Gotham Diary:
Dissolu Typique
July 2017 (IV)

24, 26 and 28 July

Monday 24th

Every now and then, I have to remind myself that I discovered Nancy Mitford in a perfectly respectable manner, one that she would have approved. I read her books. Not the novels, but the full-length historical portraits that came later, of Louis XIV, Madame de Pompadour, and Frederick the Great. (Voltaire in Love was never given the coffee-table treatment that created a new genre in Louis XIV and provided a new format for the book about Pompadour.) These three books were early treasures in my library — I still have them — long before my first wife handed me a copy of Hons and Rebels, and Nancy Mitford became Head Girl of the Peers’ Daughters Traveling Circus.

People often wonder why the antics of these spoiled darlings continue to interest readers. The answer is right there in the question: readers. Nothing that the sisters did became real (much less funny) until it was retold as a story, to accompanying “shrieks.” Many were written down in letters from one sister to another. Jessica’s nearly-libelous memoir brought a lot of these tales to the public, and the public was entertained. It wasn’t all laughs; there were plenty of dark chapters. But over the years the corpus of Materia Mitfordica grew and grew. Letters were published, biographies assembled. Nancy’s novels were re-examined, to compare them with what really happened. And most of the girls went on living from decade to decade. Already in the public eye as early as 1930, the sisters held on — four of them, anyway — until the mid Nineties. The youngest, Deborah, grew enormously in stature as the Duchess of Devonshire, chatelaine of a Stately Home that she and her husband had heroically saved from the maw of the tax man, and the marketer of many cannily upscale agricultural products. She was a monument herself by the time of her death, at 94, in 2014. (It is hard to imagine that there won’t be a big book about her; I only hope that I live to read it.) Diana, the notorious Nazi-defender— to her dying day, she refused to recant her support of her husband’s support of Hitler — died in the Paris heat wave of 2003, the author of several taut volumes of her own, aged 93 and beautiful to the end. Jessica had quieted down some by the time she succumbed, very quickly, to lung cancer, but her books, especially the hilarious, muckraking American Way of Death, were still in print. Print, print, print: almost everything was in print. Even letters from Unity, eventually. Unity was the one who became Hitler’s soul mate, his dream of English aristocracy. The two of them would sit by the fire and chat about who knows what — it drove the rest of his entourage crazy  with courtly anxieties. Unity shot herself when the war broke out, but she lived, somewhat damaged, for another nine years, being the second sibling to die. The first had been her brother, Tom, in Burma in 1945, shot in action. Nancy died in 1973, also of cancer, which seems to have gripped her right about the time when the love her life, Gaston Palewski, married somebody else.

And then there was Pamela. Younger than Nancy by three years and never brilliant in the way that her other sisters couldn’t seem to help being, Pam never wrote any books, and none were written about her. She remained quite staunchly out of the limelight — which, as I hasten to repeat, was a literary limelight. Pam’s life was by no means dull. She drove, by herself, all over Europe in the Thirties. She married a wealthy genius. She lived in Switzerland for some time. She knew as much about animal husbandry as any county matron in England, and was also a noted cook. She was famous for being able to remember every meal that she had ever had. But she was never in the newspapers. She never troubled her parents with eccentric views or naughty adventures. Everybody loved her, and there must have been two or three dozen women just like her in her class and generation.

For now, you see, there is a book: The Other Mitford: Pamela’s Story. It’s cheeky to say that the author, Diana Alexander, was Pam’s “daily” for several years, suggesting a char’s eye view of an Honourable, but Alexander also claims to be a journalist, a professional at loose ends when Pam, who lived across the green in the same Cotswold village, needed someone to clean her house. My faith in this claim was shaken by clauses appearing in two nearly neighboring sentences.

“… and on one occasion she told Pat and I, well in advance…” (137)

“… it was us who persuaded her to let us run the lukewarm water …” (140)

It may also seem churlish to report that there are enough repetitions in the book to  raise the suspicion that it is an unedited collection of separate, previously printed articles. But worse than churlishness will probably be my frank observation that Pam does not emerge as an individual until the end of the book, when she settles into her house in Caudle Green and becomes a presence in her biographer’s life. We are to be grateful for the addition to the Mitford corpus of stories that bear out the claim that Pam was the sister who took most after her thrifty mother.

The sheets were not always laundered after each guest, however. … Pam would announce, if her sisters’ visits were in close proximity, : “Debo is coming to stay next week and Diana will be here in two weeks’ time, so one of them can sleep on this side and other on that.” When one sister had left, Pam would stand on one side of the bed and me on the other, and we would tug the creases out of the side which had been slept on. This was not an easy task since these sheets were Irish linen (what else?) and creased very easily. If the sisters knew about this it must have amused them greatly; it was just one more example of Woman’s “carefulness.” (134)

Until these later, chapters, however, The Other Mitford is about the other Mitfords, and if you cooked it down to boil off all the well-known tales, you would be left with a sentence of three words: “Pam didn’t complain.”

There is a thrilling moment when Pam is buying a cut of meat for Diana on a visit to Paris.

To prevent any misunderstanding as to which cut should be used, she stood up and pointing to her own body pronounced: “Il faut le couper LA.” (150)

It’s so easy to imagine: Julia Child as a Mitford Girl! Isn’t that really all that was needed? It’s a poignant moment, really, especially in light of an earlier anecdote showing Pam to be a “natural” in front of the television camera. But Pam, unlike Mrs Child and her sisters, was simply not a restless person. She went about her life with quiet determination and appears to have been deeply contented. The Other Mitford is an oddly successful book, because it makes the case, with inexplicable interest, that it ought never to have been undertaken.


Wednesday 26th

Kathleen got home from her weekend with old friends in Maine shortly before eight last night; at five-thirty this morning, she left the apartment for Bermuda. She is giving a speech there on Friday. She worked at it on the plane. How? I asked, when she called from her room at the Hamilton Princess. How wasn’t she dead tired? How did she stay awake during the flight? Adrenaline is the answer. The speech is a big deal, and she wants it to be perfect.

So I slept in for her. She’ll be home on Saturday, with no plans to go anywhere very soon. Except, I forgot, Boston next week.


Kathleen wanted Chinese for dinner last night, so we had that. (I really ought to learn how to make sesame chicken myself.) We talked about the hypocrisy of liberal education. There was no scorn or contempt in what we said; we are both liberals up to our eyeballs and beyond. But there are difficulties that must be acknowledged. In a way, liberal education is perfectly straightforward: it teaches you how to be liberal. This means, above all, agreeing to disagree and to cooperate with people who see things a little differently. People who are not liberals call this “compromise” — and “hypocrisy” as well. But the hypocrisy of liberal education is that you don’t learn the stuff on the syllabus, not really. You cram it. You bone up on it, write papers about it, argue about it in seminars — and then you forget it. Liberal education does not produce scholars. Heavens, no! If there’s one thing that you’ve got to learn in the course of acquiring a liberal education, it’s the urgency of not giving the impression of being a pedant.

Liberalism relies perhaps a little too heavily on esprit de corps. If you’re in with a good gang, great things may happen, but in many liberal groups, small local chapters of liberalism, as it were, in offices of every kind — it is difficult to think of a liberal activity that does not take place in an office — the wear-and-tear of agreeing to disagree can get to be disenchanting. Liberal education teaches you how to sit through meetings, and even how to contribute to them without being disruptive, but it sometimes happens that disruption is what’s needed most. Only persons gifted with a special charisma are allowed to disrupt a liberal gathering, though, and such persons are rare. Others will be quietly but firmly shooed away, and business will continue as usual.

This raises the question that always lurks in the background: is liberalism a position or a style? If it is a position, it is a position of compromise — awkward to hold for any length of time. Considered as a style, however, liberalism makes more sense. For there are positions with which the liberal declines to agree to disagree, and they are the positions of extremists. On the one hand, social-justice radical egalitarians. Liberals are allergic to the egalitarian ideal, because their liberal education teaches them that the pursuit of absolute equality leads to pointless bloodshed. In the end, even the top Maoists have their little luxuries; or perhaps it would be better to say that that’s only the beginning. Liberals are also allergic to the views of those who have not had liberal educations. It doesn’t really matter what those views might be, because the problem is that they are never expressed very well. (See “charisma,” above.) Considering the totalitarian impulse of radicals on the left, liberalism does seem very much a style, a manner of living with difference. Radicals hate difference.

On the other side, conservatives. Now, to begin with, there are no conservatives in the United States, because there has never been a landed class working hand-in-glove with an established religion to perpetuate the status quo. So-called conservatives in America are really just anarchists. (The only difference between the radical left and the radical right is their very different sense of what “brotherhood” means.) True conservatives believe that everyone has a place in society, and that the secret to earthly happiness is knowing and accepting yours. Compassionate conservatives will guarantee every peasant a chance to work the plow. As I have already suggested, however, liberals are horrified by peasants. Because liberals are tremendous snobs about not being snobs, they tell themselves that it is not the peasants who horrify them, but the very possibility of peasantry. Liberals are always dreaming of ways of transforming peasants into liberals. This why they talk so incessantly about the importance of getting a (liberal) education.

A future made up of all-liberals seems perfectly plausible. Robots would do all the hard work, and liberals would keep them in their place — because it is perfectly all right for a machine to be a peasant. But what about the people who aren’t cut out to be liberals? In the early days of liberalism, liberals were property-owners. Now liberals are knowledge- and skill-owners. They are professionals. Not everyone can be a professional, surely. It is at this point that I am always reminded of Alan Blinder’s prediction, made ten or more years ago in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Blinder foresaw a polity in which rentiers, the actual owners of everything, would be serviced by educated professionals and by uneducated yardmen and housemaids. There would be no other kinds of jobs at all. Not a very liberal vision.


Reviewing a new book about Truman and MacArthur in the current issue of the London Review of Books, Andrew Bacevich writes,

At no time during the sixty-plus years since MacArthur’s downfall have existing civil-military arrangements worked as advertised. That is to say, never has the interaction of military and civilian leaders, conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and mutual respect, privileging the national interest rather than personal ambition and institutional agendas, yielded consistently enlightened policies. This remains one of the dirty little secrets the American elite is reluctant to own up to.

As I’ve already written a thousand words today, I’ll have to leave this passage for future discussion. Just to get your thinking started, though, I’d change “existing” to “American,” so that I could change “American” to “liberal.” And I would point out that making a habit of compromise is bound to fill dark corners with dirty little secrets. One thing that the liberal élite needs, it seems to me, is a self-cleaning feature.


Friday 28th

What do you do with funny little books? Do you keep them on the shelf, long after their jokes have become familiar, or do you put them in a box and send them to the attic? It’s very much a matter of mood. If you’re relaxed, and ready for a laugh, then you’ll keep these booklets near. If you’re stressed, and trying to make room for serious books, then off they’ll go.

I must have been stressed: At some point or other, probably when we moved into this apartment a couple of years ago, I sent The Preppy Handbook and The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook to storage. I brought them home the other day to give them a good look; this time, either I’ll keep them in my house or I’ll donate them to Housing Works. Kathleen and I did not find The Preppy Handbook altogether convincing when it appeared, and it’s possible that its English counterpart strikes just as many false notes that we can’t hear. (The case could also be made that there’s nothing in Sloane Ranger that isn’t presented even more briskly in Four Weddings and a Funeral.) Sometimes, funny little books lose their funny. But I also brought home something that I’m finding funnier than ever.

I hope that a few regular readers have their own copies of Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s little book of verses — a pamphlet, really — Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames (1967; Penguin, 1980). For those who have not encountered this book, I’m going to offer a rain check to anyone unfamiliar with French. Even if your French is Énarque level, I caution you against too-rapidly trying to make sense of van Rooten’s title. I’ll remind you instead of those books that were popular for a while a few years ago — big funny books that I had no trouble getting rid of last summer — that were full of 3-D illustrations if you could manage to relax your eyes just right. Subtitled The d’Antin Manuscript, van Rooten’s book is not what it appears to be. To be blunt: it is not in French.

Papa, blague chipe
A vieux inouï houle
Y est-ce art? Y est-ce art? Trépas que se foulent
Aune format masure, en nouant format thème
En nouant fleur-de-lis de bois de solive en deliènne.

What does this mean? But surely you already know! All you have to do is loosen up!

Easier said than done. Loosening up requires tying yourself to the mast. You must first of all resist the sense of the words, which of course don’t make any sense, notwithstanding the hilarious pedantry of van Rooten’s tongue-in-cheek annotations. Then you have to resist the words themselves, listening to the sounds line by line. But in order to do this, you have to read the lines as if — as if you didn’t know how to read French, but, at the same time, very quickly. If you don’t read it quickly, you’ll never get the third line to yield

Three bags full.

And finally, you have to hear what you’re saying as if you were a Frenchman whose English accent wasn’t very good.

Année olive tous guetteurs.

There are 40 nursery rhymes in this collection of renderings from Mother Goose (now you can give the title another try), and you can give yourself a good headache by tackling more than five at a time. It’ll be worth it. Because cracking the code is not really the best part. The best part is carrying around in your mind the absurdity of

Myriade évitent lames


Dissolu typique, c’tiède homme


Eau à guigne d’air telle baie indemne

There’s something about “dissolu typique” that explains those little piggies. I’ll be honest, though: I googled Mander ce châle. Among others.

Bon week-end à tous!