Lazy People, Poets, and Men of Action
August 2016 (IV)
22, 23, 25 and 26 August
For a few weeks, I’ve been reading William Trevor’s short stories. I had a go at them ten years ago or more, and I still remember three quite vividly, “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch,” “Mrs Silly,” and “Torridge.” (I recall writing about “Torridge,” but I can’t find it.) Curiously, these stories still seem standouts; so far, I haven’t read a fourth that quite reaches their intensity. And yet all the stories are intense.
At first, this time around, I read at random, but then I got systematic. The system was peculiar, of course, so the results are eccentric. I’ve read (or re-read) all the stories from “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch,” which begins on page 333, to “The Property of Colette Nervi,” which ends on page 963. Half the book, in other words.
What I’m looking for, as I read, is a lead on Trevor’s transparent prose. The language is entirely self-effacing; never does it call attention to itself or distract in any way from the limpid flow of the tale. It is also free of negative defects: it is never tedious, never obscure, never heavily ironic. One imagines that William Trevor himself is mute. The artful construction of the stories is evident enough, if you care to work it out, but somehow the quality of the sentences makes structural analysis seem both pretentious and pointless, and also something of a child’s play. Anyone could do it. Anyone could show how the layers of disenchantment peel off, each one darker than the other before, in a story like “Teresa’s Wedding.” Anyone could remark on the horror of Raymond Bamber’s exposure, even though he denies it himself — made worse because he denies it himself — as the quality of Mrs Fitch’s calling him homosexual passes from drunken raving to incontestable truth, accepted by all once it has been revealed by her. But how this is made to happen on the cellular level is unclear, because the happening is too clear.
Not wishing to return to the kitchen herself, she ran the hot tap in the bathroom on to the sponge-cloth she kept for cleaning the bath. She found that if she rubbed hard enough at the paint on the stair-carpet and on the landing carpet it began to disappear. But the rubbing tired her. As she put away the sponge-cloth, Mrs Malby had a feeling of not quite knowing what was what. Everything that had happened in the last few hours felt like a dream; it also had the feeling of plays she had seen on television; the one thing it wasn’t like was reality. As she paused in her bathroom, having placed the sponge-cloth on a ledge under the hand-basin, Mrs Malby saw herself standing there, as she often did in a dream: she saw her body hunched within the same blue dress she’d been wearing when the teacher called, and two touches of red on her pale face, and her white hair tidy on her head, and her fingers seeming fragile. In a dream anything could happen next… (“Broken Homes,” 529)
That is the shorter half of a paragraph that I came upon by opening The Collected Stories at random. It took only the first sentence to remind me of the story, which is about the ordeal that an elderly London woman undergoes in connection with a cockamamie social-outreach program that seems drawn from A Clockwork Orange. The old woman is the prisoner of her fear that she will be taken for senile and shipped off to a home. Her autonomy is everything to her. But her over-correction of possible orneriness or outrage subjects her to the barbaric invasion of derelict teenagers who set about repainting her kitchen, which doesn’t need repainting, with all the carelessness that one might expect. All the while, their transistor radio blares loudly. Two of the kids have sex in her bed. Most of the story is a nightmare. In a dream, anything can happen, but in this dream, only this can happen. Just like life.
Consider the sponge-cloth. It is the sort of detail that no one can relish for itself. We do not want to know more about it. Trevor never describes it. But it is mentioned three times. It is material evidence that Mrs Malby can take care of herself. Note that, while the sponge-cloth makes its appearance already in Mrs Malby’s hands, it is put away twice. The putting away of the sponge-cloth on its ledge is part and parcel of Mrs Malby’s housekeeping; she does not leave the sponge-cloth lying about. The sponge-cloth is something that she can control, unlike so much else in her flat at the moment. She cannot keep rubbing at the paint on the carpets. She is eighty-seven years old. Her tired, insulted mind wanders to television plays. (There is more about that in the remainder of the paragraph.) And yet her confusion does not infect her behavior. Mrs Malby’s helplessness is by no means complete, and yet we must wonder if this is an advantage. Neighbors will come to her aid, but their aid will be partial. They will fancy that they have done more than enough on her behalf; her kitchen will remain debauched — there is no other word for it. Mrs Malby may retain her autonomy, but she has certainly lost something that seems essential to it.
Mrs Malby and her plight rise vividly from the page, and yet there is not one unusual word on that page, nor one odd phrase or construction. There are no metaphors. There is only this: “she saw her body hunched within the same blue dress she’d been wearing when the teacher called.” Hunched. This one plain word recalls the difficulty that Mrs Malby has had, at the opening of the story, in dealing with the slippery teacher who asks for her cooperation. Trevor never makes sense of this project, which evidently contemplates the improvement of misguided teenagers by giving them something useful to do. We can tell from the teacher’s way of not responding to Mrs Malby’s statements that he will not be supervising the teenagers; we can see through his progressive cant to the hash that the young people will make of the job. Mrs Malby is so disconcerted by the teacher’s visit — so worried about revealing herself to be an incompetent octogenarian — that she merely survives it, and takes no follow-up action to keep the delinquents out of her kitchen.
The wonder of the story, as it is of almost all of Trevor’s stories, is that Trevor writes as if it were told by a protagonist who, in plain human fact, could never tell it nearly so well. “Broken Homes” may be told from Mrs Malby’s point of view, but it is not written as she would have written it. This is the last thing on our minds as we read the story. It can only occur to us later, if we stop to reflect on it. While reading the story, we are intensely engaged by Mrs Malby and her terrible vulnerability. Trevor’s stories are urgent because we are gripped by their narrators, who come to life no matter how obliquely Trevor introduces them. It is not so much what the narrators tell us as the witness they bear to experiencing it. In a story like “Mags,” nothing happens and everything happens (even the title character is, to put it mildly, dramatically offstage). The boy who narrates “Mr McNamara” hates his father at the end, and yet he says, “I could neither forgive nor understand.” This wonderfully ambiguous statement states the boy’s feelings at the time while suggesting a future in which there might be forgiveness and understanding: what he has discovered is beyond the comprehension of a thirteen year-old’s mind. “It was no consolation to me then that he had tried to share with us a person he loved in a way that was different from the way he loved us.” Then. I sometimes feels that Trevor’s ability to hang an entire story on a common adverb is the Irish gift for gab raised to its highest pitch.
Last night, we went to the movies.
Kathleen came home on the early side, and we walked up to the Orpheum for the eight-o’clock show of Jason Bourne. Kathleen had said that she wanted to see the new installment in the theatre, and when I saw that it was showing right here, I made myself available. It sounds uncomplicated, and it was, but getting to the point of actually going required a few changes. I had to waive my preference (which Kathleen cannot accommodate, obviously) for seeing movies in the late morning, when theatres are empty. And I had to get over the peculiar variant of agoraphobia that has afflicted me for some time. In the past two years, I’ve built up an enormous resistance to doing anything unusual, such as going out at night. Like an OCD victim, I’ve fretted about missing things and exposing myself to risks, but all I’ve done is to read. It had come to the point where even watching videos was rare.
One contributor to my screwy behavior was the upheaval outside, the mostly-nonviolent urban catastrophe that has given the intersection of Second Avenue and Eighty-Sixth Street the look and feel of a provisionally rehabilitated bomb site. It would not be terribly disturbing to pass through, but it is degrading to live with. The greater cause, however, appears to have been the late stages of gestation. Since I embarked on the writing project I’ve been a new man. Whatever the quality of the work that I’ve been doing, concentrating on it for several hours in the afternoon has shut down the anxious hum that was making life more of a challenge than it needed to be.
I don’t mean to go on about the writing project. That’s for every other Friday — although I will say that by the time of my next report, I may well be proofing the completed first draft, and preparing to print it so that Kathleen can read it. I really did mean to talk about Jason Bourne. And yet I missed a good deal of it. As can easily happen — another reason for staying home — my intestinal fortitude was under challenge. I had to slip away to the men’s room several times during the course of the film, dreading an unfortunate accident that never, thank heaven, materialized. I chalked it up, in the end, to the unpredictability of internal affairs and to the violence of Paul Greengrass’s moviemaking. An early set-piece, for example, involving a demonstration in Athens’ Syntagma Square, got on my nerves. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, because the incoherence of the rushing hand-held cameras was making me ill. I couldn’t really see anything, and I couldn’t keep track of what the characters were trying to accomplish. When the action went automotive, it was somewhat easier to follow, but I find car chases to be objectively tedious, along with the run of courtroom scenes. The only comfort came from watching Alicia Vikander direct the chase from a remote war room at the CIA, and wondering how long it would take her to form a relationship of some kind with the rogue asset played by Matt Damon.
Speaking of assets, “Asset” is the name of Vincent Cassel’s character. Is Cassel becoming the new Max von Sydow? When I see the actor’s head shots at IMDb, he looks handsome enough, in his jagged way, but in most of his films he does something with his hair, whether the hair on his head or his beard, that makes him look like a monster, a vector of deadly disease. He never smiles unless he is torturing somebody. He is recklessly destructive. I have learned to dislike seeing him on the screen; there’s no real drama, just unpleasantness. They couldn’t even be bothered to give his character a personal name. Also upsetting was Tommy Lee Jones’s face, which suggested terminal disease.
But, ah — Alicia Vikander. She had a basic look for this movie, a dutiful, wrinkle-free frown, but it never became tiresome. Perhaps Tommy Lee Jones’s face was there to emphasize the radiant smoothness of Vikander’s skin. As an older viewer, capable of recalling Jones’s smooth features in The Eyes of Laura Mars, I had an idea of what Vikander is in for, but at the moment she is Freia, the goddess of the golden apples of youth; she is youth itself, not just young. But it is an ironic youth, because it clashes with her apparent omniscience. Vikander is not at all implausible as a powerful orchestrator of digital resources, any more than she was as a preternaturally astute doll in Ex Machina. How can she be so savvy at such a tender age? The answer, of course, as you can see for yourself in the recent Vanity Fair piece, is that she is an intelligent actress. She knows how to fake it. Which we ought to be able to make out without the help of pieces in Vanity Fair. I kicked myself for reading it; I didn’t need to know that she was in a relationship with a co-star. Why can’t everyone learn from Meryl Street? To be the world’s greatest actress, marry somebody who tames heavy metal.
Yes, I have a question. Was Matt Damon in Jason Bourne? Was that really him? It wasn’t a cgi stunt? His big fight with Asset was so dimly lit that I couldn’t tell who was doing what to whom. The ostensible Damon said about twenty words throughout the movie. And he had two expressions, grim determination and sorrowed wonder. Jason Bourne might have been a lot more interesting if we could have focused on the interaction with Bourne’s father. Jason (or rather, David) had signed on to the nefarious Treadstone project because he believed that his father had been killed by foreign terrorists. Now, in the middle of this noisy and crowded film, he learns that the CIA murdered his father. Perhaps if we could linger on this issue for a bit instead of just registering it, we might progress beyond the pat responses. All the Bourne films, especially the best of them (The Bourne Legacy, with Jeremy Renner) are about the self-invalidating curse of special ops: inevitably, the need to keep secrets means throwing all legal constraints aside in the name of patriotism. Men invoke principles to save their own skin. The spectacle of cynicism feeds the knowingness of audiences too wised up to trust civil institutions. The things we have to do to keep America safe!
For a long time, my attention has fastened every morning on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. This was my agora; as I circulated among the days four speakers, regular columnists and interested parties alike, I developed a feeling for the general consensus. I also noted the extent to which my own view of things differed from that consensus. Sometimes I wrote about this, but, whether I did or not, my focus on the world invariably sharpened, if only a little.
Lately, that hasn’t been happening, because I haven’t been inclined to circulate among the speakers. I’m not sure whether I’ve lost interest in the consensus, or whether I no longer believe that it is there to be divined from the Op-Ed page. Variations on What motivates Trump supporters are no longer interesting at all. Trump supporters are people who are going to be dead or gaga in twenty years; they’re the past, not the future. Inquiries into how Trump supporters took élites and their pundits by surprise usually fail to recognize the central role played by the morality of the world of television, which highly-educated politicos have until very recently regarded as something having nothing to do with them. Nicholas Kristof’s humanitarian commentary is more a long-term consciousness-raising campaign than the series of calls to action that it appears to be. David Brooks is ever more afflicted by social nostalgia: if we could only go back.
What perks me up is the mention of Richard M Nixon. Nixon was the architect of institutionalized American malaise — political contempt for the little people, incarceration of as many African Americans as possible, espionage as a means of communication. He knew that everybody hated him, but exploited everybody’s fears to rise to power, and then he hated everybody back. Nixon was the Bad Seed that improbably but ruinously occupied the White House. We ought to build statues of him, so that we can blow them up. Yes! But, really, this is not very interesting either. Nixon may have been excitingly awful in his day, but he has left us with a hangover that will not go away. A hangover is something that you want to get rid of. You don’t want to think about it.
Kathleen and I were talking about Jeffrey Toobin’s new book about Patty Hearst last night. Neither of us has read it, nor does either of us plan to read it. But the nub of Patty Hearst’s story is worth disagreeing about. I say that it was right for President Carter to commute Heart’s sentence and for President Clinton to pardon her, because it is unbecoming for children of the élite to be punished as if they were common criminals. Kathleen says that this is outrageous. Of course it’s outrageous from the standpoint of simple justice, but it respects our irrational belief that justice is not to be simplified. We really do like to think that some people are special; it is a kind of belief in paradise. And we accept that nothing in Hearst’s upbringing — nothing — prepared her for the encounters and situations that followed her kidnapping. This is not to say that we excuse her, or believe that she ought to be forgiven because she is basically a nice person. On the contrary, our mercy is somewhat contemptuous. We’re upholding her status, for our own sake, at the cost of infantilizing her. We’re saying — my imaginary old-fashioned friends and I — that she could not have known what she was doing. We don’t really forgive her at all; we simply feel that it is unseemly for a Hearst to be in a women’s prison when all she did was to do what she was raised to do: to follow the prevailing winds.
I do detest righteousness.
Meanwhile, is Damon Baehrel a fake? This week’s New Yorker arrived yesterday (finally), but I read Nick Paumgarten’s piece online, this morning, by clicking on a link in my inbox. I now get a message from the magazine every weekday, and, now that the Op-Ed page has dried up as a source of inspiration, The New Yorker has moved in with its desktop sampler. The stories of the day appear in rows of two, and the link to lead, at the top left, is the one that I usually press. This morning — yesterday afternoon, actually, but I don’t read mail in the afternoon unless it is personal — the lead was Paumgarten’s story about a fabulous restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Was I the only reader to remember the much longer piece by John McPhee, appearing in (I have ascertained) the issue of 19 February 1979, about “Otto”?
He carried the octopus inside. He said he has a cousin in the Florida Keys who puts octopuses in his driveway and then drives over them. “It’s just to break down the fibres. I don’t know what happens. I just know that it works.” He went into the restaurant and took down from a wall an August Sander photograph of an anonymous German chef, a heavy man in a white coat of laboratory length over pin-striped trousers and highly polished shoes. The subject’s ears were small, the head a large and almost perfect sphere. On the upper lip, an aggressive mustache was concentrated like a grenade. The man was almost browless, his neck was too thick to permit a double chin, and his tiny black eyes — perhaps by the impertinence of the photographer — were opened wide. In his hammy hands were a bowl and a wooden-handled whip. “This pig-faced guy is a real Otto,” said the chef. “When our customers ask who is that in the picture we say that he is our founder.”
Otto’s restaurant, McPhee agreed to indicate, was more than five miles and less than a hundred miles from the triangle formed by La Grenouille and two restaurants that are no longer with us. Paumgarten tells us that Damon’s place is in Earlton, New York, near Coxsackie.
Compared to Otto’s place, Damon Baehrel’s is austere — his flour is arduously milled from acorns, he pickles things in pine needles, and butter and cream are avoided — but that is mere fashion. The essence of the stunt remains the same. Food is transformed from nourishment, which we associate with mothers, into an achievement, which is heroic. It becomes amazing. It is the best! food! ever! Today’s fashions limit culinary excellence to two categories: high-tech and locavore. Ferran Adrià is famous for his spray cans. Damon Baehrel farms his swamp.
Whether the food is actually any good or not soon ceases to be the point, because it is taken for granted. If you are not impressed, then you are just not with it. Now, I have never been near the kind of cookery for which El Bulli was famous, nor have I dined at Chez Panisse (which I take to be the original locavore dining hall), and it is not my intention to question the satisfaction that these restaurants have given to many, many patrons. I will go along with taking the great food for granted. It’s what happens next that interests me. Legends begin to encrust the edifice. Damon Baehrel gets all his meats from “Mennonite farmers.” John McPhee’s Otto claims that smoking chervil will make you high. But the indispensable rumor is about bookings. It’s impossible to get in, and yet everybody famous seems to have been. It’s as if Donald Trump were saying that you, the reader, are a loser, because you’ve never even tried — not that it would do you any good. Damon Baehrel’s restaurant is said to be booked through 2025.
2025! It’s a sign of the times that Paumgarten is rather less trusting than McPhee. Having talked about the weird food (which tastes “sublime” — at least on the first outing), the writer wants to get to the bottom of the indispensable rumor. It soon becomes clear, whether or not anyone is going to come out and say so, that Damon Baehrel is a fabulist. If you tell me a story about unicorns, I do not accuse you of lying. So it is here. When Baehrel claims that he has just served dinner — a dinner just like yours — to a party of Japanese that left moments before your arrival, it is more agreeable to think of him as talking about unicorns. Eventually, inevitably, Paumgarten wearies of the operation.
Many of Baehrel’s dishes are trompe l’oeil, with foraged ingredients subbing for more traditional ones. Consider a favorite of his book publishers, the Morrises—what he calls “the phony egg.” “I use native components to build an egg,” Baehrel told me. “The egg white is cattails. The yolk is pickled heirloom tomatoes in a broth of wild parsnip juice. I use willow bark to make the home fries, and squash as bacon.” Though he did not serve this one to me, I have seen photographs of it. It’s uncanny. I have no reason to doubt that the phony egg is phony in the way he says it is. But in the context of all the other questions surrounding his operation the egg can seem like a provocation. Why not just serve an egg?
Why not, indeed. Maybe the fake egg is really and truly incredible, a bucket-list must. Maybe even I would like it. But what Baehrel is really serving up is a guyish wet dream, complete with all the manly accoutrements. You half expect him to hand out Davy Crockett caps and to build a campfire. You forget that he was raised in Massapequa, and is not the last of the Mohicans. You don’t just drive up to the door; you have to wait for the gate to open (which it does, on time and not a moment sooner). You devour sixteen courses, for which you pay four hundred dollars. It had better be good!
That story about the emperor’s new clothes becomes a lot easier to believe if you presuppose that there were no women watching the parade.
For dinner the other night, we had rib steaks. My interest in rib steaks has shifted over the years. During the graduate school days of M le Neveu, I served a thick hunk of beef every Sunday night. I would run it under the broiler for about fifteen minutes, and the center would still be pink. I could count on my young cousin to eat most of it. When he moved on, rib steaks disappeared from our table. More recently, however, I had to deal with a cooking-gas shutoff that forced me to make do with electric appliances. Consumer-quality electric ovens do not do a very good job of broiling meats, I found. So I turned to an old, somewhat forgotten friend, Edouard de Pomiane, and decided to give his approach to galley cooking a try.
Pomiane calls for ten-ounce steaks. I had a hard time conveying this demand to the butchers. So I settled on inch-thick steaks. I found that, if I followed Pomiane’s timing (three minutes per side), the meat was grey, so I cut it down to two minutes per side with fifteen or twenty seconds more on the side that seemed less browned. This works very nicely, but the problem is that the medium-rare beef has no flavor at all, according to Kathleen. I know what she means. Good steak is not supposed to taste, but only hint at a taste. It is only when steak is well-done that it has any real flavor, and it’s a flavor that I detest. Kathleen’s difficulty was complicated by a pungent Béarnaise sauce, again made following Pomiane’s instructions. The sauce continued to scream vinegar long after the vinegar evaporated. Pomiane’s recipe for Béarnaise cuts down on the butter and calls for one egg yolk instead of three, so as to reduce the quantity of the sauce to the needs of two people sharing a steak (as Kathleen and I do), but I think that I’m going to look into cutting back on the vinegar and the shallot as well. When I blamed the Béarnaise for Kathleen’s inability to taste the meat, she protested that she hadn’t used any. But all you had to do was to be in the same room with the bowl of sauce to taste it.
The gas came back on before I could make a thorough study of Pomiane’s little book, French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Or, Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life (1930). Pomiane was born in Paris in 1875 to Poles by the name of Pozerski. It was his parents who adopted the aristocratic French moniker. Pomiane worked at the Pasteur Institute, where he studied bacteriophages. I have found no information about the domestic conditions that led to his familiarity with the rigors of cooking on a pair of gas rings. I can get quite lost imagining where these rings might have been found in his apartment. I expect that the apartment was not designed to include a kitchen; that, in the original position, food was cooked somewhere else, in a nether region never visited by professors at the Pasteur Institute, except for scientific purposes. Perhaps Pomiane’s apartment had been part of a larger apartment. In some closet or a pantry, with running water nearby, the gas rings might have been installed on a counter or a table. I used to imagine Pomiane as a bit of a rake, sweetening his ladies with succulent but quickly prepared meals before leading them towards the boudoir. There is really no evidence for that daydream in his book. He seems rather to be advising the busy man who needs a good dinner without a lot of fuss. Wouldn’t such a man, even in 1930, have some sort of domestic help? Pomiane often mentions expense, but not all frugal people are impecunious.
I am writing this book for students, dressmakers, secretaries, artists, lazy people, poets, men of action, dreamers, scientists, and everyone else who has only an hour for lunch or dinner but still wants thirty minutes of peace to enjoy a cup of coffee.
The translation, by Philip and Mary Hyman, first appeared in 1977, and that’s when I got my first copy, long since lost. I could swear that Pomiane dismissed pasta altogether because it takes longer than ten minutes to boil a pot of water, but that’s not what I read in the 1994 edition. There is a brief chapter on “noodle” dishes, and, among his whimsically-stated preliminaries, specifying the things that you must do the moment you get home, the following appears:
Next, fill a pot large enough to hold a quart of water. Put it on the fire, cover it, and bring it to a boil. What is the water for? I don’t know, but it’s bound to be good for something, whether in preparing your meal or just making coffee…
All this should be done immediately, because the time necessary to heat the water or fat shouldn’t count in the ten minutes it takes you to cook your meal.
Now, he says, you can take off your coat.
If you don’t mind, I’m going to say a word about the progress of the writing project, even though I mentioned it last Friday and ought to hold my tongue until next Friday. What I want to say concerns the discipline required to do a lot of writing. I have never been good about discipline, but I have been able to rely on habit, which is really just unconscious discipline. My observation is that I cemented the habits that I would need long before undertaking the writing project. During last winter, I made two decisions. First, I would not write on Wednesdays. Second, I would try to write two thousand words the days when I did write. Perhaps the second decision came first. I’m pretty sure that I did not make them both at once. I only knew that, if I wrote more, I could not write as often. Four days of work seemed fair to me, neither onerous nor indulgent.
When I took up the writing project, I intended to make my entries briefer than they had been, and much briefer than they have been. I wanted to save my strength for the writing project. But it turns out that writing a little more than a thousand words for the Web log has been a great warm-up. After lunch, I could return to the desk and write what has come to be a norm of three to four thousand words. It is true that when the afternoon session is over, somewhere between six and seven, I am either shaking with surprise or listless with disappointment, but the words are there, and whether they are great or not-so-great, they tell me more than I knew about the form that the writing project will take when it is complete.
I had worried that the effort would be too great, that I would break down and lose interest. There has certainly been a lot of effort. But there has also been a lot of pausing to listen, as if I were in a forest that seemed to be silent until I stopped and paid attention. Yesterday, for example, I found that I had reached the ideal moment for interjecting a tangential but indispensable discussion into the body of a long section about something else, to which I easily returned when the tangent was covered.
That is what it has been like, this writing project: a walk in the woods. I know that I am in a room in a city, confronted by three computer monitors and a keyboard. But I am really somewhere else, in the forest of my mind. If I am very quiet, and I look very closely, a path appears beneath my feet, and I follow it. Sometimes, I come to a fork in the path, and then I depend on what might be compared to a forest bird or the sound of a waterfall to decide which fork to follow. I do not always feel safe, and sometimes the forest gives way to the edge of a cliff. But, so far at least, the path has always been there. I am still not sure how I managed to enter the woods, but I believe that my habits of writing had a lot to do with it.
Bon week-end à tous!