Gotham Diary:
The Wages of Disrespect
January 2017

3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 17, 18, 24, 26, 27 and 31 January

Tuesday 3rd

It’s hard to resist the notion that, once we have set forth from this quiet cove between New Year’s Day and the Inauguration, we will being to wonder, what were we expecting? What did we think would happen? It’s for that very reason that I’m trying not to think. And I’ve got a fantastic distraction right at my feet.

After seven years of tohu-bohu, our fairy godmother not only got the new subway working but also swept away almost all the evidence of construction and confusion. The four corners at the intersection of 86th Street and Second Avenue are equally paved, curbed, and serviceable. There is nothing noteworthy about them except the dim certainty that they were never as nice as they are now, if a corner can be nice. There are no fenced-off areas, no portable potties, no lengths of pipe or wire, and no workmen. There is a new bike lane, complete with its own stoplights, that finally makes sense of the uptown bike lane that was installed on First Avenue a few years ago. The crosswalks are uniformly perpendicular. Vehicular traffic crosses the intersection without the guidance of traffic agents. People do the same, bundled up for the cold. Then some of the people step under the glass roofs of the escalator kiosks and descend to the new subway station.

One escalator takes you down about three storeys to a triangular area, from which another, longer escalator leads to the mezzanine of the station, which is where the turnstiles are. There is art, by Chuck Close, on the walls, but we didn’t pay much attention to that. I’d known it would be there, and Kathleen thought it was advertising something. We were there for the ride. I took out my Metro Card and swiped it for Kathleen. Once she was through, I realized that there wasn’t enough money on the card for me to follow her, so she had to wait while I crossed the mezzanine to fix that. Together again, we walked along to the stairs. There are escalators climbing up to the mezzanine from the station platform, but stairs for going down. We waited for a downtown train. An uptown train was being held in the station. At first, I thought that they must be having first-day problems up at 96th Street, where the Q line now ends, but later I wondered if the trouble wasn’t at 63rd Street. A downtown train pulled in, and we boarded it. As it pulled out, so did the uptown train.

The ride was very smooth. In the tunnel, I noticed a parapet or walkway alongside the train, a continuation of the platform that ran the length of the distance between stations. How civilized! It was all rather like one of those pretend subways that they have at airports. After what felt like the right amount of time, we arrived at 72nd Street. When we got off the train, we ought to have taken the escalator up to the mezzanine to look at the art there, but that didn’t occur to us. We crossed the platform and boarded an uptown train that, just like the one at 86th Street, was being held in the station. We stood there about five minutes before the doors closed.

And then the train crept to 86th Street, almost coming to a stop at two points. Now that I am an old man, I very much dislike it when trains stop between stations. Only steady motion keeps the presentiment of disaster at bay. I did what I could to will it into the 86th Street station, and at last we got there. We got off the train and rode up all the escalators, this time debouching from the other kiosk — there’s one to either side of our building’s U-shaped driveway. While we were underground, night had fallen.

It was when we got home that I freaked out. Slowly, quietly, meltingly really; but, nevertheless: what the hell was that? And here’s what the hell that was: vast dunes of metaphorical sand sweeping over and obliterating a sense of the neighborhood that I have lived with for more than thirty-five years. I will soon forget the need to walk uphill to Lexington Avenue to catch the nearest train. I may never again make the transfer, at 57th Street/Lexington Avenue, from the IRT to the BMT, in order to get to Carnegie Hall or the theatre district. And I will also forget, indeed have already forgotten, what it has been like to live at this intersection for the past seven years. (AWFUL!) For a while, I’ll step outside the building and sigh, This is nice. Then even that will stop, and I will begin to live in a neighborhood that newcomers will find it difficult to imagine ever having been otherwise.

Eventually, I will take the Q to go somewhere, and, when I do, I’ll hold my breath on either side of the 63rd Street station. That is where the F and Q lines effectively cross, sharing the track near and through the station. It’s an unusual configuration for New York transit. I hope it won’t prove to be too interesting.


Thursday 5th

In today’s Times, Robert Leonard, a journalist from Iowa, quotes a Baptist pastor on a point of difference.

“The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good,” said Mr. Watts, who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. “We are born bad,” he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do that.”

To the extent that this is true, I am neither a Republican nor Democrat. I don’t see people as fundamentally good or bad. It seems witless and simpleminded to do either. I see people as fundamentally human, which is to say conflicted — some more, some much more, than others. And I regard human society, not faith in the supernatural, as the means of settling and soothing conflict, whether institutionally, as in a court of law, or informally, as by doing someone a good turn. Alone, we are nothing, devoid of interest. Alone with God is still alone.

Who died and made that Baptist an authority?


Although I bought a clutch of books by Alan Bennett a few months ago, I’ve been reading one that I’ve had for nearly ten years, Untold Stories, and for the first time. I’ve even begun with the title piece, right at the beginning. “Untold Stories” is a family memoir focused on Bennett’s parents and his mother’s two sisters, with the ghost of his suicide grandfather loitering in the background. Also hovering, Bennett’s BBC films, A Visit from Mrs Prothero, Our Winnie, and A Day Out. “Every family has a secret and the secret is that it’s not like other families.” This is not quite true; there are families whose secret it is is that they are not as fantastic as they think they are, but you could argue that the secret in that case is simply an immodest inversion of Bennett’s. The line is in any case a fine example of Bennett’s dry but redeeming humor.

The latest intalment of his diary in the new LRB aside, Bennett was brought to mind by the reading of four or five novels by Barbara Pym, whose voice is also dry but redeeming. Inevitably, I wondered what Bennett thought of Pym, if at anything at all. The index of Untold Stories bears a single reference, to page 78, which lies in the final third of “Untold Stories.” Bennett is writing about his Aunty Myra’s widowhood.

Myra lives in a succession of briefly rented rooms, first in Midhurst, then Uxbridge and finally at West Malling in Kent. These comfortless accommodations and the meals that go with them — or rather don’t, as they seldom have cooking facilities, so have to be taken in cheap cafés serving spaghetti on toast or poached egg, tea and bread and butter — exude a particular sort of hopelessness quite separate from the sad circumstances which have brought her to them. Aunty Myra had too many sharp corners to be one of her characters, but they are setting of many of the novels of Barbara Pym, and one of the reasons I find her books quite lowering to read.

This is unfair and untrue. Aside from Quartet in Autumn — a lowering read, to be sure — there are no bedsits in the Pym novels that I’ve read. Mildred Lathbury, of Excellent Woman, has her own flat, while Dulcie Mainwaring, in No Fond Return of Love, has her own house, and it’s not a small one. It’s the vicarage, in Jane and Prudence, that features uninspiring food; the unmarried sisters in Some Tame Gazelle eat very well. The remark is unfair because seems inspired by the view of Barbara Pym that led a callow editor at Jonathan Cape to stop publishing her novels in 1963. It is easy to remember the action in Pym’s novels as taking place mainly in church basements, but one of the great pleasures of re-reading her is finding out how untrue this really is. And the satire, while muted, is sabre-sharp: Pym’s gallery of ridiculous men and the women who cosset them is as funny, once you’ve adjusted for volume, as PG Wodehouse. (What Bennett’s summation really attaches to is Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude, where the boarding house is indeed too oppressive for comfort.) What Bennett and Pym share is disenchanted kindness. Unenthusiastic about the human condition, and quite heartlessly unsentimental behind their self-deprecating manner, they nevertheless leave one with a genuinely hopeful smile.

(I do wish that Bennett wouldn’t write “try and,” as in, “I must try and convince her.” This is a pointless barbarism. I notice that, while Richard J Evans avoids it in The Pursuit of Power, Ian Kershaw goes in for it in the succeeding volume of the Penguin History of Europe, To Hell and Back. This is just one of many little things that makes me prefer Evans, to the extent that I’m thinking of reading his “Reich Trilogy.”)

“Untold Stories” provoked more than a few laughing barks as I turned its pages last night, but one passage reduced me to helpless giggling. I had of course examined all the photographs before reading the book, and I’d wondered a little about the snapshot of “Jordy and Ossie,” with its reference to page 65. I didn’t turn to the reference for enlightenment, but noted with distaste that Ossie seemed to have deposited a pound of calf liver in his swimsuit. I had forgotten all about it when I came to page 64, which is where the explanation begins.

I am twelve when I first see [Aunty Myra's] albums, which duly take their place, along with other family relics, in the sitting-room dresser in which, while Grandma is dozing in the kitchen, I do my customary Saturday afternoon ‘rooting.’ One of the albums in particular fascinates me (and even today it falls open at the place): it has a photo, postcard size, of two Australian soldiers, “Jordy’ and ‘Ossie,’ standing in bush hats and bathing trunks against a background of palm trees. ‘Jordy’ is unremarkable, with a devious other-ranks sort of face. It’s ‘Ossie’ who draws the eye, better-looking, with his arms folded and smiling, and with some reason, as he is weighed down, almost over-balanced, by what, even in the less than skimpy bathing trunks of the time, is a dick of enormous proportions, the bathing costume in effect just a hammock in which is idling this colossal member. Underneath Aunty Myra has written, roguishly:

‘Yes, girls! It’s all real!’

I started laughing at “and with some reason,” and was bellowing when I got to the “hammock in which is idling…” The poise between hesitation and advance is a textbook example of brilliantly funny writing. This is not to say that everyone will find it hilarious, but only to point out that the funniness is entirely in the composition, without which Ossie’s member would be an enormous ew, as the photograph makes clear. The unforgettable note, of course, is the album’s tattle-tale way of falling open at the page with the postcard-sized picture. In the next piece in Untold Stories, “Written on the Body,” Bennett notes the hypocrisy of being prim and prurient at the same time. It is when Bennett exposes his own hypocrisy that he is often funniest.

Although, not entirely unrelated to hypocrisy, I wonder just how many meals of spaghetti on toast and poached egg &c Alan shared with his aunty. Receipts, please.


Friday 6th

What I’d really like to do is to celebrate my sixty-ninth birthday by reading the rest of Michael Lewis’s irresistible new book, The Undoing Project. (I haven’t got much left to get through.) Having read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow when it came out, I’m familiar with the nuts and bolts that Lewis pulls out of his bag of poker chips, and that frees me to step back a bit, so that I can see the work that Kahneman did with Amos Tversky and others in the longer perspective of the Industrial Revolution, of which it is a very important part. Two questions spring forward: Why now? and Why so fascinating?

By the first question, I mean to suggest that the Israeli psychologists’ investigations into systematic miscalculation occurred when they did (roughly) for a reason. Off the top of my head, I’d trace it back to the Crash of 1929, which among other things made understanding the nature of human predictions more pressing than ever before. That there had never been anything like the Crash was also a product of the Industrial Revolution, which by the Twentieth Century had reached a third, and undreamed-of, phase. The first two phases had solved venerable problems of production and transportation. Power looms wove magic carpets of textile, and then the application of steam power to travel (and, somewhat later, of electric power to vast networks of wire) blasted away the stubbornness of distance. Ancient prayers were answered.

The third phase, in contrast, introduced a new figure, the consumer, and a new problem, supplying the mass of consumers. As in the earlier phases (maimed factory attendants, derailed locomotives), mistakes were made. By 1960, an American, Ward Edwards, was suggesting, as Lewis puts it, that “psychologists be invited, or perhaps invite themselves, to test both the assumptions and the predictions made by economists.” (102) At the end of that decade, Kahneman and Tversky were brought together by disagreement with Edwards’s theory that people are “conservative Bayesians.” The rest is heuristics.

The heuristics are the subject of the second question. They’re fascinating, Kahneman’s and Tversky’s findings, because they demonstrate that people are systematically mistaken when big numbers are involved. Not only are they wrong about probabilities, but they are predictably wrong. This erroneousness, too, is an effect of the Industrial Revolution. Before Kahneman and Tversky did their work, it was assumed that people who weren’t good at making predictions would face extinction, but of course the real problem is that people were making predictions of an altogether new kind, involving masses of instances which the human mind had not evolved to confront. There were no masses before the Nineteenth Century. Masses were the product of mass transportation, mass communication, and mass production, none of which existed before 1800. There was no need for probabilistic agility before there were masses. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that people apply predictive rules of thumb (or heuristics) that were developed for dealing with much smaller numbers. In the new dispensation, this exposes people to the risk (more of a certainty, really) that judgments will be extrapolated from inadequately small samples. Not only are mistakes made, but the same mistakes are made over and over.

You won’t find any of this Industrial Revolution background in Lewis, of course. Only crackpots like me are going to explore such tangents. Lewis has much more interesting material to work with in the harrowing narrative of Kahneman’s adolescence as a “rabbit” being hunted by Nazis in France. That is history enough. Still, I hope that, along with the Bayes for Dummies guides that are certain to proliferate, we see some serious academic or journalistic effort to apply the new learning about misjudgment to fields beyond the scientific and the economic. What I’m thinking of is the social problem of strangers. The plethora of strangers in modern life, at least in urban settings, presents us with countless opportunities to come to foolish conclusions. Politicians and planners have a lot to learn from our characteristic solecisms in their undertakings to foster positive social conventions, as do we all.


Kathleen had a Bar Association do last night, so I set up the ironing board and took care of the week’s repassage. To distract myself from the drudgery, I watched Spy, the Bond spoof that manages to be funny even about its faults. There is much to love about this movie, but with Robert Leonard’s Op-Ed piece still jangling in my mind, I found a very ugly moment. It’s the disco event in Budapest. A grand beaux-arts hall, monumentalizing human aspiration, is traduced by strobe lights, musical racket, and underdressed would-be teenagers. I not only understood but felt why conservative Iowans would regard urban hedonists as “loathsome, misinformed and weak, even dangerous.”


Monday 9th

So often, these days, there is nothing to say. A context of long standing has been rejected; what remains is to see how much of it will be scrapped. For the moment, commentary seems premature.

Although I hoped to post an entry today, I could think of nothing to write about. After a tour of Facebook, however, it occurred to me to make a note of the discomfort occasioned by the enthusiasm with which friends and friends of friends have congratulated Meryl Streep for her remarks at the Golden Globe Awards presentation last night. I have not heard what Streep had to say — not yet. So nothing that follows is a criticism of her. I think it fair to infer, however, that she read the president-elect some sort of riot act, and that her attack was at least as personal as it was political. At least that is what I gather from my friends’ gleeful applause.

Nearly fifty years ago, I had a conversation with an underclassman at Notre Dame. This fellow and I were not friends, but our rooms on the top floor of an undesirable dormitory were not far apart. This neighbor of mine affected country ways, even wearing a cowboy hat, at a time when it could not have been less stylish to do so, even with irony. And this fellow was unironic in the extreme. I must have said something typically East-Coast arrogant, because he came at me, verbally, with something very close to boiling-over hatred. He promised me that his day would come.

Has it? I’ve thought about it ever since I woke up to the realization that Donald Trump was not only appealing to voters as a seasoned and successful entertainer but also holding out a lightning rod to energize his campaign with my old neighbor’s baneful resentment. At that moment, I stopped paying attention to the man and watched his supporters instead. I couldn’t say that they would stop at nothing to bring down what they perceived as a liberal tyranny, but it was obvious that they weren’t going to fool around with garden-variety Republicans; they were going to start with Donald Trump.

Maybe they didn’t really win the election. But they certainly came close enough to make the plausible, the electoral choice, with or without the help of Russians. I am almost relieved that the contest has been conceded to them, because the Republican candidate excited a great deal of ugliness. Now those of us who are unhappy about his victory have a choice to make.

When you must live with people who hate you because you have so tirelessly offended them — and make no mistake about that — you must, if violence is not an option, either learn to live apart or work hard to erase the hate. I like the living apart option; I’d be very happy with a constitution that permitted slightly different laws in the interior of the United States. But that arrangement is not on offer. I have to make myself more likeable. I certainly have to lose the contempt that radiates in everything that my body says and does.

In case you’re having trouble imagining what Trump supporters think about you, just ask a black American. Because what seems to have happened in the course of extending equal civil rights to the traditionally disenfranchised during the past half-century is that educated Americans have learned to treat their uneducated countrymen equally. For every handful of blacks allowed into the nation’s growing élite, thens of thousands of white Americans have been stripped of political respectability.

Now they’ve got it back.


Tuesday 10th

In the New York Review, Timothy Garton Ash expresses our predicament succinctly.

In short, a reaction against the consequences of economic and social liberalism now threatens the achievements of political liberalism.

But this leaves us with messy questions. How tied up together are these various liberalisms? What do economic and social liberalism have to do with one another? What is political liberalism without the freedom from constraint that has both energized entrepreneurs and encouraged same-sex marriage? What, if anything, prevents liberalism of any kind from becoming a limitless license for the affluent? Is there a liberal conscience, or is there only a liberal pose?

It was anemically gratifying to read Beverly Gage’s thoughts about élites in the Times Magazine. Finally: It has taken Donald Trump’s ascent to inspire a public discussion.

Antipathy toward a wealthy, preening managerial class seems to be gaining popularity across the political spectrum — and, oddly, to have helped elect a wealthy, preening incoming president.

“Managerial class” is perhaps the best synonym for “élite” that I have come across. It identifies, more clearly than “professional class” does, what it is that the élite is supposed to do, and to do well: manage public affairs. It also scores the point that this class, stumbling along as it does within various professional disciplines, currently lacks a larger self-awareness. Merchant bankers and neurosurgeons will stoutly protest that they have nothing to do with each others’ business — and, meanwhile, medical costs just keep going up, because no one is in charge of that. We can assume that, as with “élite,” no one is going to admit belonging to the managerial class.

Garton Ash has a plan.

No, we who believe in liberty and liberalism must fight back against the advancing armies of Trumpismo. The starting point for fighting well is to understand exactly what consequences of which aspects of the post-wall era or economic and social liberalism — and related developments such as rapid technological change — have alienated so many people that they now vote for populists, who in turn threaten the foundations of political liberalism at home and abroad. Having made an accurate diagnosis, the liberal left and the liberal right need to come up with policies, and accessible, emotionally appealing language around those policies, to win these disaffected voters back. On the outcome of this struggle will depend the character and future name of our currently nameless era.

I resisted the temptation to break the two-sentence payload into bullet points for readier comprehensibility, because nothing is to be gained by making this look easier than it is going to be.

It’s not difficult to come up with a list of alienating “aspects,” from abortion to immigration. What’s difficult is learning to talk about these issues conversationally. A conversation about abortion, for example, would have to begin on the premise that it would be permissible to ban abortions in some states. Without that “concession,” the talks are off and it’s back to the barricades. A conversation about bank bail-outs would begin with a coherent and readily understandable program for limiting the extent of financialization and for putting an end to hiding financial risks. (From consumers, of course; but also from the bankers who loaded up on misrated junk.) Another prong of the conversation about money would be planning an elementary-school syllabus to inform students about everyday credit, by which I mean not so much consumer loans as the commercial-paper market that keeps supermarket shelves stocked and their employees paid. The difficulties of conversations about the economics of immigration and the sociology of racism are not hard to imagine.

A universal public service, military or otherwise, must be imposed on all high-school graduates. Members of the managerial class must learn to work together across professional lines. Must, must, must.

This is the only way forward, and it is an essentially political way. Everyone will prefer the alternative of violence. Violence is simple and fast, and it projects an illusion of permanence. It is the way backward, back to the unsettled confusion from which human beings never stop trying to escape.


Thursday 12th

On page 81 of Mary Astor’s Purple Diary, a delicious bonbon of a book that he also illustrated, celebrity caricaturist Edward Sorel betrays a confusion. How it got by his editors (he names two), I don’t like to think, but there’s no getting round the blooper. When Sorel reads in her diary that Mary Astor dined “at the Colony,” he thinks she’s talking about The Colony Club. It’s remotely possible that she was, that she and George S Kaufman were somebody’s guests at New York’s most select and ultra-gentile women’s club. Remotely. It wouldn’t have been very romantic, though, would it, with extra company? It’s far more likely that Astor was talking about a celebrity eatery, just “the Colony,” no “club,” on 61st Street. In case you think I’m being arcane, it’s the restaurant that Roger O Thornhill (need I explain) refers to when he dictates a memo to a colleague, suggesting that the two men “colonize at the Colony,” in that taxi ride to the Plaza just before the action takes off.

And they wonder how Donald Trump got elected.


Friday 13th

I was of two minds about the previous entry. One of them wrote it. The other thought there ought to be either more, a lot more, at least a few paragraphs about the substance of Edward Sorel’s book, or nothing at all. The mind that wrote the entry believed that deplorable evidence of shoddy editing required notice and scolding. The other mind pouted, and forgot to add, since the book had been mentioned anyway, that Sorel explains the reason why The Great Lie, one of my favorite Mary Astor pictures, and one of my favorite Bette Davis pictures as well, is not, despite their superb and also somewhat unusual performances, the hit that it might be.

But the lust that Mary and Bette displayed for a dull, porcine George Brent baffled me when I was eleven and had to sit through it at the Luxor, and it seemed absurd when I saw it again recently.

Although I always try to see George Brent as a hero of decency in this movie, I am not unaware of the effort. It’s too bad, because in addition to Astor and Davis, The Great Lie gives Hattie McDaniel the chance to turn Mammy up a notch or two.


Through The Browser, I came across an extract from Nicholas Carr’s new book, Utopia is Creepy. The extract is about transhumanism, the project, already ongoing, to improve and enlarge the human frame. I’m too old for this sort of thing: I’ve come to terms with things as they are, and the prospect of transformation makes me feel that I have nothing to say. So I’ll repeat an insight of Carr’s that is not so much brilliant as steady, the fruit of sustained thought:

Transhumanism ends in a paradox. The rigorously logical work that scientists, doctors, engineers, and programmers are doing to enhance and extend our bodies and minds is unlikely to raise us onto a more rational plane. It promises, instead, to return us to a more mythical existence, as we deploy our new tools in an effort to bring our dream selves more fully into the world.

There are transhumanists (I suppose) who want to be more like computers: more dependable, more exact. But developments are more likely to proceed down a different avenue, one that, as I said the other day of the first two waves of the Industrial Revolution, will answer a lot of old prayers.

I want wings. I remember realizing that the wings of angels that my favorite Netherlandish artists painted in the Fifteenth Century, both highly stylized and arrestingly realistic, were anatomical freaks. All vertebrates possess four limbs. The forearms of bird are their wings. It is unlikely that human beings are ever going to trade in their forearms, and especially their hands, for avian appendages, especially wings that, given the rest of our makeup, would probably fail to lift us off the ground. We have solved the unimaginative side of flight, and can fly (in planes) much faster and further than any birds. The imaginative side — what is it like to fly — will probably remain just that: imaginative, at least for almost everybody.

Or, here’s a thought. Human beings don’t seem to have spent a lot of time wishing that they were horses. If you could ride a bird, if instead of designing flight suits someone invented a drone that simulated a bird’s flight, would that supply the jollies?


Tuesday 17th

“Globalization has the potential to benefit everyone.” It’s an interesting sentence. Benefiting everyone is a potential of globalization, and it is presumably one of several, perhaps many, potentials, unnamed here. I found the sentence in the Times: Andrew Ross Sorkin writes about Davos, annual home of the World Economic Forum.

The Davos Man has either failed to properly articulate the benefits of open trade — or the reality of open trade is more complicated than previously imagined.

I wonder which. Sorkin’s syntax brings Tacitus to mind.

I’m nearing the end of To Hell and Back: 1914-1949, Ian Kershaw’s contribution (the first of two) to the Penguin History of Europe. Had he asked for my advice, I would have counseled Kershaw to stop, conventionally, at 1945, and then to dedicate his next book to the Cold War, ending it in 1991 or thereabouts. The Cold War was an interesting conflict in many ways, not least for avoiding violence, and one of its themes was a war-damping supra-nationalism. There were three blocs, or “worlds”: America’s, Russia’s, and the remainder of countries too poor to merit worry. We learned in the Cold War that people don’t fight very enthusiastically for blocs.

I have not seen much evidence that commenters are aware of the role that the Cold War played in fostering globalization. To be sure, supra-nationalism was very much in the air the moment the War ended. The wars of 1914-1945 seemed to teach that nationalism was a very bad thing. (Let’s say, rather, that it had the potential to hurt everyone.) The United Nations Organization was intended to render war obsolete, and economic linkages creating the European Coal and Steel Community were formed soon after. But when Stalin made it clear that the Soviet Union and its satellites would nurture a separate, always somewhat autarchic, economy, the First World, home of globalization, had an obvious interest in the creation of a dense network of economic ties among its members. Business partners have a reduced need to police each other; it’s in everyone’s interest to sit back and let money be made. The Cold War gave these arrangements the glint of national defense. When the Cold War ended, the glint dulled, but, instead of seeing this, Davos Man now regarded the whole world, not just the First, as his marketplace.

The European Union was never going to take out the garbage, but it could and did promulgate laws directing how the garbage must be taken out. Harmoniously, among all member nations! That was the dream, anyway. Similarly, supra-national institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank — and, later, the WTO — created rules of economic play in which local officials, the people who had to take out the garbage, had little or no say. Ordinary voters might be forgiven for asking, in the absence of the Cold War’s ramp-up to hypothetical extinction, why this should be so.

The role of the nation has been an unfashionable topic for decades. Tech gurus and their clients behave as though nations were on the verge of melting away, drained of all conceivable significance and remaining little more than annoying obstructions. Unfortunately, tech types are professionally deformed by visions in which there is no longer any garbage to worry about. In fact the political reality is that if Apple’s technology displaces x jobs, that makes for X workers for whom the state will have to provide. Apple has no meaningful political ties to any state or region, but it can disrupt them enormously.

Globalization sounds like a good thing — it has the potential to sound like a good thing — but worse, much worse, it sounds like something that somebody, somewhere, understands. But no one understands it; no one can. It is best likened to a new disease whose malignant side-effects have not yet been fully experienced. I don’t mean to dramatize the matter. Every step of the Industrial Revolution has resembled a disease, at least for the millions of human beings who have been crammed into foul slums during the best of times and then thrown out of work during the slumps. And may we please accept what I just said as a statement of fact, not a point of Marxist ideology? Might it be borne in mind that even the Holy See has deplored the living conditions of the working class?

If the Industrial Revolution — which will not end, so long as there is power to fuel them, until robots have taken over every boring job — is a syndrome of diseases, does this mean that we ought to stop it? Perhaps, but we don’t begin to have the power to stop it. We can only understand it, and do our best to mitigate its consequences. This is something that globalists have no vested interest in doing. They don’t live anywhere in particular. And so nationalism, in all its ugliness, has come back, because national governments do not just have the potential to benefit their citizens, they have the obligation to do so.

Surely it has become impolitic, if not outright insulting, to speak of “creative destruction” wherever it is someone’s livelihood that is being destroyed?


Wednesday 18th

For once, I remember to think of my father on his birthday. This would have been his 103rd.


Some time ago, The New Yorker profiled Derek Parfitt, the philosopher who died at the beginning of the year, and I rashly bought a couple of books. Handsome, but very thick books they were, not so much hard to read as demanding lots of shelf-space. They proved to be books that I may have given away unread. A few pages of Parfitt — Reasons and Persons? — convinced me that he was not going to restore my juvenile faith in systematic thinking, which I regard as an affliction of the XY gender, a sort of educated mansplaining.

I spend a lot of time these days wondering why people get so worked up about things that are not worth thinking about at all, such as how Donald Trump duped American voters into electing him as president, while overlooking the problems that so urgently require clear thinking, such as the need for persuasive (ie non-coercive) leadership. Advocates of liberal democracy appear to be terminally unaware that their favored form of government depends on unwavering leadership, and blind to the fact that what they have settled for over two generations is smug self-congratulation. Liberal democracy is never secure. That is the point of it, really.

And I’ve been thinking about Parfitt, too. That he was a fellow at All Souls, Oxford, was one of those irrelevant hooks that keep people in mind; All Souls, a triumph, if that is the word, of Georgian Gothick, is the richest of Oxford’s colleges with respect to wealth per capita, because it has hardly any students — just the fellows. At least that’s what I discovered on an idle Internet search. I’m crazy — definitely the word — about Hawksmoor’s spires, with their four strands each of buzz-cut stone.

In the current LRB, Amia Srinivasan writes about Parfitt, who became her adviser when she was elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls. She describes an indiscriminately beneficent figure, a walking categorical imperative. Srinivasan’s philosophy is closer to mine.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Derek didn’t see what is obvious to many others: that there are persons, non-fungible and non-interchangeable, whose immense particularity matters and is indeed the basis of, rather than a distraction from, morality. But in not seeing this, Derek was able to theorise with unusual, often breathtaking novelty, clarity and insight. He was also free to be, in some ways at least, better than the rest of us. After he retired from All Souls, Derek didn’t like to go to the college common room, so we had our last meeting in my study. While jostling his papers he knocked over a glass. He was unfazed. We sat and talked for a few hours, his feet in a pool of water and shattered glass.

This is ambivalent, don’t you think? Is an absent-minded professor who sits unconcerned with his feet in a puddle of water, never mind the broken glass, really “better than the rest of us”? Not to me. And what is the value of breathtakingly novel theories that take no account of the breathtaking complications of individual human makeup? Earlier in her short piece, Srinavasan tells us that she had to “recant” a philosophical position to keep Parfitt from leaving the table at their first fellowship lunch, “because it implied that there was nothing wrong with torture.” Parfitt was adamantly opposed to any justification for causing pain. My own philosophy holds that a ban on torture is meaningless. Rather, on every occasion, individuals must conclude that it is not right, in the case at hand, to inflict pain. The difference may seem supersubtle but it expresses my objection to systematic thinking, which actually short-circuits the need for thought. If I must always do x, then I will miss the difference between doing x in each set of circumstances, or in other words with regard to different people. The general rule frees me from recognizing differences. That is the nub of what I think of as an XY weakness for “efficiency.” Life is more of a slog than that: we must rekindle our goodness every time it is called for.


I’ve just read Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker piece, “Tragedy Plus Time,” for the second time, in its print version. Online, it was spellbinding, but I had no sense of an ending, no physical indication that there was only a page or a paragraph yet to read. So I came away slightly confused. The second reading clarified a great deal, if only as to the essay’s coherence; I still couldn’t understand — and this is why I don’t read Nussbaum regularly — why anyone would think that television could be a good thing. Surely its inherent malignancy must now be obvious to every active mind?

I don’t have a sense of humor about television, because few things in life are as important as a sense of humor and television has none whatsoever. Instead, it has a sense of ridicule. The difference is simple: the proper object of humor is the joker himself. Ample space is available for the first-person plural: we ought to laugh at ourselves. (For me, humor is profoundly tied up in how we speak, how we used our shared language.) Television has no time for such delicacies. Television encourages us to laugh at others. It parades idiots, preferably idiots who are unaware of being idiots, across the screen. Our laughter dulls into contempt. Contempt makes it impossible to take things seriously. I have always though that Jon Stewart must be an interesting man, but I take this on faith, never having watched The Daily Show, which always seemed to me to be a bad idea. I do not think that comedy news is an improvement on straight news; quite the contrary.

Now, I can see from Nussbaum’s piece, we’re about to find out if an entertainer who joked his way into the White House will continue to have any desire to make us laugh. Nussbaum leads up to her finish with instances of Vladimir Putin’s oppression of Russian media. Then she warns that Trump may try to shut down Saturday Night Live, a show that made me laugh, back in 1975, largely by making me feel smart. Now the phenomenon of smart people laughing at people who aren’t smart fills me with dismay. It is both wrong and a bad idea. You’ve got to hope that the objects of your ridicule never get to shoot back, always bearing in mind that ridicule may not be their weapon of choice.

Nussbaum also registers — as does Rebecca Solnit in a much darker piece in the LRB — on the sex-linked nature of jokes. It’s not that women can’t be funny. But they can’t use humor (and ridicule) to create a sense of the pack. They can’t get away with the dumb misogynistic jokes whose real purpose is to create a bond among men who are confused by life, thinking that it ought to be much simpler than it is. They can’t respond to such jokes without strengthening the glue of malice. Nor have our social arrangements developed safeguards, which were unnecessary before the advent of mass media, to protect women from anonymous male attack.

It’s not funny.


Tuesday 24th

Over the weekend, I read Rachel Cusk’s Outline. Cusk’s new book, Transit, which my friend Ms NOLA calls a “companion” rather than a sequel, has just come out. As with Tara French’s Trespassers — which I still haven’t read, because I’m waiting for the paperback edition that will conform to that of the five earlier books in her extraordinarily engaging Dublin Murder Squad series — the flurry of Transit reviews directed my interest toward the earlier book. Having read Outline in its Kindle edition, however, I’ll probably do the same with Transit, so I won’t have to wait.

Outline reminded me of novels with which it probably has nothing in common beyond the faulty wiring of my brain. Brigid Brophy’s In Transit came to mind, perhaps for an obvious reason but also, I think, because of the ruminative quality that I recall, thirty years or more after reading it the once. I also thought of Renata Adler’s fiction, because of its severity. I was always conscious, in Outline, of how little Cusk was telling me; I was also conscious of not complaining. We learn almost nothing about Faye, a pure and simple stand-in for the author. At the beginning, after lunch with a billionaire, she boards a plane to Athens. On the flight, she passes the time in conversation with a Greek gentleman of somewhat diminished opulence. We never hear of the billionaire again, but the fellow passenger, with whom Faye stays in contact in Athens, is thereafter referred to as “my neighbor.” This is a breathtakingly efficient way of sweeping all the actual, ordinary-sense-of-the-word neighbors whom Faye has had in the course of her life completely out of the story.

The neighbor keeps a motorboat at a marina outside of Athens, and Faye accompanies him on two day trips to a rocky outcrop, where the water is very clear. These outings, together with several gatherings in restaurants and two sessions of a writing class that Faye is leading, constitute the matter of the novel. There are limpid and concise descriptions of Athens and of the road to the marina, and of course of the very clear water, but aside from a tour of the apartment where Faye is staying — an oblique portrait of its owner — the extended passages are all narratives. People with whom Faye seems to have spent bursts of time in other cities (again, not neighbors) join her for meals and tell stories about themselves. And then there are her students. Because the structure of the novel reminded me of Palladio’s villas, with the large blocks of narrative connected by gracious antechambers, and because the tone of Cusk’s language is so measured, I thought of Boccaccio, but of course Boccaccio’s narrators talk about everything under the sun except themselves.

That is how the world has changed in the centuries since the Black Death sent Boccaccio’s aristocrats into the hills. They would have been bored silly, if not, in the alternative, traumatized, by the tales told by Cusk’s characters, all of which have one theme: the fragility of family. The family consists of men and women who come together (“fall in love” seems an almost hysterical overstatement) and produce children. The children and their parents are tied together, but the parents are not tied to one another, and substitutions in the form of step-parents are occasionally introduced, placing further pressure on the tender question, What is family? How does the biological network of reproduction and rearing correspond to the emotional lives of autonomous individuals? What happens to a family when the man and the woman who created it no longer care to live together? And what is the relation between our lives as children and our lives as parents?

These may not be the questions that Cusk is asking, if indeed she is doing anything so vulgar as asking questions, but they held court in my mind. Although everyone passing through Cusk’s chambers is affluent and more or less well-turned-out, nobody is really satisfied. Everybody is troubled by “the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women,” as one character puts it. There is a general disinclination to accept the human condition, as if there were other options. I ought to have found Cusk’s people to have been too unattractive to read about. But the selfishness and egotism that spoil their private lives is not permitted to burden their narratives. Cusk’s characters tell their stories very well. I wouldn’t want to know them, but hearing them is provocative.

It would be tiresome, to me, anyway, to examine Outline for its views on the war between the sexes. Cusk seems to be writing in a time of cease-fire. But the problem of the family is clearly complicated not only by unilateral male entitlement but by the appeal that this entitlement has for women, at least from time to time, at least as a challenge. What makes a man attractive is often nothing more than the recognition by a woman of what he takes to be his superiority to other human beings. Once it becomes clear that a woman is not going to perform this service, she ceases to exist. One of the last stories in Outline illustrates this point. At the apartment, Faye meets another woman who will be staying there. The woman discusses her flight from England, and her conversation with her “neighbor” — the parallelism is a lovely way of closing the book. This woman’s neighbor was a diplomat, posted to Athens, who, although fluent in many languages, confessed to an inability to master Greek. The woman asked if the cause might be that his family was not accompanying him on this mission, but remained at home in Canada.

“He thought about this for a while, and then he said that to an extent it was true. But in his heart, he believed it was because he did not consider Greek to be useful. It was not an international language; everyone in the diplomatic world here communicated in English; it would have been a waste, in the end, of his time.

“There was something so final,” she said, “in that remark that I realized our conversation was over. And it was true that even though the flight had another half an hour to go we didn’t say one more word to each other. I sat beside this man and felt the power of his silence. I felt, almost, as though I had been chastised. Yet all that had happened was that he had refused to take the blame for his own failure, and had rejected my attempt to read any kind of significance into it, a significance he saw that I was all too ready to articulate. It was almost a battle of wills, his discipline against my emotion, with only the armrest between us. I waited for him to ask me a question, which after all would have been only polite, but he didn’t, even though I had asked him so many questions about himself. He sealed himself in his own view of life, even at the risk of causing offence, because he knew that view to be under threat.”

And yet he brought it up!


Thursday 26th

So far, I’ve been very happy with my new subscription to The Browser, a service that I recommend heartily, just as David Brooks did in one of his New Year’s columns. With the Pocket app on a smartphone (imagine me downloading this, but I did), there is no need to worry about having something to read while out and about. The subscription fee — $34 at the moment, I recall — provides access to material that is not otherwise available online. When I think how much I’d have had to pay to read the handful of pieces that I’ve found tremendously interesting in just three weeks’ time, The Browser‘s price seems nominal.

The other day, at The Browser, I came across the Introduction to Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President. Whether or not I’ll buy the book, which is a collection of Taibbi’s reportage from the late election cycle (I can’t imagine reading about it), the Introduction is worth clipping to Evernote. Embedded in the heart of the piece is a sinewy history of broadcast news in America that explains the fragility of journalism practices and institutions that we have tended to regard as safely monumental. As usual, integrity does not stand on a foundation of high-minded commitment but wobbles on a sea of money. I belong to the camp of analysts who believe that the medium of broadcast television could not help degenerating into an entertainment platform, and the extent to which it has compromised deliberative politics seems to recapitulate the inexorability of Greek tragedy. Like Taibbi, I didn’t see Trump coming, but perhaps I ought to put it differently: I didn’t see Trump coming. But the license to assemble idiosyncratic collections of “facts,” and the disregard for meaningful truth, have long been eventualities that I regarded as inevitable. The only question was whether I should live to see them.

I’m thinking of The Martian a lot, of Mark Watney’s last words:

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you… everything’s going to go south and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem… and you solve the next one… and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. All right, questions?

As I see it, things have been going south for a long time, so I don’t have to catch my breath when I get to work. I’ve been thinking about how to repair what I’ll call the liberal democratic module ever since Hillary Clinton polarized the nation with her semi-official health-care investigations. This module is not so much a body of laws and regulations as it is the political principles behind them. Laws and regulations depend for their power upon the legitimacy of these principles. If the principles of liberal democracy have ever been less broadly legitimate (outside of dictatorships) than they are today, all across the West, then I’m unfamiliar with that period. Right now, a lot of what needs to be done requires, as a first step, reversing the device addiction that makes it difficult to pay attention to things over the long term. (Just where video games fall on an axis between cognitive exercise and crack cocaine is not much of a question to me.) As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, though, the important thing about a revolution is having a firm grasp of the second step. What happens next? Assume that everyone’s paying attention. But to what? Almost certainly without intending to do any such thing, Matt Taibbi handed me a great suggestion:

These are the voters who’ve never met a New York bil­lionaire, but they’ve sure met a lot of corporate middle man­agers and divorce lawyers and professors and other such often-overcompensated members of the intellectual class.

Trump voters almost uniformly don’t begrudge some­one for being an entrepreneurial success (“If the guy pulls his own weight, I don’t care how much he makes” was a typical comment I heard). But they can’t stand the book-smart college types who make cushy livings pushing words around in what these voters see as competition-averse pro­fessions that reward people who in real life need to call AAA to change a tire.

Trump tapped into all of this. His speeches were visual demonstrations of his power over us. We in the press, obedi­ently clustered inside our protective rope line and/or stand­ing mute on a riser in the middle of the hall, would sit looking guilty, like the pampered, narrow-shouldered, overgroomed hypocrites we are, while Trump blasted us as the embodi­ment of the class that had left regular America behind.

This group portrait of a pasty but hated class of would-be overlords is a call for a collective makeover. As people who think as I do march in protest against Trump, I wonder how many of them understand what they look like to Trump’s supporters. What they look like is so unattractive that it makes Trump look like Superman. What they look like is so devoid of apparent purpose that an imaginary superhero promises to be more likely to get the job done, any job. Here in New York, there’s a dreadfully potent phrase: stuck up. If you have been branded with this epithet (almost always by a woman), you can be sure that nothing you say will be taken seriously thereafter. You will become somebody who is simply making more money than you deserve.

One of the quickest ways of achieving stuck-up status is to assert that “education” and retraining will restore meaningful jobs. Anyone who has really thought about it knows this to be true, and as for regular Americans who have been left behind, they’ve discovered its truth empirically. They know a bromide when they smell one.

And on the home front: As I read the screeds on how important it is for the Democratic Party to foster identity politics, my poor brain is twisted by the fact that identity politics has done nothing to establish a generally satisfactory, publicly funded pre-K program throughout the country. What could be more important than the double-barrelled project of providing early education to children while fostering their mothers’ working lives? Has there been any progress on this front?

The second step is not to bellyache about Trump’s unraveling of political safeguards that were pretty flimsy in any case and definitely unpopular with a great many Americans. The second step is to “do the math” — to think hard and to think together (talk about a tall order!) about fixing the liberal-democratic module.


Friday 27th

When I mentioned the liberal-democratic module yesterday, I decided to save explanation for another day. Or days.

Maybe the first thing to say is that my thinking on this subject is the result of new connections. I haven’t figured out a good way of talking about the way my mind makes new connections, so I may be unintelligible. What seems to have happened with reference to liberal democracy is that the term was again and again mentioned, in Richard J Evans’s The Pursuit of Power, which I read a few weeks ago, as part of a triad: it was one of three models that competed for power in nineteenth-century Europe. The other two were conservative reaction and populist socialism. I was used to thinking of liberal democracy in opposition to one or the other of those rivals, but not to both at the same time. The recurrence of the triad eventually prodded me to recognize that liberal democracy is in itself the least popular of the three, and always will be, because it is by far more difficult to maintain than either of the others, and it requires an acceptance of complexity that is almost unnatural to the human mind. This closer awareness of liberal democracy’s distinction acted like a magnet, drawing all sorts of observations from other parts of my mind — that, at any rate, is what it felt like. I went from not having much of an opinion about liberal democracy to not having much choice but to organize a crowd of insistent ideas.

Liberal democracy would be hopeless as a political program if it could not, from time to time, depend on support from the margins of the other two camps. The trick — but it is not a trick — is to persuade populists and oligarchs that they are better off learning to live together than fighting. The small but powerful clusters of rich people at one end of the economic ladder are frightened of the resentful mass at the other, and this has been the case at almost all times almost everywhere in human history. What is new is the liberal democratic undertaking to strike a balance without resorting to coercion. Just to make the undertaking twice as difficult, conservatives and socialists, much as they fear and loathe one another, detest liberal democrats even more, because liberal democrats are all about compromise and reconciliation, which means that they clearly lack moral backbone. The extremists also share a contempt for the liberal-democrat’s aversion to open conflict. So what if a good fight accomplishes nothing? It makes you feel better! (Until, of course, it doesn’t.)

Most people — but men more than women, I suspect — are illiberal. They do not see why people who are unlike themselves ought to share in the benefits of social organizations. The parlous state of America’s infrastructure today is evidence of the lengths to which people will go to deny themselves benefits if it means denying them to other groups as well. We bemoan this state of affairs, but it is the normal one. A century or more of liberal-democratic hegemony in the United States has misled us into thinking that a large and effective public sector can be taken for granted. It can’t. Now, with Donald Trump in the White House, we may be about to find out what life is usually like in most other places, and has been like for most of recorded history.

To some extent, liberal democracy proceeds by striking deals between “the classes and the masses.” It thrives whenever the hybrid of the two, the bourgeoisie, feels secure. Security is difficult to guarantee, however, in the middle of a revolution, and it must be acknowledged that liberal democracy has not navigated the latest phase of the Industrial Revolution — globalization — very well. It has subscribed to “neoliberal” economic ideas that promise social benefits but never deliver them, fueling grotesque income inequality instead. Liberal democracy has also failed to lead potential constituents toward reconciliation on another axis, a rather new one: immigration. Throughout the West, and even outside of it, traditional conflicts between rich and poor have been complicated by natives’ resentment of aliens, and aliens’ resistance to complete assimilation. In the United States, this new problem has been intensified by the liberal-democratic determination to extend full native rights to the formerly de jure alien black American population. Excellent (and overdue!) as this determination may have been, it was not followed up with the attentive leadership required to persuade Southern cavaliers and Northern workers to support it.

The liberal-democratic module — something between a completely abstract model and a time-stamped party platform — needs fixing on these two fronts. The liberal-democratic conception of beneficent commerce needs updating (to put it mildly). The liberal-democratic commitment to civil rights needs a much prettier face. These are the main “do the math” tasks that all of us who believe in the possibility of a peaceful, pluralistic society have to get to work on right away. We have to convince extremists that violence, while sexy and exciting, is both deadly and not really necessary. A good second step would be to abandon “non-negotiable” shibboleths, if only in order to understand the state of play. For the moment, I’ll leave it to you to imagine what these might be. Dont be afraid, my fellow liberal democrats, of appearing to be soft on principles. Nobody believes that we really have any anyway.


Tuesday 31st

Yesterday, Ray Soleil and I went to the storage unit. Ray climbed the ladder and handed down all the stuff from the high, topmost shelves. It made a big difference: the unit began to look empty. Among the deposed items were Kathleen’s wedding dress, and a ball gown that she wore to a Museum gala long ago. We brought home bags full of junk, some of it not junk — does anyone remember the brief period during which you got a CD of digitized images along with the prints when you had a roll of film developed? I’ve got about a dozen of those. In the evening, Kathleen began to go through the litter of craft items that Ray and I found in one of those bins that are more usually slid under beds. In two or three more solo visits, I might be able to remove all of what came down from on high. Then I can cull the books again.


This morning, the Times ran an article about how happy the President’s supporters are about the aggressive immigration moves that have caused such consternation among my friends. I noted with relief that there not a whiff of Onion. One man, who made it clear that he had voted more against Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, noted that the measures were temporary, and added that it might be a good thing to “take a breather” from less discriminating policies. It is clear to me that, however wrong the President’s moves may have been, they appeal to the people who voted for him. Protesters seem to be unaware of this, or to think that it doesn’t matter. One might well think that the President’s opponents are no more interested in liberal democracy than his supporters are.

If I have not made it clear, in more than twelve years of blogging, that liberal America’s neglect of the less affluent and educated voters — those who, most recently, supported Donald Trump — has been a very grave mistake, then my writing is even more unintelligible than I fear. This neglect dates at least to the Fifties, when powerful Democrats, most notably Lyndon Johnson, began a political program that, by enforcing the civil rights of black Americans, would betray the white-supremacy world view of the Dixiecrat wing of the party. Far more damaging was the acquiescence and active support given by subsequent Democratic Party administrations to neoliberal economic views. There appears to have been a hope, amounting to magical thinking, that Americans who felt diminished by affirmative action and globalization would disappear, preferably by transforming themselves, via higher education, into fellow liberals. But Democrats did little or nothing to help that transformation along. Democrats worked hard at making civil rights programs more effective, but they wasted little time on persuading unethusiastic white Americans that equal civil rights would be better for everyone in the long run. Democrats — especially Bill Clinton — appear to have done nothing to protect white American workers from the ravages of financialization.

Pundits of almost every stripe are rightly worried that the new Administration may throw global diplomacy into disarray. Their mistake is to think that, having been issued this warning, the President’s supporters will change their minds about their man, and demand more conventional decorum at the very least. More magical thinking! Why should an ordinary American, educated or not but without any access to those who control the levers of power, bother to understand the niceties of international affairs? Is there a test? No, there is not a test, and, having led the world on so many franchise fronts, the United States has become the first nation in which everyone is free to be stupid. By “stupid,” of course, I mean disrepectful of liberal pieties. Those pieties are very dear to me, but I am not surprised that they are so widely rejected. If a brilliant student, the child of college professors, can emerge from an Ivy League college without knowing how to pronounce the name “Proust” (a true tale in my family), how can anything be expected of ordinary Americans?

As Matt Taibbi observes in the Introduction to Insane Clown President, it doesn’t do much good to call ordinary people on their faults at spelling and grammar. For ordinary people, language is a tool, not an art form. If it is believed that greater proficiency will increase what used to be called political virtue (and I for one believe it), then the schooling of ordinary people must be improved. Adults who don’t profess to be knowledge workers deserve the respect of being understood without comment. We have seen what disrespect can do.

Gotham Diary:
If Even a Fraction
December 2016

5, 6, 8, 12, 13, 15, 16, 20, 21, 27, 29 and 31 December

Monday 5th

When I finished writing the first draft of the Writing Project at the end of August, I knew that I needed an additional section at the end. It took a while to get going on this, and it’s arguable that I still haven’t, because, without going much of anywhere itself, the work convinced that I needed a different beginning. That took even longer to get round to, but eventually I hit on the perfect anecdote, which I quickly wrote down. When I went back to pick up where I left off, I got a bit confused, and thought I’d lost it. So I rewrote it and then found it. Over this past weekend, I prepared a printable draft of the revised first section, which was really just chunks of the original minus even bigger chunks, plus the dandy little story at the top, and conflated the two versions of the dandy little story by marking up the print-out with a pencil. I will be sharpening a lot of pencils in the coming weeks. I will not be writing here so much.

The news is distressing — not the news about Trump, but the news about opposition to him. The opposition is very, very depressing. It has learned nothing but a capacity to mirror the outrage that Trump’s supporters demonstrated during the campaign. It is shocked and angry and stupid. There is a stink of media panic, a plethora of Chicken Little screeds. These are not entirely uncalled for, to be sure, but they are useless and draining and must not be indulged. There must be no disruptive and semi-violent manifestations of people taking things into their own hands. This is grown-up time. We need to behave as normally as possible and to think with all our might.

Or so it seems obvious to me. Since the election, however, I have felt somewhat detached from the liberals and progressives whose long-term ideas I tend to share. What I don’t share is faith in novelty. I don’t believe that new forms will set our benevolence free. I believe that turning away from the record of our mistakes will condemn us to repeat them. When I look round at the liberal and progressive mistakes that have put Donald Trump en route to the White House, the biggest one of all is the giddy trust with which new stretches of social tolerance have been celebrated over the past fifty years. It is now clear that this tolerance was far from universal. One has to begin by asking how advocates of social equality and justice could have been so naive, and even, only half-inadvertently, insulting. One has to wonder how intensely the alt-right’s rage is fixated on wiping the sanctimonious simper off a host of faces.

The question is not why the Democratic Party slighted statehouse politics for so long; the question is who is going to stop doing it. Who is going to take up the good fight in each of the fifty capitals?


Tuesday 6th

Over the weekend, I scoured a few hard-to-reach bookshelves, and recovered a handful of books to read. But the book that I read next wasn’t one of those; it was Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude (1947), which I found among the NYRBs. The pulpy artwork on the cover made me skeptical, as did the fragments of Hamilton’s biography that still floated in my mind from about the time Slaves was reissued. In addition to novels, Hamilton wrote the very successful plays, Rope and Gas Light. The Slaves of Solitude did not promise to be a fun read.

But it was. It was so much fun, and such high fun, that I’m awarding it my Jane Austen Prize. I just made this up, my Jane Austen Prize, but I couldn’t think of a more concise way of singing the book’s praise. It’s probably just me, but The Slaves of Solitude reminded me at every turn of Emma. It was a grey, discounted, wartime comparison; all the gleaming features of Emma are missing. (There is certainly no Mr Knightley.) But the same sort of things seems to be noticed, and the same sort of misunderstanding to proliferate. I could not shake the feeling that Mr Thwaites and Vicki Kugelman were nightmare versions of Mr Woodhouse and Harriet Smith.

The novel is set in Thames Lockdon, an imaginary town that bears a resemblance, according to an author’s note, to Henley-on-Thames. It’s a pretty little place, and, during the Blitz, Miss Roach, a publisher’s assistant, considered herself lucky to find a berth there. That was a few years ago. It is now December 1943, and the war at home has become an unspeakable bore. The narrator refers to the war as a “pilferer,” constantly stealing goods and services and replacing them with ration coupons. The tide of the fighting has begun to shift, and American servicemen are massing in Southeast England for in preparation for “the Second Front,” but the atmosphere of bleak joyless has settled on the land like a pea-souper. Miss Roach’s boarding house, formerly the Rosamund Tea Rooms, is the dreary retreat of various elderly persons, mostly women but also including the impossible Mr Thwaites. Mr Thwaites is a verbal bully and a great comic figure, not least because of his linguistic affectations, such as the habit, when in a good mood, of dropping into the lingo of “I troth.” His principal victim is Miss Roach, who has to share a table with him at meals.

Miss Roach is about forty, plain, and unlikely to marry. She is intelligent, but too well-bred to be resolute, and she is amazed, after the climax has exploded, that she sat there and took it from Mr Thwaites day after day. (At the beginning of the novel, he is accusing her, as if it were a bad thing to be at the time, of being a friend of the Russians.) By the end, she is quite resolute, having taken some very hard knocks from two new people in her life. One of these is Vicki Kugelman, a woman about her own age, and only marginally more attractive, who although a British citizen is of German birth. At a high-minded moment, Miss Roach springs to the woman’s defense, and they become casual friends. The friendship undergoes severe tests after Vicki moves into the Rosamund Tea Rooms. The wrong foot is put forward when Vicki quietly but obstinately steps on Miss Roach’s fancy of being Vicki’s sponsor at the boarding house. Quite soon, Vicki has made a beau of Mr Thwaites, and even as he flirts with her his nastiness to Miss Roach intensifies.

Most of the action, however, centers on the “inconsequent” behavior of a bibulous American lieutenant, Dayton Pike. “Inconsequent” is a very good word, and I wish it were used more frequently. Inconsequence is oblivious thoughtlessness: to say that you will write but to neglect to ask for an address is classic inconsequence. Lieutenant Pike’s inconsequence is almost pathological: he asks every pretty girl who will kiss him to marry him. It takes Miss Roach a long time to discover this, during which time she has entertained herself with daydreams, not taken seriously, of becoming the Laundry Queen of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Pike plans to be King when he goes home after the war.) Pike disappears for weeks at a time, but reappears as eager as ever. His problem is that he doesn’t have a problem with escorting Miss Roach and Vicki Kugelman to a dark park and kissing them seriatim. (He is usually plastered.) Vicki doesn’t have a problem with this, either. When Miss Roach insists that she does, they mock her as “Miss Prude” and “Miss Prim.”

“The war, amongst the innumerable other guises it had assumed, had taken on the character of the inventor and proprietor of some awful low, cosmopolitan night club.” (199). Miss Roach entertains this reflection as she hurtles in a crowded car through the suburban night, careening from one watering-hole to another while the Americans sing songs. Is she a Miss Prim? Miss Roach herself can’t settle this question, but it is obvious to the reader that the woman values her self-respect, whatever that means. She can draw a fairly clear line between fun and an orgy, and she wants no part of the latter. Her familiarity with orgies is limited, but a trapdoor keeps opening up (hauled open by the Americans, usually), revealing flames of depravity below. Before they can swallow her up, she is saved by circumstance: Lieutenant Pike takes to lubricating Mr Thwaites with whiskey. In an obscure way, this is Mr Thwaites’s undoing. Just when Miss Roach is sure that things can’t get any worse, they begin to get better.

Emma Woodhouse touches a similar nadir, but from that moment, as the tide begins to flow in her favor again, the air of smiling satisfaction becomes ever sweeter. So is with the tying up of loose ends in The Slaves of Solitude. There can be no truly happy endings in London at the end of 1943 — there is still too much danger to survive — but Miss Roach emerges from her boarding-house adventures a much happier woman, and a person very unlikely to accept the conversational cruelties of a Mr Thwaites with any docility.


Thursday 8th

I’ve just read the strangest article in the Styles section of today’s Times. It’s about a young man, Ryan Holiday, a former publicist who has set himself up as a self-help guru, preaching the attractions of Stoicism. The reporter is Alexandra Alter, and I wonder why she did not mention what is implicit in her piece: the maleness of it all. Mr Holiday is much in demand as a speaker for sports teams and military groups. A few philosophers whom Alter quotes express mild doubt about Holiday’s authenticity and rigor; but their very appearance at an event called Stoicon makes it hard to know how seriously to take any of this. I came away not taking it seriously with regard to the philosophy but taking it very seriously with regard to the stroking of specifically masculine egos. There, there, it’s all right to be humble; don’t feel bad about not being famous. Just try to be a better shot with that gun.

If my mind were more scientific, I’d figure out a way to devise a People Index, which would at any given time affix a numerical value to the extent to which the word “people” is used by men and women generally to refer to men and women indifferently. Equally. When you use the word, do you see with your mind’s eye a gathering of men and women, as in a theatre? Or do you see a platoon of men or a flock of women? Is your view altered by different contexts?

In my view, all the advantages that can possibly be attributed to one gender or the other — the bravery of men, the loving-kindness of women (just to pick the two most trite) — are completely outweighed by the absence of the other’s, and never more so than in important discussions. One of the reasons for my mistrust of philosophy is its almost complete failure to appeal to women. In the past, men would say that philosophy is simply “beyond” the grasp of women. I don’t want to hear that sort of thing again, but when I read that, before he dropped out of college, Holiday pasted quotations from the Meditations of Marcus Arelius on the walls of his dorm room, I prick up my ears.


Monday 12th

Last Friday, I spent a few hours writing about a thousand words about George Meredith’s masterpiece, The Egoist. Then, in a flurry of misstrokes, I lost what I’d done. I’ve been somewhat careless, lately, about the precautions that I’ve learned to take to protect my work, and, in another indication of diminished interest in what I’m doing here, I did not immediately attempt to reconstruct the entry. In fact, I let it go with a sigh, and signed off for the weekend with nothing to show for the day. I turned to the writing project, which is giving me a hard time at the moment, and grappled with a paragraph until I began to feel good about it. Meanwhile, I knew that I’d be back on Monday, better equipped to write about The Egoist for having read more of it. To my chagrin, I read the whole thing.

The Egoist is a difficult novel to recommend. It is, at least at the beginning, something of a porcupine, all quills on the outside. Meredith’s penchant for cleverness, for phrasing little details with peculiar obliquity, has not aged well.

Pedestrianism was a sour business to Sir Willoughby, for whose exclamation of the word indicated a willingness of any amount of exercise on horseback.

While hardly opaque, this sentence has too much surface for its sense, and long stretches of the first ten or fifteen chapters are made tiring (and even tiresome) by Meredith’s disinclination to speak plainly. Once the action gets going, it moves very quickly, and conversation begins to replace narrative. The conversation is very good; it has something of the sparkle of Wilde. But one has suffered to get that far. Essentially, The Egoist is a farce in extremely slow motion.

Some might call Meredith’s style an acquired taste; if it is, I have not acquired it. I’ve been meaning to re-read the book for ages, but when I found a print copy in the bookcase — the Kindle’s battery was running low — there was a bookmark in the middle of Chapter 16, where apparently I had stopped, years ago. Determined this time to enjoy the climax, I pressed on, but all that kept me going at one point was knowing that Clara’s flight to the railway station was only four chapters away. I dimly recalled that this event marks a change in the story’s time signature; from andante assai, it moves to allegro con brio. The bulk of the novel describes the action of four days, or rather presents it in a series of staged scenes that brings Beaumarchais to mind.

But Meredith is writing in the 1870s; he has all day, and then some. Why bother with so much overupholstery? One good reason: the characters are all very attractive. Sir Willoughby Patterne, the character of the title, is a monster of narcissism, constantly begging the question whether surfeit or deficit of self-esteem is the underlying cause; but the spectacle of his ordeal is extremely entertaining, and his fatuous speeches are irresistibly dreadful. One can hardly believe they go on so, and yet one doesn’t want them to stop. Rich, handsome, suave and attentive, Sir Willoughby has set out to be the principal gentleman in his county. All he needs is children — his “line,” as he calls it. For this, he must have a wife, but Sir Willoughby is mistaken about women. He has already been jilted once, and no sooner have we fallen in love with his second fiancée, Clara Middleton, than she, too, begins to think of bolting. “Anything but marry him,” becomes her mantra. There is no real mystery to the ladies’ change of heart. The moment Sir Willoughby welcomes a woman as his prospective bride, he enunciates a conception of love that would make a vampire seem an appealing alternative.

After the first dump, Sir Willoughby took a world tour. Now thirty-two, he cannot afford to be jilted twice. In a pointed scene with the widowed grande dame of the neighborhood, Mrs Mounstuart Jenkinson, the mere word itself, “Twice,” spoken by the lady as she presses the stem of her parasol into the lawn, is sufficient by itself to reduce the baronet to hypothermia. He cannot allow Clara to escape. Nor can Meredith. Clara is a lady — innocent and pure and the embodiment of all those other rather implausible Victorian ideals about women. She will not disgrace herself. Yes, she does run away, but all alone; when Sir Willoughby’s handsome and rakish friend, Horace De Craye, shows up at the railway station to “assist” her, she understands that her flight must be aborted. It cannot be allowed to appear that she ran off with him.

Indeed, there is no reason to believe that Clara would ever succeed in dissolving her engagement, were it not for the helpless assistance of Sir Willoughby’s egotism. He wants Clara, and the world as well, to believe that he loves her alone, but of course he loves himself much, much more. Perhaps it would be better to say that he loves his public standing more than anything else. He cannot bear the idea that people might be talking about him in any critical way. He would rather die than be humbled. As Clara’s pressure to disengage intensifies, Willoughby becomes so distracted by his attempts to keep up appearances that it becomes obvious to De Craye that he no longer cares for Clara herself.

Clara is nineteen, beautiful, and fully alive; she could have been played, had films been made when they were younger, by Helena Bonham Carter or Rachel McAdams. But the reader must resist the temptation to regard her as the heroine. Which is a way of saying that her time with Sir Willoughby, however tumultuous, is not particularly momentous for Clara. Once she resolves that she cannot marry the man, her development as a character stops; if it begins to move again at the end, that is only to tell us that her love story, involving another man altogether, is just about to begin. In fact, Clara falls away as an active character, and even, helplessly, becomes something of a bore. When pressed for reasons why she can’t love the Patterne paragon, she can only point to failings in herself. She cannot say, “Because he is an egoist!” In her world, most men — especially most wealthy men — are exactly that. The language of love and duty available to a young lady of Clara’s class cannot be used to attack a man who intends to subordinate his wife’s freedom to the demands of his caprice. Were she to accuse her fiancé of being grossly self-centered, the world would shrug. “And?” She would thereupon be obliged to sit through lectures on how to handle a man.

This is another difficulty with The Egoist: the limitations on a young lady’s autonomy that prevailed in the high noon of Victoria’s reign have slipped almost as far into bizarro history as the mannerisms of Heian Japan. The problem of “jilting” itself takes some explanation. We believe that it would be unpardonably inauthentic for a woman to murmur “I do” if she were less than sure of the statement; in Meredith’s day, a woman who accepted a suitor was bound forever by that plight, no matter how her feelings might evolve thereafter; to Trollope, a woman who acknowledged the love of one man was worse than Eve if she ever looked at another. The fact that girls were largely ignorant of “the world” was quite pointedly not taken into account. It was all very artificial, of course — the men of the time were habitual over-reachers, and their women had too much time on their hands — and it collapsed altogether about a century ago. Readers might well decline to reconstruct so odd a playing field for so unnecessary a game.

What saves The Egoist from mere curiosity is its comedy. Now, Meredith had very elaborate ideas about comedy, and he is always willing to tell us about them. In spite of this, the book is funny, once you have gotten used to its strange tempo. For when I said that the climax is marked allegro con brio, I took it for granted that any reader who gets far enough to read it would have gotten so used to the fundamental molto adagio as no longer to notice it. There is a scene between two old men so protracted that makes you want to scream, as indeed it makes one of those men want to scream, but you are laughing before it is over. Two titled viragos, Lady Busshe and Lady Culmer, plough through the dramatic reversals with so much relish that you expect them to upset Meredith’s apple cart along with Sir Willoughby’s. Mrs Mountstuart Jenkinson, a less mad cousin of Lady Bracknell, has the awful majesty of Aunt Maud, in The Wings of the Dove, but she is so delightful that you want to read her memoirs. With her peculiarly worldly respectability, she both looks back to the ancien régime and foreshadows the Edwardians. Gifted with the knack for mots justes, she calls Clara “a dainty rogue in porcelain,” much to Sir Willoughby’s chagrin (“why rogue?”); and thus she captures the lovely girl’s appetite for liberty.

I have said nothing of Laetitia Dale, the somewhat dependent neighbor who has adored Sir Willoughby since childhood. If there is a heroine here, it is she, and she turns out to be the funniest character of all, if only at the very end, after chapters and chapters of passive reserve. She learns a great deal from Clara, more than she could have imagined. In other words, she is massively disillusioned. Having jettisoned her romantic idealism, she will be just the wife Willoughby needs. Hearing her stipulation of changes to be made at Patterne is as refreshing as standing under a waterfall.

I have mentioned a late novel by Henry James. James exemplifies our idea of what a difficult writer ought to be like, hard to follow until you get it, and understand that you are listening to speech, not to writing. (James dictated his later works to a secretary.) Meredith is difficult in an entirely different way, and I don’t think that it’s possible to become altogether comfortable with him. But he had a vision of craziness in a country house, and for anyone patient enough to bear, for a dozen-odd chapters, with a style that is never quite as orotund or precious as it threatens to be, that vision will come delightfully alive.


Tuesday 13

And as for the Willow Pattern — does anybody under forty recognize it? I see that you can buy a service of four five-piece place settings from Bed, Bath, & Beyond. (The less said about that, the better.) Wikipedia, curiously, discusses the origin of the pattern, as well as the romantic fable that it inspired, but says nothing about The Egoist. Meredith didn’t call his hero Willoughby Patterne for nothing, but I’ve always thought that the reference was something of a muddle — a good case of being too clever by half.

Developed by various potteries toward the end of the Eighteenth Century, Blue Willow quickly became the most popular of mass-produced tableware patterns. The image was printed, not painted, on each piece, making standardization, then a modern miracle, a considerable draw. Based on Chinese design elements, and exploiting the color of choice in porcelain imported from China, Willow was nonetheless an English concoction, as was the “legend” that it was thought to depict, but that in fact was distilled from it. I doubt that it was ever used on expensive bone china as often as it was on affordable earthenware, and by the 1870′s, I should think, the only people dining from it at Patterne Hall would be the servants. Is this part of Meredith’s joke, yet another way of saying that poor Sir Willoughby, whose adventures are patterned by a tale associated with the most common ceramics in England, is as mortal as everybody else?

It’s not difficult to mark the correlatives between the legend and the novel, but the legend lacks many of the novel’s most striking elements, among them the characters of Laetitia Dale and Crossjay Patterne. At the same time, neither elopement nor vengeful pursuit, central to the legend, and represented on the pattern by the three notional figures crossing the bridge near the center of the design, are part of the novel. Yes, Clara tries to run away, but she is pursued by those who would help her, and her love story, which is not really central to The Egoist, but instead a rather tied-up loose end, is fostered by her father, not forbidden by him. To the extent that Meredith used the pattern as a model, he seems to have done so in order to be able to point out the many ways in which he did not follow it. At the same time, it must be admitted that the name of his hero, which everybody in England and American must have seen through at the time (“Get it?”), works well to make the baronet a figure of fun, and not the narcissistic juggernaut that he really is.


On Friday, there appeared an astonishing piece about a book that is going to be published here in April. (It has already come out in Britain.) Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler, details the use of methamphetamines by German soldiers during the war, as well as Hitler’s use of cocaine and opiates. As writer David Segal notes, it’s hard to imagine anything new to be learned about the Nazi régime, and yet what makes Ohler’s disclosures all the more shocking is that they explain so much! Such as, for example, Hitler’s gratuitous declaration of war on the United States several days after Pearl Harbor. Not to mention, earlier in 1941, the invasion of Russia — initially a great success, incidentally, then not so much: drugs wearing off? Even the Holocaust becomes a little less inexplicable, at least to anyone who has spent time with hopped-up speed freaks. It seems that parts of the story have been well-known all along, but not to the same people. Ohler was inspired to write a novel on the subject by a documentary that he saw; one of the participants in that project taught him how to research drug use in military records. Ohler’s publisher decided that the material was too weird for fiction.

My brain is deafened by shuttling resets. The Industrial Revolution in Germany transformed the world of chemicals, from dyes to drugs. Mightn’t that alone have made it the first place to experiment with government bv doping? We have to be grateful, I suppose, that the effect of steroids on physical performance were not as well-understood as they are today. Almost every aspect of the Nazi horror looks to be up for re-evaluation, and there is probably going to be a din when Blitzed appears in April. I foresee a reaction that insists that not everything about the Third Reich was related to drug abuse. Maybe even a new movie or two!


Thursday 15th

In these uncomfortable times, I am reminded of a prose-poem by Auden, “Vespers,” one of his “Horae Canonicae.” Auden pits himself against a stranger who is walking along a twilit road in the opposite direction. “Both simultaneously recognize his Anti-type: that I am an Arcadian, that he is a Utopian.” What follows is a series of contrasts and contradictions, amusing but at the same time dismaying.

In my Eden a person who dislikes Bellini has the good manners not to be born; in his New Jerusalem a person who dislikes work will be very sorry he was born.

At the end of the poem, both men are shown to be complicit in the blood-sacrifice without which “no secular wall will safely stand.” I don’t follow the poem quite to its Christian point, but simply enjoy, if that’s the word, the oppositions. I have felt them strongly ever since I discovered the poem years ago. Generally, I identify with Auden, and see the stranger as a nasty piece of work. It is very tempting, these days, to identify the stranger, if not with Donald Trump (that would not fit at all), then with his white, male supporters. They alarm me, and I feel their contempt, matching the rhythm of “Vespers.”

But if Auden seeks to solve his dichotomies in spiritual contrition, I am just as eager to translate them into common terms. On the one hand, we have the language of hope, which, however it arises from past experience, pins attention on the future, and the good things that might happen in it. On the other, there is the language of fear, which turns away from the future lest it present a recurrence of terrible things that have happened in the past. Mild forgetfulness and savage recollection. Optimism and pessimism.

Idealism and practicality. We have not yet learned how to forge one language out of these two ways of seeing things that seem, not so much to contradict one another as to ignore the existence of the other. What makes Auden’s evening walk unpleasant is the mere reminder of the stranger’s point of view, which the poet wishes to remove, along with the stranger himself, to “some other planet.” So long as human beings could do little more damage to the world than killing other human beings, the tension between idealism and practicality was sustainable; there was no need for cooperation. But now that we can wreck the planet, or, rather, now that, if we are to proceed at all, we must save the planet from ourselves, idealism and practicality must somehow be forged together. Each must understand and, literally, come to terms with the other. Alarm and contempt are unaffordable luxuries.

The first step is for each party to abandon its claim to be the better representative of humanity, and to acknowledge that, on its own, neither is a very good one. This is really nothing more than learning to see yourselves as your opponents see you. Idealists can be awful fools, while pragmatists stifle imagination. When one says, “this time, it will be different,” the other chortles darkly. Dreamers are empty-headed; realists are prisoners of their own common sense.

One issue about which both sides agree to disagree is human nature. Hope claims that it is perfectible, while fear insists that it is nasty and brutish. As it happens, we are living in an age of discoveries about human behavior (which is all that we can see of “human nature”) that promises to resolve many competing claims. And we have lived through an era of prosperity that has taught us a great deal about the mollifying effects of comfort and safety on human anxiety. Pessimists will argue that the alteration of human behavior is as temporary as prosperity is transient, while optimists will complain that prosperity was no more than consumerist bling. Both sides, however, will tend to overlook the fact that prosperity was caused by human beings. It was not, as in the old days, a matter of lucky harvests. Postwar prosperity was particularly mindful of the brutalities and inequities of earlier phases of industrialization, and overcame most of them for many years. Human beings can create environments in which human beings will flourish. All that it takes is for optimists to listen closely to pessimists, and for pessimists to have a little faith in themselves.


Friday 15th

In this morning’s Times, the regular book reviewers list their favorites for the year. There was a time, not so long ago, when such lists sparked a competitive response in me: how many had I read, or would I read? This year, I felt a strange sadness instead. It was strange because it blended two distinct regrets. First, I’ve been re-reading my own books for at least two years, and not buying very many new ones; I see this as a function of my time of life. Whether actual age has anything to do with it, I am simply no longer in the expansive phase that marked my youth and middle age. I have genuinely lost interest in novelty, and I don’t pay much attention to new stories. This may seem like a terrible loss — I should certainly have regarded it as one twenty years ago, or perhaps even ten — but it is almost wholly displaced by a harvest of reflection and reconsideration that feels like the richest thing that I have ever experienced. Almost wholly, though, not so much that lists of the best books of the year, only one or two of which I may have read, don’t make me wistful. This first regret is like a thimble-sized glass of bitter liqueur, and not unsavory.

The other regret is quite different. It is a cold ocean on the other side of an unreliable seawall, pounding away at the civil fabric in which I have lived a safe and largely comfortable life. My good luck and the fortunes of the liberal experiment in Western democracy are knotted together. On a night not long after the November election, I lay awake one night wondering how long after the Inauguration it would take the Trumpists to show up at my door to take me away. Abominable conceit, you will say. But it doesn’t feel so imaginary, so light-of-day unlikely. This morning, it is not the book lists that look different — not yet, anyway. Gone, rather, is the unspoken trust and confidence with which I looked over their predecessors.

It was not complete, that trust and confidence. I knew that the way things were could come to an end, and probably would come to an end if the élite (to which no one would admit belonging) continued to sleepwalk. It is not certain that the old order has indeed come to an end. Inertia can be very powerful, and, so far, for all the anxiety, there is not much violence. But there is no reason to believe that this will continue. More and more, I feel that I am writing a message for a bottle.


I never write in books anymore, but I used to inscribe the date on which I finished reading a book on the inside of its back cover. My Doubleday Anchor copy of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, which has held together for over forty years, bears the date 19 February 1971. Over time, my recollection of the novel has been completely effaced, and because most of the action takes place in Geneva, I allowed it to be overwritten by associations with the assassination there, in 1898, of Empress Elisabeth. It’s not unlikely that I was very distracted in February 1971; in any case, I feel that I’ve just read Under Western Eyes for the first time.

After reading Lord Jim and Victory last year, and re-reading Nostromo and The Heart of Darkness as well, I was on the lookout for Under Western Eyes, which turned out to be on the top shelf of the fiction bookcase — a warren, triple-stacked, of uncatalogued paperbacks — where I found it a few weeks ago. Like The Secret Agent, which I re-read two years ago, it boasts no exotic locales. The book opens in a St Petersburg that seems from the very start to be Dostoevsky’s; perhaps because Conrad was a friend of Constance Garnett (Dostoevsky’s first translator into English), the text reads like a very familiar translation. We are in the world of students and subversives, of heaping snow and endless cold nights, and of “rooms,” barely-furnished garrets with small, dirty windows and dim oil lamps. Razumov, the student who concerns us, is an unusual young man, as strange as Prince Myshkin, although not at all like him. Conrad never misses an opportunity to remind us that Razumov has grown up not only an orphan but without any loving relationships at all. A certain Prince K, possibly his natural father, provides a modest allowance, but that is it; one helplessly concludes that Razumov was born in the room that he rents and in the clothes that he wears, that he has been a student since birth.

To what extent is Razumov deformed by childhood deprivations, and to what extent is he merely Russian? He does not say much, but most of what he says in the novel is brutally direct, uncoated by regard for the feelings of others. Although Razumov’s manner in student gatherings is described — he appears to listen deeply — the man whom we get to know is governed by a desire to be left alone. Perhaps this desire is so striking because it is shattered at the very beginning, when Razumov, through no act of his own, is implicated in a political assassination. His plans to complete his education with distinction and to compete for a silver medal by writing an essay, and so to find a respectable berth in the Russian bureaucracy — all of this becomes impossible when the assassin shows up in his room, in need of help.

The assassin is not unknown to Razumov, and here we must wonder a little about the “no act of his own” innocence. For the assassin, among others as it turns out, harbors a very favorable if no less mistaken opinion of Razumov. In fact, Razumov is the only one of his student friends whom the assassin names in a letter to his mother and sister. It is somewhat absurd, for Razumov has never espoused a revolutionary idea in his life. But his silence makes him a standout among the ranters. The assassin concludes that Razumov is a most trustworthy comrade. Razumov can be relied upon to arrange for the assassin’s escape, by notifying Ziemianitch, a “town peasant” who runs a sort of coach service. The assassin will hide out in Razumov’s room in the meanwhile.

Razumov sets out to do as the assassin asks, but he is very bitter about it, and when Ziemianitch turns out to be dead drunk, Razumov changes tack. From this moment, the novel takes place in a sort of moral outer space, where there is no gravity and where cause and effect have been duped. To the question already asked about Razumov — is he damaged or just Russian? — we add another: is he righteous or vile? He is certainly put in a false position, and the false position becomes unbearable when he discovers tender feelings (the first in his life, it would seem) for the assassin’s sister.

In his introduction, Morton Dauwen Zabel says that Under Western Eyes is arguably the most difficult of Conrad’s novels to read through, but, perhaps because I had just finished The Egoist, I found it to be smooth sailing — smooth sailing with a lot of emotional turbulence. I couldn’t put the book out of my mind; it really gave me no peace. Tensions were ratcheted up by external accidents: by the noisy remodeling of a nearby apartment, by the furious, last-minute disorder of the intersection over the subway station, just outside our door — the MTA has still not ruled out a New Year’s Eve opening — and by a couple of domestic disappointments. Reading Under Western Eyes was smooth sailing, but all the same I was seasick most of the time. I was dying to find out how it all came out in the end, and yet in a way I didn’t much care, for I just wanted it to be done, while, at the same time, I wanted never ever to finish it.

But I did.


Tuesday 20th

Zsa Zsa Gabor! The name rockets out of oblivion. It is not as surprising that she lived to such a great age as that she ever existed at all. She might as well have been 99 when I was a child. Just when raw youthfulness was about to assert itself at the center of style and culture, Zsa Zsa and her sisters pouted in their feathers and their furs, insisting that real glamour doesn’t touch women until they’re forty. Or until they’ve had forty husbands.

The Times obituary, written by Robert McFadden, could not resist making a little fuss about Zsa Zsa’s last husband, referred to twice as “Mr Prinz von Anhalt.” The normal journalistic thing to do would be to respect his bluff and call him “Anhalt,” or “Mr von Anhalt.” But no. There must be giggles. I hope that Vanity Fair will tell us more about how Hans Robert Lichtenberg got adopted (as an adult) by the Duchess of Saxony and why he took to passing himself off as a German aristocrat. I’m sure that there’s a perfectly good explanation for it. California living would appear to be part of the equation.

Indeed, Zsa Zsa herself, an emissary of the Mitteleuropäisch heartland of beautiful skin treatments — she is shown, in the obituary, in her role as a scientist from Venus; pretty much the same thing — required an American atmosphere for ignition. It is only in the context dramatized by her sister, Eva, in Green Acres, that such kittenish but mature seductiveness makes sense. Only in America could it be imagined that there were men who lit up when she sashayed in from the valet parking. Her husbands presumably imagined such responses. In today’s paper, Alessandra Stanley calls her the first reality show star, but I think it makes more sense to regard her as a pioneering drag queen. (Once again, there may be no difference.)

She was a great figure of fun to children, dahlink. But we’re all getting pretty old ourselves, now. Why does the Times assume that everyone knows how to pronounce her name?


An editorial in the Times calls for an end to the Electoral College. It mentions the “elegant solution” of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would leave the College intact but direct the electors to mirror the popular vote. It sounds like a great way for the populous coasts to drain power from the flyover zone, even if that isn’t its purpose, so I don’t expect the Compact to make much further progress.


Wednesday 21st

Where to begin? If I say that I’m thinking of drawing a line under these entries and contributing none further, even regular readers will conclude that I’m in a snit about Trump. But what I’m in a snit about is everyone else’s snit about Trump. The whining and the moaning and the “bewilderment” about the election. And the Fascist fantasies about the future. I’m not saying that the next Administration will be just fine. I’m not saying anything about it at all. What seems more important to me is understanding the values and the commitments of people who, like myself, are happier with the judgments of Supreme Court justices who have not been nominated by Republican presidents.

What do you call people like us? Are we still liberals? Progressives? There is one thing that I hope that we are not, and that is Democrats. I don’t want to hear talk about a Democratic Party comeback. At least on the national level, the Democratic Party is not going to be coming back within my lifetime — I’m almost sure of that. And there are “good reasons” for this, reasons why the Democratic Party is not so great. Reasons why those of us who can’t figure out what to call ourselves ought to resist the Party’s attempts to rally, and to move on instead, in search of something new.

The history is really very clear. Since the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party has been associated with the “New Deal” slate of redistributive social programs, such as Social Security, and progressive regulatory structures, such as the National Labor Relations Board. Medicare is an important later bloom of this tradition. But today’s Democratic Party is not at all like the party that supported FDR. FDR’s Democratic Party was destroyed by Lyndon Johnson, with the passage of important civil rights legislation in the 1960s. Johnson’s heroic gesture drove Southern Democrats (“Dixiecrats”) into the arms of the Republic Party. The surviving Democratic Party was little more than an opportunistic rump.

Democratic Party failures since the Sixties involve both leadership and administration. What Johnson started was not continued. There was no national conversation about race; instead, there were riots that led many whites to complain that blacks were ungrateful for being treated as human beings, which however they still were not. The Democratic Party did little or nothing about White Flight from the country’s older cities. It was powerless, apparently, to check the growing “law and order” movement by which Republicans brazenly sought to continue and intensify the marginalization of blacks. It might have been argued that, even though the Dixiecrats had left the party, their preference for glossing over racial issues persisted in the Democratic Party. Nor did the Party cultivate future leaders. It became a clearing house for mavericks instead.

As to administration, the Democratic Party seemed to be unaware that arrangements for the ameliorisation of society are delicate institutions requiring constant attention and occasional rethinks. I’m not talking about programs, which certainly have been tinkered with over the years. I’m talking about administration, how the government conducts its business. The Democratic Party has accomplished nothing substantial in the fight against regulatory capture; it has responded fatalistically to enormous discrepancies in pay between regulators and the subjects of their regulation, discrepancies that encourage an altogether licit corruption. At a signal point in growing economic volatility, a Democratic president oversaw the dissolution of the Glass-Steagall safeguards that had done so much for financial stability since the Depression. Modifying legislative provisions in order to make those safeguards more responsive to changes in economic life were not considered: the safeguards themselves were seen as the problem. Had they remained in place, there might not have been the catastrophe that occurred ten years later.

Instead of attending to these real political problems, the Democratic Party devoted its energies to visions of the future. In these visions, no American would be permitted to coerce another American in any way. I can think of no more praiseworthy objective, but visions can be realized only when they attract very substantial support. The Democratic Party has not condescended to attempt to persuade rural, socially conservative Americans of the justice of its visions. Republicans have taken advantage of this arrogance, gaining control of statehouses and redrawing electoral districts in such a way that the popular vote in a presidential election has been constitutionally overruled.

The Republican Party is the party of selfishness. It has other words for this — freedom, individuality, personal responsibility — but it is up-front about its priorities. The Democratic Party projects an image of concern for others, for social justice. It seems, however, to share the Republican obsession with staying in office.

Thanks for nothing, Democratic Party. Kindly slip on a pair of cement shoes and go for a swim.


Tuesday 27th

It seems that I’ve been doing nothing but reading The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, by Richard J Evans. I ordered the book the moment I learned about it, because of the book’s title and also because of its author. I’ve been reading pieces by Evans in the LRB for years (or so it seems) and I have always been impressed by his authority. But I haven’t read any of the man’s books, which tend to focus on Hitler and the Third Reich. After Ian Kershaw’s two-volume study of Hitler, and a few other related books that appeared at the same time, I didn’t want to read any more about all of that. But here is Evans writing about my latest interest, the beginning of modern times, and how well he captures the crux of it in his title! Power was everything in the Industrial Revolution — the discovery of motive powers far greater than any known before — and it was everything to the political revolutions that overturned the ancien régime throughout Europe from 1789 on. Evans makes an extremely felicitous point, or rather calls attention to the point that has been so nicely made by the Penguin History of Europe, to which The Pursuit of Power is the latest edition. The preceding period, 1648-1815, is covered in Tim Blanning’s The Pursuit of Glory. There you have it! The glory once pursued by monarchs and other hereditary noblemen paled in comparison to new and amazing abilities to make unexpected things happen. The electricity that powered new modes of communication also amplified new political powers, as did new modes of transportation, not to mention the production of new orders of armaments. Our political lives are still almost wholly engaged by the struggle to limit and channel the powers, now including the power to destroy life on Earth, that began to transform human society nearly 250 years ago. In the year that is about to end, a self-congratulating liberal consensus devoted to making progress in the problem of managing power received two terrible shocks that ought to have been foreseen instead of being dismissed as unlikely: there is still much to learn about power. Evans’s felicitous point reminds us that, prior to the revolutions that exploded at the end of the Eighteenth Century, power was such a zero-sum affair that no one gave much thought to it. 250 years might strike a young person as a long time, but in the larger scheme of things it is little more than an instant, and I am not surprised that we have made more mess than headway in attempting to master our everyday superpowers.


Thursday 29th

Now that I’ve finished The Pursuit of Power, Richard J Evans’s magisterial history of Europe in the Nineteenth Century, I see that it has, for all its strengths, an enormous hole, right in the center. What’s missing is a chapter on the bourgeoisie, on its explosive growth and wealth, on the business organizations that fueled it, on the new concepts of public and private property that new wealth engendered, and on the displacement of traditional élites and the impact of that impact on the arts. Bits of this are strewn throughout the book, but key parts, especially the development of finance, and the catastrophic bank failures (in 1837 and 1873) that highlighted the fragility of unregulated capitalism, are not discussed. Political power is Evans’s theme, but not the arguably greater power of money.

I can’t help attributing this oversight to Evans’s academic training, about which I have to infer, from the book’s dedication to the memory of Eric Hobsbawn, that it brought up Evans as a man of the left. I have arrived at a curious conclusion about educated leftists: they have adopted the utterly aristocratic contempt for money and people who have it that is exhibited in the pages of the Quest de Saint Graal, where you will find castles and hermits but no towns of any size nor any service providers who need to be paid. Such features of medieval life, thriving at the time, were simply omitted from the epic in a way that leaves a palpable distaste. So it is with Marxists. Their primary response to the bourgeoisie is not hatred or outrage but tacit disgust. I can think of no other explanation for Evans’s omission of commercial growth from his rich tapestry, which I nevertheless urge you to read. It’s because of this squeamishness that Evans fails to complete the distinction between liberals and democrats, who together with the reactionaries constituted the century’s three political groupings.

Evans ends with a chapter on imperialism that takes the reader on a harrowing ride through the far-flung colonial exploits that terminates right back at home, in the territorial ambitions of the Balkan countries that emerged from the Ottoman collapse. Imperialism began as a commercial project, but quickly required the backing of sovereign powers, and this was where European politicians rediscovered the attractions of glory and the magnificent symbolic gesture. Glory, it turned out, appealed to the new mass electorates no less than it had done to the Bourbons; the great-grandchildren of peasants whose hatred for war was exceeded only by their ignorance of its conduct developed a thirst for international competitions. What put the bite in these competitions — what made them wars instead of contests — was nationalism, a monstrous miasma that seeped from the blood of revolutionary martyrs.

Nationalism is back in the news, because Donald Trump has put it there. But the United States can never be nationalist in the way that the European countries of the Nineteenth Century were. It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect upon why.

European nationalism was founded primarily on language and mythology. Natio, the Latin root, meant “birth,” and the word came to apply to tribes, particularly uncivilized ones. Tribes were identified primarily by their speech and by their gods. In the wake of the convulsions that opened the century, people throughout Europe began to identify themselves by the language that they spoke and by the stories that accounted for their presence there. This identification was especially insistent among those who spoke a language other than their rulers’. The Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians of the Hapsburg dominions demanded that their children be taught in their own language. At the other extreme, a great deal of effort was invested (ultimately fruitlessly) in reviving the moribund Gaelic of Ireland. Against this background, the history of the “great migrations of the peoples” was concocted, suggesting that tribes in hordes had deserted Central Asia in favor of lands on the periphery of the Roman Empire. Some of these stories had been sketched in the early Middle Ages, while others were given respectability by philological research. They were mostly bogus.

The concept of race, which employs a word of unknown background that appeared in Latin countries during the Renaissance, has its own history, and from the moment of its introduction into serious discussion it carried the additional baggage, beyond difference, of superiority. It was first used to explain the superiority of French aristocrats to ordinary French people, the theory being that the nobles were actually Franks, or Germans, who alone could subject the Celtic and Mediterranean indigenes to law and order. Later, the theory of Aryan supremacy was erected on this foundation. Racism is a theory of fitness to rule based on inherited characteristics. Thus the Germans who ran the Hapsburg dominions flattered themselves to think that they alone ought to decide what languages were worth speaking. White Americans easily persuaded themselves that nature intended them to dominate blacks.

But white Americans have never been robustly nationalistic, because all of them have begun by parting from the tribes into which they were born. This is particularly true of Europeans who, the ancestors of the massive majority of Americans, did not speak English as a first language. (Even immigrants from the British Isles regarded themselves as outsiders with regard to the homeland.) Americans do not speak English in quite the same way that Czechs speak Czech — if they did, I expect, they would speak it more carefully. Americans began by rejecting national backgrounds, and now all they have is the color of their skin, or, to be honest, the configuration of their facial features. Americans can only be racists, and their racism will invariably be an issue of claims to political and economic mastery.

This is not to deny that Americans are becoming tribal. Americans who move around the country tend to stick to cities and their suburbs, and our urban areas are increasingly homogeneous, making for one urban tribe. This tribe is also wealthier and better educated than the members of other tribes, the members of which have settled in their territories for several generations now, if not for far longer. Unlike the nationalists of nineteenth-century Europe, however, American racists dismiss the significance of language, and they substitute physical appearance for national history. Diversity means nothing to individuals who regard themselves as better-born.


Saturday 31st

Although it is New Year’s Eve, it is also Saturday, so I spent the early afternoon doing what I usually do, tidying the apartment. Ordinarily, I listen to an opera while I work, but today I wanted no music at all: I was too busy thinking. The latest issue of the LRB (Vol 39 Nº 1) is possibly the most stimulating I’ve ever read, with a brilliant piece by James Meek (on Raymond Chandler and a new, “theoretical” collection of essays about him) and an even more astonishing review by Terry Eagleton, about which I can only say, why did I have to wait until I was nearly seventy to hear what he has to say in his discussion of Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique? It would have been so marvelously encouraging when I was twenty. Plus, of course, Alan Bennett’s two-page diary, which I did not read right away but hoarded for a while.

Then, in the Times Book Review this morning, there are two reviews of books about the future, and they both made the same point, which is that the bandwidths of futurists’ attention ought to be considerably wider. Kevin Roose complains that technological visionaries distracted us from more important developments.

As a result, we fawned over self-driving cars and next-generation artificial intelligence while questions about the politics of all this new technology — the emotional backlash from manufacturing workers losing their jobs to automation, the interference of foreign hackers in American elections, the ability of partisan opportunists to flood Facebook with propaganda — went mostly unanswered.

(Alan Bennett made an obliquely related claim when he implied that if “even a fraction” of the things people wrote about David Bowie were true, then there could have been no Mrs Thatcher.)

And there’s more! Writing about a new book about relations between the United States and China, Simon Winchester suggests that China’s non-pacific Pacific intentions “extend, in some interpretations, as far out as Hawaii.”

The New Year hasn’t even arrived and yet it already feels like a different country. Never have I had so many clear ideas of bad things that might happen, and soon, while the weather is still cold. It’s very hard to wish readers a happy new year with anything like a straight face — but I can say it, anyway. But without the customary froth.

Happy New Year —

Gotham Diary:
Illness for Dinner
November 2016 (IV)

22, 28, 29, and 30 November; 2 December

Tuesday 22nd

Yesterday, I went to our storage unit on 62nd Street with Ray Soleil, and together we evacuated a second batch of papers. Many were in French document boxes that I had found back in the days of the country house, where space was relatively unlimited. Some of the boxes were stuffed, others not. Many of the contents are curious. There is a stack of faxes from Fossil Darling that were dispatched in idle moments at the office, and most of these are both baroque and incomprehensible. They all seem to date from 1994, and the miracle is that the thermal paper on which they were printed is still legible. I don’t know what to do with them. Well, of course I do.

There are still more papers to bring home. These are not sorted, but rise in thick stacks from liquor boxes, and if we try to take them all at once, we shall have to summon a car to the delivery bay. Kathleen has volunteered to sort through them in her merciless way, but I’d like to know something about them before she throws them all away. Last week, Ray and I brought twenty of the French document boxes home, and I found somewhere for everything in them over the weekend. I doubt that the second batch will melt into the woodwork so easily. The end, however, is in sight. The end of papers, that is. “There’s still a lot of stuff here,” said Ray last week — he hadn’t been there in a while. “It’s nothing like it was, but…” I was very discouraged. I had done such a good job, I thought, of packing up fifteen boxes of books, and then finding someone to take them away. I had hoped that this amiable fellow would cart of the few remaining pieces of furniture, but when I called him after our trip to San Francisco in October, he told me, not in so many words, that furniture lay outside his métier, and I was so disheartened that I did not even bother to call the mover whom he recommended. It took several weeks to snap out of my inanition.

After we brought the boxes home, and I took Ray to lunch, I sat down with the first section of the writing project. I had been casting around for a better way to begin. The opening was the only part that Kathleen found weak and unfocused, which was no surprise given the reckless way in which I threw myself into working on it, back in July. I trusted that a true current would emerge from my splashing, and indeed it did. When I finished what I thought was the first draft, I realized that there must be some sort of final section, and, having worked on and off on this in the past two months, I decided to fix the start before settling the finish. It took an hour or two to write out the new beginning.

Between them, these two important projects took up the entire day, and in any case left me no mental space for devising an entry here. So, for the first time in an age, I missed a Monday for no better reason.


There is ever less to say. The whole world seems caught up in a riptide of reaction against all things humane. In yesterday’s Times, there was a piece about a book that the late Richard Rorty published in 1998, in which he foresaw something like the triumph of populist forces that has made Donald Trump our President-Elect, and in which he went on to speculate that civil gains by hitherto marginal groups, such as blacks and gays, might be erased. I’m quite sure that, had I been aware of the book at the time, I should have shoved it aside in horror, but even then I was beginning to doubt the foundations of secular democracy. In the current Atlantic, there is a handwringing piece by James Fallows in which Orville Schell’s fear that China is sliding back into Maoism is trumpeted. Fallows and Schell are old men now, and their hopes for the liberalization of the Central Country are being dashed, as such hopes have always been dashed. Meanwhile, my daughter, whose concern for the environment puts her very much at odds with the powers that be, also declines to applaud views labeled “liberal.” Sometimes, I feel that there is no longer anywhere to stand.

Of course, I have been writing about the shortcomings of the professional élite for years now. But by confining my attention to what I knew from the world directly around me, I missed the immensity with which that élite was resented, not just for what it failed to do well but for being what it was. My alarm now seems small-scaled, and my exhortations sound utterly inadequate. When I say that there seems no longer to be a place to stand, what I really mean is that there is no longer anyone to address. To the extent that indicators point to an increasingly inevitable violent social confrontation, I keep mum, because I know that there is no point to talking when general intelligence has been swamped by anger that can be exhausted only in destruction and bloodshed. One must wait for the fever to strike and run its course. I hope that catastrophe will be averted, but it is exhausting to sniff one over the horizon, and in any case I dread the resurgent authoritarianism that spells suspension of humane development while men stagger about in their fear of human nature.


A long time ago, when I discovered the online store at Chatsworth (there doesn’t seem to be one anymore), I bought a few books by or about Nancy Mitford that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. One was Selina Hastings’s 1985 biography, which I placed on the Mitford shelf and left unread until just the other day. It’s awfully good. Clear and brisk, it refreshes every familiar story that it retails, and places the events of Nancy’s life in an uncomplicated frame that highlights her ambivalences without agonizing over them. I did think that Hastings came very close to charging her subject with prostitution — with immersing herself, that is, in the life of a courtesan who seeks to please without demanding love in return. Of course there was no commercial aspect to this relationship; Nancy was if anything more prosperous than her Colonel. And she really did love him, if abjectly. Hastings writes of the affair, “But the excitement concealed a great emptiness.” (173) The excitement itself was a by-product of the Colonel’s emotional indifference to Nancy. He did not love her — they both knew this and acknowledged it — but he acceded to her willingness to play Scheherazade, to keep him entertained. But he was cruelly unreliable about rendezvous. Nancy’s interest in Mme de Pompadour can be seen as an oblique attempt to aggrandize her own amour, but the difference between the two women’s respective lovers was that Louis XV was nowhere near so cold-hearted. Hastings cannot resist suggesting that Nancy’s screams of agony, as she was being eaten away by the Hodgkins lymphoma that was only diagnosed at death’s door, represented “an expression of thirty years of suppressed jealousy, misery and rage over the disappointment of her love for the Colonel.” (245) Very delicately, Hastings raises the moral question posed by a love such a Nancy’s: is it all right to submit to an unrequited love? I myself have always thought, in general, that it is not, but I don’t judge Nancy. Judging really isn’t the point. But the question hangs.

One tidbit that deserves mention — I hadn’t seen this one before — is a blurb that appeared on a Swedish translation of The Pursuit of Love and that came to Lady Redesdale’s attention through a friend. “Everywhere in Europe men lost their heads when the beautiful elegant Mitford sisters dominated the salons.” Lady Redesdale quite rightly commented (in a letter to Diana), “Oh dear what nonsense.” Spectacular nonsense, really. It is hard to think of a single “salon” that any of the sisters ever entered. And while they were lovely and neat, the Mitford gels were never elegant, saving Nancy herself (and of course Diana, the great beauty). Nor is it easy to name any men who lost their heads. A more unfaithful bunch of philanderers can hardly be imagined, than the men in the sisters’ lives (this time excepting Bryan Guinness). The whole idea of a troupe of fatal Mata Haris coursing through the capitals is so utterly contrary to fact that it deserves its own monument. But what would it be? A manhole cover?


Monday 28th

What we had for Thanksgiving was illness. Things were even worse on Friday morning. In addition to the crazy scramble of hunger and no appetite that I recalled from the antibiotic after-effects of cellulitis recovery, I had a sidestitch that impeded breathing and an ache on my shoulder that felt as if someone had taken a hammer to it. In the back of a drawer, I found few tablets of the opiate that I used to take in the days before Remicade. Half of one of these got me through the afternoon, celebrating the second anniversary of Fossil Darling’s and Ray Soleil’s wedding. Actually, by the time dinner was put in front of me at the Knickerbocker, I felt all right, and although I took no more Percoset I never again felt as bad as I had on Friday morning. But the gastrointestinal confusion remained. And, by now nearly two weeks overdue for Remicade — four weeks if you go by the standard dosage — I was feeling lousy, not really lousy but a sort of discount lousy that left plenty of room for guilt. Malingerer!

I didn’t want to get up this morning. Job One would be to reschedule the Remicade. Never having been in quite this position before — on two occasions in the past, the infusion was postponed because of a bloodshot eye, which I knew must be an inflammation brought about by the lack of Remicade, but which had to be checked out by the ophthalmologist; this time, in contrast, I really had an infection, which had to be cleared out by Ciprofloxacin — I didn’t know where to begin. Would the rheumatologist have to examine me? Getting hold of him would not be fun. Forcing an end to self-coddling, I got out of bed and prepared Kathleen’s tea-and-toast, which she has had to do without lately, and as she was asking if I wanted her to stay home while I tried to reschedule, the phone rang. It was a fellow from Infusion Therapy Scheduling. He told me that there had been a cancellation and that he could slot me in at four this afternoon. Utter magic. I’ll believe it when the nurse activates the pump.

I can tell my few close friends that I am not feeling well, and sketch a brief explanation that will put an end, if not to their worry, then to their uncertainty, which is the worst thing, really, about hearing about someone’s illness, especially in later years. As for the rest of the world, I prefer to remain, if not silent, then vague and unforthcoming. Up through the prime of life, most of us seem to get sick in the same way. We succumb to a relatively small number of diseases that run their courses on clear and distinct schedules. But with age, individuality finally makes a stand. We fall apart with increasing variety, at varied speeds and with varying degrees of drama. It is not uncommon to suffer two or more ailments simultaneously, and it’s not always easy to attribute symptoms to one or the other. Common sense about aches and pains breaks down, because there is so little that is truly  common.

On top of all that — and now I’m speaking of my own experience — even educated people cannot be expected to understand the concept of autoimmune disease. This was the case even before AIDS, which is a deadly inversion of the usual autoimmune disease precisely because the “D” stands for deficiency. It’s extremely counterintuitive that an excess could cause illness, but that is how the autoimmune diseases, the ones that are not qualified by that “D,” work. Our prehistory lingers with a force. An emergency crew that was called out all the time during our first two hundred thousand years (not to mention the millions of years since the first animals developed such defenses), some autoimmune systems respond to modern hygiene not by scaling back but by not waiting for the alarm. By rushing to put out fires that aren’t there, they cause rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s Disease, and the much less common disorders that have afflicted me. And others.

I must be feeling better. The idea of explaining all of this here, to account for my late absence, was almost as oppressive as the prospect of rescheduling the infusion. And now I see it’s done. I’ll try to talk about something else tomorrow.


Tuesday 29th

And I shall. But first:

Between running out to grab a burger and heading off to the Hospital for Special Surgery for the Remicade infusion, I took a bag of garbage to the chute. The chute is in a closet near the elevators, and it was just across the hall from the apartment that we lived in for thirty years. Now, it is far away. Everything is. The apartment that we’re in now, which is really too charming to complain about anything, is at the end of the longest possible stretch of corridors. No longer can I dart, so to speak, here and there.

As I closed the front door behind me, I heard two voices. One belonged a male in his prime. The other was confusing. I couldn’t understand what either was saying until I turned the corner and saw them. I saw the back of the younger man mostly. He was almost my height, and even more burly. His hair was close-cropped and he wore a blue-checked dress shirt. He was propping up, in some way that I couldn’t make out, a much older man, of whom I couldn’t see much, just a patch of tousled hair at the top and thin white socks on the carpet. The young man was saying, “Push,” “Heel to toe,” “Great,” and “Faster,” more or less in that order. The old man wasn’t saying anything. He was moaning with each tiny step.

The moans sounded like a scraping noise that the dishwasher makes; I have also heard it in Contact. For all that, it sounded completely human. In a movie, the old man’s misery would have indicated some kind of torture. It was hard to believe that this exercise was doing him any good. I don’t say that it wasn’t, just that the appearances strongly suggested otherwise. It was as though he were being kept alive for some malignant purpose.

I didn’t feel so much better myself. The sidestitch made walking effortful, which ought to have made me grateful that I, too, had to take tiny steps, but didn’t.

Although getting to the hospital involved tangling with some very bad traffic — the taxi driver managed it like a top-flight video gamer — the infusion itself was uneventful. I feel better already.


Working on the writing project has been difficult, given the overriding desire to be put out of my misery, but I have managed to reconceive the beginning, and from that has first trickled then flooded the conviction that I know now, finally, what the whole thing is about. That was my reason for undertaking the project: I believed that it would clarify the intellectual landscape in a way that not only highlighted the important things (not just the interesting ones) but also revealed something that I felt on the edge of discovering. Since I haven’t done the writing, I won’t say that it’s done. But I see not only where I’m going but where I ought to stop. The something has been revealed.

As usual, I’m not going to summarize any insights here. I bring the matter up because it’s obvious that I have been helped along by Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Yes! Now, I’m no happier about the outcome itself than anyone else I know, but I’m fascinated by the themes that are showing up, revealed by the black light of disappointment, in the commentary of those who find themselves weeping by the waters of Babylon. For example, take this snippet from Paul Krugman’s column last Friday:

To be honest, I don’t fully understand this resentment. In particular, I don’t know why imagined liberal disdain inspires so much more anger than the very real disdain of conservatives who see the poverty of places like eastern Kentucky as a sign of the personal and moral inadequacy of their residents.

To be honest, Thomas Frank would appear to have voiced this perplexity years ago, in the very title of his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? But where Frank went on to investigate, Krugman seems to feel discharged by the acknowledgment that he doesn’t “fully understand this resentment.” Nor is he likely to try to grasp the reasons for hostility to “imagined liberal disdain” when it is so clear to him that “the very real disdain of conservatives” is the culprit. What he doesn’t grasp is that this very cluelessness of his, shared by so many of the great and the good supporters of Hillary Clinton, was the raw material for the fuel that rocketed Trump to triumph.

For one thing, they encouraged the Democratic Party to nominate Clinton, when it was obvious, and cited throughout the campaign as “unpopularity,” that she was no more suitable than Trump, as a candidate. And indeed it appears that Americans whose primary concern was keeping Hillary out of the White House voted with vehemence, while those in her own party who had come out for Barack Obama stayed home this time. There was nothing surprising about any of this. In retrospect, suspense about the election’s outcome was just another spurious media-punditry story. Some will say that Americans are not ready for a woman in the Oval Office, but that’s distracting. Americans were never going to be ready for Hillary Clinton in the top job.

Just as the best and the brightest came out against Brexit in Britain, so they came out for Hillary here, and with the same effect. Again, it might be said that they failed to persuade. But I think that the élites on both sides of the Atlantic were very persuasive. They persuaded ordinary voters to resist the bloc of professionals, financiers, and academics who are helplessly, because unconsciously, united by an obvious contempt for ordinary voters. No matter what the experts said, what ordinary voters heard was a plea: Let us have another go at feathering our nests without screwing you over too baldly. It reminded me of Mime the dwarf in the second act of Siegfried. Mime bubbles over with glee at the prospect of poisoning the hero and absconding with Fafner’s treasure — altogether unaware that Siegfried understands every word, and prepares to deal with Mime accordingly.

Liberal democracy has undergone a decay in the West and elsewhere. Whether this can be reversed depends upon how quickly it can be understood. The people who need to do the understanding are, unfortunately, the members of the various élite groups that have flourished in the early stages of this decay. I’ll feel much better about the viability of resistance to authoritarian populism when people like Paul Krugman start taking responsibility for what happened. Until then, the right-thinking men and women who were appalled by the support for a reality TV star will be indistinguishable from the unthinking mass whom they so articulately but benightedly opposed.


Wednesday 30th

Reading Peter Stearns’s brisk but magisterial textbook, The Industrial Revolution in World History, I’m making comparisons to the crisis of puberty. Puberty is a dreadful experience for many people, but we cannot seriously wish that childhood should be eternal. Eventually, puberty runs its course, leaving a self-standing adult. Sometimes, sadly, puberty results in schizophrenia, and at others, death (from suicide or drunk driving, say). Mostly, though, when the bad skin clears and the stormy emotions settle down, a young man or woman achieves a more or less permanent character, knowable and reliable (even if reliably unreliable) for decades to come. Plus the skill and sympathy, not to be found in most children, to engage with the world. Phew.

Will the Industrial Revolution ever run its course?

The secret of the Industrial Revolution was not so much the technological advances or the social changes wrought by a new economic order as the intoxicating prospect of immense payoffs. Possible return on investment rose to levels never before imagined. Successful manufacturers, later successful industrialists, amassed huge pools of capital, which they invested in — gambled on — evolving opportunities. At first, it was the production of consumer goods, textiles mostly. Then the growth of railroads, built to carry the goods with unprecedented efficiency, changed the accent of the revolution. The mass transportation of resources spurred the growth of heavy industry, which produced goods that were not aimed at any consumer, but at an industrial nexus best embodied by the steel mill. The secret of heavy industry, in turn, was military prowess. Beginning with the American Civil War, the fruits of heavy industry were put to use in war. Railroads, steamships, all sorts of heavy artillery, these changed the face of battle.

In the next phase, heavy industry became big business. The accent was once again on consumers. Railroad locomotives, although still in demand, were vastly outnumbered by automobiles. There were new household appliances, accompanied by an array of useful chemical products, that promised to make the clean, comfortable home an economical proposition. Heaven on earth — Utopia achieved! Except not. Heavy industry was beginning to slip, as lighter materials and smaller production facilities made formerly belching smokestacks the gravestones of their blast furnaces; and overproduction — another outcome that the old world had not thought possible — brought the economies of the world crashing down.

The truly terrible thing about the Industrial Revolution is the routine mistreatment of workers. This is a constant feature of Stearns’s account of the revolutions, successful and the unsuccessful alike, that followed Britain’s everywhere else. The very emblem of the new order is the managerial demeaning of laborers, which in every case becomes self-justifying (proletarians have no self-respect and must be told what to do). Indeed, it’s hard not to see the Gestapo as the climax of a long trend. In recent times, conditions have improved for workers in the developed West. But wait! There always seem to be fewer workers in the West! Now there are more workers elsewhere, where conditions are still pretty ghastly!

We have learned a lot about how an industrialized world works, but we haven’t known it for very long, so nothing can be forecast with real confidence. But I propose that the revolution will be over when industry no longer requires workers. Many observers find this an appalling possibility. Where will jobs come from? I don’t have a simple answer to that one, but I do want to point out that at the heart of all discussion of industrialized economies, there is an error that inevitably produces wrong answers. It is the very use of the word “worker.” The whole point of the Industrial Revolution has always been to replace human beings with machines — this is where the huge payoffs come from — and, quite frankly, human beings ought to be grateful to be spared the performance of brutal and degrading mechanical operations.

This is where Marx and everyone else went wrong. When Marx wrote of “the means of production,” he was really talking about the actual workers. The machines did the work, not the people who tended them. And the jobs held by people who tended machines were doomed from the start. Almost every technological advance has promised a reduction in the number of such jobs. Just consider the telephone industry! Where are the operators and the linemen now? The machines take care of everything.

We cannot really wish to return to the old order, in which a few people were immeasurably safer and more comfortable than everybody else, with poverty, ignorance, and disease the common lot. We have to hope that the upheavals of the past two centuries will create the means of a new order. I doubt that it is up to us to decide what that new order will be, but it would help to have a few good ideas. At least we can clear out some bad ones. One of these would be the notion that industrial jobs involve work.


Friday 2nd

In this morning’s email, the closing of Crawford Doyle Booksellers was announced. It is a death of sorts, for the bookshop was a node of connections. I don’t mean to sentimentalize what was always a business. Books were set out for sale, to customers who browsed and bought, in a room that was hushed and not in the least bit bohemian. Most patrons were neighbors, but it seems discordant to apply that word to people living in very expensive apartments. Now that I think of it, young people were very rarely seen there, except of course on the staff.

Perhaps because the shop was so small — I’ve been in many larger living rooms, even in the city — there was a relentness furtiveness, an uninterrupted but fruitless attempt not to notice what other people were looking at. Men gathered round the broad table toward the rear, where nonfiction titles were stacked facing in all four directions, but mostly east and west. There was a smaller table of recent paperback fiction toward the front, with poetry nearby. The entire north wall was shelved in literary fiction, but the selection could not begin to be comprehensive, given the space, and it was unwise to pop in with expectations of finding, say, To the Lighthouse. (They might be fresh out.) New fiction, in glossy wrappers, was stacked in an L-shaped arrangement whose system I could never decode; it was easier to ask at the desk, something that I did more and more over the years. And then there were the delectable little books on the desk itself, bonbons most of them. I bought more than a few myself — there was one called, I think, 100 Quiet Places in London — but the last one was fatal, not to me but to my book-buying habits, and I later told one of the staff that the shop really ought not to be selling Marie Kondo’s book about tidying up. I have not altogether stopped buying books, but I certainly buy fewer than I used to do, and I never go browsing just to see what’s new. I don’t know how long it has been since my last visit to Crawford Doyle — oh, but I do; it was in April, about seven months ago. So I’ve become a former customer, really. If I feel a bit guilty about that, it’s not because I imagine that my patronage might have saved the store (although of course that’s precisely what comes to mind when shops close), but because I dropped out of the node.

I had thought about hiking over to the bookshop to buy a copy of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I’m looking forward to reading, eventually. For the moment, I’m enjoying all the reviews. When I say that I’m enjoying them, I mean that I’m not keeping track of them; I can’t recall who said what. Everyone has noted that Smith, in her first use of first-person voice, has not named her narrator. I think that anonymous narrators are a mistake, because the lack of a name makes it difficult to talk about any character, and fixes like “the second Mrs De Winter” are not often handy. So there has been a sort of quiet tsking about that, if only because there aren’t a lot of synonyms for “narrator” to help reviewers avoid repetition. Everyone has said a word or two about Swing Time the movie (1936), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, although I haven’t got a sense of the meaning of Smith’s reference. Most if not all reviewers have passed along, almost as a bit of gossip, the anecdote of the unnamed narrator’s playing a video of Swing Time for a friend (as an adult) and only then realizing that Fred Astaire dances the “Bojangles of Harlem” number in blackface. But what stuck with me most was the claim, by one reviewer, that Swing Time is the best of the Astaire-Rogers series.

I think it’s the worst. I watched it last night just to be sure. To begin with: the dancing. The dancing is of course very good, but there is nothing as grand as “Cheek to Cheek” (Top Hat), “Night and Day” (The Gay Divorcée), or “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Follow the Fleet). (There’s nothing like Follow the Fleet‘s “Let Yourself Go,” either.) The Bojangles number is very well done, but it’s nowhere near as distinctive Astaire’s solos in “Slap That Bass” (Shall We Dance) or “Nice Work if You Can Get It” (Damsel in Distress). Even Broadway Melody of 1940, with Eleanor Powell, is a more exciting dance film.

But the story of Swing Time is actually bad, veering between the annoying and the offensive. The opening routine, in which Fred’s plans to marry his hometown sweetheart are sabotaged by the chorus of wiseguys who support his dance act, has not aged well. Stealing a bridegroom’s trousers and distracting him with gambling simply aren’t funny anymore. The bride may be all wrong for our hero, but we don’t laugh at undesirable brides anymore, because our ideal of companionate marriage makes it seem cruel to do so. At the end of the movie, the knot of misunderstandings is resolved not with grateful smiles but with raucous, inane laughter — and, as if that weren’t bad enough, the trouser stunt is rehashed. There’s a dopey scene in which the principle couples drive to an abandoned hotel in a snowfall — with the top down. Californians perhaps forgot that snow is not just pretty.

As for the supporting cast, so important to the flavor of these productions, I wanted to shoot Victor Moore in the first scene, as oatmeal dribbled out of his mouth instead of English. Helen Broderick was never given anything truly clever to say, making her performance more physical than it ought to be, to the point that I began to confuse her with Charlotte Greenwood, and to worry, when Broderick told Rogers that she’d stand on her head, that she might actually try to do so. Even Eric Blore was sandbagged. With his little moustache, he almost looks like a plumped David Niven. Follow the Fleet is supposed to be the earthy, unglamorous entry in this RKO parade, but Swing Time verges on witless vulgarity. Bojangles of Harlem! Pretty excruciating stuff, now.

I still look forward to reading Zadie Smith’s new book, but my mind is preoccupied by Jane Smiley’s classic, A Thousand Acres. I was casting about for a novel to read, not in a bookshop but surrounded by my own bookcases, when the Jewish-mother/librarian who took up residence post-Kondo directed my attention to it. I read it in 1991, when it was new, but I hadn’t read it since, and the old hag was tapping her foot impatiently. “You’d tell anyone that that’s a great novel, and you give it pride of place on the shelf, but do you read it?” There was only one way to fight this imputation of fraudulence, and that was to pull it down then and there. So I did, and it was ten times worse — more upsetting — than I remembered. I haven’t read King Lear, which inspires it, in a long time, but my notion that the contemporary setting in the American Midwest would somehow soften the barbarity of the legend was quickly trampled. In any case, A Thousand Acres is not just a “retelling” of the Lear story. The horror of Smiley’s novel, which is only implicit in the play, is her recreation of the shock with which we sometimes learn that the stories that we’re content to tell ourselves about ourselves would be questioned by those around us, even by those for whom we believe that we have done our best. Reserved and dutiful at the beginning, Ginny Cook comes to see that she is a terrible person, meaning, just another human being, as well as someone to whom unmentionable things have been done. She turns on her correct but bogus life with ugly ferocity and abandons what she does not destroy. There are several violent scenes, but the real violence is in Ginny’s nerves.

So I read it again, with the suspense that only a second reading can spell.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Take Six
November 2016 (III)

14, 15, 18 November

Monday 14th

After reading a few chapters of The Pursuit of Love, Lady Redesdale, the author’s mother, wrote to another daughter, Jessica Mitford, drily and dismissively, “This family again.” She was wrong. Yes, Nancy Mitford had written another novel based on her family. But this time it was different: Nancy had grown as a writer. And she did not so much write about her family as reinvent it. The Mitford Sisters Phenomenon as we know it originated with The Pursuit of Love; fifteen years later, it was given another big boost by Jessica’s Hons and Rebels, a purportedly factual account; Nancy would claim that Jessica presented the world of her childhood through the lens of Nancy’s own creation. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that almost everyone who takes an interest in the Phenomenon — who has been entertained by it — begins with one or the other of these two books, both of which are great good fun.

The Mitfords again — but not quite again. An avid consumer of Mitfordiana, I justified the purchase of Linda Thompson’s The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters on the score of its being the first book to appear since the death of the Duchess of Devonshire — Deborah, the youngest of the girls — in 2014. Still, when I opened the box in which it was shipped, I wondered ruefully what it could possibly have to say that I hadn’t already heard. I sat right down, of course, to find out. Long before the halfway point, I understood that this is an entirely new book. For one thing, it is an essay, not a collective biography. (For that, there is Mary Lovell’s The Sisters.) It is a meditation on the complexity of perspectives that arises, Rashomon-like, when several highly independent, strong-minded people remember a common experience.

In 1946 Diana had written to Nancy that she had seen a performance of Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, the story of a stern matriarch with five daughters, whose lives she controls and whom she confines to her house: “It is all about Muv and us.” This was a joke, but it was another kind of truth. Sydney [Lady Redesdale] was the dominating force in the family. Her daughters had eluded her, but their mother remained inescapable. What Nancy and Jessica thought of her is yet another truth; so too what Diana thought; so too what each sister thought about the other. The interpretations of the play multiply, and in the end none is definitive, although, given the nature of the Mitford girls — the capacity for conviction that lay within them all — they probably believed that they alone had it right. (331)

The nature of the Mitford girls also included a way with words. Four of the six girls published books, several books each. Nancy and Jessica were financially successful writers, and not just because they mined their juvenile antics. Jessica wrote a muckraking classic, The American Way of Death, that manages to be funniest when it is most gruesome — that leaking vault! — while Nancy’s studies of Louis XIV, Mme de Pompadour, and Frederick the Great are important aristocratic appreciations of the ancien régime. Diana wrote a very good book about her friend, the Duchess of Windsor. Deborah’s stunt was to capture the everyday nature of her extraordinary domestic situation. All this book-writing, however, dates from the third period of the sisters’ lives, when their independent positions were firmly established. The Phenomenon was by this time an historical relic that the surviving sisters found rather annoying. Each had her own life and her own views, and while they remained, for the most part, on sisterly terms, they preferred not to do so in public. Their sisterhood, like their family history, was an intimate matter, and nobody else’s business. This was true of Nancy and Jessica despite their entertaining disclosures. What they had to say was intended as the last word on the subject — not, as inevitably happened instead, the beginnings of a discussion.

What made these four women something more than ordinary sisters — more than successful people who happened to be related — was their experience of the earlier periods of their life, an eccentrically idyllic childhood that did nothing to prepare them for adult life, followed by the troubled, and one case fatal, entry into adult life (This part Deborah was spared). It was the first phase that everybody wanted to read about later on, but the second that had made three of the girls more or less notorious by the end of World War II. At a tender age, Jessica ran off to Spain with a cousin; she was rescued by government intervention. Later, she and her young man, married by now, would run off again, this time to America, where Jessica joined the Communist Party. Diana and Unity leaned the other way politically. After a few years of apparently contented marriage to a scion of the Guinness family, Diana left her husband for Sir Oswald Mosley, a political maverick who would launch the British Union of Fascists. Unity, whom Diana regarded as the only unusual Mitford, decamped to Munich, where she stalked Hitler, met him, and chatted with him — on some 150 occasions. When war broke out, she shot herself in the head, but lived. Hitler arranged for her to be carried to Switzerland, whence her family brought her back to England. The following summer, Diana and her husband were detained, and then imprisoned, probably because Unity herself was an invalid. When the Mosleys were released, at the end of 1943, there was a demonstration in Trafalgar Square: “Put Him Back!”

There were seven Mitford children: Nancy (1904), Pamela (1907), Thomas (1909), Diana (1910), Unity (1914), Jessica (1917), and Deborah (1920). All seven were photographed for The Tatler at the Heythrop hunt in 1935 — the early part of the second period. A doctored version of the photo appears on the jacket of The Six (Tom has been removed and the crowd in the background dimmed). I have no idea how much thought went into placement, but the configuration is interesting. At the ends of the lineup stand Unity (to the left) and Pam (to the right), and they are indeed the outliers in the family. I have already said enough about Unity to make that clear; just for form’s sake it might be noted that she was the only one who never married. If I haven’t said anything about Pamela, that’s the reason why she is an outlier: Pam is the sister who never did anything newsworthy. (She is the subject of a new biography that I shall probably wade through, simply to marvel at its mere existence.) Flanking Unity to her left is Deborah; Nancy stands to Pam’s right. These are the sisters who most appreciated convention. (Nancy, it is true, would go in for French convention, while Deborah was every inch an English sportswoman.) In this regard, Nancy and Deborah were counterweights to the radical sisters at the center, Diana and Jessica. In 1935, most of these distinctions were not yet at all clear; although Diana had left Bryan Guinness by then, she would not marry Mosley until 1936 (not only in Berlin, but in the Goebbels’s apartment). Deborah was fifteen; in the photograph, she is dressed for riding (and she has not fully grown). It is hard to say whether Jessica is retiring behind Nancy or Nancy is blocking Jessica. Diana’s arm is linked in Deborah’s, and these two have also crossed their ankles, doubtless in some sort of private joke. Joking, however, seems to be the last thing on the future duchess’s mind. I used to wonder why Deborah always looks so dour and grave in her youthful photographs; then it occurred to me that she had (perhaps rebelliously) taken to heart the venerable precept that nice people don’t make faces for the camera. Unity and Pam aren’t smiling, either. Jessica and Nancy are perhaps whispering “cheese,” but Diana is grinning like a madwoman.

Laura Thompson devotes most of The Six to the second period. As I say, it is not really a group biography, and anyone unfamiliar with the Phenomenon will be treading water once the book gets going. And yet her book is indispensable because it grapples with the moral questions that so much of the girls’ behavior raises. In Hons and Rebels, Jessica presents her escapades as heroic acts; to Thompson, they were selfish and thoughtless. Was Unity mad? Did she know what she was doing? She wrote a letter in which she described her new Munich flat as previously occupied by a Jewish couple that had “gone abroad.” How much responsibility must be heaped on the shoulders of this strange girl, who could seem selfish and thoughtless all the time? And what about Diana, who was infinitely cleverer — arguably the family intellectual?

The sordidness of the whole thing [Diana's period between husbands, during which she aborted a child by Mosley] is overwhelming, so too the temptation to travel back in time and say to Diana, what in hell do you think you are doing? (145)

And yet, pages later, when Diana is interrogated by the Advisory Committee that will determine whether to imprison her, the excerpts given by Thompson (who compares Lady Mosley’s performance to that of Anne Boleyn) make one cry out for a complete transcript. Asked whether, now that Britain and Germany were at war, Diana believed that her country was wrong, she retorted, “Not my country. I absolutely differentiate between my Government and my country.”

Thompson, who has written a biography of Nancy, declares that The Pursuit of Love did “more than any public recantations could ever have done to remove the taint on the family name.” (296) This is a central fact of the Phenomenon. In the Thirties, Lady Redesdale was said to tremble whenever she read the words “peer’s daughter” in the newspaper, and that would become part of the Mitford Joke — once Nancy made it funny. In fact the girls’ conduct was often egregious, and of course they got special treatment, as the daughters of a peer, right at the moment when the general public’s disapproval was making special treatment a gold mine for reporters. Thompson assumes that we know the Joke and have all had a laugh. Then she takes it away, the humorous frame confected by Nancy and Jessica. They made everything seem funny, a great wheeze; Thompson approaches the scandals with dead earnest. The glory of the book is that she can be as funny as her subjects, if in a different way. She has a fine nose for hypocrisy and self-contradiction, as well as for the quips that were not made public, such as Nancy’s attempt to console Jessica, who was worried that her daughter, traveling in Mexico, might have been injured in a major earthquake there.

People like us are never killed in earthquakes & furthermore only 29 people were, all non-U…. (22)

It’s staggering, but I’m afraid that I’m the sort of person who laughs at this sort of thing because it is so outrageous. Nevertheless: what in hell did they think they were doing? When Mary Lovell’s book came out, I wrote,

Individuals give rise to legends, but true mythology requires a cast of characters. That’s what makes ‘Bloomsbury,’ ‘The New York Intellectuals,’ and Camelots ancient and modern more interesting than most of the constituent personages would be if considered individually.

This plurality (soluble in a common lingo) is what makes the sisters interesting as a group, even when the mythology is scrubbed away.

It is frankly therapeutic to think of Diana, shaking helplessly with ill-suppressed laughter at the hey-nonny-nos of the folk singer “who had so kindly come to Holloway to amuse the prisoners but had not meant to amuse them quite as much as that.” (23)

The Six makes three-dimensional women out of fabulous characters, and grounds them in a set of mismatched parents. By the time Unity arrived at home from Germany, David could no longer bear to live with Sydney. Their fun days were over: he had gone through all his money (to an almost Wodehousean degree, he had a negative head for business), and she had become remote. They disagreed violently about Hitler; on this subject, Sydney was almost as nuts as Unity. So David retired to a cottage with the housekeeper, a woman whom the sisters found unbearably dull and mean. On her own, Sydney seems to have become a mother at last. She nursed Unity for nearly ten years (washing her incontinent child’s bed sheets every day), visited Diana in prison whenever she could, and performed epistolary cartwheels to keep an open channel to Jessica. Nancy, who claimed that her mother didn’t love her, never put this to the test; she enjoyed perfect health and independence until about six years after her mother’s death, in 1963. I think an argument might be made that Sydney was the oldest of the sisters, rather than their mother. Her youth, from the death of her own mother when she was seven, was devoted to keeping house for her father, the publisher of Vanity Fair and The Lady. The cleverness came from her, or at least the irony, which the writers among her progeny amplified to comic levels.

In the end, that is what will keep the Mitfords alive: writing. They were superbly verbal. They shared a peculiar dialect of understated exaggeration, so that, especially when they are writing to one another, it is easy to confuse writer with recipient. And yet, not least because they had very different views of the facts, there was plenty to write about. And of course they will be written about. Now that they have all died, and sunk somewhat back into their large families (at the time of her death, Diana had forty descendants), what remain are the words. Whether the words remain funny it may be too soon to tell. Nancy grappled with the problem in The Sun King, writing about Mme de Montespan, the mother of so many of Louis XIV’s bastards. She and her brother and her sisters were exponents of “the Mortemart wit.”

They had a way of talking which has unfortunately never been precisely described but which people found irresistible. Their lazy, languishing, wailing voices would build up an episode, piling unexpected exaggerations upon comic images until the listeners were helpless with laughter. Among themselves, they used a private language. [Jessica spoke one nonsense language with Unity, and another with Deborah.] They were malicious, but good natured; they never really harmed anybody; they liked laughing and had the precious gift of making other people sparkle. (43)

Perhaps the Mitfords’ way of talking requires no precise description; one need only read it.

I caught two really dreadful mistakes in The Six, which I am sure would have been pointed out as such by each of its subjects. First, it would have been impossible for five surviving sisters to meet in 1980. Second, Dr Johnson did not travel to Scotland with anyone by the name of Samuel Boswell. Do admit, yourself.


Tuesday 15th

Although something terrible has happened in this country — voters have put an amateur entertainer in the White House, and the Republican Party in charge of just about everything else — I am hoping that the moment will have come for something very good: the liquidation of the Democratic Party. This is something that I have been looking forward to since the Nineties.

When I was a boy, the Republican Party was high-minded and boring. It was all for business development and polite civil behavior. The Democrats were a sleazy bunch, tarred by the barely-literate slum-dwellers who supported them. Miraculously, they had produced FDR, but that was just the problem: witchcraft must have been involved. The Democrats were a coalition party, combining union workers in the North with landowners in the South. (Blacks, if they voted at all, voted Republican, the “party of Lincoln.”) These groups could work together only because they didn’t live anywhere nearby.

Then the fight for Civil Rights began in earnest. Black Americans began to struggle for change. It was quickly insinuated that their demonstrations were fomented by Communist infiltrators. I like to think that it was LBJ who had the great idea of pre-empting those infiltrators by granting civil rights himself, and putting an end to the struggle. In any case, something like that is what happened, very quickly. Who knows what would have happened next, if it hadn’t been for the stupidity of our misadventure in Vietnam? LBJ skedaddled. While blacks won real, if marginal, gains during the following decades, American political life was dominated by military and economic problems. The Democratic Party took the view (shared, with a smirk, by the Republicans) that the civil-rights problem had been taken care of: the laws were on the books, and compliance was all that was needed. Also, the civil rights of abortion displaced awareness of racial problems, at least among whites.

When civil rights for blacks came up at all, it was often related to the twee, Alice-in-Wonderland issue of “affirmative action,” which quickly became a scholastic plaything that enabled a handful of whites to claim that they were being subjected to unfair discrimination. Meanwhile, thousands of blacks who had never entertained thought of higher education were sent off to prison instead, under a “law and order” régime that was designed to keep people who didn’t know their place in place. When this project began to cost too much, local police began to see themselves as the first line of defense in the protection of law-abiding whites from unruly blacks. Being black while driving became strangely dangerous, and too often fatal.

Throughout this history, it was hard to tell that the Democratic Party had lost all of its Dixiecrats. Democrats did little or nothing to object to “law and order”; they didn’t have the courage to appear “soft on crime.” They did nothing to make the integration of the people of the United States a political reality; they simply passed laws and hoped for the best. Gradually, the party’s leadership and the party’s “base” changed, just as the Republican’s did, but something organizational about the old Democratic Party, its penchant for short-term fixes, perhaps, persisted. It remained the back-room party, as Hillary Clinton’s trivial but embarrassing email problems indicated. Not to mention her accession to the nomination! It was her turn — come hell or high water. By the time Donald Trump came, it was too late.

I don’t mean to say that the Democratic Party is somehow worse than the Republican Party. Republicans have nothing to do with it. What I mean to say is that the Democratic Party is no longer a legitimate advocate of the political objectives that most of its supporters share.


I am not calling for a third party — not unless I’m also calling for a fourth, a fifth, why not a fiftieth party. Fifty parties would be good. You think that’s a bad joke. But consider: the Republicans have attained control of national affairs through control of statehouses. Rather than try to engineer a national party to reverse all these local victories, why not launch an anti-Republican party in each state? New York could certainly use a party that extended the appeal of a progressive, or cosmopolitan, or humanitarian platform to voters upstate and on Long Island, eventually wresting the State Senate from the Republicans who have controlled it forever. Sometimes it’s a matter of speaking the local accent, and sometimes there’s a program of local interest, but whether the draw is stylistic or substantial, the locals probably know best. Locals are certainly better listeners. If nothing else, they could make sure that New Yorkers — I mean the city-dwellers here — knew more about the issues that matter, both upstate and in the suburbs. Who knows how much would be accomplished if only the people outside the city had no reason to resent our inattention?


Friday 18th

What next? I wondered, after finishing The Six. It didn’t take long, somehow, to settle on The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte Mosley. I’ve had the book for years, and dipped into it often, but I’ve never read it through. Even this time, being me, I couldn’t begin at the beginning, with the spate of letters from 1944. (The two writers had known each other, if not well, for many years; in 1929, as Laura Thompson so drolly puts it in The Six, Waugh spent his mornings reading Vile Bodies to Nancy’s sister, the expectant Diana Guinness, perched on her bed “like a prospective doula.”) I began instead with Part III, comprising letters written in 1950-2, during which period the frequency of the correspondence reached its peak. By the time I got through these, I was so densely engaged with the rhythms of the exchange, and so familiar with the stock company of friends-in-common, about whom Mitford and Waugh liked to make such amusing if unflattering comments, that I simply kept on going. I shall have to go back to the start when I am done, which will be soon. I have reached the beginning of 1962 (during which the letters flew back and forth again, after a late-Fifties slump); Waugh’s demise, in 1966, is about fifty pages away.

At one point, Nancy declines to accompany Evelyn on a trip to India because “we should quarrel.” She was always mad to see him for a dinner, if they could get together in the same city (which doesn’t seem to have happened often), but she had the wisdom to grasp that this was a friendship that would keep best at the other end of a mailbox. The Letters quite literally embodies the relationship. Both were writers, both were wags. Evelyn was an Olympic misanthrope who loved to say unspeakable things, while Nancy was a socially conventional woman who had moved to France largely to escape the loud boorishness of Bullingdon boys. (“What is your definition of Barbary? Outside the range of Randolph [Churchill]‘s voice?”) She would rather shriek over Evelyn’s letters at her writing table than wince in a room full of embarrassed people.

The letters have a dashed-off, sporting feel. From the standpoint of composition, they are as far from Lord Chesterfield as one can go without becoming incoherent. Questions often go unanswered — I was quite disappointed that Nancy never explained “Mrs Simpson’s Neptune,” and that Evelyn couldn’t be bothered to discuss rumors that Lady Mary Grosvenor was turning into a man. Nancy repeats favorite jokes. Every year, she spends a week or so with an old lady, a Mme Costa, at her house in Artois. Mme Costa is in her eighties, and she spends “up to 8 hours a day in the chapel, the rest of the time she plays bridge & talks about Dior and déclassé duchesses.” Two years later, and it is eight to ten hours on the old lady’s knees; the curé worries that all that prayer may be boring le bon Dieu a bit.

My favorite theme is Americans. Waugh was condescending about Americans, but they had their uses, and, in his view, New York was a great health spa, where he could bustle about for days on end without meeting any of the natives. Mitford, who never crossed the Atlantic, simply hated Americans, because all she saw were tourists. All she heard were tourists. Here she is on Torcello, in May 1956:

Between 2 boats there is a flood of Americans dangling deaf-aids & asking each other where they live in America. What difference can it make? The word duodenal recurs. I mingle with them, hating.

Both of them greatly disliked the familiar tone that Americans took in those days (it was much worse than today). Both had a tendency to tear up letters from Americans, but Waugh usually read them first.

Every once in a while, Evelyn lectures Nancy, either about Catholic dogma, which he so painstakingly explains that Nancy never quite gets it, or about grammar, for which Nancy sought his help. (Characteristically parsimonious with commas, Nancy was so anxious to please that she once produced a sentence in which nearly every third word was followed by some sort of punctuation.) Nancy was always trying to persuade Evelyn to leave England, for either France or Ireland. He replied that France no longer existed — the France with which Nancy was besotted was the spectre of a dead magnificence — and that Ireland was populated by spiteful peasants; its priests were “not suitable for foreigners.” (Nancy’s Madame de Pompadour was banned in Ireland, she wrote, simply because of the title.) Nothing that Waugh said was ever entirely trustworthy, but nothing tickles me more than his obvious humbugs.

It is not a sin to cheat over taxes in most modern states. Don’t worry your head about the theology of this. Just take it from the theologians. (22 October 1953)

[Waugh's] Children come flooding in by every train. It is rather exhilarating to see their simple excitement & curiosity about every Christmas card. “Look, papa, the Hyde Park Hotel has sent a coloured picture of its new cocktail bar.” (18 December 1954)

As I read on, however, I began to feel a strange sadness. The world that they wrote about, a world of which I had tiny glimpses from my elementary-school desk, has become more appealing than ever, not least because of the modern conveniences that didn’t then exist. (Waugh refused to have a telephone in his house.) Reading their letters, it is easy to overlook all the bad parts. Neither Waugh nor Mitford was a feminist, quite the contrary, and yet, there they are, a man and a woman exhibiting the respect of equals over a very long term. Of course, they wrote everything out in longhand; I could never bear that. And I’d have died at least ten years ago if not earlier with even the best medical care of that time. But it’s really the language. I forget the enormous impact that Waugh’s novels had on my adolescence: I took to him like a drug. By the time of the correspondence, he had mellowed considerably, but there is the occasional sparkle.

I am quite deaf now. Such a comfort. (March 1953)

And there is even one moment of reflection that I feel obliged to endorse personally:

I can only bear intimacy really & after that formality or servility. The horrible thing is familiarity. (10 February 1953)

Of course, I should use different words, “friendship,” “deference,” and “presumption.” I should retain “formality,” however, and that is what makes 1953 feel much closer right now than the day after tomorrow. Formality has been forgotten; only the very luckiest children are taught anything about it. Everyone associates formality with the rich and the privileged, but it operates at every social level — except, lamentably, at the top, where it has been replaced by a clumsy and often irritating professionalism. The idea of formality has been lost. New York City thrives in no small part because of the immigrants who have brought their native formality with them, but perhaps it is too much to hope that their children will retain it as they melt into American society. It is true that formality has a tendency to crystallize in hardbound codes; instead of doing away with it altogether, perhaps we might simply bear in mind that the point of formality is to treat strangers with respect.

The correspondence between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh fell off because Waugh retreated into Catholicism, where his old friend could not follow him, and because Mitford suffered a terrible blow to her joie de vivre when the man in her life, Colonel Gaston Palewski, arranged to be made the French ambassador in Rome. He did this in part, it seems, because he was having a complicated relationship with a married woman who lived near Nancy in the Septième. Later, of course, he would deal her a much bigger blow by marrying yet another woman. Because of my unsound medical conviction that this betrayal launched the cancer that killed Nancy at the age of sixty-nine, I am not a great fan of ‘Col.’ But I like the virtual friendship that sprang up, mediated entirely by Nancy, between him and Waugh. It has every appearance of being motivated by the desire to be kind to what her family called “the French lady writer.”

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
November 2016 (II)

7, 9, and 11 November

Monday 7th

At breakfast yesterday, I remarked that nothing could bring me to read another word of Maureen Dowd. It was more a fulmination than a remark, really, and I was surprised when Kathleen asked me why. Surprised that she would. Surprised that, at first, I couldn’t say. It took a minute or so to reflect that Dowd’s manner of speaking has become intolerable. It’s not her views, whatever those might be — it’s hard for me to tell, which is no small part of my disgust. It’s her everlasting cleverness, and the shallowness to which its relentlessness confines her. There’s her unresolved ambivalence about politics considered as a game: she knows that there’s much more at stake than simple wins and losses, and that scoring points can be pointless, but she admires the pros who play the game well. There is her more explicit resentment of people getting above themselves, as well as her anger with those at the top who commit sins of sloppiness. These are both, basically, high-school concerns, motivated by the adolescent need for a consensus of style, masquerading as moral judgments.

All I said to Kathleen was, “It’s her abuse of language.” I’d gotten the notion of language abuse from John Lanchester, who in the Magazine inaugurated a series of essays about finance and the economy by lambasting money men for conversing in a jargon that laymen, particularly uneducated laymen, cannot understand.

Banks and the financial elite can’t just talk to each other as if nothing has changed, as if the little people are just going to accept that they can’t follow the big words, so the rich should just keep running things in their own interest. The experts need to set terms for the debate that everyone can understand. So yes, when it comes to economics, language matters.

Lanchester is concerned with reading levels: texts can be scored according to various metrics, and in order to reach a general audience without taxing it, you must, apparently, aim no higher than a tenth-grade reading level. “Private sector banking output,” it seems, requires a twelfth-grade reading level, and while that may be necessary for the banking industry to function efficiently, just as the sciences tend to require very high levels of proficiency in mathematics, it is unacceptable for civic discourse. Lanchester reminds us that Richard Feynman was able to explain many abstruse concepts in modern physics at the eighth-grade level. If bankers won’t do it, then journalists must step in, as indeed Lanchester himself has done. John Lanchester is the go-to writer for understanding money today. I’m not sure that his fantastic pieces for the London Review of Books aren’t rather more demanding than his piece in the Times Magazine (which he ranks at a grade 9.6 level), but financial patois has become so hermetic that it needs to be simplified even for those of us with sixteenth-grade skills and more.

But reading levels have not been a political issue in this election campaign. Sure, Donald Trump has pitched his talk to sixth-graders of all ages. Hillary Clinton’s resistance to frank apology, however, is a different kind of language problem. And so is the hypocrisy of columnists who attack her for it. In case you smell a whiff of misogyny in my complaint about Dowd, I can say that I have a corresponding objection to Thomas Friedman’s irritatingly jockular manner [sic!]. My dislike of Friedman’s arrogant exaggerations, of his simplistic divisions of the herd into those who get it and those who don’t, is actually so intense that I almost always give his byline a pass. I’m more naturally attracted to Maureen Dowd’s wit. But I’ve become terminally discouraged by her persistent undermining. If I were to characterize Dowd with an offensive stereotype, it wouldn’t be misogynistic but cultural: she’s so Irish-American.

(To which I cannot quite add that I’m Irish-American, too. All I can say is that I’m not anything else.)


When I was in college, I wanted to write a book that would be titled The Age of Cool. In it, I would describe the toxic side-effects of cool, the necrotic tendency of the minimalist aesthetic that underpins it. I would capture the numbness and the enervating fastidiousness of what had yet to be called hipsters. But I’d have my cake and eat it, too, because there would be at least one character, ideally a plausible version of myself, who was so innately cool that no pruning would be required. He would rarely talk, but whatever he did say would be wise and vital. The main difficulty with this teen-aged fantasy was that I could never make up my mind about the roles of nature and nurture. If my hero was naturally cool, that would imply a certain regrettable, or at least uninspiring lack of effort. Nurture, however, would clearly take too long to bear fruit, and, besides, it would entail a polluting degree of self-consciousness. This was a very Sixties issue. We wanted to believe that excellence could be easily achieved once the correct attitudes were adopted. Baby-boomers have had a hard time letting go of that wishfulness.

We believed, for example, that racism could be eliminated by legislative fiat. We confused sanctions against certain official kinds of racial discrimination with a massive change of heart. It isn’t so much that we were wrong as that we didn’t bother to check. We just assumed that new laws would make a new society. No wonder so many of us were vulnerable to the infections of Theory, according to which the approved analytical terminology was both all-powerful and wholly artificial.

Two and a half millennia ago, Confucius insisted upon something that in the first English translation of his Analects was called “the rectification of names.” The Chinese is simpler, zheng ming, or “right names.” Call a spade a spade. Confucius was not discussing mere usage. Had Confucius’s advice been taken, a would-be prince would have been retitled a usurper — an illegitimate ruler. Whether or not it was politically viable to enforce this formal demotion — it wasn’t — Confucius claimed that civil order depended on it. He had no idea of “mere usage.” I don’t think that we can attempt to imitate such rigorous nominalism today. (In the West, nominalism has usually been projected onto imaginary or metaphysical spheres). Our affairs require a great deal of supple flexibility. But the kernel of Confucius’s verbal hygiene is indispensable, and we must carry it with us at all times. It is regrettable to temper one’s speech to facts on the ground. However necessary, it is never okay. We must always struggle to avoid or at least to confine it.

“Racism” — what is it? Specifically, what is it in the United States, between European-Americans and African-Americans? Is it discrimination on the basis of skin color? Somewhat, perhaps. I don’t think that skin color would be significant in the absence of other features that it is impolite to discuss, of resemblances to other species that ought to be unthinkable, of manners evolved in circumstances of acute involuntary degradation. “Skin color” is a euphemism. The first step toward true reconciliation is the truth: come to terms (literally) with the fact that humanity assumes many features — without ceasing to be humanity. We are all the same, and all different, and the feeling that some people are more the same as we are and less different is a powerful and perhaps essential emotional convenience but nothing more than that. It is always wrong to believe that this convenience reflects humane reality. We must keep the names straight.


Wednesday 9th

May we hope, at least, that this is the End of the Clintons? Not even that, perhaps.

I did not sit up into the early hours, waiting for the bad news to be confirmed. I got into bed because Kathleen was having trouble falling asleep, and then wouldn’t you know I fell asleep. The last time I looked, though, the Electoral map looked a lot like the speculative one that circulated a few weeks ago — it even popped up in a New Yorker cartoon — showing which states Trump would win if only men voted. My gut feeling throughout the election has been that Hillary Clinton was not the right choice for a first attempt at piercing the ultimate glass ceiling. Trump supporters made a lot of outrageously unlikely predictions about the terrible things that would befall the country if Clinton occupied the Oval Office, but the outrageousness itself was telltale: they were talking about a witch. They talked as though Hillary and the Democratic Party were the same thing — as if Hillary were a body snatcher. And I was never surprised that they did.

I’m trying to puzzle out this gut feeling, that Hillary Clinton was far more “unelectable” than Donald Trump. The simplest way to put it, I suppose, is that I felt, however irrationally, that Clinton would need to win two-thirds of the popular vote in order to win at all. She could be carried into office only by the most massive landslide in history. But it seemed unlikely that she would ever rouse any such phenomenon. This was implicit in the seriousness with which her e-mail imbroglios were taken. The issue was nonsense, but the actual black magic of Hillary converted what ought to have been a venial sin into a mortal one. It was the same with her “basket of deplorables.” It took no time at all for deplorable to become a badge of honor: Deplorable Lives Matter. To be a contender against Donald Trump, a woman running for the White House ought to have wielded deplorable like Thor’s hammer, thundering relentlessly. But instead she backtracked, as if it were rude to point out her opponent’s unelectability. Trump took care of his unelectability all by himself, but he made sure to saddle her with even more.


I’ve already read one blog post that seeks to comfort those of us who are dismayed by the prospect of a Trump presidency. I want to keep things in proportion, too, but I can’t quite manage to argue that the country has survived worse disasters than Donald Trump, and the fact that many Americans don’t see him as a disaster at all is even more upsetting. It is in fact the problem. Tim Urban is wise, but too youthful, I think, to worry seriously about a civil war. Regular readers will at the very least suspect that I not only worry about civil war but fear that it is inevitable. Instead of rattling on about that, though, I want to share a tangential distraction that I have found more than a little beguiling.

If you look at the five centuries preceding the present one, you will find, in the second decade of each, a disruption or sea change that’s conspicuously lacking in the first. It’s as though it took fifteen years or so for the old century to run out of steam, or for the new one to get a sense of itself. George Dangerfield writes hauntingly about noticing changes in style and attitude in the early part of 1914, long before whispers of the war to come. In any case, the war did come. In 1815, a long war came to an end. In 1715, not only did a long war end but Louis XIV died, taking with him the gravitational system with which he personally governed France. In 1618, there began a long war that was comparable in horror and length to the two-part catastrophe of the Twentieth Century. And 1517, Martin Luther posted his complaints about papal indulgences.

If I feel that an era is coming to an end now, it’s probably because I’m feeling old; whatever objections I have to the way things were is outweighed by comfort and familiarity. I’m in no mood to learn new tricks; I wasn’t all that good at learning the old ones. New can be great, new can be terrible. But I felt, for most of yesterday, as if I had already died, and were just going through motions. At the polling station, Kathleen and I took turns filling out our ballots while waiting on a longish line for the scanner. Then an official offered us the chance, as seniors, to go to the head of the line. People ahead of us in line actually encouraged this! So we took the offer, sheepishly in my case.

We needn’t have voted. New York State was solidly blue, with almost 59% of votes going to Clinton. That gave a certain more-the-merrier feeling to taking the trouble. It was a beautiful day, but that only reminded me of the terrible thing that happened here on another beautiful fall day. I felt, as I did on and after 9/11, that we were badly out of gear, connected but tearing apart.

On the one hand, something that made me sick with worry has happened, so I needn’t be sick with worry anymore. Instead — ?


Friday 11th

What worries me most is the prospective administration’s bent for authoritarian policies. How insistent will this be? And what, if any, opposition will it meet with in Washington, where everything will soon be in Republican Party control? Because they can would be worrisome enough, but dictatorish witch-hunts will certainly be tempting if the material policies, such as trade, jobs, and immigration, run into more intractable resistance than Trump’s supporters seem to think possible.

It ought to be no news that Republicans have achieved a victory for which they have worked long and hard. Whether they will enjoy this victory is another matter: they may have won it only to pass it on to the alt-right. The Republican strategy was to exploit control of statehouses to determine national outcomes. This may have been made easier by their opponents’ attitudes. Liberals and progressives and everybody else who would be horrified by what has happened tended to view statehouses with something like contempt. I am sure that you would not have to scratch the hides of Hillary voters very deep to discover the conviction that states themselves are anachronisms. Certainly the actual American states no longer correspond to social reality. This, I think, is our most serious problem: how to replace outgrown borders. It is a problem that we share with other parts of the world; arguably, it is everyone’s biggest problem right now, in view of planetary degradation.

It is also pretty clear that Americans to the left of the Republican Party have complacently believed that their worldview sells itself. Who could possibly oppose something as enlightened as same-sex marriage? We may well find out who: what the Supreme Court giveth, it can take away. Probably because I’m an old man, I’ve felt that social liberalization has proceeded far too quickly. Certainly it has proceeded without sufficient account taken of resistance, for resistance has been slapped with the label of bigotry. It may have been wiser to allow small businesses involved in what we might call intimate issues to decline to participate in rites that their owners regarded as unconscionable. Liberals seem not to have learned, from the Soviet example, how obstinate people can be about changing their minds.

So, while Republican operatives were working overtime to tweak every little advantage, the rest of us were basking in the tanning beds of self-congratulation. We elected a black president! In a book reviewed in today’s Times, Wesley Lowery notes the persistence of Ferguson-style shootings during the Obama Administration. Dwight Garner:

Mr. Lowery’s book is valuable for many reasons. He circles slowly and warily around the question of why, during Barack Obama’s presidency, so little has seemed to improve on the racial front.

“The headlines of the Obama years often seemed a yearbook of black death,” he writes, “raising a morbid and depressing quandary for black men and women: Why had the promise and potential of such a transformative presidency not yet reached down to the lives of those who elected him? Even the historic Obama presidency could not suspend the injunction that playing by the rules wasn’t enough to keep you safe. What protection was offered by a black presidency when, as James Baldwin once wrote, the world is white, and we are black?”

What if the black man in the White House made things worse for black men everywhere else — just by being where he was?

If I thought that the Supreme Court to which Donald Trump is going to subject us would be inclined to make its overriding maxim Justice Brandeis’s dictum about states as the laboratories of democracy, I’d breathe a lot easier. Unfortunately, it was the liberals who turned their back on that idea, when, in pursuit of equal civil rights for all Americans, they tarred the idea of states’ rights with contempt. Am I trying to say that the campaign for civil rights in the Sixties was a regrettable mistake? No, I am not. But I am saying that a program that was inspired primarily by Cold War optics, far more than by any new-found concern for justice, was bound to have unwanted side-effects. And it made the Democratic Party untrustworthy at its core. That problem has never been reformed; at this point, nothing short of liquidation could cure it.

Who are we, anyway? And what do we really want? I hope that it’s more than just feeling good about things.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
November 2016 (I)

31 October; 1 and 4 November

Monday 31st

Adam Mars-Jones, I see, has been mentioned twice in this space, both times in 2015. Once was for his favorable review of Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, and earlier, for his unfavorable review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. There’s an interesting complementarity here: the British reviewer likes the American novel, but not his own countryman’s. I happened to like Clegg’s novel quite a lot, but on the whole I reverse Mars-Jones’s preferences. When Mars-Jones quoted an extract from Philip Roth in a recent review of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, and insisted on the superiority of the former, I was so choked with irritation that I went out and bought Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father, Mars-Jones’s memoir of his difficult dad.

Adam Mars-Jones writes frequently for the London Review of Books, and I almost always read his pieces. I almost always disagree with them, not so much with their judgments about particular books as with their implicit premises. We are not on the same page. We don’t agree about what’s important. Nevertheless I read him, because he writes very well, and so clearly about his obvious wrong-headedness that I am always stimulated. His tone suggests to me that he is happy to be writing from outside the cultural barbican, dressed in the motley of a caustic literary bohemian. Just say the word canon and he’ll shoot. In the memoir, he mentions that he has never got round to reading Daniel Martin or The Ambassadors. No problem! I cannot tell if the nearly seven years that separate us in age makes us contemporaries or not contemporaries, but I suppose that, from the standpoint of a thirtysomething, two men in their sixties are contemporaries.

You can learn a lot from articulate writers who think differently. Actually, I’m learning a lot from everything that I read these days; it’s as though Providence were supplying me with just the books that will help me to clarify the thinking behind the conclusion of my writing project. I’ve read that that happens: when you’re hot, everything is relevant. But from Mars-Jones, I learned something rather central: that I am pious, and always have been, about the experiment of civilization. “Piety” was the word that I had been looking for to describe the quality that I think makes me unusual. I’m no more pious in the traditional sense than anybody else these days; I have never respected my elders per se and I am not an obedient observer of the standards to which I was raised. Certainly not! But it would be wrong to say that I have done the usual thing and rebelled. Nor am I a straightforward reactionary. But before I was out of my teens, whether I knew it or not, I felt passionately protective about the fragile connections that allow us at our best to overcome rage and the itch to do violence.

This train of thought began when Mars-Jones mentioned, early in the book, his lack of interest in history. He claims that he can’t remember dates. I don’t want to read too much into what might have been intended as a light, perhaps self-mocking comment, but I find that when people associate history with dates they are saying that they have never heard history’s stories. When a history story has been well-told, the dates are as memorable as the names — they are names. Instead of “Liverpool,” the Titanic might just as well have had “1912″ painted on its stern. In any case, dates are not the point of history; they’re just an excuse for people who believe that the past is dead baggage. (“The past” may be defined as time of which no one has a direct or indirect memory. Rosemary Hill, again in the LRB, has a memory of dancing with Steven Runciman, who in turn, as a child, danced with a lady who had danced with Prince Albert. “The past” has swallowed up the prince but not the lady.) It’s an axiom of my piety that people who regard the past as a pointless burden are also natural anarchists. Before I quite saw that I was pious, I understood that Adam Mars-Jones is impious, and probably wouldn’t mind my or anyone else’s saying so.

Another thing that I learned from Kid Gloves is that am deeply bigoted — about handedness. I had been sputtering through the book’s pages when the author mentioned in passing — I can’t find it — that he was left-handed. “There!” I said to myself. “That explains everything.” Even though I was talking to myself, I was shocked by what I had just said. I was shocked to note that I hadn’t really been joking. I hadn’t been joking to the extent that I really did — really do, it seems — believe that it was better to be right-handed than not. And it was obvious as well that this belief was a bit of unexamined bigotry.

There are studies showing that left-handed people have shorter life spans, aren’t there? But forget that, along with all the quotidian difficulties; there is nothing practical about my prejudice. Even thought I’ve never given the matter much “thought,” I clearly recall feeling relief when it became clear that neither my daughter nor my grandson was of the sinister persuasion. That’s what makes it bigotry: my preference was unconsidered. It’s not that I think that there’s anything wrong about being left-handed. It’s just that being right-handed is, well, right.

Oh, dear. Kid Gloves was just like Mars-Jones’s LRB pieces in that it was easy to follow but hard to understand. There are no chapters, and the narrative line is often obscure; this is a book of tangents. Once it occurred to me that Tristram Shandy might have been a model, I felt less impatient. Despite not finding Mars-Jones particularly simpatico, I was always, always on his side whenever life with father was contentious. I was repelled by Sir William. If nothing else, he seemed to be a prime instance of the weakness of the English legal system for translating successful barristers — partisan advocates — into positions of impartial magistracy, where, by the way, they make less money. I thought he had no business being on the bench. A good deal of the story’s point owes to accidents of time, to different generational experiences to which Sir William was probably more responsive for being a self-made man.

Certainly it was this self-made quality that explains the man’s ardent homophobia, which Mars-Jones presents in lush detail. And yet, how ardent could it have been? In the wake of the “sexuality summit” in which the son came out to his father, there was no rage, no banishment, no disinheritance. There was instead the beginning of an attempt to accept, sour and insincere at first, and never entirely satisfactory — Sir William could never manage to remember the name of Mars-Jones’s partner — but genuine enough in the end. At the same time, I wondered if his story was best told by his son, a man with a constitution almost alien to Sir William’s.


Tuesday 1st

It’s a commonplace that the United States’s body politic is polarized. But I wonder. If only white men voted, Donald Trump would carry every state, or so they say. If only people of color voted, Hillary Clinton would do the same. Women and voters with college educations are divided, but I suspect that polarized is not the word for them. It’s white men against non-white people, a very old American story, with the modern twist that the non-white people get to vote. White men have landed in a peculiar situation. They have been unable to propose a truly presentable candidate — a Dwight Eisenhower, say. Somehow, they have wound up backing a clown. Does this say something about white men? It would be pretty to think so. But I think it’s the result of blown fuses, brains shut down by the prospect of a woman installed in the White House by non-white voters. Nothing in the care, feeding, or training of white men has prepared them for that. Is it their fault that the United States so glaringly lacks true military heroes? Officer class, I mean. Maybe white men ought to get better at winning wars. That’s what they say they’re good at.

I’m a white man, and like many people who are going to vote for Donald Trump — that came out wrong. I am not going to vote for Donald Trump. But I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton mostly because I’m thinking about the Supreme Court. That has become a habit over the years. I’m beginning to question it, though. The scandal of Barack Obama’s inability to replace Antonin Scalia is arguably the most disturbing sign of constitutional breakdown since the Alien & Sedition Act. What if Hillary fares no better? And what if she succeeds at tilting the Court to the left? What happens when gerrymandered congressional districts are declared unconstitutional and half the House (at least) is sent packing? An undesirable scenario, however mouthwatering.

Without that gerrymandering, however, it just might happen that white men would not carry every state for Trump. The real polarization is among white men.

This just in: According to a reliable source (Andy Borowitz), Elizabeth Windsor (not Edith) has launched a write-in campaign.


Friday 4th

My mother, who died thirty-nine, nearly forty years ago, would have been ninety-eight today. For a moment, I made a plan to call my daughter, to wish her a happy birthday. But my daughter’s birthday falls next Friday, not this one. My mother was born on False Armistice Day — the end of the fighting in World War I was announced, but the announcement was premature. My daughter was born on the fifty-fourth anniversary of the actual Armistice, which occurred a week later.

It was only recently, certainly not earlier than reading Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers a few years ago, that I woke up to what Armistice really meant. It meant, at least on 11 November 1918, that nobody won the war, and that nobody lost it. The two sides simply agreed to stop fighting. How this neutral-sounding situation led to a conference in which self-styled “victorious allies” refused a seat at the table to the Germans seems no less worthy of attention than the “July Crisis,” the shambolic and cavalier shuffle of military and diplomatic cloak and dagger that resulted in something even more appalling than the Republican nomination of Donald Trump. The peace treaties that emerged in the wake of the Great War were punitive and wrong-headed; some of its terrible consequences were dealt with in the next war, while others (in the Middle East particularly) remain to be rectified.

The allies — represented by Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, and Georges Clemenceau — believed that an invincible tide of progressive thinking would support the peace that they imposed on the defeated powers, two of which had obliged by collapsing from within. The egregiously harsh terms in which they dealt with the third, Turkey, were so unrealistic that a wave of optimistic Greek colonists, settling in territories made available to them by the treaty, was quite quickly repulsed, with great loss of life. We can now clearly see how many conflicts engendered by Versailles and its satellite treaties were preserved in states of suspended animation during the Cold War, only to take on new life once Russia discarded the cause of International Communism. The war in Syria is both a consequence of the treaties and a Cold-War leftover.

In writing the foregoing, I checked only one reference: I couldn’t remember Clemenceau’s first name, although it came to me before the Wikipedia page opened. I don’t think that I’ve said anything novel or penetrating; I was just calling for a nice, chewy book, to balance Clark’s, on the immediate aftermath of the War. If you, my dear reader, happen not to be sufficiently conversant with the Great War, its origins and its aftermath to write such paragraphs off the top of your head, then I should still suppose that nothing that I’ve written surprises you; I should like to think that it has refreshed your memory. But while I am writing and you are reading, there is another body politic out there.

Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them.

This is Caleb Crain writing in The New Yorker. I think that we can set aside any idea that these ignorant Americans are stupid, somehow incapable of grasping basic facts. It would seem, rather, that there is no downside to their ignorance, no penalty. The reward for knowledge is always the knowledge itself, obviously, but, to be honest, it takes a lot of learning to appreciate the reward. And if ignorance is a bad thing, it does not seem to hurt the ignorant, not in any way that they are likely to understand. Ignorance always, always rests on the assumption that somebody else will figure things out, which is tantamount to an assumption that somebody else is in charge.

As many critics of our particular democratic arrangements have complained, too much emphasis is placed on voting, and on the campaigns that precede them. Every so often, the man in the street is invited to cast his vote by an angelic choir that urges him to give the matter some thought. It’s hard to believe that anyone in media-saturated America can ever, for five minutes, be unaware of the national political scene, but the quality of general awareness may be difficult for educated observers to assess. How well voters understand the consequences of voting is also obscure. I should expect that most Americans would agree that voting for president is “more important” than voting for American Idol, but what would we find if we unpacked that greater importance?

Some would say that we need smarter voters. Some would say that we need fewer voters. This is the nub of arguments in favor of “epistocracy” — rule by the knowledgeable — that Crain was considering in his New Yorker review. I would say that we need more neighborly voters — voters who know what’s going on locally because their lives are directly impacted by it. And these good neighbors will need more than self-interest seasoned by good will. They will need to understand the long-term consequences of current decisions, at least as well as anyone can. There’s nothing like long-term consequences to dampen the drama.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Aeolian Harp
October 2016 (IV)

24, 25, 27 and 28 October

Monday 24th

One of the closets in our bedroom is much more difficult to access than the other, so Kathleen switches her seasonal wardrobes twice a year. While she did that, I emptied a good deal of the linen closet. The linen closet, although it is not large — none of our closets is remotely “large” — was the largest space in the apartment that had gone more or less untouched since we settled in, a few months after the move downstairs, two years ago. In those settling-in days, the priority was to get things out of sight. Aside from the portion of one shelf that held bath towels, very little had been touched. My excavation revealed a number of things that Kathleen had been looking for, as well as a few things that we really don’t need.

My objective, aside from the general purpose of renewing acquaintance with our stuff, was to make a space for light bulbs. I like to have a few packages of light bulbs on hand — I bought four packs of four the other day — because so many seem to go out more or less at the same time. I’ve been storing light bulbs in a very precarious way on the shelf in the coat closet, where we keep board games and two trunk-like boxes of cables and such. (I ought to throw most of it away.) There is really not enough room for light bulbs on that shelf. The risk of light bulbs falling on the floor when the coat closet is opened has been great. Breakage has been avoided, thanks to stout packaging and a carpet from Central Asia, but the unsatisfactory nature of the arrangement has been clear from the start. Now the light bulbs are in the linen closet, and very easy to reach. Also, the bedlinens are in the linen closet as well — where they belong. Sheets and pillowcases have so far been stored in one of Kathleen’s dressers, another unsatisfactory arrangement. My bath towels have been moved to my bathroom.

To make the wardrobe switch easier, Kathleen used a folding clothes rack that we keep in the closet that we call “the attic.” Now that she is through with it, I am going to roll it into the book room. All of my clothes are in the quite-small book-room closet. I am missing a pair of shorts that I hoped would turn up when Kathleen shuffled her closets. No joy. Perhaps it will turn out to have been in my closet all along.

To make the reorganization of the linen closet easier, I brought out the folding card table that we also keep in the attic. Now that it is more or less bare, I plan to cover it with all the stacks of books in the book room. I shall also drag out the many tote bags that have accumulated here, because it is the dumping point of least resistance. I really have no idea what I’m going to do with the books and the bags, but then, I never do have any idea before I undertake projects of this kind. It is only when the room has been cleared, and the stuff has been piled in a heap somewhere else, that I begin to have ideas. I’ll keep you posted.


Is there a Shirley Jackson kick in my future? You will have come across one or two reviews of Ruth Franklin’s new biography. It sounds intriguing, but I don’t see the point in biographies of writers whom I haven’t read. Of course I’ve read “The Lottery,  but that’s just one short story. Now I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, too. What intrigues me about Jackson is her problematic domestic life. What with four children, a huge house, and a determinedly errant husband, she seems to have risked the doormat’s career. In fact, she was the family’s bigger breadwinner — which makes her even more intriguing. She wrote about housekeeping, from a humorous angle that I find somewhat broad. I began my exploration with a piece (in the collection Let Me Tell You) about rival serving forks (one with two prongs, one with four), and how difficult they made Jackson’s life (sez she) whenever she used one to do the other’s job. My own take on high-jinks in the kitchen is that I myself provide all the anthropomorphism that ridiculous situations require.

Last week, for example, I was bellyaching about having a friend to dinner on Saturday night. This particular friend is used to good food, so I wore myself out by wishing that I didn’t have to “make a production” and tying myself up in knots. In fact, I wasn’t feeling well for most of the week, so the shopping got postponed until Friday, giving it a desperate finish, and my thoughts of baking a cake were trashed by the proximity to Whole Foods of a branch of Eric Kayser’s pastry empire. I was thinking of roasting a piece of pork. Julia Child, in The Way to Cook, wrote of a four-pound roast, but there was nothing on offer at Whole Foods larger than loin cuts weighing just over a pound. Which turned out to be perfect: I used Mrs Child’s “spice marinade” to coat the meat overnight, but followed the cooking instructions in The Joy of Cooking (Guarnaschelli edition), which included the suggestion of something called Buttered Cider Sauce. Sooner or later, everyone who eats in this house is going to be served Roast Pork Loin with Buttered Cider Sauce. Not only is it delicious, but it fits very well with the host’s reasonable desire to have a drink with his guests instead of fussing in the kitchen. When the roast comes out of the oven, having cooked at 250º for nearly an hour, emerging tender and juicy and almost buttery itself, it has to rest under a piece of foil for fifteen minutes. This is the signal to serve the soup (curried butternut squash purée). When the soup plates have been cleared, it’s time for the pork. I was mortified to recall all the complaining. I waste so much time feeling sorry for myself about nothing.

My problem with ghost stories is that they are never really frightening. The Haunting of Hill House is frightening for other reasons. A woman who has spent her life taking care of an ailing, disagreeable mother finds relaxation if not rest in a huge ugly house with doors that open and close on their own, not to mention loud noises, laughter and screams. Eleanor Vance has always wanted to have an adventure, and Hill House obliges. When she is sent away from Hill House for her own good, she resists. She has come to believe that Hill House wants her. The fact that she wants Hill House tells you a lot about her life so far. I found the novel to be not only well-written but discreet. We are not left to wonder if the abnormal phenomena that disturb Eleanor (but not too much) are taking place entirely in her head; we know that her companions experience some of them, too. But it is Eleanor’s responses that are interesting, not the raps or the chalk-marks.

I am aware of two filmed adaptations of the novel, both called simply The Haunting, but before I get to them I want to mention a little episodic frolic that Jackson indulges that was cut from both movies. This involves the professor’s wife, Mrs Markway. Mrs Markway barges in on the proceedings — her husband is conducting an experiment designed to establish the reality of hauntings — with her planchette and an obnoxious headmaster who also serves as her driver. They are both detestable in the irresistible manner of Ivy Compton-Burnett. You could argue that they are the horror.

The wife actually does show up in the earlier of the two movies, but aside from being the wife she is not the same person at all. This Haunting, which came out in 1963, stars Julie Harris as Eleanor. Directed by Robert Wise, to a screenplay by Nelson Gidding, the movie has the production values of a first-class television show; in other words, it looks and sounds like Psycho. The house is vast and ugly and the rooms inside are overfurnished with depressing Victorian sculptures that leer at the camera. Claire Bloom plays Theo, the free-spirited young woman who is Eleanor’s not unsympathetic foil, while Russ Tamblyn plays the house-owner’s nephew, and Richard Johnson, an extraordinarily telegenic British television actor whom I have managed to miss — he died only last year — is Dr Markway. The adaptation is largely faithful to the novel, with the exception of Mrs Markway’s role that I’ve mentioned. Julie Harris will strike many viewers as the perfect Eleanor — a mouse powered by neurosis. But she simply made me doubt that Jackson’s story can be rendered in film at all. The movie helplessly makes an object of the novel’s subject (Eleanor), which disrupts its quiet but sympathetic intimacy.

The second Haunting came out in 1999. I remember thinking that it was a terrible picture at the time. Watching it again, I was more inclined to regard it as a train wreck — entertainingly awful. It is the fourth of five movies directed by cinematographer Jan de Bont, the first two being Speed and Twister, two favorites of mine. The screenplay by David Self put me in mind of something once valuable that had been left outdoors in the wind and the rain and the changing seasons for several decades, and had not only lost its value but become unrecognizable. Self introduces a lot of his own inventions, which complicate the story to the point of incoherence. Lily Taylor is Eleanor this time, but although she looks radiant and adorable, her behavior is strange rather than haunting. To be sure, this is because Hill House has become a very different kind of operation, a nest of the troubled spirits of molested children presided over by a dead ogre. Catherine Zeta-Jones slips nicely into Claire Bloom’s part, considering. Liam Neeson is the doctor, and we are a long way from his action-movie achievements. Owen Wilson is so annoying in the Russ Tamblyn role that it’s a relief to see the end of him (not in the novel). There is no Mrs Markway at all, and although Bruce Dern and Marian Seldes show up as Mr and Mrs Dudley, their lines are too denatured to register.

My advice is to resist both movies until you’ve completely forgotten the novel. Watch them then and then see how much better Shirley Jackson pulls it off.


Tuesday 25th

It is very quiet in the apartment today. It is even more quiet than that, because I have just finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and the silence in which the two women sit by the front door at the end, spying on trespassers, haunts the very air. I feel a weird, and I trust momentary, kinship with the Blackwood sisters. Just as Constance could have answered her cousin Charles’s importuning whine, so, with the flick of a switch, I could open the door to the lying evil world of television.

Yes, I know it sounds a little cracked; perhaps more than a little. Reading the Times this morning, I realized where the commentators’ obnoxious use of “bigly” comes from. (Trump apparently pronounces “big league” in an odd way, and uses it in peculiar syntactic contexts, so people mishear him.) Although Donald Trump has been a public figure for more than thirty years, I have heard very little of his voice, because I’ve avoided the television and radio shows on which he might appear. I’ve read about the Letterman show in which the foreign manufacture of his branded tat was laughed in his face, but I’m not sorry I missed it. You can laugh at him all you like, but he’s still there in his awfulness. “‘The least Charles could have done,’ Constance said, considering seriously, ‘was shoot himself through the head in the driveway’.” That’s all that I ever want to hear about Trump.

What few people understand — because television is simply a part of everybody’s everyday life — is that Donald Trump exists only in the airwaves. It is true that he shows up at rallies and puts his supporters into frenzies of hatred. But that’s not him up there. That’s “Donald Trump the billionaire,” a cartoon character. Just as it is William Shatner, and not Captain Kirk, who makes appearances at Star Trek events (if indeed he ever does such a thing), so Donald Trump impersonates “Donald Trump.” It is often remarked that Trump has no real friends, just an entourage of family and employees. A true Thespian, he lives only to be on stage, or in front of the cameras and the microphones. I’m saying all of this because you can just turn him off.

Well, it has perhaps gotten a little late for that. Bear in mind, though, that, once upon a time, your turning off the set, instead of watching him, might have made a difference. If nobody watched him, he would be nothing. That is true of any TV show. Donald Trump has always had an audience, because he is good at doing what TV viewers want to see. The pundits were the last to understand that his political viability followed the body-snatching consumption of politics by entertainment, a process that has been going on ever since Johnson defeated Goldwater with “Daisy” — if not, even earlier, from Richard Nixon’s ghoulish appearance in the 1960 debates with JFK. Trump did not introduce some “new low.” He simply demonstrated that the wall separating the serious from the frivolous that the venerable broadcasters of the old days had flattered themselves into counting on has been vaporized, brick by brick.

In a dream last night, someone urged me to set my scruples about television aside and join the audience for an important presentation. I replied that my resistance was greater than ever. I suspect that this was inspired by the scene, early in Shirley Jackson’s novel, in which Constance is cajoled by Helen Clarke into returning to normal social life. But the resistance was all mine.


Thursday 27th

Reading The New Yorker at lunch today, I thought about the mistake of misusing language for hopeful purposes. There was Joan Acocella’s review of a new book about Esperanto, the language invented in the 1880s by Ludovik Zamenhof, a Jew from Bialystok who grew up speaking Russian and Yiddish. Esperanto was, as its name implies, designed to bring all people together in a common language that would end the post-Babel curse of “the other.” The wild naïveté of this idea would have struck anyone not born in the nineteenth-century era of wishful thinking. Zamenhof ought to have understood from the mere fact that four languages were spoken in his native city that people have no inclination to speak a common language. The author of Genesis got it wrong, too.

Acocella points out that English has taken the place that Zamenhof hoped would be occupied by his confection. Well, maybe. Actually, I think, not. English as it is spoken by educated Britons is almost as rare as Cicero’s Latin was in Caesar’s Rome. English as spoken by Americans is a form of German that uses English words, and a very platt German it is, too. Elsewhere, English words are appropriated to local creoles. “Okay” is about the only word that is understood everywhere. My hunch is that even if, tomorrow morning, everyone were gifted with the ability to speak English as well as Adam Gopnik does, it would not take two generations for mutual incomprehension to start creeping in. We read about dying languages, and imagine that languages have never died before. I worry all the time that the language that I speak and write in is going to disappear within a century, even if it is called “English.”

More seriously, I thought about “political correctness,” a matter that has been bothering me for some time. It came up in Andrew Marantz’s report on the doings of Mike Cernovich, the author of a blog called Danger and Play and a force to be reckoned with on Twitter. Cernovich came across as a complicated person whose only focus is his hatred of Hillary Clinton and the kind of “basic bitch” that she represents. (His misogyny strikes me as incoherent.) Cernovich also believes that “political correctness [has] prevented the discussion of obvious truths, such as the criminal proclivities of certain ethnic groups.”

Political correctness, at least as I understand it, is an offshoot of what was called “consciousness raising” in the Seventies. Perhaps it would be better to think of political correctness as the calcified aftermath of consciousness raising. The idea behind consciousness raising was to change the way people thought about men and women, with a view to replacing patriarchal ideas about male superiority with a rough parity that would permit women to pursue their own self-realization without interference. The technique was applied to other frontiers of social progress, with the notorious result that it became socially unacceptable in polite circles to use what is now called “the ‘n’ word” under any circumstances, even with distancing jocularity. Political correctness was always haunted by the Holocaust; it was intended to set a firm barrier against the first step on lethally slippery slopes. Meanwhile, numerous college sports teams were urged to replace Native American mascots.

Personally, I’m in accord with the objectives of political correctness, but I dislike the “political” angle. The term itself, originating in conservative bastions beleaguered by liberal critiques, is justly sardonic: what can be the moral value of correct behavior that is politically enforced? Consciousness raising works only if you are willing to reconsider the world. Being told to replace words that offend other people with acceptable alternatives raises cynicism, not consciousness.

Inevitably, political correctness is going to produce ghastly usages on the order of “cuck.” Cuck is the first syllable of a nearly obsolete label for a husband whose wife is sexually unfaithful; it happens to rhyme with both the vulgar term for fornication and a common expression of outrage. It is the sort of thing that eight year-olds come up with, but no one seems to be in a position to tell grown men to refrain from sounding like eight year-olds — or to testify to the cognitive dissonance of hearing “dude” from the lips of any male who is neither fourteen nor saddled with acne.

The truly regrettable thing about political correctness is that it deludes good-hearted people into assuming that social problems have been solved. We can thank Donald Trump’s campaign, coinciding as it did with a higher incidence of the reported shootings of black men by white policemen, for putting an end to the notion that racial tension in the United States is a thing of the past. I myself intend to drop political correctness in future, insofar as it might have barred me from calling an enthusiast of “law and order” a plain racist.


The writing project has languished for over a month, but I think that I have found a way to begin what will be the final section, the need for which become more and more apparent as I worked on the seven that precede it. I’ll begin by talking about the need for a new Enlightenment — although I mean something very special by that, something whose spirit will run quite counter to the drift of progressive eighteenth-century thought. What I want to talk here, however, is wigs.

As a young man, Louis XIV had a beautiful head of hair, naturally curly and almost black. And he was young at a time when the fashion was for men to let their hair grow. Louis’s was very long. Then it began to thin at the top. I don’t know how long it took for him to cover his head entirely with a wig, but I expect that it started slowly, as these things do — think “comb-over.” Louis being king and all, his courtiers began to wear wigs as well. By the time he died, in 1715, polite men throughout Europe wore wigs in public. They kept their own hair very short, and worse little caps, something between a beret and a turban, at home.

No longer checked by the varieties of human limitations, men’s hair styles went through some exaggerated but highly uniform cycles. Overall, wigs got smaller as the century progressed, before finally disappearing in the quarter-century after the fall of the Bastille. But they started out massively, and could not really have gotten any larger. Military officers and sportsmen took to tying the ends off with a bow, and curls coalesced into ranks of two or three waves on each side of the head. (Needless to say, wigs could be very expensive, and caring for them was labor-intensive.) Whether you find the eighteenth-century look attractive or not, you have to remember that it made it very easy to conform with the style of the day, no matter what kind of hair you were born with. Because the wig was entirely artificial, nobody’s coiffure was more fake than anybody else’s. Youthfulness ceased to be an unfair advantage. Everyone could be exactly as presentable as his pocketbook allowed.

There is much to be said against wigs comfort-wise, however, and it’s no surprise that the experiment was abandoned. I believe, however, that it bequeathed a harmful legacy: for a long time, all that you had to do to look civilized was to shave your beard and don a wig. Instant conformity! The appeal of this easy transformation encouraged, surreptitiously, an idea of human perfectability that was altogether new, at least since Christianity firmly imposed the very opposite notion more than a millennium earlier.

The men of the Enlightenment were interested in new ideas, but they were even more interested in clearing away old ones. They sensed that the régime was doomed to become ancien, and in a sense they picked through the ruins in advance, deciding what to hold on to and what to get rid of. (Tocqueville’s study of the Bourbon provenance of so many of Napoleon’s “innovations” demonstrates the discernment with which this sorting was carried out.) Generally speaking, the things that were to be discarded were bundled together with the label, “feudal.” Feudal arrangements were personal, idiosyncratic, incoherent, and even contradictory; they were for the most part inherited relationships that had stopped making sense long before the Renaissance. The men of the Enlightenment were interested in consistency, predictability, and something that they called “reason.”

If we’re to avoid a return to ad hoc feudalism and the social insecurity that it reflects, we have to abandon the idea that people can be educated into, if not perfection, then some reasonable simulacrum thereof. We have to give up wigs.


Friday 28th

The problem with Crampton Hodnet, which would have been Barbara Pym’s first novel but which was published posthumously, is that the funny lines require context. There is a wonderfully odious old battleaxe, Miss Doggett, who counsels her paid companion, Miss Morrow. “‘We will let the matter drop,’ she added, having no intention of doing anything of the kind” (60). But it’s a bigger laugh if you’ve read from the two preceding paragraphs. There’s really nothing for it but to read the whole book aloud. Poor Kathleen.

Publisher Jonathan Cape notoriously rejected Pym’s manuscripts in the early 1960s, claiming that they were too old-fashioned. Pym herself seems to have regarded Crampton Hodnet as somewhat dated by the time she took a second look at it after the War was over, and she set it aside. Certainly the atmosphere of postwar austerity would have been uncongenial to the novel’s “Tennis, anyone?” lightness of touch. But just as Time reveals forgeries, so it discovers treasures. By the late Seventies, Pym was on a comeback. It was cut short by breast cancer, in 1980, but, regrettable as early death was, Pym has never had to be rediscovered. She is very much in print, and I noticed with interest that Pym is one of the very few women writers mentioned in a recent piece by Phillip Lopate about Tim Parks. It’s worth quoting the passage, actually.

Distressed by the degree to which the English-language market monopolizes the publishing world, he is equally irked by the fashion for world literature, and goes so far as to advise “a young English writer to be building up a knowledge of, say, Evelyn Waugh, Elizabeth Bowen, Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, along with the writers they drew on and the later generation they inspired, than to be mixing Chinua Achebe with Primo Levi.”

Because this is exactly why Pym is precious: her English is very good.

As an example, take the beginning of the eighth chapter, “Spring, the Sweet Spring.”

Spring came early that year, and the sun was so bright that it made all the North Oxford residents feel as shabby as the still leafless trees, so that they hurried to Elliston’s, Webber’s and Badcock’s, intending to buy jumper suits and spring tweeds in bright, flowerlike colours to match the sudden impulse which had sent them there. But when they found themselves in the familiar atmosphere of the shop, they forgot the sun shining outside, and the thrilling little breezes that made everyone want to be in love, and the young lady assistant forgot them too, because, although she may have felt them walking down the Botley Road with her young man on a Sunday afternoon, they were not the kinds of things one thought about in business hours. And so, after a quick, practised glance at the customer, out would come the old fawn, mud, navy, dark brown, slate and clerical greys, all the colours they always had before and without which they would hardly have felt like themselves. It would probably be raining tomorrow, and grey, fawn or bottle green was suitable for all weathers, whereas daffodil yellow, leaf green, hyacinth blue or coral pink would look unsuitable and show the dirt. (66-7)

The secret to this beautifully balanced expository letdown is the young lady assistant, sedulously oblivious of thrilling little breezes when she is behind the counter. There, she stands as a minor Britannia, protecting the staid denizens of North Oxford from the consequences of seasonal affect mania. From the standpoint of fashion, the passage could not possibly be more dated, but for that very reason it cleanly captures an ethos that bound even the most affluent pedestrians on the Banbury Road to demonstrate that they were careful with their money — and vigorously hardy when blasted by those thrilling little breezes. Whatever would happen if everyone yielded to the desire to be in love!

It’s the setting that is old-fashioned, not the writing. Pym’s subject, moreover, has only become more acute. Here are Miss Doggett and Miss Morrow again:

“I do not think that Mr Latimer is very well,” said Miss Doggett [of her clerical boarder]. “He looks pale and seems rather nervous, but the Sanatogen ought to pull him round, and he’s been taking a glass of milk every night, too. Of course sensitive and intelligent people are nervous, there’s no denying that.”

“I think Mr Latimer is highly strung,” ventured Miss Morrow.

“Yes, he is like a finely tuned instrument,” agreed Miss Doggett.

Like an Aeolian harp, thought Miss Morrow, pleased with idea. But really a frightened rabbit was nearer the mark. (77)

Not very many pages earlier, Mr Latimer considers the benefits of “having a wife, a helpmeet, somebody who could keep the others off and minister to his needs…” (64) [Emphasis supplied] Poor Mr Latimer is handsome and charming; the ladies won’t leave him alone. He has, needless to say, never been in love, and when he proposes to Miss Morrow, she has the sense to turn him down.

Without striking any definitively feminist notes, Barbara Pym writes about the crummy ways in which men take women for granted. Unfortunately, there is nothing at all old-fashioned about this. Boys are still growing up to become men who don’t really believe that women are quite as human as they themselves are — or else believe that women are more human, which makes it easier for them to be loving and generous. Whichever, the calculus in which women don’t count is still in general use. Pym has a gift for making it look fatuous and ridiculous; indeed, in Crampton Hodnet, she almost makes it so funny that it’s almost forgivable. But it isn’t. What could be crummier than getting married so that your wife could keep the others off?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
“Beauty is Harsh”
October 2016 (III)

17, 18, 21 October

Monday 17th

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.


Tuesday 18th

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.

More anon.


Friday 21st

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!

Gotham Diary:
Baron von Moron
October 2016 II


10. 11, 13 and 14 October

Monday 10th

For years, I had nothing to do with puzzles in the Times. I had done all the usual show-off stuff — the Middleton acrostics, the daily crosswords not only in ink but in order, moving from upper left to lower right — and eventually I got tired of it. New puzzles came along, but without appeal; I can still ask: what is Sudoku? (I’ve gone over the rules for Spelling Bee several times, but I still haven’t got a clue how to play it.) One new puzzle, however, has caught my fancy: Split Decisions. The pairs of words in Split Decisions share all but two letters, and only those two sets of divergent letters are given. By “letters,” I mean “letters in the same position.” As an example, here’s the last pair that I worked out: nether and nester. Both words share a ‘t,’ but not in the same position. What took so long was the wrong answer that I had come up with for a pair of words beginning in ba and mo respectively. Solving another pair gave me the third letter, r. The shared last letter of this pair would be the first letter of the words with th and st in the middle. The best I could think of was bares and mores. (Later, when I was stumped, Kathleen proposed barns and morns, interesting but no difference.) The s was a stumper. While sister and system came quickly to mind, it became ever more oppressively likely that there is no word in English into which sxthxx can be resolved. That’s when I set bares and mores aside and worked through the alphabet. When I got to n, I looked back at the ba and mo pair and nearly choked at the aptness. MORON! And not only that, but a moron who carries on as though he were a baron!

In true baronial fashion, I solved the entire puzzle without writing anything down. I kept it all in my head. I did not permit myself those little marginal jottings, much as I really wanted to print sxxalid and sxxared, which certainly would have helped me find squalid and squared much faster than I did. At the same time, I experienced at least one direct-line-from-God solution. Without my having solved any of the adjacent pairs, it came to me, just like that, that xxxmoxx and xxxssxx were chamois and chassis.

Baron von Moron is too good to be true, so we shall have no Progress this week. I hope I haven’t ruined the puzzle for anyone.


Last week, I neglected to mention Paradise Lodge, Nina Stibbe’s sequel to Man at the Helm. What has Nina Stibbe been doing all these years? Thirty-odd years ago, she was the au pair in the home of Mary-Kay Wilmers, now the editor (and bankroller) of the London Review of Books. Wilmers had two little boys, and somehow they survived Nina’s tender loving care. They’ve long since grown up. What  did Nina do between then and now? — now being the publication, two years ago, of Love, Nina, a collection of the letters that she wrote to her sister from the Wilmers house in Gloucester Crescent. Whatever, she is now a lady writer. Last year, we had Man at the Helm, which I found a tad too depressing, because the narrative arc took the heroine from a shabby but grand old pile to a small house in a council estate. That’s where she’s still living, in Paradise Lodge, but this time the story is about her, not her Sixties-warped mother. The book is very funny, and I’ve hated having read it. I want to be still reading it. Why did it have to end?

Stibbe has held on to the voice of Love, Nina. I don’t know how long she’ll be able to go on doing this, as presumably Lizzie Vogel will grow up some day and put her adorable goofiness behind her — but maybe not; one can hope. Lizzie’s voice is really the whole point of the book. Anyone could cook up the escapades at a shambolic nursing home — the more I read about English schools and nursing homes, the more appalled I am by the English willingness to entrust institutions to amateurs — but they’d be little more than not-so-funny comic pratfalls if it weren’t for Lizzie’s fine-grained adolescent judgment, which is also the texture of the novel. To render the following snippet comprehensible, I think it’s enough to say that Sister Saleem, who is also Lizzie’s boss, is a woman of color.

I was thrilled one day when the talk turned to facial features and Sister Saleem said I had nice eyes. Having nice eyes, she said, was a great thing and could make up for awful defects.

“If you have pretty eyes,” she said, “you can get away with a flat behind or hairy arms or even spots — but having not very nice eyes is a curse.”

We all discussed this and agreed, the worst kind of eyes being dead eyes which don’t sparkle. The deadest I knew of were Nurse Hilary’s, which looked like fish’s eyes, or Miss Pitt’s — who looked like she’d poisoned you but you didn’t know it yet. The nicest eyes were almond-shaped, but not like Sister Saleem’s which, although almost-shaped, had purple skin all around — which my sister said was the colour of a man’s resting genitals, but not in front of her. (193)

But not in front of her. To take pains to tell us the obvious — Lizzie and her older sister did not compare Sister Saleem’s eyes to a man’s private parts in conversation with Sister Saleem herself — is of course to raise the hilarious spectre of having done so. It’s a way of making trouble without getting into trouble. If it doesn’t make you laugh out loud, perhaps in an outburst that causes those nearby to turn their heads in your direction, then Paradise Lodge is not for you; rather, you are unworthy of it. It is not hard to see Jane Austen in the background, smiling the smile of someone who can reduce others to giggles but who never giggles herself.

The climax that I remember has nothing to do with the revelations and peripeties that wreathe the happy ending. It even occurs in the first half of the book. It oughtn’t to be funny at all, and, now I think of it, it isn’t funny, only I remember it as sidesplitting. Lizzie is trying to get her favorite inmate, a very stout Miss Mills, from the toilet to her bed, something that she ought not to attempt single-handed. But it is late at night, and her colleague, the air-headed Miranda, is too busy inscribing a birthday card to her boyfriend, in “bubble writing,” to hear the summoning bell. Miss Mills warns Lizzie not to try, but Lizzie can’t just leave the old lady on the commode. The upshot is that Lizzie just fails to get Miss Mills back into bed. The heavy woman slides off and falls on her, pinning her to the floor. This horrible moment lasts for quite a while, and, when Miranda finally does show up, Lizzie believes that Miss Mills shouldn’t be moved until an ambulance arrives, and so the moment continues for quite a while longer. To pass the time, Miranda keeps up a chatter.

After some time, the talk got less interesting. I mean, no one could keep it up forever and soon Miranda was dredging up stuff about her family. The time her mother tired to kill her father with a Flymo and once, when her father had accidentally unplugged the deep freeze, she’d called him a “bandit,” which made me rock with laughter, and that had hurt Miss Mills, and that made me cry. Miranda carried on, though, like a hero. About her sister, Melody, my ex-best friend who’d gone manly in puberty, as previously mentioned, and thanked God for punk arriving so that she could join in with fashion and feel she belonged without trying to look girly. (104)

As previously mentioned.

Lizzie has signed up for part-time work at Paradise Lodge, but full-time suits her better, because she hates school. Lizzie hates school so much that she risks being dropped from the ‘O’ Level program. This alarms everyone else far more than it does Lizzie, so Lizzie’s attempts to be a better student consist of little more than plausible roguery. In a comic reversal, school and its drudgery are the reality from which Lizzie finds uplifting escape in caring for the incontinent elderly. The precariousness of her academic situation is an overdue bill that shadows the entire novel, right up to the last line. The other thread is Lizzie’s imaginary romance with Miranda’s boyfriend, Mike Yu. Mike’s family runs the local Chinese restaurant, and the boy is a paragon. When he tells Lizzie that she must take ‘O’ Level courses, she almost buckles down. But even her dreams are fickle.

It wasn’t Mike’s fault but I started to hate him. I was fed up with being in love and feeling so on edge all the time. I tried to tell myself I was kicking out at him because I was feeling low about various things. But it wasn’t that — that only happened in an actual relationship.

It was that he started to seem too good-looking. I felt shallow for loving his beauty and felt inferior and not worthy. It was like the time my mother had driven us to Dorset to join a family holiday and it had been an embarrassing misunderstanding and we’d sat in the beach car park having a cheese cob while our mother summoned the strength to drive all the way home again. Even from the car, the beach had seemed too beautiful for us and we hadn’t been welcome and I longed for the muddy ruts of a Leicestershire field or the messy verges of the motorway. It was all we deserved.

Plus I’d begun to feel furtive and sleazy at my deviousness. My manipulating Miranda into divulging personal things about him, running into the drive just to say hello and look as if I were on the brink of weeping. And my betrayal of Mr Simmons in return for getting back into the ‘O’ Level group — which had been very much under Mike’s influence.

I imagined married life and having to see his face all the time and how its niceness would soon become sickly, like winning by cheating or eating too much pudding. Like when I’d begged for another slice of strudel and cream and Granny Benson had finally agreed and made me eat every last flake until I was sick.

Why did I love him anyway? Probably just because Miranda had paraded him and his love for her. She’d worn his love like a new mohair jumper and we’d all wanted its softness. It was probably nothing to do with his being so good-looking, so good and philosophical. (233-4)

What I’m hoping is that Lizzie will still talk like this when she finally goes to university.


Tuesday 11th

There is a piece in today’s Times about how hard it would be for someone with Donald Trump’s stated views (about women and such) to get a job with a Fortune 500 company. Once upon a time, this might have made somebody stop and think, Gee, maybe Trump isn’t such a great presidential candidate after all. I don’t know what impact the newspaper’s editors expect it to have now. Trump himself would seize the bull by the horns and declare that we’ve got to change the rules at big companies and stop all this political correctness. His supporters would cheer him. Surely everyone knows this by now. Surely everyone knows that Trump stands, like an unreconstructed Mad Man, for a return to the social facts of the 1950s, and that this is what his supporters think they long for. All they want, really, is to stop having to pretend that people who aren’t straight white males are just as good as those who are. Like the child pointing at the emperor’s new clothes, they want to acknowledge the obvious: people who look funny aren’t really American. It’s very simple.

What the rest of us have to ask is, Why? Why is this nostalgic dream still so powerful? And we have to come up with solid answers, because, as more than a few commentators have observed, Trump himself may go away but his supporters won’t, and eventually they will find a more effective candidate.


Whether it was in San Francisco or upon our return, I had one of those moments. For years, years, I’ve been grappling with what I’ve called “my élite problem.” This boiled down to the search for a better word (than “élite”) for a class to which everybody claims not to belong. The lumber in my head must have shifted — perhaps it was turbulence — because, in the moment that I’m talking about, it was suddenly obvious that “the élite” consists of the professional classes and its clients. For the most part, the clients are just rich people. They have the power that goes with money. There’s little more to say about them.

There is a lot to say about professionals, however. The professions are, above all, social constructs. Their skills reflect established standards. There are different ways in which professional credentials are attained, but every profession that I can think of makes an overt claim that its members strive to uphold certain public virtues: honesty most of all, but also the well-being of the body politic. (If you can think of an exception, please let me know.) Some professions police themselves privately, while others are state-sanctioned, but it really doesn’t matter: professions are unlike criminal gangs or commercial monopolies in that they harbor no objectives that are contrary to the general good. That, at least, is how it’s supposed to be. Professionals, in the course of doing what they do, are supposed to safeguard the rules — rules against fraud, certainly, but also against injustice.

I think it’s pretty clear that the public claim on professional probity has been allowed to fade. It is one thing for an attorney to advise a rich client about taxes; it is quite another for a lawyer to participate in the drafting of legislation that will favor the rich. Do I sound utopian? I don’t think so. What I think I sound like is somebody who can no longer reconcile professional standards with free-market physics. The whole point of professional standards is to regulate market physics, much like the governor on a steam engine. Many of our professional codes were first developed in an era that was more than a little traumatized by exploding boilers, and regulation is an almost universal raison d’être.

It is because professionals have neglected their public responsibilities as a matter of course since at least the Reagan Administration that so many Americans want to sweep away “the élites.” It is because professionals have turned their backs on those without the money to pay their fees that the “basket of deplorables” is overflowing. Too many professionals don’t give a damn about ordinary people, and too many ordinary people know it.

Donald Trump’s supporters aren’t asking a lot. They just want an élite that looks like them, or at least like Don Draper. They just want to go back to that. They’re wrong, of course, to think that old-timey prosperity will make a comeback if the right-looking people are in charge, but that’s just one of the many things that we’ve neglected to teach them in words that they can understand and accept.

If you want a sense of just how bad things are, consider the sense of public accountability that is current among the members of our newest profession, the coder entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.


Thursday 14th

My instinctive reaction to the news that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature was to applaud, but it’s going to take a day or two to say why. Good for him, I thought — but I’ve never been a fan, not remotely, and in fact I can think of no popular figure of the Sixties who was more irritating to me at a subcutaneous level. That people voluntarily subject themselves to his humorlessly earnest, unmusically hoarse exhortations has always surprised me. Now, of course, his work has settled into the kind of cultural monumentality that works very well as a wallpaper of synecdoche: the sound of a few bars sets a very clear tone, rich in implications, very quickly. Nevertheless, I can’t think of an American whom I’d rather see win.

As a truly international prize, not limited to work in any one language, the Nobel cannot be a genuinely literary award, because literature, to the extent that it explores and extends the language in which it is written, cannot be translated. Translators have several options, but the rendering of original nuance in another language is not one of them. It is not always the case that something inimitable about the original is lost, either: the poetry and prose of Edgar Allan Poe gain enormously by translation into French, so much so that Poe might be accused of having tried to write French using English words. (I’ve often thought that Karl Ove Knausgaard writes, albeit in Norwegian, with an ear for likely Anglophone outcomes.) The Nobel’s juries understandably fall back on the aspect of books that can be translated: the message. Heaven knows, Bob Dylan is a messenger.

So is Svetlana Alexievich, last year’s winner. Her Secondary Time, which I’m sipping in small doses, is a tremendously important book, because it humanizes the lives of Communist academics and administrators to an astonishing degree, and, with them, the Communist project itself. And yet Alexievich’s contributions to the text of this book are small and instrumental, placing the transcriptions of extended interviews in context. She is not, from any literary standpoint, the author of her own book. She inspired, edited, and produced it, but the words are not hers. Most of her readers, moreover, will not have been able to read Secondary Time in Russian. The attenuation of language into message is just about total: there is no literature left to speak of.

I’d be happier if the Nobel Prize for Literature had a name that better described what it is and must necessarily be: the gong for “a book containing a message.” The need for such a term has emerged because of a peculiar development. Originally, all written texts were messages most of all. So were most early books. Even the Aldine editions of classics were intended as messages of a sort, bringing a new world of readers information about old wisdom. But most new books eventually went stale and lost readers, and still do. A very few did and do not, Shakespeare’s Sonnets for example. We are drawn to these poems not by their message, which all of know perfectly well beforehand, but for their language, which can be incredibly rich precisely because the message is familiar. The Sonnets are bottomlessly literary; they are also, inexpungeably, expressions of the English language that remain intelligible four centuries after their composition — because we keep reading them. The long and the short of it is that Shakespeare’s Sonnets would never deserve the Nobel Prize.


Friday 15th

I’m sure that I heard “Blowin’ in the Wind” before I saw the LP jacket of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan for the first time, but it can’t have been long. Somebody had the album at boarding school. For me, the photograph was a total turn-off: a scruffy kid being held by a pretty girl (who was probably a model, I thought, although in fact she wasn’t), walking on a slushy street in a neighborhood dominated by fire-escapes (signalling poverty). If you’d wanted to get me to buy the record on the strength of jacket art alone, you’d have used one of Hayashida Teruyoshi’s photographs from Take Ivy. Nevertheless, I remember acknowledging that the Freewheelin’ jacket was very cool. I was getting used to the fact that there were a lot of very cool things that didn’t appeal to me at all, and that might never appeal to me; and I was discovering that any regrets that I might have about this discrepancy were insincere. I would take me over cool any day. My response to Bob Dylan’s first album has not changed, except that the whole thing is now very quaint.

My other problem with Dylan was that I didn’t need him to tell me that the misadventure in Vietnam was an atrocious mistake. I don’t know how I knew that it was; perhaps life in Bronxville had sensitized me to humbug. Perhaps it was the photographs of the Ngo Dinh clan that seemed designed — insanely, to me — to present them as Kennedys, a look that underlined their Las Vegas qualities. I was also very impressed by the self-immolating monks and nuns. Had the United States openly invaded Vietnam in order to crush a Communist régime, I might have gone along with it, but the mealymouthed talk of “supporting” an allegedly democratic government in an impoverished jungle was as openly bogus as the Donation of Constantine. (Not that I knew of this interesting document at the time.)

Writing about the Jersey shore in Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen refers to the children of affluence whose lives were so very different from his as “rah-rahs.” I disliked rah-rahs, too, even though my fashion sense was rah-rah to a T. It would be wrong, though, to say that I adhered to a conservative aesthetic. I just put on the same clothes that I’d always worn. It did not occur to me that sartorial eccentricity could amount to political protest, and what I saw in armies of jeans-clad youth was simply an undesirable uprising of vagabonds and hobos. When people I knew began looking like hobos, all I saw was carelessness.

That’s all I heard in Bob Dylan’s songs, too. Perhaps it would be better to say that I found them rude and insolent. I have never been comfortable with casual rudeness. For me, being rude is being very, very hostile. It is a kind of anger that has been compressed into a slap of dismissal, and social life cannot withstand very much of it. It is true that Dylan channeled his rudeness into performance art, inviting his audience to ventilate by singing along. But the lowering effect on public discourse was dramatic, and ever since the late Sixties, American life has been conducted in a fug of thoughtless generalities, as if semi-articulate expressions of good will would do the trick. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that civic discourse in this country has never been altogether sound.

Listening to Springsteen, I hear a young man in pain, with just enough lyricism to keep whining at bay. (And sometimes, as in “Brilliant Disguise,” with a flush of lyricism that amounts to plain beauty.) Sometimes, Springsteen’s updated Chatterton sounds self-pitying, but he is never what Dylan so often is: a scold. Unlike Springsteen, Dylan doesn’t present himself as the jerk, the failure. The jerk is somebody else. I can’t identify with that. The jerk is usually me.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
October 2016 (I)

3, 6, 7

Monday 3rd

And here I am. It has been a chaotic day, on the smallest of scales, as I’ve resisted old habits and tried to launch new ones, therefore doing without the help of all the established priorities. On top of that, we went to bed early for San Francisco and got up late for New York, which wouldn’t make any sense if it weren’t evidence that we needed a lot more than the prescribed eight hours of sleep.

I have discovered, working on the writing project, that I can write well enough in the afternoon — but it is no longer the afternoon. It is early evening, and I have onions caramelizing on the stove and requiring constant attention. With my thoughts on dinner, I can hardly expect to do justice to my vacation reading, which consisted of two-plus books: the new Carl Hiaasen, Razor Girl; Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run; and a wedge of Tana French’s In the Woods. The first two books are brand new — Born to Run was officially published on the day we left New York, and I bought it at JFK — but In the Woods has been out for almost a decade. Canny readers will attribute my sudden interest in the French to the influence of Laura Miller’s piece in last week’s New Yorker. I’m in the middle of it now. I like it, but I wish that its language were more Irish. Never have I so sympathized with Donna Leon’s reluctance to permit the Guido Brunetti novels to be translated into Italian. There is a point, well into the book, at which a detective ends a sentence with a pleonastic “sure,” as the Irish do. I almost dropped the book. Finally (to paraphrase heroine Cassie Maddox) a sign of Irish intelligence.

What to say about Carl Hiaasen? The simplest is this: I don’t know his people. They’re fantastic on the page — literally. The eponymous character is enormously attractive, despite an unappealing start, but a world in which the male victims of rear-enders can be so easily distracted by extreme impropriety (you have to read the novel) is too dystopian for me. Hiaasen’s topical satire of reality television is almost more thoughtful than it is biting, but then why should I feel bitten if I’ve never watched a reality TV show? Razor Girl is trenchant and funny, and certainly worth the time it takes to read. I’d be enormously grateful to find Hiaasen’s work on the shelf of a remote beach house if I ever got marooned in one. But the moment Razor Girl was over, South Florida in general and Key West in particular vanished from my imaginaire — if you’ll pardon my French — perhaps because I’ve actually been to Key West and and so not curious to know more. It is always somewhat horrible, when reading Carl Hiaasen, to know that he is making up only so much. The rest (like those Gambian rats) is real.

Born to Run — something of a stunt, I’ll admit. My reading it, that is, not Bruce Springsteen’s writing it. And I do believe that he wrote it. I had been prepped by high-end journalism: a profile in The New Yorker some while back and then David Kamp’s cover story in a recent Vanity Fair. If the book disappoints, the fault lies in the somewhat anemic account of Springsteen’s development as a sophisticated musician. That he is a sophisticated musician I knew from experience, even if I’m not quite a fan. (Not yet.) If you want to know what I mean by “sophisticated,” let me just say this: I can’t think of another pop artist who has divided his work so evenly between what in classical music would be called concert and chamber formats. Springsteen writes for arenas (does he ever), but he also writes for empty coffee houses (the emptier, the better). He was always a rocker, but he was always something else, too: a severe melancholic. Over time, he managed to accommodate both impulses, sometimes simultaneously.

Presumably, Bruce Springsteen did not manage to do this with the help of archangels. Something happened, I should say, in between his first two voyages to San Francisco. I’d like to know more. Springsteen writes well about lessons — musical and otherwise — learned later in life, by which time he seems to have been articulate enough to recognize what he was doing when he was doing it. This was perhaps not the case as he transitioned from belonging to Steel Mill to creating and patronizing the E Street Band. He’s articulate now, though, and I suspect that he’s the only one who will ever be able to tell us what happened.

Fans, of course, will relish the history of a rock ‘n’ roll career with which they’re already familiar. Less zealous readers will appreciate the many well-told tales of scrapes and escapades, especially as it emerges that none of these would have occurred if Bruce were truly the boss of everything. Everyone, I think, will honor Springsteen’s account of dealing with bipolar disorder, which is both lucid and discreet. (I concluded, on the basis of the book’s sheen of candor, that ECT treatments would have been acknowledged had they been administered.) To me, Born to Run will be memorable for the very quality that the author himself highlights near the end (on page 501, to be exact): it is a portrait of the mind of Bruce Springsteen.

Now I’m back home, where the new Ian McEwan has just arrived.


Thursday 6th

Kathleen calls them my “girlfriends.” We saw one of them last night. When A Little Romance came out in 1979, I was enchanted by Diane Lane’s fresh, intelligent beauty. For a few minutes in the third act of last night’s performance of The Cherry Orchard, she was perched not ten feet away, and in profile she was almost the same young lady.

Having seen another one of my girlfriends, Kristin Scott Thomas, in The Seagull, a few years ago, I’m inclined to wonder if Chekhov works in English. We are so cool, so hostile to unnecessary histrionics. Our language is designed to make enthusiasm look foolish. It is also difficult to register class distinctions in plain English. Steven Karam’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard dealt with this latter problem boldly enough: Lopakhin, the scion of serfs who has risen in the world and is now rich enough to buy the Gayev estate, was played by Harold Perrineau, a handsome and personable African-American actor, and serfdom was swapped for slavery. This maneuver had its effective moments, but overall it pushed the play into a Nowhere that made caring much about the plight of impoverished landowners more trouble than it was worth.

Had the play been acted absolutely straight, though, I might well have felt no different. Chekhov makes me as impatient as his characters are supposed to do. And there are far too many of them. If I were adapting The Cherry Orchard, I would eliminate the parts of Charlotta (the governess), Yepikhodov (the clerk), and Yasha (the servant). I would consider doing away with Gayev (the “heroine’s” brother), too; as his nieces remind him several times, he talks too much. Take this as my way of saying that there was little that Tina Benko, Quinn Mattfeld, Morris Jones or John Glover, respectively, could do to entertain me, except to leave the stage. Simeonov-Pischik (the lucky landowner) is there explicitly to remind us that life is absurd, so I suppose we can’t do without him; Chuck Cooper made him a jolly old fellow, but also, convincingly to a fault, someone who might die at any moment.

Worse, Chekhov fails to give his diva a big moment. Ranevskaya is a complicated woman, but the play seals her in unexplained glamour. She remembers her childhood with pleasure, and the death of her son with grief, but these elementary responses are untouched by any reflections on the “fallen,” world-weary state that might make her interesting. Why has she come home? Has Chekhov dragged her back from Paris only to demonstrate her inability to forestall the family’s loss of its principal ornament? If you were compiling a psychological profile, you might wind up with no more substantial description of Ranevskaya than “leading lady in a play.” Diane Lane brought Ranevskaya to life by spoiling her beauty a little and looking confused. It was impossible, however, to imagine that the actress herself would ever be confused by such circumstances. She may be too apparently bright for the role.

Varya, played well if a tad scoldingly by Celia Keenan-Bolger, is a thankless role as well as an unthanked character. Her status as Ranevskaya’s “adopted daughter” is superficially ambiguous, but that seems to be a matter of politeness only. In fact, the Gayevs want her to marry Lopakhin, a man of the class to which she was born. Her adoption is merely another manifestation of Ranevskaya’s Lady-Bountiful compulsion, like the handouts to servants; it will slide into meaningless when Ranevskaya moults into the former owner of the cherry orchard. Perversely, the pretense that Varya is Ranevskaya’s daughter is what makes her not good enough for Lopakhin, who intends to marry the real thing now that he can afford to — if he marries at all. You feel sorry for Varya, but you want her to exit stage left with the more supernumary characters.

I was annoyed by the young lovers, particularly by their claim that they’re “above love,” but I wasn’t inclined to cut the actors any slack. Tavi Gevinson’s Anya was incredibly ingenuous. She behaved like someone who begins every day with a perky dose of amnesia, still as innocent and unblemished as a four year-old. Kyle Beltran’s Trofimov was also incredible. Far from a surly, scruffy student, he was a gleaming Millennial, with a Google internship lined up at the very least. His scenes seemed to be played with a view to highlighting the similarities between Russia on the eve of Revolution and the United States of the eve of Donald Trump, but the more I listened to him the less alike the two eras became. Our present-day situation may be as precarious as any, but we face it with strengths and weaknesses unknown a century ago. No thanks to totalitarian evils, we have put an end to leisure (for the time being), and we are drowning in information and its counterfeits. For all its many faults, the bourgeoisie has emerged as the first genuinely, if partially, humane class in history.

The bonbon of the night was Joel Grey’s Firs, the ancient loyal butler who misses the old days when master could beat their serfs. This was distracting, at least until the very end, when Grey brought a cold draft of Beckett to Firs’s abandonment in the abandoned house. It seemed absolutely right: he was the last man lying down.

One final quibble with the production (which I found to be somewhat overdirected by Simon Godwin): although the fancy costumes were truly delightful — hats off to Michael Krass! — having the ball take place onstage instead of just offstage introduced a very inappropriate note of carnival, and when the dancers withdrew, as they had to do so that the principals could have their dramatic moments alone, the stage looked unduly desolate without them.

Don’t think that I’m sorry that I saw the show. No! I enjoyed every minute, even, or especially, the wrong bits. Filing all the complaints that I’ve summarized here was a pleasure, because Diane Lane was no farther away than the wings.

Susannah Flood was delicious as the housemaid. I was always glad to see her. She is not one of my girlfriends, though. My girlfriends are all very brainy (as well as very beautiful). When I try to imagine having the chance to talk with them, I clam up. I’m sure that I’d bore them. In my imagination, we are all still in high school. In real life, they might bore me (although I cannot really believe for a moment that Helena Bonham Carter would). And in real life, as it occurred to me just the other day, when I was looking forward to seeing Diane Lane from a seat very near the stage, I have the girlfriend of girlfriends, my dear Kathleen. She loves me, yes; but what counts for this discussion is that she finds me snappydoodle. How cool is that?


Friday 20th

It was very hard to get up this morning. I had awakened at dawn and found it difficult to get back to sleep. It was a mistake to read this week’s New Yorker at bedtime. Tad Friend’s profile of Sam Altman, the new head of Y Combinator, like the piece that Raffi Khatchadourian wrote for the magazine about Nick Bostrom, nearly a year ago, upset me enormously. Altman and his friends embody the very danger of “AI takeover” that worries them. They have no idea of the consequence of their immense cultural ignorance, and they believe that you can know all that you need to know by the age of thirty. They claim to be motivated by humane impulses, but they haven’t done the reading. They’re not schooled in human error. They’re besotted by the prospect of “10x.” (Shame on Tad Friend for adopting such usage!) They are also afraid of “the coming chaos.” So am I. It’s not very cheering to try to comfort myself with the hope that I’ll be dead by then.

Louis Menand’s meditation on Karl Marx approached the coming chaos from a more traditional perspective. I don’t want to overstate it, but Menand appears to belong to the large club of educated people who think that Marx’s critique of capitalism was more or less spot on, and that the tensions that he described in The Communist Manifesto have only become more tightly wound. I wish that one of these believers would write a new book, without mentioning Marx at all, that would lay out the current state of play and propose solutions completely free of the taint of Hegelian reasoning. That way, we could talk about the ideas of this new writer, and leave Marx to history, along with the nightmares that, rightly or wrongly, he inspired.

One interesting idea that I gleaned from the Altman profile came in a kernel of news about a Y Combinator pilot project will “test the feasability” of an urban settlement in which, among other things, “no one can ever make money off real estate.” Now, this is a proposition that I heartily embrace. While I believe that farmers ought to own the land that they work, I think that urban residences ought to be owned and managed by not-for-profit companies that are free from the pressures of both government control and rentier greed. We have seen that the value of urban real estate too often chokes, like runaway kudzu, the value of urban population. I believe that markets have a place in healthy economics, but that it is a small place. Everything about markets ought to be scaled to the local, with as many markets and small participants in them as possible. I’d like to give Efficiency a major rethink, because, after all, the most efficient operation is one that never begins. I don’t think that we know very much about capitalism, actually. The wild success of highly capitalized projects over the past two hundred years has implanted an unexamined standard model that, among other problematic things, takes growth for granted.

In any case, there are different kinds of property. As I say, urban lots and rural farmlands are not the same sort of thing at all. And then there is “stuff.” Jonathan Sperber’s biography of Marx makes recurrent mention of the family linens, which were its most important possession. Things have changed. We are now living in the age of Marie Kondo, trying to empty our crammed closets. We are trying to make do with less, not out of frugality, but simply to unburden our minds. It seems ridiculous to think of “stuff” as “private property,” because who else would want it? This reflects our highly safeguarded property rights as well as an era of material plenty; I don’t mean to suggest that human nature has changed since Marx’s day. But our arrangements have changed — more than we may think.

Finally — before turning to the opening of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell — I read James Wood on David Szalay. I read a story by Szalay late last year, and it made a strong impression. I shall probably pick up a copy of Szalay’s book, All That Man Is. Wood brought up Knausgaard and Houellebecq, which startled me, because no writer is more joyously alive, or more capable of articulating minutiae in spacious narrative arcs, than Knausgaard, whereas Houellebecq’s literary weight is no greater than that of any other boring French think piece. (Dwight Garner gave the Szalay a rave in this morning’s Times.)

Where are the women? That’s what all this depressing reading left me wondering. Are the women off doing girlie things? Are they rolling their eyes? Do they really understand what a total mess unsupervised men can make? Help!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
September 2016 (III)

19, 20, 22 and 23 September

Monday 19th

Over the weekend, I indulged in an orgy of French crime film, or rather I indulged a long-held wish to watch three movies that I regard as a trilogy all in one go. Then I watched another one, with stimulating results. Here they are, in the order in which I watched them.

  • Jules Dassin: Rififi (Du Rififi chez les hommes), 1955
  • Jean-Pierre Melville: Bob le Flambeur, 1956
  • Jacques Becker: Touchez pas au grisbi, 1954
  • Louis Malle: Ascenseur pour l’échafaud [Elevator to the Gallows], 1958

I also watched two more French films, Luis Buñuel’s Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972), and Merci, Dr Rey! (2002). Because they’re much easier for me to talk about, I’ll begin with them. While I write, I’ll try to deal with my amateur’s ignorance about the others. I am simply unaware of most of the films that were produced in France in the 1950s, and have no reason to think that Rififi and the rest are highly-regarded and arguably comparable other than the plain fact of their having been reissued by the Criterion Collection. I have not surveyed the harvest of that time and chosen unusually good movies. I have simply watched what the producers at Criterion have chosen for me. It is for reasons like this that I am not to be mistaken for a scholar, or for a person who “knows everything.”

I loved Discreet Charm, as I’ll call it, from the moment it came out, because I found it funny and strange, and also obliquely grand. The focus on six people, three irregular couples, stretched a bit to include a seventh, reminded me of the symmetries of Metastasio (the grand-daddy of opera seria librettos). Couples make for doubled drama: as they interact with one another as individuals, they interact with everyone else as pairs. This is humorously demonstrated by Henri and Alice Sénéchal (Jean-Pierre Cassell and Stéphane Audran), who, on the verge of welcoming their friends to an afternoon lunch, become so distracted by lust that they must climb down from their bedroom into the garden (because Alice is “too loud” when they make love). By the time they return, vaguely disheveled and bedecked with straw, their guests have taken off, frightened that their absent hosts might have been warned of an attack. Why any of these people might have reason to fear an attack is not specified, but it doesn’t have to be, because we have just had a scene in which the Ambassador of Miranda (a fictional Latin-American country that boasts neither pyramids nor pampas) (Ferdinand Rey) delivers a sack of pure cocaine to his friends, Henri and M Thévenot (Paul Frankeur’s character does not have a first name), in exchange for a suitcase of cash. Alice and Henri, sloppy hosts though they may be, are least happily married. Simone Thévenot (Delphine Seyrig) makes herself available to the attentions of Don Rafael. This may explain why her sister, Florence (Bulle Ogier), having no one to play with — her brother-in-law treats her like a child — wants nothing but to drink les martinis dry.

This bloc of soigné criminals, complemented by the local bishop (Julien Bertheau), a charming man who appears in the wake of the escaped friends and petitions Alice and Henri to let him do their gardening, is led through a series of frustrated meals. There is a tea-room scene that oughtn’t to be as funny as it is. The waiter takes an order for tea. The ladies chat. The waiter returns: hélas, it has been a busy day, and there is no more tea. Coffee is ordered instead. Now the ladies respond to the attention of an army officer. He begs to join them, because he wants to tell them his story. This begins the movie’s other thread, which moves from the narration (and onscreen representation) of personal history, to that of a dream, and on to a series of dreams that afflict the characters, so that, by the end, we’re not sure what happened and what was dreamed. When the lieutenant is through telling the ladies how his tale of revenge, he takes his leave and the waiter returns: no coffee. Not even any milk. All the tisanes have been consumed. Simone remembers an appointment, and leaves for an appointment. Don Rafael is waiting for her in his apartment, champagne at the ready. But Simone never gets any champagne, because Don Rafael wants to make love first, and then out of the blue Simone’s husband turns up. Everybody gets in everybody else’s way.

As I watched the film yesterday, I realized that it was the “bourgeoisie” in the title that got in the way of my understanding the movie. I certainly didn’t understand its significance in 1972. I thought that bourgeois was bourgeois, wherever you were, and that Buñuel was simply taking pot-shots at rich-y people. But it isn’t and he’s not. The bourgeoisie of Europe has long tended to ape the delegitimated but still very lively class of the nobility. But it cannot quite share the nobility’s devotion to the two institutions that the nobility still influences, the church and the military. Eventually, confrontations with these institutions will reveal the bourgeois as an outsider. The absurdities of Buñuel’s film reflect the failures of his bourgeois sextet to behave in truly aristocratic fashion. This is not to suggest that Buñuel admires the highest of the social castes. But he understands that aristocracy is something that you are born to. If it stamps you with bigotry, that bigotry is authentic. All that Don Rafael, the representative of a jumped-up extractive economy can do is to run a drug ring through his Louis XV office and paw unattractively at Simone. Henri and Alice have a gracious home, and they strike gracious poses in it, but nobody ever gets to eat a thing at at their table (except in nightmares), and Alice betrays her lack of the due consideration that a true lady would show when, in a small crisis, she forgets that her gardener is a bishop and orders him around like a servant. These people are fakes.

A deliberately enigmatic shot wrenches the six principles completely out of context and shows them walking along a flat road in flat country. It is repeated twice. In the body of the film, they never walk anywhere, and their cars even come equipped with drivers. But here they are, in the middle of nowhere, walking on a windy afternoon. They do not look comfortable but they do seem resolute. Sometimes, Simone is seen leading the band; at others, she is arm-in-arm with Alice. It doesn’t make any sense. But then neither does this bourgeoisie’s dream.

I went from Discreet Charm to Merci, Dr Rey! because of Bulle Ogier. She looks younger than she is in the Buñuel; in Dr Rey she looks her age, and she’s a great deal more fun. There must be an interesting back-story behind this movie, but I’ve never heard it. Andrew Litvack, according to IMDb, was part of the Merchant/Ivory team on several projects; in 2002, Merchant/Ivory backed his directorial début. Litvack also wrote the screenplay. The result is a consummate train-wreck, but the performances simply refuse to fade, and every now and then I have to watch Dianne Wiest play an opera diva who goes mad on hash brownies. I have to watch Jane Birkin practically swallow her lines in neurotic enthusiasm. I have to hear the phrase, “curb your narcissism.” And then there’s that staggering moment in which Vanessa Redgrave, playing herself, says that Jane Birkin’s character reminds her of the “ghastly” woman who dubs her movies in French — as indeed that character does. Redgrave is like a fairy-godmother descending on a troubled project to oblige the backers who produced and directed three of her best pictures. And not in vain, because, as I say, once you’ve seen it, you have to see it again. It’s too bad that Stanislas Merhar’s English is too heavily accented to make him plausible as the son of Wiest’s diva; and any attempt to explain the murder of Simon Callow’s character is bound to go nowhere, if only because it’s a real murder, involving a real death, and not a commedia dell’arte device. The snippets of Turandot that we get to see suggest a wicked travesty of all the misconceived re-conceptions of grand operas that have littered stages during the past forty years, but that doesn’t excuse calling the opera “Turandoe.” Lots of movies are called “zany,” but this one really is. In the event that you watch it and fall for it, too, I counsel caution in recommending it to friends.


Tuesday 20th

A no-comment comment on Roger Cohen’s Op-Ed piece today, “The Age of Distrust.” Okay, almost no-comment.


Politicians are going to have to work very hard to earn back the trust of the people. A serious issue exists with what Stephen Walt of Harvard University has called the “ruling elites in many liberal societies and especially the United States, where money and special interests have created a corrupt political class that is out-of-touch with ordinary people, interested mostly in enriching themselves, and immune to accountability.” This has to end.

(Note to self: who’s this Stephen Walt? Why doesn’t he write Op-Ed pieces?)


The answer is not to build walls. Western societies need to build education and innovation and opportunity. A time of great uncertainty is upon the world.

This is Élite Nostrum #1. Education, innovation and opportunity are great for those who can make use of them. But many people cannot. Many people whose jobs have been taken over by computers have been permanently replaced — in current economic terms. So long as we stick to those terms, these folks are out of luck.


Technology has prized the world open. Nobody — not Vladimir Putin, not Xi Jinping, not Trump — can shatter that interconnectedness.

This is nonsense. The idea that global interconnectedness is here to stay is both myopic and ignorant. Myopic: history is littered with the ruins of “irreversible” arrangements. Ignorant: shutting down the Internet is not impossible. And if you can shut down the Internet (by pulling a lot of plugs), then you can shut down connections between here and over the hill, much less global ones.

But the worst of it all is that we élites are just standing here talking amongst ourselves. We have no reliable way of piercing the bubble in which we have coddled ourselves. And the people outside the bubble: they can see us now; they have our number. They’ve taken a hostage: Trump.


The three French films that I regard as a trilogy, Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Touchez pas au grisbi are linked by strong similarities that are made even stronger by interesting differences in the ways that the similarities are deployed. Each film involves a heist, as well as the relatively cool-headed thieves who commit heists. One of the heists never gets off the ground, which in an important way constitutes something like the success enjoyed by the other two. All three heists are treated as engineering problems, of secondary interest. Only one occurs on screen, in Rififi, and it poses only one serious problem to the thieves. This is no Ocean movie, with hurdle after hurdle to surmount. Once the alarm at a jewelry boutique has been silenced, the thieves are pretty much in and out. In Touchez pas au grisbi, the heist has occurred before the movie begins, and nobody even suspects the actual thieves.

In all three movies, the thieves are undone by women. At least one member of each gang blabs to his girlfriend about the heist. (In Rififi, this blabbing is not verbal, but worse: the safe-cracker slips an ostentatious ring on a nightclub-singer’s finger.) Again, the variation in Bob le Flambeur is interesting: word about the intended heist gets back to the police, and the chief officer, who takes an interest in Bob and wants to keep him out of prison, intervenes in such a way that Bob may walk. (“With a really top lawyer,” says Bob in the greatest of last lines, “I may sue for damages!”) Bob has been distracted from the heist by a run of very good, and very honest, luck at the Deauville Casino; as he is arrested, page boys are stuffing his wads of winnings into the boot of the police car. Things do not work out so well in Rififi, in which almost everyone, the thieves and their rivals alike, falls on his own finesse. The end of Touchez pas au grisbi is slightly enigmatic: the gold that was stolen before the credits rolled has been retrieved by the authorities, and Max (Jean Gabin), although polished and dandy as ever, won’t have that nest egg to fall back on. But others have been blamed for the heist, and he does have the comforts of Betty, the rich American girl who seems to be in love with him, to fall back on. I must note here that it was not Max, but his partner Riton, who couldn’t keep his good fortune to himself.

Bob le Flambeur is the most amiable of the three films; there is not a lot of violence. The actor Roger Duchesne carries his film much more than his counterparts, Jean Servais (Rififi) and even Jean Gabin, carry theirs. His Bob is always presentable, if not as impeccably groomed as Jean Gabin’s Max, and, as befits a true gambler, always up for something new. Max’s posture is essentially defensive; he’s trying to hold on to what he has. Servais’s Tony le Stéphanois is the odd man out here: he is obviously not in good health, and he seems to join in the plot because he can’t think of a more interesting way to die. As if to prove the point, he finally steps forward at the end and claims the hero’s role. There is nothing in the other two pictures that approaches the desperate resolve of Tony’s drive back to Paris, with his three year-old godson jumping back and forth in the convertible, having the time of his life, unaware that his father is dead and that his mortally wounded godfather may die at any moment and drive the car into a tree. Having carried the boy out of the muck of gang warfare, Tony expires. You have to see this movie just for its ending.

There is a great shoot-out scene in Touchez pas au grisbi that highlights its difference from Rififi. I was very surprised when I saw it the first time, because I didn’t think that the French had the resources for an action scene in 1954; made by Hollywood, the scene would be better lit, but it could not improve on the camera work. It’s an intricate scene, involving three cars in the middle of a country night. But whereas the violence in Rififi is bleak and totally film noir, the shoot-out in Touchez pas au grisbi is a tournament, staged for our delectation. Since this is a story about criminals, the scene must end with a joke: Max’s ingots, which he fully intended to retrieve from his enemy’s car, are barred from him by the flames engulfing the vehicle. In Bob le Flambeur, of course, the joke is Bob’s legitimate piles of banknotes. I chuckle at the comparison.

All three films feature nightclubs — nightclubs on Montmartre, near the Place Pigalle. Unlike Hollywood nightclubs, these boîtes seem real, or at least patterned on genuine operations. They are not too big, for one thing; for another, we are taken backstage in at least two of them. Touchez pas au grisbi even has a floor show: a choreographed catwalk of pretty girls who will be available for one-on-one dancing later in the evening. (And yet the idea of unseemly behavior between men and women at the club seems refreshingly inconceivable.)

Finally, all three films have somewhat uncertain soundtracks. Georges Auric’s score for Rififi is too self-important, and moments of high tension are blessedly silent. Two men are credited with the score for Bob le Flambeur, and that may explain the often rather silly musical accompaniment. The prolific Jean Wiener provides Touchez pas au grisbi with a haunting harmonica melody that suggests a plausible cowboy link, but his music for the floor show has the art-déco sheen that characterizes, in even more stylized form, some of the orchestral music of Poulenc.


Then I watched Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. On a line between Bob le Flambeur, the latest of my trilogy films and also the most “independent,” and Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout du souffle (Breathless), Louis Malle’s first feature film lies more than halfway to the nouvelle vague. Paris itself is different: it is smarter, more up-to-date — and more alienating. A very great deal of the action takes place either in an elevator (in a square, glass-faced building with all the mod cons), at a futuristic motel outside Paris, or on the highway in between. Cars are even more conspicuously American — or, in one case, a German Mercedes sportscar. The only old-fashioned scenes feature Jeanne Moreau, who, by the way, was the moll to whom Riton boasted about his heist, in Touchez pas au grisbi. Four years separate that movie from Malle’s, but Malle as well as time must be responsible for the transformation of a very capable and eye-catching actress into the bombshell that Moreau has remained ever since. As Florence Carala, Moreau walks the streets in search of her lover, unaware that he is trapped in an elevator but convinced that she saw him driving away with a girl in his car. (The driver was in fact the girl’s punk boyfriend.) Tthe lover, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), caged in the elevator, does not have a lot to say, but Florence does, both in speaking imperiously to other people — she is the wife of her lover’s boss, whom she has put her lover up to killing — and muttering desperately, blankly to herself. And yet if Florence’s background is the Paris of the boulevards, her soundtrack is the music of Miles Davis, famously improvised while the picture was projected for his band. Florence’s love is both deep and wrong, and it makes Moreau the star of the film, something unimaginable in the masculine worlds of Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, and Touchez pas au grisbi. Florence is even more fatal than the women in those pictures, and her pre-eminence is back-handedly attested by the the commissaire who arrests her at the end (Lino Ventura, also in Touchez pas au grisbi, where he plays Angelo, the principal bad guy). The policeman surmises that the lover will get off with ten years, but that the jury will put the bad wife behind bars for twice that.

The story of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is staggeringly claustrophobic, and not just because of the elevator. The two sets of lovers — the ultra serious Julien and Florence, the joyriding Louis and Véroniqueare trapped in very small spaces: quite literally, their guilt is established by the strip of film in a microcamera. But as a movie, Ascenseur a l’échafaud is open-ended. It is shot as though really anything could happen next. In a world with electric pencil-sharpeners, the old conventions become unreliable. You can’t be sure, as you almost always can be in the earlier movies, of how long any scene will last. The fact that the principal characters don’t know what’s going on, which chains them, is transmuted into freedom for the viewer, who does. Florence wanders about unseeing, obsessed by the possibility that she has lost Julien, but we see a woman who doesn’t seem to have a plan, who does not so much make the rounds of places where she used to meet Julien as happen upon them. When she is told that Julien has not been heard of at a given bar or restaurant, she does not stick around, but wanders off again. Eventually, she is rounded up by the police in some sort of vice sting, from which, still the respectable industrialist’s wife, she is easily liberated by the very commissaire who will later arrest her. It is ever so faintly absurd. The earlier movies could be heavily ironic, but absurd, never.


So much for crime. As I say, I went on to the two very different movies that I wrote about yesterday; and then, last night, I watched a third, which somehow seemed to belong: Danièle Thompson’s Fauteuils d’orchestra (Avenue Montaigne). If Merci, Dr Rey! is a train-wreck, Avenue Montaigne is a fairy-tale, implausible in not dozens of ways but only one: a vast compression of time and space. Avenue Montaigne is Groundhog Day without the reiterations. Everything goes right the first time. And the backdrop is almost too luxurious, too sophisticated to sparkle à la mode Disney. All the sets are real! Well, the big ones: the two theatres of the Théâtre des Champs Élysées and the auction house Drouot-Montaigne. I hate to say “cinematic feast,” but that’s exactly what this movie is.

Cécile de France plays Jessica, a spirited girl from Mâcon who arrives in Paris without prospects but who lands a rich fiancé in two days. She spends the first night in a rehearsal studio at the Théâtre and the second in bed with Fred (Christopher Thompson), the only son of a prominent shipper who is liquidating his art collection. The bed is in the showroom with the art. Both nests are handy to Jessica’s job, at the Bar des Théâtres, where women have never been employed before but where an exception is made for her. Dreams come true on a more exalted level when famous director Brian Sobinsky (Sydney Pollack, a famous director) finds that he cannot make his movie about Sartre and Beauvoir without the help of Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier), the star of a French soap opera who wants to break into more important work. Sobinsky makes this discovery literally overnight. And why not? Hasn’t Catherine had the wit to bend her performance in a Feydeau farce to pique him? (Hilariously, when her character takes of her hat, her wig comes off with it, revealing the coiffure for which Beauvoir was noted: an onstage screen test.) In a third strand, a concert pianist (Albert Dupontel) finds release from the straitjacket of concertizing by interrupting the finale of Beethoven’s Emperor concerto and stripping down to his T-shirt. (The music world appears to have followed the pianist’s lead, as orchestras have dressed ever more casually.) Meanwhile, the singer-actress Dani putzes around on the eve of her retirement as a placeuse at the Théâtre, her earbuds binding her to the pop glories of the past. She takes them off, though, to soak up the raptures of the Emperor‘s slow movement.

Avenue Montaigne is the perfect feel-good movie: you couldn’t feel any better, and if it lasted a second longer it would kill you.


Thursday 22nd

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is not a particularly interesting movie to watch, but it must be watched, because so much of the action is silent. The climax — well, I thought that’s what it was — is silent. Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) crouches in the attic loft of her home in Norfolk, England, as she watches a slide show. There is nothing spooky or disturbing about the attic. It’s the attic of any long-married couple, stuffed with stuff. But Kate’s husband has been spending time in it lately, and although Kate knows why, there is room for a small shock. Does Kate gasp or groan? I can’t remember which. In short, 45 Years shows us how domesticated the alienating cinematic techniques of Bergman and the new wave directors have become. We’re right at home with them. Color, far from adding interest, merely deprives us of a black-and-white frisson.

Tom Courtenay, moreover, plays Jeff Mercer, the attic-haunting husband, as if he were not acting at all, but as if 45 Years were a documentary, and he were in fact a retired bloke who hates to shave. I found him unsympathetic and uninteresting, whereas Charlotte Rampling, weathered though she is, is still very much an actress of coiled and deadly possibilities. There was no mistaking her for an anonymous old dear. This lack of accord between dramatic registers — whether Rampling is “acting” more or less than Courtenay, the two of them are not acting in quite the same way — might be a fault, but in fact it is the point. When the movie begins, Jeff receives a letter informing him that a body has been found — the body of his long-ago girlfriend, who fell into an Alpine glacier and whose body has only just surfaced in melted snow. Katia’s accidental death occurred years before Jeff met Kate, but Jeff’s attachment is no more buried than the girl’s body. In a typically domestic instance of bad timing, the news comes days before Jeff and Kate are to celebrate their forty-fifth anniversary at a large party with all their friends.

Jeff told Kate about Katia way back when, but he must have kept the story light, because the wash of his intense bemusement comes as a very unpleasant surprise to her. As he recedes from her, she tries to hold on to him. Instead of giving him space in which to mourn, she bridles at the unearthed rivalry with Katia. She takes it hard that Jeff and Katia were pretending to be man and wife when they hiked through Switzerland; she takes it even harder that Jeff would have married Katia had she not died. It has evidently never crossed Kate’s mind that she is not first in her husband’s heart, and to learn that she might never even have become second, if that’s what she is, stops her breath. She lashes out with the absurd claim, hotly reasonable to her in the moment, that Katia has governed all of Jeff’s decisions ever since. She wails that Katia has taken away everything that she and Jeff have together. In her most foolish move, Kate tells Jeff to open his eyes when they are making love, and he goes soft inside her. “That’s okay,” she whispers, as if she didn’t know anything about men.

After a few days of odd behavior, Jeff seems to regain his balance. He will not go to Switzerland to view the body. Perhaps he will discard the souvenirs of his time with Katia. But the fever has jumped to Kate. How long will it take her to decide whether she is celebrating forty-five years of marriage, or forty-five years of living with a man going through the motions? The movie ends by leaving that question conspicuously unanswered.

That’s one way of looking at 45 Years. It was, I suppose, the one that was easiest to write down. It’s not untrue, but it is incomplete. It’s too focused on the extraordinary suitability of Charlotte Rampling for the part of Kate; she is still beautiful enough to command an exalted self-assurance, and still as impatiently angry as she was in Georgy Girl. Everything is muted, of course, but it is all there. Stepping back from this focus, I can regain the ambivalence that I felt before I began to write. My initial impression, formed as the movie rolled, was that Jeff allows the news about Katia to puff him up to tragic dimensions. He makes a decidedly masculine fuss over substantially healed wounds; reminded of old suffering, he bravely suffers anew. When I began to wonder if those wounds had indeed ever healed, I thought even less of Jeff; he became exactly what Kate comes to fear he might be, a two-timing monster enjoying the best setup ever, with a long-lost adored one for whom he maintains a chapel of memories, and a foxy wife to entertain him in this vale of tears. The brute!

What can be said uncontroversially is that 45 Years shows us the fragility of a marriage of two people who are young at heart. Hats off to Andrew Haigh.


Friday 23rd

The sense of an ending is very strong. When I return from San Francisco at the end of next week, the top job will be to construct a workable schedule around revising the first draft of the Writing Project, finding an exercise program, and doing a better job of keeping house. It will be much more like normal person’s life than what I’ve been living for some time, and I mean to throw myself into it. I will be able to spend much less time here; more to the point, I won’t begin my days, as I’ve been doing for years now, by drifting into the book room, after I’ve read the Times, and sitting down at the computer to see what comes out. During the past year, I’ve written longer and still longer entries, getting up from the desk at two in the afternoon or so and wanting only to go back to bed — although I have not done that even once, unless ill. It has been the work of a booster rocket, propelling me from one state of ignorance to another, far more articulate one. Now it falls away, no longer necessary. The difficulty is that I don’t regard it as necessary; it has become a pleasure that I shall have to do with less of.

An example of poor housekeeping arose this morning in the form of a prescription renewal. I had to pick up a Lunesta prescription at the doctor’s office and take it to the pharmacy. There wasn’t time (before next week’s trip) for the scrip to be mailed, and, besides, I’d put off renewal until my stock was very low. Worse, I’d failed to notice that there were no renewals. The doctor’s office was swamped, and I had to wait for a few minutes to get the envelope for the pharmacy; I had to wait ten minutes at the pharmacy, too. The waiting didn’t bother me as such; I had Middlemarch with me, and even now I am dying to get back to it to learn about Peter Featherstone’s testamentary dispositions. But waiting is rarely just waiting. It is always a sign to me that things are not working well, or that, even if they are working well, they might at any moment be disrupted, just as the cable connection to the Internet was interrupted this morning. The interruption was brief, and I might never have noticed it. Indeed, I wish that I hadn’t noticed it, because it made me uneasy. Uneasiness is a feedback loop that I have to do my best to stay out of. There was nothing to be done about the cable outage, but I might have managed the prescription renewal better. Figuring how to do that is one of things that I have to see to when I get back.

It’s hard to tell when, exactly, I began publishing a Web site. I believe that it was in 2000, but it might have been the following year. By the end of 2004, I had a Web log, which is still out there, although I haven’t updated it in a few years. The Web site is still up, too, as is its embarrassing, unfinished — almost unbegun — successor. The beginning of this Web log is easy to remember, because it was designed in response to the new iPad. I had bought two, one of them for my grandson, who was about three months older than the tablet. (He will be seven in just a few months.) It seems that I’ve been here longer. What I ought to do is to tidy up all those other sites, but that’s tedious, lowering work, even worse than going through old photographs. The joys of old age. Don’t worry; I won’t be giving up on this — even if I myself no longer own an iPad. I’ll only be cutting back. I do need to get out more.

I plan to post the next entry on 3 October.


Can I say a word about Zazie dans le Métro, Louis Malle’s 1960 adaptation of Raymond Queneau’s novel? Someone called Jonathan Rosenbaum is quoted on the film’s Wikipedia page as saying that it is Malle’s “best work,” but I suspect from the rest of the quote that Rosenbaum doesn’t think much of Malle overall, if only because he adds that Zazie is “certainly worth a look.” That’s not very enthusiastic, is it? My favorite Malle has always been Atlantic City, a supremely lucid film behind which real people stumble, but for a long time it was the only Malle I knew. I have always known the name of Zazie dans le Métro; who, having heard it, could forget it? But it was said to be absurd, so I stayed away. The attempt to make art out of absurdity usually produces a residue of cruelty.

The absurdity in Zazie is to a great extent nostalgic. Malle wants to enjoy the silliness of the original movies, which weren’t silly at the time but came to seem so as the medium grew more sophisticated. There is a great deal of overt longing for la belle époque, the “gay Nineties” and the early years of the new century. But there is also a very contemporary contempt for “story.” The characters who are invested in order and continuity, Mme Mouaque (Yvonne Clech) and Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli), are the victims of many pratfalls, while Uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) has an altogether fluid identity, even if we never actually see him in the dress that he is said to wear as an entertainer. There is a guitar-smashing intoxication with destruction for its own sake, as when the bistro is torn apart near the end. There is contempt for tourism, exemplified both by the bus full of gargoyles and the insolence about monuments — they never do get St Sulpice right. And of course the Métro is on strike, so that Paris is unattractively choked with cars.

Zazie (Catherine Demongeot) herself is adorable, I suppose. I didn’t come to hate her, as I often do children in the movies. (Those kids in Jurassic Park — how I wanted the juice to reach the fence in time to fry them!) She grew on me, as did the movie. But if I never see her or it again, I don’t think I’ll regret it. I am not a fan of improvisational film. It’s one thing for an instrumentalist to weave spontaneous variations on a theme and to wander through the scales to see what happens, but film is far too cumbersome a medium to travel so lightly, and it is arguably a physiological distinction between how hearing and seeing are set up that we are less tolerant of visual racket. Right at the start, when Zazie’s mother’s boyfriend is lifting and turning her like a mad danseur, I asked myself why this constant twirling couldn’t be allowed to stop, what made twenty revolutions better than five? Whether or not Malle disciplined himself in the making of Zazie dans le Métro, the result looks extremely undisciplined, as if to say, or shout, Je m’en fiche de la discipline! It was a common feeling in those days, but I think we learned that discipline becomes burdensome only when it ceases to serve our humanity; it is we who are at fault, not the idea of discipline.

Maybe that’s why the most precious moment for me was the pang of watching Zazie sleep through her one Métro ride. I was sorry that she was missing the experience that she longed for, but I was happier that she was finally asleep, the poor thing.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fail Better Still
September 2016 (II)

12, 13, 15 and 16 September

Monday 12th

The disgrace is almost asphyxiating. It seems that a number of networks and cable channels are vying for ratings by celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsay, the publicity of which was grotesque when the news was fresh. The little girl’s world of precocious beauty pageants was grotesque in itself (it was quite beautifully satirized in Little Miss Sunshine), but the media hugely amplified the lubricious element, tantalizing onlookers with the possibility that a sex crime might be involved. What kind of people are we?

That wasn’t how I intended to begin this entry, and it has nothing to do with what follows, except perhaps this: I want to ask you to use your imagination as intensely as you can, but I sense that the American imagination — the imagination of the liberal West, actually — has been so degraded by disgusting spectacles that it cannot be expected to respond to questions that lack a salacious charge. That means, I know, that I’m worrying about whether you’re up to my challenge, and I apologize for that, because I don’t really doubt that you are. It’s just that the sludge of recycled brainlessness gets so thick sometimes that it’s hard to stand up in it.

Over the weekend, I finally read Stuart Firestein’s Failure. I have had the book since it came out, earlier this year, but the right moment for reading it never seemed to come round. But then it did, and I swallowed it whole. To tell the truth, I couldn’t read two pages altogether without pausing for a revival-service affirmation; quite unlike even the most congenial reading matter, Failure often provoked moments of ecstatic clarity. I am not going to talk about it right now; its aftermath remains turbulent. I am going to talk about a tangent that it sent me off on.

I could label this tangent with the deadly term, “phlogiston theory,” but I’d rather not, even though that theory will play an important role in my challenge. The challenge began as one to myself: despite reading Herbert Butterfield’s chapter on the subject in The Origins of Modern Science three times, I could not explain “phlogiston theory” in a nutshell. For those of you who are unfamiliar with phlogiston theory, I will say at the outset that it was always, by our lights, completely wrong, so that it is difficult now, knowing what we educated people know, to imagine how anyone could ever have subscribed to it. That is one part of the difficulty. The other is the overthrow of the phlogiston theory. This is difficult to imagine, too, and for much the same reasons, but it occurred in stages, as discoveries were made by men who nonetheless failed to grasp the implications of their findings for the reigning theory. Although I was able to follow Butterfield’s narrative, I could not seem to hold it in my mind. So I resolved to read the chapter once again, and this time get to the bottom of my imaginative problems.

At the risk of fatuity, I will joke that the difficulty is elementary. What you have to do, before trying to understand phlogiston theory and the huge importance of its overthrow, is to see the world as every educated mind did circa 1600. It was still a world composed of the four elements, earth, water, air and fire. By 1800, as a result of the overthrow of phlogiston theory, belief in the old four elements was impossible; new elements, the ones that we are familiar with, had begun to take their place.

All four elements were involved in phlogiston theory and its overthrow, but earth not so much. The element of fire was no longer regarded as the flame itself but rather as a substance — this is the earthy part — contained in all combustible materials that was released, as Butterfield puts it, “in the flutter of flame.” Somebody proposed that this substance was an oily kind of earth, and called it terra pinguis. Somebody else saw the need to go Greek: phlogiston means, roughly, “imflammable.” Phlogiston was this inflammable substance that, although it could not be isolated, inhered in combustible things and was released by combustion. It was the element of fire, somehow — while also, somehow, an earthy substance.

This inconsistency might seem damning to you, an indication that even scientists in the Seventeenth Century weren’t very bright. But that’s why I want you to exercise your imagination. I want you to imagine what how the world could be explained if you believed that both air and water were elements, irreducible substances. Next, I want you to imagine what it would be like to try to solve the problems raised by this elementary status, given the interesting twist that air and water are not elements in different ways. Water is a compound of elements. Air is but a mixture.

Water is created by the explosion of hydrogen and oxygen molecules, as I suppose many of you were reminded by The Martian. In this compounded form, oxygen is no longer available for breathing, even by fish. Fish breathe pure oxygen that has been dissolved in water; their gills extract it. Land animals don’t need gills because atmospheric oxygen is not compounded, but free alongside the other elementary gases (mostly nitrogen) that consistute “air.” What you learn in the course of demythologising water, in short, is not going to help you to demythologise air, and vice versa. Worse, air and its constituent gases are invisible. Worse still, you have to have reason to believe that the elementary status of air and water are myths in the first place.

The virtue of imaginary phlogiston was that it offered a relatively simple explanation for a common phenomenon, couched in terminology rooted in the doctrine of the four elements, that had the effect of organizing what might have been unrelated developments in scientific inquiry. Cavendish, Black and Priestly all made discoveries that were crucial to the overthrow of phlogiston theory, but their belief in the theory persisted nonetheless. Cavendish, for example, concluded that “common air” was four parts of phlogisticated air — a compound, as it were, of air and phlogiston released by combustion, and not to be confused — then! — with something called “fixed air,” or what we know as carbon dioxide — and one part of dephlogisticated air. Cavendish had the right idea, but the wrong terminology. His phlogisticated air turned out to be elementary nitrogen, which is not the product of combustion. It was Lavoisier who gathered together everyone’s findings, for the purpose of debunking phlogiston theory.

Why did Lavoisier want to do this? Because phlogiston theory was failing to make sense in the light of replicable discoveries. Oxygen and hydrogen were isolated (if not understood), but phlogiston never was. In order to account for mounting discrepancies between fact and theory, scientists did what they always do: they patched. They claimed that phlogiston worked differently in exceptional circumstances. Phlogiston theory explained x, except when it didn’t. Sixty or seventy years after its formulation, the theory was in tatters, but most scientists continued to work under its banner. Lavoisier, the rich, elegant tax farmer, resolved to give the theory the boot. What I ought to have said was that it was the overthrow of phlogiston theory that required the organization of widespread experimental findings. These were coming so fast and free at the time that it is not possible to say with much finality who discovered what, and Lavoisier discredited his own great work by claiming credit that was not his due — he was a synthesizer, not a discoverer. But the result was that the battle against phlogiston produced modern chemistry.

I believe that “the invisible hand,” which has come to mean something that Adam Smith didn’t quite have in mind, is the phlogiston of today. If I were a trained economist, and half my age, I should devote my life to attempting to repeat Lavoisier’s success.

But wait: did I just say “success”? Was Lavoisier’s overthrow of phlogiston theory a success? Stuart Firestein doesn’t say much about success in Failure, but I think that he makes an implicit case against its usefulness, and perhaps even against its existence. Success may be just as bogus as the four elements. I’ll come back to this tomorrow.


Tuesday 13th

What is success? Let’s not bother with that question. Everybody knows what success is. The better question is, can success (or its negative, failure) inhere in the character of a human being? Is it reasonable to speak of successful people?

One of the old Greeks — Solon, perhaps? — counseled against regarding anyone as a success until he died. Then you could draw the line under his achievements and shortcomings and make a permanent calculation. This sounds very prudent — don’t count your chickens, &c — but it is actually short-sighted, because it assumes that success is an immediately post-mortem assessment. It overlooks the possibility that the next generation, or the generation after that, may revisit the dead man’s life, and come to a conclusion that differs from the one reached by his survivors. Modern history involves constant re-evaluation. Jeremy Bentham’s corporeal remains may be (more or less) permanently preserved, as an “auto-icon,” at University College London, but his reputation is no less fluid than anyone else’s.

We all love two kinds of stories about success. The first one is about the outwardly successful person who is inwardly miserable — or who ought to be. The second story is about the person who touches the lives of everyone who knows her — this sort of successful person is a bit more likely to be a woman — with love and inspiration, but whose success as a human being goes unsung, because it is too local and complicated. The stories of Dorian Gray and Dorothea Brooke suggest that success does not really attach itself to people. If anything, it flows away from them, either turning to dust in the hand or spreading generously among truly loved ones. Not a few fairy tales insist that true success lies in letting it go.

This is all very high-minded; what about good old-fashioned money, pots of money? Isn’t the man who has lots of money, who has earned it, one lawful way or another, a success? There are plenty of people who think so. I would bet, though, that many such successful men and women would, upon the application of some gentle pressure, admit that their success is really a matter of controlling that money, of knowing what to do with it. The man with a gazillion dollars in the bank who spends his life sipping umbrella cocktails in a hammock is not likely to inspire the admiration that success deserves. Letting money sit in a vault is just another way of losing it — everybody knows that.


Kathleen, my wife, is very skeptical about success. “I’m supposed to be a success,” she sighs. And she is supposed to be a success; she wouldn’t have been profiled by the Wall Street Journal earlier this year if she weren’t. “But it’s really just one thing after another. You go on to the next thing.” Sometimes, Kathleen forgets how bored she would be if she didn’t have the next thing to go on to, but talk about success does invite dreams of hammocks. If successful people have to go on to the next thing, just like people who aren’t successful, then what difference does it make? The difference, I point out, is that Kathleen, as a success — or, as I prefer to put it, as someone associated with success — is engaged to go on to the very small number of possible next things that will continue her success, or her association with success. The person who fails must try something altogether different. Movie stars keep having to prove their stardom, in film after film. That happens to be the proof of their stardom. Actors who don’t establish stardom quickly aren’t permitted to make a second or a third bid.

Success is never attained, never achieved. A very good thing, too, say I, mindful of the French meaning of s’achever — to be achieved. It is said of those whose lives are over.

What Stuart Firestein appears to be arguing in Failure is that we diminish the bounty of success by trying too hard to avoid failure. It is easy to see why failure is avoided, at least in the world of scientific investigation that is his métier. Science is expensive. Laboratories require recurrent infusions of grant money, and grant money is not awarded to scientists who openly plan to design experiments that will fail. His nutshell advice is to reform the grant-award process so that decisions are made by other scientists, not necessarily in a related field, who look for proposals that are interesting and credible, rather than by administrators with a check-list of predictors of success. Firestein critiques the vogue for citing Beckett’s line, “Fail better.” Beckett is not cleverly suggesting that there is a way to fail that is tantamount to success. “Failing better,” Firestein writes, “meant leaving the circle of what he knows. Failing better meant discovering his ignorance, where his mysteries still reside.”

It is this unordinary meaning of failure that I suggest scientists should embrace. One must try to fail because it is the only strategy to avoid repeating the obvious, beyond what you know and beyond what you know how to do. Failing better happens when we ask questions, when we doubt results, when we allow ourselves to be immersed in uncertainty. (27)

“Too often you fail until you succeed,” he continues, “and then you are expected to stop failing.” He might have added that this comes to the same thing as being expected to play dead.


Scientific failures are expensive in money; properly conducted — as clinical trials sometimes manage not to be — they are not expensive in health or happiness. It is different in most other fields. We all can learn from our mistakes, but mistakes made by engineers or central bankers or by judges can be costly in very undesirable ways. I read somewhere that the passengers who died in the early days of commercial aviation ought to be regarded as heroes for having contributed, so to speak, to the database that has made flying much safer than driving. Maybe so, but I’m not inclined to encourage experiments that kill people. (It might have been better, if such human sacrifice were going to be sanctioned, for them to offer themselves up to medical experimentation.) The moral of the aviation story as I see it is that there ought to have been more funding. And for my part, I can say that, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever been made sick by my cooking.

But science at Firestein’s level is a branch of intellectual history — the proudest growth in the Western world. It not only costs nothing but money but also requires failure to grow. One of the reasons for Firestein’s advocating the publication (on a low-cost Web site) of failed experiments is that other people’s failures may very well inspire your success. He urges his students to consider failed experiments that have been reported in Science — fifteen or twenty years ago, when the technological resources were vastly more constrained. Failure, like success, can be reconsidered later. Revisited failures may be transformed into successes. But first you have to have the failures.


By a stroke of luck, I read a story by William Trevor yesterday that couldn’t be more on point. It’s called “Traditions.” It is set at an English public school. A group of boys have been capturing jackdaws and teaching them to speak (sort of) in a barn that is strictly off-limits. One morning, the boys discover that the birds’ necks have been broken. All but one of the boys suspects another student of committing this atrocity. The exception, a boy called Olivier, has another idea, one that he keeps to himself. It so happens that Olivier is in hot water with the headmaster, because he is doing poorly in his science classes — classes that he elected to take. Olivier offers to drop the science course, but this makes the headmaster even angrier: you don’t quit. If you sign up for science courses, you commit to doing well at them. You don’t fail, whether by doing poorly or quitting; you succeed, because success is a tradition at this school. The headmaster is incapable of grasping that Olivier has already succeeded in his science classes. He was curious about things, and so he learned about them. He could not be bothered with boring laboratory procedures. This unorthodox cast of mind is what has alerted Olivier to the identity of the culprit in the jackdaw case — and in other unsolved mysteries at the school.

Many a time in school, especially in college, did I drive teachers mad by seeming to play the dilettante, by taking what I needed from a course and flunking the rest. Even I was not particularly at ease about this habit, but there was no changing it. My curriculum was dictated by an inner voice that overrode official criteria. No doubt that inner voice required a seven year spell in the desert before confronting the requirements of law school, to which it deferred. I should not recommend Stuart Firestein to take on Oliviers as grad students, but I think that he would agree with me that we need to open up undergraduate education to more freewheeling minds, especially if the direction those to which those minds tend is toward the heart of the traditions, and not away from them. No matter how firmly I insisted on the relevance of coursework to my self-directed inquiries, I was the last to argue that “relevance” ought to shape the curriculum. I’m certainly not saying that colleges ought to be overhauled for the likes of me. But there ought to be more room for failing better.


Thursday 15th

Last night, Kathleen brought home two sets of print-outs of the proofed first draft of the writing project. 187 pages, 83 thousand words. A good beginning, I think — but also an uncomfortable ending, as this first stage of the work comes to a halt. For weeks, it was the center of my everyday life, even on the three days each week when I did not write. It felt “organized,” whatever that means in this context, from the start, and it quickly established its own rhythm. There were other things to worry about, but they were unusually easy to overlook, as I focused on the project. Now all of that is over.

Kathleen will read the first draft on a flight to California on Sunday; whether she finishes by touchdown (she probably will), the point is that she won’t be reading it here, with me hovering in the background. The timing of her business trip to Dana Point could not be more providential. It gives a term to the fallow period that must in any case, I think, follow the long burst of thinking and writing and (in proofing) thinking further that produced the draft. I have to set the whole thing aside for a few days — not that’s entirely possible; I’m already thinking very hard about enlarging the shortest section — but, thanks to Kathleen’s trip, I don’t have to wonder when it will be time to get going again. Coming all at once, her comments will change everything.

For I have been very careful to make sure that, when Kathleen does read the first draft, it will be fresh. I have resisted the impulse to read her the great little bits that seem so striking when they’re new but that, with time, settle into their texts. (If they don’t, it’s a problem.) I did, fairly early on, read three paragraphs from the second section that I thought were very funny. Kathleen thought they were funny, too, but my reading was interrupted by trying to make sense of typos and to fill in missing words. I decided not to repeat the performance. So I have shared what I have written with no one. I have not even described it to anyone but Kathleen. I have waited until it can be read as a coherent whole, a text that, while not perfect by any means, is fluent and comprehensible.

It occurs to me that this would be a good time to take a holiday here, as well. We still plan to spend the last week of the month in San Francisco, so I shall be silent then certainly. But I may begin tapering off before then. While Kathleen is away, I may set up the card table in the foyer and pile it with all of the extraneous stuff — in bags, in piles, and in desk drawers — that hasn’t found its place in this small book room. It seems that I’m the only person who ever walks in here freely; Kathleen won’t enter unless asked, and no one even comes to the “back half” of the apartment except to use the bathroom. I’ve taken advantage of this atmospheric privacy to make up for the absence of adequate closet space (the apartment’s one real drawback), but the joke is that that the only person who’s bothered by the bags and the piles is me. To me, they’re very noisy. They’re also in the way of the bookcases. Getting rid of them (how?) would not be a fun pastime, but this might be the time to have a go at it.

It seems to me, and to everyone that I know, that the United States is on the precipice of a national disaster. Every day, it appears just a little more possible that Donald Trump will win the presidential election in November. Why? Because he is the “honest” candidate. Charged with a wide array of failings, some of them arguably criminal, he simply shrugs, as if to tell his supporters, “If you don’t care, I don’t care.” And of course they don’t care. But what’s awful is that this comes across as candor, and candor appeals to many voters, not just to his supporters, as the key virtue, because it has come to be seen as the virtue so lacking in Hillary Clinton’s makeup. Don’t look now, but Hillary Clinton has foot-in-mouth disease; everything that she says, including “and” and “the,” sounds like a prevarication. She ought to stop touting her abilities and simply throw herself on the voters as —

As what? As a non-reality-TV-star? This is where Trump’s kind of candor highlights Clinton as the worst possible opponent — from her standpoint. She has only two ways of challenging him. Presenting herself as a capable politician and administrator plays into his hands; most people don’t really care about politics and administration right now. And to respond to Trump’s disparagements in kind is always going to be a losing battle. She’s a woman in an America that still wants to think of itself as a white Christianist homeland, and that is quick to take offense at language such as “basket of deplorables.” There is no good reason to regard Clinton’s remark as a gaffe, but the mere fact that it was questioned shows how sick the country’s political culture really is. Had Dwight Eisenhower said it, he would have been applauded.

In the end, it’s a contest between someone who wants to lead a gang and someone who doesn’t understand leadership, not with the visceral capability of Lincoln or FDR. Ordinarily, this would not be a great failing; in naming two presidents for comparison, I have not named most of them. But there is nothing ordinary about Donald Trump. Wanting to lead a gang isn’t “leadership” either, but it looks like it now, when appearances are all that matter.

Reagan, Bush, and now Trump: it’s impossible not to see an arc of mutation, as telegenic shams replace warty professionals in the top job. I’d really have to include Bill Clinton in this arc, too: he won because he was better at flim-flam than Bush’s father was. President Obama has disappointed many of his supporters by replacing the hope of his campaign with the rigor of fighting a recalcitrant Congress. How wonderful it would have been, had Hillary won in 2008, so that her vice president, Barack Obama, could battle Donald Trump now. Mind you, we’re talking only about campaigns here. But campaigns have been devouring administrations for forty years or more, as television’s broadcasting standards have become ever more dementedly sensational. I don’t know when I began to suspect that television might be more than just a terrible waste of time, that it might actually kill liberal democracy. But if Donald Trump wins in November, we’ll have had proof of its capacity to deal possibly mortal blows.


Friday 16th

While I was working on the first draft of the writing project, I was protected from chill winds and swampy miasmas. Bad news didn’t really get to me. Now, it’s different. Now, I’m overwhelmed by the awfulness of social failures. David Denby, in the London Review of Books, writes about the videos of white police shooting black men without objective reasonable provocation, and then treating the dead or wounded body as if it were still resisting arrest — handcuffing it, just to be on the safe side! James Surowiecki, in The New Yorker, explains why: police unions depend upon crime committed by black Americans to justify their budget demands and their refusal to reform police procedures. Is there a way out of this? Yes, according to Patrick Phillips, author of Blood at the Root and a native of Forsyth County, Georgia, from which, in 1912, the black population was driven away by every kind of force. That’s one solution.

And then there are two reviews of The Girls, Emma Cline’s adaptation of the Manson Family murders, one in the LRB, one in the New York Review of Books. Both reviewers, like the author, are American. Both say much the same thing about the novel. But novelist Diane Johnson is far more enthusiastic than Emily Witt. Johnson complains, at the end of her piece, that the literature of California is “the Canada of American regionalism.” Witt gives a demonstration of this treatment by collapsing Cline into Didion, as if to say that nothing has been added. Johnson, of course, raised a family in Los Angeles; Witt appears to be a New Yorker — there may be nothing more to their different takes than that. Both Johnson and Witt regret the almost vacant impotence of fourteen year-old girls in a consumer society, as they wait for boys to notice them and make them real. Cline’s heroine, it seems, gives up on men.

In a William Trevor story that I read last night, “Bravado,” a very pretty girl, Aisling, walks home from a Dublin nightclub to her affluent neighborhood. Her boyfriend, Manning, calls her “drop-dead gorgeous,” which, without comment, she rather likes. Manning is the alpha dog of his pack, and Aisling likes that, too, although she thinks she thinks it’s silly. As they climb the suburban hills, Manning’s group spots a nerdy kid whom Manning dislikes. While the kid, also walking home from the nightclub, finishes peeing on an old lady’s house, Manning swoops down on him, knocks him over and kicks him. It turns out that the nerd has an unusually weak heart, and he dies. Manning goes to jail. Aisling visits the dead boy’s grave, ever more clearly aware that, although she was horrified by the violence of Manning’s attack, she was pleased by the obvious tribute — he did it to show off to her. And now she cannot bear this acquiescence.

These patterns of contempt and inferiority — I was sure, when I was young, that I would live to see them broken forever. I believed that consciousness would be raised, and that people would see these horrible follies for what they are. I now understand that my expectations were not reasonable. They betrayed, pretty clearly, a desperate optimism. If racism and sexism were not overcome, then American society would collapse from within. And that seems to be what is happening. Feminism and the fight for equal civil rights have wounded the old patriarchy, perhaps mortally, depriving it of the strength to restore the status quo ante. But beleaguered white men will believe that it is heroic to pull down the whole structure in the death-agony of their self-importance. Cops will continue to persecute the black drivers of automobiles with defective taillights until everyone else begins to see the police as an oppressive occupying force. Boys will go on badgering girls to show their breasts to that the quality of these features can be judged until mothers realized that they have raised their sons to be depraved. And all of it will be cycled into televised entertainment.

David Denby writes of the shootings,

Something more than ineptitude and panic is there in these acts: refusing to accept that a man is dead may be a way of refusing to acknowledge that one bears any responsibility for his death. Feelings of pity have been chased away, as far as we can see, by fear.

Are we still in the Sixties?


I feel that I learned a few things from writing the first draft. I put it that way because I only sense them; they are not very clear. And some of them are negative: I’m learning that there are things that I not only don’t know but don’t know how to talk about. One of these things is the human mind. The mind is something that we ought to be able to talk about, because each of us has one and many of us are reflective enough to have a sense of how minds differ from one person to another. The differences that I’m thinking of are not pathological; they have little to do with the health of the brain. They are not moral considerations, either, because morality is, or purports to be, standard, and we are shy of the systematic and legalistic standards that characterize traditional morality.

I’m thinking of differences that, while annoying, are harmless. Am I thinking of worldviews? We use “worldview” fairly freely, but do we analyze it with any rigor? Isn’t it the case that most talk about “worldview” boils down to an idea of what moral standards ought to prevail? There’s more to worldview than that, a lot more. Surely a worldview is literally shaped by the views that one has had of the world: I know that my worldview was changed, and not insignificantly, by a week spent in Istanbul. Although I had visited Guangzhou (Canton) very briefly, Istanbul was really my first experience of a Western-seasoned city outside of Christendom. Most of the impressions that I can talk about were either touristic or “curious,” the latter being notes of correspondence with the world I already knew (such as the pastry shop in Istiklal Street called “Markiz”), but I am haunted by inarticulate recollections of the very old city that Orhan Pamuk has struggled to commit to paper. I read My Name Is Red years before Istanbul, and was perplexed by much of it; Snow, which I read while I was in Istanbul, was far more intelligible, even if I couldn’t tell you how. l also know that my view of Europe shifted perceptibly when I stood at the water gate of the Dolmabahçe Palace, looking through the palings out onto the Bosphorus, and all the ships that were on their way to or from Black Sea ports.

“Mindset” is an equally vague word. Is there a way to give it substance? I am on the verge here of that hoary old psalm, “the life of the mind.” Strictly speaking, the phrase is ridiculous, because there is no other kind of life. “The life of the mind” is an ignorant stab at guessing what it must be like to read a lot of books and to think a lot about equations and syllogisms. Or, in the alternative, the poet’s life of words. The life of the mind is something that other people have. One might pretend to want it, too, but not very sincerely.

Our minds are all different, and we are forever misunderstanding each other. It’s annoying, but potentially enlightening. There is something wrong with the way we work together (most of us), because the differences between us too often get in the way instead of sparking greater understanding. Is it prudence or a lack of intelligence that makes us cling to what we know how to deal with and dismiss everything else? I like to think that it is a rectifiable ignorance, but how hopeful can I be about that, given the the hopes with which I began this entry — hopes that ought to have withered by now?

Bon week-end à tous!

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!

Gotham Diary:
August 2016 (V)

29, 30 August; 1, 2 September

Monday 29th

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.


Tuesday 30th

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.


Thursday 1st

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.


Friday 2nd

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!

Gotham Diary:
Lazy People, Poets, and Men of Action
August 2016 (IV)

22, 23, 25 and 26 August

Monday 22nd

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.


Tuesday 23rd

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!


Thursday 25th

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.


Friday 26th

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!

Gotham Diary:
Floor Exercise
August 2016 (III)

15, 16, 18 and 19 June

Monday 15th

Last night, we watched more of NBC’s coverage of the Rio Olympics, and as the hours passed by — diving, track, gymnastics — the show confirmed a thought that sprouted from last week’s Olympic evenings: television is a really lousy source of the kind of information that we call explanation. Explanations tell us how things relate to other things. They are very important to any understanding of the world. Sometimes, as at the end of a mystery drama, explanations are tremendously exciting, but usually explanations are more than a little boring, because you have to remember things that you weren’t thinking about. The explanation of taxes, for example, is not invigorating. Many unpleasant explanations must be grasped and accepted in order to move on in life. Many people who are stuck in loops of futility are actively resisting explanations that wound their self-esteem.

Television is a medium of entertainment. When it was introduced, there were high hopes that it would be something else, a means of education and enlightenment. I think that the lesson to be learned from the failure of those hopes is that education requires a personal commitment, a presence in the room, that watching television is simply too passive to simulate. Many kinds of things can be learned from television — I want to talk about Julia Child in a moment — but other kinds of things, such as explanations, cannot, because understanding an explanation is an act that the student (or whoever it is to whom the explanation is addressed) must perform, and there is a big difference between thinking that you have performed this act in the privacy of your own room and demonstrating that you have performed it by discussing it with others, ideally including the person doing the explaining. Where explanations are concerned, there will always be a test.

One day, perhaps, television will be revolutionized by a truly interactive overhaul. Without descending into utter chaos, television will work both ways, so that the producers of shows will respond to viewers directly. I cannot imagine how this might happen, and I doubt that you can, either. My point is that not until then will television be an all-purpose tool of learning. The only way that television has, at present, of telling us that A is more important than B is to repeat A’s name more often than it does B’s — much more often.

Julia Child was one of television history’s most interesting stars. She started as a kind of clown. Her cooking lessons were perfectly correct; she even conveyed the information that not all mistakes in the kitchen are fatal. But hers was an improbable presence, physically and, of course, vocally. She was obviously committed to sharing her expertise, and her improvisations were inspiring — by which I mean that many viewers dared to tackle recipes that would have paralyzed them without her example. On the whole, though, The French Chef was an utterly conventional cooking show, with all the usual apparatus in addition to the novelties from France. What made it special was the nonpareil star. Mrs Child was very entertaining.

A later engagement with educational television, however, resulted in a series of VHS tapes, now available in CD form (The Way to Cook — its title borrowed from that of her American cookery book), that reflected the insight that TV shows can be watched over and over. Exploiting the Groundhog Day possibilities of video, Mrs Child ran through quick demonstrations of certain culinary skills — making piecrust in a food processor, for example — in an anonymous laboratory setting wholly devoid of the first show’s charming atmosphere. If you don’t get it the first time, just watch her do it again, and keep trying. There is a fair amount of explanation, but no inspiration.

I’ll merely note that, if, having tried and tried again, you still can’t produce a satisfactory piecrust, you’ll have to go elsewhere for further help and explanation. What I want to highlight is that The Way to Cook is a great example of video that is not “television.” Try to imagine a television show that accommodated as many repeats as each and every viewer might require for comprehension. It’s technically unimaginable, and it would also be intolerably tedious for every viewer who got it the second time. I’m interested by the way in which limits to technology overlap the limits to passive watching — the point where boredom sets in. It’s also interesting that you can’t just tune into The Way to Cook on a network. You have to buy the CDs.

Television is good at being easy. This is not to say that it makes Simone Biles’s vaults look easy. But it transforms years of very hard work into a momentary miracle. You may react, as Kathleen does, by pounding the sofa cushion with your fist and demanding, “HOW does anybody do that?!” with the air someone who has just missed being struck by a falling grand piano. But the question passes with the gust of thrill. Kathleen’s amazement is consumed by her own gesture. Soon there will be another momentary miracle. I daresay that Biles’s achievement cannot be fully appreciated by anyone who is not a serious gymnast. Indeed, the commentators repeatedly hinted, even as they predicted the scores, that many of the considerations entailed in evaluating a performance are somewhat occult. It was much easier to suggest the caprice or discretion or just plain human inscrutability of the judges than to try to explain the subtle criteria, masked by the circus flash, that the traditions of gymnastics have developed over the years. Behind the amazing twists and turns that today’s gymnasts have learned to do, there lies a demand for grace and confidence that can’t be reduced to metrics.

So far, I have been speaking of kinds of information. It’s easy to show Simone Biles’s acrobatic mastery; it is difficult to evaluate it in terms finer than “wow” or its opposite, the sound that we all made when Daria Spiridonova missed the catch from one bar to the other and fell to earth. But wait. Was this the first time that NBC had featured a performance by Spiridonova? I feel that I’ve been watching the Olympics for weeks, and I haven’t seen her before. It seemed that last night was the home audience’s introduction to many of the competitors from other countries. We had seen Aliya Mustafina compete against Simone Biles on the balance beam, but we had not seen the Russian team go through its qualifying rounds. Of course we hadn’t — there wasn’t time. Nor was there time, I suppose, to speak to contestants whose English wasn’t very good. Which was a good thing, because, frankly, I got tired of hearing athletes being asked, as Abby Johnston effectively was, to tell us how they felt about losing rather badly. For reasons not difficult to infer, NBC introduced foreign competition slowly. The heart of its story was the reality show inherent in intra-Team USA competition. Poor Gabby Douglas, All-Around Gold in 2012, denied the chance to compete in 2016, an outcome widely decried as unfair but never really explained. The full explanation would have to resolve, one way or the other, the conflict of Olympic ideals with strategic considerations. We instinctively feel that there is no place for strategy in athletic performance — not, that is, before the starting bell has sounded, as was the case here.

How much of the Olympics did we get to see? As much as most of us could take. How else do you explain volleyball in two formats?


Tuesday 16th

The first thing I did yesterday morning was to call the box office at Alice Tully Hall and donate my pair of tickets to last night’s performance of Così fan tutte. I had done the thinking the night before, and would probably have called the box office before going to bed, had it been open. I hope that the performance was a great one — as Mozart’s most sophisticated work, Così deserves nothing less. It felt strange to turn down the chance to use tickets that I’d paid for to experience one of my favorite things. But it felt absolutely right.

Many times in our life together, Kathleen and I have groaned about the nuisance of having to drag ourselves to an auditorium when all we want to do is stay home, only to find, having pushed ourselves a little, that we had a great time and were really glad that we overcame our resistance. Last night might have been like that; in fact, it probably would have been. I didn’t know anything about the performers, but the odds were that if Mostly Mozart had scheduled them, they would at least bring something fresh to the familiar.

But the reasons for staying home were unusually strong. I am in the middle of a writing project that has brought me to a patch of difficult ground: I have to be able to think a lot and to suffer a little at the same time in order to keep going. Not that I know where I’m going, either! To do this in the face of early-evening plans — getting dressed, which has become a slight ordeal as my immobile back and mortal decrepitude narrow my reach; getting over to Lincoln Center by 7:30; and let’s not forget bladder management — is not possible, not if I want to write anything worth looking at the next day. When I’m writing hard, what I need to have in my immediate future is a bottle of chilled cucumber soup, a baguette, and a wedge of good cheese. I made the soup over the weekend, and it won’t be taxing to run across the street for the bread and cheese. Last night, instead of going out, I made a pizza, with a lump of frozen dough and a block of butter sauce (both homemade), a Boar’s Head pepperoni, a handful of mushrooms, and a package of grated mozzarella. It turned out to be the first pizza, or maybe the second, that I have really liked in the eighteen months since I began making pizza. Thanks to those eighteen months, it was very easy to make. It was the perfect follow-up to hours of difficult work.

Also, I could tell that Kathleen wasn’t at all keen on sitting through an opera. She knows Così and has seen it before. “I don’t know what they’re saying,” she says, “but I followed every note.” Nevertheless, it would have been our third evening out in as many weeks. Last week’s night out was a last-minute thing, a surprised response to an unexpected invitation. Two nights of Mostly Mozart in two weeks, even if Kathleen didn’t actually do the music part the second time, was enough of a sufficiency.

What clinched it, though, was the extreme undesirability of missing Simone Biles. Yes — it had come to that. I was passing up a beloved opera in order to watch television. To be sure, it was Kathleen who really didn’t want to miss it. She never grumbled. She merely corrected me. While I was shutting down the video setup on Sunday night, I mumbled that we’d be watching again tomorrow. “No, we won’t,” she said. “We’ll be at Così.” That’s when I began to think that perhaps we had better not be. Left to myself, I’d have gone to the opera. But I wasn’t by myself.

Ordinarily, I’d have traded a lackluster, fretful day for a night of glorious music, but there wasn’t anything ordinary about yesterday, what with the writing project (which I think has reached the halfway point of the first draft) and the drama in Rio. Ordinarily, if I had made the decision that I did make, I’d have been pricked by a pang of regret when I went to bed at the end of an evening at home. As it was, all I felt was the same grinding doubt and head-down determination that I’d felt the night before. And I felt awful about Simone Biles.

As you will have foreseen, I blame NBC. I blame NBC for the hoopla about Biles. Well, everybody was excited. It was the Biles buzz that, reaching Kathleen, got her interested in watching the Olympics. Interested enough, that is, to overcome my immense inertia, amounting to passive aggression at times, about turning on the television (which Kathleen doesn’t know how to do). But the NBC chatterboxes promised miracles. They betrayed their magic thinking after Simone’s mishap on the balance beam: one of them said, “And from now on, Simone will look at the scoreboard just like everybody else.” Had Simone Biles herself really inhabited a bubble in which perfection was the only imaginable outcome? Unlike the commentators, I am not here to speculate. Had her remarkable success — three gold medals at her first Olympics — gone to her head? Conversely, was she beginning to think too much? Was she now so consumed by the dissatisfaction that she had made the mistake of confiding to somebody’s microphone — it bothered her that her public balance-beam performances were never as good as what she could do alone in the gym — that she finally lost her balance and, to keep from falling off the beam, gripped it with both hands? These questions swirl in the mind, for anyone but Biles and her coaches, it’s silly to try to answer them.

I also blame NBC for popping Sanne Wevers on us. Where had this Nederlander been? Not on television. She had evidently impressed the commentators as an exceptional gymnast, but it seems that her routine was slightly unorthodox — “more ballet and less acrobatics,” as Kathleen put it — and therefore (perhaps?) not expected to attain a high score, even if she performed it perfectly, which of course nobody ever does. Whether or not there was a slot in which those of us who have been following the women’s gymnastic events might have had a foretaste of what in fact happened, one ought to have been made, because Wevers’s victory almost ruined the story, in much the same way that a creaky deus ex machina cheats us of genuine dramatic resolution. Where did this Odile ever come from, to steal the glory from our beloved Odette?

That the silver went to Biles’s teammate, Laurie Hernandez, was very satisfying. Without wanting Biles to lose, I had wanted Hernandez to win — something. It seemed to me that she performed as well as anybody else, even if she didn’t she didn’t give Simone’s impression of sailing through her twists and tumbles on gusts of effortless ectoplasm. Hernandez was clearly working. But she was very graceful about it, and she always landed where she ought to. At least that part of NBC’s story line worked out nicely.

The point of the Olympics is to provide a forum for excellence, and the exhibition of excellence ought to be an unmitigated delight. National pride aside — and, for most people on earth, even among those who get to watch the show, national pride usually doesn’t enter into it — we all ought to take pleasure in performances that approach perfection. But perhaps that is too cold for the average viewer. The average viewer doesn’t understand all the elements that factor into the scores; the average viewer hasn’t seen enough to recognize every kind of excellence when it occurs. And the medium of television cannot teach. But I think that the telecasts would be improved by keeping the commentary to a minimum. It gums up the show with soap-opera sentiment. My experience of the performing arts and those who perform them has brought me to the conclusion that performances are most satisfying when you don’t know anything that you can’t see on stage. Backstage is another world, for insiders. I don’t go to concerts in hopes of becoming an insider, somebody who “really knows.” I go to hear a piano concerto, period. I go to hear a noted pianist surprise me from the keyboard. Then I applaud and go out to dinner. I don’t want my dinner troubled by wondering whether the woman who gave birth to Simone Biles is even aware of her daughter’s excellence.


Thursday 18th

I read something in a magazine yesterday; today, I find it in the newspaper.

How long does it take to see something, to know someone? When we put in years, we realize how little we grasped at the start, even when we thought we knew. We move through life mostly not seeing what is around us, not knowing who is around us, not understanding the forces pressuring us, not understanding ourselves. Rebecca Solnit in Harper’s, September 2016.

“I look back at my life before 40 and deplore what I see; I hate myself for my lack of seriousness, my lack of productivity,” he writes, adding: “I knew nothing, understood nothing, had not grasped how one must start working and keep working, early on and every day, if one is to create something to show for one’s life.” Ian Brown (quoted) in a review of his new book, in today’s Times.

You can look back on your life and miss the energy and enthusiasm of youth, the readiness to jump in and the fearlessness about outcomes. You can remember health so good that it was simply a feature of your identity. Perhaps your youth was capped by beauty, “beauty which must die,” as the very young Keats put it. You can remember the joy, however wobbly and uncertain, of having a long future ahead of you.

Or, you can look back on your life and see that, when you were young, you had absolutely no idea about what was going on. You thought you did, and you could sound convincing. But instead of understanding, your mind held a bucket of speculation, illusion, and projection. Not knowing much, you were easily fooled by your own inventions. “Here be dragons.” And, if you were an American, you were applauded for the boldness of your convictions and the authenticity of your moralizing.

My understanding was no better than anyone else’s, except for one tiny difference. I knew that I was ignorant. It was a tiny difference because you cannot wallow in self-reproach. You can’t be dwelling on how much you don’t know. You have to be faking it and making it. You have to speak with assurance, at least to yourself. You have to keep going. You have to learn to look like you know what you’re doing. You have to be a fake, but only slightly aware of it. You have to hope that you can handle whatever happens. None of this is optional. There are no shortcuts that will spare you the mistakes of being young.

You can look back on your life and think of all the things that you wanted to do but never did. Or you can look back on your life and see days and years wasted on things that looked good at the time.

What I’m puzzling over, of course, is how you can distinguish the true understanding that comes with experience from the false understanding that gets you through it. How can I be sure that I am not just as deluded now as I was forty or fifty years ago? Can it be reduced to writing? And unless this wisdom is to be totally useless, how can I counsel a young mind to tend that quiet fire of ignorance?


As small consolation for missing Tuesday night’s Così fan tutte at Mostly Mozart, I was spared a third taste of the weirdness of my fiftieth anniversary of Mozart Mozart concerts. That first season, I went to concerts with enthusiastic devotion. Mozart was more than Mozart at the time. Mozart was an antidote. There were people who didn’t get it, of course, who thought of Mozart as a Meissen figurine; but, aside from them, there was a widespread desire for sublime meaninglessness, not art-for-art’s-sake but art-for-serenity’s sake. A recovery of beauty. There had been enough jagged and demanding modernism. There had been too much Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. (The “three Bs, the three magisterial Germans.) And now Mahler. There had been too much tragic grandiosity. What was wanted was Alicia de Larrocha’s light andante at the keyboard. Small orchestras and young voices. Mostly Mozart promised the ideal August vacation for the world-historically-minded townsfolk of Manhattan.

It couldn’t last. After long years of wallpaper paste, it nearly expired. At the beginning of its comeback, I wasn’t even paying attention. I was wary of the festival’s overexposure. A diet of Mozart curdles the music, its richness cloying tritely. It turned out that Mozart was not a refuge. The Mozart who seemed to beckon with the understated elegance of the Age of Jackie went under a cloud, and emerged as a problem. A good problem: a workspace for interpretation, or the possibilities of expression if you like. The meaning does not lie in the music, waiting to be revealed. The meaning lies in the execution. If Mozart is the composer of music about music, what do you think he is trying to tell us? Go ahead, tell us. Tell us what you think, because nobody else does — wherein lies the greatness.

The only thing that’s fifty years old is the name, Mostly Mozart, which doesn’t — which can’t — mean what it used to do. Last year, I looked forward to elation: the festival and I would have an anniversary to celebrate. But an anniversary of what? Can we really remember?


I went to the branch of Morton Williams on First and 81st yesterday to buy Jones’s sausages. So far as I can tell, Jones’s breakfast sausages taste just what they tasted like when I was a boy. The only difference is in the package. The sausages used to be wrapped up, still linked, into a paper-covered bundle that would fit in a box just like the one in which you buy a pound (four sticks) of butter. I don’t remember how many sausages there were in a box; now there are twelve, and they are not linked, and I can’t believe that they really taste the same. They must have changed so slowly that I didn’t notice. Kathleen thinks they taste just the same, too.

Kathleen says that she and her brother were always trying to get their mother to buy Park’s sausages. Needless to say, this never happened. I, too, was drawn to an alternative: Rath’s. Rath’s sausages came in a tin, and were smaller and pinker than Jones’s. They were delicious right out of the can — the first two or three were. Then they got gross. What to do with the opened can?

I am always prone to “stock up,” so I bought two packages of Jones’s sausages yesterday, even though the freezer compartment is already crowded. If there is one bit of advice that I could pass on to today’s youth, it would be this: spend ten minutes every couple of days going through everything in the fridge. What have you got in there? How long has it been? When, exactly, do you think you’ll do something with it? Don’t wait until the fridge is a mess. Do a little bit of this every few days. It will alter your shopping; it will help you to use leftovers without feeling martyred. But this advice isn’t quite ready. I haven’t followed it myself.


Friday 19th

Gerald Grosvenor, the Sixth Duke of Westminster, died last week, but the notice didn’t appear in the Times until today. I had to go to Wikipedia to find out the cause of death, which was a heart attack. The duke was only 64; it makes me uncomfortable when men younger than I am die of heart attacks. Hugh Grosvenor, who turned 25 in January, steps into his father’s many titles. The family business, the Grosvenor Trusts, owns most of the land in the Mayfair and Belgravia sections of London. Gerald Grosvenor was the sixth-richest person in Great Britain and the second-richest citizen.

The Grosvenor family’s ascent began with a strategic marriage in 1677; its fortunes mounted from there until Disraeli advised Queen Victoria to make the head of the family a duke, because he was almost as rich as she was. But the interesting thing about the Grosvenors is that that they survived until 1677. Their ancestor, one of William the Conqueror’s hunters, a fellow nicknamed gros veneur, was settled in the Welsh marches to maintain order. The family took root and held on throughout the disorders of the ensuing centuries. They seem not to have held a title until 1622, when Sir Richard Grosvenor, knighted by James I in 1617, was created baronet. You had to pay for this honor, so there must already have been disposable cash lying about. It’s the nearly six hundred preceding years of cultivating their own garden, or at least keeping the executioner at bay, that interests me. I wonder what kind of records there are, beyond who-married-whom and -begat-whom. Probably not very good ones. Good hunters know how to keep quiet.

Wikipedia is always so up-to-date. The page for the Dukes of Westminster notes that there is no immediate heir to the duchy. Young Hugh has not yet married. Not much is known about the new duke; according to his page, his private life has been protected. His parents were still married when his father died, although the Sixth Duke was somewhat embarrassed by the scandal that brought Eliot Spitzer’s political career to a crash (the two men were clients of the same escort service).

I wonder how many Grosvenors figure in the Seventh Duke’s ancestry. In the immediate past, not very many. His father, of course, in the preceding generation. His grandfather in the one before that — two out of six. But if you trace things all the way back, how many Grosvenor daughters show up in the tree? If you go back through his mother’s family, you run through a line of Russian Grand Dukes, before landing in the lap of Nicholas I. I should find it very exciting to visit Petersburg if I were descended from Nicholas I. Perhaps too exciting. I might just stay on the cruise ship and look.

Families are amazingly concrete abstractions. They don’t really exist, because so few people belong to the same family as anybody else. Your family becomes unique on the day you marry, unless your twin is marrying your spouse’s twin. Families are like mushrooms: they have no actual center and they turn out to be connected to all other families, a feature that drains the idea of the family of most content. That, however, is the view from outside. What could be more gripping from the inside? We identify with our families from the dawn of consciousness. Or so we think. In reality, we create them around ourselves. For most of us, the sense of family does not include persons belonging to remote generations. Even someone with a claim to descend from George Washington (which, officially, no one can do) is unlikely to know much about all the families that come in between. The Sixth Duke, however, would be an exception.


And now for a few coy words about the writing project. (Watch for capitalization down the road.) I have been writing a great deal. Since launching the first draft four weeks ago and a day, I have written 54,852 words. It’s gross to keep count, I know, but that’s the point: it’s gross, you can put your hands around it. As mentioned earlier, I am following Jane Smiley’s advice, and picking up each day where I left off the day before, without looking back. Yesterday, it’s true, I broke that rule, inserting two blocks of about a thousand words each at points in the section on which I’m working. Most of what I wrote, however, picked up from the end. I have three more sections in mind, one long (the next one) and then two short. I expect that they’ll roll out of me as quickly as what I’ve already written. It’s then that the hard work will begin.

The temptation to tell you the sort of thing that I’ve been writing is nil. When I get up in the morning, and at many other points in the day, I revel in the fact that no one has read a word, no one has heard a summary, or even been given a clue. Kathleen knows all about it, and I read a page and a half of the draft to her. Even that turned out to be a mistake, because I’m not proofing the draft, and my reading was interrupted by several faulty prepositions and even a few omitted words. I don’t think that close friends and regular readers of this site will be at all surprised by the result, but working in secret is far more satisfying than I expected it to be. I am happy to say that Hannah Arendt is not the subject, in case anyone was worried, and I’ll add that I hope that what I write will make people laugh. Nothing new in that.

The downside is that I have little to talk about. My mind is always pecking away at some point or other in the ever more expansive draft. At least once a day I feel that I have occupied its world, that I am no longer living here and now. The world of any writing project is always somewhere new, with its own landscapes and geography, maps and signs. I have never experienced such a big one, is all. At the rate I’m going, the first draft ought to be somewhere between seventy and eighty thousand words, which is just right.

Now it’s time for lunch, and then I’ve got to buy bananas and paper towels at Fairway, among other things. After all that, I’ll sit down here and pick up where I left off yesterday. By the end of the day, the word count ought to have risen by a few thousand. We’ll see.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Blame It On Rio
August 2016 (II)

8, 9, 11 and 12 August

Monday 8th

As the Rio Olympics approached, Kathleen enthused about Simone Biles, whom she had read about somewhere, or perhaps seen somehow, and my trepidation was great. Would I remember how to turn on the TV? (It’s complicated!) And when would I turn on the TV? Who would find out when to turn it on? I foresaw tears of frustration, and they seemed very likely indeed when, having managed to bring NBC into our home yesterday, I was confronted by endless volleyball, and no women’s gymnastics. According to the Olympics Web site, the women’s gymnastic qualifications were taking place at that very moment. Kathleen’s attempt to capture the live stream (is that how one puts it?) was not going well. I crept into the bedroom and riffled through the Times. There I learned, after some tabular decipherment, that there would be gymnastics after 7 PM. Sighs of relief were heaved, and the promise was kept. There were other events, too — synchronized diving (?) and swimming — but we got to see Simone Biles and her Team USA mates, Aly Raisman, Laurie Hernandez, Gabby Douglas, and Madison Kocian. We also got to see — and I’m writing to complain about this — Aly Raisman’s parents, sitting in the stands.

“Agonizing” would be more like it. I believe that it was during Aly’s performance on the balance beam. At one moment, Raisman seemed likely to slip off the beam, or at least to grip the beam with her hands, reflexively. She did not grip it or even touch it. She saved her routine and went on to get a score that qualified her to participate in the Games. The usual repetitions followed, in slow motion and so forth, with close-ups of the near mishap (feet and hands). Then we were shown her parents, to whom we already been introduced, watching their daughter with their hearts in their mouths. They angled away from one another, then pulled together; Lynn Faber looked desperate and Rick Raisman looked hostile — a good thing, I suppose, given that his fight-or flight trigger had understandably been pulled. I felt an intense sympathy that no amount of well-wishing for the contestants themselves could possibly have aroused. And in the same moment I was ashamed of NBC for having televised the moment.

This is why we have plays and re-enactments. The real thing, when it happens, is personal and private. Whether the Raismans ever come to be offended by the comments of friends and strangers who saw, thanks to not being there — since all eyes save the cameraman’s were on Aly — their helpless, wretched reactions to their daughter’s peril, I’m offended on their behalf. The decision to air the footage betrays the same kind of error in judgment that, endlessly repeated, has made Donald Trump the Republican candidate. An adult is supposed to know when irresistibly engaging scenes are nonetheless unfit for public consumption.


Over the weekend, I finished reading Herbert Butterfield’s The Origins of Modern Science. To say that I read it as an undergraduate is misleading. I still have the book that I annotated (somewhat less foolishly than usual, but foolishly still); but I also have a sense of the difficulty, or at least the subtlety of the text that I’m quite sure I missed in college. It was perhaps an inappropriate assignment at the time, because Butterfield’s lectures assume a familiarity with events in the intellectual history of the scientific revolution that I don’t think any of us had. The hallmark of such advanced books is that while the contributions of minor figures are sketched in fairly fully, the achievements of the great figures are scanted. In his lecture about Harvey and the circulation of the blood, for example, Butterfield covers the work of Colombo (discoverer of the “small circulation” between the heart and the lungs), Cesalpino (adumbrator of general circulation, but himself still very much in the shade), and Fabricius (discoverer of the venal valves). There is no such summing up of Harvey’s accomplishment. That is taken for granted. So I was still a little in the dark, at times, reading the book now. And Butterfield’s concision sheds a flurry of nuances that sometimes made me doubt that I knew precisely what he was trying to say.

But I had no such doubt about the exordium at the end of the tenth lecture, “The Place of the Scientific Revolution in the History of Western Civilization.” The place of the scientific revolution in the history of Western Civilization, according to Butterfield, is central, as in “the most important place imaginable.” The end of the essay is really very grand, especially considering that there are still two more lectures to go, and also that the final essay, “Images of Progress and Ideas of Evolution,” comes to a dead halt exactly where another rolling peroration might have begun. “Something similar to this is true when we of the year 1957 take our perspective of the scientific revolution,” Butterfield begins his big finish. What Butterfield means by “this,” I think, is the fact that hindsight, while sometimes prejudiced by subsequent events, is often simply informed by them. What follows is too long to copy, so I shall cut to the final sentences, in which “the new factor” refers to what educated people today have in mind when they think of scientific analysis, and the “other” ones are the theories deduced from philosophical, unobserved ideas about the world.

The new factor immediately began to elbow the other ones away, pushing them from the central position. Indeed, it began immediately to seek control of the rest, as the apostles of the new movement had declared their intention of doing from the very start. The result was the emergence of a kind of Western civilization which when transmitted to Japan operates on tradition there as it operates on tradition here — dissolving it and having eyes for nothing save a future of brave new worlds. It was a civilization that could cut itself away from the Graeco-Roman heritage in general, away from Christianity itself — only too confident in its power to exist independent of anything of the kind. We know now that what was emerging towards the end of the seventeenth century was a civilization exhilaratingly new perhaps, but strange as Nineveh and Babylon. That is why, since the rise of Christianity, there is no landmark in history that is worthy to be compared with this.

In 1957, Butterfield could say this without sounding smug. Today, it would be not only smug but foolish, as I think every educated reader will uneasily sense. Why is this?

What came to mind as I read of this triumph of science over religion — it is important, here, to pit science against religion, and not against faith — was something that I read somewhere — in William Doyle’s great history of the French Revolution, I hoped, but can’t find there — about the low expectations, as the Eighteenth Century approached its end, that the Roman Catholic Church would survive far into the Nineteenth. These expectations were of course shared by the kind of men who promoted the scientific revolution. They saw a decadent organization that no longer commanded anyone’s serious respect. The respect, that is, of anybody serious. The opinions of peasants were not consulted. Had they been, the counterrevolutionary revolt in the Vendée might have been foreseen; had they been, the emergence of a robust and even purified institution might have been anticipated. For Roman Catholicism emerged from the collapse of the ancien régime stronger than it had been ever since — one is tempted to exaggerate — the days of Innocent III in the Thirteenth Century. Far from being knocked out by the brilliance of the Enlightenment, the Church became the beloved shelter of swelling numbers of the Enlightenment’s opponents. This new Church, although it preserved almost all of its old structures, embarked on a new project, or perhaps it would be better to say that it reconsidered its original project. It forsook its old dreams of temporal power and embraced its pastoral mission. Orthodoxy was assumed, not tested. The doctrines of the Trinity and of Transubstantiation remained on the books, but were presented in popular, almost Disney-esque caricature that were too limp to provoke controversy.

Much the same occurred in the Protestant North, where the separation of church and state, however stoutly resisted, seemed to redirect energy toward a booming philanthropic evangelism. We associate the Nineteenth Century with the Industrial Revolution, but it was also a time of intense religious revival. It was not unobserved that the appeal of religion was steadily confined to the uneducated classes, that religious gestures were cut to suit uneducated minds, but in the absence of contrary religious activities among the educated (no Church of the Dynamo appeared), the disconnection between the two classes did not result in clashes.

As liberal democracy spread throughout the West in the years after the French Revolution, up to an including our own time, it became less and less reasonable to see economic classes as horizontally arranged, with the rich dominating the poor as the old aristocracy had ruled the peasantry. The division, it seems to me, tipped more toward the vertical. Rich and poor, theoretically equal under the law, stood side by side. The rich continued to arrange things in their favor, and, incidentally, to the disadvantage of the poor, but it became possible, and, during the three decades following World War II not at all uncommon, for people of poor background to educate themselves into the élite. For a long time, this new dispensation, this complex sequel to the chaos that erupted in 1789, functioned without friction attributable to religious differences. Religious observance was painlessly accommodated by ostensibly secular régimes. It was an option that those so inclined were not discouraged to indulge. Children everywhere were taught that the earth revolves around the sun, and that the laws of gravity apply everywhere with equal force. If these doctrines were contradicted by Scripture, disputes were repressed. It was reasonable, in 1957, to speak as Butterfield does at the end of his essay on the historical impact of the scientific revolution. Ironically, it was at that very time that other outcomes of 1789 were culminating in social alterations that would tear apart the old accord, and reveal the educated view of things as a powerful but minority opinion.

Men had learned to live with religious differences that pertained to matters of faith and world-view. But they had not been prepared to reconcile differences that could not be kept private, nor be contained by a consensus regarding public behavior. I am speaking of racial equality and the authority of women.


Tuesday 9th

Throughout the Nineteenth Century, there was a good deal of discussion about the suitability of aligning the campaign for the equality of former slaves with the campaign for the equality of women. That this discussion was never resolved reflects the asymmetry, or perhaps the incomparability, of the issues. On the one hand, men of African descent who had been enslaved sought political equality with men of European descent. This was partly a racial problem and partly a re-enfranchisement problem, for the former slaves had been free men in Africa. On the other hand, women of European descent sought political equality with men of European descent. This was entirely a problem of gender, and its roots were wholly distinct from those of the problems faced by the racial-equality campaign. The only overlap occurred if the equality of women of African descent played a prominent role in both campaigns, which I believe it did not.

The problem of gender is a problem of authority. Although the existence of matriarchies in remote, prehistoric times is postulated, none survived the introduction of writing. Recorded history invariably repeats the inferiority, however slight, of women. And whatever variations might be found concerning the administration of the household, women have never exercised authority outside of it; in other words, men have not been called upon (it may be said that they have refused) to submit to the authority of women outside their immediate families.

This is so universal that it does not appear to be an inherently religious principle, but at the same time it is a feature of every religion, or at least it is contradicted by none. It may be imagined that no religion espousing the equality of women as to authority would advance beyond the confines of a tiny cult. There are glimmers of such a cult in early Christianity; a freedom from what we call sexism is discernible in the teachings of Jesus, and women played important roles in the early Church. But this was arrested. Religions don’t so much preach the inferiority of women; they accept it.

Accidents in the course of events in the West since the Middle Ages have put women in positions of authority, but these have been seen as God-sanctioned buttressed her legitimacy by marrying the king of Spain, who became the King of England), and almost guaranteed by the even more remarkable accident that her potential successor and rival (the mother of her actual successor, in fact) was also a woman. Such a fact-pattern is extremely unlikely, but it happened, and thanks to the glory of the Armada’s defeat while Elizabeth held the throne, it conditioned Englishmen to being ruled by a woman. And yet Elizabeth herself would never have agreed to take the advice of another woman. Three English queens would come and go before the fourth — again, coincidentally — would be called upon to accept a ministry headed by a woman (Margaret Thatcher). With such a history, it hardly seems anything but inevitable that the campaign for women’s equality should be born speaking English.

Whether or not they were triggered by accidents, there are also developments in English history that reflect a deliberate intent to extend equality to women. Unmarried women have always had the right to dispose of their own property. Married women attained this right in the 1860s, long before the grant of the franchise. Before the end of the Nineteenth Century, there were colleges for women, at the English universities and across the United States, and by the middle of the Twentieth Century women had achieved academic equality with men. This means that, within the confines of academia, men recognized the authority of women over themselves whenever it was decided that a certain woman was the right person to exercise authority in the given time and place. I find it significant that this first bloom appeared where it did. For it was the men of the modern university, committed as it was to the secularism that prevailed among the intellectuals of the West, who were among the first to discard, along with what many of them regarded as religious superstitions, an even older prejudice.

And it was within such institutions as universities that the advance of women was sheltered. I’m reminded of the observation that Nancy Mitford made to an out-of-town snob: the great ladies of Paris were never seen in public. They never appeared on the street because they were driven from courtyard to courtyard, and they didn’t have to go shopping because merchants came to them. The advance of women in the Anglophone world occurred somewhat out of public view; it took place in élite precincts. Women had no trouble establishing their abilities, but they flourished only where they dealt with educated men. Educated men, in turn, were the only men likely to marry educated women, and they were also likely to have daughters upon whom higher education would not be wasted. Educated fathers without sons could find themselves eager for their daughters to have access to rewarding careers.

Every now and then, an accident would thrust a woman into public prominence. Most of the women who served as elected officials did so by way of taking places vacated for one reason or another by their husbands. (Lady Astor; Margaret Chase Smith.) And I expect that a study would reveal that women reached high-level office long before they did the same at the small-town level. Almost always, women assumed public authority accidentally.

In my lifetime, there have emerged generations of women not content to wait to be transformed into Joan of Arc by the call of heaven, and they have made the entirely unprecedented demand for the right to exercise authority when otherwise qualified to do so. They were not going to wait to take their fathers’ or their husbands’ places in business or public affairs. They refused to recognize the need for anyone’s permission to allow them to make responsible decisions. And the first momentous issue to arise in this new climate was geared to register the shift. Unlike anything else that a woman might need or want, an abortion is starkly general. Any abortion is, physically speaking, like all other abortions, in that a fetus is removed from a woman’s body. Personal circumstances have no bearing on the medical procedure. What’s more, the right to have an abortion must necessarily be publicly sanctioned. Affluent woman usually had access to abortion even when it was illegal. But the right to abortion is not a matter of access. It is a question of authority, and it asks this question at the very heart of relations between the sexes. No wonder the controversy over abortion in the United States has been such a big deal!

The curious thing to me is why “authority” is not an issue in abortion debates. Nobody objects to women’s demand for the right to abortion by claiming that they lack the authority to decide to have one. The debates have shifted their focus to the right of the fetus to live. This has always struck me as spurious, at least in origin. I am unable to believe that more than a small minority of men would ever be seriously concerned about the lives of fetuses as a matter of principle, without intending to assert the right to tell a woman what to do. As it happens, men who oppose abortion tend to support the death penalty. This inconsistency about the preciousness of life is dealt with by comparing the innocence of the fetus with the guilt of a murderer, but the comparison is a category mistake, because the preciousness of life is either unalterably inherent in every human being or a delusion. The right to life engages the support of women, and it reminds us that in the campaign for the equality — let us call it the campaign for the authority of women, many men support the campaign while many women oppose it. Many women are determined not to submit to the authority of a woman. A woman in authority challenges their right to a protected place in life, a place inferior only with regard to matters that don’t interest them. But nobody argues that authority is the problem.

Has secularism advanced so far in the Anglophone world that it is no longer possible to say why it is inappropriate for women to exercise authority? Not “impossible to say &c without being laughed at,” but simply impossible? This would explain the stubbornness of resistance. All the conceivable arguments have been raised and refuted; there is no point to talking about it further. This hardly means that the bone-deep objection goes away.

I have said that the roots of opposition to racial equality and women’s equality are different, but it seems that objections to the exercise of authority by racially exceptionable people faces the same problem: there is no reasonable ground on which to object. So other grounds are sought. The specious “birther” opposition to President Obama’s legitimacy are similar to the right-to-life argument; it shifts the opposition to more tenable ground. If Obama fails to meet constitutional requirements as to birth in the United States, then the racial issue doesn’t come up. Similarly, the right-to-life argument circumvents the authority issue by making murderers of the aborting mother and her assistants. These phoney arguments can never be settled, but they spare their proponents something worse than ridicule — what?


Thursday 11th

Last night, I got to hear baritone Thomas Meglioranza sing for the first time in ages. He gave a pre-concert recital of songs by Hugo Wolf at Geffen Hall, accompanied by Reiko Uchida. It is a sign of Tom’s self-confidence that he shares the stage with such a superb pianist. Tom was superb, too, and he still reminds me of Bobby Short, which I mean as a great compliment, because, just as Bobby Short’s did, Tom’s voice declares that he is very happy to be alive and singing. Tom sang a selection of Mörike lieder as if they belonged to the Weimar cabaret repertoire that he explored a few years ago, which could not, I think, be more appropriate. Wolf is considered one of the pillars of the German lied, but I’ve never understood why. He reminds me of that wonderful Anna Russell routine about the difference between the French and the German art song: with the German, you get soggy poetry set to magnificent music; with the French, you get magnificent poetry set to wispy music. With Wolf, the middle term drops out: soggy poetry and wispy music. That’s very unfair, I know, and “Die ihr schwebet” from The Spanish Songbook is quite ecstatically beautiful. But there is always a laughing-academy aspect: this art is disturbed — and not in the way that Die Winterreise is disturbed. If you squint, you can hear Pierrot Lunaire just around the corner. You can hear everything about to come crashing down. The last song on Tom’s bill, “Abschied,” ends with a crazed Viennese waltz, dancing on long after the singer has stopped laughing at the old man he has just kicked downstairs. Wispy poetry. Great performance, though.

As I was in the taxi on my way to the pre-concert, I heard about the eejit who was at that very moment climbing Trump Tower with the aid of suction cups. The reporter on the radio, who sounded every inch a New Yorker, said that the fellow “seems to know what he’s doing,” which is our way of saying, “Let’s see how far he gets.” But the police don’t have that kind of sense of humor. Treating the climber as a madman, they took him to Bellevue and would not disclose his name. He gave my day a lift, anyway.

Since the pre-concert was going to bring me to Lincoln Center anyway, I had the idea of taking Fossil Darling and Ray Soleil to dinner at Shun Lee West. It was only a short walk from Kathleen’s office, so the four of us had a jolly night. We hadn’t seen each other in ages, possibly not since Easter. Ray told some good stories, one of them about new chandeliers at a famous fashion emporium and one about a long-ago funeral. Funerals came up because Fossil is going to yet another one; this time, it’s the father of a very good friend at work. I don’t understand attending funerals of people whom you have never met; it seems wrong to me. Wrong to do and wrong to expect. Hundreds of people attended my mother’s funeral in Houston, but it was out of respect for my father, who was still a pooh-bah. When he died, long after his retirement, there were no crowds. Shabby and mixed-up.


On Tuesday night, Kathleen met me at the midtown storage unit and packed a box of craft books that she does not want to keep. We had dinner at a nearby pub, and didn’t get home until nine o’clock. We turned on the TV, hoping that we hadn’t missed the women’s gymnastics. Of course they wouldn’t tell us, so Kathleen sat through two hours of swimming. She was able to do other things, but even in another room I was distracted by the racket. Finally, at eleven, we got to see the Final Five win their gold medals. We also got to see a few Chinese gymnasts, as well as Ellie Downie, who had had taken a bad tumble a few days earlier. It was good to see the competition. I have to say that the Chinese contestants fanned my admiration for Team USA.

As always, it’s hard for me to pay attention to protracted sporting events, so, between the breathtaking leaps and twists in the “floor” acts, I imagined what a Paul Taylor dance, choreographed with these moves, might look like. Then I realized that Paul Taylor’s choreography might have inspired a few of them already. This was particular true of Laurie Hernandez’s routine.

This morning, a man who was recommended by Housing Works brought his van and an assistant to the midtown unit and carried off the fifteen boxes of books that I have been packing since the middle of May. While he was there, I discussed my next step with him, and we agreed on a plan for dealing with all the stuff on the tippy-top shelf, which runs around three sides of the room. With my immobile neck, I can barely see it. Kathleen’s wedding dress is up there somewhere. She plans to give it away. It took her a while to accept the unlikeliness of knowing a young woman who would want to wear such a dress. Certainly none of the young women whom we actually knew would wear it. Kathleen’s gown covered everything below her neck and above her wrists, much of it voluminously.

Also on the top shelf are yet more boxes full of old papers. My heart sinks at the prospect of going through them. That, however, will be the end of that.


There’s an extremely interesting piece by Tom Crewe, in the current London Review of Books, about Jeremy Corbyn, his supporters, and the Labour Party. Crewe captures the enthusiasm of Corbyn’s fans about as well as I’ve ever seen it done.

There was again a palpable feeling in the air, difficult to convey in print: the closest equivalent I can think of is the experience of attending a gig — a narrowed, concentrated attention, a consciousness of shared knowledge and understanding, that peculiar sense of security you have when surrounded by people who like what you do.

Well, it might have been done better: the final “do” rather threw me for a minute; “like” would have prevented ambiguity. Nevertheless, that peculiar sense of security that you get at a jazz performance is probably the last pleasure to be looked for at a political meeting, for it signifies that nothing political is going to happen. I daresay that Trump’s rallies are almost rank with it. Trump’s supporters draw from their sense of security the boldness to behave like thugs.

Jeremy Corbyn has been acting the saint in Parliament for several decades, and I have no strong objection to that, but for the peculiarity of British arrangements that makes him ipso facto eligible to head the government. At the moment, that’s what would happen if Labour Party candidates won a majority of seats in an election, which is why there is a movement to dethrone him. Corbyn’s unlikely leadership of the Labour Party, a position that he holds despite the scorn and contumely of almost every fellow Labour MP, is symptomatic of the disarray of politics in the liberal democracies. Corbyn himself is a saint because he refuses to do what almost everyone else does as a matter of course these days: he doesn’t permit economic considerations, other than a concern for the underpaid and the unemployed, to affect his judgments. He makes the pragmatic and accommodating Tony Blair — the all too p & a — look like the Whore of Babylon, which is probably why Labour Party civilians saddled him with a leadership role that he seems constitutionally incapable of exercising. Corbyn doesn’t do deals, which means he doesn’t do politics. There is a place for such stubbornness in legislatures, but none whatever in the executive. Corbyn has proved to be unable to manage a shadow government, and is widely blamed for lackluster participation in the Remain campaign. A good man, undoubtedly, but unsuited to govern.

What Jeremy Corbyn has not done is to make a case for putting economic considerations where they belong, subordinate to political goals. The idea that economic well-being will solve political problems is bankrupt, because only politics can prevent well-being from being concentrated in fewer and fewer pockets. What’s curious to me is that people seem willing to consider alternatives to capitalism, when what capitalism needs is an overhaul. An overhaul of capitalism appears to be unimaginable. And when capitalism is discussed as a theory, along with corporate structure, the air gets very musty, because its the capitalism and the corporation of 1850 that is being described. The terms of orthodoxy were set long ago, so damn the torpedoes. You might as well let the Vatican run things.


Friday 12th

Watching the women’s gymnastics events last night, I was more irritated than ever by the commentators, because I had already heard all their snippets of “background” and “color” several times by now. It was almost disgusting to hear the contestants described in heroic, courageous, determined — statuesque — generalizations while the very objects of this adulation experienced their ordeals, their disappointments, and their very particular triumphs right in front of us. I blew my stack whenever one of the three sonorous but invisible voices informed me that Simone Biles was feeling proud and confident. Not must be feeling no speculation required. The commentators knew. Almost as bad was their regurgitation of the well-coached boilderplate with which the young women had been taught to respond to fatuous questions about “what it’s like to be back at the Olympics” (often asked of Aly Raisman) or “how are you feeling now that you’re actually in Rio?” These routine breaches of the protocols of meaningful and truthful reporting constituted almost all of the padding between events.

One might wonder if the producers of the show fear that viewers would wander off to some other outlet if the commentators stopped talking filling the stretches between events with their babble. I should think that anyone bothering to tune in to the women’s gymnastics competitions would be willing to wait for the next jolt of acrobatic excitement. To relieve the slight tedium of doing so, the viewer might welcome brief announcements about what was going to happen next and how long it would be before it happened, but there was precious little of that. Instead, the commentators said things that sounded knowledgeable while carefully skirting the risk of boring viewers with too much detail. I never did understand the reasoning behind the scoring or the multiplicity of competitions from four basic events (vault, balance beam, unequal bars, and floor). The commentators might have told me how many points Aly Raisman needed to win a medal, but they never explained a thing. Undermining one’s belief that the Olympic Games are the pinnacle of sport, the commentators groused about the caprice of the judges, and complained whenever they “took too long” to produce a score. Mind you, I didn’t try very hard to understand what was going on (beyond the thrilling immediacy of the tumbling and so on), partly because I knew that I was an outsider, someone who didn’t follow gymnastics; it is important, in sports commentary, to reward the devotés by excluding the uncommitted. I also knew that I was watching a patchwork of videos stitched together by NBC for the entertainment of American audiences within the space of an hour or two. Making sense was not an objective. The only way to endure the production was to uncouple my mind and pretend that the commentators were sources of useful information.

Am I trying to say that my experience of the Olympic Games this week has reinforced my sense that the depraved standards of television production made Donald Trump the Republican candidate? You betcha. When uncoupling the mind becomes routine, a catastrophe like Trump is inevitable.


Paul Krugman’s column in today’s Times was straightforward: the Republican establishment (Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell) continue to support Trump because he’ll lower taxes and make the rich richer. Set aside the unspectacular record that the Republic Party has racked up at actually realizing such fantasies. Assuming that Krugman is correct, the ability, if that’s what it is, of diehard Republicans to reduce all issues to their effect on taxes is simplistic beyond belief — and at the same time, a sad old story. At a revealing moment in Ocean’s 11, the “bad guy” is asked if he would give up his lady love if it would get him his money back, and he says, “Yes.” Money, money überall. You’d almost think you can eat it.

These Republicans live in a bubble, or at least expect that they’ll be able to move into one if need be. The movie for this vision is Elysium. The 0.1% have offshored themselves to a glistening space station, the ultimate in gated communities. The very air they breathe is better! They share nothing with the groundlings. They extract value from the earth, and then they take it away, so that it doesn’t provide the earthbound with so much as the passive benefit of a lofty building’s exterior. There is nothing new about this dream; you can see it at work in the Quest del Saint Graal (c 1210), depicting a world from which the common people and their stink have been erased. Or, later on: everybody knew that the French government was bankrupt in the late 1780s, but few of the untaxed noblemen who “worried” about this crisis seemed to think that fiscal problems would undermine their way of life and separate many of them from their heads. Elysium‘s paradise, by the way, doesn’t last, either.

Fossil tells me that the phalanx of Republicans with whom he works every day are virtuosos at seeing awful truths as “out of proportion.” This is how they handled Trump’s winks to the “Second Amendment People.” They shrugged off the obscenity as a misunderstanding. Or they appeared to do so. I suspect that it must be exhausting for a smart person (as all of Fossil’s Wall Street colleagues by definition are) to defend stupid propositions — exhausting enough to make a smart person stupid. I suppose we must be grateful. Imagine the horrors that Republicans might concoct were they capable of taking the long view.

I take that back: Republics have taken the long view, on at least one issue. They have always understood that populists and progressives and other Democratic types who want to feel good about their society tend not to understand the role played law courts in making a good society possible, and for the past fifty or sixty years they have waged a tireless campaign to fill state and federal benches with pro-business judges who are reliably anti-anyone else. These judges are not necessarily social conservatives, but their focus, as Paul Krugman’s column might lead you to expect, is to keep money in the right pockets.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
August 2016 (I)

1, 2, 4, and 5 August

Monday 1st

For years, I have not read White Noise. It has been an ongoing thing, of which I was always aware: “I have not read White Noise.” I missed it when it came out — I was on a different wavelength in 1984. But I was sufficiently tuned in to hear the big noise that it made, and, eventually, I bought a copy of the original hardback, complete with dust jacket, at the Strand, for $2.95. But I did not read it. “Don DeLillo” sounded too much like a sports writer. Later, I would read Underworld, but I would hate it. Such bloat! And of course it did start out at a baseball game. But it taught me that White Noise must have been very good indeed, to create the kind of reputation that would mislead a writer into thinking that he could do anything. I gave my copy of Underworld away.

I was wondering if I’d given away White Noise as well when I found it on last week’s visit to the storage unit. (I’ve packed fourteen boxes of books to give away, and have an appointment with someone to come pick them up and haul them to Housing Works next week.) Yesterday, I sat down with it, and wound up reading almost all of it; I read the last forty-odd pages this morning. I was expecting a more difficult read. It might have been a difficult read thirty years ago, I suppose. Now it was easy. It was like a well-planned ride at an intellectual amusement park. It was also, obviously, the template for a wide range of novels, ranging from the work of Tom Perrotta to that of David Foster Wallace. Its structure seemed to have been the model for And Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris’s first, and I think best, novel. Its relish for the absurdity of American life brought George Saunders so much to mind that, in one or two sleepy moments, I thought that White Noise was his. I was left wishing that I had read White Noise a long time ago, because then I should have been able to assay the frequent references to it. It has come to be regarded as a book that every literate American ought to read. A nasty little corner of me hoped to find out that this status was not deserved, that White Noise was a meretricious entertainment. But it is no such thing. It is a good book, and whether or not it is a great book, it has had an undeniably great impact.

The novel’s setting, in a fictional town overwatched by a small but eminent college (College-on-the-Hill), turns out to be a weird stroke of genius — weird because it’s not easy to say when the stroke actually struck. Now, in any case, it is impossible not to see Don DeLillo taking the place of his narrator, Jack Gladney, with a dozen or more future novelists sitting on the lawn surrounding a very famous creative writing program — somewhere in Iowa, maybe, or in upstate New York — while he instructs them, not how to run a Hitler Studies department, but how to open a novel with the delightfully shocking surprise of something like a Hitler Studies department. I can hear him noting that this arresting invention need not become a distraction in the foreground. “Hitler Studies” is a joke, and it knows its place. (Hitler qua joke — who’d ‘a’ thunk it?) I envision the future novelists taking furiously comprehensive notes. I can even smell the grass stains.

It was fun to read a cutting-edge critique of the usual suspects that nevertheless lacked the Internet. Typing out “Internet,” just now, I shuddered to think that it sounds like a word that DeLillo might have made up for White Noise; it has become a retrospective target of his satire. The novel’s ridicule of supermarket tabloids does a very good job of standing in for the nonsense of today. Jeanne Dixon — that’s who she was. I was trying to remember her name last night, chatting with Kathleen. Do you remember how the year always began — or maybe it always ended — with a list of Jeanne Dixon’s predictions? DeLillo rolls out a bundle of parodies; I love the one about Elvis because it describes Graceland as “his musical mansion.” But gold has to go to this one:

UFOs will raise the lost city of Atlantis from its watery grave in the Caribbean by telekinetic means and the help of powerful cables with properties not known in earthlike materials. The result will be a ‘city of peace’ where money and passports are totally unknown. (145)

Do tabloids still publish predictions? Where have all the psychics gone? Were they, too, victims of the Internet’s creative destruction? Atlantis has sunk beneath the horizon of the culture’s imagination. But the magnitude and worthlessness of random crap have not diminished. We have replaced glimpses of the future with the glare of present reality.

Nevertheless, if White Noise provides the template, it does not contain the contents. The novelists of the future, having become the novelists of now, have had to mine that from other sources. What distinguishes George Saunders, you might think, is his soaring imagination, which effortlessly surpasses DeLillo’s; but it is really his aching humanity that sets him apart. In Saunders, you laugh at the language, never at the characters: his characters are no joke. And when I think of a novel written in a very different tradition, to wit by Penelope Lively, White Noise hardens somewhat into an extremely elegant toy. Almost everything in it can be understood and criticized by Heinrich, Jack Gladney’s brilliant fourteen year-old son. (Just what kind of a joke was Hitler Studies?) Did part of DeLillo suspect that Heinrich would grow up, shed his callow rigor, and grow a heart?


Tuesday 2nd

In Sunday’s Times, N Gregory Mankiw published an “Upshot” entry about “trade skeptics.” Trade skeptics are voters who disagree with economists about globalization, free trade, job offshoring, and so forth. Economists like Mankiw want to know why. Mankiw cites a couple of recent studies, conducted by political scientists, not economists, linking trade skepticism to xenophobia and to lack of education — the usual suspects. These studies apparently rule out joblessness, or loss of jobs to globalizing trends, as factors leading to trade skepticism — according to Mankiw. I find it hard to believe that he is right.

I am in no position to run studies of my own, but then I’m pretty skeptical about studies, and polls, too. I believe that they are hopelessly tendentious, designed, whether consciously or not, to prove a point, not to discover one. I believe that they are skewed by their participants. And, in this case, I am haunted by the echoes of George Saunders’s recent New Yorker piece about Donald Trump’s supporters. Saunders reports a lot of conversations with ordinary people. (Disclosure: I chatted with Saunders once at a book signing. I trust him.) Many of these people offered an anecdote about a friend or a neighbor who had been laid off. Then, too, I’m haunted by what I’ve read about plant closings. The Philips plant in Sparta, Tennessee. The Carrier plant in Indianapolis. The plants in Warren, Ohio, that George Packer writes about in The Unwinding. A quick Google search turns up plenty of job-loss-related trade skepticism.

I suspect that the political scientists find no correlation between trade skepticism and job loss due to globalization because of disciplinary preconceptions. The political scientists query voters on political views. Knowing someone who has been laid off is not a political view. Nationalism is; isolationism is; even racism is. But worries about job security do not register as a political factor. They might well be excluded in advance, simply by the design of the study.

But even if the studies are nonsense, Mankiw is a serious economist, an adviser to President George W Bush and a professor at Harvard. His opinions appear regularly, and I imagine that he wields considerable influence in Republican circles. What this Sunday’s upshot piece says — and it actually does say it — is that, with the expansion of higher education, fewer voters will be trade skeptics. Trade skepticism may be a political problem now, but it will go away when more people go to college.

Is that because college-educated people think clearly enough to agree with economists on the benefits of free trade, or is it because, until recently, college-educated people have been far less vulnerable to job loss attributable to free trade?

I am not opposed to free trade on principle. I’m opposed to the mainstream view of free trade because it nurtures unrealistic expectations of education — both higher education and re-education or re-training. First, we have probably reached the point at which those who are capable of pursuing a college education are doing so. Second, there is little evidence that re-training workers leads to a restoration of their status quo ante. They may get jobs, but the jobs are unlikely to be as good (in any sense) as the ones that were lost. Advocates of free trade never proceed beyond breezy statements of their nostrums. They never point to studies showing that displaced workers have fully recovered. They don’t seem to regard as the sense of job security as a factor.

Gregory Mankiw’s opinion is that uneducated voters are bigoted — and bigotry, as we all know, is a kind of stupidity. If the United States withdraws from the globalist carnival, it will be down to stupid, uneducated Americans. End of discussion.

I hope that more educated people will disagree. I hope that more educated people will become “studies skeptics.” Most of all, I hope that educated people will learn to treat those who aren’t as human beings like themselves.


Thursday 4th

On Tuesday night, we went to a Mostly Mozart concert at Geffen Hall. On the program were Haydn’s 59th Symphony, Fire, which I didn’t know, and two works by Mozart, the 25th Piano Concerto and the 40th symphony. Thierry Fischer, conductor of the Utah Symphony Orchestra, stood in for the ailing Andrés Orozco-Estrada. I’m not familiar with Mr Orozco-Estrada, whose somewhat hoopla’d début this was to be, so I was free to take what Mr Fischer had to offer without the burden of comparisons. In the event, I’m not sure that comparisons would have occurred to me. Fischer had an entirely new approach to everything. Even the unknown-to-me Haydn sounded unusual. Just now, I found a recording in my library, led by Trevor Pinnock, and it sounds exactly like what I’d have expected, and nothing at all like what I heard on Tuesday.

First, Fischer displayed a penchant for sforzando piano, a trick of following a suddenly emphasized sound by an equally sudden withdrawal. In practice, this worked to prevent the suggestion of shrillness that can accompany Mozart’s dramatic outbursts, replacing mere agitation with polished insistence. Second, Fischer was willing to alter tempos for expressive purposes. This is a commonplace for the big Romantic orchestral works, and its application to something as early as the Fire Symphony (1768) might be regarded as anachronistic — but perhaps not, given that this symphony is one of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang experiments. Ten or fifteen seconds into the first movement, the texture of the music undergoes a bizarre change, passing from a clackety, almost late-Baroque tonic simplicity to a mysteriously chromatic iridescence. In a blink, the orchestra appeared to be playing a different piece of music. This was very startling, and almost irritating, the first time, but as the gesture was repeated its experimental urgency seemed better-controlled — by Haydn, I mean, as well as by the musicians. It’s a shock that you’re supposed to get used to — and Haydn’s symphonies are full of such. There’s another shock, in the slow movement of the Fire I think it was, when the languid strings are interrupted by a bizarre blast from one of the horns. That didn’t make sense, but I’m not sure that it was a mistake.

The third characteristic of the evening’s performance was a plush lambency, a melting clarity, that muted all abruptness. This must have at least in part owed to the orchestra’s skill as an ensemble, but Fischer depended on it. The two Mozart works, which are of course enormously familiar, sounded altogether new and different, the Symphony especially. “Melting clarity” sounds like a muddle, I know, but what I mean is a way of going from here to there that is at the same time both perfectly lucid and perfectly suave. And I suppose that what I’m trying to get at by “plush lambency” is the physical, organic nature of the sound. Nothing could have been less mechanical, or less “precise.” Fischer’s final trick was a knack for distant thunder. I heard it all evening, but I can’t explain it. It was as though Fischer had exported all the excitement to an offstage band. Some may prefer the violence of a storm overhead to the menace of distant thunder, but, at least outside the opera house, I do not.

The pianist, Martin Helmchen, suited Mr Fischer’s style down to the ground. A delicate presence at the piano, he was almost a dandy of exquisite nonchalance. I have found that it is very difficult for pianists to put their personal stamp on Mozart’s late concertos. Today’s piano did not exist when Mozart was writing. In particular, Mozart’s pianos lacked the burly lower registers that Beethoven would be the first to enjoy. It’s for this reason, I think, that the concertos are always a little more interesting when recorded. Mozart’s brilliant runs, moreover, are so demanding that merely to get through them coherently is an achievement. In the end, pianists are either headlong or elegant. I am mad about the exuberance of Daniel Barenboim’s recordings of the concertos, but I can delight in elegance when it shows reserves of power. That’s what Mr Helmchen and Mr Fischer did on Tuesday. Helmchen also played a cadenza to the first movement that I’d like to hear again.

As to the G-Minor Symphony, I can say simply that the first three movements were so unlike anything that I had ever heard before that the finale was almost boring in its regularity. From the beginning, the blend of strings and winds was amazing (a word that you’re not supposed to use when writing about this sort of thing). The strings produced a warm and enveloping sound that provided a luxurious mounting for the colorful gems spun by the clarinets, the bassoons, the flute, the horns, and, more quietly, the oboes. Tempos were brisk, which allowed Fischer to make a statement just by leading the trio of the minuet at a slower pace. (I had never noticed that Mozart keeps the clarinets out of the trio. It took the sight of the two musicians rather ostentatiously cleaning their instruments, finishing just in time, to bring home the point.) Altogether the magnificence of the performance was enhanced, rather than the reverse, by the rigor with which Fischer took all the repeats.

Through all of this, there was the performance of the man sitting in front of me.

Later, recovering from her nightmare, Kathleen said that the familiarity of the music helped get her through the fear that we were about to be blown to kingdom come by a terrorist bomb. This was no idle dread. The man sitting in front of me was an odd bird to see at a Mostly Mozart concert. Somewhat ferret-faced, with thinning but almost lacquered waves of fine black hair running back from his temples and a goatee of stubble, he was a medium-sized man of very firm build. Fifty at least, he might have been an exceptional athlete of some kind. He might have been a coach, too, but his manner made this seem unlikely. He could not sit still. For some reason, Kathleen noticed this more than I did. He swept sweat from his brow, his arms were alway in motion, and if he wasn’t peering up at the balconies, as if to make contact with an accomplice, he was peering restlessly into his large red Century 21 shopping bag. What I noticed was his attire. He wore dark crocs, black pants, and, most dissonantly, a black V-necked T shirt that had reinforced seams at the shoulder. It’s the sort of shirt that is usually sleeveless. This one, thank heavens, wasn’t. But although the items of clothes might seem similar, the man sitting in front of me could not have been less like the sloppy, gangly kid in a white T, jeans, and trainers who sat not far away. The man in front of me carried himself, agitation notwithstanding, as if he were wearing a suit — suitable attire. He was unaware that he wasn’t.

When I returned from having slipped away at the interval, I found Kathleen on her feet, which was odd, since she is usually placidly reading or just staring into space. The man was not there, but his bag was, and it was scaring Kathleen to death. What to do? We mentioned our concern to three ladies who were chatting in the row behind us; they looked nervous for a moment before relapsing into their conversation. I, too, should have regarded the bag with very mild concern had I been alone. But Kathleen was channeling Doris Day in The Man Who Knew Too Much. I knew that, if we said something to one of the ushers, we might risk bringing the concert to a premature end, and perhaps creating a dangerous furore. And although I was quite aware that the bag owner’s entire demeanor bordered on the inappropriate, I remembered that we were, after all, in New York City. Nevertheless, I had caught Kathleen’s discomfort, and could hardly bear standing near the bag. My compromise was to lead Kathleen to the rear of the auditorium. “But now no one’s watching our bags,” Kathleen complained. I pointed out that we could keep an eye on them from where we stood. When the man returned, we followed him down to the aisle back to our seats.

Later, I told Kathleen that she ought to have asked to leave the concert then and there. I’d have missed a great and very interesting performance, but then I shouldn’t have known it. And it was only music, only a symphony that I’ve heard possibly too many times. She did ask to leave the moment it was over. I hate walking out on ovations, but I didn’t think twice, given Kathleen’s wretchedness. As we scooted across the lobby, Kathleen said that she was glad after all that we hadn’t “done anything” (complained to the management); I said that the man clearly didn’t belong at the concert. At that very moment, the man who clearly didn’t belong at the concert walked right past me, reaching the escalator first. It would have been nicer not to know that he was standing ten steps behind us than to see that he was ten steps ahead. On the way out, he paused unaccountably at a turn in the traffic, and we very nearly did the same. Then he headed out into the night. It was we who struck out the different course, crossing the plaza to the State Theatre side, from which we stepped down to the crosswalk at 63rd Street. At our post-concert dinner at PJ Clarke’s, Kathleen had two glasses of Cabernet.

Really, what do you do in this day and age? It’s difficult to describe the situation, because everything depends on one’s own physical response to another person’s physical presence. Kathleen is a good judge of people, and she has spent more of her life in New York than I have. But her experience has been battered by the phenomenon of support for Donald Trump. It is inexplicable to her. I try to explain it — it is anything but inexplicable to me — but my explanations don’t take root; she always reverts to an understanding of the world in which people who say the things that Trump says in public are shunned. That Trump is saying these things not only in public but as a candidate for the presidency is simply intolerable. Then there is the understandable worry that what has happened in Paris and Brussels and elsewhere is going to happen here.

When I came into Geffen Hall, someone poked a flashlight into my tote bag but didn’t dig into it. Someone else ran a wand up and down with an apologetic air. These interferences inspire no confidence whatever. I do not believe that the civil state and the security state can co-exist, which is why I believe that dangerous materials ought to be, as they used to be, far more difficult to acquire. Opposition to gun-control is framed as the right to bear arms, but of course it is fueled by the desire to sell arms. As for bombs, I often wonder if the “household materials” that are said to be all that one needs to wreak mayhem might be adulterated in some way so as to make combustion impossible. Behind all of this is the far more important task of recognizing troubled minds before they sink into criminality. This is a social concern, a local matter, the requires closer connections among neighbors. To some extent, every town has to be a small one. The decision to intervene in a stranger’s life ought to be a civil, social one, not the response of security professionals. Let them deal with the guns and the bombs. The shooters themselves are out problem. We must learn to accept that.

I said to Kathleen that if she had really known the music, she would have been furious with Thierry Fischer for taking all those repeats.


Friday 5th

Bear in mind that Tuesday evening’s bomb scare found me more susceptible than usual because I had just seen, and then read, My House in Umbria. The novella is by William Trevor; I had not read it before. The film, directed by Richard Loncraine (for HBO), is an old favorite. Maggie Smith plays a woman with a past, now going under the name of Emily Delahunty. The film promises to be a breezy light comedy on the order of Under the Tuscan Sun, but within five minutes its subject becomes survivorship. Mrs Delahunty (never married) is one of four survivors of a terrorist blast on a train. She and the three others retire to her ample farmhouse in the country, not far from Siena. How she came to acquire this villa and what she does with it make one strand of the story; the other concerns the uncle of the little girl whose brother and parents perished in the explosion. He is played by Chris Cooper, an actor who consistently holds my attention even though I find him almost painful to look at.

The film has a happy ending that I knew better that to expect in the novella. Otherwise, the two are very close, with great swathes of dialogue lifted verbatim from one to the other. The screenwriters tweaked a few details, but by and large the movie is one of the more faithful adaptations — but for the ending, of course, which only the conning magic of cinema could make convincing. The book, however, is richer, as books usually are. Much richer, given the author. Mrs Delahunty is an unreliable narrator, of course. She is also the author of romance fictions. And she has prophetic dreams — doesn’t she? In the book, the subject of a paragraph can shift from one of these things to another without any notice, and the result, given a soft and light texture, is the portrait of a life all of a piece. Of a life that was all of a piece, before the event. Or, rather, before the aftermath of the event, the four survivors gathered in the house, almost a family, the closest that Mrs Delahunty has ever come to belonging to one, dissipates.

The movie has a feel-good air that, until the most recent viewing, muffled the focus a little bit and made it hard to see — made me want not to see — just how drunk Mrs Delahunty often is. Maggie Smith is ruthless about this; when I finally saw it, I wanted to look away. Mrs Delahunty believes that if she can find the right pitch, she will capture the uncle’s attention; she seems incapable of recognizing that he views her with a distaste that turns into disgust the harder she tries. It is embarrassing. On a sort of meta level, the uncle, Thomas Riversmith, is the kind of man who doesn’t want to watch this kind of movie. He doesn’t like soppy stories about survivors that involve dreams and astrology, and he couldn’t care less about sunny Italy. He wants to watch something else, anything else. When you see My House in Umbria through his eyes — through Riversmith’s piercing but hollow eyes — it becomes a much darker affair.

Why buy one Trevor when you can buy two? I ordered Fools of Fortune along with My House in Umbria. It is a novel about the Troubles in which the Republic of Ireland was born, and about an expulsion from paradise. As such things go, it is beautifully understated. Two young cousins fall in love but cannot say so; they don’t really wake up to the fact until they have been parted. When they are brought together later for a funeral, the boy is almost deranged with shame and grief, so, again, there is not opportunity for more than a blind leap. The novel is presented in the form of the letters that the lovers cannot write. I don’t feel sure about why, but it seems as though they can’t settle for writing; they simply want to be together. And so they don’t write the letters that they promise themselves to write. With almost tragic grandeur, they decline to “stay in touch.” On the surface, there’s a good deal of fuss about how awkward situations could have been avoided if they had only stooped to making plans for the future, but as the fuss subsides it appears that plans were indeed made, if not jointly. Then the novel drifts off into uncertainty; what we’re told may be the ravings of the lovers’ deranged daughter.

A great deal of the middle pages of Fools of Fortune follows some boarding-school high jinks that might have made for one of Trevor’s lapidary stories. I don’t know how much its detachment from the novel would take away, besides mere length.


The writing project that I announced two weeks ago has been coming along more quickly than I anticipated. At the risk of seeming gross, I can say that I’ve piled up nearly 25,000 words, with the first drafts of two sections complete. Plans for four or five more sections, as well as the expectation that there will be no more than that, have taken shape.

It has been more than twenty years since my last attempts to write something with an end as well as a beginning. Three plays were completed; a strange novel with supernatural inclinations that I could never gratify was not. In one theatre producer’s opinion, the plays were saddled with bloated expositions; I took too long introducing characters and situations. It was mortifying to hear this, of course, but I saw that the producer was right. The light, however, had gone out, and I never undertook repairs. I meant to, but the Internet came along, and everything changed.

So I am shy about trying again. My project is neither a play nor a novel — I can say that much. Regular readers of this site would find much of what I’ve been writing familiar. Much of the joy of writing it has so far come from not worrying about repeating myself, because it doesn’t matter if I’ve already said something somewhere else (that would be here). Now, everything that I say has its place in a much larger context, a much longer piece of writing. When I first planned this project, several years ago, and even had a go at writing bits of it, the going was very hard, and I was not optimistic. I knew that I must try, but it was hard to muster enthusiasm. I did not wait for enthusiasm; I took to writing longer entries here. That required a lot of thinking, and sometime near the beginning of this calendar year, the thinking and the writing began to chug along in synchronization. Knowing what you think is also knowing how you want to say it — that’s how you know.

I follow advice that I remember reading in Jane Smiley’s book about novels. Every day, you pick up where you left off, and write your daily allotment of words or pages. It is important to settle on an allotment. I used to fear that I might just write to fill pages, stuff that would have to be cut out later. With experience, however — and this is where the past year’s blog entries have been so helpful — you begin each day with a lively awareness of how far you are going to go. You might not know how much ground you’re going to cover, but that’s something different. You may have to go back and fill in. But — and this is the second prong of the advice — you don’t go back. You may re-read a little, to check something out, but you do not try to re-write anything. If you notice, as I did yesterday, a point that ought to be opened up and filled in with material that you overlooked in the moment of writing, you make a note of it, but you carry on. It’s likely that the material that needs to be inserted didn’t flow because you need to think about it some more. Meanwhile, it’s important to proceed, to build the edifice of a complete first draft.

Sometimes I think that all of this is easier than it might be because I’m so old, because I’ve read so much and, here, written so much. Sometimes I worry that I’m in for a dreadful reckoning, for the discovery that I’m no more skilled at this than an undergraduate with literary aspirations. But I can say that I am almost perfectly untroubled by one worrying botheration: it never occurs to me to wonder if anybody would be interested in what I have to say. I’m interested.

When the first draft is complete, but not until then, I’ll start looking for readers. Now you know as much as I do.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Three Laws
July 2016 (IV)

25, 26, 28, 29 July

Monday 25th

Was ever the Times so depressing to read? I say this at least once a week, as the feeling of being closed in and doomed intensifies. Whether the Russian hackers were out to help Trump or Sanders (I suspect it was the former), they did what they could to push the United States a little closer to chaos. Photographs of Bernie protestors in Philadelphia made me swelter with rage at the left, that race of unherdable cats (and just about as mindful of the general good). In her generously cut green suit, Hillary Clinton looked like a severely grass-stained Pierrot, just come in from a night of sleeping rough in the rain.

In  contrast to this confetti of sad banalities, the LRB has published a grave lament by John Lanchester on the folly of Brexit. The piece takes such a long view of things that it describes the American situation almost as well. Lanchester hammers a bit on the problem of élite inattentiveness; unfortunately, it’s problem that we’ve all awakened to too late, Lanchester as well. Although our top writer about economic malaise today, Lanchester came late to the party, via notes for a novel that he was going to write about the City after the Crash of 2008. The notes were so intriguing that he switched to non-fiction, and he hasn’t looked back; his last piece for the LRB was a brilliant assay of Bitcoin.

It may be abominably conceited of me, but I want to point out the one insight in Lanchester’s essay that had never remotedly occurred to me.

Immigration, the issue on which Leave campaigned most effectively and most cynically, is the subject on which this bewilderment is most apparent. There are obviously strong elements of racism and xenophobia in anti-immigrant sentiment. All racists who voted, voted Leave. But there are plenty of people who aren’t so much hostile to immigrants as baffled by them. They feel left behind, abandoned, poor, ignored and struggling; so how come immigrants want to come here, and do so well when they get here? If Britain is broken, which is what many Leave voters think, why is it so attractive? How can so many people succeed where they are failing?

The answer to this conundrum is something that I’ve read in the background of several recent discussions of the state of our political economy. We have been putting too much emphasis on the economy, and overlooking whenever possible the political. I speak of the liberal democratic governments that have prevailed in the West since World War II. This emphasis made a lot of sense round about the time I was born in 1948. Ideology was seen to be counterproductive when it was not simply poisonous. The unstable governments of the Fourth Republic in France made party squabbles look pointless and noxious. Meanwhile, improving everybody’s standard of living seemed to lower the vehemence of election issues. The complacency of affluence conduced to a bi-partisan élite that sent its barely-distinguishable two parties through the revolving doors of administration. So the sun shone on Les Trente glorieuses, the thirty postwar years of economic boom.

But the affluence was transitory, and it was never universal. This ought to have signaled a revival of interest in political solutions, but the only true politicians standing were cranks, extremists of right and left like Jean-Marie le Pen and Ralph Nader. Mainstream officials were economists down to the ground, whether they understood the subject or not. And yet economists had no way of solving the growing problem of superfluous people, workers no longer needed by the “healthy economy.” The economy was healthy only if the root significance of “economy” — household — were ignored. From a traditional point of view, “global economy” must be an oxymoron. One global economy; hundreds of nations. In the more prosperous nations, there came to be more and more people for whom making a living became deadening or impossible.

Immigrants, considered strictly as workers from elsewhere, and not necessarily as strange-looking outsiders, embody the dislocation between economics and politics today. They embody economic reality. Unfortunately, the global economy is wholly undemocratic. Nobody votes for its leaders, who would of course be the first to deny that they lead anything — I see now, quite clearly for the first time, that this denial of belonging to the élite that I regard as the élite’s identifying feature, represents the eclipse of politics in today’s liberal democracies. It makes sense, because the élites are participating in and reaping the rewards of the global economy; national politics are nothing more than an annoyance. But they are the only means for the un- and underemployed to express their wretchedness. It was foolish of the élites to leave all that liberal-democratic machinery in place. An essentially organic machinery, it has degraded not like a metal turbine but like a body politic: it has developed a tumor, tumors everywhere. What else can become of millions of superfluous people?

I see now that the puzzle that is Hillary Clinton can be solved quite neatly by the new dichotomy inherent in “political economy.” She is an assiduous economist. There is no trade problem on any scale that she cannot master. But she is careless about politics. Like a good economist, she wants results, and she often gets them, too. Like an economist, she does not particularly care what her sausage factory looks like, because everybody knows it’s a sausage factory, so please! But only the people who can afford to eat sausages are willing to accept her nonchalance. The excluded keep virtual kosher: sausage is unholy.

Last night, I found myself looking for a novel to read. Glancing at the fiction case, I perched on Ian McEwan’s novels. I haven’t read one in a while, and I haven’t re-read anything except The Innocent. It was after I first read The Innocent that I started buying new titles as they appeared. The very next one was Black Dogs. I didn’t know that “black dogs” was Churchill’s term for the depression that he suffered, and I’m not sure that McEwan’s dogs are quite the same. For I came away from Black Dogs somewhat uncomprehending. I wasn’t sure that I got it. This sense of failure would not trouble me again until Solar, but then the failure was McEwan’s, I thought, not mine. So it made sense to give Black Dogs another try.

I didn’t get very far last night, partly because I didn’t start until late, but mostly because I was almost immediately blindsided by a wallop of remorse. In one sentence, McEwan told me — had I but listened; had he — what we were doing wrong in 1992, we readers of good novels. We were worrying about ourselves. And we identified ourselves by what we were not. In this sentence, the narrator is musing on an ailing but glamorous woman who left her beautiful home in France for a nursing home in Wiltshire.

I did not know how she could bear it, giving up so much, settling for the dullness here: the ruthlessly boiled vegetables, the fussy, clucking old folk, the dazed gluttony of their TV watching. (12)

If, perchance, you grew up surrounded by boiled vegetables and gluttonous television, you crammed for your A-levels and left that world behind you forever. Your past became a graveyard, populated by inert family members who must be periodically propitiated but otherwise not thought of.

I see this all the more clearly now for the time that I’ve been spending with Alan Bennett’s BBC films. I’ve had a boxed set for years: I bought it for A Question of Attribution, but I never watched anything else until this weekend. (What treasures!) One of the films is a documentary, Dinner at Noon, in which Bennett visits a hotel in Harrogate and revisits his shopkeeping parents’ self-abasing attitudes toward outposts of posh. Suave on the outside, Bennett has nevertheless inherited their misgivings about fitting in. He, too, got out of their world. But he woke up sooner than anyone else, I think, to the danger of allowing the longings of those whom you have left behind fester. And if part of him never accepted that his position in the world of the great and good was secure, he was realistic enough to understand that it was secure enough. So he stopped running away from Leeds, and became instead its ruefully smiling informal historian. And he knows, I’m sure, that the TV watching is a political, and not an economic, problem.


Tuesday 26th

“We don’t own it, do we?” This is what Kathleen when I told her that the DVD of Lily in Love did not cost very much. We had just watched it, or, rather, I had; as I expected, it put Kathleen to sleep. But it was a protest sleep: she couldn’t stand Christopher Plummer. She couldn’t stand Christopher Plummer playing a ham — two hams — given that he himself is already a ham. The film is a very light comedy, with few big laughs, so it’s not surprising that the biggest laugh of all comes at the very end, just before the credits roll. There are photographs of the leading actors, with their names in larger type over their characters’ names. Even Playbills aren’t quite so theatrical. Plummer is featured twice, once for playing Fitzroy Wynn, a Broadway star, and once for playing Roberto Terranova, an Italian actor whom Wynn concocts, with prosthetic aid, in order to get the lead in a new movie for which his wife, Lily, has written the screenplay. Maggie Smith gets third billing, for playing Lily. Elke Sommer, also in the picture, can’t have been happy about having her name obliterate her mouth.

Lily in Love was made in 1984, although it has a distinct Seventies air, even before the location moves to Budapest. I think that Maggie Smith’s performance makes the film seem older, too, because she seems so young. She turned fifty that year, and yet most of her movies were still to come. She had made The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) Travels With My Aunt (1972), Death on the Nile (1978), and Evil Under the Sun (1982), and a number of other pictures, but she had never really been an ingénue. In the very next year after Lily, she would play Charlotte Bartlett, the preposterous maiden aunt in A Room With a View, thus inaugurating (if Travels hadn’t already done so) her career as an eccentric old lady.

Lily in Love stands out in Maggie Smith’s oeuvre as a film altogether without eccentric old ladies. Maggie Smith plays a normal, attractive woman — if a playwright living in a Brooklyn Heights mansion with her ultra self-absorbed leading-man husband can be said to have access to normality. She doesn’t look young, exactly, and the role of an established professional doesn’t call for her to be girlish, but she doesn’t look fifty, either. There’s an amusing scene in which, popping her eyes while sighing romantically, she reminded me of the grossly underrated Glenne Headley, in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. She wears her coppery hair in the bob that Anna Wintour has never given up. She wears blue jeans.

Whether or not Frank Cucci’s screenplay had Norman Krasna’s My Geisha (1962) in mind, it attempts a retread. In the earlier film, directed by Jack Cardiff and starring Yves Montand and Shirley MacLaine in one of her most engaging roles, a Hollywood comédienne is passed over by her film-director husband (Montand) for a screen adaptation of Madame Butterfly. The husband flies off to Tokyo to audition unspoiled talent — and so does his wife, with an assist by their agent (Edward G Robinson). In no time at all, Lucy has put herself through geisha school, making My Geisha one of the classics of the genre that I call “Hollywood Loves a Makeover.” The director snaps her up and falls in love with her — an infidelity that Lucy and the filmmakers grapple with tenderly. Of course you know how it comes out.

The agent in Lily in Love is played by Adolph Green, and, this time, he has to help the husband to deceive the wife. When I saw Lily in Love the first time (it had just come out), I was amazed at the metamorphosis of Fitzroy Wynn, a trouper marinated in middle age, into sleek Roberto Terranova, but the second time, all I saw was “work,” and I cringed lest Lily actually touch his face and cause it to peel off. How long does it take Lily to recognize her husband? The movie is unclear about this, because, title notwithstanding, it is not about her. It’s about her husband, and Lily’s being in love (or not) is not a matter of great importance. I ought to say that the script, the lines that Maggie Smith is called upon to deliver, express an ambiguity. Smith’s face itself does not. It pops with ironic deadpan, arched eyebrows, and a mouth that is dying to giggle.

That’s why I’m not sorry to have an otherwise bad, and, what’s worse, dreary, movie in my library. As a public service, somebody ought to make Lily in Love freely available for streaming, so that everybody who’s beguiled by Downton Abbey, The Lady in the Van, or either of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotels can see what kind of career Maggie Smith might have had if Hollywood went in for attractive, intelligent women.


A word about Ruth, a novel that Elizabeth (Mrs) Gaskell published in 1853, the same year as her much better-known Cranford. Ruth is a social novel that was clearly intended to alter public opinion about one of England’s truly ironclad conventions. Unmarried women who gave birth to children were cast out of polite society, and their children were branded as bastards. It did not matter how young, inexperienced, poor or dependent the woman was — she was out. Respectable women and their families (their husbands excepted) could not meet her, in public or at home. No plague victim was ever so absolutely shunned.

Gaskell invokes plague itself to redeem her heroine. Having been discovered as a fallen woman in Book III (as triple-deckers go, Ruth is not so very long), the saintly Ruth takes up work as a nurse, and when typhus hits the town, she takes charge of the fever hospital and saves many lives. The town fathers fall over themselves in acclamation and gratitude. Of course, Ruth has to die anyway — there are limits — and Gaskell kills her off with a shamelessly melodramatic plot device that works like a charm. Tears will be shed! Everything is tied up in a most satisfactory parcel: Ruth was too good for this gross sublunary sphere anyway. Her little boy will be apprenticed to the town’s leading surgeon (himself a bastard!), and patriarchal Mr Bradshaw will pay for her tombstone.

Ruth shows just how good a writer Gaskell was, because as a piece of work it is simply ramshackle. You wonder how much Gaskell knew before she began writing it. I have never read an agreeable novel so devoid of foreshadowing. We’re all taught that foreshadowing is a good and clever thing that novelists do, but Ruth shows us why. The introduction of a good many of the characters has the same effect as bumping into someone in a dark corridor. A functionally significant minor character, Richard Bradshaw, passes almost inconsiderately from being a faceless child to being not quite the virtuous young man that his father thinks he is to being a loose-living young man to being a forger. What could be more villainous than forgery? Trollope would have crucified the fellow, but Gaskell dispatches him to Glasgow and a second chance. On another front, the political bribes that are spent in order to assure the election of Mr Bradshaw’s candidate for Parliament, are never brought home to roost on that high-minded dissenter. The parcel, as I say, is satisfactorily tied up, but it could have been bigger, more comprehensive.

Ruth herself was hard for me to take. She is said to be ravishingly beautiful and very sweet, also pious. Something must have happened to me when I was growing up that made it impossible for me to regard pious, sweet women as beautiful, or at any rate as attractive. I didn’t quite dislike Ruth, but it was close. I read the book dutifully — Kathleen had liked it — until Mr Bradshaw’s daughter, Jemima, emerged as a figure of interest, and, shortly after, her intended husband, Mr Farquhar. Jemima’s fits of impassioned jealousy, which do not make her unsympathetic, were far more frank than I expected them to be, and even when he was ranting about righteousness Jemima’s father never spoke in formulas. The scene in which he denounces Ruth and everyone complicit in her deception is very, very good.

In my reading pile is Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor. I have never read any Scott and I don’t expect to care for it. I’m hoping that Ruth will have loosened me up a bit. I shouldn’t want to be like unforgiving Mr Bradshaw!


Thursday 28th

These are days of fear and trembling: I am old enough to be shocked, still, by the suggestion of a political bond (no matter how opportunistic) between the leaders of the United States and Russia. So it is not surprising that Pankaj Mishra’s piece about Rousseau, in this week’s New Yorker, threw my bowels into an uproar. The last mists of confusion about Rousseau were dispelled. I had always wondered how the Age of Enlightenment produced him, but now I see: he was the movement’s Wicked Fairy. He was the outsider who fastened on its weaknesses. He understood that it was more interested in the liberty of ideas than in the liberty of men, and he detected a certain hypocrisy in its disdain for the uneducated. The philosophes claimed to promote the Rights of Man, but Rousseau grasped that their conception of “Man” was limited pretty much to the sons of affluent businessmen such as themselves. This went double or triple for Voltaire.

Instead of recognizing the prophetic (Wicked Fairy) aspect of Rousseau’s work, I fastened on the defects of his person, which were many. He made virtual orphans of all five of his children. He had few lasting friendships. He was a Victim. Oh, if only I’d paid more attention to the Victim business.

Yet, because Rousseau derived his ideas from intimate experiences of fear, confusion, loneliness and loss, he connected easily with people who felt excluded. Periwigged men in Paris salons, Tocqueville once lamented, were “almost totally removed from practical life” and worked “by the light of reason alone.” Rousseau, ont he other hand, found a responsive echo among people making the traumatic transition from traditional to modern society — from rural to urban life.

Let me come quickly to my point, which is that Enlightenment ideas are paying dearly, these days, for their exponents’ arrogance.

What was disdain in the early days became contempt in more recent times. When education was the preserve of the privileged and the wealthy, it was accepted that not everybody had the opportunity to improve himself by being a good student — few had it, in fact. After World War II, however, different measures in different countries — the GI Bill here — opened up higher education to academic merit, and while the privileged and the wealthy continued to have an edge in access to and benefit from university training, students who were the first members of their families to get beyond high school became not uncommon. It was perhaps inevitable that the success of these new arrivals would calcify the status of those who were not academically gifted. In fact, the condition of “not academically gifted” was all but denied. With effort, it was thought, anybody could get a degree, and then get the job that the degree was thought to lead to. People who didn’t go to college became shirkers. For twenty years now, pundits have been telling the unemployed and the laid off to go back to school to learn the new skills that we need today, and whatnot.

Thomas Friedman is an egregious offender against the dignity of ordinary people. No one is more blithe about the inevitability of a global economy. No one so good-hearted is more wrong-headed. His column yesterday carried an explicit banner at its head: “Web People vs Wall People.” There is nothing new or unfamiliar in the piece, and you may be forgiven for wondering why I call attention to it; I can only point to Mishra’s review of the latest book about Rousseau. With that in mind, the following snippet of Friedman seems worse than clueless.

Web People instinctively understand that Democrats and Republicans both built their platforms largely in response to the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal and the Cold War, but that today, a 21st-century party needs to build its platform in response to the accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change, which are the forces transforming the workplace, geopolitics and the very planet.

As such, the instinct of Web People is to embrace the change in the pace of change and focus on empowering more people to be able to compete and collaborate in a world without walls. In particular, Web People understand that in times of rapid change, open systems are always more flexible, resilient and propulsive; they offer the chance to feel and respond first to change. So Web People favor more trade expansion, along the lines of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and more managed immigration that attracts the most energetic and smartest minds, and more vehicles for lifelong learning.

As I wrote the other day, the immigrant embodies the global economy. He or she moves from this nation to that nation almost as if nations didn’t exist. Friedman tells us that this immigrant is likely to be more energetic and smarter than other people. He does not ask us to think about those other people, the ones who don’t migrate, because they have nothing to offer, or the ones who, in the immigrant’s new country, likewise lack the skills that would allow them to travel, whether abroad or around the corner, to a high-tech outfit, in search of a better life. What about these people? I call them the superfluous people because, to the extent that they do not or cannot avail themselves of effective job-training programs, they do not figure in the accounting of global economics. In the absence of global politics, the superfluous people have no representatives in the counsels of decision.

So is it any wonder that, despairing of the current dispensation, they turn to a demagogue who fires up their resentments? We can blame them for surrendering to the demagogue, and of course we can blame the demagogue, too — if we’re lucky, we can arrest him and contain him. But there is no getting around our fault. We who wish to continue running things as we have been running them refuse to take honest account of the superfluous people.

There are social ways of being superfluous, too, as Mishra points out. It hasn’t been helpful of our newly diverse, socially enfranchised progressives to mock and taunt the straight white males who don’t belong to the élite. (The ones who do can fight back.) What President Obama said about clinging to guns or religion was unbelievably regrettable, even if it was appropriately framed by clauses of sympathy. I might have done as badly myself. How many times have I railed against the apparent “right” to be stupid?

In the course of writing this Web log, I have discovered three laws. First, there will always be an élite, no matter what, and no matter how composed. Second, the quality of an élite depends not on its makeup but on its commitment to the happiness and prosperity of all the people in its charge. Third, a decadent élite eventually provokes chaos. I think that everybody already knows this, but this is hard to square with everyone’s refusal to admit belonging to the élite. Hence: a fourth law. Until you understand that the élite is not “somebody else,” you must write out my laws ten times a day.

I have no proposals for dealing with the superfluous people, no great ideas or whizbang solutions. I can see only that mainstream discussion of political and social problems has little or nothing to say about these people. That is, it has nothing genuine to offer. It cannot even manage to be polite — to listen to the aggrieved. This has been the classic élite failing since the Enlightenment — for what do ordinary people know that is not mere superstition?

We need to start listening, to make a habit of listening. If you want to know how, George Saunders set a remarkable example (with all due modesty) in another New Yorker piece. What these people will tell us, I think — even if they’re not aware of doing so — is that our ideas about the relation between economics and politics is, at best, decrepit. It’s the society, stupid.


Friday 29th

Question for regular readers: Remember Elizabeth Taylor?

In my keenness to re-read Penelope Lively’s novels, I have felt unfaithful to Taylor; I’d read everything once and that was that. I have re-read In a Summer Season, and the rather long story, “The Ambush.” When NYRB books published a collection of Taylor’s stories, I ran through the table of contents and, missing “The Ambush,” decided not to buy the book. It would have been grand to have a lightweight collection of superb Taylor stories, but how could such a collection exclude “The Ambush”? Or “The Excursion to the Source,” also not very short. Worse, the NYRB collection reprinted “Hester Lilly,” a fifty-page novella that, to my mind, represents an experiment that Taylor did not repeat. Nicola Beauman, Taylor’s unauthorized (but excellent) biographer, believes that Taylor ought to have stuck to short fiction, and that the time that she poured into her twelve novels might have yielded a rich harvest of stories instead. I see the point, but I don’t altogether agree; the later novels are very strong, and then there is the nonpareil Angel. But “Hester Lilly” is both too long and not long enough. A rich harvest of stories might have taken its place in the NYRB selection.

Leafing through the doorstopper of The Complete Stories, I’ve read a few that also appear in the NYRB. Three come from the 1958 collection, The Blush, and two of them are jokes. I made a hash out of trying to tell the jokes to Kathleen last night; perhaps her being on the verge of sleep made it hard for her to appreciate them. One joke is funnier than the other, but the other is the bigger joke. In “You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There,” Rhoda, a girl who feels painfully shy, is obliged to deputize for her mother at a commercial banquet honoring her father, the manufacturer of “homemade” cookies. At the high table, Rhoda is seated between her father and the mayor of a Midlands town. The mayor is wearing his gold chain or collar of office, and, finding that she is able to make small talk with him only if she never looks him in the face, Rhoda fastens her eyes on his chain. The only thing that she can think to talk about is her Burmese cat, Minkie, but even the cat’s connection to the town of which the man is mayor does not rouse much interest. After dinner, there is a dance. Rhoda notices that the man with the collar has left — because she doesn’t see the chain anywhere. A man asks to dance with her, barely concealing that this is an act of duty. As they waltz somewhat stiffly, she chatters on about Minkie. The man is rudely silent. Only afterward does Rhoda discover that the mayor has taken his chain off.

How mortifying for Rhoda! Now she’ll never go to another party! But I found it very hard not to sympathize with the mayor, not least because Taylor emphasizes the long-suffered routine of such dinners. She points out that the mayor doesn’t eat much of the turbot or the chicken — staples on such occasions, according to Rhoda’s mother. When the lady on the other side of the mayor asks him which ice cream flavor “crops up most often,” he answers, “jovially,” that it’s vanilla, eight to one. He has already told the girl that he does not care for cats, and yet here she is on the dance floor nattering on about Minkie again. How often do dimwitted young women crop up? Probably not as often as eight to one, but there are surely too many of them. I’m not sure that I was intended feel tenderly for the mayor, but I thought it quite ingenious of Taylor to get me to do so.

The other story, “Perhaps a Family Failing,” is about a mésalliance. The daughter of the abstemious Mrs Cotterell has just married the oafish son of gin-soaked Mr Midwinter. At the reception, every guest gets one (1) glass of port, with which to toast the happy couple. Driving the twenty miles to the honeymoon hotel, the thirsty groom pulls the car over at a public house. The bride forbears to complain. The hotel reached, the bride prepares herself to sacrifice her virginity. The groom goes down to the bar. Hours pass. The bride fumes in her flimsies, longing for Closing Time. But just before Closing Time, two patrons lose control over their respective dogs, and in the ensuing commotion, the groom is bitten, and then bitten again. Already fairly drunk, he is dazed by the wounds, and he is grateful when someone offers him a lift back to his parents’ house. He has completely forgotten the wedding.

Well, that’s why God provided for annulments.

Both of these stories are so rich — I keep coming back to that word, as if Taylor were serving extraordinarily savoury cakes — that I shan’t have spoiled either of them for you. Another story that appears in the NYRB collection is “The Voices.” At a modest hotel in Athens, a woman recuperates from a recent illness — depression? Instead of seeing the sights for herself, she lies in bed and eavesdrops on the touristic commentary of the women in the next room. Sisters, they are a perfectly matched pair of old birds, one vague and the other caustic It does sound like ideal therapy. But it is brought to an end by a sneeze. I also re-read “Summer Schools,” which, incidentally, also involves the discomfort of an abstemious woman in a drinks-driven environment, as does “Girl Reading,” the most glamorous tale of the bunch. Etta, who lives with her mother in a gloomy Thames Valley town perhaps not unlike Reading, where Taylor grew up, is invited by a school friend to spend a week at her roomy, idyllic home, also on the Thames, right on it. The river may be the same, but it is pointed out twice that the weather is different. Etta’s rapturous week is spent studying her friend’s older brother and his fiancée, hoping to see what love looks like in life, as opposed to books, while in turn her friend’s other brother, only a year older, moons over Etta. Very subtly, the comfortable stability of the friend’s home is called into question. The engaged couple is hardly a picture of married bliss, and there are perhaps too many cocktails being downed on the terrace. For Etta, however, a problem arises when her plans to return home are changed. Instead of taking the train, she will be fetched by her mother, in a borrowed car. Etta knows that her mother and her friend’s family will not mix.

Again, everything is done to present the mother sympathetically. The father is long dead, and the mother has had to scrimp and save and work long hours to afford her daughter’s school fees, only to lose her, effectively, to the easy-going ambience of wealthy people among whom the girl is unlikely to hobnob — unless, of course, she manages to escape the mother’s world altogether. When Etta is at home, the house is drab and lonely, and we understand her longing for livelier surroundings. When Etta is not at home, however, the house is even drabber and lonelier, and the mother feels it. It’s a triumph of sorts that she does not spoil the end of Etta’s visit. The tension of the averted awkwardness makes the mother’s sacrifices heroic.

Three stories that I’ve re-read don’t appear in the NYRB volume: “In a Different Light,” which begins on a Greek island and ends in the Thames Valley (what plays in stays in), “Mr Wharton,” which shows what might become of Etta and her mother a few years down the road — but only if Etta weren’t such a reader — and “A Nice Little Actress.” This last demonstrates the formidable concision with which a grown-up voice can refresh an old story. Iris is a bored suburban siren. She seduces a young musician who waits at the bus stop outside her house. The musician, rapt, decides to kill Iris’s husband, largely roused by Iris’s amorous complaints, inventions mostly. By the time he’s ready to act, however, Iris is bored with him. This is on the fifth and final page of the story. A page earlier, we’re told

She always took his love fiercely and crossly as if she bore him some grudge. He mistook this for passion.

Iris thinks that she might have made a good actress, but she is just a phony. The story is extremely sordid, but it’s over before it stales.

I found myself wondering if Taylor’s world might not be as vanished as Jane Austen’s. All the stories are haunted by the aftershock of terrible austerity, the austerity of the Depression, the austerity of the War, but most of all the odd austerity of victory. Reading Taylor’s novels in the order in which they were written is like watching the rising sun deepen the colors of things. At Mrs Lippincote’s, A View of the Shore, and, especially, A Wreath of Roses are pale books in which not many real comforts are on offer; in contrast, In a Summer Season and The Soul of Kindness have rather opulent backgrounds. It is not that the later novels are happier, but they are more vibrant. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is not quite so jolly as the lovely movie that Joan Plowright and Rupert Friend made of it, but it does twinkle. I find that this true of the stories as well. But who remembers this austerity? Who remembers what a demoralizing blow the near bankruptcy of Britain was? How quickly the Empire evaporated! And yet how intractably the demands of respectability continued to strangle spontaneity.

The other night, I watched My House in Umbria, an HBO movie that came out in 2003. I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least, but I only just realized that it is not set in the present day. I had assumed, why I don’t know, that the men wore jackets and ties and the women dresses and scarves because they were simply nice people, living in civilized Italy (not too civilized for a terrorist bomb, however). Old cars were kept in good repair. What finally broke this spell was a chance detail, hitherto unnoticed by me. I will simply say that it is the steering wheel of an American car in America. Suddenly I understood that the film’s setting was late mid-century — 1965, perhaps. I’ve ordered William Trevor’s novella of the same name; it came out in 1991. We shall see.


For ages, I’ve wanted to make a delicious pound cake, something to remind me of the pound cake that tasted like heaven, literally, in Bermuda in 1955. But it has been a long time since my last cake of any kind — barring angel food, which I make whenever my bottle of egg whites fills up. (And why does it do that? Spaghetti alla carbonara.) I used to make Rose Levy Beranbaum’s poppy seed pound cake, but I baked it in a lovely glass kugelhopf mold from which it always emerged intact. When the mold inevitably shattered, I could neither replace it nor find a substitute; no matter what I did, some part of the cake remained stuck in metal molds. So I stopped making the cake, which will sound stupid to anybody who doesn’t cook a lot.

Beranbaum’s recipe is reprinted in the Guarnaschelli edition of The Joy of Cooking — the only edition I’ll touch — and when I went looking for a pound cake recipe I chose one nearby. I was very disappointed by the result, and after one slice threw the cake away. I can’t think what I did wrong, but I wasn’t tempted to try again. I turned instead to James Beard’s much more complicated recipe in American Cookery. Well, it’s more complicated because it calls for eight separated eggs. Eight! I often separate four or five eggs, to make a soufflé, but eight is asking for trouble. I resorted to a special cup with a trapdoor bottom, also useful for degreasing the juices of a roast. I broke each egg into a teacup, one at a time, then ran it through the separator. The white dropped into a ramekin, and then the intact yolk would be tipped into a measuring cup. So would the contents of the ramekin. Five vessels I had before me. It seemed to take forever.

I composed the batter in the bowl of a KitchenAid stand mixer. The mixer was certainly up to the job of combining a pound of butter with nearly the same quantities of flour and sugar, not to mention the eight egg yolks. But the bowl was too small for folding. Next time, I’ll turn the batter out into a large Mason-Cash bowl. Then I’ll be able to spoon on the beaten egg whites and, slipping a spatula along the bottom of the bowl, scoop up the batter over the whites, gently but comprehensively. The second adjustment to what I did yesterday will be to run the oven a little hotter. It took ninety minutes for the larger loaf to spring back to the touch. James Beard said that it might take seventy-five, at the most. As a result of the prolonged baking, the crust was a bit thick. I’ll also remember to put in somewhat more flavoring. I’m shy about overdoing extracts, but I wasn’t bearing in mind that I was making two rather dense loaves.

So the pound cake is a bit pallid, but the crumb is incredibly light. The cake seems to melt on the tongue. I had completely forgotten that that was part of the heaven in Bermuda.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
New Dispensation
July 2016 (III)

18, 19, 21, 22 July

Monday 18th

Not too long ago, after Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan inflicted yet another crackdown on journalists, generals, or other dissidents, I predicted (to Kathleen) that he was going to have a coup on his hands if he didn’t ease up. Kathleen and I talk about Turkey regularly, having spent an extraordinary week in Istanbul in 2005, when Erdoğan was still new to office. He embodied the hope that cultural Islam and liberal democracy could work together. There were signs of the strongman to come, but we preferred to look on the bright side. Our emphatically secular Turkish hosts, however, did not see a bright side. Keeping up with Turkish affairs after our return, we came to share their pessimism.

On Friday evening, Kathleen called to say that she was leaving the office and would be home soon, and, by the way, there was a coup in Turkey. For about five minutes, I all but chuckled with self-congratulation. Then my dancing in the streets came to an end. Like most political dreamers, I had savored the delicious prospect of the End of Erdoğan. I had not given much thought to the Beginning of What Next. Whatever might be next, the confused and very limited reports that were available online did not promise a smooth transition. As Friday ticked into Saturday, I found myself hoping that Erdoğan would reassert himself and crush the coup. Which was bitter medicine indeed, since the man is an exemplar of the kind of leader who may be ushering today’s liberal democracies into vastly more repressive states of illiberal populism.

I want to contrast Turkey with China. China is very large country with some very large problems. Its financial health appears at times to depend on the structural integrity of a house of cards. Its élite is peculiarly unmeritocratic, composed of the children of long-dead revolutionaries, many of whom suffered disgrace. A vaulting national pride, if checked by the consequences of official miscalculation, could easily turn rancid. But if China “collapsed,” its own mass would absorb most of the energy released. The disaster would probably not spread to neighboring countries. It may be conventional to translate the Chinese for “China” (Zhongguo “中國/中国”) as “Middle Kingdom,” but a far more accurate rendering is “Central Country,” where “central” has the powerful resonance of the statement, “The sun is the central body in our solar system.” In this sense, however, China is greater than the sun, because it already contains its own periphery. And it has a history of collapsing every two to two hundred and fifty years.

Turkey is not a small country, and it has its share of problems. But it is no central country. It is a fragment of the Ottoman Empire, which was run — “governed” would not be the word — by a Turkish dynasty until shortly after World War I. Most provinces of the old empire are today’s Middle-Eastern trouble spots. Turkey also shares its borders with some remnants of the more recent Soviet Empire, whose local instability has been squeezed by Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s most serious internal problem is a border issue of sorts: Kurdistan. Kurdistan is yet another poisoned fruit of the treaties that refashioned the Middle East after World War I. Kurdistan does not exist, of course, but the Kurds were promised by the diplomats that it would come into being at some point. Like almost every other conflict in the Middle East, the question of Kurdistan was postponed by larger twentieth-century upheavals, and then forestalled by the Cold War.

That was my first thought: disarray in Ankara would provide Kurds with an excellent opportunity to rally to their own nationalist cause in Diyarbakir. More violence! What would Russia do? What about Greece, with its islands, like Lesbos, within sight of the Turkish mainland? What if one thing, as it always does, led to another? What if opposition to the military coup led to a surge in support for Da’esh (ISIS)? Good grief! This was no time for Turkey to be falling apart.

Unhappy but relieved by the suppression of the coup, I thought of Simon Winder and the “second step.” Discussing the revolutions of 1848 in his charming history of the Hapsburgs, Danubia, Winder pointed that, while everybody seemed to want to overthrow the government, whichever government that might be, there was no consensus on what ought to happen next. The success of revolutions, he surmised, depends on the viability of an agreed-upon second step. Military coups prove the point. A consensus among a small number of top brass, together with the kind of expert plan of campaign that military organizations formulate as a matter of course, all but guarantees success. In Turkey, however, President Erdoğan has been purging the Army for ten years, and the resulting fragmentation of leadership is militarily anomalous. When I first heard of the coup, I was amazed by what must have been a profoundly secretive and extensive conspiracy. Except there wasn’t one.


I wonder if I could get a job at the Strand Book Store. I know I could pass the quiz. They have a test, you see, to weed out illiterate applicants. It is not a difficult test. Well, I didn’t think it was. The Times actually printed five versions of the quiz, and I was midway through the third one when I realized that the answer-pattern was constant. You had to match authors and titles; the first author went with the sixth title, and the last author went with the fourth. The “trick” question was that there was no title for the second author; correspondingly, there was no author for the eighth title. So, bully for me. The Times reported that there is no quiz for applicants at Barnes & Noble. There’s a colossal understatement in there somewhere.

To give you an idea of what I do find challenging, here is a sentence from Helen Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats:

I call this new form of conceptualization an advance because in Melancholy each of the mistress’s companions is defined by a post-positioned clause which has a restrictive intent. (161)

What this means in plainer English is that the beauty of the mistress in the “Ode on Melancholy” will die, that Joy is always “bidding adieu,” and that pleasure is “metabolized to poison not after, but during, the moment of the ingestion of that pleasure.” When Vendler speaks of “advance,” she is referring to the ways in which the “Ode on Melancholy” surpasses the achievements of the four odes that Keats had already written. In the warmer half of 1819, Keats wrote six odes, four of them extremely famous: the “Ode to a Nightingale,” the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the “Ode on Melancholy,” and, finally, “To Autumn.”

At the beginning of her book, Vendler tells us what inspired it.

The polemic impulse from which this book began arose when I read Allen Tate’s judgment that the ode To Autumn “is a very nearly perfect piece of style but it has little to say.” I thought that To Autumn said everything there was to say. (13)

I bought The Odes of John Keats because it was advertised, along with other books by Vendler, on the back jacket of her book on Shakespeare’s sonnets. I have always admired the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” and I tried, in college, to commit the “Ode on Melancholy” to memory. For reasons not clear to me, I have always exempted Keats from my constitutional dislike of Romantic poetry. Keats can be as Romantic as it gets — I believe that what I mean by “Romantic” is what Vendler calls “luxurious” — but there is a firm foundation beneath the flowers. I have had the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Keats’s Poetical Works since it cost $1.75 — all but a few years of my life.

I did not know that Vendler was also inspired to write about Keats by her study of Wallace Stevens, the subject of her first book, On Extended Wings. So much the better. Wallace Stevens has become very important to me. This is not to say that I “love his poetry.” I don’t “love poetry.” But I live, if not on words, then on phrases, and poetry is the most concentrated kind of verbiage. The words in poetry — and by “poetry” I mean metrical verse; free verse I find just about as disagreeable as public nudity — are made to work hard, as is the reader of Helen Vendler. The reader of Helen Vendler must learn to sense at least a few of the words that a poet has not used for the important ones that he has.

Wallace Stevens liked to kid people who complained that they didn’t understand his poetry by saying that it didn’t matter, so long as he understood it. He also joked that the only way to understand it was to have written it. Vendler expressly recommends copying out poems in longhand, an exercise that I have yet to attempt. It is true that copying good poetry, even at a keyboard, is always surprisingly difficult, because while it usually sounds familiar (that is, it reads as regular English), it comprises numerous tiny departures from ordinary speech. Word-order might be inverted, or a somewhat uncommon verb be substituted for the one that you “remember,” even right after reading the line. In the “Ode on Melancholy,” one of the verses that I did manage to memorize does not read,

Though seen by none save him whose strenuous tongue

No; it reads “Though seen of none save him…” In The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner starts out by telling us how clever he thought he was to select Marianne Moore’s three-line “Poetry” for a classroom memorization assignment. In the event, he failed to recite it accurately not just once but in three attempts, much to his classmates’ smirking satisfaction. There is something of the tongue-twister in these lines from Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West”:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was was she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word,
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

Something of a mind-twister, too: I always want to say, “Since what she heard…” The deviation from expectation is what makes poetry surprising and fresh, and you miss it if you content yourself with reading a poem and turning the page. The great problem of poetry is that there is far too much of the very good stuff, more than anyone could ever practicably deal with in the manner that the enjoyment of poetry requires. You can read Shakespeare’s sonnets all the way through — in fact, you must, to savor Shakespeare’s grasp of the phases of love, as if they were the colors of the rainbow, leading from one to the next. But to delight in the sonnets, you must wrestle with them. You must memorize them of course, but you must also spot the instances of Shakespeare’s saying this and not that.

What I can’t decide is whether to equip myself with a biography of Keats. I don’t know much about him. How, in the space of little more than twenty-five years, can there be much to know? He must have been reading or writing all the time; except he can’t have been, given his professional studies as an apothecary and a surgeon. I did see Jane Campion’s Bright Star once, but it seemed more about Jane Campion than about Keats (although Abbie Cornish was lovely). The problem is that Helen Vendler’s book on the odes gives me the feeling of having overheard bits and pieces of a truly fascinating conversation. It may be that I have heard all the truly fascinating bits and pieces.

There is one development in the series of Keats’s odes that even the untutored eye can discern. In “To Autumn,” there is not a single reference to classical mythology. No goddess is mentioned, no Tempe or Arcady. There is only the harvest, and the stubble-plains from which it has been reaped. I am reminded of a passage from “Credences of Summer,” the poem that made Wallace Stevens important to me (not least because I was listening to a recording of him reciting it): This is the barrenness/Of the fertile thing that can attain no more. It is entirely possible that Vendler will quote this in her remarks on “To Autumn,” which I’m about midway through; she has been quoting Stevens throughout the book.

I don’t love poetry; I love language, and poetry is to language as love is to a lover. Had I but world enough and time, I still wouldn’t get through the half of it.


Tuesday 19

I must be doing something wrong. When I type in, nothing happens. If I ask Google, it returns a number of strange links, only one of which, to a story at Advertising Age, appears to be germane. Perhaps things are not quite up and running.

On page A5 of today’s Times, there’s a full-page ad for — for what? For Captain Morgan Rum? Or for a campaign to amend the constitution, to lower — and not, presumably, to eliminate altogether — the age restriction that denies eligibility to serve as president of the United States to persons under thirty-five years of age? The story in Ad Age asks if this is a serious political undertaking or a marketing stunt for the rum. Given the presence of Donald Trump on the scene, I don’t think it makes much difference.

When I came of age, the jungle drums counseled us not to trust anyone over thirty. As I have a higher regard for Millennials as a generation than I do for fellow-boomers, I am not unwilling to consider a petition to lower the eligibility age. Although my personal experience supports the view that wisdom comes only with time, I see so little evidence of this in the people around me that it seems foolish to generalize from the one instance of me. Millennials do seem to regard current derangements with a healthy, scoffing WTF. They bring truly fresh minds, uncluttered by received ideas, to the problems that face us all. They are not invested (yet) in the sunk costs of their careers (also known as the status quo), and they are not distracted by the novelty of computers, any more than they are aware of the coeval novelty of themselves.

But the good side is the same as the bad side. What do Millennials know about anything? Knowledge is a kind of investment, and the very freshness of the generation suggests to me that any investment in knowledge has so far been provisional. Worse, I am almost certain that the kind of knowledge that I should call humanist — knowledge about human nature and its limitations, and especially about the compulsions to and the frustrations of human cooperation — is likely to be dismissed by Millennials as useless old crap. Given the state of humanist education, one almost has to hope that Millennials would have nothing to do with it. This is no bar to lowering the eligibility age, however, as the Millennials’ elders are much worse: they think that they understand humanism. They don’t call it that, and of course it isn’t, but the jumble of pseudopsychology and playground heuristics that guide older people when they stop to think, which we must be grateful doesn’t happen more often, is piled precisely where humanist insight ought to be. No one today is in a position to say that merely being older than thirty-five increases the strength of one’s understanding. If a horde of kindergartners could be shown to be able to cancel Donald Trump’s political viability, I’d vote for the little kiddies.

It is impossible, really, to look at the Captain Morgan ad without weeping tears of hope. Covering a little less than half a page of the Sunday Review section of the other day’s Times, there was a piece by Stanley Fish for which I really think the Captain Morgan ad, however rum, may be the only antidote. Now, as we go through life, we inevitably encounter a few people who, try as they might, never fail to strike us as assholes. It is not that they do foolish things from time to time; rather, they are, existentially, assholes, incapable of being anything else. I am sure that I am so regarded by a number of the people into whom I have bumped in my scores of years. And I am sure that Stanley Fish will always represent to me the asshole of the most inveterate type. He will always be the overseer, or whatever he was at the time, of Duke University’s Social Text, the learned journal which accepted Alan Sokal’s parody of deconstructionist jargon, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” for publication in a 1996 issue. Fish will always be the idiot who defended the journal, in the Times, thus:

When Professor Sokal declares that “theorizing about ‘the social construction of reality’ won’t help us find an effective treatment for AIDS,” he is at once right and wrong. He is right that sociologists will never do the job assigned properly to scientists. He is wrong to imply that the failure of the sociology of science to do something it never set out to do is a mark against it.

My point is finally a simple one: A research project that takes the practice of science as an object of study is not a threat to that practice because, committed as it is to its own goals and protocols, it doesn’t reach into, and therefore doesn’t pose a danger to, the goals and protocols it studies. Just as the criteria of an enterprise will be internal to its own history, so will the threat to its integrity be internal, posed not by presumptuous outsiders but by insiders who decide not to play by the rules or to put the rules in the service of a devious purpose.

This means that it is Alan Sokal, not his targets, who threatens to undermine the intellectual standards he vows to protect. Remember, science is above all a communal effort. No scientist (and for that matter, no sociologist or literary critic) begins his task by inventing anew the facts he will assume, the models he will regard as exemplary and the standards he tries to be faithful to.

Lest you find dealing with this historic eyewash a struggle, I shall turn to what Stanley Fish had to say this weekend. His subject was historians. He was angry — perhaps that is too strong a word — at the historians who signed a public letter denouncing Donald Trump’s candidacy, not because of the opinions expressed but because the historians claimed to be speaking ex cathedra, as historians, as though historians had any special insight into things. To Stanley Fish, the historians’ opinions were no more and no less valid than anyone else’s. He praised Ruth Bader Ginsburg for having made her deprecations of Donald Trump not from the bench but off the cuff, in her capacity as little old lady.

To demonstrate the historians’ ultra vires, Stanley Fish took the trouble to outline those skills and protocols for which historians are professionally qualified to call themselves experts.

No, it’s their job to teach students how to handle archival materials, how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence, how to build a persuasive account of a disputed event, in short, how to perform as historians, not as seers or political gurus.

There is nothing wrong with this summary, except everything, because the whole point of history is elided. Stanley Fish mentions the kinds of expertise that, as experience has taught, will help the historian to do his job well. But what is his job? Would Stanley Fish limit it to “build[ing] a persuasive account of a disputed event”? Perhaps. All history is somewhat disputed, or at least certainly disputable, because what we know about the past isn’t very much. But it happens to be all that we do know, and historians are the people who know what there is to know about the past. Some historians confine themselves to finding out more. Others, however, tells us what can be said about what we have been through as a species. They know our stories and they tell them well.

It is true that the idea of the historian as a storyteller has suffered a massive loss of prestige over the past several generations, along with the idea of history as literature. Stories and literature sit ill with the scientific urges, and pseudoscientific claims, of modern historians. At the same time, comprehensive histories — stories with lots of detail — are deemed boring by the public (they almost always have been). This is not to say that literary history has died out. One spine that leaps out from my bookshelf is Christopher Clark’s compelling account of the run-up to World War I, The Sleepwalkers. Nearby stands Andrew Thompson’s rather elegant life of George II, one of the kings of England who doesn’t get mentioned at all in 1066 And All That, and also the subject of a myth about standing up for Handel’s “Hallelujah!” (It cannot be said with certainty that George ever even heard Messiah.) But Thompson gives us a man who might quite intelligently take more interest in his position as a benevolent despot, as Elector of Hanover, than in his constitutionally checked role in a somewhat bourgeois game of politics. No, literary history is not dying. But how many Millennials are reading it? Who is teaching them to read it?

Who is making the case for history? Donald Trump’s claim, that he will be able to make America great again, bristles with historical questions. When was America great, and who said so? What did greatness really entail? If it is impossible to go back in time, how can greatness, or anything else about America’s past, be re-created? Donald Trump’s listeners are not interested in these questions. But his opponents ought to be. It seems to me that one of the constraints that keeps the Democratic Party earthbound and uninspiring is the belief among many active Democrats that America has been a disappointment, which is one way of looking at things. I prefer to regard this country as a promise, if indeed a promise that a disappointing minority of Americans have felt moved to keep. It was a promise already broken by slavery, broken again by the Jacksonians, and by the Redemptionists, and by a host of cranks and charlatans. It is a promise that Abraham Lincoln fought to keep (although I believe that he was mistaken in his objectives). It is a promise to which FDR and LBJ gave a great deal of material realization. It is a promise that Republicans since Nixon have refused to recognize as such, much less to honor. But it is a promise that is endlessly renewed. I say all of this not as a historian but as someone who has learned a great deal from historians.

Nothing, nothing could be further from Donald Trump’s language than the idea of the United States as a promise. The word itself would not pass from his lips.


De fil en aiguille, say the French. From the thread into the needle, or “one thing leading to another,” only homelier, without the agency of leading. A while ago, I got round to watching Carol, Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt. That in turn led to watching Side Effects, in which Rooney Mara is almost as spellbinding as she is in Carol. It also led to re-reading Edith’s Diary, a novel by Highsmith that I had grossly misremembered. It led to checking out IMDb, to see what other movies have been inspired by Highsmith’s books, in addition to the well-known Hitchcock and Ripley entries, and coming across something called The Two Faces of January.

The novel was published in 1964. The movie, written by Hossein Amini (Drive, Shanghai) and directed by him as well (it’s his only feature to date), came out in 2014. My movie attendance had already fallen off by then, but it surprised me to have missed a Highsmith adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac. I am something of a completist about Oscar Isaac, so I had to see this movie. I ordered it, sight unseen from Amazon, and when it arrived, Kathleen and I watched it. We liked it — Kirsten Dunst is also very good in it — but we felt that something was missing. In other words, I wasn’t surprised that I hadn’t heard of it. I decided to read the novel.

Reading the novel after seeing the movie was one of the most exasperating experiences of my life. Why? Why? Why? Why had Amini fiddled with Highsmith’s story? Before I had finished the first couple of chapters, I was aware that every deviation made by Amini from the novel was a mistake. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the climactic events at the Palace of Knossos, as I shall coyly refer to a surprising sudden death. Where Amini follows Highsmith, The Two Faces of January is lucid and exciting; where he differs, the movie muddles uncertainly. It almost goes without saying that the novel is vastly more exciting than the movie.

This is because of Highsmith’s trademark ability to capture the weird and creepy shifts in an anxious person’s state of mind. In Edith’s Diary, Cliffie oscillates between triumph and despair with almost insensate giddiness; in the end, it’s always luck that decides. In The Two Faces of January, there are two anxious people. One is anxious from the start; the other, by allowing a relationship to develop with the first, soon has good reason to be anxious as well. Highsmith, of course, can describe these flutters in luxuriant detail, and it is relatively difficult for a filmmaker to capture them. But that is what directing and acting are all about. And here I regretfully come up against the second objective problem with the adaptation. Much as I admire Oscar Isaac, he is not at all suited to play Rydal Keener, the damaged and aimless young American who forms a triangle with an American swindler and his much younger wife.

Rydal is a classic Highsmith creation. He could be Cliffie’s first cousin. He is not a narcissist, but he is wrapped up in a wound that he suffered as a teenager — a wound exacerbated by a father to whom the swindler bears an uncanny resemblance. (The father has recently died, as we learn in the movie as well. But the movie does not make it clear that the swindler looks like the father twenty years ago — that, as is never doubted in the book, the swindler could not possibly be, actually, the father. Instead, the movie plays with this uncertainty, an intrusive red herring.) It occurred to me as I read that one of Oscar Isaac’s recent costars, Domhnall Gleeson, would have made a much more plausible Rydal. Oscar Isaac is simply too solid, too sure in his body, and far too sexually confident to impersonate a man confused about his lovability.

The Now A Major Motion Picture edition of the novel describes Rydal on the back copy as “an American expat working as a tour guide, and running cons on the side.” The Rydal actually within the covers is neither a tour guide nor a con. He is a Yale law-school graduate who is bitterly running through a legacy from his grandmother before returning to the States and settling down. He is more a mark than a con.

The game might be called Adventure. It depended on meeting the Right Person, male or female. Something would take place when his eyes met the eyes of the Right Person, there would be a shock of recognition, one of them would speak, they would have some kind of Adventure together — or there wouldn’t be anything in the eyes, and absolutely nothing would happen. (12)

Rydal is smart, but not in Oscar Isaac’s character’s street-smart way. He is more of a Sherlock Holmes, working things out in his mind. He is scarily good at figuring out what is likely to happen next. This gives him strange powers over the swindler, who, at the beginning of the novel, is at the point of beginning to crumble into his own plinth, as if sinking in quicksand. Again, the book’s finale is far more breathtaking than the shoot-out in the movie, even if the latter is set in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. It is the perfect dissolution of a broken character — I actually thought of Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Where the judge reveals his nature as a cartoon character by dissolving in acetone, Highsmith’s swindler dissolves in booze — never have I read a more convincing account of the horror of a blackout.

One final remark — I really don’t want to spoil this treat for anyone; read the book, see the movie concerns the title. Do you see the word “January” in the title? Yes, it’s also a reference to the ambiguities of Janus, but it happens to be the month in which the action is set. In January, it is cold in sunny Greece, and cold is a leitmotif of the story. The movie’s summer whites suggest a carefree way of life that no character in the book experiences for an instant. (Kirten Dunst would have looked so good, shivering in a mink stole!)

I haven’t said anything about Viggo Mortensen. You might not recognize him, not only because he has graduated from cute young man to Joseph Cotton, but because he acts like Joseph Cotton, too. There is something finely wrinkled about his tentative behavior. As in the book, he loses his grip joule by joule. He, too, would have looked terrific in a more faithful adaptation, suddenly terrified of death and confessing his sins as if that would keep him going. Viggo Mortensen would have lit up at the end.


Thursday 21st

This will be brief. I have already written my quota of words for the day. (I don’t begin to think about winding down until a total of two thousand is in sight.) But what I’ve written today is not going to appear here. I’ve kept it apart, as the start of something larger and longer, where it will be out of view for a good while. At a certain point, I shall ask a few friends to take a look, and then I shall decide whether to resume what I’ve been doing here, or to continue with the new thing. I hope to be able to do a bit of both — a thousand words there, a thousand words here. These things always take a while to figure out, because I’m making it all up. The process, I mean, not just the contents.

At some point, I’ve known, I was going to have to take a break from long entries here in order to begin work on the memoir that I’ve been sketching for nearly a year now — or for four years, or for ten, or fifteen, depending on how you want to look for beginnings. The difference between the sketches and the memoir proper is that the individual chapters of the memoir must be written in sequence, from beginning, through middle, to end. Everything must be introduced before it can be recognized, and each sentence must grow from the ones just before it. A great deal of the material in the sketches will be repeated, but I expect that it will be rewritten from scratch. I certainly have no intention of cutting and pasting the various entries at this site.

I expected as long ago as September that I’d be ready to begin with a serious full draft either by the summer of this year or never at all, and in the past couple of weeks I have felt stirrings of a change. Change is all that the shift has in common with giving birth: once there was nothing or nobody, then there is something or somebody. The commonplace of exploiting the image of gestation is misleading. I am not so overflowing with ideas that I must write them down. I have been writing them down. Now I need new ideas, ideas that come to mind only de fil en aiguille. I can pursue those ideas only by never putting down the needle and the thread, and also by writing privately. It is a great pleasure to write a few excited paragraphs and then to press the button that will publish them, and, as I say, I hope to continue doing that. But the new writing that I want to do requires a quiet that is at odds with publication. It is ridiculous for me to feel guilty about cutting back on the flow of verbiage here — not least because of abominable conceit — but I console myself, and, I hope, the regular reader as well, with the reflection that we shall all have more time for other things.

I had hoped that it would happen at the beginning of a week’s entry, or, better, on the first of August, which this year will be the first of the week as well as the beginning of a month. August is the month for vacation. Last year, I returned from it with the determination to write as great deal more. Now, somewhat earlier than I had hoped, I am determined to write somewhere else.

I don’t mind telling you that I wrote about Keats and Woolf today, and that the way that I wrote about them was the way that I should write about them here, not as any kind of expert in literary figures but as sources of interest and pleasure. I experienced a rather thrilling conjunction the other night, reading To the Lighthouse after having finished Helen Vendler’s book, The Odes of John Keats. Thinking about it yesterday, on my midweek day off, I realized that I had arrived at the moment of decision: would I write up the experience as yet another blog entry, or would I mark the event as an auspicious point of entry, a way of beginning? I was queasily uncertain. By this morning, as I finished reading the Times, I was almost nauseous — although waiting to hear that Kathleen had landed in Portland (yet another long weekend away, but the last for a while) certainly contributed to the sea-sickness. Her call came just as I sat down at the desk, before I could pull the petals off too many daisies.

I will be honest about one thing: I am not sure how much longer I could continue writing altogether publicly, in the face of Donald Trump. I was reading Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers last night, and his insistence that Greek science committed Platonic suicide as a way of dealing with an insupportable political mess was hideously convincing. Regular readers must know how I feel about Plato, but Koestler quite leaves me in the dust, he is so appalled by the desperate, soul-crushing mind-shift that was engineered by the Academy. Thanks to Aristarchus of Samos, heliocentric theory was on the verge of adoption; the measurements were astonishingly close, given the lack of telescopes and whatnot. But the educated public slipped the other way, favoring an unchanging universe moving in uniform circular motion around a degenerate, mutable earth, for which the only hope was a strong aristocracy. Two thousand years later, or nearly, that world-view would be effortfully overturned. But now the liberal democracies that grew up with what we call modern science seem as disordered as the ancient Greeks, and here is Donald Trump in the big ring. I need to do at least some writing about which I am not forced to consider how it will sound in a circus.


Friday 22nd

The second day of work on the new project was rather harder than the first, but not as hard as I feared it might be. I was afraid because yesterday’s work, like most good beginnings, was somewhat visionary, and written in a state of exaltation. Today, I had to pay a great deal of attention to small details of construction and pace, and I felt that I was continuing according to the principles that guided me yesterday. I won’t know until there’s more whether I have succeeded in managing the tonal complex that makes a long piece of writing coherent. I met my quota within a reasonable time, and ended with a thought to be taken up when I resume. The regular reader would have found more than a few familiar items, but I didn’t have to care about that.


At lunch, I was reduced to reading Vanity Fair — a sweet but nothing piece about the Umpteenth Marmaduke of Shaftesbury that wouldn’t have seen the light of day had it not been for his father’s lurid murder some years ago — because two rather educated boors were having a political discussion from opposite ends of the bar. One of them was a Republican who went to Yale with Scooter Libby — I was stunned; that’s my vintage: it’s amazing how youthful voices remain almost to the end — while the other was sympathetic but more of an Independent. I believe that the topic for most of the conversation was FBI Director James Comey’s role in an alleged fix to exonerate Hillary Clinton, legally if not otherwise. But then the talk turned to Obamacare, and there was a dispute about the quality of American medical care. One guy argued that everybody able to afford it comes to America for treatment. The other insisted that Americans are going elsewhere for treatment.

I was tempted to put in my two cents. The United States is a paradise of specialists, while other countries are doing a better job at managing routine procedures. This makes sense: our country has become the land of stars, where celebrity standouts attract global attention. It has given up on competition, in favor of a never-ending pursuit of leverage. If you can bring this product to market before anybody else, or add that killer-app feature, or win the lottery, or get born with the fine-motor skills of a neurosurgeon, or write a book that, while soporfically dull from any literary standpoint, ignites a fashionable allure for debasement in millions of bosoms, if you dare to behave like Donald Trump; in short, if you do that one thing, then you win the jackpot. You suck up the air that any competitors could breathe: there is only you. I’m not saying that these are the thoughts of working Americans. But I think I’ve caught the American Dream 2.0. It is libertarian and antisocial. Pull up the ladder behind you! I should be very upset if I believed that most Americans shared this dream; most people don’t dream Dreams. But it’s pretty lousy.

As for the medical alternative, there’s good money to be made by suppliers and saved by consumers in an industrial approach to common woes. My favorite is the Shouldice Hernia Centre in Ontario. Could anything possibly be less glamorous? I’ve read that the clinic’s recidivism rate is very low: almost all hernias remain repaired. There are specialized American hospitals, of course. For my Remicade infusions, I visit the infusion unit at an institution that began as the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled. But really, what has rheumatology got to do with that?


The two guys arguing at the bar were educated and articulate, but they were still talking too loudly, interrupting one another, and in general sounding like Fox News. What will become of Fox News, now that Roger Ailes has been deposed?

That’s not the real question, of course. The real question is whether opportunistic jingoism will find an equally gifted manipulator. If I were Dante, I’d make room at the bottom for Roger Ailes, right alongside Dick Cheney. This pair of Foo dogs did more to disturb the tenor of American politics than, well, anyone else, ever. They may not have been the worst at heart, but they rode the dragon of television on their apolcalyptic adventures, and were therefore more effectively destructive than mere mortals had ever been. Both perfected the manly art of shouting down while refusing to listen. Cheney was so good at it that he hardly raised his voice. Ailes was even better, though, because we never even heard him. He had an army of proxies.

If you shout “Fire!” in a theatre, are individuals in the audience to be forgiven for their participation in a deadly stampede? I pose this extreme question to underline the difference between panic in a theatre and the response of viewers sitting at home. Or between the involuntary audience hearing the malefactor’s cry and the voluntary audience listening to the entertainer’s cry night after night. There is a lack of connection between the urgency of the message and the prevailing civil calm. Roger Ailes, according to James Poniewozik (writing in today’s Times), operated on the principal that “an aggrieved group needed constant grievance, even in victory.” Surely the audience must take some responsibility for this addiction.

Surely we must begin to recognize, and treat, this addiction.

Bon week-end à tous!