. I shall let it steep as it will. I look forward to seeing how it does, and what other people have to say about it. As I say, I wish I could read some Turkish criticism of the book. I am hoping, even though I don’t understand quite how this would happen, that The Strangeness In My Mind will find its place among the great European novels. Despite its modesty and its simplicity — mere appearances, perhaps — this is Pamuk’s greatest achievement so far. If it becomes a great European novel, that will be because it is a great Turkish novel.


Two of today’s Times Op-Ed pieces, taken together, persuade me that, if we manage to live so long, there will be great changes on the American political scene in about ten years. That is when the Millennials will begin to arrive at middle age. (Matthew Klein: “A Lost Generation of Democrats.”) By then, too, a very significant portion of the ever-ageing conservative cadre of the Republican Party will have died. David Brooks:

And so the large question Republicans must ask themselves is: Are we as a party willing to champion the new America that is inexorably rising around us, or are we the receding roar of an old America that is never coming back?

Ten years is plenty of time for new issues to swamp our attention, and other problems may cause “immigration” to lose its hot-button status. But the Millennials will still be in position to decide what is to be done about the Democratic Party, and Republicans will have lost a big chunk of its extremist base. My hope is that both parties will be dead by then, with new coalitions rising from their ashes. The idea of new parties is frightening — it ought to be! But the Democratic Party has been moribund since the Reagan years, and attempts to keep it going on temporizing life-support have alienated voters. The Republican Party is being torn apart by the tension between wealthy donors and relatively unsophisticated but impassioned supporters.

Behind all of this reality-show politicking stands an array of government structures in sore need of rethinking. One of the things that I like about Millennials is their recognition of genuine expertise: they may be the first generation since World War II to be honest about the need for élite regulation, which is essentially the need to pay qualified regulators well enough to keep them at their desks, and not on the hunt for more lucrative work in the businesses that they’re supposed to regulate. The New Deal regulatory structure is well past retirement age; among other things, I should suggest transforming the Administrative Procedure Act with a blast of online, digital wizardry. What I’m hoping is that Millennials are already scratching their heads.

What I don’t take for granted is that Millennials have a better grasp of the vital importance of humane thinking than their elders. The easiest way to say what “humane thinking” means is to contrast it to mechanical thinking, to formulaic thinking — to systems. People can operate systems, and they can oversee mechanical operations. But they cannot be subjected to these things without blighting the species. To pay a normal person to perform a mindless job is to place that person in moral equivalency with sex workers. I hope that Millennials will come to their senses about Silicon Valley, and understand that, while it provides amazing services, it is not the source of viable political templates. I often think that data engineers are lulled by the ease with which files can be overwritten: this is not a metaphor for social life.


Social life. That’s what Kurtz ran off to Africa to flee, and the disinhibiting absence of social life there exposed him to corruption. There is a myth abroad among men: great men stand alone. Great men suffer alone, fight their demons alone, wrestle with existence alone. But why is it that they never do the laundry or unload the dishwasher alone?


Bon weekend à tous!

Gotham Diary:
The Truth About Feudalism
November 2015 (I)

Monday, November 2nd, 2015

Monday 2nd

In yesterday’s Times, Ross Douthat offered an open invitation to liberal Catholic theologians to engage in civil war, with him and with Catholics who believe that “church teaching” is set in stone. Earlier in the same column, Douthat pointed out that one of the purposes of his Times pieces is to “provoke.” But provoke what? Certainly not discussion. I don’t  want to think about just what kind of warfare Douthat envisions, but presumably, like any war, it will be what happens after a breakdown in communications, when people no longer agree to disagree. My first thought was that Harvard University ought to be shut down as a public menace, because that is where Douthat went to college, and the fact that a student could undertake the course work at so eminent a school and yet still emerge willing to propose religious war means nothing less than that the teachers there aren’t doing their job. We have a long tradition of religious violence in the West, and we have learned that it accomplishes nothing but evil. I should have expected a man as worldly and sophisticated as I believe Ross Douthat to be to propose the much milder threat of schism. I suppose that he’s going to too many conservative gatherings — too much back-slapping, too much cowboy whooping: too desperate a thirst for testosterone. (I should be content if Harvard merely revoked Douthat’s diploma.)

The issue at hand is the welcoming of divorced (and remarried) Catholics to the altar rail at Communion. Hitherto, such people have been barred from the sacraments — excommunicated, as it’s called. (People who divorce but who do not remarry do not incur this penalty.) The religious history of divorce has almost nothing to tell us about our own world, which is why “church teaching” might be fatuous, designed as it was centuries ago to deal with vanished problems. Jesus appears to have regarded divorce unfavorably, but if you know anything about the difficulties that Orthodox Jewish women suffer in this connection, you can imagine that he was not concerned with the irreconcilable differences of two more or less equally-placed adults. The Church itself firmed up its position on divorce at roughly the same time that it reversed itself on bastardy. The situation that it sought to redress was a recurrence of old Jewish divorce, only now it was a matter of kings setting their wives aside in order to remarry and refresh their hopes for male offspring. There was no Catholic ritual for the setting aside of wives, and the Church declined to provide one.

When I recently pointed out to Kathleen, à propos of the Habsburgs, whom I’d been reading about, that Louis XIV’s wife, Maria Theresa of Spain, was his mother’s niece and the daughter of his uncle, the King of Spain, Kathleen looked up in shock. Surely the Church would not have permitted so incestuous a marriage! But it did so all the time. The Habsburgs wouldn’t have been the monstrously inbred Habsburgs otherwise. It has always been curious to me that the Church “got” this major element of dynastic family-building but refused to see the urgency of another one, the need to produce sons.

Divorce was a royal issue because of political exigency. It was never contemplated for lesser mortals, who had to live with Augustine’s settlement of the hash about sex. As late as 400, Augustine’s prime, the appropriateness of Christian marriage was still a lively question. Paul’s formulation — it is better to marry than to burn — turned out not to answer the question. Augustine, whom I’ve always thought had a great salesman’s eye for what the market would bear, and who, like all salesmen, didn’t have to think about tomorrow, much less the next millennium, proposed a solution by agreeing that truly holy people must remain celibate, while ordinary sinners could marry and procreate, although they were not to have carnal relations for any other purpose. This was certainly a workable compromise, politically speaking; politically, procreation was important. And of course what we call companionate marriage must have been extremely rare. Certainly as a social matter, men and women led different lives. Why would you bother even to think about how you felt about your spouse? As a member of the opposite sex, that spouse could be counted on to do all the annoying things that men and women do, especially in the eyes of women and men.

By the same token, kings did not seek divorce because they thought that they might lead richer, more meaningful lives with someone a little younger and prettier. They could fool around with younger and prettier women as they liked. Kings sought divorce for one reason only, whenever they came to believe that their queens were not going to produce a male heir.

In other words, only in modern times, with its considerable shift in the role of women in society — a development that conservatives around the world would like to undo, and one that the Church will never be able to accommodate without adapting (changing) “church teachings” to suit it — has the problem of divorce assumed the complexion with which we’re familiar. It is easy to denounce this hankering for happier married lives as “individualistic,” but if young people provide any indication of where we’re going (and of course they do), the ban on divorce tends to dishonor the idea of marriage, by forcing people to remain within it insincerely, and therefore dishonestly. So long as the status of women in society continues on its current trajectory, “church teaching” is going to appear more and more gratuitously misogynistic.

So, I think that a schism is not unlikely, and that the conservative branch will die out over several generations. The idea that the Church as we know it — the confraternity of unmarried males who regard themselves as more Christian and more religious than everybody else — will ever regain its appeal is awfully unlikely. We’re ripe for religious convulsions, much as it pains me to say that, but I fear that they will strike off in new and terrible directions (terrible to me), and not that they will re-invigorate old traditions.

I applaud the Pope for trying to do things that need to be done. I boo Ross Douthat for committing the cardinal sin of talking war for the sake of ideas that he holds dear.


I’m reading and re-reading a bunch of books. The new Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind; how I wish my Turkish were good enough to read it in the original. I know just enough about Turkish to understand that it is, for example, much further from English than Chinese is. I didn’t think that I would much care for the story of a street vendor, but the fact that the streets were in Istanbul, not far from the ones that I walked when I was there almost eleven years ago, overcame that objection. The book is charming, at least so far, and its paints an admiring portrait of the sort of Turk from the middle of nowhere whose piety is ingrained even if his observances are dodgy. The sort of man, that is, who would vote for Recep Tajjip Erdoğan. (I look forward to seeing what happens when the story crosses into this century.) Could Pamuk be trying to appeal to “Anatolians”?

And I’m rereading Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals. I pulled the book down because I wanted to find the place where Reynolds asserts that the ideas of a “feudal system” that have influenced scholars, philosophers, and politicians since the Renaissance, was actually the concoction of Italian lawyers working on the cusp of the Twelfth and the Thirteenth Centuries — long, long after it was supposed to have been born in the Gothic mists, prior to Charlemagne. Reynolds goes so far as to claim that there never was a “feudal system.” To think that there was is to to commit a sort of fallacy of backformation. We have systems — oh dear, do we ever! — so they must have had systems, too, back in the Dark Ages. The unlikeness of this proposition betrays the human propensity to minimize the impact of change, in the interest of seeing a smoothly continuous sequence of behaviors expressive of a common human nature. When antiquarians and constitutionalists-ante-lettera began examining medieval documents in the Sixteenth Century, it was clear that medieval political arrangements were no longer functioning very well, but scholars backed away from the truth of the matter, which was that the arrangements were breaking down because they had emerged piece-meal, without much regard for other arrangements and almost always opportunistically. There was no system. But this was unacceptable; it ruled out the possibility of making one or two fundamental alterations and producing a new civil order. In the event, it took the French Revolution in all its violence to sweep away the agglomeration of taxes, duties, customs, and inconsistent local laws that made the ancien régime so irrational, with too many people vested with two many small bits of power to allow the reforms that Enlightenment figures called for, sometimes with Royal support, throughout the Eighteenth Century.

The reason I couldn’t find the statements that I was looking for was that I ignored the Introduction, where they are all set forth. I searched the chapter on Italy in vain. I really do not know how to read a book, sometimes.

But I did fish up an extremely juicy morsel.

The law of fiefs, as interpreted and used by the French scholars, could be used in other countries, as it had been in France, to organize the past and provide arguments for the present so that ideas about it gradually spread to a wider public. When what modern historians call “feudal tenures” were abolished in England in 1660 the word “feodall” was used only in an annexe to the act of parliament and only about titles to peerages. By the late eighteenth century, Francis Hargrave, editing the writings of the early seventeenth-century lawyer Edward Coke, marvelled at Coke’s ignorance of what Hargrave called “this interesting subject” and at the absence from Coke’s Institutes of “any thing like an historical illustration with the least reference to the general doctrine of feuds.” Without it, to Hargrave, it was “scarcely possible to have a just and proper idea of our law of tenures, the great part of which is founded on principles strictly feudal.” (7)

Today’s historian would be inclined (one hopes) to deduce from Coke’s silence the absence of thinking about “feudal tenures,” an absence resulting from something like nonexistence. I spent a fair amount of time in law school with pleadings in medieval property cases, and while it was clear that the cases bespoke a very different legal climate, there was nothing “medieval” about them except their dates. If there was occasional talk of vassalage or knight-service, it wasn’t because anyone cared about those things but because they offered indicia of owernship; they supported or disputed someone’s claim to a particular parcel of land. I wouldn’t say that lawsuits were ever the cheapest way of acquiring property, but sometimes they were the only way.

Reynolds gets at the inertia that underlies so much scholarship, in the form of “solved problems,” when she writes the following:

What the concept of feudalism seems to have done since the sixteenth century is not to help us recognize the creatures we meet but to tell us that all medieval creatres arre the same so that we need not other to look at them. (11)

It is wise to bear in mind that the “concept of feudalism” was developed long before modern historiography developed its best practices. Fiefs and Vassals shows that these practices are still very much under development.


Tuesday 3rd

On Sunday, I came down with something. Maybe it’s a mild flu; maybe it’s spider bites. More patches of red skin, with a bit of swelling; more panic about the Emergency Room. Once again, Advil proved effective. Then, something new: chills. And, in the afternoons especially, that physical anomie, rather worse than mere fatigue, for which bedrest and chicken soup seem the only cure. Seizing the occasion to launch a habit of getting to bed earlier, I took the Lunesta pill too early, and wound up with almost three hours of insomnia. This morning, I feel clear and relatively pain-free but frail. And sleepy.

In spite of everything, I went ahead with yesterday’s planned task, largely because it was a postponement from Sunday, when I couldn’t face it because the something that I was coming down with hadn’t fully hit but only made me restless. I sat down at the dining table with one of those cardboard archive boxes that we pulled out of storage a few weeks ago. This one was marked “Letters, 3/3.”

At first, going through the old papers — almost everything dated from the late Sixties or early Seventies — made me feel that blend of sadness, regret, shame, and disappointment that confrontation with the archives usually provokes. The blend is partly inherent in the documents themselves, and partly a response to them. The only purely now feeling was a gentle alienation, for the world of these letters came to an end in the mid-Seventies, or perhaps the early lates: in February, 1977, my mother died, and in the fall I went off to law school, from which experiences I date the beginning of my adult life.

The idea was to get rid of as much as possible. I could have thrown the whole lot away, of course, and every now and then, as I sorted the letters into piles, I wondered why I was not doing just that. What did these letters mean anymore? A partial answer came when I realized that I was going to wrap up the pile of letters from Fossil Darling and given them back to him. Most of them were frivolous, but a few engaged with issues in Fossil’s life, and I think he’ll be interested in the perspective. But I have no need to keep his letters from that time. I have never lost touch with him and do not need to be reminded of old times by mouldering pieces of paper. We’ve lived more than half our lives in the same town, talking several times a week if not a day, and youth is just as far from Fossil as it is from me, by which I mean that we are friends as men in our sixties, not overgrown friends from our teens. Precisely because my connection with Fossil Darling is alive and kicking, the old letters have nothing to tell me. I will keep a souvenir or two, such as the very typical postcard bearing the simple message, “G. T. H.”, provoked by who knows what nastiness on my part.

But the relationships underlying all of the other letters are cold if not dead. Doubly dead in one case: a Christmas card from a friend who died this year and his long-ago divorced first wife. They were not, to my mind, at all suited, and they did not seem to be happy. It did not last long. Much later, my friend refreshed a college friendship and entered into a long and happy second marriage. I didn’t care, yesterday, to be reminded of the first. Pitching that Christmas card was easily done.

There were several correspondences with girls. The letters from those whose names I couldn’t clearly remember were discarded without any attempt to figure out who they were. This left several friends and one romantic interest. The friends were lovely girls, but I’d grown up with them. My favorite among them was ahead of the rest of us sexually (although she was by no means fast), and when I saw what love could do to you I thought of the Greeks, who, I’d just learned, regarded romantic love as a regrettable illness. I’d much rather be friends. Hormones notwithstanding (and I cannot say that mine were ever “raging,” which is probably why I’ve never written a novel), I have never felt closer to another person, or more in love, than when we were laughing hysterically at something.

My liaison with E, the romantic interest, fizzled for this reason. She liked our talk well enough, but she wanted more in the way of manhandling. She said that I couldn’t really love her if I never went beyond kissing. I was crushed, and took this failure to heart, with unhappy consequences for later girls — girls whose letters, blushing, I threw away several culls ago.

There was a clutch of letters from Miss Marion K Nelson, a/k/a Nelsy, one of our two babysitters. When Nelsy returned to her native Portland to retire a second time (she had been a nurse before retiring to babysitting), we exchanged letters, and it was a treat to see her spidery writing, so testimonial of her Down East frugality. I intend to go through her letters with a view to copying some extracts here, after which I shall save one or two.

For, as I soon saw yesterday, I shall have to read all of those letters that I saved because they were written by certain people. I won’t know which ones to throw away otherwise. With luck, there will be one letter, and only one, from each correspondent that captures a comprehensive representation of the writer, that reminds me of who he or she really was and why I was interested. Nothing would make me happier than to come out of this archival review with no more than twenty-five pieces of paper. It’s probably not going to happen; it’s far more likely that, having dipped in to Marie Kondo in a moment of aged desperation, I shall indeed toss the lot. So often, as I went over the letters yesterday, I felt that all the storm and stress — and boredom — reflected in those letters (my storm and stress and boredom) was absolutely unnecessary. If only somebody could have assured me that, if I calmed down and stuck to what I really wanted to do, I’d fine in the end. The feeling was almost overwhelming at times. I’m not sure that I’ll ever make out whether it’s true. Did coming out fine in the end depend on those trials? For many people, there would be no doubt that it did. But, as if written in invisible ink, in almost every old letter, there is a charge of low, dishonest fraud.

For I was trying to be, if not ordinary or normal, at least friendly. Seriously, and sometimes romantically, friendly. It’s a terrible thing to be — a fake friend, a friend whose interest is self-interested in that way. I wanted to have friends because I wanted not to be weird. That’s normal in the schoolyard, but you’re supposed to outgrow it at the very time when I grew into it. It is true that my somewhat willful ventures into youthful friendship shamed me, over time, into honoring strict sincerity in important relationships. But how much better to have known that without incidentally hurting other people!

Finally, there were letters from my parents. There must be another cache of these in some other box, because I did not see — and please don’t let it be the case that I threw the letter away! — my father’s final judgment that “you have come to the end of the road with your charge account at the bookstore.” I winced as I began sorting these letters, but they turned out not to be painful to read. Most were from my mother. I read only the ones that weren’t tucked into envelopes. Although she was prone to suspicion, my mother was a positive person, and she didn’t care to write negative things. On the evidence of the letters in yesterday’s cache, I was not a disappointing son. If it turns out that I have gotten rid of the letters that paint a fuller picture, then I shall have to get rid of the ones that I’ve saved, lest they convey a very false impression.

The question remains: why do I save any of these letters, when in practice I read them only when I am trying to throw some of them away? What kind of curation is that?


Wednesday 4th

What kind of curation, indeed?

The question about saving the letters now is occasioned by the fact that I still have them, because I saved them long ago, instead of dropping them into the waste basket, and have been saving them ever since. Why that?

It is embarrassingly easy to answer. If there was any job description that appealed to me as a teenager, it was “man of letters.” Similarly, I was delighted to know that the Everyman Library (or was it the Modern?) classified some of its books under the heading “Belles-Lettres.” I did not know what these terms meant, exactly, probably for the good reason that they can no longer mean what they meant when they were coined. (There is too much literature — “letters” — for anyone to master all of it, or even the important bits; and what used to be “belle” is now probably fussy). But when do we fully understand anything? I was not so naive as to confuse letters in the mail with literature, but the multiple meanings of the word refracted a common glow. Letters, even letters from Fossil Darling, were writings, and writings were — special. It did not take me long to figure out that, as a man of letters, I ought to keep copies of my own; hence all the onion-skin carbons that I threw away a couple of weeks ago, as too horribly pimply even to read.

I also knew, way back then, that historians were always — “always” — advancing theories based on recovered scraps of information that nobody thought was important at the time. Old shopping lists, for example. For a while, during my early days of domestic independence, I kept my own shopping lists, on the theory that I oughtn’t to throw anything away just because I didn’t know how important it might be. I saved almost everything on paper — for a while. Most of these vital records perished when the storage bin in the basement of my father’s condominium was cleaned out while I was in law school; my stepmother told me that there had been a flood. (Far be it from me to doubt a basement flood so close to Buffalo Bayou!) I used to have some idea of what sort of papers were lost in that incident, but I no longer do. But who knew what world-clarifying advance in knowledge might hang on the discovery, several centuries from now, that the Dodge Family Wanted Me?

What is hard to believe now is that I carted this junk from one apartment to the next — there were to be eight (including two houses) — during my years in Houston. Eight abodes in five years! Having recently vacated an apartment that I shared with Kathleen for thirty-one years, I really can’t imagine surviving such a whirlwind, much less with boxes of shopping lists. But I do know that I saved everything because it was potentially either literature or “history.” How would I know?

Years passed, and — I knew. Things like the shopping lists were first to go. Printed souvenirs, such as outsized menus from remote restaurants, and advertising posters that caught my eye. Found pop art, you might call it; difficult to store and maintain. Manifestos and conference programs. Almost everything relating to a job. Out it all went. The letters, however, I didn’t touch, not until about ten years ago, the last time I tackled “papers.” It was at that time that I abandoned the idea that literature or history had anything to do with the plethora of scribbling and typing that was crammed into boxes that I no longer had room for. But I took its replacement — the idea that I was free to throw things away — rather further than I should have cared to admit.

The letters were not, by any stretch, literature. Nor were they likely to be of incidental historical interest. But they were positive records of my history, and that is precisely why a lot of them got shredded.

By throwing away correspondence that embarrassed me ten years ago, I transformed the nature of everything that I didn’t throw away. What had been my history became nothing more than my souvenirs. For how could anyone else make sense of them, without knowing what had been cut out? If the letters from my parents that I looked at the other day were the only ones to remain, they could only convey a very false impression of our relations.

So, now, if these letters were no more than souvenirs, and souvenirs of interest to me alone, then wouldn’t the importance of holding on to them be determined by how often I looked at them, at least if it was the case that, as I said, I never looked at them, unless I was trying to save space by getting rid of some of them?

Whatever the answer to that question, I shall certainly save the letter that my father sent to my sister and me when he and my mother made their first trip to Hawaii. Contact by telephone, he said, would be difficult, not least because of “a considerable time difference,” so we were asked to call his secretary, at the office or at her home, if something came up. I shall probably save my father’s letters in any case. He once urged me to be a lawyer because, he said, “You can write.” Well, so could he.


Thursday 5th

My reading life seems to work in two gears. In the fun gear, I’m swept off my feet by a book I can’t put down. I never know when to expect this, and it sometimes happens that I’m halfway through something before it seizes me. (Most things that haven’t seized me by the halfway point never will. But if I’ve gotten as far as halfway, I usually carry on to the end.) Nor can I tell what the after-effect of an exciting read will be. Sometimes, I forget all about it almost instantly. Sometimes, it launches a serial reading or re-reading of books that I somehow perceive to be related. This is fun, too. Sometimes, it means reading everything by one author, such as Albert Hirschman, Hannah Arendt, or Penelope Lively. Sometimes it takes me back through my library, digging out things I haven’t looked at in years, on an expedition more of discovery than of re-discovery.

In the normal gear, I’m working through several books at once. The lack of fun that’s implied by working sometimes provokes my inner spoiled brat into fitful, fruitless moments, inspiring me to read everything in the latest New York or London Review of Books. Right now, though, I’m bemused by the synergy, if that’s what it is, between the three books in current rotation. I read a bit of one, can’t take any more, and turn to another. Repeat, repeat. As one of them is much shorter than the other two, it may fall out of sequence fairly soon; but as it is also the most difficult to read, and I find myself going back more than I go forward, it may not.

The first book that I’ll mention is the new one, the recently published novel by Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness In My Mind. Whether or not the title is going to be worked harder as the novel progresses, it has already appeared in the text. The hero, Mevlut Karatkaş, having taken to following a pretty woman whom he sometimes sees on his daily rounds in Istanbul, never approaching her but dreaming of the life that they might share, is aware of the dodginess, socially speaking, of his behavior.

Three months after their first meeting, Mevlut began to wish that Neriman would find out that he was following her and all the things he knew about her. During those three months, Mevlut had followed Neriman in the streets only seven times. It wasn’t a huge number, but of course Neriman wouldn’t be happy if she found out; perhaps she would even think he was some sort of pervert. Mevlut could accept that such a reaction would not be unwarranted. If someone in the village [back home] were to follow his sisters as he followed Neriman, he would want to beat the bastard up.

But Istanbul was not a village. In the city, that guy you thought was stalking that woman he didn’t know could turn out to be someone like Mevlut, who carried important thoughts in his head and was destined to make it beg some day. In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes. (106-7)

Alas, Mevlut seems destined to become a flaneur, a job description that does not fit the lack of independent means that is Mevlut’s lot. It’s because Mevlut indulges whims like following Neriman around — he doesn’t actually know her name: “Neriman” is a TV character — that he fails to complete his secondary education. Mevluk is not a bad student, just a disengaged one, and his school is certainly an unpleasant place to be. His day, or rather afternoon and evening, job, toting trays of yogurt, and later boza (a drink), through neighborhoods more affluent than his own, follows the footsteps and provides many of the encounters of a disinterested observer, and one of the little mysteries of the book is the uncertainty about just how aware Mevlut is that he cannot afford to be disinterested. But if we have difficulty fixing a readerly relationship with Mevlut, we can’t relate at all to the world in which he lives, which in Pamuk’s portrayal might well be taken as a vernacular demonstration of the adage that, while the Ottomans were ruthless conquerors, they were incompetent governors. Most of the other men in Strangeness are simply hotheads, cycling from talk through violence without actually doing anything. Those are the honest men, anyway. The few others, the successes, are sneaks. The only way to get ahead in the world is to cheat at every chance. It’s all rather depressing. You’d like to think that the novel is set in olden days of limited opportunities and cavalleria rusticana, but the action runs from 1968 to 2012.

Although I’ve read a good deal of Pamuk, I’m no critic. Although I enjoyed My Name Is Red, I didn’t understand most of it, by which I mean all the things that appeared to be happening in the background. I loved Snow, bleak as it is, because I was lucky enough to read it while I was in Turkey. Set in Kars, a city in the far east of Turkey that fell into Russian hands in the late Ottoman period, the world of Snow could not be farther from the former cosmopolis on the European side of the Bosporus, but, from the vantage point of a New Yorker, it couldn’t be closer, either. My favorite book is the nonfiction Istanbul, and I wish I could find the other book, which seems to have disappeared not only from my library but from the face of the earth, in which “The Pamuk Apartments” was published. (It appeared first in The New Yorker.) A good deal of Pamuk’s fiction can be called experimental, in that it seeks to create a Turkish foundation for literature as spacious and complex as that of the West, but without copying Western models. Strangeness is an ostensibly straightforward read — its little mysteries are indeed small ones — but I can only imagine the rich allusiveness of the tale to educated Turks. It has an old-fashioned feel, but careful readers will deduce from the many elements that are unfamiliar to us that it’s a Turkish old-fashioned feel.

So I can take only so much of Mevlut and his melancholy city before feeling gloomy myself, and at that point I turn to the second book on my table, Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals. I am going to say only one thing about this book’s contents, aside from what’s riveting about the book’s spirit, so don’t worry about my wading into medieval property law or the underpinnings of Lohengrin. And I’ll say it later.

Fiefs and Vassals is a book in which an Oxford don (Lady Margaret) raps colleagues and predecessors on the knuckles for getting their history backwards. Reynolds never explicitly accuses anyone of gender bias, but her impatience with “feudalism” is quite exciting, once you manage to hear it. Her controlled impatience with the notion that this “feudalism” — a supposedly ancient custom emerging from the mists of Germanic antiquity and reflecting the sacredness of the “war band” in its oaths of commendation — characterized and governed the possession of property in the Middle Ages suggests a bright girl’s impatience with boys’ games.

If it is true that medieval society was bound together by a mass of individual and explicit contracts between superiors and inferiors [ie, "feudalism"], rather than by the more common implied and collective contracts, then that would certainly make it distinctive, but to conclude that it was we would need to establish the prevalence of individual contracts and the absence of collective bonds. This has not yet been done.

This has not yet been done — and yet, what every student has been and, for all I know, still is taught in school rests on the assumption that it has been done. In fact, something else has been done, something of the all-too-human variety: historians, men mostly, have read what they know from late-medieval documents into the much vaguer early-medieval ones, and on the basis of this erected a theory of how it all came about. This is the most regrettable sin that a historian can unconsciously commit, but it is formidably common. We all do it by nature, because it is very hard, if not impossible, to unlearn what we know, and to remember that we used to not know it. In the case that Reynolds is dissecting, historians began with the assumption, a correct one to make about property right up to 1789, that properties known as fiefs, whatever they might be, were held exclusively by aristocrats. Where they went wrong was in applying this assumption to much earlier times, when in fact, as Reynolds shows in page after page of examples (each of which she makes into an interesting item in her collection), it was the case that, among their many possessions, some aristocrats owned some fiefs — and that these fiefs decayed over time into holdings with pretty much the same rights and obligations as today’s suburban homeowner’s. What distinguishes early from late is the appearance of a treatise on fiefs that was compiled by Italian lawyers round about 1200. The appearance of the book marked the beginning of a transition to legal systems in which we recognize the origins of our own, with trained professionals, lawyers and judges, who specialized in resolving inconsistencies in the use of terms such as “fief” and “vassal.” So much for the Germanic mists! In this new dispensation, rulers were delighted to have a legal foundation for taxation, not to mention a rationale for confiscating the estates of traitors; while aristocrats, with typical vanity, went along with the restriction of earlier freedoms because only aristocrats owned fiefs.

I happen to take an interest in medieval history that centers directly on Reynolds’s point: how much we don’t really know about its origins, because so little was written down and because what was written down so rarely involved rigorously defined terms. In short: the Middle Ages never existed. There was a post-Roman world, grim and vulnerable to marauders. Then the wind began to blow the other way — I don’t say that it really did, but that’s the only explanation that I can come up with for what happened in the Tenth Century. No doubt it began in the Eighth, when a remarkable family, climaxing in Charlemagne, took increasing control of European affairs, only to lose it in the Ninth. After the Tenth Century, it would not be lost a second time. After the Tenth Century, Europe was an established part of the world, not a marshy wilderness far from the Mediterranean. The story that began in the Tenth Century is the story of the West that we’re still telling. As I say, no one really knows how this happened. The few things that we do know about the period force us to hypothesize, and Fiefs and Vassals, in its demolition of a once rather monumental hypothesis, is a call to get back to the drawing board.

But Fiefs and Vassals is a close read; every word counts. Reynolds writes very well but her focus on detail is strenuous. So then, at the end of the evening, I turn to my third read: Heart of Darkness. Everyone has read this, or is supposed to have read it, and everybody knows how it ends: “Oh, the horror!” and “Mistuh Kurtz, he dead.” (Except that that’s not how it ends.) But I find myself asking, this third time around, “Does anything actually happen in this story?” I’m trying to read it as Reynolds would have me read an ancient charter: as if I didn’t know what (I thought) it was supposed to say; as if I didn’t know anything about it. And so far — Marlow is fixing up his sunken steamboat — I am having a hard time keeping track of actual events. This, I think, is precisely the effect that Conrad wished to create, as if to daze his readers with the monstrous incomprehensibility (to Western eyes) not only of the Congo but of European enterprise on the Congo. Heart of Darkness is magnificently indefinite, even harder to pin down than The Golden Bowl. I catch myself blithely assuming that something has happened, but when I look back, I can’t find it: it hasn’t.



Friday 6th

So intensely did I wrap myself up, last night, in Susan Reynolds’s search for fiefs and vassals in the Tenth Century, that when I switched to Heart of Darkness I really seemed to be reading the same book, just a very different chapter.

But enough about that. Let’s move into the kitchen for a spell — that vexed workspace. It’s vexed because, while we depend upon its output as human beings, there seems to be no satisfactory way to humanize it. Most cooks over most of time have been slaves, or in any case people doing a job that involves a staggering amount of drudgery, usually in ill-ventilated close quarters. Countless wives and mothers have cooked simply because it was a big part of the job description. Men generally militarize cooking, whether in the silent but deadly French manner or the Emergency Room faux chaos that Anglophones prefer. I try to conjure Alice Waters cooking just for fun, but I can’t believe it; I should think that she can cook in her sleep by now, and does, waking up now and then to appreciate a leaf of something. I suppose that that is the model: master the art so well that you don’t have to pay attention. But it hardly seems a humanist model.

I am only a few years away from seventy. My only culinary ambition is to get in and out of the kitchen as quickly as possible without serving anything disagreeable. My dinner parties (when was the last?) really are about people, which, yes, does mean that the food has to be good enough to keep guests from wondering why they have left the certain comforts of home for the dubious ones of mine; but I shudder at the thought of wowing or “impressing” anybody. The illusion that I wish to create is that I do this all the time. I am helped in this effort to deceive by the fact that I used to do it all the time.

Why, I wonder. Why did I want to be known as a good cook? Or did I, really? Perhaps I was simply confused. Perhaps I thought that you couldn’t impose on people without offering something extraordinary. You’ll note the impose. Most people look at it the other way round: you are not imposing on people when you ask them to dinner. But I disagree, and I suspect that everybody else does, if secretly. If you really want to give someone a treat, go over to her house and, without leaving a mess, make dinner for her there, and make something that she really likes. I’ve known mothers who could do this, and I’ve known fewer expressways to being taken for granted. So, if asking people to dinner is an imposition, then there had better be something special.

What I didn’t know, starting out, is what “special” might be. Like everyone else, I looked at cookbooks that were illustrated with gonzo spectaculars, such as the lobster en Bellevue in Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cook Book. The Times ran a piece recently about the ghastly Technicolor concoctions that were “popularized,” if that’s what happened, in the Fifties and Sixties, murky gelatine salads and obscene frankfurter garnishes. It may be that Learning From Las Vegas, the book that Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published at the time, was supererogatory: everybody already was learning from Las Vegas. Life in the heart of the American Century was an endless floor show.

So, my first party dessert was riz à l’impératrice, a tarted-up rice pudding. If you do this sort of thing often, it cuts into the time available for reading, writing, and staying sane. Now I cook almost exclusively for Kathleen and myself. In recent years, I’ve tried to figure how to make things for just us that we used to have only at parties. Fried chicken is an example. I’ve written elsewhere about the depressing side effects of deep-frying food in an airless apartment; I have a kitchen with a window now, and I don’t deep-fry anything, certainly not chicken.

(A moment of insight: our apartment usually looks ready for a party. It never looks like we just had one.)

After years and years of preparing fried chicken almost as if it were Wiener Schnitzel — soaking the pieces in buttermilk overnight, then shaking them in a bag of flour and cornmeal and seasoning, and, finally (the Wiener Schnitzel part), setting the coated chicken on a rack in the refrigerator for half an hour or more before frying — I gave batter a try. I combined equal portions of flour and cornstarch, some baking powder, cayenne, paprika, and salt, and added a double portion of water. I stirred it up and set it in the refrigerator for an hour. Then I dipped the chicken in it. I had done nothing to the chicken but brine it — soak it in a quart of water into which I had dissolved a quarter of a cup of salt — also for an hour. I fried the chicken in peanut oil as usual. When it was done, I put it on a serving dish and proceeded to boil some pasta. When the pasta was done, we sat down to dinner. The chicken was delicious. It was lighter and yet more flavorful. This was the other night. The real test came yesterday afternoon, when I could no longer resist the leftover thigh sitting unwrapped on a plate in the kitchen. From the first bite, I knew that I would never go back to the old way.

The skin did not come off in one enormous, slightly rubbery piece. The meat was neither dry nor oily, but still juicy. The flavor almost knocked me out. Finally: picnic chicken! Not leftover chicken! Chicken that improves overnight! It doesn’t improve much, but the flavor does deepen by a notch. The main thing is that it loses nothing.

Thank you, America’s Test Kitchen. And thank you, Ray Soleil, for adverting me to an online book sale. Cooking For Two, apparently the best recipes that Christopher Kimball’s culinary empire discovered in 2011, cut down to serve two, was on offer for ten dollars. I had complained to Ray about the dearth of recipes for two people, and it had not taken him long to find something. The last thing I need is more cookbooks, but I do need new ideas, and my plan is to go through the three ATK books (yes, three; I forget what the deal was, but there was a deal if you bought three), make a list of the recipes that I’m likely to try, and then try them. Run my own little test kitchen. The recipes that work will be copied, with my emendations, into Evernote, and then the books can go on to help someone else.

What I need is not new recipes as such but formulas that (a) serve two people nicely, with no leftovers, (b) can be prepped well ahead, getting everything out of the way except quick, last-minute assembly and the cooking itself, and (c) do not involve fuss at cooking time. In short, I need to get all the heavy lifting out of the way long before Kathleen gets home, no matter when that is. I’ve already got two new staples, and Kathleen is crazy about both of them. One is stir fries. Back in the Seventies, when everyone was discovering the possibility of Chinese cooking at home, I mastered stir fries, but our palates were blander back then. And when Kathleen and I settled in Yorkville, it seemed silly to go to all the work to prep a simple stir fry when we were surrounded by good Chinese restaurants, all of whom delivered.

A few years ago, however, we began to be aware of something. Food that I made at home always tasted better than stuff that we ordered in. Part of this was certainly a function of the transportation problem. (There is really no such thing as a french fry that can survive the delivery process — delay, packaging — with its glory intact.) But more than that, I knew how to cook for the two of us better than the neighborhood eateries. So I began trying to make the things that we were ordering. Stir fries were one, and I’m still working on them; there’s still something missing, although it gets smaller with every dish.

Pizza was the other. Unlike stir fries, I had no history with pizzas. Over the years, I had made perhaps five or six pizzas, and never been encouraged to keep trying. This time, working with the recipe in the 1997 Joy of Cooking, I made a pleasant, slightly boring pizza. I got a little more help with the dough from a book that I found at Amazon, Truly Madly Pizza, by Suzanne Lenzer. The pizzas got better, and I ordered a pizza stone and a peel, have left rather gruddly ones behind in the move to this apartment, and then the pizzas got much better. The basic pizza that has evolved in the past six months serves two very nicely. The tomato sauce is Agata & Valentina’s Arrabbiata Sauce. Atop this I spread a mixture of fennel sausage, mushrooms, and oil-cured black olives; the skinned sausage has been cooked and drained, and all the topping ingredients have been chopped together with a mezzaluna. Grated mozzarella goes on top. Somehow, what comes out of the oven hits all the pizza-satisfaction buttons without tasting like anything like a “slice.” At the moment, I am fine-tuning this basic pizza, and in the process internalizing the recipe so that no thought whatsoever is required, just some good music in the background.

I owe thanks for my pizza campaign to my daughter, Megan, who seems, whenever we visit her in San Francisco, to turn out tasty little pizzas in no time at all, while we’re all chatting over a glass of wine. It is true that her son, Will, makes the time fly by. Nevertheless Megan’s example convinced me that making pizza need not be an operation. When she and Will were here for an impromptu dinner one night last summer, I made what Megan told me was Will’s favorite pizza: spinach and mozzarella. Nothing else, just mozzarella sprinkled on and around baby spinach leaves. He ate it all up. Well, there was a corner that he left behind, so I ate it. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t nearly as dull as I expected it to be.

A third dish that I’m working on is not on anybody’s delivery menu, nor is it at all palatable, probably, to anyone under forty. It’s Chicken Tetrazzini, a dish that was invented in San Francisco, a few years before the earthquake, for a famous soprano. (First name: Luisa; you ought to hear her sing “Ah, non giunge” from La Sonnambula.) It is also a dish that both Kathleen and I grew up on, thanks to Stouffer’s, the frozen-food people. Bite-sized pieces of cooked chicken breast are immersed in béchamel and stirred up with parboiled green peas and broken-up cooked spaghetti. (Barilla actually sells broken-up spaghetti, a disgrace perhaps but very handy.) This mixture is poured into a gratin dish and topped with Parmesan cheese. Half an hour in a moderate oven will bring a brown blush to the cheese — maybe less, in your oven. We had this the other night, and, unfortunately, we could eat only half of it; the dish could have fed four people. So I’ll be working on that, too; the trick will be learning how to make half a cup of bechamel.

We’re having a friend to dinner tomorrow night. I’m thinking of a light soup, a simple pasta, Elizabeth David’s very straightforward way with veal cutlets (French Provincial Cooking, I think), and I-don’t-know-what for dessert. I’m very tempted to make tapioca pudding, which I haven’t had in an age and which I recently learned has been dusted off as “frozen soufflé.” We’ll see.


Bon weekend à tous!