August 2016 (V)
29, 30 August; 1, 2 September
The image that I have chosen for this week’s entry is so peculiar that I feel I must explain it as best I can. You can see the sidewalk at the bottom right. I have aimed the camera at a flap of siding, or perhaps a coat of paint, that has peeled away from the temporary housing that was erected a few years ago around the foundation walls of the kiosks that will house the escalators connecting the street to the mezzanine of the new subway station that, according to the MTA Web site, is set to open this December. The curve and the shadow — and the grey — caught my eye. The housing was always an eyesore, but now it is a derelict eyesore. Not to be confused with a poetic ruin! I should be more outraged about the apparent expectation that we shall live “philosophically” with such ugliness, were I not aware that, the moment it’s gone, we’ll forget all about it. I shall, anyway.
There were two pieces in the Times today that ought to have made me fret about the dark future ahead — but they didn’t. The first was an Op-Ed piece about the decline of political history as an academic specialty. The second was about the falling-off of interest in Old Master paintings.
Political history, together with diplomatic and military history, used to be all there was to academic history. Thucydides provided the antique model, in which the attempt to tell a plausible, naturalistic story replaced the heroic epic, with its gods, goddesses, and improbable ordeals. Beginning in about 1500, historians began to offer explanations of the role played by warfare in the formation of the modern nation state that were rooted in documentary evidence, not in the tales that they had heard from their fathers. Most of this evidence was diplomatic, taking the form of dispatches sent home by ambassadors and other agents, and preserved in state archives. Diplomatic evidence was hardly impartial, but if you could sift through all of it, comparing and contrasting what the Venetian envoy had to say with the memoranda kept by a royal secretary, you could get some idea of what people were thinking when they formed this or that league against this or that great power.
History was a school — the school — for rulers. There was no other kind of history. First of all, it was only the history of the state that mattered. Nobody had an interest (worth funding) in the kinds of history that have blossomed in the last fifty years. Even more, it wasn’t until the late Nineteenth Century that the possibility of other kinds of history was recognized. It began to be understood that rulers did not operate in a vacuum — that is, as if power politics were conducted entirely within a Davos-like bubble. Rulers had to take account of powerful interest groups, some of whom were rich burghers, otherwise known as “ordinary people.” Social history, tracing the network of relations between cities and countryside, between commerce, industry, and agriculture, began to displace conflicts between sovereigns as the primary area of interest. One thing led to another. On or about December 1965, political history was found to be fusty.
I don’t fear, as the Op-Ed writers seem to do, that political history is threatened by oblivion. I expect that it will be reinvented in more suitable terms. Just as the kinds of history that are academically popular today developed in a process of seeking historical explanations in the thoughts and actions of ever more “ordinary,” ever less “remarkable” people, so the course of historical study will probably begin to retrace its steps on the socioeconomic scale, and eventually resume an interest the study of sovereign politics. This time, however, the kings and their ministers will be evaluated by scholars who are grounded in an understanding of the very particular societies that they ruled — an understanding that did not exist when all history was either political, diplomatic, or military. It will be no longer be the history of powerful men, even if powerful men remain remain, in the study of the past, the only active figures. We shall have then severed the link, which was not entirely tenuous even when I was born, between history and Homer. A good thing.
The falling-off of interest in Old Master paintings is a phenomenon of the art market, that bazaar in which the emperors of the economy spend fortunes on new clothes. That these omadauns don’t want to buy paintings by Reynolds or Rubens is very good news for museums, which is where the Old Masters belong. If Sotheby’s and Christie’s cut back on their staffs in this area, that is no bad thing for great works of art.
Perhaps it ought to be worrying that, as one dealer in Old Master painting laments, American schools are not producing graduates with expertise in the field. People who know a lot about it tend to be European. That certainly makes sense. There is still a great deal more fine old painting in Europe than there is in North America — a very great deal more. I don’t see how anyone could achieve genuine connoisseurship without living in Europe for several years at least, and making frequent use of European trains to visit the museums large and small in which most of the world’s fine art still resides.
Both articles confirm something that we all know: Americans are still mythomanes, viscerally attached to their just-so stories about the greatness of the United States. It has never been otherwise. How much longer it will be sustainable is, worryingly, a question for historians of the future.
Here are two paragraphs from David Brooks’s column on Friday (I include the first simply in order to make the second, more important paragraph easier to understand):
The U.S. military used to be pretty good at breeding this type of leader. In the years around World War II, generals often got fired. But they were also given second chances. That is, they endured brutal experiences, but they were given a chance to do something with those experiences and come back stronger and more supple.
They were also reminded very clearly that as members of an elite, they had the responsibilities that come with that station. Today, everybody is in denial about being part of the establishment, believing the actual elite is someone else. Therefore, no one is raised with a code of stewardship and a sense of personal privilege and duty.
Why is the second paragraph more important? Pardon my abominable conceit: because I’ve been saying it for years. Everyone is in denial about being part of the establishment, believing that the actual élite is someone else. I have been puzzling over this paradox for so long that I have arrived at the idea that something like a democratic paradise may be at hand. We have distributed discretion and authority so widely among the population that perhaps thirty percent of Americans help run “the establishment.” All they have to do is wake up to that fact. We are all in power, and we are all responsible.
Now I can’t even remember why I picked up William Trevor’s Collected Stories. It had something to do with reading Elizabeth Taylor’s Collected Stories — reading them again, I ought to say. I thought about reading them all again, but then it seemed a better idea to read Trevor, most of it for the first time, instead. As I mentioned a while back, I remembered three stories very well. But although I know that I read more than those three, some in Collected Stories and some in the publications, such as Grand Street, in which they made their first appearance, no other stories seemed familiar. I can only surmise that I wasn’t ready for them; I didn’t really get them.
What does it mean, to “get” a story? It’s not the working out of a puzzle, or not only that. It’s not just being able to say that you know what’s going on and why the characters are doing the things they’re doing. It’s more than that, and yet simpler: it’s the feeling that you have entered the story’s situation, or the problem that the story poses, usually to a principal character; and, at least in Trevor’s stories, there is also another feeling, which is that, given the character and given the situation, things could not have worked out otherwise. This makes the stories hard going, because they rarely work out in a way that anyone would call favorable. Sometimes the endings are so bleak that you feel for a moment that the resolution must have killed the protagonist; how could anyone survive such a dreadful outcome? In “Kinkies,” for example, a blameless secretary is drugged by her boss; she tries to make her way home but falls in the street; she winds up in jail. It will probably all be sorted out in a day or two; the secretary will merely have to get a new job. But you can’t really believe that; the story leaves you convinced that the woman’s life has been destroyed.
You can get a story without getting all of it. There is always something new to notice when you revisit any piece of fiction, as long as a bit of time has been allowed to pass. Sometimes the whole story seems different, but I think that this is usually the case only with respect to stories that you read when you were young and are now reading in middle age or later. I don’t think that “Broken Homes,” which I mentioned last week, is going to change much for me. I might, perhaps, have a keener sense of how Trevor registers the difference between Mrs Malby’s respectable house-pride and her deeper conviction that the flat is a desert, having been wrecked by the deaths of her sons in the War, decades earlier. But I shall probably continue to see Mrs Malby as overwhelmed by unfamiliar demands on her discretion. What she has to be discreet about, of course, is her ageing; she doesn’t want to be packed off to an old-folks’ facility. But the proposal of the teacher, who seems to have entered her flat at random, requires an affirmative rejection that might make Mrs Malby seem irascible and unbalanced. It appears that she has no friends to whom to turn for support; perhaps she is too proud to have friends. “Broken Homes,” like all the best Trevor stories, packs a Chekhovian punch, by raising a serious problem of human existence and framing it in detailed particulars, so that instead of “human existence” we have “Mrs Malby.”
How many of the stories qualify as “best”? Everyone’s list would be different, and there are some very powerful stories, such as “Beyond the Pale,” that I would not put on my list. I ran through the titles last night, ticking off the favorites in my mind; when I was done, I had the feeling that I had chosen about a quarter of the stories. I’d like to halve that, making an expanded baker’s dozen and writing down the titles in a proper list. Instead of “Beyond the Pale,” which is a tour de force of unreliable narration, I should choose “The Grass Widows,” a story that is also set at a hotel in rural Ireland. Where “Beyond the Pale” is haunting and somewhat nasty, “The Grass Widows” is breathtakingly furious.
But before I say anything about it, I must mention that Trevor’s men come in two colors: weak, and worse. If there’s an attractive man, anyone like a true hero, in the pages of the Collected Stories, he has slipped my mind. There are wicked women, too, and even a few foolish ones, but by and large the women are victims. They are the victims of the cruel arrangements of men, yes; but, more than that, they’re the victims of their own clear consciousness, aware of how stuck they are. This is what makes “The Grass Widows” so intense. The wife of a pompous headmaster, vacationing at a hotel in Galway that serves a clientele of men who like to fish for salmon in the local streams, is disgusted when her husband refuses to check out of the hotel at once, even though it has obviously been ruined by the man who has inherited it from the genial proprietor of earlier years. The rooms have been divided by flimsy partitions, and the food is terrible. The fish haven’t gone anywhere, though, so the pompous husband talks himself round to staying, even though there is nothing for his wife to do. It is the height of the fishing season, and all the hotels are full; if they were to leave, the headmaster and his wife would have to return to England.
This is the situation at the beginning. A brilliant wrinkle gives the headmaster’s wife, overcome by anger with her husband, the opportunity for indirect revenge. She counsels a new bride, the honeymooning wife of a former student of the headmaster’s, to leave her husband at once, to go back to her parents’ home while there is still time to back out of a mistake. For the bride has made the same mistake that the headmaster’s wife made long ago. She expects her husband to listen to her, and even to indulge her. The headmaster stopped listening to his wife so long ago that he would not remember doing it. His wife has become more an appliance than a companion. While it is true that her “fate” is to be shut up at a remote hotel for a few weeks, nothing worse, Trevor haunts the story with horror by making the new owner greasily repulsive. When the riled older woman pours her melodramatic advice into the younger woman’s ears, you want the bride to jump from her seat with alacrity and to do what she’s told. Instead, of course, the young woman is dismayed by the impertinence of the headmaster’s wife, not by her prophecies.
Curious to see what might have been written about William Trevor’s stories, I came across William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction, by Gregory Schirmer (Routledge, 1990, 2015). As you can tell from the date, Schirmer’s study was published a couple of years before the Collected Stories, so that every story that Schirmer discusses appears in the collection. Schirmer approaches Trevor’s work as a struggle between modern forces of alienation and the deep longing for connection. It is an interesting thesis, but I don’t think that Trevor’s stories would command much of a readership today if alienation, that byword of the Fifties and Sixties, were at their heart. At the risk of sounding dissertative myself, I should say that Trevor’s stories are about attempts to clarify the confusion that trails from desire. People want things, but they don’t want the consequences, so they try to detach them, only to find that it can’t be done. Instead of pointing to particular stories as examples, I’ll just mention sex — sex and loneliness.
I don’t regard loneliness and alienation as the same thing. Alienation is more severe, but it is also more bearable, because it provokes a stance of defiance (however sham) in the men who feel alienated. What makes loneliness so awful is that the sufferer does not feel cut off from humanity, but on the contrary surrounded by it, embedded in it, and yet unable to attract attention. Many of Trevor’s women are plain. They are not just physically plain; they have no attractive features of any kind. The men who might assuage their loneliness don’t even see them — not as human beings, anyway. Trevor’s plain women are not saints; they do not offer their lives up to God. Although there are nuns in his fiction, they remain rather faceless, and in only one, “Kathleen’s Field” — the final story in the collection — does a Reverend Mother speak up. In this story, plain Kathleen is invisible to most men but handy for molestation by her married employer. One can imagine the Reverend Mother advising Kathleen to offer up his unwelcome advances; Kathleen is working for the man, without receiving wages of her own, so that her father and brother can take possession of a field that may eventually bring prosperity to the family — but only at this terrible price. The problem in “Kathleen’s Field” may indeed be that the employer is neither alienated nor in need of connections.
Schirmer is coy about Trevor’s also somewhat coy portrayals of closeted gay men. The “Complicated Nature” of a man called Attridge in the story of that name is obviously his homosexuality, which is also undiscussable. Attridge is accosted by a neighbor whose lover, she claims, has died in her bed; she wants Attridge to help her to dress the body and bring it down to his own flat, so that the woman’s husband will not be alerted. Attridge refuses at first, but then, after a few recollections of his ex-wife’s charging him with inhumanity on a trip to Siena, he changes his mind, deciding “to prove to himself,” according to Schirmer, “that he is capable of compassion, and thereby to protect himself from the truth about his emotional paralysis.” Schirmer regards Attridge as alienated; I’m not sure that this is altogether fair. How, even as recently as the Nineties, could a gay man of respectable standing not be “alienated”?
Skirting this issue is even more costly to Schirmer’s analysis of “Raymond Bamber and Mrs Fitch.” It is good so far as it goes, but it misses the resonant horror of Raymond’s ironic protest.
“I’m not a homosexual,” shouted Raymond, aware that his voice was piercingly shrill.
Although Raymond will later convince himself that his accuser, Mrs Fitch, is a madwoman, we know for a fact that everyone else at the crowded party regards Mrs Fitch as an oracle, her pronouncements accurate no matter how unwelcome. With his outburst, Raymond has branded himself in their eyes as exactly what he denies being — and in a “piercingly shrill” voice. I’m not quite sure why, but this moment reminds me of the climax of The Bacchantes. To say that Raymond and Attridge are beset by confusing desires is an almost giggly understatement, but not without its tragic edge. These men were born at the wrong time.
There are two stories on my list that might not make it onto anyone else’s, “The Bedroom Eyes of Mrs Vansittart” and “Her Mother’s Daughter.” In the first story, set among cozy old rich people in Cap d’Antibes, is a rather cruel satire with an almost ponderous twist, but I enjoyed the awful Mrs Vansittart, who of course turns out not to be so awful after all. “Her Mother’s Daughter” appeals to me because I cast it immediately with perfect actresses. The put-upon daughter, Helena, who is not allowed to do anything remotely fun by her obsessively risk-averse mother, would be played by Helena Bonham Carter, while Vivian Pickles would be the mother. Playing the widow of a lexicographer whose work she is arduously and endlessly preparing for publication, Pickles would bring this Casaubon-like creature imposingly to life, while Bonham Carter would give the manuscript exactly the treatment it deserves.
Nobody asked, and nobody would ever think to ask, but I have an opinion — yes! — on Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit out the National Anthem. I think that it was a mistake. You will note, however, that I do not say that Kaepernick was wrong. There’s a difference.
Forming my opinion was very easy. I have great respect for social conventions, because, without them, our lives would be consumed by futile arguments and negotiations. Our rules of the road, which every driver is expected to observe in every particular, provide the model of conventional utility. Without them, a town in which there were only two drivers would quickly become a town in which there were not even that many.
At the same time, conventions work best when they are meaningless in themselves, because the purpose of a convention is to correspond to expectations, and thereby reduce — vastly reduce — the number of things that we have to think about during the day. On a staircase, there is a general convention of keeping to the right. This keeps the people going upstairs out of the way of the people going down, and vice versa. The important thing is to move through the staircase as easily as possible, not to declare a virtue in keeping to the right. Similarly, when I ask how you are, it is a way of saying that I notice you as someone in my world, and that I hope that you are doing well — well enough, among other things, not to want to hurt me. When you say that you are fine, you are merely acknowledging the connection, slight as it may be. This exchange of pleasantries is an important emollient in social life; it keeps, so to speak, everybody’s blood pressure at healthy levels.
It’s no wonder that teenagers have a hard time with conventions. Teenagers are discovering that there is meaning in life, and conventions are meaningless. (What a waste of time! And it’s so much more honest to refuse to say “thank you” if you don’t really really mean it.) It’s also no wonder that the adolescent orgy of meaningfulness is rarely sustained for more than three or four years. A life of uninterrupted significance would be suicidally exhausting.
The convention of singing the National Anthem before athletic games (and only then, at least so far as doing so as a matter of course is concerned) is not an ideal convention. It is in fact a regrettable convention, because singing the National Anthem ought to invoke sincere responses to the words and music — to its spirit. But conventions, once again, work best when they are habitual, when they are observed without a great deal of thought, or perhaps any thought at all. People do not attend sports events in order to express their patriotic feelings, and yet because of an ill-considered convention — one of a type that gives conventions generally a bad name — they are asked to do just that before any game can begin.
Worse, as Colin Kaepernick has brought to our attention, the third verse of the poem that provides the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (a poem known as “Anacreon in Heaven,” because the tune to which it was to be sung was called “Anacreon’s Grave” — and was a drinking song at that; it keeps getting worse) contains some very ugly thoughts, which I should hope no American would wish to express in connection with patriotic sentiment.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, shall leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave….
The reference here is apparently to American slaves who joined forces with British invaders in the War of 1812 — the one war that, until Vietnam, the United States didn’t win. The fact that nobody ever sings this verse is precisely the sort of point that becomes a wet noodle when something meaningful is absorbed into a convention.
This is not the place to quarrel with the selection of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem. By 1931, when its adoption as such became official by Act of Congress, its status was assured by convention. The whole idea of national anthems, to be sung by civil populations in peacetime as opposed to armies on the march, is of course a recent one, going back no further than “Rule, Britannia!” which was itself generated by the wonderfully-named War of Jenkins’s Ear. The song suited the times and was spontaneously adopted. So it went with “La Marseillaise.” The modern democracies that sing such songs have had only a couple of centuries to examine their lyrics in the light of changed circumstances. The meaning of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has passed almost completely out of general understanding — and I’m talking about the words that everybody knows. “La Marseillaise” is unpleasantly sanguinary; no two ways about it. And of course “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves!” is an indefensible exhortation, as anyone contemplating China’s actions in the South China Sea will quickly agree.
However, the convention is firmly established, and the only question is how deeply rooted it is. Nothing could be better calculated to strengthen those roots than Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit the song out. Kaepernick is right to object to the song, right to point out that it is almost pointedly not “national.” It is the anthem of the white guys who buy tickets to the games, and who sing it as self-indulgently as their imaginary descendants suck on sugary drinks in Wall*E. But instead of flouting the convention, and thereby adopting the trademark gesture of an insolent teenager, Kaepernick ought to have approached the problem politically, gathering signatures on petitions, negotiating with club owners, making a fuss in the media — almost anything but what he did do.
The paradox of defying conventions is that the defiance converts something meaningless into something important — vital even. People cling especially hard to expectations that they’re only dimly aware of. The convention of singing the National Anthem before sporting events, as well as the now official, and no longer conventional, recognition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as that anthem, ought to be reconsidered, and scrapped or revoked. But Colin Kaepernick and his defenders have no reason to complain of the ugliness that he has caused.
Clare Hammond is a young British pianist with a double first from Cambridge and attractive way of playing her instrument — so attractive, that she was cast as the younger Mary Shepherd, Maggie Smith’s character in The Lady With the Van, Nicholas Hytner’s screen adaptation of Alan Bennett’s play. Once you see a YouTube clip of Hammond playing at St Hilda’s, Oxford, not too long ago, you realize that she is an actress as well. At St Hilda’s, Hammond is cool as a cucumber. In Lady With a Van, she projects the maidenly romanticism of a classical artist in the 1950s; you fall in love with her as she falls in love with Chopin. Well, I fell in love, anyway, and I had to have more. I don’t know why, in the wake of the film, Hammond hasn’t been contracted to record a Chopin album; perhaps she’s not interested. The three discs that she has made are comparatively esoteric. But I had to have something, so I bought Etude, an album of music that I was sure I’d never listen to. Aside from Karel Szymanowski, the composers whom she plays on this recital were unknown to me, but the other two other albums featured music that looked even more forbidding. Etude duly arrived from Arkivmusic and sat in a pile for about a month. Then, the other day, after the stack of CDs fell slipped and fell onto the floor for the umpteenth time, and I decided to “do something” about it, I put the disc in the player, as if to intensify the purgatorial spirit with which, having thrown away the plastic cases in which CDs are still packaged, I laboriously repackage the contents in my space-saving way. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that Etude is not hard to listen to. Even the liner notes, written by the pianist, are good.
An ‘étude,’ or study, is a piece written expressly to develop the technical capacity of a performer and, as such, seems a rather dry proposition. [There follows a brief history of the form, suggesting that, however dry the proposition, realization has not been.] At its best, the étude combines the visceral excitement of technical display with expressive, coloristic, and compositional ingenuity.
The first three pieces are “transcendental études” by Sergei Lyapunov (1859-1924) that will please anyone hunting for something new in the neighborhood of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. Two of them date from 1900, but although the textures are luxurious they are not glossy: this is romantic, not post-romantic, music. Had the entire album been given over to music like this, I should have been very pleased, because in my old age I have become fond of the urgent, clamorous virtuosity displayed by so many composers of the period. While it continues to remind me of women wearing fraught expressions who sit in rooms lighted only by the gleam of polished mahogany, it has revealed comforts for which the younger listener has no use. After the Lyapunov, Hammond plays a set of six études by the South Korean composer, Unsuk Chin (1961-). It is unlikely that I will live to warm to this music, but it is listenable and even stylish. The set of Twelve Studies, Op 33, by Karel Szymanowski (1882-1937) was written in 1920, and it consists of very short pieces — the longest by far, clocking in at 1:47, is marked lento assai. Perhaps because of their brevity, these études went in one ear and out the other. Repeated listenings might change that. Sometimes, though, an étude is just for the pianist.
The revelation came at the end, with Five Études in Different Intervals, Op 68, by Nikolai Kapustin (1937-). Written in 1992, these pieces remind me very much of Leonard Bernstein, of all people, particularly Bernstein’s special take on boogie-woogie. The first one, marked “Allegro [in minor seconds]” brought Bernstein’s Third Symphony, “The Age of Anxiety,” very much to mind. But the third, “Animato [in sixths]” caught my heart. Hammond does not saying anything specific about it in her notes, so I feel somewhat ludicrous about suggesting that it is some kind of Latin American dance, some rhythm that Kapustin, who studied jazz as a young man but who rejected improvisation, encountered somewhere, and then recast as his own. This étude is shorter than all the others, alas. In the YouTube clip that I mentioned, Hammond plays the étude in minor seconds. If she were to play the one in sixths on-screen, I’d like her to wear a little hat, minutely suggestive of Carmen Miranda. That would ignite me.
The writing project turned a corner at the beginning of the week. On Monday, I reached what felt like the end, for first-draft purposes, of the seventh and last section. On Tuesday, I began proofing the first section. My original intention had been to clean up the clerical errors, but I was so disappointed by the shapelessness of the piece that I decided that I must more seriously revise it, because it would still be the first thing that a reader confronted. I went ahead with the proofing, and then printed a copy — the first time I’d put word to actual paper. I also created the file structure that will help me keep the successive revisions of the project in manageable order.
You learn what you’re doing by doing it, never more so than when you’re doing something that you’ve never done before. At the outset, I had two goals, one general and one immediate. The whole point of the first draft was to “get stuff down,” and to see how much there was. (There was enough. The first draft piled up over eighty-thousand words, written between 21 July and 29 August.) Right away, though, I wanted to memorialize the experience that had inspired the project, and although I was not aware of it at once, I wanted to present this experience by reproducing the effect of a certain piece of music. It was pretty clear from the first draft that I had not succeeded — which was understandable enough, as the idea had not yet taken shape. Instead of a carefully calibrated crescendo (a move from everyday speech, as far as I dared imitate it, to my own idiom), I had just gone off on some irrelevant tangents. Going off on tangents might be a good idea, but I’d have to think of better ones. I made the first attempt yesterday, and now, I think, I have something to work with.
Aside from wanting to describe the moment of deep fulfillment that occurred two days before I began writing, I had no plan for the first section; I now think of it as an invocation, a summoning of the muse within myself to come and tell me what to do. The muse was able to provide me with outlines for the ensuing sections, so I expect to find in them a coherence lacking in the euphoric (you-had-to-be-there) beginning. Meanwhile, I shall replace the invocation with an invitation, aimed not at me but at the reader.
Bon week-end à tous!