Gotham Diary:
September 2016 (I)

6, 8, 9 September

Tuesday 6th

Our luxuriously idle holiday weekend was somewhat marred for me by a pane that appeared on my computer on Saturday evening. It warned me that the computer was not running “genuine Windows,” and menaced interruptions unless this improper situation were set right. A link was provided, “to resolve online.” I did not click it.

One way or the other, this was bad news, and although I established contact with Jason, the greatest tech support ever, he was out of pocket until the following evening. That gave me a whole day to stew. If the pane was malware, which I strongly suspected, the bad seed might prove difficult to exterminate. At the same time, a legitimate warning made some sense, too, since just a couple of weeks earlier Jason had replaced the hard drive on the computer with a much more capacious one. The operating system had been “cloned” onto the bigger drive, but perhaps there had been a  glitch. Which was worse, poisonous software dementing the foundation of my computer, or the legal attentions of Microsoft?

It turned out that the message was genuine. We are now hoping that the second fix will work. If it doesn’t, Jason has a third in mind. I’m feeling very Jessie Royce Landis: “Roger, pay the two dollars.” How much can the licensing fee be? Maybe I’d better not smile when I say that.

In the past, I’d have bought a new computer sooner than upgrade the drive on an old one, but in the past, I was younger. I have lost the taste for learning curves, be they ever so minor. They’re no longer worth the trouble. A new computer simply presents me with a different way of doing the same old things — except of course when it makes doing the same old things impossible. I no longer want to do new things with a device. I have given up on the whole idea of the “personal computer.” What I have is something else. It is a glorified typewriter with a built-in filing system. It also has a feature that enables the kind of television that pioneers in that medium hoped it would be. The computer is an improvement — great improvement — but it’s basically old stuff, and I don’t want to do new stuff.

In the paper today, I read about how the new iPhone’s big new feature is actually an absence: no more headphone jack. That’s the rumor, anyway. Apple is the ultimate modernist corporation, devoutly committed to sacrificing convenience for cool. Maxfield Parrish was no modernist, but I think that it’s apt that his mural, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, is in the bar at the Palace Hotel, where we’ll be staying at the end of this month on a trip to San Francisco.


“Only connect…” That’s what appears on the title page of Howard’s End. Only connect what, though? Most people seem to think that Forster is calling upon people to connect with each other, but, if so, the call is indirect. At the beginning of Chapter 22, Margaret Schlegel hopes to help Henry Wilcox, the successful businessman whom she is going to marry, with “the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion.” Without this connection, she believes (and the author is audibly breathing over her shoulder), we are part beast, part monk. A few lines down, the phrase on the title page makes its first appearance, rephrasing the formula. “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” Once the prose and the passion have been put into mutual relation, connections with other people will occur without effort. In other words, there is no need to try to like somebody, to be more generous or outgoing. This will take care of itself if you only connect with yourself. Unfortunately, it will take care of itself only with respect to other people who have also bothered to build their own rainbow bridge.

“Rainbow bridge” — an interesting allusion to Wagner. At the end of Das Rheingold, Wotan commands Donner to create a rainbow, which Donner does very theatrically by first making some thunder. Then the rainbow shimmers, and the gods can process from earth to Valhalla, their new home in the sky, to which the Valkyries (stay tuned!) will carry heroes slain in battle. It is one of those musically glorious moments in Wagner that glitter over detestable vulgarity — not Wagner’s, but the gods’. Wagner submits his opinion of the Valhalla project at the end of the Ring cycle — it goes up in flames, and the gods and the heroes die a final death. Valhalla has by then proved not to be worth the price that it has cost in blood and hate. Although the rainbow bridge certainly lights up the end of the first opera in the cycle, it is clearly meretricious rubbish, and we are coarse to be impressed by it. I doubt that this is what Forster was thinking when he connected his salvific idea to a bit of Wagnerian trumpery. To say that Forster wasn’t thinking of Wagner, however, is to accuse him of not paying attention. It’s a conundrum.

I re-read the novel almost in a day, and then we watched the Merchant/Ivory movie. I haven’t seen the movie in years, largely because I watched it almost obsessively when it was new, twenty-five years ago. We had our lake house then, and in my dreams, our house was like Howard’s End. The opening shots, in which Vanessa Redgrave, playing the successful businessman’s first wife, a woman who may be aware that this will be her last summer at her beloved birthplace, strides outside the house, her long violet skirts trailing in the sopping grass, haunted me without surcease. The camera caught that moment of twilight in which flowers seem lighted from within, with a sharp dimness that captures the ambiguity of the light, which fades without seeming to change. It became my favorite time of day, and I longed to be outside in it. I would walk around my house, too, and once or twice the illusion clicked in. The illusion was that my house had always been there for me, that the ground that I trod had always belonged to me. In an instant, it was gone.

The house used in the film looks nothing like the house described in the novel, with its “nine windows” (in three rows) facing the garden. Not like either of these was the Queen Anne house in the drawing on the cover of the paperback edition of the novel that I stole from a cousin’s library. Years later, I put the book back where it belonged, even though I was pretty sure that it hadn’t been missed. I liked the Queen Anne house best, but I knew that it was wrong.


Thursday 8th

Why, oh why, do I read the Times? Some days! Don’t miss the story about China. Economists are worried about China: should you be? If there was something new in this story, perhaps it was the mention of George Soros, who is worried, but that’s no surprise. Nor is it surprising that nobody really knows what will happen in an economy structured as China’s is. If it is, I say to myself, structured at all. China has a Fiat economy, and all it requires is a human being with sufficiently divine power to say “Let there be!” If, when that power slips from Xi Jinping, nobody else manages to assume it, then there will be catastrophe.

And then there is President Obama warning us that our environmental prospects are “terrifying.” I think that we have passed beyond the usefulness of observations of that kind. Aside from those who are determined to think otherwise, everybody already knows that the prospects are terrifying. We are on board with that. Now what? We can panic. We can stop driving cars altogether. We can turn out the lights, and never use the washing machine again. We can plant victory gardens and subsist on the produce — or try to. Panic? It’s not really an option. Back to now what?

And that is what I want to hear the President talk about. I don’t want him to use his official gravitas to try to convince, convert, or shame. Even if we all agreed that the prospects are terrifying, that would only get all of us to now what? We don’t need unanimity to start dealing with this next question.

I don’t have any answers, but I do offer one insight: any answer that proposes a solution within the lifetime of anyone alive today is simply a variation on panic. It is going to take several generations (at least) to undo or reverse the damage that two hundred years of Industrial Revolution has wrought. Therefore, what we need no less than technological wizardry (and, yes, a measure of abstinence) is a way of assuring the continuation of the corrective projects that we begin. There can be no guarantees: the men and the women of the future cannot be bound by our schemes. We have to begin building something that they not only can adapt but will want to.

That’s what terrifies me: all of our political arrangements have to be reconceived with this hope in mind. Democracy pales in importance, and even in virtue, beside the imperatives of stewardship.


I have watched Muriel, the movie that everyone seems to be writing about, now that the Criterion Collection has dusted it off, for the second time. I found it very, very clumsy. I tried to discern a virtue in this, but I could not. One of the clumsiest aspects of Alain Resnais’s 1963 film is its misuse of color. When you use color to score points, as Resnais tries to do in many ways, among them the contrast between the young and the old, you have to establish a base, not because it is philosophically necessarily but because the eye is not a reasonable organ. The color in Muriel, particularly the alternations between the dim and the bright, is noisier than Hans-Werner Henze’s score, and it results in a heap of banality. The lies that Hélène and Alphonse tell themselves and anyone who will listen don’t mean much in a a world of visual chaos. Muriel might just work in black and white.

Nor does the romance (or not) between the former lovers signify, since both of them are disabled by weak-ego problems. Hélène is a compulsive gambler. It’s a sick-making moment when you grasp that she is going to ruin her life at the Casino. For his part, Alphonse is a hopeless opportunist, a man who will always run off if something better comes along. To ask whether these two will be able to rekindle love nearly twenty-five years after it was broken off is almost idiotic. Just as Françoise, the young woman who is in some sort of cahoots with Alphonse, is bitterly impatient with him, so was I impatient with Resnais.

What makes Muriel compelling to me is Delphine Seyrig’s presence: Seyrig has the very odd gift of being absent, right in front of your eyes. There are moments in Muriel that make me think of her Joan of Arc, had she ever taken on the role. She would be very convincing at simulating dialogue with invisible, inaudible interlocutors. She is always elsewhere, even when she is trying to make you feel at home. Otherwise, her roles have little in common; even her absence is irregular.


Friday 9th

Occasionally, when the windows are open, we hear someone playing a piano nearby. Actually, I am convinced that there are two pianos. The somewhat but not very distant sound reminds Kathleen of Rear Window, but not me, not when they’re playing Bach. Again, I hear two people playing together. Or I think I do. One of these days, as soon as I hear it, I’m going to make my way down to 87th Street, a long walk from the apartment even though we overlook it, and try to place the source. It won’t surprise me if I can’t hear anything in the street, because (it won’t surprise me to surmise) the sound is traveling over the roofs of the buildings across the street from a room in the complex of Holy Trinity Church, on 88th Street. What’s more likely is that the music is coming from the handsome, understated Gothic building that projects from the church to front on 87th Street. A rehearsal room is exactly the use to which I should expect a room in a modern Episcopalian office annex to be put.

We were sitting on the balcony last weekend, and the pianists were going over the same passage of music with a strange insistence. Kathleen got quite tired of it. Sometimes, they played it very slowly, as if to master some difficulty. What difficulty? If we could have heard it more clearly, it wouldn’t have sounded like a trite seven-note phrase that any child could play, but that was all that was flying through the dozens of yards between us. I began to recognize it. It was Mozart, certainly, and it was a piano concerto, just as certainly, but which one? I kept waiting for the pianists to play on through the score, so that they would eventually hammer out a tune that would answer my question, but they did not continue. They looped over the same ten or twelve bars of what was clearly the end of an intense development section, always stopping short of the cascade that would lead to the recapitulation, in which the main theme would be stated at once, and I would know which concerto they were working on. It was maddening.

The pianos could be heard in the living room as well as on the balcony, so when I came inside to get something I went straight to the bedroom at the back, where I couldn’t hear pianos at all. I played the music in my head, and although I could break the pianists’ loop by a few bars, I couldn’t remember my way to the end of the development. Not to be able to name an utterly familiar stretch of music was unacceptable.

It was understandable, though. As you know, the development section of a piano concerto by Mozart comes in the middle of the first movement. Before it, there’s the exposition, in which an array of tunes fans out in contrasting keys. After it, the exposition is repeated, but with subtle changes in the keys, the effect being to resolve the exposition’s feeling of going somewhere into the recapitulation’s sense of having arrived. In the development, certain themes or sub-themes from the exposition are explored in a manner very similar to the jazz instrumental solo. The music is taken apart and the bits are repeated with tiny alterations, as if the composer or the performer were trying to hear everything that could be done with a figure of notes. Sometimes, in Mozart, the tunes that are subjected to development are clearly recognizable fragments from the exposition, but sometimes they are not, and every now and then Mozart yields to the impulse to see where his jazz will take him, and something that feels as unpredictable as a foxhunt ensues, with the piano flying up and down runs and scales. It would be tedious if it were not so acutely exciting. Harmonic pressures propel the performers across pages of notes, increasing with every bar, until the conflict can be stretched no further, and the music subsides back into the tonic, or home, key. What I was hearing was that sort of passage, a set of thrilling runs without much thematic significance.

The fragment that was drifting across the street from the two pianos was dramatically minor-key, so I thought of the two concertos that Mozart wrote in that mode. I ruled out the 24th, because its first movement is in some sort of triple time, and what I was hearing was resolutely common. So I listened to the 20th Concerto, in D minor, although I felt from the start that I was barking up the wrong tree. The overheard fragment belonged to the general area of the 20th, but not to its particulars. In fact, the development section of the 20th Concerto is given over to very clear restatements of leading themes of the exposition. The two concertos in minor keys could be ruled out, leaving eight or nine of the mature piano concertos to hunt through.

By now I was parked in the bedroom with the boxed set of all the concertos, played and conducted by Daniel Barenboim. I tried the 27th first, although I can’t think why; I knew that it was not the right concerto the moment I heard its gently waving opening, and I stopped listening at once. Then I gave the 23rd a try. This felt like a mistake just as the 20th had done, but this time I listened through the whole movement (which could not be more familiar). Until now, I’d had a problem holding onto the fragment while listening to the recordings, so that I worried that I might not recognize it when I heard it. I had already been fooled by a passage in the 20th Concerto that was very close. (Curiously, it came at the end of the exposition, not in the development at all.) The motifs that seemed so familiar on the balcony were at first impossible to remember in the bedroom. I finally pulled down the scores, which come in two stout Dover volumes that have held up magnificently over the years. They do have one drawback, I noticed: the bars aren’t numbered, so I won’t be able to tell you where to find the music that I presently recognized, except that it turned out to be the development of the 21st Concerto, the one that everybody knows by its midcentury nickname, “Elvira Madigan.”

Cuthbert Girdlestone, whose book on the concertos (also in Dover) is both poetic and microscopic, and whose idiom, I find, is often so uncongenial that I don’t recognize the music that he is talking about, indulges in a lot of sentimental fuss of linking the 20th and the 21st Concertos, but he point out that the minor-key phrase that forms the germ of the passage in the latter concerto by which I was now obsessed could have been stolen from the former. So I wasn’t wrong to be nearly fooled. It’s as though Mozart had not quite exhausted the vein of Gothic drama that he mined for the 20th Concerto, and introduced some of it into the majestic work that followed. (Girdlestone, in a mystic mood, calls the 21st Concerto “motionless.” Fiddlesticks.) In my search, I proceeded from the 23rd Concerto to the 21st because, the more I thought about it, and the more the 23rd sang its way through pages that could never have accommodated the my fragment, the more likely “Elivra Madigan” became, because its martial vigor could certainly find room for, nay, might even invite, its surging melodrama.

It’s funny. I never understood why Elvira Madigan was such a big movie. I don’t know that anyone ever watches it any more. But recording impresarios were quick to stamp the concerto with the name of the film that had made treacle out of its sublime second movement. When I hear the now all-too famous music, I try not to think of the pretty blonde who played one of the doomed lovers. But at the same time, I strongly associate the first movement with the penniless officer, the other doomed lover, in his Civil War-era uniform. I ought to rename the concerto after him, Sixten Sparre.

Now, of course, I can’t get the fragment out of my mind.

Bon week-end à tous!