“Beauty is Harsh”
October 2016 (III)
17, 18, 21 October
Over the weekend, I swallowed nearly the whole of Joseph Lelyveld’s new book, His Final Battle: The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt. It’s an arresting, must-read book, and also an object lesson in the importance, for high state purposes, of eschewing that ostensible virtue so disastrously in vogue today, transparency. A recurrent motif in Lelyveld’s narrative is how impossible Roosevelt’s maneuvers would have been today, what with our media Cerberus on constant watch. I would believe in transparency only if everyone concerned — every voter — were equally capable of assessing political operations. But the triumph of democracy, which is an insistence on the equality of citizens despite massive and manifest inequalities in intelligence and every other social desideratum, depends on masking not so much the truth, which is almost impossible for any contemporary, no matter how brilliant, to grasp, as the actual, which is merely momentary. Smart people understand the transitory nature of appearances; stupid people take whatever moment they’ve accidentally glimpsed to be more representative than it is. Lelyveld’s ability to follow the state of play on multiple levels — military, geopolitical, electoral, and interpersonal — is extraordinary, but it only highlights the fact that his cunning if health-challenged subject was even better at doing the same thing. Writing about Roosevelt’s reluctance to make significant changes for his fourth-term cabinet, Lelyveld calls him a “minimalist.” I was surprised by the word at first. Then I began to wonder if it was not the key to Roosevelt’s genius.
There is one thing about Lelyveld’s prose style, however, that I find greatly objectionable. Without sacrificing clarity to the difficulties of complexity, His Final Battle is both readable and accessible, but this is carried too far in the case of contractions (weren’t, wouldn’t, &c). Contractions are essentially conversational ornaments; they signal the peculiar mix of intimacy and informality that I believe will prove to be the most salient characteristic of the age in which I’ve lived. For the purposes of an audiobook, Lelyveld’s use of common contractions would be appealing. But in print they sound careless. Much worse, they plunge into ambiguity every time that Lelvyveld relies on the particular contraction, ‘d. Native speakers are unlikely to be confused, but we live in an age of Anglophone hegemony: writers in English must do what they can to avoid making things unnecessarily difficult for foreign readers. He’d can mean “he had” but also “he would,” and it is Lelyveld’s use of the contraction in the latter sense that bothers me most. The first refers to the past, the second to the future, if not to an alternative to the facts. Precisely because the contraction can point not only in opposite directions but to contrary moods, it ought to be avoided in print.
The great minor pleasure of His Final Battle is the presence of Daisy Suckley, the distant cousin who features in Hyde Park on the Hudson, the lovely film starring Laura Linney and Bill Murray. Because Daisy’s diary, revealed only after her death in 1991, came as such a surprise, I always assumed that Daisy herself was a tucked-away secret, someone with whom the president chatted whenever he was at home at Hyde Park (she lived nearby), but never otherwise. But, no: she accompanied him to Warm Springs and even stayed in the White House. Lelyveld quotes the diary often, because Suckley’s worries about FDR’s health — his book’s grim tattoo — were candid and disinterested. Daisy may have lacked a sense of the context of world affairs, but she was an attentive lady whose adoration of the Commander in Chief did not inspire her to lie about his physical condition. One supposes that she can have had no idea that her diary would figure in a book such as Lelyveld’s — and yet one hopes to be wrong.
At The New Yorker‘s online site, Elizabeth Kolbert makes the modest proposal that men be denied the vote for a few decades. If only men were to vote in the coming election, according to polls, Donald Trump would have an enormous lead over Hillary Clinton. Not “white men,” apparently; just “men.” Two-thirds of “men” would vote for Trump. Jeez — I’d be happy to lose my right to vote if such a ban were imposed. What are men, anyway — men? Say it isn’t so.
Moving right along, I took a good look at the map of the states in which a majority of “men” would vote for Hillary. No surprises there: the whole West Coast, and the Northeast Corridor states, excluding (as always) New Hampshire, and an undecided Maine. Only two states that don’t abut either of these clusters would go for Clinton, but they are also “border” states, more or less: Illinois and New Mexico. Because I believe that, whatever happens next month, intelligent Americans need to commit themselves to a serious and effective program of mutual re-education, with a view to reducing political polarity by sincere discussion and practical experiment, I think that it might be most effective to target states that used to be somewhat more liberal than they are now, stretching from Pennsylvania to Minnesota, for conversion. If the South and West are to be politically transformed — cured of their toxic racism — it will be without help or inspiration from today’s blue states; the less they are lectured to by the likes of us, the better. But Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin have been allowed by uninterested élites to sink into flyover status. That could be reversed. Indiana and even eastern Iowa might also be brought round.
My own favorite “Trump joke” is the one in which, ten years from now, the Donald looks reporters straight in the face and denies ever having run for President. I can’t tell you how many people respond by saying, “Oh, he would never do that.” It’s scary.
His Final Battle closes, as it must, with Eleanor Roosevelt’s learning that Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd was at FDR’s side when he died. Lucy had been Eleanor’s social secretary when her affair with Eleanor’s husband emerged. Eleanor never saw her again. The marriage almost broke up, but instead it was reconstituted. Now it became an unequal partnership of politicians. Eleanor did just about everything aside from running for office to promote her belief in social justice; electorally unaccountable, she had considerably more freedom in airing her views than her husband did. His assent was nevertheless assumed, and on at least one occasion recounted in His Final Battle, he censored a proposed “My Day” column. (Eleanor was rooting for Henry Wallace’s doomed candidacy for a second vice-presidential term.) After her husband’s death, Eleanor went on to be a kind of Olympian goddess, nursing the new United Nations, which had been FDR’s final great project.
If I mention Hillary Clinton right now, you might be tempted to argue, “But nobody knew about Lucy Rutherfurd.” That is, nobody knew that Eleanor stood by a husband who had been unfaithful to her and whose further infidelities she would protect herself from discovering. Well, a lot people knew, in dozens. But the matter was never mentioned in public commentary, any more than FDR’s inability to walk across a room was mentioned. Had people known, what would they have said? Would they have charged Eleanor with opportunism for standing by her man? Would such a thought have occurred to anyone?
What can we say about marriage? Not very much; every marriage is, or ought to be, utterly private. All we know is how each marriage gets started, with more or less uniform declarations of mutual love and support. These declarations are usually made by young, inexperienced people who are likely to put too much stock in high hopes. What each lasting marriage becomes is unique, even though that is just as hard to imagine as the uniqueness of snowflakes is. We will never know what the partners in a marriage really think about one another, if only because they’ll never know it themselves. We know only what they do, how they behave. The idea of “transparency” presupposes that they are acting, that their appearance of partnership is emotionally unreal somehow. It says, with vast naïveté, this is what true love looks like, and they don’t have it. A political partnership! How can politics take the place of romance? In the end, gossips reject the fact of marital uniqueness. Nothing else, however, can explain why two people freely remain together. Or, rather, how.
The ups and downs of the weather here — a bright but somewhat humid Indian Summer, followed by days of rain — have undone me and left me fit for little more than reading. The weather has been greatly helped in this upset by the hopes that I had of taking up a new daily schedule when I got back from California. The old schedule was so established, however, that simply resisting it has taken all my energy. According to the new schedule, I will begin the day with something like a normal breakfast and a review of banal household matters. That way, I won’t be starving at noon and oblivious of the calendar. But it is so much more appealing to grab a banana along with the Times, and then to drift hither, that I wind up staying in bed. I will say that the sleeping-in has been very pleasant. At least there’s that.
I was supposed to put in a word here yesterday, but I woke up with a cough, and I decided that I had another cold. Taking it easy, I spent almost the entire day reading The Secret History. I had been inspired to take another look at Donna Tartt’s amazing first novel (1992) by the second of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, The Likeness, which pays it a tribute of sorts. As in The Secret History, there is a group of high-minded students who live apart from the common run. French’s characters, who are grad students, share a country house outside of Dublin, eschew vulgar amusements such as television in favor of dinner-table conversation and clever card games, and attempt to transcend individual attachments. French’s wrinkle on the setup is too good to spoil (although Laura Miller gives the game away in the New Yorker piece that pointed me to French), and The Likeness is a gripping read. But The Secret History is a masterpiece, a novel that shares the rare, melancholy beauty of The Great Gatsby. That it is much longer than Fitzgerald’s triumph is not something that I am inclined to hold against it.
The writing is very beautiful, and clearly meant to be. My disappointment with Tartt’s two subsequent novels has been almost entirely a quarrel with their more relaxed language. They have their moments, certainly, but the general tessitura is lower. Here, from The Secret History, is a throwaway passage about a secondary character’s dorm room.
She screwed the lipstick down, snapped on the top, then opened the drawer of her dressing table. It was not actually a dressing table but a desk, college-issue, just like the one in my room, but like some savage unable to understand its true purpose — transforming it into a weapon rack, say, or a flower-decked fetish — she had painstakingly turned it into a cosmetics area, with a glass top and a ruffled satin skirt and a three-way mirror on the top that lit up. Scrabbling through a nightmare of compacts and pencils, she pulled out a prescription bottle, held it to the light, tossed it into the trash can and selected a new one. “This’ll do,” she said, handing it to me. (266)
Every sentence is tinctured in a tone either of excitement or its exhausted aftermath. Dull, plodding scholars are not to be seen. On the contrary, the novel’s scholars occupy center stage and represent a ne plus ultra of collegiate glamour — at least to the mind of our narrator, a boy from nowhere called Richard Papen. They study Classical Greek with a suave gentleman who in younger days lived in Europe and “knew everybody.” (Tartt invents a paragraph in which Orwell writes that he doesn’t trust this fellow, even though Harold Acton does.) There are five of them in the group, including a beautiful girl, and all Richard wants in the world is to be a sixth. It is a very old and very heartbreaking story, because of course there is nothing truly heroic about this gravely merry band. There is nothing remotely unique about it, either; for who does not recall the searing drive to belong to an illustrious blood-brotherhood, on the very eve of an adulthood that will inevitably break up sincere but shallow commitments? Richard is like someone who shows up at a shoot for Ralph Lauren lifestyle products and forgets that the attractive people are models whose true interrelationships are probably very different from appearances. Richard forgets that he is dealing with a handful of immature college students who have been encouraged, by their vain teacher, to pretend that they are already the people whom they are in fact far from having become.
As always, there is money, at least in the hands of one or two members of the group; Richard, of course, has nothing, not even a suitable wardrobe. He has only his smattering of Greek, by which he leverages himself, first into the special classes and only later into something like friendship with his classmates. Tartt’s narrative strategy is simply extraordinary. While we are following Richard on his pursuit of acceptance — an adventure that is interrupted by the account, almost as substantial as a novella, of a harrowing winter break that finds Richard alone and vulnerable in an emptied Vermont town — the objects of his fascination are troubled by the consequences of an ill-advised undertaking of their own, of which we learn nothing substantial until after the group’s leader, a somber genius called Henry, finds Richard sliding into hypothermia and saves his life. It is only now, about a hundred fifty pages in, that Tartt launches the tale whose lurid quality will be the flavor that most readers will remember when they put the book down. It involves a night of re-enacted pagan revels that ends badly and which, tantalizingly, cannot be recalled by its participants with much coherence. (“‘Well, it’s not called a mystery for nothing,” said Henry sourly.”) Richard himself played no part in the ritual; for reasons that now move to the foreground, creating a new and more serious problem for Henry and the others, neither did the shambolic preppie called Bunny.
Richard assures us that Bunny is lovable, but Tartt refuses to back him up. We see only a rude, condescending lout whose bons mots are usually flaccid insults. As Richard eases his way into the group, the group finds it impossible, but necessary, to ease Bunny out. Sad to say, Bunny is not very bright; it takes him a very long time to grasp the perils of blackmailing his friends. He is too stupid to see why he might no longer be wanted. That he belongs to the group at all is the result of a fluke: a dyslexic child, Bunny was introduced to languages with other alphabets, pursuant to some cockamamie theory. Hence his Greek, which turns out to be his doom.
Bunny’s death is announced in the first sentence of the prologue, and the implication that he was murdered by Henry and his friends is made immediately thereafter. The event itself occurs midway into the book. From there, the novel is plainly poised to follow a traditional trajectory: will the murderers get away with it? And at what cost? I suppose that many readers, somewhat overwhelmed by the power of Tartt’s storytelling, keep following that trajectory long after Tartt herself takes up a different one. Certainly there is a rivetingly suspenseful moment near the end, when an unsigned letter, long mislaid in the wrong mailbox, threatens to expose the group. But this moment is not resolved in the ordinary way. And yet many readers may be too worked up to see the actual resolution for what it is: a pair of terribly disappointed romances that required no crimes to unravel. True, worries about the consequences of those crimes put one or two of the characters under too much stress, but deception and disillusionment were on the cards long before the group’s wild night in the woods. The group itself was already doomed by then, and this, we see, is what Tartt means to teach us. Richard was drawn to a mirage.
The power of The Secret History is the sublimated power of youthful romance, of intoxicating dreams stretched over shattering realities. But instead of telling us love stories that wouldn’t — couldn’t — be very original, Tartt beguiles us with dusky imbroglios that would be Gothic if they were not so harshly Greek. The stunt of the book is its acrobatic reminder that Ancient Greece was not a land of sunlit syllogisms, but, on the contrary, a wild territory of prehistoric survivals. But the acrobat’s moves are those of a young lover, graceful and sure and triumphant — until suddenly not. Ironically, the students in the group seem unaware that they are surrounded by an undergraduate bacchanal far more reckless than anything known to ancient times: the drugs, the drinking, the smoking, the staying-up-all-night — Tartt contrives to unload this shabby carelessness without muddying her shoe, but it stains every other page. Never has higher education looked more seriously pointless. But we don’t care, because we’re in love.
The ubiquity of smoking and the absence of cell phones are the only features that date the story. You don’t miss the Internet. You certainly don’t miss e-books — real books are integral to the romance! The Secret History has aged very, very well; perhaps it will always carry an aura of prescience. Two not-unrelated curiosities stick out. First, there are the fraternal twins who belong to the group, Charles and Camilla. Ahem! At least Tartt might be charged with supersubtle joking on that one. What she can’t possibly have known in 1992 is how easily the following passage, which concerns the campus response to Bunny’s death, could have been pasted into commentaries made in the wake of a “tragic” death five years later:
A character like his disintegrates under analysis. It can only be defined by the anecdote, the chance encounter of the sentence overheard. People who had never once spoken to him suddenly remembered, with a pang of affection, having seen him throwing sticks to a dog or stealing tulips from a teacher’s garden. “He touched people’s lives,” said the college president, leaning forward to grip the podium with both his hands; [...] it was, in Bunny’s case at least, strangely true. He did touch people’s lives, the lives of stangers, in an entirely unanticipated way. It was they who really mourned him — or what they thought was him — with a grief that was no less sharp for not being intimate with its object. (357)
Bon week-end à tous!