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!

Gotham Diary:
July 2016 (II)

11, 12, 14, 15 July

Monday 11th

For the first time in the more than ten years that I’ve been writing The Daily Blague, I’m beset, thinking about the sniper in Dallas, by the fear that anything that I say can be taken out of context as the affirmation of a stance that I am weighing and considering, but not adopting. A Times headline asked, “But whose side are you on?” (or words to that effect). I especially don’t know the answer to that question, and explaining my perplexity may be the best way of beginning the discussion that I think ought to be taking place — instead of the several that are already ongoing.

I single out for scorn the camp-meeting enthusiasm that proclaims our basic American unity. I don’t believe that Americans have the right to claim unity. Such unity as Americans have enjoyed has never amounted to more than dismissively tolerant cohabitation within very roomy borders. Americans have not had to put up with fellow-citizens of markedly different views. They have been cushioned from opposition by geographical and economic distances. They have been free to repudiate any commitment to national unity in the company of their friends and immediate neighbors. This is not to suggest that Americans have taken to advocating sedition. It is merely to note the ballrooms of hypocrisy that stretch behind polite speech about pulling together in a crisis. We do, I think, pull together in a crisis. But if there is no crisis, we prefer to forget about each other. And when it becomes necessary to recognize that there are Americans who want to do some things differently, we resort to contemptuous, caricatural language that smacks, politically, of anarchy.

The geographic and economic distances that I mentioned have largely collapsed in the age of pervasive media, just as television networks have flattened the difference in regional accents. But there remain secretive but powerful pockets of resistance to unity, and a fellow named Sam Polk opened the lid on one of them in a piece in the Sunday Review section of yesterday’s Times (“How Wall Street Bro Talk Keeps Women Down”). Polk reports the routine small talk that focuses on objectifying women and treating sexual intercourse as a kind of victory. The point wasn’t, I think, to tell anyone that Wall Street men talk like this among themselves — what Times reader could have been unaware of it — but to connect it to the difficulties that women face in advancing their careers. Polk was very personal about this.

But a few years after I left Wall Street, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and we learned that it was going to be a girl, I burst into tears. My daughter would soon enter a world not just of unequal pay and unequal opportunity, but one in which almost 20 percent of women are raped, and a quarter of girls are sexually abused.

If you think that this violence has nothing to do with bro talk, you’re wrong. When we dehumanize people in conversation, we give permission for them to be degraded in other ways as well. And even if we don’t participate, our silence condones this language. I deeply regret remaining quiet while women were being disparaged during my eight years as a trader.

What I want to say about Dallas right now — as distinct from what I might have to say after I’ve thought about it more, and over more time — is that this kind of talk, on Wall Street and elsewhere, extends to blacks and all other “minority” groups who have not historically prospered there. As a white man who worked on Wall Street (in no very exalted position) for seven years, I heard plenty of such talk, coming from all directions. I have no reason to believe that it suddenly came to an end when Bill Clinton was president. I no longer hear it, but I know it’s there. Sam Polk makes this impossible to doubt.

Another thing that I want to say about Dallas is to remind readers of the purpose of this site, which is to discuss and critique the culture of the American élite. I have spent my entire life in the élite, and I know it well. I know that it has not been doing its job. When asked for a response to Dallas, a Wall Street friend told me that it took him by surprise, that he had thought that race relations were “better” than they are, and that he had been preoccupied by the markets lately, and not been paying much attention to the general news. It was not a surprising answer. Dismaying, yes, especially because of the implicit shrugging-off of élite obligations. If you want to know who the élite are, you will know them by their insistence that they work too hard to familiarize themselves with “issues.” They leave that to journalists. As I always says, the American élite comprises all the people who deny belonging to it.

My own claim to belong to the élite might seem grandiose, given my rather vacant CV. But I grew up in an élite town, attended élite schools, and participated in élite rituals. I rarely did this with any enthusiasm. I didn’t think that it was anything special until I was in my forties. Then I began to understand that my economically comfortable life had conditioned me to an outlook that few Americans, or people anywhere, could or would share. Had I merely stumbled along within that outlook, without becoming aware of it and, as a result, trying to grow a brain, I should now be excoriating the stupidity of Donald Trump’s supporters and the self-destructiveness of Leave voters. I should have simply gone on looking at the world with the élitist’s rose-colored glasses — and it would never occurred to me to regard myself as a member of the élite.

Instead of that, I set myself up as the scourge of the élites — a jocular way of putting it that I hope harmonizes with my intended victims’ insistence that they are not élit(ists).


In one of the many articles about tensions between American police and black Americans, one officer insisted that “we do not get up in the morning wanting to infringe someone’s civil rights.” (Or words to that effect.) This was a way of saying that policeman harbor no peculiar animus against blacks, that they’re not “out to get them.” I take this statement to have the same value as a Wall Street executive’s insistence that his firm is an equal-opportunity employer. I think that it’s very important to both the cop and the trader to protect the civil rights of people like themselves, people whom they see as orderly, and to protect these rights against infringement by unruly elements, people unlike themselves. People with a different way of speaking, dressing, walking, standing still even. This double standard is reinforced, and reinforced again, day in and day out, by what Sam Polk calls “bro talk.” I am not promoting a conspiracy theory here. I am describing the behavior of segments of the American élite. I haven’t spent any time in precinct houses, but I do know Wall Street. Sadly, I know Wall Street better than my wife does, although she has actually worked there her entire adult life. Only now are she and other women her age (sixtyish) beginning to suspect that they may have been victims of sexism in the workplace. They feel rather foolish about the possibility of having overlooked this. Perhaps they could not have continued on Wall Street if they hadn’t suppressed their inklings. Come to think of it, I can remember when Kathleen worked with young black lawyers. Those associates have somehow not turned into partners. Why is that? Where did they go?

I am trying very hard here not to appear to be making a case for Black Lives Matter. I believe that blacks are not treated equally in the United States, and that the prosecution of black Americans includes more than a small measure of persecution. This mistreatment is simply wrong, and it must stop. And so must I stop, right there. I am not competent to dilate on the problems faced by black Americans. I have no experience of those problems, not even at second- or third-hand. I have no right to righteous indignation.

What I can do is to call attention to what I increasingly regard as the decadence of the American élite. I know about this first-hand. I know about highly-educated professionals who ignore the world of humanist high culture and immerse themselves instead in the working man’s world of sports, not out of any solidarity with working men — the professionals buy the best seats, and don’t turn down invitations to skyboxes — but because the world of sports is the world of adolescence, of boys playing games. For men of a certain age, Arnold Palmer stands atop the plinth that might be more usefully graced by William Shakespeare, the man who played with the words that tie us together instead of with balls. As indeed highly-educated professionals are aware. But Shakespeare is unshakably adult.


Americans are like addicts who can’t begin the recovery process because they won’t acknowledge the nature of their addiction. Americans are addicted to a view of their history that will always stand in the way of genuine unity. It is the story of a bogus union that was formed during a so-called revolution (actually a war of secession) and then nearly sundered by a so-called civil war (also a war of secession) that was won by “the Union.” It is a story that acknowledges “slavery” but not the lives of slaves, nor the counting of black lives as “three-fifths” of the value of white lives for census purposes, while of course withholding the franchise from blacks altogether, nor the degradation of black lives after the grant of so-called “freedom.” It is a story that treats Jim Crow as either a necessary social crutch or a boys’ club rulebook that got out of hand — somewhere else. It is a story that cannot even be bothered to lie about Native Americans; Native Americans occupy precisely the place of a malarial swamp that required draining.

It is a story in which Abraham Lincoln is perhaps the greatest hero, for holding the “Union” together. I think that Lincoln was a fine man, but perhaps the worst president, for exactly that reason. What followed the victory of the “Union” was a series of social abscesses, festering under the pretension of social harmony. We are still lying about this, still telling ourselves that things are better than they really are. (Just for the record, I am quite certain that Andrew Jackson was the worst president — an early Trump.)

It is a story in which the United States has become an exceptional nation, the world’s superpower (lately incapable of winning wars, however), the victor in the Cold War (which more and more shows itself to have been the greatest stabilizing factor in postwar life), and an example to the world of how to conduct a democracy (no comment). And the people who tell themselves this story are so stuck in it that they cling to it even when they realize that some of the chapters are maybe a little misleading. The people who tell themselves this story are charged with managing the country, but almost everything that they “know” about the place is not true.

We have become obsessed with personal responsibility. Personal responsibility explains why people spend so much time working that they have neither the time nor the energy to attend to public affairs — except where “personal responsibility” (ie, enrichment) is involved. There is no thought of “public responsibility.” I am not talking about welfare or charity here — or not about those virtues only. I am talking about paying attention to the truth. And the truth is that the American élite denies its own existence. It pretends that “the élite” dress up in haute couture and diamonds and get driven around in limousines. It imagines that a gathering of “the élite” looks like the Academy Awards. This is perhaps a hapless default, for in fact the American élite does not gather. How can it, in its state of denial?

If you can read this, you are one of the élite. Armed with the foregoing ideas, give all the thought you can to healing the wounds inflicted by Donald Trump and Micah Johnson.


Tuesday 12th

It was foreseeable that we Baby Boomers would by and large fail to shoulder the public responsibilities of a functioning élite. We were raised in an atmosphere of social fantasy. It was assumed by our elders that things would be different in the future, if only because they would be so much “better,” whatever that meant. It was obvious to them that we had “advantages” that had been denied to them. They told us that things were easier for us than they had ever been for any generation, and we agreed: we set our defaults at “easier.” When we encountered difficulties that our parents had not foreseen (most notably, climate degradation), we resisted the tedium of sorting out priorities and methodologies. If I were a comedian, I would joke that Boomers who took mind-altering drugs were quick to acknowledge the threat of global warming, while those who did not lacked the imagination to grasp it. But there’s a piece in today’s Times about the disarray among those who don’t deny it.

The oldest Boomers were teenagers when the great civil rights legislation was enacted. We heard the nation’s leaders proclaim the end of segregation, and we took this as a done deal — if we lived in a region where blacks were inconspicuous. We smiled when liberal white Americans gestured to accept black Americans into their world. We frowned when black Americans declined to adopt the folkways of liberal whites, although we recognized that they had a point. We saw that wondrous progress into a future of racial harmony was stalled by a deal-breaking insistence on racial unison. This wasn’t our fault. We found other things to worry about.

We worried about authenticity. Who am I, really, and how do I know? We became a generation of self-absorbed individualists, hypnotized by doubts about our place in the world that soon ran up against the need to make a living. Countercultural experiments soon demonstrated that, beneath the scruffy hair and the seedy clothes, few of us were willing to abandon bourgeois supports, or to inflict the discomforts of roughing it on our children. But we were haunted by the insincerity of our accommodation. This unwillingness to commit explains a lot about our failure to lead — to behave as the élite ought to behave.


Questions about personal authenticity are as inappropriate for adolescents as exposure to adult sexuality is for younger children. Adolescents, quite rightly, are confined to the scale of adult approval. They can do the things that adults want them to do, or they can disobey. That’s about it. The very word “adolescent” means that, in the process of becoming adults, they are not adults yet. The mismatch between physical capability and social inexperience seems to get wider every day; it could that the dawn of true adulthood has been postponed into the late twenties at the earliest, and it is not altogether funny that 35 is the new 21. One certainly hopes that thirty year-olds will not behave as if they were half their age. But it might also be recognized that the social fontanelle does not close in our world until the onset of what used to be middle age.

Most college students are essentially incompetent to answer questions about authenticity, and ought to be protected from them. I re-read the foregoing sentence with reverberating astonishment: it is exactly the sort of thing that an illiberal dean of students would have argued in favor of banning access to pornography, back when I was in college. I certainly don’t mean to protect anyone from something by pretending that it isn’t there. Nor by insisting that it isn’t yet time to deal with it. But university is for learning about the world, not for deciding about the self. A student who arrives on campus with a well-buffed identity is simply going to waste a lot of people’s time.


We Baby Boomers believed that we invented sex, and this was not as wildly wrong as it looks. For we grew up with contraceptives that were both reliable and unobtrusive to men. We had sex without fear! And so we got to discover that inadvertent reproduction is not the only thing that is problematic about sex. Observing that it is orders of magnitude more likely for me to have friends who are seven years younger than friends who are three years older, I wonder if the “the Pill” is not the explanation. Anatole Broyard writes about this eloquently in Kafka Was the Rage, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. “One of the things we’ve lost is the terrific coaxing that used to go on between men and women, the men pleading with a girl to sleep with him and the girl pleading with him to be patient.” (136) Boomers never had to bother to coax. Relieved of the fear of pregnancy, nice girls discovered that they liked sex, too, and, what’s more, they discovered that men could be better at it than they were! This was a surprise that we have not yet, ahem, got over; it has complicated the hell out of feminism.

Now that, for all its failings, the élite has managed to junk Augustinian laws about what adults can and cannot do as sexual beings, sexual preference has become one of the first things that a young person can learn — something that, formerly, countless people never discovered (never hoped to discover) in their entire lifetimes. But this is not to say that every young person ought to settle on a sexual identity, that there is an obligation to know who you are by the time you are twenty-one. The only obligation that I can think of is that you ought to settle these matters before embarking on parenthood. But sexuality is only one of many matters that must be settled before children are allowed to come along. I speak as a Boomer who had settled few of those matters when his daughter was born — with as much regret as love for my daughter, pride in her achievements, and delight in her company allow.

But I don’t want to suggest that my peculiarities were caused by membership in a generational cohort. Being a Boomer exacerbated some of my faults, perhaps, but it had little to do with my oddity, because I was born, not “at forty,” as my mother used to say of my father, but at some indeterminate late-adolescent age. From the beginning, I was as crazy and mixed up as any teenager, madly impatient to grow up and bored to sobs (literally) by anything to do with childhood. I was writing to my daughter yesterday that one of my few childhood food memories is of pound cake and tea at the cozy Bermuda resort that my family visited in 1955, when I was seven. A lemon freshness made the pound cake and the tea so unlike anything that I had ever tasted before that it may have been then that I lodged the protest that would eventually make a cook out of me. At the age of twelve, I developed a troublesome passion for tea — troublesome for my mother, who disapproved of my laboring in the kitchen. I would have nothing to do with teabags, so not only did I buy tins of Twining’s Earl Grey at the fancy-food store on Park Place but I required two teapots as well, one for steeping. A world of delighful complication opened up.

I would sip tea in my room while struggling to read by candlelight. My particular strain of adolescent puritanism — no matter what drives their frenzies, puritans are people who have not yet grown up — regarded electricity as vulgar. Well, electric light, anyway; I might have read by candlelight, but the Water Music was playing on the phonograph in the background. What was I reading? I have no idea; whatever it was, it was over my head. When my mother got sick once, she was given a book of light verse that was illustrated by Edward Gorey. Light verse did not appeal to my mother, and the book was soon mine, along with a passion for Gorey. (I read my first complete Gorey, The Willowdale Handcar — published under another title — in one of my mother’s Vogues.) By the time I began reading The New Yorker, in the summer of my fourteenth year, I had outgrown my fastidiousness about lighting, but I lacked the fortitude to get through Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. My eyes glazed over at the mention of DDT, at the dismay occasioned by its toxic effect on wildlife. My premodern lack of interest in the natural world seems connected somehow to an elided childhood. I am enchanted by the song of birds, so much more common in Manhattan now than it was thirty years ago that I am indebted to Carson; but I don’t want to know more — what the birds look like, what they’re called. But some of my earliest thinking concerned modern man’s ability to mess up the world in ways that had nothing to do with the Bomb.

Not that skipping childhood is a good idea — I don’t at all endorse it. It was simply something that happened to me. And it did not make me a precocious adult. On the contrary. I mark the launch into adulthood to the winter of 1975-76, when I realized that going to law school would probably be the most reasonable thing that I could do, and the landing, ten years later, to the death of my father. Even then, there was something provisional about my adulthood. I held on to certain foolish behaviors until an excess of martinis caused me to fall and nearly break my neck, an accident that is still not ten years in the past, and I within hailing distance of seventy!

Growing up isn’t entirely a matter of leaving youthful vices behind. It also took me a long time to know my own mind. One could say that it took me far too long to stop dabbling. But I didn’t know what else to do. When the Wall Street firm that I worked for folded, I half-heartedly looked for work in a field that I had discovered but not really been trained in. Kathleen claims that we decided at about that time that I ought to be a writer, however long it took to accomplish that. For, although I could write, I didn’t know what to say. This was not a case of having nothing to say, but rather the opposite, of not knowing where to begin. I believe that in the entries that I’ve been logging at this site since last September lie the beginnings of knowing where to begin. The salient aspect of this beginning is indeed why it took so long to reach. For I do not believe that it was always there, right under my nose. And yet —

“Swimming against the tide,” “going against the grain” — these images seem pathetically anemic when I consider the course of my own thinking. If I’ve been swimming, it has been up the face of a waterfall. For everything that I have learned in life, ever little bit of it, has taught me, somehow, that the flight from éliteness is not only a terrible mistake but an impossibility. It is in fact a kind of puritanism — the kind of puritanism that forced me to try to do without lightbulbs, and that also (little did I know how not-uncommon such bravado is) induced me to swear in writing (on onion skin paper, the only available substitute for parchment) that I would never smoke, drink, or drive a car — when I was thirteen. Like all puritans, I forswore things that I thought were bad but that I didn’t know anything about. I endeavored to prevent mistakes and regrets with the violence of Procrustes.

In 1789 the Western World inaugurated a serious experiment in equality. The notion that all human lives are equally precious is not intuitive, but like a genuine religious conversion its adoption seems irreversible. (I argue that this notion re-introduced the teachings of Jesus to Christendom and engendered a new Christianity that today’s evangelicals dismiss as unorthodox.) And yet it is obvious that the impact of human lives varies so enormously that no two lives are equally important. How to reconcile the ideal of equality with human multifariousness is now our central problem. Denying the existence, the virtue, or the necessity of an élite seems as blind and arbitrary as denying instances of the Pareto curve. Given a multitude of human lives, the emergence of an élite seems to be statistically inevitable. And yet almost everyone in my lifetime has wished that the élite and the idea of the élite would go away. One result is the monstrosity of Donald Trump, a born élitist who has exploited every élite advantage to advance his fame or notoriety — he doesn’t care which; no one has ever thrived so luxuriantly on the proposition that there is no such thing as bad publicity. (Until there is, let us pray.) The worst thing about the flight from éliteness is the evaporation of leadership. Leadership is the opposite of demagoguery: it inspires people to take pains for a good cause. Leaders may be hypocrites — brazenly, in the case of lame FDR — but their importance lies not in their authenticity but in their beneficent persuasiveness. Most of the people alive today have lived in a world without leaders.

What Shakespeare said about greatness in Twelfth Night applies to éliteness. There may be many more élitists (meaning: members of the élite, not advocates of “élitism,” of whom there is no need) than there are truly great people — many, many more — and those who have been born élite, or who have had éliteness thrust upon them, may find that they have to work harder than those who are merely saddled with greatness. But it must be recognized as an inexorable condition, at least by those who are familiar with it because it is theirs. The small privileges of belonging to the élite — the deference that must never been taken for granted and always ritually declined — are dwarfed to the point of invisibility by the huge and arduous privilege of belonging itself.


Thursday 14th

Mrs Gaskell’s Ruth is in my reading rotation at the moment. Kathleen picked up the novel in her travels and liked it. I’ve never read a novel by Mrs Gaskell that I didn’t like, and yet I’ve never gone on one of my jags, running out and buying everything of hers that I can find. So I still haven’t read, for example, North and South. I had not heard of Ruth at all. The editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition, Tim Dolin, naturally claims that it is underrated. I’m not especially keen on it, especially now that the villain, or the heavy, or the whatever-he’s-going-to-turn-out-to-be (maybe just a man, if you know what I mean), has made his appearance. I’m in no mood at all for Mr Bradshaw.

I will say that Gaskell introduces Mr Bradshaw with sly éclat — you won’t forget this about him:

The country people came in sleeking down their hair, and treading with earnest attempts at noiseless lightness of step over the floor of the side, and by-and-by, when all were assembled, Mr Benson followed, unmarshalled and unattended. When he had closed the pulpit-door, and knelt in prayer for an instant or two, he gave out a psalm from the dear old Scottish paraphrase, with its primitive inversions of the simple perfect Bible words, and a kind of precentor stood up and, having sounded the note on a pitch-pipe, sang a couple of lines by way of indicating the tune; then all the congregation stood up and sang aloud, Mr Bradshaw’s great bass voice being half a note in advance of the others, in accordance with his place of precedence as principal member of the congregation. His powerful voice was like an organ very badly played, and very much out of tune, but as he had no ear, and no diffidence, it pleased him very much to hear the fine loud sound. He was a tall, large-boned, iron man, stern, powerful, and authoritative in appearance; dressed in clothes of the finest broadcloth, and scrupulously ill-made, as if to show that he was indifferent to all outward things. His wife was sweet and gentle-looking, but as if she was thoroughly broken into submission. (126)

Lord, how I detest this man! A page or so later, Ruth — a young woman in trouble who has been rescued by and is staying with Mr Benson — receives a gift of cambric from Mr Bradshaw, and her immediate instinct is to refuse it. I posed three questions to Kathleen.

  • On a scale of one to ten, with one as the worst, how wicked is Mr Bradshaw?
  • (I forget the second question.)
  • Is Mr Bradshaw in the novel until the very end?

Kathleen’s answer to the first question was “three.” Oh dear. “You were counting zero?I asked hopefully, reformulating my question after the fact. The third answer was unintelligible, because it turned out that Kathleen was slipping off into asleep. I closed Ruth and picked up something else.

I’m sure that I must have encountered a heroine in the act of refusing a gift from someone whose generosity she did not welcome, but I can’t think of one. Ladies refuse to receive letters and packages all the time in fiction, but we are not privy to their decisions; we’re usually looking over the shoulder of a disappointed lover. Ruth’s expresses her wish not to accept Mr Bradshaw’s cambric with surprising alacrity; after all, she has never spoken with him. He can hardly harbor the usual designs. And yet one agrees at once with Ruth. It is curious — although this is not noticed by Ruth or Mr Benson — that the cambric does not come from Mrs Bradshaw.

“It’s interesting,” Kathleen said of Ruth when she finished reading it. I have to agree that it is — intermittently. To conjure an image from Mrs Gaskell’s day, it is like being driven along an avenue, from which unexpected sights can be glimpsed in the distance, by horses who want to veer off the road and plunge the carriage into the worst sort of Trollope. The worst sort of Trollope is that author’s tendency to get carried away, to put it mildly, by the pure virtuous steadfastness of his nubile heroines. Mrs Gaskell seems equally obsessed with Ruth’s innocence, which is so extreme that the moment of her deflowerment is never directly referred to. By the end of Volume I, Ruth, seduced in East Anglia and abandoned in Wales, is pregnant, but for all she seems to know about it the Holy Spirit may have been the father. But then Mr Benson, a deformed man with a great soul, says something earnest, and I sit up. Sally, the Bensons’ housemaid, a woman old enough to have brought them both up, is a particularly saucy-mouthed servant. But I think that I have yet to strike what it was that provoked Kathleen’s “interesting.”


There is a page-and-a-half story (very big deal) in today’s Times by Nicholas Confessore. You can read it online, but you’ll miss the headline in the print edition. I am thinking of stepping out and asking the nice men who are working on the subway station if they have a crane that might help lift my jaw back into place:

Trump Mines Grievances Of Whites Who Feel Lost

Then, in smaller print,

His Charged Words Allow the Disaffected to Vent Feelings Usually Unspoken.

It’s almost as if the editorial staff at The Onion had taken over. “Area Man Hails Trump As Much-Needed Demagogue.” How about “Sky Is Blue On Sunny Day”? Why Now? Kathleen and I asked when we saw the paper. What took them so long to state the obvious? Confessore may have answered that question quite well, with his references to Pat Buchanan, a presidential candidate, albeit better-mannered, whose message was essentially the same as Trump’s. Buchanan was ahead of his time; most white voters confidently dismissed him as a crank. Now that most white voters seem not to be confident about anything, the supremacist message is much more appealing. I do wish, though, that the Times’s editors were quicker on the draw than the average voter. Confessore’s story is at least six months overdue.

Confessore writes of conservative white resentment that it includes “a sense that an America without them at its center is not really America anymore.” It has become commonplace to dismiss this feeling as retrograde and unwelcoming; the United States is a land of diversity. “Diversity” is probably one of the more unexamined concepts in the current-affairs lexicon. My sense is that the cooperation of people of different backgrounds flourishes most robustly when the term is not bandied about. Diversity is not encouraged by self-conscious effort. Self-consciousness emphasizes feelings in which the advantages of diversity are likely to wilt. And of course it is monstrously hypocritical to impose diversity in neighborhoods far distant from one’s own unexceptionably affluent suburb.

The very word diversity is sharp and definite. I should prefer a word that sounded vague. Vagueness is much on my mind these days, although I am trying not to be vague about it myself. Partly it’s a consequence of my battle with the complex of words that are based on “élite.” This is a very old battle, going back fifteen years at least, with a never-ending skirmish over the word for a member of the élite. If you believe, as I do, that élites are as inevitable as ice cubes on the surface of a scotch on the rocks, that there is no way of preventing the emergence of an élite over time — three generations at most — no matter how levelling a political system sets out to be, then it is simply horseshit — sorry! — to talk of élitism and élitists. Élites require no support, no advocates, no theorists. Élites are as inevitable as death and a good deal more inevitable than taxes. You can make the leaders of today wear sackcloth and live in hovels. It doesn’t matter. Their grandchildren will wear designer sackcloth and have servants to clean their hovels.

And yet what else to call a member of the élite but an élitist? You give it a try. It is no help at all to go back to the French from which we have taken the term, because élu, which is what you can call a member of the élite in that language, is never ever going to join its relative as an borrowing in English. It’s both too slight and too difficult to say. Also, when spoken as an American is likely to say it, it sounds too much like “hello.” (I actually considered “halo” for about twenty minutes.)

So why not find another word? This is everyone’s suggestion. But it turns out that there are no real synonyms for “élite.” When C Wright Mills published The Power Elite in 1956, it made sense to identify “the élite” with a small coterie of leaders in various fields — politicians, business executives, and military officers — but that only shows how quickly things change, for the whole problem with today’s élite is that it is utterly devoid of leaders. Leadership is in fact frowned upon by many members of the élite. So is any act or demonstration of power. This explains the élite’s denial of its own existence. Which would work — banishing the term to the world of fantasy — if people, members of the élite among them, did not complain so much about the villainies of “the élite.”

The weirdly cosmic vagueness surrounding “the élite” as a term turns out, I finally see, to be an advantage. There was a time when someone who didn’t attend an Ivy League college could be ipso facto excluded from the élite, but those days are over. There are no rules of thumb, no shibboleths, for distinguishing insiders from outsiders. I often quip that, if you can read this, you belong to the élite, but that is not to say that every member of the élite can read this. I can only wish it were so, while recognizing with tears in my eyes how very not-so it is. The vagueness surrounding the insider/outsider switch does, however, make it easier to speculate on what it is that we need élites — members of the élite — to do.

There is another interesting aspect to this vagueness. Once upon a time, the people in charge were men with armed supporters. They knew who they were and you knew who they were. The natural trend of any society, however — barring invasions and environmental catastrophes — is to socialize people, to raise them to internalize the laws under which the society operates, minimizing the need for displays of external constraint. A society which has less reason to fear manifestations of power (which are always to some degree violent) will feel freer; truly socialized people are so unaware of their internal self-regulation that they feel free even as they observe every social convention to a nicety. Some people, it is true, have so much difficulty resolving this apparent paradox that they cannot live with social conventions; they must go off into the wilderness. But even they do not feel free not to care for themselves. Nobody except rapt intellectual adolescents regards suicide as an act of freedom. (Although it may of course be an act of liberation — liberation from extreme illness and pain, not from the wholeness of life.)

In the Western World, the postwar era that began in 1945 saw an unprecedented expansion of social freedom. Governments operated with ever-lighter hands. Decisions perceived to be arbitrary were not only denounced but resisted and repudiated. The loss of authority by religious and other institutional leaders nearly amounted to complete evaporation. The effect of all of this was to put more people in charge of smaller jobs. Nobody is in charge of everything, not even nominally, and that’s a good thing. But several generations of this freedom have produced, inevitably, its corresponding élite. People who are educated, affluent, locally influential, capable of forming interest blocs — there are many more such people than ever before. But like the society of which they are the élite, they don’t have a very clear idea of “the big picture.” Perhaps there is no big picture, just a lot of small pictures. But that’s not a good thing, because it opens the door for a very bad man to project a big picture of hatred and resentment — the worldview of those who are rightly sure that they do not belong to the élite. They can be sure, as I’ve said, because nobody asks them. Nobody asks a woman living in a trailer park if she is in charge of anything greater than the trailer park. Nobody asks a man hanging out at a garage if he is running anything. For decades, nobody has been asking such people anything at all. Worse, nobody has been really thinking about them — except to think how to bring the existence of such people to an end.

To the member of the élite who sits at a desk puzzling out ways to bring the existence of such people to an end, this is a matter of helping people to become other, more desirable kinds of people. To the person in the trailer park or the garage, however, it is a matter of personal extermination. The same goes for Americans who no longer feel that they’re at the center of America.


Friday 15th

The other night, Kathleen and I got to spend some time with the new baby of old friends, a beautiful three month-old child. It was very hard, when I was looking at her, to resist the thought that she was looking back at me, but I managed. I knew that she was seeing bits and pieces of me — although I couldn’t say which — and I should go so far as to say that she was aware of me as yet another human being. But her mind was not yet sufficiently organized to sort the particulars in a retrievable way. She would never remember our first meeting. She was experiencing, not learning. I knew this because I wasn’t just looking at her. I was also thinking about the weirdness of infancy.

Infancy does not occur in other animals, or rather, it doesn’t last for long. Newborns must be autonomous within a very short space of time, a matter of weeks at the most. For a number of reasons too well known for me to rehearse, human beings are born long before they’re ready to take care of themselves. When they become what we call toddlers, somewhere in the second half of their first year, they begin to be people in the world — small and helpless, but people. They respond when called by name; they learn to walk, and so on. But their presence as infants is dramatically unclear. In the first few months of life, a baby’s neural circuitry is inchoate, at least so far as higher-order functions such as consciousness are concerned. I’m sure that I’m oversimplifying things when I say that few of the connections (synapses) that characterize the brain of an eight year-old, much less an adult, have been made. And the wiring is uncertain. I have never seen an infant who did not, for at least a moment or two, seem to gasp in dismay, prompting me to do what adults always do, and fill in the lack of inputs with projections of my own experiences, in this case, the dreadful surprise of a power outage. It seems to me that the baby’s circuits have crashed, and taken down the sense of familiarity. Bearings are altogether lost. It lasts for a only an instant, and, if you’re lucky, it does not lead to tears. The system comes back on, and the baby knows where it is.

The really weird thing about infancy, though, is how we adults forget it. Although I know that there was a time when my grandson behaved in much the same way as this lovely little girl, with the same alternations of contentment, sleeping, crying, and confusion, I cannot remember it. Or, rather, I cannot associate the things that I remember with my grandson. My grandson, at the moment, is eternally six and a half. He is a fascinating (to me) instance of someone poised at the brink of “the age of reason,” and, being the boy he is, he is not going to cross the border until he has worked out the angles to his satisfaction. There are a few little souvenirs. I remember him poring over his brand-new iPad, sitting at the glass dining table and swinging his legs. I remember how he used to say, with the strangest blend of insistence and tonelessness, “Up, up,” meaning that he wanted to be picked up. I remember being able to understand what he was saying on the telephone. But when I think of him, he is who he is now. He has sucked up his infancy and his toddlerhood like a self-cleaning snail. Our friends’ child will do the same.


As I mentioned last week, one of the books that I brought home from storage last week was Arthur Koestler’s The Watershed. Koestler did not actually write a book with this title; “The Watershed” is the fourth part of his survey of the origins of modern cosmology, The Sleepwalkers (1959). Some gang of bright lights decided that the thick central portion of The Sleepwalkers, which tells the story of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), ought to be excerpted in a book of its own, as part of a series of “up-to-date, authoritative, and readable science books.” I shan’t know why until I read the intact original; it’s still in print, and I’ve ordered a copy. When it arrives, I may get rid of The Watershed. It is riddled with embarrassing marginalia and underlinings, almost all of which reveal an intellect in its toddler phase.

I’m not sure that I knew what a watershed was, when I read the book in college, and even now that I understand what Koestler is trying to say, I question the metaphor. Koestler’s subject, so brilliantly exemplified by Kepler, is the transition from one comprehensive world-view to a very different one. Kepler does indeed stand at the watershed of the new dispensation — way up there in the hills among countless little streams that have not yet been collected into a big river. But he also stood in the twilight of the classical outlook, which had been developed nearly two millennia earlier by Aristotle and Ptolemy. Twilight is not a water image. If you insist on finding a water image for Kepler’s relation to what had gone before, the Nile delta (or the Louisiana bayous) seems most apt — which is fine, but rather impossible to hook up to a watershed.

The just-so story about modern science is that the Aristotelian, Ptolemaic worldview had to be “overthrown” in order for new ideas to thrive. What new ideas? I come back to the clock, the history of which captured my fancy last fall. (30 September 2015) Koestler quotes Kepler likening the universe to a clock; whether he was the first to do so, it was an idea that would capture the attention of almost every intelligent mind over the next two centuries. The kernel of explosive novelty here is that the universe worked like a machine. It partook of the same substance as that of sublunary earth. It was not composed of “ether”; it was not exempt from the laws of physical causality that operate on earth. For this reason, Kepler could not permit himself to do what astronomers had been doing since antiquity: fudge. His preliminary theory about the orbit of Mars was plausible enough until he submitted it to the test of some rare observations that Tycho Brahe had made. The result was an eight-minute error in the arc of the orbit. That would have been negligible in the old days, when ten minutes was an acceptable tolerance. Tycho’s precision instruments, and the multitude of observations that he had made with them, drastically reduced the permissible margin for error. Eight minutes was too gross. Years of work (calculations made without the aid of a computer) turned to ash.

Tycho is perhaps the real draw in The Watershed, partly because he was such a character (but then, so was Kepler), mostly because he stance in relation to science is modern. Tycho was mad for metrics. He discovered just one thing: “that astronomy needed precise and continuous observational data. (88) Copernicus deployed a total of twenty-six astronomical observations in support of his heliocentric theory. Tycho amassed thousands of observations, whether or not in support of any theory. Tycho did have a theory, but aside from being wrong it was unoriginal — as indeed was Copernicus’s. Almost every imaginable theory had been put forward in Classical Antiquity. Most theories were discounted because they flouted higher-order theories about how the world must work, such as Plato’s notion (not original) that the planets must move in uniform circular motion. Kepler was perhaps to abandon this pair of notions (uniform motion, circular) in a statement about reality. Kepler didn’t claim that astronomical phenomena made sense if you imagined that the planets traveled in elliptical orbits, and at such varying speeds that equal areas of those orbits were swept in equal amounts of time. Kepler claimed that planets really did travel in ellipses, and sweep equal areas in equal time. He did not undo Aristotelian theory so much as replace the Aristotelian universe.

And yet he never shook off the quasi-mysticism that had surrounded numbers since Pythagoras and before. Kepler never abandoned the idea that the orbits of the planets are at such a distance from the sun that — fasten your seatbelts; there are going to be some bumpy words — the orbit of Mercury can be fitted into a dodecahedron, that of Venus into an icosahedron, that of the earth into an octahedron, Mars into a tetrahedron, and Jupiter into a cube, leaving the one-sided perfect solid, the sphere, to Saturn. This is pure moonshine, and Kepler could never have demonstrated that it was true, but he never really tried. Perhaps he knew better than to try.

Galileo, however, is in contrast a wholly modern figure, and Koestler loathes him. Galileo represents a serious problem of modern science, which is that great genius is exhibited by “moral dwarves.” When Koestler is finished with him, Galileo is lost to heroism forever. He is a brilliant opportunist who never says thank you but who will use the worst language in the world if you cross him. Koestler explains that Galileo never in fact languished in Vatican dungeons, but he doesn’t mention the house arrest that confined Galileo to him home and garden for decades, which I used to regard as undue hardship. Not anymore.

Koestler quotes a remark of Alfred North Whitehead that seems to me to explain a great deal of what’s distinctive about the Western World.

All the world over and at all times there have been practical men, absorbed in “irreducible and stubborn fact; all the world over and at all times there have been men of philosophic temperament who have been absorbed in the weaving of general principles. It is this union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalization which forms the novelty in our present society.

Koestler makes the case for Kepler as one of the first men to harmonize these habits of mind.


Although I sound like a know-it-all most of the time, I am really the one who is learning here. Yesterday, for example, I learned, as I wrote, that my idea of “the élite” is much larger and more comprehensive than I might have thought when I first took up my battle with the word, which struck me as a puzzle because the first thing that I noticed about it in general, journalistic use was that nobody admits to belonging to it. There are minds that would respond to this phenomenon by postulating the existence of a small band of conspirators, secretly running the world from mountain fastnesses — Davos! But I knew from my own life that that wasn’t true. Davos is just a lot of hot air, and a group of three or more people cannot be counted on to keep a secret. But it was only this week that I realized that I can see no reason to exclude from the élite anyone who has any discretionary authority whatever over how other people behave. This means, for example, that everyone who writes code for a smartphone is a member of the élite. It may mean that the school nurse is a member of the élite. Anyone to whom discretion over anything has been delegated is in the club.

Club? Anyone to whom discretion has been delegated has been saddled with responsibilities. We are living in a world that likes to pretend that this isn’t so. Whenever possible, people claim to be acting under orders. But it is rarely true. Every police officer makes countless personal decisions, and I daresay that most officers make very many good ones and very few bad ones. But I should be happier if I had reason to believe that policemen knew more about the development of the society that is under their supervision. Why is our world like this and not like that? I dismiss out of hand the idea that men in blue are intellectually incapable of overcoming a few popular mythologies.

Anyway, I saw that it is possible for the number of members of the élite to exceed that of the non-members. This is a fantastically good thing.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Simplex Heritage
July 2016 (I)

5, 6, 8 July

Tuesday 5th

Over the weekend, I read Ben Lerner’s tract, The Hatred of Poetry. I haven’t read Lerner’s poems, but I did like his two novels, or at least I read them with interest. I didn’t much care for the protagonists, very well-read men with no sense of direction. The Lerner of Hatred is no different. Again, he writes very well, but the things that bother him are not the things that bother me. Which is fine with me but not, perhaps, with him; for he is preoccupied by universal truths and realizations of the ideal and I am asking myself, why? Why is Ben Lerner concerned by what Plato has to say about poetry? Why, in the Twenty-First Century, is anyone?

I am always going on about the importance of history: we can never know enough about the past. But this is not the same thing as looking to the past, especially the distant past, for “answers.” The past is full of mistakes that we must hope not to repeat. Plato was a contemptuous misanthropist who had a few big ideas, all of them wrong. Unlike Aristotle, who stumbled through fields of learning with an open mind but inadequate tools, and whose thoughts are full of insight even though his understanding of science is hopeless, Plato was an mechanic with a horror of the organic squishiness that makes life possible. His political thinking, in particular, is nothing but a catalogue of errors, as we have good reason to know, looking back as we can on recent attempts to realize the totalitarian potential of Plato’s ideas.

Ben Lerner, instead, “acquired my idealism via Platonic contempt.” The Hatred of Poetry is a book about the peculiar idealism that mourns the failure of “Poetry” to transcend human limitations. If it were a meditation on Keats’s “ditties of no tone,” it might actually attain to poetry itself, instead of being a whine in prose. To hate poetry because it doesn’t live up to its superhuman billing — how is this not merely childish? How is it unlike the addict’s inevitable frustration with the need for ever more powerful stimulants, or John Ashbery’s lament that life cannot be one endless orgasm?

But I digress. I wanted to rap Ben Lerner’s knuckles about something completely different: his take on the first line of a terrible poem by William Topaz McGonagall, “The Tay Bridge Disaster.” Now, the poem is really and truly terrible, but what Lerner has to say about its first line made me uneasy. Here is the first line:

Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay

Inane it might be, but it reads fluidly enough. Not to Lerner, though. Lerner devotes a paragraph to describing what he sees as a “mishmash of meters,” “the mismatch of duple and triple measure” in this line. This would be more compelling if another the first line of another poem, widely, I believe, considered to be competent at least, did not surface like the great Tay whale:

They that have power to hurt and will do none

There is no questioning the manifest superiority of the beginning of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, and McGonnagal’s verse has an extra (but insignificant) syllable (“the”). But the two lines read much the same to me, so far as mere meter is concerned. True, “will do none” could, and probably ought to be read spondaically, as a series of equally tonic words, but Lerner’s criticism focuses on the first three feet, where Shakespeare and McGonnagal are identical. Why didn’t Lerner think of Shakespeare? He’s the poet, after all.

What I can’t answer is why I knew about McGonagall, why I had a copy of Pegasus Descending, the collection of very bad verse that Lerner mentions, in my library. How did I learn about this awful stuff, which really is too ghastly to be funny?


We are approaching the time for setting aside this experiment and consolidating its conclusions in some other form. It’s not that I’m repeating myself, although I certainly am repeating myself. It’s that some things have become very clear in the past couple of years, and have become clear because I have tried to abandon conventional forms while still attempting to make sense. The forms are those of journalism, such as the review, the political analysis, the (brief) history of current affairs or of the development of scientific understanding, just plain news stories, and, latterly, the personal history. Journalism is a sprawling field. I want to write as though it were small enough to fit inside me — because it is.

I want to write about how everything that I know is connected to everything else, and about how the connections, while intelligible, remain unique to me. How to make my difference clear to another reader — clear, that is, and not an irritation that provokes reflexive disagreement, or shock or disgust — that is what I’m after. How to write a text that is neither larger nor smaller than I am — how, quite literally, to take my own measure. But: strictly as a social being, as person who reads and writes. I don’t want to write about myself at all, except insofar as I have responses to some of those phenomena that might be apparent to everyone.

Growing up in the ever-more permissive Sixties, I watched so many barriers fall that I wondered if they all would. I very nearly lived in a commune, an undertaking that attempted the dissolution of boundaries between people. Eventually, I learned that the body is an imperishable boundary — imperishable so long as the body is alive. When the body dies, the boundary disappears because the person inside it ceases to exist. This is very hard to accept as a practical matter, as I’ve learned with age from the death of friends and acquaintances. How can it be that these people no longer exist? Conversely, how did the world ever fail to contain my grandson? I never had the same doubt about my daughter, because I was so young myself when she was born; and nobody near me had died since childhood, when I was too young to know my grandparents well enough to lose them. When my own parents died, it was after many-staged illnesses that prepared me for their deaths. But when an old friend died a few years after the last time I’d seen him, when he looked as healthy as ever, I couldn’t compute. He left a vacuum, a vacuum powerful enough to tempt one to dwell on thoughts of the afterlife.

One of these days, I, too, shall leave a vacuum. I want what I write to fill that vacuum. I want it to sound like me. And yet I don’t want it to be about me, because I don’t really know anything about that. To know about me, you have to be somebody else. What was it like when I came into the room? I’ll never know, not really; and, what’s more, I should prefer not to know. What was it like “to be me”? Forgettable, for the most part. Such thrills and ills as there were will remain fantasies to you, fantasies that you conjure from I say about the thrills and that you resist when I talk about the ills. Insofar as I was just myself, not connected to something that others could see as well, I was nothing, nothing but a organism of processes generally ubiquitous but personally unique, broadly understandable but incomprehensible in detail. My shorthand word for all of this part of life is “plumbing.” The effects of good or bad plumbing can be apparent to others, but the experience itself does not admit of articulation, precisely because words are shared but plumbing is not. Because I can’t tell you about it, I’m not interested in it. Good fortune is largely a matter of unobtrusive plumbing.

What is special about my life — the reason why an account of it, and especially my account of it, might be interesting — is the unusual opportunity that I have had to live as a philosopher. With academic or systemic philosophy I have had nothing to do — nothing since nodding over Hume. But instead of a career I have had a pasture. I have not tried to accomplish anything except the expression of ideas, and I believe that I have been blessed with the ability to judge those expressions. (The persistence to improve them appears to have come of itself.) When I find myself saying the same thing several times, I begin to wonder why, and curiosity carries me to another level of connection. One thing that I should like to work out is an internally consistent but extended discussion of what it means to be “conservative,” and the connection between a “conservative” outlook and the accrual of experience over time. I should like to write about the conservative outlook without using the word “conservative,” if for no other reason than my hunch that every truly conservative person is profoundly liberal.

I have come to understand — we all know this, but few of us have the time to understand it — that everyone is different, that “e pluribus unum” is an impossibility even in the case of a pluribus of two. At the same time, it is not at all problematic if you stop thinking about identities and consider instead a multitude of interactions within a system of conventions. There would be no Interstate Highways if e pluribus unum were not in some way quite readily realizable. At the same time, the system of drivers, all following the same rules at any given moment, is not as interesting as the system of audience members in a theatre or a concert hall, responding to a performance. The most interesting, the most vital conventional systems are those in which discussion takes place. In discussion, people undertake to express their differences without permitting those differences to create interference. Language is the grandest convention of them all.

Another thing that I have come to understand is that there will always be an élite, or a constellation of élites, or however you want to put it. (By “always,” I mean the foreseeable future.) There have always been élites, but they used to be taken for granted. We tend to fixate on the élite now because our social conventions allow the élite to exercise its power so obliquely that we don’t know exactly who they are, the people with power. And what do we mean by “power”? A policeman certainly has a kind of power, but does he belong to the élite? No. And yet the Mayor or the President is almost certainly never going to tell you what to do. Power is very widely distributed in our society, and its efficiency depends upon its not being felt very often. The élite of today, in fact, is comprised of all those people who claim not to belong to the élite — for it never occurs to those who really don’t belong to insist upon the fact.

There is an understanding abroad that membership in the élite entails vague but oppressive responsibilities. My hunch is that the responsibilities are oppressive only because they are vague; no one has worked them out in detail. We have an educational system that is still based on a model of academic scholarship that has no bearing on the lives of most people, least of all the élites who oversee the organization of society. Sciences and professions are all very well, but all the specialized skills in the world are not going to turn on the lights without an understanding of the human nature that expresses itself in millions of different ways. Permit me to replace “human nature” with “human variety.”

For example, I was thinking, yesterday, of one of my billionaire projects. I have about five or six of these: what I would do if I were a billionaire. One thing that I should do would be to start a new kind of college. I’ve touched on it before. Students would have to be in their twenties, with some practical work experience behind them, the point of the experience being not the job itself but the contact with other working people as well as the responsibilities of maintaining adult autonomy — seeing to one’s own food, clothing, and shelter. Classes would consist of seminars, in which readings would be discussed. Et cetera and so forth.

I was thinking about the teachers. I should want to pay the teachers well, but I should also want the flexibility to hire and fire teachers readily, in order to find out what works. What kind of people ought to teach? I’m assuming, you see, that we don’t know. The question I was left with was why anybody would sign up to be a teacher in my highly unstable college. What if I guaranteed salaries for a few years? As a billionaire, I could afford to do that. (I should be spending little or nothing on the construction of “facilities” — seminars would take place in apartment living rooms.) But how to distinguish teachers who tried to teach well but failed from opportunists who went straight to the guarantee after a deliberately sloppy performance? In no time at all, my fantasy had crashed. Human variety makes it impossible to predict what would happen, in the circumstances stated. Clearly, there need to be more circumstances.

This is what, among others, behavioral economists are trying to grasp. What are the circumstances in which people will act simultaneously in their own interest and for the common good? There can be no answer that predicts the behavior of every person on earth, but there can be answers, probably, that predict fairly well what large groups of people with some shared background, or perhaps complementary backgrounds, will do. I myself am not deeply engaged in such inquiry. All I want to do is observe that theories about how people behave are always going to dampen our awareness of the circumstances in which they do behave, at least when theories proliferate, as they tend do to, from earlier theories, and not from the study of circumstances. I don’t think that we know very much about how to study circumstances, and I think we’re wasting our time on theories. You have only to consider the popularity of Donald Trump to see what I mean.


Wednesday 6th

At first, I was going to blame the weather, but it’s going to be even hotter tomorrow. In fact, I’m staying home today (and writing) because I’m convalescing. It has been about a week since I felt this good, or this far from bad, and I want to enjoy it. Running down to the storage unit and packing more boxes of books to get rid of would be virtuous, certainly, but everyday virtue rarely justifies a relapse. What is my malady? I usually call it fatigue, and leave it at that. “Fatigue” is the name that I can put on a plumbing problem. I am, or have been, after all, tired. For about five or six days, including almost every moment of the holiday weekend, I was so tired that my appetite for living curdled, and took on the worrying coloration of its opposite.

If I try to explain the symptoms further, I will inspire in you the kind of fantasy response that I wrote about yesterday. If I were to describe what I called the thrills in my life — and it will be a test of your adulthood that you can figure out what I mean by that — then you would respond, helplessly, with fantasies of your own, and no greater understanding of me. If I were to describe the ills, I wrote, the result would be “fantasies that you resist,” and one of the best ways to resist imagining the pain of others, to forestall painful sympathy, is to play doctor. I tell you what hurts, and you tell me what to do, or what I ought to have done, or how I have jeopardized my life itself by behaving stupidly. And you might be right. But the indulgence would not make the world a better place. As it happens I am well attended-to by real doctors. And good ones. They are not going to make me live forever; on the contrary, they are going to take the full measure of me and deal realistically with that.

So fatigue it is. I stayed in bed after Kathleen left for work, not least because she told me to. I dozed and then I slept. When I woke up, I felt comfortable, which was good, but the comfort was too lively, so I got up, and here I am. I’ll stay here today, and visit the storage unit tomorrow, when, if today goes well, I’ll be stronger.


There is a remarkable juxtaposition of articles in this week’s New Yorker. Both concern presidential campaigns. Adam Gopnik writes about Iceland’s. George Saunders writes about Donald Trump’s. And that seems par, at first, because Gopnik is level-headed (although very colorful, as befits a former art critic), and Saunders is, well, “imaginative.” I avoid science fiction and fantasy as a rule, and I observe this rule with something like grim determination, but I make an exception, which I don’t even try to explain, for George Saunders. Somehow, Saunders does not cause the horripilations that make those genres creepy and illiterate. Perhaps that’s because he is really writing fairy tales. Fairy tales always have a strong moral point. They do not end on a note of “what does it all mean?” Everything that Saunders writes convinces me that he knows what it all means, and my only fear is that he will tell it more explicitly than he does.

So the editors seem to have done the normal thing, assigning a sober writer to a sober subject, and allowing the surrealist to have fun in the dark carnival of resentment that Trump sets up wherever he goes. But something happens, and this is the remarkable part. It is Adam Gopnik’s story that strains credulity. As someone tells him, Icelanders suffer from “ecstatic numeric aphasia.” I don’t know what this means, but it has something to do with the fact that there are about as many people in that country as there are in his congressional district here in New York. How can you have a country with so few people? The internet tells me that there are more people in Wyoming, and more than twice as many people in Alaska — all still well under a million each. There is that other question: why does anyone live there, where “any good June day” dawns “overcast and in the forties”? Is Iceland a joke?

This is not a question that comes up in George Saunders’s piece. Saunders has only one question, and he poses it as a statement at the very end. I have been asking the same question myself in these pages for several years, every now and then, but Saunders writes with much greater authority, because (a) he is not only a published author but a respected writing teacher and (b) he got in his car and went to the rallies: his report is what they used to call “first hand.” “Trump Days” is a triumph of journalism. And yet it seems wrong to speak of triumph in a context of such sadness and confusion.

The piece “has everything.” There’s the data-driven nitty-gritty of Saunders’s response to the claim, made by a husband-and-wife couple of Trumpies (as Saunders calls the supporters throughout), that there are more people “on welfare” under Obama than there were under Bush. Saunders checks this out, and learns that it is correct, but far from the whole picture. The whole picture is made up of data that support inconsistent conclusions. The whole picture is too complicated to understand in less than a semester of lectures at Johns Hopkins or the University of Chicago. There is almost no point in trying to discuss it publicly. I was thinking along these very lines the other day, when I was wondering over dinner with Kathleen how many Americans believe that Hitler “took over” in 1932-3, that he seized power by non-democratic means. How Hitler did in fact come to power is also a very complicated picture, but it seems to have been effected according to the rules — which were, of course, immediately scrapped. The point is that Americans, and advocates of democracy everywhere, seem to believe that nothing bad can happen if there are genuine, honest elections. The consequence is that the fact of Election Day relieves Americans from doing the kind of homework — about economic issues, immigration issues, about how Washington works, all of it. Everything is more or less too complicated to understand, unless you’re like me and have all the time in the world plus a patiently educated mind plus a conviction that sound bites are meaningless. And yet every voter is expected to make an intelligent choice.

When Saunders talks to Trumpies, he asks them to back up their claims, and the supporting evidence always turns out to be pathetic. Claims about globalization and immigration turn out to be validated, for their proponents by something as piddling as the layoff of a friend’s friend last week — one. Or a neighbor who keeps goats and chickens, endangering the Trumpie’s property value; whether “documented” or not, this neighbor is “not assimilated.” The interesting thing, of course, is that the Trumpies are so forthcoming with these ludicrous vapors. You wonder why they don’t mind being challenged. The reason for that, it seems, is Saunders’s manner. He asks them without interrogating them. He may not support Trump, but he does feel their pain.

Something is wrong, the common person feels, correctly; she works too hard and gets too little; a dulling disconnect exists between her actual day-to-day interests and (1) the way her leaders act and speak, and (2) the way our mass media mistell or fail entirely to tell her story. What does she want? Someone to notice her over there, having her troubles.

That would be George. At several points in “Trump Days,” Saunders gives the impression that all that the Trumpies want is someone to listen to them. If they believed that their elected representatives had their interests at heart, they would not be showing up for Trump’s raucous rallies. But they have no reason to believe any such thing, and those of us who enjoy more prosperous and informed lives have had every reason to know about this problem since the time of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, of which Trump’s campaign is the latest fart. The Southern Strategy convinced Southern voters that the African-Americans among whom they had lived their entire lives were alien others, and probably pathological criminals. (Why did they fall for it? Why did Bosnian Christians believe overnight that their Muslim neighbors were preparing to slaughter them?) Over the ensuing decades, the Identi-Kit picture, as it were, of the Other has shifted, and it no longer comprises every brown face as a matter of course; Trumpies aren’t lying when they deny that they’re racists, if that’s what you mean by racist. But they are no less anxious about the Other, and they feel no less betrayed by an élite that has given the Other free rein to compete for jobs and health care.

Saunders writes two extremely good paragraphs about the American and the Other, and the violence that half of America “has always held … nearby.” But this does not exonerate failed American leaders. There are no American leaders. We have only demagogues, politicians who exploit native weaknesses for personal gain. Representation is notional, and election districts have been so extensively gerrymandered that the question of representation abscesses beneath a bandage of apparent homogeneity. Politicians derive their credibility from other politicians. They make no attempt to lead their constituents — to inform them, to advise them, to counsel them, or, most of all, to educate them. All of this requires a degree of inspiration that only an élite alive to its responsibilities can instill in its young. But our élite is just like every other group in the country: benefits are welcome; burdens are shunned.

There is a moment of delicious personal history, when Saunders admits to having been a fan of Ayn Rand in college, where he was an aggrieved budding Republican, trying to concoct a story that would find heroic qualities in his thoroughly lack-luster academic performance. (Tell us about your Emmaus moment, George.) There is the perfect metaphor for describing Trumpies:

In the broadest sense, the Trump supporter might be best understood as a guy who wakes up one day in a lively, crowded house full of people, from a dream in which he was the only one living there, and then mistakes the dream for the past: a better time, manageable and orderly, during which privilege and respect came to him naturally, and he had the whole place to himself.

The autobiographical detail and the dream metaphor both conspicuously lack leaders, figures of natural authority who might nip fabulist inclinations in the bud. Leaders are people whom we admire. Who is there to admire in the land of television? Increasingly, only cynics are admirable, because they get away with stuff.

That’s why all the exposés about Donald Trump’s personal and business history are so much less devastating than pundits used to expect them to be. Isn’t Trump saying, at each rally, something like this: “I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch, because that’s what it takes to get ahead in this world; but, because I’m a lying son-of-a-bitch, that is the one thing that I am not going to say, because it’s true.” You cannot deny that this is an exciting message. To use the language favored by the politically correct, it is “transgressive” — electrically, ecstatically so.

I found the ending of “Trump Days” to be very surprising. I had thought that anyone capable of writing the vividly critical fiction that George Saunders has produced would have long ago accepted the very dismal possibility that America might be “fragile,” might be “an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail.” For a moment, Saunders sounded like one of his distraught characters, like the dad in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”

When kids born, Pam and I dropped everything (youthful dreams of travel, etc, etc) to be good parents. Has not been exciting life. Has been much drudgery. Many nights, tasks undone, have stayed up late, exhausted, doing tasks. On many occasions, disheveled + tired, baby-poop and/or -vomit on our shirt or blouse, one of us has stood smiling wearily/angrily at camera being held by other, hair shaggy because haircuts expensive, unfashionable glasses slipping down noses because never had time to get glasses tightened.

And after all that, look where we are.

Is unfortunate.

In this unforgettable story, the experiment may not have failed, but it is no longer worth pursuing. At least the picture painted by “Trump Days” is not that bad. Really not.


Friday 8th

“So,” said Kathleen after dinner last night, “are you happy to have the gas back on?” Then she said, “Silly question.” But it wasn’t entirely silly, because, as I sat there a moment, before removing the plates, I was conscious of having worked to put this meal on the table. I’d had three of the four burners on the stove going, and the oven as well. I had timed everything nicely, something that is always harder than it looks. I had wanted to serve dinner pretty much the moment Kathleen walked in, an objective that ruled out those holding patterns that permit me to sit down for a spell and read. I had been on the go.

But yes, of course, I was happy to have the gas back on. Well — I was already beginning to take it for granted. After two months, making do with electric appliances — an oven just big enough not to be labeled “toaster,” a rectangular, immersible frypan, a hotplate, and an electric kettle — had gone from being resourceful and unfazed to tedious and demoralizing. Two months had shown that about half of my already reduced repertoire of dishes for two simply didn’t taste as good without the gas. I don’t altogether know why. I do know that the electric oven simply wouldn’t get hot enough to broil chicken, which is what I decided to make the minute the Con Ed men left (I had a packet of brined thighs and drumsticks in the freezer, and enough time to defrost them in a teriyaki marinade). Last night’s chicken was crisp and juicy and delicious. It was a dish that I resolved not to attempt until the gas came back on, and I was right.

I suppose that I felt the relief of any good cook. If I had to work more, I didn’t have to think so much.

I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know what I’m talking about, but it seems that electric heat cycles (much as gas ovens do); the heating element is either on or off. When you turn the dial to a particular level, you simply evoke a ratio between the two states that will average in the desired temperature. This was particularly noticeable in the electric frypan, which turned out to be good for breakfasts and not much else. The strips of bacon would sizzle, then they would stop sizzling. Then they would sizzle again. In this way, they cooked very nicely, but of course it seemed half the time that they weren’t cooking at all.

I had intended, at the outset, to expand my electric-kitchen skills. But I never baked anything in the oven except potatoes. I never attempted a soufflé, although I hope to do so now. It would be great if the electric oven could function as a second oven — the feature, to my thinking, that distinguishes a real kitchen from a mere galley. I meant to make a crumb cake, and to bake a loaf of white bread (for French toast), but I never did, partly because I wasn’t feeling well. (I had begun to feel better this week, so who knows.) Any experiments with the electric oven going forward will be cushioned by the confidence that dishes cooked on the stove will be as tasty as usual. And I won’t be wondering, when are they going to turn it back on? Have they forgotten me?

We thought that the outage would last longer, especially given the size of the building. All those lines to test; all those apartments to access! The worst part was learning, last week if not earlier, that the gas had been restored to some apartments. If there had been a posted schedule, the delay would have been more bearable, but of course there wasn’t.

Anyway, it’s over. The frypan (having been immersed in the dishwasher) and the hotplate have been tucked back into the cabinet over the refrigerator, behind a row of cookbooks. I’m thinking of getting a new hotplate; maybe there’s a better one out there. (I’ll know what to look for.) The one that I have been using got rather dirty in hard-to-clean ways. The frypan, in contrast, is pristine. The electric oven will keep its counter space, as of course will the kettle. I’ve always had an electric kettle, to boil water for tea and coffee, but I decided to leave the old kettle in the old apartment when we moved downstairs. Rather, I decided not to replace it — not right away. Instead, I used this fabulously expensive stainless steel kettle from England — I regarded it as the Aga of teakettles. I like to think that it was the last status acquisition that I shall ever fall for. It had a piercing, irritating whistle, and it took forever to heat up. Perhaps you’ve seen it. The base of the kettle is ringed by a dense coil, the purpose of which I never could imagine. By the time I put it away, on top of the cabinet over the refrigerator, I had extracted the maximum of pleasure from seeing it on the stove.


As suggested here, the day before, I meant to go to the storage unit yesterday. But as I was reading the Times, I learned that Con Ed would be coming (to do what, I wasn’t sure), and that I ought to stay home. But I didn’t want to stay home; I wanted to go the storage unit, not only to continue the project of boxing up books to discard, but to look for the two thick literary biographies by Hermione Lee (of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton) that I couldn’t believe I’d banished from the house. Where else, however, could they be? I looked everywhere, and then I looked everywhere again. They must be in storage! The itch to find them made every other occupation irksome. I could not write. I could not see to a thousand little tasks, of a hundred different varieties. I could barely read, so antsy and floundering was I. Imagine my delight — you can’t! — when the doorbell suddenly rang at about twelve thirty. The men were in and out of the apartment within ten minutes, and I was out of the apartment within the hour.

The books were there, in a teetering stack on my old dresser. My old dresser was part of the “suite” of bedroom furniture that I grew up with, and it’s odd that I still have it. My parents, clearly already afraid of where my emerging sensibility might carry me, thought it best to offset my delicacy with the robust atmosphere of the Old West. My twin beds, nightstand, and dresser were finished in natural oak; I already preferred mahogany, or at least something that didn’t require sunglasses. Now I can appreciate that the finish was the full extent of the cowboy element. The pieces were not ungracefully routed with motifs that, while perhaps not actually Mexican, belonged in a proper home and not a bunkhouse.

I got rid of the twin beds and the nightstand in 1977, after I moved back into my parents’ house. This move was not the retrograde action that it might have been. First of all, my mother was dying, of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. We knew it, but she didn’t, and my helping out at home was part of the ruse. What she was told was also true: I was bound to get into law school somewhere, so I’d be leaving within about a year. (As it happened, she died a week before the first letter of acceptance arrived.) After she died, I made a few changes (all paid for by Dad, of course). I replaced the twin beds with a full-sized mattress and frame, with a simple headboard. But I kept the dresser. Now that it was in Texas, where it belonged, it looked okay. I went off to law school, and time passed. Later, when my stepmother moved back to Brooklyn after my father’s death, and my sister divided the furniture in his apartment, the dresser was shipped back to New York. I used it in our bedroom at the lake house, and then brought it back to the apartment when the lake-house chapter came to an end. A few years ago, I sent it to the storage unit. I have tried to find another home for it — I hoped that my grandson might grow up with it — but there were no takers. It sits in storage still, and who knows what will happen to it when we finally evacuate the unit. There is absolutely no room for it in this apartment.

Anywhere, that’s where the books were. I remembered taking huge loads of very good books to storage when we moved into this apartment. The decisions were not always very good ones. I’m sure I thought that I could always bring books back — which is true, but which overlooks the awful inertia of storage units, which can go unvisited for years, if there is no program of periodic stock-taking. There was another inertia at work as well. Once we got the apartment looking good, we relaxed and enjoyed it. Everything stayed more or less where it was, for about a year. Only this spring did I begin questioning the arrangement of certain kitchen cabinets, for example. At about the same time, I got serious about cataloguing the books that I can’t see because they’re ranged behind rows of other books. Until these recent developments, the effect of the combined forces of resistance was that the theory that I could bring back books anytime I wanted to was disproved by my ignorance of where the books actually were.

(I pause to consider the reader of a century hence: will the problems of owning a lot of books still be familiar? If not, will it be because people have learned to live without books, or because book technology has made better use of technology? I envision a GPS system that can locate any book instantly, that could even find books that I wasn’t looking for — as my own hands did yesterday, uncovering, in the process of sorting books, Ivan Morris’s edition of The Pillow Book, Koestler’s book about Kepler (which Kathleen and I had been talking about), and Balzac’s Le Curé de Tours. In the future, will libraries be enriched by the inevitability of forgetting what is in them?)

I wanted Lee’s biography of Woolf because I wanted to refresh my memory of Sidney Saxon. This member of the Bloomsbury Group so enthralled the others with the flow of his magnificent conversation that a stenographer was hired to take down his every remark, sitting in a chair in the corridor outside the drawing room. It was discovered, to general dismay, that the flash of the man’s talk did not transcribe very well; in fact, there was nothing at all remarkable in the whole extent of his utterance. My memory was indeed in serious need of refreshment, because there wasn’t anybody called “Sidney Saxon” in Woolf’s life, and the Saxon Sydney-Turner who was seems unlikely to have spellbound anyone; his Wikipedia entry notes how little he talked at meetings of the Apostles at Cambridge. So, of whom am I thinking? And why did this anecdote seem pressing? I shall have to re-read Lee.

Right now, I am reading Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz. It has been in my fiction pile for a very long time. Since November 2012, to be exact — as I just found out by “trying” to buy it again at Amazon. I forget the impulse behind the purchase. I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like the novel before me, which is indeed a masterpiece. I don’t think I’d have bought it if I’d known. I managed to turn Kathleen resolutely against the idea of reading it by telling her, last night over crispy broiled chicken — no, it was the curried squash soup that we had as a first (because I manage a first course with a real stove)! — about the suave merchant and his rigorously disciplined family. To tell the story that Mahfouz tells, but without telling it exactly as he does, is to ruin it, to make it sound like an awful nightmare. To read the actual novel is a strange delight. Sure, you can indulge your outrage, shooting off on anti-Islamic tangents (the patriarchy! the misogyny!). But the whole point is to enter the family, not to criticize it; to appreciate, as best one can, what it must be like to grow up in a certain kind of world.

My copy of To the Lighthouse is missing. I’m sure I’ve lost it somewhere.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Act IV
June 2016 (III)

27, 28, 30 June; 1 July

Monday 27th

On Saturday, I finished reading three big books, one in the afternoon, one in the evening, and one after dinner — which may explain why I watched Carol last night. It’s a film that Kathleen hasn’t wanted to see; Todd Haynes’s melancholy isn’t what she looks for in a movie. But Kathleen was in California, having left before dawn for Dana Point. My own expectations were mixed. I hadn’t read The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s second novel (which Carol adapts), but six or seven other novels (aside from the Ripleys) have left me with the sense of a strangely resentful writer. Highsmith always has a story to tell, but she is impatient with the need to write it all down. She can’t wait to be done, but she does want to linger over the discomfort. Having read a bit of biography, too, I know that Highsmith was very unhappy in love — and liked it that way. I met her once, at a book signing for the last Ripley, not long before her death. I told her that my favorite novel was Edith’s Diary. (It still is.) She almost moaned in response. “That was a very difficult time for me.” But when weren’t times difficult for this involuted woman?

And I haven’t been much in the mood for melancholy myself, lately; I’ve been producing enough of my own. But I myself was very curious to see how Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara would play together onscreen. That turns out to be just what the movie is about. Carol gives Blanchett an opportunity to make over the imperious carapace that she donned for Blue Jasmine, and Mara responds with a more attractive version of the girl in Side Effects. Blanchett is leonine; Mara is mousey. Which is to say that Carol is hungry, while Therese wants to be swallowed up. I think that the key to the film is that these two women never quarrel. They are always warm together, even when Therese seems to think that this might not be a good idea. How long their harmony will last is not an interesting question, because the only answer is that it will last as long as it lasts. The interesting thing is to watch how it starts. The two actresses and their director make this so compelling that I was almost disappointed when carnality plowed its way upstage.

There are two sides to the beginning of any romance, and, correspondingly, two ways of presenting it. Every new love, especially for the young, “feels right.” This gratifying sensation not only sanctifies the relationship but absolves all transgressions. At the same time, new love is a betrayal or an abandonment of everything familiar: old friends and old places lose their appeal. There is a shame in rejecting familiar, once-cherished things. This is the side that Todd Haynes lingers over. True, his lovers are women in a time of intolerance — such intolerance that they are almost lucky to huddle beside the distraction of Joe McCarthy’s antics — but their guilty excitement will be familiar to anyone who has surrendered to someone new before quite closing off relations with someone old. Haynes materializes their giddiness in the rain-spotted windows of automobiles, through which the camera cannot hold its focus.

Cate Blanchett plays the wealthy matron who encounters Rooney Mara’s circumspect shopgirl on a Christmas-shopping errand. Draped in a rich mink that is nevertheless outshone by her impeccable blonde coif, Carol is the picture of a predator, but she turns out to have more to lose than Therese does. Therese, a budding photographer, travels light. Carol cannot: she has a four year-old daughter, and she must share the child with a rich businessman who refuses to understand why Carol prefers the company of other woman and resists her desire for a divorce. I must say that Kyle Chandler is perfectly cast as Harge Aird, the exasperated husband. Everything about his face — his boyish manliness, his pink cheeks and his five-o’clock shadow, his petulant heteronormativity — makes him a dangerous opponent. When he insists on taking the child to his parents’ house for the Christmas holidays, Carol comes up with the idea of inviting her new friend on a Lolita-like tour of American motels. It doesn’t take long for her to be tracked down, and for her transports to be taped by a detective. When Harge moves for permanent and total custody of the little girl, Carol heels to his whistle. Her best friend and old flame, Abby (Sarah Paulson) flies out to drive Therese (and Carol’s Packard) home.

While we’re on the subject of men, Jake Lacy deserves credit for his compleat impersonation of the annoying boyfriend, the kind with expectations where his ears ought to be. It is impossible for me to avoid surmising that the great attraction of lesbian life isn’t the absence of men. I understand that it is more positive than that, a matter of genuine same-sex attraction. But there is still an asymmetry between men and women here. Todd Haynes is electrically alive to the intolerable presumptuousness of men. What amazes me is that a man born in 1961 has developed such an expertise regarding the look and feel of the United States ten years earlier. In one of the early department-store scenes, Blanchett is clearly meant to stand out in a sea of frumpy, discontented women — but that’s how I remember them, and I’m about the age of Carol’s daughter. Where did all those sagging, sore-footed women go? It’s a good thing that they went away.


Now for the three books. The last shall be first, as it was the first that I began to read. This was back in the fall of 2014, when Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald came out. I had read three of Fitzgerald’s novels before; now I read the rest, alongside the biography’s engrossing discussions of them. Until, that is, I got to the last one, The Blue Flower. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to read The Blue Flower. It had something to do with German Romanticism, of which Fitzgerald’s hero, Friedrich von Hardenberg (who adopted the nom de plume Novalis), was a principal exponent. It had something to do with everybody’s dying young of tuberculosis. It had something to do with the title; I can’t think why, but the title seems hopelessly wet. It wasn’t until last month, May 2016, that I finally got to it. Only then could I finish Lee’s biography; for I could hardly follow a highly literate essay about an unread book. On Sunday, looking for something to move on to, I found Lee’s book in a pile on the book room desk, and was soon done with it.

Something else that kept me from The Blue Flower was my very protracted detour into the work of Fitzgerald’s younger friend, the other Penelope — Penelope Lively. I have even re-read a few of these. If I can’t think of anything else to read, I know that Lively will entertain me in the most agreeable way. Whereas I don’t know what to make of Fitzgerald. Which is fine, especially as I do know that I want to re-read Innocence, and perhaps Human Voices. Fitzgerald reminds me of other writers, or, rather, her subject-matter does. Innocence inspired me to re-read Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday, a book set in much the same time and place. The Beginning of Spring sowed the idea of re-reading The Idiot. Fitzgerald seems to disappear into her widely-ranged contexts; she is the very opposite of Ivy Compton-Burnett, who writes not only the same novel but the same sentences over and over (to strangely hypnotic effect). And yet Fitzgerald’s own life was wilder by far than any novel. Between her promising youth and her réclame as a spiky grande dame of letters stretched a middle age of distinctly problematic character, much of it the doing of Fitzgerald’s feckless husband, who was disbarred in the early Sixties after it was discovered that he had been stealing money from his chambers. For years, the Fitzgeralds lived in a council flat, while Penelope taught at posh private “crammers.” The air of disgraced gentry was, I thought, rather sordid. Fitzgerald survived, it seems, on motherhood and scholarship. And on pretending to be a nitwit. I died laughing when I read, in Lee, that she explained to an interviewer that she had founded everything that she needed to know about Novalis “on the Internet.”

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life did work a strange and utterly unexpected catharsis, however, not unrelated to questions of sordor. “There are many things she did not want anyone to know about her, and which no one will ever know,” writes Lee of Fitzgerald, in a closing paragraph that follows hard on reference to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, “where Fitzgerald had been before me.” I don’t know that there are many things that I don’t want anyone to know about me, but there are more than a few. Now that I am old and falling apart, surviving on Remicade and five heart-related medications a day, I am more or less the person I always wanted to be. I didn’t realize how distracting and “not for me” being young was until I had left youth behind — far behind. (This, I think, went with the territory of being born when I was.) Along the way, I made some mortifying mistakes, about some of which I feel mortally shamed every time they come to mind, which is not rarely enough. I hope that they will be forgotten, and I am certainly not going to do anything to preserve their memory. This is part of a broader move to simplify the past by getting rid of most of the evidence of dead-ends, in which my early life abounded. If I preserve the bound National notebooks that I’ve mentioned from time to time, it’s because they say nothing at such great length that they would be funny if they weren’t so tedious, and barely more eloquent than my grandson’s scratchings at the age of two. Aside from that pile of rubbish, there isn’t much else. I haven’t written in books in decades; my current method of flagging interesting passages with Post-its as I read, and later transcribing them into Evernotes, is working very nicely, and contributing to the sense that my literary remains will be almost entirely digital.

Ideally, then, there will be no need to find a home for my “papers.” Pardon me the appearance of grandiosity, but Hermione Lee reminded me of something very important, which is that I want to have nothing further to do with the Lone Star State, and would sooner vanish from the memory of man altogether than find refuge at the Harry Ransom Center. I don’t care if it’s the most prestigious archive in the world (if it is); I want nothing to do with it. This disinclination, verging on abhorrence, was almost elating on Saturday night. It brought the oddest sense of relief. Not, as I say, that there is any danger that I  might “wind up” rubbing shoulders, or at least bones, with such illustrious departures. My life is starkly devoid of the trappings of celebrity, fame, or even the mildest buzz. Letters that I get from time to time are always kind — no one has written to complain, so far — and I like to think that readers who like me would prefer keeping me for themselves to “discovering” me. For my part, I should prefer that admirers who happen to live in Texas go through the motions of pretending to live somewhere else. (For you, George, I make a solitary exception.)

It is possible that I am alive today because I spent my reckless twenties in Houston; in New York, who knows what kind of conflagration might have consumed me. Houston kept me out of the kind of trouble to which I was drawn. This doesn’t change the fact that I look back on it as a complete exile, from which it took the highly uncharacteristic effort of getting into and going through law school somewhere else to return. It took seven years to build up the strength for that effort, to make an act of will that still surprises me. While in Houston, I married and had a child, thanks to whom I now have a grandchild. If my daughter moves back to Texas (something very unlikely, it seems to me), I shall have to reconsider my aversion, but, short of that, I am quits with Texas. That my parents are buried in Houston is simply yet another act of betrayal on their part; I have never forgiven them for changing “their song” from “Got A Date With An Angel” (irresistible, but already somewhat venerable when they were married, in 1942) to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.”


Tuesday 28th

For reasons that I’ll get to shortly, I have been haunted by Verdi’s Otello. This has brought Woody Allen’s Match Point to mind, and, last night, to the screen in the bedroom. The movie’s soundtrack consists almost exclusively of old opera recordings. At the beginning and the end, and also at a dramatic moment in the middle, we hear Enrico Caruso’s recording of “Una furtiva lagrima,” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore. There are bits and pieces of things that are unfamiliar to me, and a few things that ought to be familiar but are made strange by the antique technology. The climactic murder scene is accompanied by a great swath from Act II of Otello. Iago, having opened Otello’s mind to the unthinkable, persuades him that his wife has been unfaithful. The music comes in on Otello’s “Desdemona rea,” and proceeds right to the unforgettable duet, “Si, pel ciel.” The singers are Janez Lotric and Igor Morozov; the recording, issued by Naxos, appears to be unavailable. Woody Allen deserves some kind of award for brilliant appropriation. On the screen, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, playing the upwardly mobile former tennis pro who finds himself in a bit of a jam, falls apart as completely as Otello but then, as his own Iago, stiffens his resolve. It is utterly harrowing.

And yet the horror of this picture is that, even though the bad guy gets away with it, it is so satisfying. The bad guy will have to deal with the burden of a very unpleasant memory for the rest of his life, but the odds are that he will manage. We have seen this movie before, of course: in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the film that introduced Allen’s first corpse (Anjelica Huston), the eminent ophthalmologist (Martin Landau) silences a blackmail threat with the aid of a hit man hired by his no-good-nik brother (Jerry Orbach). And gets away with it. In Match Point, the bad guy has to do the killing himself. He nearly gets caught, but is saved by a piece of evidence that, thanks to a fortunate bounce on the net, as it were, is found in the wrong pocket. Well done!

Well done? What kind of moral degeneracy does this film induce? When the video ended last night, it was late, but I went out onto the balcony and sat for a little while, enjoying the kind of spring rain that we never had this spring. There seemed only the slightest, most negligible difference between the West End of London in which the movie was set and my own 87th Street. Even in the night, the honey locusts were low green clouds. The sound of the occasional car splashing through the wet seemed very Continental. All was in order.

I know that there are many people who would argue with a sneer that nothing could be more characteristic of a Woody Allen movie than the murder of two women by a man whose domestic happiness is at risk. The very fact that the murderer is badly shaken by what he has done, they would add, only makes it worse. What good are his tender feelings, if they don’t preclude his pulling the trigger? But I don’t see Match Point that way. The moral of the story of Match Point is that some people are lucky. Like the unlucky, they do not get what they deserve. A murderer is a bad person — we get it. But, having put his own life at the mercy of luck, he presents a thrilling spectacle, much like a tightrope walker, as the consequences of his act arrange themselves, as it turns out, in his favor.


The second book that I finished on Saturday was Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life. I have mentioned this book a few times, and I’m not going to say much about it now. It is a readable and, so far as its subject makes possible, lucid biography. My slight disappointment with it is unfair, simply an indication that I was hoping for a somewhat different book than the one promised by Sperber’s subtitle. For what interests me about Marx isn’t the man himself — I already knew enough about him — but the posthumous evolution of his ideas, at the hands of Friedrich Engels and someone I hadn’t heard of, Karl Kautsky, toward the doctrines spouted by Lenin. Marx’s theories do not hold together, but they sparkle with piercing insights. He was not a very good philosopher, but he might have made a great satirist.

The first book to be finished on Saturday was a novel published in 1978. I don’t know that I have ever read a book that cried out to me for annotation as loudly as Brown Megg’s Aria. I didn’t require annotations in order to enjoy reading the novel, but, aside from Fossil Darling, from whom I learned about the book, I can’t think of anyone else who wouldn’t. I learned about the book in this way: I found it among Fossil’s books when I spent a few days at his apartment, in the summer of 1980. He graciously put me up while I looked for my own apartment. It took about a week to find one, and during that time I read Aria. That is how I remember it; what actually happened — I might have borrowed the book a little later — doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I read and liked Aria then, just on the other side of law school (three years) from my classical radio days.

The world of Aria was still very familiar to me, if only as a matter of hearsay. At the radio station, we gossiped about the luminaries of the music world (and the companies that paid them) just as the guys at ESPN must gossip about jocks today. I knew, for example, that the novel’s fictional record label, “Melos-Doria,” was derived from the role played by Dario Soria, together with his wife, Dorle, in the foundation of Angel Records, in New York in 1953, and that both labels began at about the same time. I knew that the great but now-voiceless Edith Cavalieri was based, very roughly, on Maria Callas, and that it was canny of Meggs to mention Cavalieri’s rivalry with Callas, so as to forestall libel suits. I knew that the casts of opera recordings were determined almost as much by caprice as by judgment, and that scheduling conflicts produced endless upsets. I knew, in short, that making records was a very complicated business. (One thing that I did not yet know was that RCA declined Rachmaninov’s request to record his Symphonic Dances with Artur Rubinstein because, in wartime, there would be “no demand.”) All the details in Aria rang interesting variations on true facts. Even the conductor’s name — Ponti — looked like a nod toward Sophia Loren’s husband, the film producer Carlo. I have never forgotten Aria since, and I have often thought of re-reading it. A while ago, I got a copy of my own. But it was only this month that I picked it up.

When I say that I had never forgot Aria, I mean that I never forgot that it was “about” the making of a studio recording of Verdi’s Otello, in Rome, and that the record producer and hero, Hurston (Harry) Chapin, faces many exciting vicissitudes. The drama of opera, so to speak. In fact, there is a good deal more to Aria than this. Of the novel’s four hundred sixty pages, only about a hundred are concerned with the actual recording. The rest is pretty exciting, too, and so vivid that I have to remind myself that many of its particulars have vanished so completely that nobody misses them. (EG: WATS lines.) Even more surprising, I recognized that Aria was written in a highly transitional cultural moment. Much of it could not have been published much sooner; nor, I think, would it be published today.

Wasn’t I just echoing, last Friday, an old frustration, that novels are always about love? Curious, considering that I was already well into Aria. Aria is above all a novel about work. Like any book about work, it is about a very narrow line of work. I am not entirely sure that anyone still follows Aria‘s line of work, or perhaps rather that the hero’s line of work — organizing the recording of an important opera — has not evolved into something else. Studio recordings have become uncommon for a number of reasons, but the principal cause of the shift toward live recordings is the great improvement in microphone technology — or so it seems to me. Today’s record producer faces a slate of engineering problems. Some opera house or other has already put together the cast, an undertaking rather more formidable than setting up recording equipment. Back in the day, however, live recordings had a distinctly inferior sound. Studio recordings were preferable partly because mistakes could be spliced out, but even more because ambient conditions could be optimal. An old church in the Holborn district of London, Kingsway Hall, became the sound studio of choice for many of the great EMI recordings of the Fifties and the Sixties. It was not much to look at, and when the tape reels were turning there were very few people in the room who weren’t engaged in singing or playing or checking sound levels or otherwise making the recording. In other words, nothing could have been less like a grand opera house packed with an eager audience. In those days, record producers were artistic quartermasters, engaged in manifold logistical conundrums and beset by loose ends at every turn.

But how much will you learn about a classical record producer’s line of work from Aria, a novel that assumes that you already know the business?

“Well,” said Harry with studied calm, “we certainly can’t break the act. Act IV is always complete on the final side. How do the other companies do it?”

“Other people don’t make it run thirty-four minutes, and they don’t do it in quad. Oh, you can squeeze it on, I suppose. But you won’t have any level — you’ll be hearing nothing but clicks and pops and background music. You don’t want that, do you?”

He was aware of his pulse again. In the new pared-down Chapin form, even the slightest change in emotional rhythm was noticeable. “No, I don’t want that,” he said quietly.

“I kicked it around with Mr Rose,” Poole went on, “and he says there’s a Victor set that starts Act IV on the fifth side and then runs it on over, making two pretty reasonable running times.”

“The act shouldn’t be broken,” Harry said petulantly. “On musical and dramatic grounds.”

“Okay, then,” said Poole.

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, it shouldn’t be broken.”

“So what do we do?”

“So you tell me where you want it broken.”

Harry remained silent for several minutes, fingering through he master score. Oh, yes, this was the new Harry Chapin, who did not become unnecessarily exercised over trivial business decisions. “Oscar?”

“Yeah, Mr Chapin?”

“Break it after the ‘Ave Maria.’ You’ll have to redistribute sides four and five, too, or else five is going to be too long. You start side six there — right after ‘Amen!’”

Maybe I’m a worrier; maybe everybody understands what this is about. CD recordings of opera still involve multiple discs, and while it is somewhat unusual to break up the acts — the overall unit of opera — it is routine with Wagner and not uncommon with Richard Strauss. In the days of LPs, however, discs were playable on both sides, and there were lots of breaks. On the rare occasions when producers opted to squeeze Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onto one LP, there had to be an inevitably dreadful break in the middle of the long but lyrical slow movement. Act IV of Otello, in contrast, is relatively brief, with the troubled calm of Desdemona’s preparations for sleep followed by Otello’s swift act of madness and almost as swift collapse into remorse. But the conductor whom Harry Chapin has engaged for this recording, Gian-Carlo Ponti, is a plodder, a pedant, really, a young man who already thinks of himself as a high priest of music. Hence the thirty-four minute duration. Hence the need for a break. I will say that Harry’s choice for the break is the right one. But it’s a good thing that we don’t have to deal with these problems anymore.

(And “quad” — who remembers quadraphonic sound?)

Strangely enough, though, the parts of Aria that are not about work are the parts that would make it difficult to publish today, and that would have made it impossible to publish ten years earlier. In most lives, work is balanced by love and friendship, but love and friendship occupy a tiny part of Harry Chapin’s life. (He gets on best with his associate, Norman Rose.) His marriage is on the rocks, not that this bothers him very much. That’s one problem: it doesn’t bother him that his marriage is on the rocks. In fact, we discover that his marriage is not nearly as rocky as he would like it to be. Harry spends most of his non-working hours in a vast territory that merits the name, “Expense Account.” This is the aspect of Aria that has dated even more severely than the technical details.

Harry is a connoisseur of the great red wines of France. This sets him apart, in 1978, from most American men, even the rich ones; but what separates from Americans of today, or really almost anyone anywhere who knows about wine, is the quantities that Harry consumes. He drinks prodigiously, and suffers hangovers accordingly. He is certainly no picture of health. Many of his friends ask if he is putting on weight, because he is. At the same time, he is a relentless philanderer, whose only redeeming feature is the conviction with which he falls in love with every new face. What with all the wine, Harry has performance issues, and it’s clear that an awful reckoning is imminent. Author Meggs obliges magnificently, with a heart attack on the roof of St Peter’s in Rome. Harry survives, but without regrets: his new régime of healthy living is simply an updated ode to his vanity. And the conglomerate that owns his record company picks up all the checks.

If Harry’s high living is hard to believe, that’s because the constellation called “glamour” glistens with very different stars today. Well into the Seventies, opera held onto the status of top art form that it had achieved in the later days of the ancien régime. Back then, only royal and princely courts could afford to support opera houses, and only during a season. The thing about opera, aside from artistic merit, was that it was staggeringly expensive for something that left no trace when the curtain came down. Everything about opera was staggeringly expensive. Singers lived famously extravagant lives. Productions vied for costly special effects. If you weren’t spending money, you weren’t getting it. Harry’s life of first-class travel to biggest suites in best hotels with round-the-clock catering could still be taken for granted when Brown Meggs wrote Aria. All right; it was a little over the top. But only a little.

The satisfactions of Aria are, however, all work-related. There is an extraordinary scene near the end when Harry, whose label is facing a lawsuit, sits down with the plaintiff’s attorney plus two lawyers on his own side and silences them all, dictating the terms according to which the parties will move forward. The lawsuit itself is vaporized by his inexorable conditions. “Bravo!” you shout when he is done — and the plaintiff’s lawyer is fairly crawling out of the room on hands and knees. You are shouting because you understand the background; the novel has taught you exactly why Mme Cavalieri’s complaints against Melos-Doria records is piffle. This moment, and not the heart attack atop St Peter’s, is the climax of the novel. That’s to say that the climax is for lawyers and other negotiators.

Aria is the opposite of an historical novel: it opens a window on a world so vanished that without notes it is incomprehensible. Because I lived in illo tempore, I don’t need the notes, but I feel that I ought to write them while I can. (But I have forgotten so much of the detail since 1980.) At the same time, I’ve grown up a bit myself, and Harry’s immense condescension toward women, which breaks out into open misogyny whenever he is crossed, is both hard to take and fascinating, fascinating because well-written evidence of attitudes such as Harry’s are hard to come by. Few people were conscious of them as such at the time, and far fewer could afford them. The laws of fiction operational in those days said, “This is how it is.” The laws in force today would insist upon punishment for Harry. The women in his life would gang up on him, and his liver would give out. Instead, Harry gives every appearance, at the end, of having forsaken wine and women for song.


Thursday 30th

As I was reading the last chapters of Patricia Highsmith’s 1977 novel, Edith’s Diary, this morning, I was reminded of a movie that I couldn’t place. In the movie, a young woman whose marriage has broken down becomes unnaturally concerned about some political or social problem. Her life is a mess, but she can’t be bothered with that: what is her little life compared with the coming catastrophe that she is alone in foreseeing? We in the audience know that the catastrophe is indeed coming, but we also know that the woman’s hysteria — that’s what her friends call it — is abnormal.

The novel came to an end. I closed it and set it aside so that I could get up from my reading chair. I walked through the apartment toward the plate of bananas in the sunny dining ell. Even before I got there, I remembered the young woman and the movie: Kay, played by Joanna Pettet, in The Group, Sidney Lumet’s film of Mary McCarthy’s novel. At the end, Kay, searching the Manhattan skies for Nazi aircraft, loses her balance and falls out the window to her death. In the novel, Edith, who has been mountingly preoccupied by a hatred of Richard Nixon and bewilderment at the American evacuation of Saigon, trips on the stairs, and falls to her death.

Edith is carrying a metallic bust that she has sculpted of her son, Cliffie. It is an idealized portrait. She seems to have no idea that this bust might convince the doctors, to whom she intends to offer it as proof of her good health, that she is in fact in dire need of psychiatric care.

It is almost impossible to avoid regarding the deaths of Kay and Edith as mercies.


The other day, I wrote about telling Patricia Highsmith, at a book signing, that Edith’s Diary was my favorite of her novels. And then I added a parenthetical note stating that it still is. The falseness of this boast weighs heavily on me today. Oh, Edith’s Diary is indeed my favorite of Highsmith’s books — of which, to be honest, I have not read that many. But the novel that I thought I had in mind when speaking to Highsmith, the novel that I claimed as still my favorite, just the other day — this novel does not exist. To say that Edith’s Diary is not what I remembered is problematic, because while I did remember the major plot points, as well as the final fall down the stairs, I recreated everything else. In my version of the book, which posed as a recollection, Edith’s diary is the only text. We read the entries without confirmation or refutation from another point of view. We don’t know what is really happening in Edith’s life, but — here’s the brilliant part — Highsmith subtly signals to the reader that Edith’s diary entries are no longer truthful about the son whom we understand to be a disappointment. It is quite a trick! The entries become ever more far-fetched, the dissatisfactions of Edith’s life (which we know about, somehow) erased by her fantasies of wishful thinking. At the end, Edith is as demented and doomed as Norma Desmond, in Sunset Boulevard. Trusting the son whom she has fabricated in the diary, Edith is traduced by him.

Quite a book, that would be. But I’m terrified by the unconscious abandon of my adaptation.

First of all, the diary entries take up very few pages, certainly fewer than fifteen or twenty (in a text that runs to three hundred). Most of the novel is narrated quite conventionally in the free indirect style, mostly from Edith’s point of view, but occasionally from Cliffie’s. Today, I think, Cliffie would be diagnosed as having a borderline narcissistic character, but he is not the psychopath that I invented. Nor is Edith the silly suburbanite that I remembered.

While I transformed Edith’s Diary into a lurid horror story, the novel is in fact the eerily gentle account of a woman’s dislocation under stress. Unfortunate things happen to Edith, but what makes them unfortunate is her inability to get anyone to help her with them. When her husband, Brett, falls in love with his secretary and, in the friendliest, most regretfully sympathetic way, leaves Edith, it’s hard to see who could help to patch things up; but Brett leaves a big problem behind, in the person of his uncle George, a self-absorbed old man who occupies the spare room in Edith’s house. Edith’s attempts to move George to a nursing home, while they have Brett’s support in principle, never get any traction, because Brett (interestingly, a journalist) doesn’t know how to do anything but talk. So the unfortunate thing that happens to Edith is not just the departure of a husband whom she has always thought she loved. It is Brett’s abandonment of the problem of what to do about the sick man in her house.

This wearing reality is severely crimped by a terrible coincidence. On the night of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Cliffie, driving while drunk, runs into a pedestrian, breaking both of his legs.

From that night onward, Edith had two on her hands, George and Cliffie, because Cliffie’s license was suspended for a year. He was grounded, as he put it. This Edith had learned the same early morning, when the Bruswick Corner police plus the Hopewell Township officer delivered Cliffie. He was plainly under the influence. Edith was ashamed, though she thought she had long ago lost the capacity for that, because Cliffie was a grown man, independent of her. Cliffie looked in fact half asleep, though the half of himi that wasn’t asleep focused on her, as if he were trying to gauge, if he could, her reaction. Edith was concerned about the man who had been injured… His name was written down, at Edith’s request, and left along with other papers for Cliffie to sign tomorrow, because as the police said, he was not in a condition to sign anything.

The following day, Robert Kennedy’s death was announced. Cliffie was asleep when Edith left for the Thatchery at a quarter to 2. Edith worked doggedly, with more of a head-down attitude than usual. “Don’t think, keep moving,” was her frequent advice to herself, and she sometimes added, “Don’t look for a meaning,” because if she did look for a meaning for even half a minute, she sensed that she was lost, that she had turned loose of her real anchor which was not Brett, but a kind of firm resignation. Edith didn’t know what to call it, but she knew what it was, knew the feeling. The feeling was one of security, the only security she knew now, or had now. (Chapter 18)

Highsmith’s approach is descriptive, not analytical. Edith’s relation to her parents, who are not even mentioned until well into the book, is oddly, inexplicably distant, and this strangeness is emphasised by Edith’s close and loving relationship with her great-aunt Melanie, whose niece her own mother is. We’re left to work out the possible consequences of that by ourselves. Edith’s early married life, and her early motherhood, are also glossed over. By the time we meet her, she knows that her little boy, then ten, is a liar with a weak and lazy character. Yet she seems to accept this as an everyday problem to be dealt with, not as grounds for medical attention. In the seventeen years that follow, Edith’s apparently placid nature is taken for granted by everyone. Only when it is too late do her ex-husband and her best friend, Gert Johnson, realize that Edith is headed for a breakdown. Their attempt to intervene are hopelessly condescending.

We’re told that Edith graduated from Bryn Mawr, so her attraction to progressive, and eventually left-wing politics is no surprise. Having moved from Greenwich Village to leafy Bucks County, Edith and Brett set up a small local newspaper, The Bugle. This soon fails, but later on Edith and Gert revive it and make a success of it. This is the weak spot in Edith’s suburban carapace, and what the bugle announces is the failure of Edith’s sense of proportion and appropriateness. Starting out as a successful homemaker, good cook, and enthsiastic gardener, Edith slides away into extreme political positions that have some occult connection with her increasing domestic derelictions. As her house takes on a shabby air, her newspaper trumpets unpopular opinions about birth control and abortion; toward the end, Edith is contributing to Ramparts (a radical mouthpiece that provoked my father to insist on the cancellation of my subscription, lest the postman be scandalized). Edith loses her job at the gift shop and is “boycotted” by most of her friends.

I like to think that Highsmith is not interested in assigning blame for the unraveling of Edith’s life. Arguably, it did not unravel at all — Edith simply tripped on the stairs; it could happen to anyone. She denied, through her fake diary entries (in which Cliffie goes to Princeton, marries a nice girl, has two children and a great engineering job in Kuwait), that she was unhappy. Who doesn’t try to overlook unhappiness? She is actually the first person to say, albeit jokingly, that she may be going nuts, but so long as the house is shipshape and the Bugle‘s editorials aren’t insulting, it’s simply the case that nobody has any time for Edith, because Edith is just another woman. Everybody admires Edith’s ability to handle the complexities of her life (until she doesn’t and they don’t), but nobody lifts a finger on her behalf. The way of life that Edith and her friends and family share does not provide for practical assistance. The housewife is either functional or sick. Her resentment burgeons and grows invisibly for years, but instead of rebellion, it leads her into confusion, as I think resentment usually does.

The unmooring that Edith feels manifests itself most alarmingly in lapses of short-term memory; this is eventually compounded by the difficulty of keeping the difference between real life and the events described in her diary distinct. Even she is upset to realize that she has knitted two little jackets for her invented grandchildren. Edith seems to suffer the violent displacements that seem to result from child abuse. There is no suggestion that Edith was abused as a child, but the novel never wanders from a world in which housewives, even the Bryn Mawr grads among them, are infantilized, making them dependent upon prospective abusers. Brett may be a bland nice guy with the best of intentions, but his selfish desertion of Edith, his uncontested insistence that the happiness of his life is more important than the happiness of hers, such a violation of the contract that Edith thought she signed at marriage, is a crushing blow, and Edith’s appearance of taking it so well really indicates that she is not taking it at all: her reactions to what Brett has done do not manifest themselves until the independence of Brett’s new life does, in the form of a new (and large) New York apartment, a baby daughter, and of course the uncle in the spare room who cannot be dislodged.

The second turning point in Edith’s Diary is the death of George. Highsmith keeps the details murky, to mirror Edith’s desire not to know what happened, but it’s clear enough that Cliffie gives George an overdose of codeine. This is actually Cliffie’s second attempt to kill “the old vegetable.” The first attempt fails because Edith steps in. The second one succeeds because she doesn’t. And, from now on, mother and son are a team, each protecting the other. When Brett insists that there ought to have been an autopsy, and even voices his suspicion of Cliffie to Edith, she dismisses him as a nosy stranger, and Highsmith does what she can to encourage the reader to share the same view. It becomes, frankly, an inverted example of abortion: Brett is far more exercised about George’s right to live than he ever was about the quality of George’s life or its consequences for his wife.

Edith’s Diary is, after all, a horror story, but it is a horror story from which excitement has been almost entirely drained. Instead of excitement, there is, every now and then, clarity. The clarity of the paragraph in which Edith comes to an end is unbearable.

She was aware that she didn’t scream, although she was terrified. It seemed a slow motion fall, she saw herself slanting head downward at the same angle as the stairs, and she thought of Cliffie as a small boy of eight and ten, potentially handsome as he was now potentially handsome, like the statue she held in her two hands. She thought of injustice, felt her personal sense of injustice combined now with the crazy, complex injustice of the Viet Nam situation — a country in which corruption, as everyone knew, was a way of life, normal. Tom Paine. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot … Her head struck hard, yet gracefully (she believed) on one of the bottom steps or the floor, and the lights went out for her.

Graceful to the end — a death worthy of her diary.


Friday 1st

My most recent Facebook update is two weeks old. It’s a link to the report filed at Political Scrapbook by Jared Yates Sexton after Donald Trump’s appearance at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. The report is actually a series of tweets posted by Sexton as the rally deteriorated into alarming disorderliness. In today’s Times, Sexton offers a toned-down but more thoughtful account of the Trump phenomenon. He suggests that Trump’s rallies have become “safe spaces” for Americans who feel suffocated by political correctness. Given the low-grade violence, occasionally erupting into fisticuffs, that Sexton tweeted about during the Greensboro event, “safe” doesn’t seem to be quite the right word. It’s like focusing on the calm in which the flame of a match can start a bonfire. But I see what Sexton means, and I’m intrigued.

Sexton closes his piece with more counterintuition:

Commentators have tried to cast Mr. Trump as a master manipulator, using his supporters to carry him to the White House but having no real interest in improving their lives. That may be his intention. But the reality is the other way around: His supporters are using him. Indeed, as I got in my car to drive home, I realized that since leaving the coliseum, of all the things I had heard people say, there was one phrase I hadn’t heard his supporters utter even once: Donald Trump’s name.

It would be nice to think that the Trumpsters are actually laughing at their man, at his weird hair and piggy eyes, at those hands that, along with being child-sized, are obviously innocent of manual labor. It would be jolly to know that the Republican Party has been saddled with a most unwelcome candidate by lords of misrule.

There has been a running joke, ever since last summer, that Donald Trump was going to pull a volte-face on us and claim that his campaign was only a joke, a wheeze: “Just kidding!” We passed the point at which such an outcome might reasonably be hoped for some time ago, but that is what seems to have happened with Boris Johnson in Britain. Having done more to inspire the move to Brexit than any other single figure — his distorted reporting from Brussels, full of tabloid-style nonsense, set the tone for British journalism on the subject — Johnson now reveals that he hasn’t a clue what comes next, and that (oops!) some of his facts and figures may have been mistaken. Sarah Lyall, who was the Times‘s London correspondent in Johnson’s palmier days, writes in today’s paper about the Falstaff who would be Hal with elegant glee.

Meanwhile, Members of Parliament who identify with the Labour Party are plotting to dethrone Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected to the leadership of the party by the rank and file last year. It will be remembered that Conservative Members of Parliament brought down Margaret Thatcher in 1990, by taking advantage of a twenty-five year-old party rule, never intended to be put to use, to withdraw their confidence in her premiership. Do Labourites have a similar rule? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Nevertheless, something can usually be stitched up. The next election is going to be fierce, and the Labour establishment believes that the adamantly leftist Corbyn will inspire a landslide loss.

If our political stage were more like Britain’s, then Donald Trump would take the place of Neil Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, which stands to the right of the Conservative Party on issues of globalism and immigration. Instead of forming his own party and laying the groundwork — UKIP is twenty-five years old this year — Trump simply hijacked the Republican rostrum, and the Republicans, weirdly helpless, let it happen. Donald Trump was a magnet for UKIP-like disaffection, and his supporters knocked off the establishment candidates one by one.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the postwar political order seems marked for replacement. Notwithstanding the Trump insurgency, I hope that the reorganization begins with clearly distinct new parties. What are the issues? What’s more important, race or jobs? If un- or underemployed white men were able to get satisfying jobs, would they drop their resistance to the advance of other kinds of people? Are such jobs even conceivable? Or do we simply wait for the boomers to die off? What is the future of patriotism? Of nationalism? When will the French Revolution ever end?


The current issue of the London Review of Books is devoted to Andrew O’Hagan’s discovery of the real Satoshi Nakamoto (the mythical/mysterior inventor of Bitcoin), a coder from Australia by the name of Craig Wright. “Is he Satoshi?” asks the cover. According to O’Hagan’s account, he seems to be; he has been acknowledged as such by two highly reliable members of the Bitcoin Space, Gavin Andresen and Jon Matonis. But when Wright was presented in a public “reveal,” he sabotaged his own performance in an easily detectable way, costing his sponsors a great deal of money. At least, that’s what I think happened. I had a very hard time following the story, not because O’Hagan writes less than lucidly but because the motivations of computer people often fail to tally with my expectations of humanity. For one thing, childhood traits persist well into middle age — and are not regarded as childish by peers. There is something about these men that reminds me of Creationists and Trump supporters: they’re not interested in common sense or received wisdom. (You have to receive received wisdom before you can transcend or amend it.) Where children used to have childhoods, they had superheroes and Dungeons and Dragons. If I read O’Hagan correctly, even Wright’s grasp of math is uneven.

Without Kathleen’s engagement in several Bitcoin/block chain projects, I doubt that I’d be paying attention to this story. (Maybe I’d go straight to the movie. There’s certainly a movie in O’Hagan’s piece, although the ending may have been left open. In a way, it’s a story that can end only if and when Wright is assassinated.) It’s bitterly ironic that the Internet, which was presented to us as such a dewily beneficent contribution to human betterment back in the Nineties, turns out to be great terrain for men being men. Pow! Zam! You will not be surprised to learn that Craig Wright, although probably a genius and hopefully the owner of many patents, is a terrible businessman. That is why he agreed to out himself as Satoshi. The sponsors would pay off all his debts in exchange for some of his intellectual property and the tsunami of publicity.

By now, everybody under thirty knows that “satoshi” is the Japanese word for “Ash,” and also the name of “the main protagonist of Pokémon manga and anime series” (Wikipedia). As to “Nakamoto,” it was the surname of an eighteenth-century Japanese iconoclast (for whom there is no Wikipedia entry.) The Wikipedia entry for “Satoshi Nakamoto” has been updated to include reference to O’Hagan’s exposé, but dismisses it as inconclusive. In a sense, the story has to be inconclusive.

Wright said he had never expected the myth of Satoshi to gather such force. “We were all used to using pseudonyms,” he told me. “That’s the cyberpunk way.” Now people want Satoshi to come down from the mountain like a messiah. I am not that. And we didn’t mean to set up a myth that way.” Satoshi was loved by bitcoin fans for making a beautiful thing and then disappearing. They don’t want Satoshi to be wrong or contradictory, boastful or short-tempered, and they don’t really want him to be a 45-year-old Australian called Craig.

Wright is generous in giving credit to the men who contributed to development of Bitcoin, so much so that I agree with Kathleen, that “Satoshi Nakamoto” denotes a loose band of contributors. Wright may very well have contributed, along with plenty of code, the name. He and his colleagues seem to have created a puzzle (who?) that can never be solved — not, at least, until a Bitcoin transaction can be faked.


It has been a long time since I read a novel by Anne Tyler. I thinker of her as an Eighties writer, whatever that means. For a few years, I read each new one as it came out. Then I began to feel that they were all the same. Baltimore was a big part of the problem, because no city confuses me more. Is it a northern city or a southern city? To put it slightly differently, is it a local city, with its own little ecology, or is it part of something larger, and, if so, what? Geographically, Baltimore belongs in the Northeast Corridor, or so they say. Whatever the trains may do, I’m not sure that the corridor really extends beyond Wilmington, Delaware. Sometimes, I’m inclined to limit the span to New York and Boston. I can imagine what they think in Boston: what corridor?

But I’ve just read what I think is the latest from Tyler, A Spool of Blue Thread, and it surprised me. It seemed less like the Anne Tylers that I remember and more like the Penelope Livelys that I’ve been re-reading. For one thing, there is no sad sack in Spool. When I think of Anne Tyler, I think of mildly disappointed people in trying family situations, unable either to light the hearth with cheer or to cut loose. There are no such people in Spool. Well, there may be one, but he is much too rude and opaque to be a sad sack, and he is far more disappointing than disappointed. Everyone in Spool is pretty lively.

And then there’s this house. The house, built during World War II, stands on a leafy lot in a very nice part of town. It is simple and unostentatious but perfectly proportioned. The rooms are spacious and airy, ventilated by transoms as well as ceiling fans (but no air-conditioning). The main attraction, at least during the warmer months, is a deep and wide verandah. The house is quite literally the embodiment of a family — the builder’s family.

The Whitshank family emerged from rural yeomanry in the 1920s, when J R Whitshank (known as “Junior”) came to Baltimore. He was followed, five years later, by Linnie, the young woman who had fallen in love with him, back in North Carolina, when she was thirteen. Junior prospered as a contractor, and they had two children. Their daughter, Merrick, schemed her way into the more eminent reaches of Baltimore society, while their son, Redcliffe (“Red”) followed in his father’s business. Red married Abby, the daughter of a hardware store proprietor, and they had four children. Or was it three?

The structure of the novel is palpable. Each chapter has its own topic, as it were, that renders it a distinct part of the overall narrative flow. Two preliminary chapters introduce the family, now centered on Red and Abby (Junior and Linnie having been killed in a grade-crossing accident in 1967). First we meet Denny, the third child and the elusive member of the family. Denny spies on everybody else but maintains rigid secrecy about himself. He also stays away from the house, roaming around the country in a variety of half-hearted pursuits. The novel begins with his calling home from college to tell his parents that he is gay. Having said that, Denny hangs up. His parents argue: is it possible? Red thinks not. Abby wants to know if there is someone in his life. Both want Denny to settle down. They want to know who and where he is — the most natural of parental concerns. The chapter is a chronicle of Denny’s sporadic appearances, sometimes with a daughter, Susan (who he confesses to his mother is not actually his child), that ends in the novel’s present, which is the year 2012.

The second chapter tells the two stories that everybody in the family knows. There is the story about the house, and then the story of Merrick’s social climbing. They are pretty much two sides of the same story, because Merrick climbs her way out of the house and, despite (or perhaps as underlined by) a couple of appearances, out of the family. (There turns out to be a third well-known story — how Abby fell in love with Red — and it is told later, after the present action winds up and nearly comes to an end.) The action gets going at the start of the third chapter, in which Stem, the fourth and youngest child, moves his family into the house in order to watch over his parents, who are beginning, it seems, to fail. In the fourth, Denny shows up, having voiced his complaint that the caretaker’s duty is his, since Stem is not a real member of the family. This is a surprise to the reader, of course, but not to anyone in the book; the thing that most of his quasi-adoptive family does not know about Stem (Stem included) is revealed later. In the fifth chapter, the simmering competition between Stem and Denny erupts into a fight at the beach house that the family rents every summer. In the sixth chapter, there is an accident, followed by a funeral in the seventh. In the eighth and last main chapter, the family decides to leave the house. At the end of the book, when we return to the present, Denny gets on a train heading north to New Jersey, where an exaperated woman awaits him, and the winds of Hurricane Sandy gather overhead.

In the five chapters that separate this story from its ending, Tyler tells Abby’s story, set way back in 1958. Then she goes back further still, and retraces in detail the story of the house. Or, rather, this time, Tyle writes about the journey to the house. This is a much darker story, complete with danger, violence, and privation, because there is no family as yet: we are told how it was created. The official family story of the house never mentioned Junior’s intense resistance to re-uniting with Linnie when she surprised him by showing up in Baltimore. He remembers her as the author of the worst episode in his life, in which he was obliged to walk, half-naked and barefoot, many miles through the night, in fear of his life. Linnie’s father caught the two of them together in a barn; Junior was twice Linnie’s age. Junior’s love, moreover, was pretty much confined to Linnie’s voluptuous bosom. Beyond all that unpleasantness, Linnie is disinclined to put aside her back-country ways, whereas Junior longs to be accepted by his neighbors on Bouton Road. Linnie rather sublimely ignores Junior’s countless snubs, and he learns that she is “the bane of his existence” — his way of saying that he can’t live without her. Junior may not be an endearing man, but Linnie wrests a family from him, pretty much as God wrought Eve from Adam.

As it has been so long since I last read Anne Tyler, I can’t generalize, but A Spool of Blue Thread pulls off a neat trick — although perhaps it isn’t a trick at all. The novel runs through all of the familiar domestic rough spots, and its characters are often thoughtless and self-aborbed, indignant and resentful. But however much Denny, for example, acts like a jerk, it is not a palpably gender-linked jerkitude. The men are more competitive than compassionate, and the women vice versa, but not to hyped-up degrees. (There is not the faintest whisper of second-class personhood that imprisons the heroine of Edith’s Diary.) Amanda, the eldest of the younger Whitshanks, and her husband, Hugh, would be equally disagreeable, if we saw more of Hugh; Amanda rather takes after her dreadful aunt. Gender doesn’t explain very much of what goes on; mothers and fathers are loving in their own ways — but loving. These family relationships are not qualified by sex. Maybe that’s because their author is aware that they begin in the union of the two.

Many thanks to Kathleen for picking up the book on her two-day trip to California!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Clean Starvèd
June 2016 (II)

20, 21, 23, and 24 June

Monday 20th

All weekend, I pondered the reality behind a paragraph in the New York Times Book Review. The book under review was Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir; the reviewer was Dayna Tortorici.

Valenti’s commitment to holding the line for a certain common-denominator feminism in hostile territory is admirable. This is thankless work, and after more than a decade of it she is clearly tired. “I know I’m meant to be the bigger person,” she writes in “Sex Object,” her latest, addressing the anonymous men who flood her inbox with threats and insults. “I know you’re not supposed to hate people because hate is bad for your soul.” But so is knowing that “whatever you work on, whoever you are, the nameless horde of random people who go home at night and kiss their wives and children would like for you to disappear.” Likewise, of the men who approach her after speaking engagements: “I have become too exhausted with men online to interact with well-meaning information seekers in real life.” Of putting on a brave face and laughing off offenses: “This sort of posturing is a performance that requires strength I do not have anymore.”

In last week’s New Yorker (I am not changing the subject), there’s a cartoon in which a doctor shows his patient an X-ray and says, “That’s the racist bone in your body you claimed you didn’t have.” The doctor might just as easily have said to the man (for the patient is, as almost always, a man), “That’s the misogynist bone in your body…” The sad truth behind the joke is that there are no such X-rays. There is no way to tell, no doctor to consult, if you’re worried about hidden contempt for or hostility toward different kinds of people — different from you, the straight white male. How can you be sure that you’re not fooling yourself? Happily, the answer — You can’t — is the answer to almost every search for certainty about what’s going on in your mind. So, what you have to do instead is to listen to those different people, and to try very hard to hear them clearly. Stop there. Only in rare cases — invitation-only, probably — is it a good idea to stand up as a well-meaning information seeker. You ought to remain silent, if only to make up for the jerks who write insulting, abusive, and anonymous comments online.

In any case, I wasn’t thinking about Valenti or the many other women who have been subjected to mindless vitriol. I was thinking about the sources of that vitriol. What motivates men to write such things? I can barely imagine phrasing them, but even if I did, I’m certain that I shouldn’t write them down and post them in a comment, hiding behind an opaque screen name. There can be no justification at all for gratuitous offensiveness that splutters with hatred, nearly devoid of true criticism. If it makes you feel better to get this kind of thing off your chest, see a priest or a doctor.

Being targeted by nasty trolls is, I suppose, preferable to being dragged out into the market square and burned as a witch. That’s my way of saying that there might be nothing really new in this online ugliness. But it does seem new. It seems to be a weird way of combining the invisibility of merging with a crowd and the privacy of pornographic fantasy. In fact, it just now occurs to me that many of these commenters might be masturbating after posting. That, sadly, would explain a lot. Everybody else may have already figured this out, but I haven’t heard anyone say so.

Oh, dear. Little did I foresee that this is where my meditation might lead me. My solution to the practical problem, anyway — how to stop such behavior, if not the impulse behind hit — is to work to narrow the availability of Internet anonymity to the few areas where it is necessary.

Meanwhile, the Donald. (I am not changing the subject.) Last week, I was shaking in my boots, worried that he’d make his way to the White House. Over the weekend, I was assaulted by reassurances that this will never happen, that, now that he has no one to fight but Hillary Clinton, Trump is merely flailing. There is still room for him to maneuver as the scourge of the Republican Party, which in turn has not quite accepted the fait accompli of the primaries. But he cannot expose Clinton as he exposed his Republican rivals. There is nothing to expose, except possibly some further venial sins for which Clinton has characteristically refused to apologise. If anything, the T-shirt slogan, “Trump the Bitch,” exposes the unattractive nastiness in which the Trumpsters almost helplessly indulge. Nevertheless, I refuse to relax into complacency.

The Republican response appears to be divided between those who believe that Trump can be tamed and led and those who know that he cannot. This really is objectively reiterative of Hitler’s rise to power. The army, the plutocracy, the shreds of the aristocracy — all these right-leaning nabobs thought that taking charge of an uneducated rube from the poorest part of Austria would be a walk in the park. In their defense, there was little history to work with. Trump, in contrast, has been seducing and abandoning investors for decades, and charging them handsomely for the right to be impoverished by him. (Perhaps he anticipated the hedge fund’s two-and-twenty: he used everyone’s money but his own to fund his projects, and he collected handsome managerial fees — all the way to bankruptcy.) He has never submitted to any kind of second-fiddle role. He imagines himself (as I think Hitler did) to be the entire orchestra. The rest of us, including the Republican senators who expect to guide him, have only to listen.


On Friday night, we watched Gorky Park, mildly astonished all the way through to bear in mind that the movie was released thirty-three years ago, in 1983. To us, it still looks fresh. It may be set in those days, but the language of its filmmaking hasn’t dated very much. But then, how should we know? How can we sure to distinguish low-budget features from a style that might strike twentysomethings as antiquated?

Back in 1983, I still regarded Soviet Russia as a drab, repressive society in which everybody was miserable. I see things a bit differently now, and Gorky Park looked different accordingly. The state security system (whether KBG or otherwise) could be ferociously brutal on occasion, certainly, but it was for most people, most of the time, an irritating inconvenience, not a dread of midnight knocks at the door. And I saw more clearly that Gorky Park‘s background is the profound internal corruption that within a decade would spell the end of the régime. If there’s a lot of murder in Gorky Park, it’s because of the unimaginable financial stakes of breaking the Russian monopoly on sable fur. (A monopoly that appears to be somewhat factitious, as wild sables, who produce the most valuable pelts, seem not to flourish outside of Siberia.) Dreary, Russia might have been, but then so were (and are) vast parts of New York’s metropolitan area.

I used to find the ending very sad. Poor Arkady Renko, having solved the case and cleared out the bad guys, has to “go back,” in order to guarantee Irina Asanova’s “escape” to the West. But it is difficult to imagine Arkady’s finding contentment in the Europe or America that is thumbnailed by the American villain, Jack Osborne, as a place where everybody enjoys a pre-luncheon apéritif at a gracious restaurant. Irina will probably find that this is all too not true. We might have suspected as much in 1983, but now we can be certain.

I don’t mean to get sentimental about the Communist experiment in Russia. But it seems that the experiment didn’t do much more to Russia, in any permanent way, than Prohibition did to the United States. We forget that Russia and the United States were yoked in a competition by the Western European imagination in the Nineteenth Century, as both countries grew at a fantastic pace. One of the new giants represented the future; the other, the past. If it were possible to develop an American level of wealth while retaining what was already for Europe a pre-modern autocracy, then the future of liberal democracy would have appeared to be less robust. The termination of the Communist experiment, far from “winning the Cold War” for America, has revived this old competition. It does not seem to be the case that Russia is flourishing any more under the autocrat Putin than it did under the autocrats Romanov, but once again there is a luster, or at least a bling, that is anything but drab. Liberal democracy does not seem, at the moment, to be secure anywhere.

Charles Wheelan’s book, Naked Economics, arrived over the weekend, and I learned something from the back cover that would have stilled my hand from clicking on “Add to cart” had I known it then: Wheelan is a former “Midwest correspondent” for The Economist. I subscribed to The Economist for years. It cost the earth, was almost as boring as US News and World Report to look at, and mindlessly pro-business. On the good side, its coverage of foreign affairs was far more acute than that at the Times, and it was also less Yanko-centric. In the end, however, I concluded that the newspaper’s party line made it impossible for Economist contributors to register unorthodox developments. To put it another way, this party line held that the global economy entered a new phase, a new world order, with the Industrial Revolution, and that this era would last as long as any that preceded it. I don’t agree. I haven’t read his work, but I’m inclined to agree with what I hear about Northwestern’s Robert Gordon, that what we have seen in the past two centuries is comparable to the huge inflation that troubled the later Sixteenth Century, caused by the influx of the New World’s gold and, mostly, silver resources. The inflation was real, but it was the punctuation between two eras, not an era unto itself. So it is with the mechanical transformation of the Western economy, in which (reversing the earlier inflation, as it were) goods became ever more affordable. To take one example: indoor plumbing has become a default amenity in the West. Nobody thinks of building a house without a bathroom or a kitchen. But the economic growth that produced this amenity may be over, may no longer be necessary. When every house has a bathroom, there is nowhere to grow.

In characteristic fashion, I picked up Naked Economics and began reading in the middle. The chapter on “Human Capital” is lucid but implicitly retrospective. It simply is no longer true that college education provides the ten-percent return-on-investment that Wheelan posits. Once upon a time, yes, but no longer. Even if a degree still led to better jobs as a matter of course, that would change if the majority of shirkers changed there ways. “The poverty rate for high school dropouts is 12 times the poverty rate for college graduates.” What would happen to the absolute poverty rate, though, if nobody dropped out of high school? What would happen if college degrees ceased to be scarce? I think that we’re already seeing what happens, and yet Wheelan begins his discussion of human capital by pinning its value to scarcities. He cites Bill Gates as a monument of human capital. This is perhaps an unwise choice, not only because Gates dropped out of Harvard — and what, pray, is The Economist‘s view of Thiel Fellows? — but because Gates’s unusual access to powerful mainframe computers during his high-school career was lubricated by his parents’ prestige. Bill Gates may be more like the Sultan Brunei, cited by Wheelan for being rich arguably without human capital of any kind, than Wheelan supposes. Indeed, to increase human capital in any significant way, at least in the developed countries, would seem to require a scarcity of people.

For a couple of hundred years, it certainly seemed that an economy that nurtured individual self-interest, encouraging everyone to make money any legal whichway, would lead, overall, to widespread prosperity. There might be occasional turbulence, but even in the Crash the economy did not actually crash. It now seems, however, that more than markets are at stake. Growth and self-interest have produced environmental hazards: the economy’s use of petrochemicals alone may have doomed life on this planet. As I never tire of pointing out, in planetary, or even evolutionary time the Industrial Revolution occurred last week, and we still don’t understand it. There’s much more to fear than the proponents of command economics.

Gorky Park deploys its Soviet setting as window-dressing; its story really concerns the combat of a man of principle with an opportunist. The opportunist is suave and self-assured — is it conceivable, by the way, that Gorky Park would have been made without Lee Marvin’s participation (as Osborne)? — while the man of principle (played by the then somewhat new William Hurt) is sallow and undernourished. The opportunist mocks the man of principle, but the man of principle seems to welcome the mockery, if only as an intensification of their struggle: mockery itself is a kind of weakness, perhaps a sign of fear of failure. (Even if Osborne’s mockery is extremely understated, it is still there.) In the end, Osborne does not kill Arkady, and neither does Arkady kill Osborne; the battle is settled by a third party, Irina, when she surprises Osborne with shots from a revolver. But the man of principle is also the best policeman in Moscow, and his survival may simply stand for the proposition that crime doesn’t pay, at least when the cops are doing their job.

In 1983, Kathleen and I thought that Joanna Pacula, who plays Irina, was just another pretty face. The other night, she struck as exceptionally beautiful. Is this just a sign that we’re getting old?


Tuesday 21st

The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee’s second novel, sat in my fiction pile for several months. I did not look forward to reading it, because I was sure that I should dislike it. Everything that I knew about it broke one or another of my rules of decorum about fiction — a protocol that has carved itself out of decades of reading. No historical fiction, for one. I read too much plain history, involving too many period documents, not to find that the dialogue in historical fiction is unbearably anachronistic, not only littering the page with unlikely language but stuffing impossible thoughts into characters’ heads. You may hear Thomas Cromwell, but I hear Florence Foster Jenkins. No opera fantasies. Ever since James McCourt’s Mawrdew Czgowchwz, this genre, of which I think Matthew Gallaway’s The Metropolis Case was the last that I read, has provoked an allergic reaction that used to make me tear through books in a fury, because I always finished what I started, and couldn’t wait to be done. (I am wiser now.) No dabbling in the occult. I shan’t stoop to explain that one.

Every review of The Queen of the Night promised a slew of violations, together with an impression that the steam of carnal passion would be rising from every page. In short, I was led to expect an overwritten, stilted, and sordid travesty of grand opera, “loosely based” on the story of Jenny Lind. You may be asking why I bought the book. The simple answer is that Alexander Chee is a Facebook friend, our link established long ago in the mists of social networking, not long after I read, and was impressed by, his contribution to an anthology called Boys to Men. I also read his first novel, Edinburgh. For years, I read status updates on the book’s progress; a lot of research went into getting things right. By the time The Queen of the Night was was published, I felt bound by honor to buy it. But I didn’t want to read it.

And now I have just read it, just finished it this morning. I did not dislike it, not at all. Well, there were two things that bothered me. Chee’s use of personal pronouns in his first-person narrative was occasionally ungrammatical. I’m a stickler about that. It’s okay for a character to be quoted as saying, “It’s me” to another character, but I prefer that characters not think it. The other bother was the novel’s Paris, in which everything — the Bois de Boulogne, the Marais, the Jardin des Plantes, and the various palaces — seemed to be only a few steps from everything else, and the Seine could be crossed without comment. In my Paris, no one ever crosses the Seine without comment. Like the Thames, it is a monumental cultural marker, and the heart of the city that it divides is nevertheless on one side only, not the other. There you have it, my calendar of complaints.

This is where I’m supposed to complete my surprise at not hating the book by claiming that, in fact, I loved it. But I didn’t love it, either. My positive response was milder than that, something close to beguilement. You might say that I was enchanted by it, if you meant it very literally, for indeed I read it as if the rules didn’t matter, even when I could hear them snapping underfoot. I can only think that the spell was cast by the well-aged patina of Chee’s prose. Although the subject matter is cosmopolitan and quite adult, the tone is that of a classic book for children, written in the days when publishers were expect to provide “improving” texts for young readers, and when a certain distance from the vernacular was the surest way of establishing a setting in illo tempore, the sense of another time and place not quite contiguous with our own. The Queen of the Night opens in 1882, and then goes back to the American Civil War, and Napoléon III and his empress, Eugénie, appear in it, as do Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi, and Pauline García-Viardot and her two husbands. Don’t forget George Sand! But historical events and personages, however accurately described, seem to be breathing the air of another world — the world of stories. The Queen of the Night is not a historical novel, after all, because it is not trying to tell us how things really were back then. If the details are sedulously correct, that is only to prevent the knowledgeable reader from stubbing his toe against a blunder — and waking up.

Chee cannot resist the conceit that his novel is in fact the opera, Le Cirque du Monde Déchu, that has been written as a vehicle for the soprano who is the novel’s narrator. Or at least its scenario. As I see it, the opera and the novel are as unlike as two art forms taking time to experience could be. Novels are baggy; even mediocre operas are well-tailored. I propose a compromise: tapestry. Alexander Chee has digested a great deal of information (and affect, if that is not also information) about Parisian high life in the Nineteenth Century, and then, like Keith Jarrett at Cologne, sat down to weave a tapestry of magnificent consistency.

The period covered by the novel witnessed the birth of celebrity — of people famous for being famous. There is a highly polished example of the birth of a celebrity in the novel. It appears in the eleventh “scene” of the fourth “act” of The Queen of the Night. After her début as Amina, in La Sonnambula, enthusiastic admirers unharness her coach horses with a view to pulling it through the streets themselves, something that actually happened to Verdi after the première of Macbeth. Instead, there is pandemonium, and the soprano, from girlhood in Minnesota an accomplished equestrienne, mounts one of the horses herself. As she gallops along, her trademark, a general’s overcoat, billows out behind her, as does the train of her gown. A caricature of the event appears in next day’s paper: La générale et la légion. I can’t believe that Chee didn’t consider this as a possible title, which I hope is what the novel will be called in a French translation.

(Yes: that’s the note I’m looking for. The Queen of the Night reads like a translation. This is not to say that its English is inept, but only that it hints at things that can’t quite be translated, tiny mysteries that we accept when we read foreign fiction in translation.)

Musicians were among the first celebrities. At first, they were freaks just like all the other momentarily notable. Did you know that the violinist who first performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, an immortal masterpiece superior to every one of his symphonies, interpolated a little sonata of his own after the first movement — a sonata for violin played upside-down? As the century progressed, the circus atmosphere was left behind; music became an art form to be appreciated in silence. But Chee has reversed this progress. Le Cirque du Monde Déchu is, after all, an opera about a circus, with a heroine who does acrobatic tricks while singing and riding a pony. It’s as though the Barnum era followed that of the Palais Garnier, and the sleight of hand is carried off so well that it doesn’t seem to be a fiction. Or do I mean, a fantasy?

Female singers were certainly the first women to make public spectacles of themselves (and not their crowns), and they quickly learned to dress in a manner that the aristocracy, had it the wherewithal, would seek to imitate. There are a lot of dresses in The Queen of the Night. The very first, a gown by the House of Worth, is a disappointment to the woman wearing it, so she contrives an ingenious way of disembarrassing herself of it (a pair of dueling Dukes have a fetish for reducing flounces to shreds with their sabres) and she reappears in the second, a creation of the dressmaker Félix, a creation of Chee’s. In the third act of the novel, our heroine is a grisette in the service of Empress Eugénie, and she gets to handle a lot of imperial apparel, all of it lovingly described. Chee writes about clothes and fabric very well, by which I may simply means that he knows when to stop for the likes of me. It is not that he brings the dresses to life, but rather the attentiveness with which they are made. That was the point of haute couture in the Nineteenth Century: expensive women ventured forth covered with virtual banners announcing their awareness of this or that favored detail. There was nothing about a high-end dress that was “just a dress.”

There are a handful of aristocratic ladies in The Queen of the Night, but none of them is French. The Empress sets a rather low bar. There is also the intriguing Comtesse de Castiglione, who can shift from being a Good Fairy to a Bad one at the speed of light. Mostly, there are demimondaines, filles en carte — courtesans and prostitutes. This is the fluid world of the Belle Époque at night. There are revels at the maisons closes, balls, nights at the opera, and even offstage hunts, all of them presented with a blur that conjures the self-defeating longing of children who are staying up far past their bedtimes and trying to glimpse the grown-ups through the banisters. Indeed, nothing comes across as so pleasurable as a good sleep.

The men are — men. The ones we see up close are very good-looking, but their regard for women is nothing if not objectifying. Only poor old Turgenev seems to know what love is — and maybe Verdi, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Here I want to tread very carefully. The Queen of the Night favors women, but it presents them with something of the self-importance of men. It’s the difference, slight perhaps, between saying “I’m aware of what I’m doing because it’s important [to be aware],” and saying “I’m aware of what I’m doing because I’m important [just being me].” The heroine mixes this up nicely. She doesn’t think that she is important. But then, she must be, because she has invited the anger, or the luck, of the gods. Fates and curses are mentioned almost as often as fabrics. Somehow, Chee manages not to be melodramatic about this. The vividness of his heroine’s life, beginning with an early, despairing orphanhood, proceeding through “such like circumstances” worthy of the Lord High Executioner, and culminating in murder, is damped by the pursuit of her vocal artistry, itself an inexplicable gift. The delight of singing opera beautifully — not just listening to it — is beautifully described. Chee deserves a special award for presenting, as one of the most dangerous of the plot’s points, the singing of the Queen of the Night’s first aria: the music lies outside the singer’s Fach, and we are carefully prepared to grasp this esoteric, if quite fatal, risk.

At times, The Queen of the Night feels like a puzzle, or perhaps a cypher, that might be decoded given the proper insight. I myself, however, wasted no time trying to interpret the tale in other terms. Chee writes in an afterword that “this novel is meant as a reinvention” of The Magic Flute, and I’m glad that I read that before sinking my teeth into the novel, because nothing is sillier than trying to explain the peripeties of Mozart’s opera. If I haven’t said much about the plot, or even told you the heroine’s name (which it isn’t) — why, I haven’t even mentioned “the tenor” (also nameless)! — it’s because these are all elements of the ineffable tapestry; and it’s important to say only that Chee has a clear idea of what he wants you to know. He explains things just as the great storybooks do, so that even if you know all about the opera mentioned, or the political events in the background, you won’t object to reading what he has to say about them. If you ask me, The Queen of the Night is a reinvention of Consuelo, the novel that George Sand is said to have written about Pauline Viardot. I wish it were easier for Anglophone readers to assess the weight of that compliment.


Thursday 23rd

This weekend, I was more than a little amused to see that, in her favorable Book Review review of Cathleen Schine’s new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, Penelope Lively touched on the very paragraph that I quoted in full when I wrote about the book last week. Even better, though, she wrought from it a small but invaluable teaching lesson.

I must confess, though, that I did get a touch irritated with Joy at a certain point, frustrated by her inability to do anything about an apartment apparently awash in papers, with files marked URGENT, with unopened letters and so forth. Come on, Joy, it’s just a matter of gritting your teeth and getting down to it! And here I can speak with a certain authority, being myself an octogenarian. But I am my own sort of octogenarian, and that is the whole point. Old people do have certain collective features — mostly the age-related disabilities — but otherwise we’re as distinct from one another as are people of any age.

As are readers: “that is the whole point.” I admire Lively’s native personal optimism, which shines through her fiction and memoirs; I can only wish that I shared it. I try to grit my teeth and open the mail as it comes in, but it’s a gruesome business, because I always expect the bill to be much higher than it is (or, conversely, find that I was wrong to expect it to be lower). I shudder every time the land-line rings: what fresh hell? And an unexpected knock at the door makes my heart pound audibly. That’s just who I am, or whom I have become after a life of low-grade, restless irresponsibility. (Vissi d’arte.) Considering Aaron’s serial bankruptcies, Joy’s horror of opening envelopes is perfectly understandable to me. But so is Lively’s impatience. And, what’s important, Lively has the sense to recognize Joy as someone else, and not to expect her to be a character with whom Lively might have the dubious pleasure of identifying.

This is the difference between youth and age. A young person is a bundle of physical attributes with only a few instances of initiative to recall. The young person’s life is a history of following instructions more or less well. On the cusp of adulthood, it is understandably pressing to know how to sort oneself in the world, and fiction has been found to ease the agony of this puzzle by providing the comforts of what we call “identification.” Girls indulge it more readily than boys, probably because bluff and bluster play much smaller roles in the lives of women. What literate girl has not identified with Lizzie Bennett or Jane Eyre — despite colossal differences in circumstances? It’s easy to “identify” with fictional heroines, however, only because there is no real identity to get in the young reader’s way. In the end, boys and girls aren’t very different after all; both are looking for exemplars to imitate.

It is the aged who have identities — even as they’re on the point of losing them. It is the elderly who have piled up successes and failures, victories and defeats, escapes and losses, and, unless they are very foolish, they do not seek to identify with anyone else. Proud of their achievements, ashamed of their lapses, they do not wish to share pride or shame with anyone. They are willing instead to acknowledge the experiences that they have shared, roughly, with others. Of course there are old people who have not learned much from their experience, and who are as annoyed as any ten year-old by the exasperating habit people have of being different. But wisdom begins with the understanding that everybody is different, really and truly, and that however well we observe the conventions that make it possible for us to work, live, and love together, we are fiercely unique. Each of us lives alone in his or her own body, and that is that, no matter what expectations of the afterlife might be.

In this world of chaotic, multibillionic diversity, it is the job of fiction to persuade us that the differences of others can be borne, sometimes with amusement, so long as different people share one’s commitment to the basics of “humanity” (what I call humanism). No killing, things like that.


During our short stay on Fire Island two weeks ago, I read the books that I’d brought with me. The two big books, Peter Ward Fay’s history of the first Opium War and (as mentioned) the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn, took me to the eve of the last full day. Then I had to cast about for books in the house. I found Camus’s The Stranger, which I had never read — it turned out to be a different sort of book from what I expected, a curious failure of my antennae — and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy’s great story, also for the first time. It was like being in high school. Then I turned to the book on the nightstand at my side of the bed, Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was the Rage. I liked this so much that I ordered a copy of my own the moment I got home.

Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir was assembled, after Broyard’s death, by his widow, Alexandra, from material that he had been working on during his illness. The book, she tell us, was to end with the death of Broyard’s father, and how it brought Broyard “back down to earth.” Broyard never got to that part. The book ends, instead, with a chapter that becomes more amazing every time I read it: clearly, there is much to absorb. At the end of a collection of chapters about the romantic and intellectual experiences of a fairly rootless young man (his daughter, Bliss, would later write a book, One Drop, that offered a persuasive explanation of this rootlessness), filled with vivid portraits and jazzy excitements, Broyard settles down to tell us how disappointing it all was, because the two never mixed — romance and argument. Like Augustine centuries before him, but quite without Augustine’s piety, Broyard loved his male interlocutors but had nothing to say to the women he slept with. Broyard had the advantage, at least, of finding out how it might have been different, when the old Augustinian settlement (sex is okay as long as you’re trying to have children, but not otherwise) finally began to crumble in the 1960s, with the advent of The Pill.

“To someone who hasn’t lived through it, it’s almost impossible to describe the sexual atmosphere of 1947.” This sentence doesn’t say very much, but it announces a possibility of which most people are unaware: sex changes. I don’t mean the physical side, varied as that always is, but the emotional side, the human context in which sexual acts take place. For Broyard, this context was always frustrating, and I’m talking about after sex, because he “hadn’t yet learned how to just be with girls, to exist alongside them, to make friends — and so once my desire was satisfied, I was bored.” He had the redeeming decency to feel guilty about this, but he wasn’t helped much by the girls, either, who for their part had been brought up to listen.

Men and women hadn’t yet learned to talk to one another in a natural way. Girls were trained to listen. They were waiting for history to give them permission to speak. They led waiting lives — waiting for men to ask them out, for them to have an orgasm, to marry or leave them. Their silence was another form of virginity. (145)

Broyard would learn this later. We all would. (Now, perhaps, my recollection of college bull sessions in which the mere existence of the female intellect was disputed will not seem so improbable.) There must have been young, sophisticated people who knew how to talk, but there can’t have been many of them, and almost by definition they would have known well enough to keep their intimacies to themselves. Most girls — and Broyard is talking about “nice” girls — were brought up to be virgins forever. The only scrap of information that married women gained with their new status was that men are truly bestial. (Or not bestial enough.) The only way to be truly married is to share a lot more than the bed of a spouse. Again, those lucky few who were truly married had every reason to keep their good fortunes to themselves; they would not have been envied. They would have been denounced as depraved.

In this regard, Broyard’s 1947 stands for the end of a very long era in human history. Or the beginning of the end. Sometimes I fear that it is still winding down. If women aren’t quite the listeners that they used to be, men haven’t taken up the slack. But it’s deeply comforting to read proof of one man’s growth.


On a very gentle tangent, I should like to say something about Jill Lepore’s short piece, in the current New Yorker, about women and the Republican Party, but the piece is too condensed for me to say much. There’s a lot of learning in those pages, and most of it makes very interesting connections. One thing stands out, however: the pivotal role of Phyllis Schlafly in driving women away from the Republican Party, the party to which they flocked for so long. Schlafly’s successful fight to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment from being ratified by thirty-eight states required for passage (thirty-five ratified it, not counting the five states that rescinded ratification) not only divided but confused long-standing features of political life, and, worse, it continues to inhibit political advance. There ought to be a name for women like Phyllis Schlafly: educated, attractive, comfortable, and free to do just about anything they they like, but utterly opposed to extending their freedom to other women. Perhaps there is: “Schlafly.”

In Lepore’s penultimate paragraph, the string of historical observations is suddenly punctuated by a cry of pain.

With the end of the ERA, whose chance at ratification expired in 1982, both parties abandoned a political settlement necessary to the stability of the republic. The entrance of women into politics on terms that are, fundamentally and constitutionally, unequal to men’s has produced a politics of interminable division, infused with misplaced and dreadful moralism. (The New Yorker, 27 June 20016, page 26)

I realized when I read this that I had gotten so used to the status quo that I no longer saw the problem clearly: inequality produces instability, and this instability has been mounting in recent decades because the Republican Party has no raison d’être other than to maintain inequality. The moralism, as Lepore tries to show in her extremely concentrated capsule, was introduced by women, on behalf of themselves and of slaves, and it was a force for the good until, as I was just saying, the old Augustianian dispensation broke down. The moral voice in American politics was split by this rupture; some used to advocate equality (as women always had), while others used it to preserve a moral order that earlier women never thought of questioning — not in public, anyway. Since most people prefer what they already know, the moral order has attained a value far exceeding that of speculative equality. It’s hard to argue against stable families; whatever its long-term effects, the end of the Augustianian order certainly produced a lot of miserable children, torn by divorce. It’s hard to ague that children don’t flourish in the light of their mothers’ undivided attention. It’s hard to see how reproductive polarization can be reconciled with gender equality. It may not be impossible, but it is hard, and voices like Schlafly’s have been emphasizing the difficulties. Not to mention the fact that the moral order being defended fits in so well with the corporate order. Many Americans behave as if they wished that it were still 1947.


Friday 24th

The other day, there were three interesting obituaries on the same page of the Times. I had never heard of the deceased, which simplified the interest; there was no pang of regret for people of whom I’d known when they were alive. It’s just possible that I did hear of Bill Berkson, once or twice, long ago, but I have completely forgotten it if so, and I usually don’t forget. (I tend to confuse.) Berkson, who died at 76, in San Francisco, of a heart attack, was the son of two people in the news business. His father was the publisher of the Journal-American, the Hearst organ in New York, and his mother was Eleanor Lambert, the creator and curator of the Best-Dressed lists. Frequent guest at his parents’ many cocktail parties, Berkson grew up knowing everyone worth knowing. His epitaph might well be his own claim to be the only person who attended both Woodstock and the Black-and-White Ball. Something tells me he wasn’t, but the claim is still a reasonable one.

In later life, Berkson moved from the New York Schools of art and poetry — his “scatter” style was inspired by Frank O’Hara — to the Bay Area, where he continued to write verse and criticism. A 1957 graduate of Lawrenceville, he seems to have avoided the Draft.

Among the bold-faced names appearing in the obituary, which was written by William Grimes, were two that fascinated me when I was a kid: Tex McCrary and Jinx Falkenburg. Imagine being called “Jinx Falkenberg”! She was a tall drink of pulchritude who, with her husband, hosted radio and TV shows. I was grateful for the mention, because I worry sometimes that I have made Jinx up.

At the top of the page, the death of a slightly younger person was announced: that of Lorna Kelly, who died here in town, of a stroke, at 70. (It would better to say that she was even more slightly older than I — two years or less.) There was a good reason for me not to have heard of Kelly: in 1980, the year of my return from the heartland, she “parted company” from Sotheby’s, where she had served as a colorful auctioneer, specializing in netsuke. Born in Isleworth, London, Kelly came to this country as an au pair and worked her way up. When the chance to take the rostrum at Sotheby’s arose, she stopped drinking and divorced her husband. Four years later, she had had enough (I suppose), and, after leaving Sotheby’s, she went to India, like Woody Allen’s Alice, to work with Mother Theresa. She continued to “work with” AIDS victims in Manhattan and death-row inmates in Texas.

Margalit Fox concludes with a flounce worthy of the Telegraph:

Of all the rigors she faced in her work overseas, it was a domestic undertaking that, for the voluble Ms Kelly, very likely proved the keenest test of her spiritual commitment.

As the Times reported in a 1991 profile, she once traveled to a Buddhist retreat in upstate New York, where she spent the next 100 days in complete silence.

At the bottom, Kimiko Freytas-Tamura sends off Benoîte Groult, “French Feminist and Writer Whose Books Explored Women’s Liberation.” We’re always hearing that they don’t have women’s liberation in France, possibly because of their famous expertise with traditional arrangements. Whether love always has something to do with it or not, there do seem to be far, far fewer unattractive or even plain women on the streets of Paris than there are on New York’s. In a picture dating from 1993, Groult certainly looks charming enough. She died, at Hyères, where Edith Wharton had her winter quarters, complete with a now-ruined garden overlooking the Mediterranean, at the age of 96. (No cause is stated; when you’re very old, you’re permitted to die of refusing to go to the hospital, which is how I hope it was for Groult.) Her mother was a niece of couturier Paul Poiret; her godmother was Marie Laurencin. Groult married four times. The first two husbands died in office. The third gave her two daughters (or vice versa), and the fourth a third.

I’m afraid that I must rap the obituarist’s knuckles.

She was 55 when her book “Ainsi Soit-Elle” (loosely translated as “As She Is”) was published in 1975. It became an instant best-seller in France (it was never published in English) and sealed Ms Groult’s reputation as a leading feminist.

No doubt; but the book’s title would be better translated as a gendered take on the formula into which the Hebrew “amen” is translated in French. Ah, women!

Call me terrible, but going through the paper and finding this kind of a lineup is almost as good as a great Op-Ed page. I have to say that I dislike reading about deaths sooner than eighty. Poor Anton Yelchin! I didn’t see him in Star Wars (it ought to go without saying), but I admired him in The House of D and Fierce People. For a Jewish kid from Petrograd, he certainly looked like a Brooks Brothers preppie. I was appalled to learn of his demise, but part of me wonders what else can you expect of those Los Angeles canyons? Having grown up in Bronxville, which bears resemblances to LA in this regard, I should never buy a house with a steeply-graded driveway. Even if it doesn’t snow out there. Sic transit!


Speaking of love, I remember being frustrated as a young person by the inevitability of love as a subject — the subject — of opera and lyric verse. Why did everything have to be a love story? Is that all people are interested in?

It’s easier to explain why poets and composers are. Love is unique among human experiences in being available to everybody. Sure, there are birth and death, and almost everybody has a mother, but aside from the love story that pops up the moment you propose to separate a mother from her child, or to confuse mother and child about one another’s identifies, there’s not much to carry one away. Lots of people never fall in love. Denis de Rougement all but argued that love is a Western invention, but he was talking about a certain kind of love: the love that takes place outside of marriage. This sort of love is not to be confused with mere infidelities or “affairs.” According to Rougemont, Love in the Western World is gripping and tragic. Somebody has to die. Certainly there must be plenty of misery. In the beginning, only aristocrats had time for this sort of thing, but by degrees, “romantic love” came to be heard of by everyone, culminating with the folly (in Rougemont’s eyes) of trying to conflate love with bourgeois marriage.

Along the way, poets and composers discovered that, at least among poetry readers and opera audiences, the understanding of love is universal. Everyone already knows all about it. If you write an opera about work, say, you have to spend the first act just describing the job. Boring! With love, you can start right away — most famously with the Marschallin and Octavian in bed together. That wouldn’t be very interesting, of course, if we did not know that Octavian is destined to fall in love with someone else in the second act, but it certainly is gorgeous. And then the first act does end with a quarrel and a misunderstanding, so there’s hope even before the Presentation of the Rose. The point is: love has a lot of problems, and almost everybody knows all about them.

To put it another way, if love is your subject, then you don’t have to worry about “meaning.” What’s it about, whines the lout. The first thing that any literate person learns is that “What’s it about?” is a stupid question for many reasons, most of them rooted in laziness or category mistakes. But the secret behind this condescension is that, where love is the subject, it is never the subject. It is merely the gateway.

These thoughts are inspired by a month or so browsing more deeply than usual through Shakespeare’s Sonnets, with the inestimable assistance of Helen Vendler. I have owned The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets since it appeared, in 1997, but only recently have I learned how to read it. First lesson: begin with the Introduction. I tend to regard Introductions as Afterthoughts, but that is a mistake where Vendler is concerned. In her Introductions, she sets forth her goals, which she does not repeat later on. She tells you what she is going to do and why, and usually this generalized information is not only important but prerequisite to whatever follows. If she is writing about Wallace Stevens (On Extended Wings, her first book), then you must begin with the Introduction, which discusses the nature of Stevens’s “longer poems.” In her Introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets, she explains what she is not going to do. Among others, she is not going to search for their meaning.

However important “meaning” may be to a theological hermeneutic practice eager to convey accurately the Word of God, it cannot have that importance in lyric. Lyric poetry, especially highly conventionalized lyric of the sort represented by the Sonnets, has almost no significant freight of “meaning” at all, in our ordinary sense of the word. “I have insomnia because I am far away from you” is the gist of one sonnet; “Even though Nature wishes to prolong your life, Time will eventually demand that she render you to death” is the “meaning” of another. These are not taxing or original ideas… Very few lyrics offer the sort of philosophical depth that stimulates meaning-seekers in long, complex, and self-contradicting texts like Shakespeare’s plays or Dostoevsky’s novels. (13)

She goes on to dismiss the ideas that the 126 sonnets to the “young man” are meant to code homosexual behavior, or that Shakespeare hates the dark lady of the remaining 28. Whether Shakespeare was gay or drawn only to women who had slept with lots of other men is simply not the point of these poems, because “the feelings attached to fetishistic or anomalous sexual attraction are identical to the feelings attached to more conventional sexual practice, and it is essential feelings, not love-objects, which are traced in lyric.” (16) Vendler announces that what interests her is summed up by the phrase “arrangement of statement.”

Form is content-as-arranged; content is form-as-deployed.(14)

It is much more than good to know this before tackling her commentaries of the individual sonnets.

Somewhere in the Introduction (I think), Vendler refers to Sonnet 75 as having an unusual structure. Most of Shakespeares sonnets consist of a series of three quatrains, followed by a couplet. There are also sonnets built on Petrarchan lines: an opening octave (eight lines), followed by a sestet (six). Sonnet 75 is an outlier: an opening quatrain, then six lines of alternative experiences, followed by a quatrain that is really a return to the opening statement, with the usual couplet sendoff at the end. I was piqued by this and immediately turned to the sonnet, and was captured by it even though Vendler says that she considers it “otherwise [than as to structure] unremarkable.” Here it is:

So are you to my thoughts as food to life,
Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As ‘twixt a miser and his wealth is found.

Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then better’d that the world may see my pleasure:
Sometime all full with feasting on your sight,
And by and by clean starved for a look;

Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.

Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

I have inserted spacing to make the structure more apparent. The conceit is the relation between a miser and his treasure, which is troubled by conflicting desires to protect and to adveritise. It is the pair of images expressed in the ninth and tenth lines that knocks me out: “clean starvèd for a look” has a punch that vaporizes the poem’s distance in time from 2016. It is the best way of putting the thing, of describing the feeling, or contrast of feelings, that I can imagine. One day I wear myself out staring at you; the next, I despair of seeing you at all. I should go a little further, and read in the implication that, having basked in your attention, I am now dying because you won’t look at me. This particular conundrum of desire is very familiar to me; it describes all the successive agonies of my adolescence.

Having pronounced the sonnet unremarkable, Vendler proceeds to show how wily it is, how persistently self-correcting. For, if a miser possesses treasure, the same cannot be said of the poet’s relation to his young man. The tip-off is in the first two lines, which mention organic necessities that, far from piling up, never cease to be necessities. In fact, the poet has no control whatever over the young man. The self-correction is most explicit in line 11: “Possessing or pursuing…” This is followed by a return to organic notions: pining and surfeiting, of “gluttoning” and starving. I call this having your cake and eating it — not the poet and his young man, not the miser and his wealth, but Shakespeare and his words. Sonnet 75 consists of two poems written in parallel. Which is, like almost every one of the sonnets in its own way, a neat trick.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
June 2016 (I)

14, 16, 17 June

Tuesday 14th

Writing is usually the second thing that I do every day. The first is reading the Times, which primes me by restoring a sense of the Grey Lady’s idea of the status quo. Since my idea of the status quo is quite different, the Times usually gets me going. Today, however, there was shopping that had to be done, and then bills to be paid; and, besides, I didn’t get up until half-past eleven. (I’ll let myself sleep late tomorrow, and then that will be that for jet lag.) At this point, my mind is in a material groove, piloting the ship of moi through the thousand islands that fill my stream of consciousness with practical distractions.

Returning from vacation is the best time for instituting new routines. Between the shopping and the bills, I lugged out the oversized whiteboard and wrote down all the things that I could think of doing today, in green ink, and several things that I’d like to do tomorrow, in red; and, with a black marker, a terse mention of dinner, indicating that my prep plans are up in the air. Tonight, I am going to make a sort of Stroganov, with cubes of filet mignon, mushrooms, shallots, sour cream and sage, poured over linguine. I’m going to make it up as I go along. I’ve got to remember to pull some frozen chicken pieces out of the freezer, so that I can marinate them tomorrow. You see what I mean by practical distractions; I could go on in this vein for hours. And once I had told you everything that there is to tell about the fascinating decisions that I get to make every day — for I am no longer in the closet about being a bureaucrat at heart — I could describe the improvements in the corridor, which climaxed only today in the installation of new baseboards, quieting the hitherto irritating border between the new carpet and the new wallpaper. New ceiling fixtures are yet to come, but because it is so much easier for me to look down than up, I may not even notice. I am very soothed by the baseboards.

I had hoped that the baseboards would be in place by the time we got home yesterday, but I was too tired to care that they weren’t. And happy, too: it will be a while before I go anywhere near an airport. Kathleen is thinking of an autumn jaunt to Bermuda, and I shouldn’t mind that, because the flight is not only short in duration but domestic at the New York end (US Customs has a beachhead at St George’s). And it has been a while since we’ve been. Kathleen has even threatened a return to St Croix for Thanksgiving. But I shan’t be imprisoned on a lengthy flight until the end of the year at the earliest.

I do hate to travel. I like being in other places, but even taking a taxi to Lincoln Center is a trial. Is there anything so boring as sitting in a vehicle of any kind through bumps of track and pavement and grinds of turbulence, always at the whim of someone else’s catastrophe and the ever more strangulating embrace of the security industry? I think that you have to be young not to notice the gross theft of liberty involved. Even walking isn’t a sure thing, as I’m here to testify after six years of subway-station construction right outside the front door. Nothing about life is certain, but modern motion seems to be about locking oneself into a schedule of uncertainty.

On the flight out, there was a computer glitch. I distinctly heard the captain discuss this with an IT technician, but they decided to do nothing at the time, because only the routine safety videos seemed to be affected. So we pulled out from the gate, tested the engines and whatnot, and then decided on a reboot, because it turned out that the thrust automation also wasn’t working. The pilot could have managed the plane in flight without this feature, but until it was in working order, he would not be permitted to depart. It did not take long to fix, but it did take a while for another vehicle to come along and pull us out again. We took off about an hour and a half late. Coming home, the plane was fine but the manifest was off by one passenger. This took ten minutes to clear up, but, remembering out outgoing delays, I was tearing my hair, virtually. Both flights were bumpy. Both flights were delayed, en route to the gate, by runway traffic. Sitting still in a plane anywhere but at the gate is torture for me.

Between driving out to Bay Shore (from which to ferry across to Fire Island) and back, and then the trips too and from JFK, I have seen enough of Long Island for the time being, especially the ultra-drab parts of Steinway that flank the Grand Central Parkway. How do people manage to live there? It is not a matter of poverty.


We stayed at the Palace Hotel, on Market Street. It’s a grand old pile that, unlike the St Francis, is in grand new shape. Plus, it is not on Union Square. Union Square used to be a center of elegance, but now it is crowded with people who are not dressed for San Francisco. (They’re not dressed for anywhere, except perhaps for one of those space stations in Wall*E.) Nice as the Palace was, though, we didn’t spend much waking time there. As soon as we were dressed, we took a taxi to the other end of town, and then, hours later, we returned via Uber. Megan and Ryan live in Outermost Sunset, a block and a half from the Great Highway, on the other side of which stretches a Pacific beach — although it does not stretch so far as it used to do, thanks, says Megan, to El Niño. The beach has been so extensively eroded that stone debris from an ancient graveyard, dumped as ballast along the shore a long time ago, once again basks in the sunlight. I spent a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table, chatting with my daughter. I took a few pictures of my grandson, standing next to Kathleen. Will comes up to her chin. Because he is quite lean, with a swimmer’s body, he doesn’t look big — except, of course, in his kindergarten class picture. There, he and a few other boys standing in the back row look like troublesome fellows who have been held back repeatedly, who perhaps ought to be in middle school by now. By himself, though, Will does not look a day older than his age, which is six-and-a-half.

Whether Will is unusually self-conscious or not, I can’t say — I rather doubt it — but his sensitivity to perceived insult brings home to me how detached my everyday speech is from literalness. Almost everything that comes out of my mouth in casual social discourse, is exaggerated, insincere, inverted, ironic, and derogatory, and yet meant to be understood as utterly friendly. Genuinely friendly, as literal friendliness would sound altogether bogus. When I was a boy, this was the tone taken by affectionate adults, especially older men. We were called monsters and devils; we couldn’t do anything right (except that we were praised whenever we actually did), we were smart alecks and mad scientists bent on blowing up the world, and the people who told us this, we knew, loved us. At least we entertained them. They did not, as their elders had wished in the olden days, to whisk children altogether out of sight. My parents had many friends who wanted to make me part of their world, even if they had no intention of entering mine. This explains, perhaps, why I feel most comfortable with a cocktail in my hand.

Maybe it was just me. It occurred to me during an after-dinner discussion at Megan’s kitchen table that I really lacked all the ordinary inputs for being a child. I did not want to do any of the things that children were supposed to want to do, and yet I could not yet do the things that I would quite soon love to do and that I have loved doing ever since. I was too little for grown-up books, and I was only a little bit better at sitting still than the other boys were. The anguish of my childhood is exemplified by my never-realized yearning for Resonance Chessman.

Oh, how I wanted to have a set of Resonance Chessman! My mother’s cousin, Kitty, who came down from Manhattanville to babysit (and who took us to fabulously inappropriate movies, such as North By Northwest and Teahouse of the August Moon when they were new), would always correct me: Renaissance chessmen. Why the word “resonance” should come more easily to my lips is a good indication of how hopelessly at sea I was, because I certainly didn’t know what it meant. Resonance Chessmen were in fact rather medieval in appearance, which shows how the Fifties could be no less confused than I. In reality, I was not an ardent chess-player. I didn’t know yet that I had no gift for chess, and no interest in developing and possessing the skills required to play chess well, but I did suspect, guiltily, that my desire for Resonance Chessmen did not involve much playing of chess. To be honest, I’d had treated them as Resonance Tchotchkes. What I really wanted was to be old enough to own a set of Resonance Chessman. And when I did become old enough, Resonance Chessmen, and even Renaissance chessmen, were no longer very high on my wish list; in fact, they weren’t on it at all. By the time I could have owned a set, I knew that Resonance Chessmen were simply tacky, that one ought to play chess with a strong and simple wooden set of orthodox chess pieces. I spent a lot of time trying to cajole someone into buying me a set of Resonance Chessmen, but no one ever did, possibly because of an interdiction from my mother, but just as possibly because my true desire leaked through the  pleading, and it was understood that ownership of a set of Resonance Chessmen would not by itself make me old enough to regard a set of Renaissance Chessmen with fastidious disgust. Childhood was an interplanetary flight through waste and dreck that simply had to be sat through.


I re-read the Patrick Melrose novels on Fire Island — all but the last, At Last, which was published separately at the time that the first four were bundled together. (At the bookshop in San Francisco Airport yesterday, I saw that all five have been collected in one volume, and I’m thinking about trading in what I’ve got for that.) I was reminded that Edward St Aubyn is in a class by himself as a prose magician.

Watching the Road Runner and the stylized rotundity of the dust in his wake, Patrick was reminded of the early innocent days of his drug taking, when he had thought that LSD would reveal to him something other than the tyranny of its own effects on his consciousness. (Bad News)

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about LSD, except that the number is a great deal smaller than the number of tabs swallowed, and now I see why. I could tell you that LSD was surprisingly boring, and that I was humiliated by my persistent failure to experience a terrifying hallucination. (The worst that ever happened was that the sounds of insects on a summer night became unbearably loud, and made me think of mastication rather than sexual attraction; it sounded as though gigantic bugs were about to leap from the bushes and devour me. So I had to go indoors.) But it would never, I think, have occurred to me to get to the point of LSD as well as St Aubyn does, which is that LSD is all about LSD. It is the very opposite of a gateway to insight, or to anything else. You might as well wait for a sub-par garage band to become musical. The thing is, St Aubyn has not only a way with words, but something to say that can be expressed only with the words that he invariably picks. It is arguable that this gift is not put to such glittering use in his other fictions, which can be too earnest (On the Edge) or too clever (Lost for Words). But every now and then in the Melrose novels, St Aubyn outshines his only conceivable competitor, Evelyn Waugh, for surgical virtuosity. “Stylized rotundity of the dust in his wake” is a perfect description of the pointless futility with which Wile E Coyote comes back again and again and again, hoping that, this time, it will be different. It not only never is different, but it becomes less and less interesting. It is all about dust, and nothing but dust.

The idea of taking drugs for pleasure never crossed my mind, which I suppose saved me from early destruction. Even after I accepted that enlightenment was not really on offer, I cherished LSD for its alternative consciousness, however tedious that might have been. Once I gave up on wild hallucinations, I took to challenging regular life. Could I go to a lecture, could I participate in a seminar, while tripping? Could I pass for straight? Yes! Amazingly, yes, I could! It was arduous work, and completely pointless, but I could do it, just as I could make a round trip to my dorm room, having shown up for philosophy class only to learn that a paper was due to be handed in at the end of the hour, returning with said paper in hand (and get an A for it). (Not while tripping, however; I could not write under the influence of LSD.) I was still, in my early twenties, too ignorant to know what to do with what I knew.

I keep wondering, just as I once kept taking LSD, if there was something, a voice to listen to, that would have taught me what I needed to know sooner than I learned it for myself.


Wednesday 16th

Some regular readers, I suppose, may have been dismayed by my rattling on, Tuesday afternoon, about Resonance Chessmen, instead of commiserating with souls made sore by the mass shooting in Orlando. I am certainly very sore. But I am frightened, too, because nothing is being done about the disgrace of accessible assault rifles. A little piece in today’s Times reports that an academic study shows that the legislative response to mass shootings is not only nil in states controlled by Democrats, but worse where Republicans rule: Republican-controlled legislatures actually follow up mass shootings with laws that make it easier to get guns. This tells me one thing, loud and clear: gun control is not the issue.

The National Rifle Association, professing to deplore mass shootings, argues that America would be safer if everyone were armed. This notion is preposterous on its face, but what keeps us from laughing at it is the suspicion that the United States has become an every-man-for-himself sort of place. We cannot count on anyone else to protect us. Police and other security services probably do protect us, far more than we know — and so, very quietly, do our civilian neighbors — but thanks to our entertainment news media, we see only instances of incompetence. Step back a bit, and it appears that government at large doesn’t work. Officials are either too wealthy from corruption to care about doing their job, or too squeezed by low tax revenues to be able to do them.

What is to be done? There seem to me to be only two “options.” The first is to wait for a beneficent leader to emerge, someone capable of rousing us all to resume the hard work of participating in a democracy. Without a committed, pluralistic drive to create a genuine government-by-the-people, the nation will continue its drift toward breakdown. Rather than wait for one leader to inspire the country as a whole, I should advocate nursing a large brood of local leaders, working in some kind of local councils or committees to improve matters close to home. This would not be easy: we should all have to learn the good manners that silence cranks and bores. The conclusions reached by councils would not be binding, but they would have to be literate and resilient. Those who found the debates tedious or taxing could vote themselves off the island, while those of us who worry that nothing can be done would have something to do.

The other option is to call a Constitutional Convention and reconfigure the United States. It seems reasonable to call this the “nuclear option,” because the decommissioned order under which we limp along today might very well be replaced by nothing but civil strife. The usefulness of this second option is to refocus our attention on the far more appealing alternative, which requires no formal changes of any kind: leadership in local councils. In the Seventies, we might have called it “consciousness-raising for citizens.” We certainly do need to regard citizenship as something more than the accumulation of trivial knowledge required to pass the US Citizenship Test.

The murders at Pulse are also a reminder that gay lives don’t quite matter, just as police shootings of (generally) young black men tell us something similar about race. The United States is still a nation that likes to see a straight white male face in the mirror. Whether this can ever change is open to question; the prejudice is one of the deepest roots of the European West to which we belong. We ought at least to be aware of that.

Do I have to do everything? Why don’t you take the initiative? Get together with a couple of friends and grapple — just for practice! — with the thorny problem of establishing protocols for the use of mobile phones in public places. Set up a Web site, and invite contributions to a position paper. Behave yourself generously, and don’t take any money from anybody. Participatory democracy is nothing if not self-funding.


It is possible to imagine better ways of conducting government and civil life. It is difficult to imagine how ageing could be made less burdensome to everyone, especially since we no longer believe that people with disabilities ought to stay at home and depend on such family as they have. It has been a very long time since I left my apartment for the great outdoors (or returned therefrom) without passing someone assisted by a walker. (The abundance of squalling infants simply enhances the air of hospital living.) It is not always convenient to be stuck behind someone shuffling along with a walker, but I’ll have to get one myself, eventually, if my heart holds out. I see myself on both sides of this problem.

Cathleen Schine’s new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, glances at many of the indignities of old age, but it focuses on the one problem that ought to be easy to fix. Taking its title from a Philip Larkin poem which opens with the preceding line, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” the novel turns the spyglass around and remembers the last line of the poem (“This Be the Verse”): “And don’t have any kids yourself.” The person being addressed with Larkin’s wisdom is Joy Bergman, an eighty-six year-old Jewish New Yorker who lives on the Upper East Side. (That is the novel’s outstanding flaw: everything about Joy screams that she lives on the Upper West Side. But unless you live on one side or the other, the distinction won’t mean very much.) Joy has two children, a son and a daughter, and she loves them to distraction. They love her, too, of course, but they mostly drive her crazy.

Schine is a social satirist who pulls her punches, producing mild but funny reads in which the familiar foibles of brainy New Yorkers are warmed over in well-written prose. In contravention of all spoiler laws, I should like to say that the final scene of They May Not Mean To is both the most characteristic and the funniest. Joy is in traffic court, which is apparently where you go if you’re ticketed by a policeman for peeing in public. Joy might very well have peed in public: she depends on Depends. But it is unlikely that a cop would pull her over, as it were. No, Joy is the “emissary” of her grandson, Ben. Ben seems to have been something of a luftmensch, although now, by the end of the book, he is studying for the LSAT and planning to go to law school — in New Orleans, where he has been a bartender for too long. It is Ben, on a visit to see his grandmother, who peed in public in such a manner as to invite official reproval.

I’m not really sure of the effectiveness, vel non, of sending your grandmother to answer charges in traffic court, but muddle is brilliantly sidestepped by a clerical error. Instead of “Ben,” the court clerk reads out “Bea.” Joy, who has been itching with discomfort at the idea that anybody might regard her as the guilty party, tries to correct the mistake.

“It’s not me,” Joy was saying. “It’s my grandson…”

And then she looked around at all the men and women whose cars did not have taillights or headlights or side-view mirrors, all the men and women who had made mistakes on their registration papers or had read a form wrong or who had forgotten to mail some paper or who’d just never gotten around to going to the garage to get the muffler fixed, and she thought, This is humanity, all these people with shining sweaty bare shoulders and Life Savers and New York Posts folded into fans and excuses and worries and troubles and fines, and here they were all together. Everyone was so kind. Everyone was so helpful. It was really very cosmopolitan. Here she was surrounded by her fellow citizens, part of them, one of them.

“Bea Harkavy,” the voice boomed. “Public urination.”

“Is that correct?” the lawyer asked Joy.

“Oh yes,” said Joy. “This is exactly where I belong.”

Things could be so much worse; the novel could be much darker. To take just one plot point, Aaron, Joy’s late husband, rammed his thriving family business into bankruptcy, and not just once. He was a charmer without much of a head for business, one of those blind optimists who really believe that, next time, things will work out. I can’t say much more about the matter, except that it happened a long time ago. Schine does not discuss it. We are spared the easily-imagined recriminations. We’re told that Joy managed to “protect” an inherited upstate house from Aaron’s creditors, and also that she salted money away in bank accounts that Aaron didn’t know about: two sentences. Quite a few more sentences remind us that Joy is just about broke. This is probably what saves her from the fate she dreads most: being placed in a home. She certainly doesn’t have the money to pay for assisted living, and it seems that her children don’t, either, although they both have nice careers.

The children are Molly and Daniel. Molly, Ben’s mother, gave up marriage to a man for companionship with a woman; worse, she moved to Los Angeles. We are told again and again that the Bergmans are a tight-knit family. The jacket copy begins, “The Bergman clan has always stuck together.” Nevertheless, Molly is in Los Angeles, breaking her mother’s heart and feeling guilty about it. It is clear, however, that these are part-time pains. Joy has plenty to keep her busy, and she talks to Molly every day. Molly is one of those New Yorkers who, having discovered sunny California, never come home. (Everything about Molly, except her sexual preference and her religion, firmly reminded me of one of Kathleen’s oldest friends.) Molly’s companion, Freddie, is the daughter of a once somewhat-well-known character actor whose hands are Roman enough to have expelled him from two homes. Daniel works for an environmental organization. Molly, we know, is an anthropologist who digs things up; I have no idea what Daniel’s actual job is, or what his training was, or why he followed his undefined career. He lives on the Lower East Side with his wife and their two daughters, Ruby and Cora.

When Daniel and Molly discuss their mother, whom they expect to fall completely apart when Aaron dies, they say ill-considered, ungenerous things; it is not hard to imagine them re-enacting the parts of Goneril and Regan. They insist that they have their mother’s best interest at heart, but in fact her condition annoys them. Their solutions are anodyne: Why not join a poetry group at the 92nd Street Y? They worry that mourning will kill her — until she runs into an old flame, and is suddenly perceived not to be mourning enough. The old flame, Karl, is a prosperous gent who was also a friend of Aaron, and pretty soon he’s proposing. Joy responds with an elegant answer that just might start a real-world trend, and I’ll save that for you to read. Molly and Daniel, however, are beside themselves with irrational hostility to Karl. They think that he’s after her money; when they remember that he’s the one with the money, they convince themselves that he just wants a nurse. Sympathizing with Joy, I wanted to wash their mouths out with soap.

But I remembered what it was like, after my mother died. It was clear that my father was not going to spend the rest of his life alone, but I felt that our family (certainly no tight-knit clan!) was being invaded by the strange women whom he dated. There was nothing strange about them at all, of course, except that they were there, and my father evidently came to the same conclusion, because in the end he married a woman whom my sister and I, and even the woman who introduced them, regarded as an adventuress. I found her to be profoundly uncongenial, and relations froze into implicit hostility when my father died, about five years later. Being nice to Florice dragged me into a new dimension of phoneyness. To say that I had major issues with my mother is an understatement, but this did not stop me from roiling with suppressed outrage on her behalf. Had she known — ! I was just about as infantile as Molly or Daniel. (And I must say that Florice took tireless good care of my father during his long decline, cleaning up no end of messes and changing sheets in the middle of the night. She was an excellent wife.)

The real problem is that grown children believe that they are supposed to know what’s best for their ageing parents. They feel that taking care of their parents is their duty, even when their parents haven’t asked for any help or behaved with serious unreliability. Rather than help out in moments of crisis (which come along at a steady clip for the elderly), children prefer to stabilize the situation, usually by forcing their parents to give up their own homes, the last thing any sane person wants to do. Children think that they Know Better.

Would Schine’s novel be better if it were darker? It would be easier to write about, perhaps. But I for one was grateful that the punches were pulled. Joy was never evicted, never incarcerated, never condemned to dependence. Her children said a lot of silly things, but nothing much came of it. The ending, as you can see, was sunny — New York sunny. While all the really bad things weren’t happening, I could enjoy the humor and the wisdom and the occasion to consider the ironic benefits of living a long life.

I flagged a wonderful paragraph to copy into my commonplace book, and I’ll share it with you.

Then she hobbled back to her apartment. There it all was, her mess, waiting, turrets and towers of mail, its banners of Post-its and crumpled tissues. It was an eclectic collection: Everything had been or was to be filed, but the names on the files had little to do with their contents and few hints for what should be added. There were multiple files labeled, for example, Urgent!!, although some were labeled URGENT, all caps, and a few Urgent! with just one exclamation point. There was a Pay Today file and a Pay Immediately file, a Miscellaneous file and a Miscellany file. There were Medical, Medicine, Health, Health Care, Health Insurance, Doctors, Doctor Bills, Medicare, and there were files by illness as well: Diabetes, Cancer/Joy, and Cancer/Aaron. Inside were flyers for Roundabout Theater and YIVO, Time Warner, DirecTV, AT&T, Verizon, and free shingles shots from CVS. There were unopened envelopes with requests for money from starving children, dogs, cats, and abandoned farm animals, newsletters from Israel and Trader Joe’s; literature from city council candidates, mayoral candidates, cemeteries, the Neptune Society, and juice fasts. Bills and tax returns, X-rays and lab reports showed up, too, here and there, as well as clippings of art reviews by Adam Gopnik from the 1980s. (181)


Thursday 17th

Lumbering through Jonathan Sperber’s life of Karl Marx, I’m learning nearly nothing that I didn’t already know or suspect. Without ever making a study of Marx, whose quoted words seem always to combine sarcasm and obscurity to repellent effect, I have more or less helplessly picked up the basics, namely, that Marx was a bourgeois who was never able to support his family, and that his theories about history and economics were outdated by the time of his death, in 1883. If I seem to have judged him in advance, Sperber has presented no information that would overcome my impression of a man so immature that he argued against improvements in social welfare, lest they derail or delay the “inevitable” collapse of capitalism that must necessarily precede a utopia for workers. Marx was an advocate of proletarian causes who had little but contempt for actual proletarians.

Actually, I did learn something: Marx was beset by a terrible skin disease that I didn’t know about. Sperber surmises that it was that it was the autoimmune disease hidradenitis suppurativa,

whose effects are similar to acne, but on a much larger scale — fist-sized growths, not small pimples, destruction of the outer layer of skin, not just redness and scarring. The disease is painful, disfiguring, and even today very difficult to treat.

My heart really does go out to the man: what a terrible burden! Especially for a bourgeois paterfamilias, swaddled in all those Victorian woolens! And to think that even today’s medicine might not have helped him very much! I do pity the man, but my opinion of “Karl Marx” hasn’t changed. I’m simply mystified by his posthumous influence.

At the same time, I’m reading a great deal that I don’t understand. For example, Ricardo’s “theory of differential rent”: “rent on land was equal to the difference in yield between the most fertile and the least fertile piece of land.” These lucid words roll about in my mind without making any connections. The theory seems both obvious and absurd. Sperber’s expression of an opposing theory about rent, “the rent on a piece of land was equal to the return on the capital invested in it,” seems at first to make more sense, but it soon fades into tautology; and I have no idea why this theory is labeled “absolute rent.” I smell the ancient urge to generalize about particulars: a boy’s game. The real mystery is that anybody cares about these statements. Do they say anything about the world?

As a student, I avoided the study of economy. It looked like a kind of engineering; there was no need to grasp its principles if you weren’t going to make promises about how things work. I didn’t really know what the term “political economy” meant, but I grasped the idea behind it, which is that an economy is shaped by political decisions. But you can make these decisions, I thought, without understanding the thing called “economics” itself. That’s because your decisions are based on a knowledge of what has and has not worked in the past: history. Economics predicts; history serves more modestly but reliably to avoid repeating mistakes. Economics is for dreamers and fantasists. It is, as far as I can see, a study of epicycles.

Nevertheless I have ordered a book, Naked Economics, by Charles Wheelan. I have read a bit of it at Amazon, and I expect to take issue with it. For example, in his introduction, Wheelan refers to the joke that ten different economists will answer any question with ten different answers. Then he refutes the joke by insisting that all economists would agree that the shortage of housing in New York City is the consequence of rent control. This is nonsense. Perhaps it was true at one time, many decades ago. But the truth is that the shortage of housing in New York City is the consequence of a land-ownership policy (I’m speaking of small building lots) and a bureaucratic carbuncle (do they still call it “red tape”?) that together make building anything but the largest or most expensive buildings more trouble than they’re worth. So say I. But Wheelan’s book promises (on its cover) to impart the principles of economics without boring charts and graphs. It will give me a benchmark.

Until the Industrial Revolution transformed the relation of resources to markets with the wizardry of machines, there was not much point in studying economies, because you couldn’t do anything about them. Even so, the first wave of modern economists preceded the Industrial Revolution by about a generation. It is hard to say whether Smith and Condorcet developed new and powerful intellectual tools for grappling with things as they were, or whether they had an intimation of things to come. I prefer the latter suggestion, because I have come to believe, without much empirical (historical) support, that the Industrial Revolution was the answer to a question that was in the air, and not a surprise package that materialized accidentally. In either case, though, economics remains a relatively young field of study. Properly, it is a branch of the humanities, a study of human affairs that applies rigor and consistency to the problem of avoiding the determinism of the physical sciences. It does seem to have taken us two hundred years or more to let go of the dream that people are predictable machines, just very complicated. You can predict a lot of human behavior, but not enough of it to generate a “science.” And why would you want to?

You would want to if you wanted to make the world simpler, easier to understand. But “easier to understand” is an illusion, useful in solving particular, small-scale problems, perhaps, but deadly when generalized. The world is never going to be easier to understand. Only more difficult; only more manifold. The more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. But we don’t really need to understand the world in order to thrive in it; we come equipped with common sense, the ability to distinguish plausible and implausible statements. Nobody’s common sense is perfect, of course; and the guideposts to plausibility change over time. Right now, I feel, common sense is jammed by disagreement about the inherent superiority of straight white men; to put it another way, the default status of the straight white male is under broad reconsideration. But we can understand this without understanding the world. The proper study of mankind is man.


Yesterday afternoon, after writing here and dithering about what to do next, I hailed a taxi and lugged two heavy bags of books to the storage unit on 62nd Street. As usual, I asked the driver to take the FDR Drive. To access the FDR from 86th Street, you drive down to the end, at the allée of cherry trees in Carl Schurz Park, and turn right onto East End Avenue. When East End Avenue ends, at 79th Street, you turn left and then right, and you’re on the Drive. Ordinarily, the trip is a zip, ten minutes max, but there was a problem yesterday, and at 82nd Street and East End the taxi began to spend more time stopped than moving. Once we reached 79th Street, we moved most of the time, but very slowly. As we crept down the Drive, I remembered reading about an expansion at Rockefeller University, involving yet another installation above the Drive. There was a photo in the paper showing a large piece of prefabricated structure being swung into place by an enormous barge-borne crane. Perhaps that was what was slowing things down. But it turned out to be a serious accident, underneath New York Hospital’s Greenberg Pavilion, which is also built over the Drive. I spotted an ambulance, but I couldn’t see the cars involved. The driver — who had been telling me, in answer to a simple question about the traffic, why he hated Bill DeBlasio, and complaining that, whenever liberals are in charge, a dubious if not criminal element always pops out of New York’s woodwork (so to speak) — noted that “a taxi was involved.” It was almost immediately time to get off the Drive, at 63rd Street. When I paid and thanked the driver, he thanked me back, “for being patient with the traffic.” I ought to have thanked him again, because he was the reason for my patience. I simply dropped into a state of listening to him. Although I am no Sherlock Holmes, I’d say that he grew up in Queens, and very likely attended Catholic school, not long after I did. He spoke with what I can call only a bitter correctness. He did not ramble and he eschewed profanity. He believed that the facts, if clearly stated, would speak for themselves — and they did. When he told me about having to change cars on his subway ride home, or about crowded trains with an all but empty car, the problem in both cases being a stinking homeless person stretched out on the seats, I felt his grievance: this sort of thing oughtn’t to happen. What is to be done about homeless people? We need a committee.

At the storage unit, I remembered my plan, which was to go through the LPs that lined two shelves in the corner where I wanted to stack boxes. This would get the LPs out of the way and into boxes. I packed most of the records, but I saved too many, uncertain about Kathleen’s attachment to jazz albums that to the best of my knowledge have not been replaced by CDs (because the CDs were never issued). She will have to go through what I have set aside for keeping. There were one or two classical LPs that I couldn’t let go of. On one of them, one of the most enchanting things in all of Bach, a duet in the 78th Cantata, is performed a little differently, not by solo singers but by a chorus of women, while the through-bass is tinkled on a harpsichord, not a positif organ. This is how I first heard this music. Like so much of Bach’s choral music, it makes me think of paintings by van Eyck and the other Netherlandish masters of the Fifteenth Century. They painted such lovely angels, angels that look as though, if they could sing, they would sing Bach. I have made this association since I was a teenager, and I have always been puzzled by the Gothic or medieval mood that so much of Bach projects. A bit of the puzzle clears up when I recall reading that, in England, the Gothic never went out of style: consider Tom’s Tower at Christ Church or All Souls, both Oxford colleges. Which reminds me of something funny that I read the other day. Somebody was reviewing a new book about the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, an English uprising that was duplicitously calmed by the young king, Richard II. Although the book was said to be very good, the author was chided by the reviewer for making an unnecessary and quite erroneous remark about the view of the spires of distant Westminster Abbey that the rebels and the courtiers must have shared from the East London field where they gathered for parleys. The spires of Westminster Abbey were not raised until more than three centuries later. The architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), who also designed All Souls.

While I was writing yesterday, Kathleen called from Washington. She was sitting in a restaurant having lunch, and she wanted me to know that she had her phone and her wallet with her. On past trips to Washington, she has left one or the other in the train; both times, her property has been turned in at Lost and Found. The man who found her phone actually left a message on my cell phone — mine was the number most recently called — to say that he had found the phone and knew where to take it, so that I could tell Kathleen where it was when she managed to call me. Kathleen was in Washington to deliver a presentation about Exchange-Traded Funds to the Enforcement Division of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Since Kathleen has worked on the creation and development of ETFs with most other branches of the SEC, I wondered why they couldn’t get a staffer to bring Enforcement up to speed, but perhaps it was cheaper to ask Kathleen to volunteer. It was certainly an honor. Kathleen has never worked at the SEC, and so she lacks the entrée of an alum. (It’s a matter of prestige, like clerking for a Supreme Court justice.) The problem with Kathleen is that this little paragraph is probably going to be the only announcement of the event. Not only does Kathleen fail to blow her own trumpet — she must have left it on the train.

On the phone, Kathleen was in no hurry to get off; she was waiting for a waitperson or for her lunch to arrive. I, however, was writing, and I had no news of my own. The conversation ebbed into an exchange of declarations of love. “Lots and lots and lots.” After a few volleys, I fell silent, and we soon said our goodbyes. What happened next was totally typical. As I put the phone down on the table and returned my attention to the screen, an inner voice blared a malediction: What if that’s the last time you get to talk to Kathleen? You are going to regret your hurry to get off the phone for the rest of your life! You’ll be sorry!

It wasn’t the last time. But why are we like this?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Turn It Off
May 2016 (IV)

23, 24, 26, 27; Vacation Alert

Monday 23rd

Said I to the psychiatrist, “I should like my life to be a work of art.” This was a long time ago.

The psychiatrist did not prescribe institutionalization, so I never learned what he made of my statement. Or of me. The only other conversation that I recall from my time with that doctor concerned my willingness to pay for my sessions, instead of my parents. I was horrified, extremely unwilling, and said so. This was all their idea.

Of the five psychiatrists and one psychologist whom I was to consult in my life, I liked the first — this one — the least. He lingers in my memory looking something like Nelson Rockefeller, but thinner and, if possible, more suave. He said almost nothing, ever, but it must have been very difficult to sit through my blabber. I’d say that I was a self-absorbed suburban adolescent gifted with some intelligence and a borderline narcissistic disorder. Self-esteem being what it is, I like to think that his diagnosis wouldn’t have been severely worse.

I liked the last psychiatrist best. When was he? A little more than ten years ago; it was during my time with him that I published my first site. He oversaw a painless withdrawal from Percocet, which had been prescribed when the ankylosing spondylitis was discovered. He persuaded me that my personality did not belong on the Asperger’s spectrum. (More narcissism?) We had great conversations. Finding more and more satisfaction online, however, I came to the conclusion that I was too old and too functional to fix, and I stopped going. I did pay off my bill. I always meant to write him a thank-you note, and I still think of doing so, every now and then.

I was wrong about being too old to fix. A few years later, I drank too many martinis and passed out on my feet. When I awoke, I could hardly move. For a week, I walked around with a strange pain in my neck. The surgeon who looked at the X-rays sent me straight to the hospital, and operated the next day. There were two further lessons, after-dinner slips in the bathtub, from which I was rescued by doormen. Nevertheless, I’m not quite sure what a psychiatrist’s interventions would have prevented.

These dangerous slips and falls were caused by my pursuit not of art but of fun. I don’t mean to evade responsibility for my misdeeds, but simply to be intelligible I feel required to point out that I grew up in a culture that inextricably bound up the prospect of fun with the presence of booze. It has taken a very long time to develop a better idea of fun, and to make that idea prevail.

The desire to make a work of art out of my life was, of course, ridiculous. The only excuse for such fatuity is that I didn’t understand art very well. But instead of laughing at my preposterous pretentiousness (or vice versa) — as I have been doing for forty years or more — it has now occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to find out what I was trying to say. This would not entail developing a better idea of art. Nor would it involve delving into old notebooks. It’s a matter merely of acknowledging that in a foolish statement can be found the seed of a life to come.

Here are the aspects of art that are not very hard to detect in my ambitions: an overall meaning, a high degree of internal consistency, and a positive claim about the goodness of humanity. In this pursuit, I was saddled with several drawbacks. In addition to my ideas about fun, I was cursed with a short temper and a shaming anxiousness. I ought also to mention an inordinate fondness for sitting in comfortable chairs.

It is at this point that a professional writer, as distinct from a would-be work of art, would insert a very funny, astonishingly illustrative story. I’ll keep my eyes out.


Meaning. I wanted my life to possess meaningfulness. This is not at all the same thing as wanting to lead a life that other people will hail as “meaningful.” To lead a “meaningful life,” one does meaningful things. I’ll leave the list to you. A sacrifice of the self is almost essential: the meaningful job comes first. That’s part of what makes life meaningful to observers. A life of “doing without,” a humble life of quiet service (but not so quiet that nobody notices — and I don’t mean that cynically), a total commitment to a highly demanding career of service. There are no absolute anchors that will guarantee that a life lived thus-and-so will be judged to have been meaningful. You can go to medical school and join Doctors Without Borders, and most people will admire you, but there will always be those who wonder what you were running away from. This is not to suggest that the meaningful life is not worth pursuing. But everything about the ambition to lead one is tricky.

The meaningfulness within my life is no great secret. It is a matter of reading and writing. Of reading and writing as I wish. During my radio days, I had a little gig with one of our advertisers, a neighborhood bookstore that I patronised when I could afford to. The owner (who was not the manager, but a sharp little woman who was good with figures) would hand me three books a month, and I would write reviews that, as I recall, would take up half a page in the radio station’s program guide. I got to keep the books, but of course they were books that I should never have read on my own, and for which my regard was nothing like what the reviews suggested. Because it was such a tiny job, it didn’t do any harm, beyond the small contribution to journalistic dishonesty, but it taught me that I could not make a career out of writing to order. We all have to make a living, and I would prefer to make it from remuneration by readers than from my wife’s kind support, but our economic outlook does not facilitate the creation of such institutional grants — and, no, I am not soliciting individual contributions. We have no way of providing the independent writer with credentials, save posthumously. Historians often achieve what publishers alone cannot.

However clear my gifts as a reader and a writer may have been when I was young, it took until just about the day before yesterday for me to have a coherent idea of what I ought to be reading and writing. Like everyone else, I was seduced by literary buzz, and I read a great many novels that have long since been given away. Like everybody else, I believed that I must try to write a novel. I also wrote three plays. I don’t think that it was particularly dim of me not to see, sooner than I did, that humanism was my theme, because humanism, as I have mentioned elsewhere, has come in modern times to be fought over by warring camps of cranks. This is not the time to dilate upon what humanism means to me, but I’d like to point out that the sustainable social generosity that is its principle object has also shaped my personal behavior. My private life takes place on a very small scale. I know few people well, and no more than ten percent of what I say (in person) is aimed at ears other than Kathleen’s. So I view my personal behavior as primarily a matter of dealing with strangers.

Is there much to say about internal consistency? I think that I have achieved a good measure of this. I am not confused by competing or contradictory aims. But it seems to me that internal consistency ought to make me an easy fellow to understand, and that is not the case. I suspect that I should be much easier to grasp if my internal consistency did not depend so heavily on a thoroughgoing rejection of television and the advertising business model upon which it rests. Just the other night, some old friends made an untiring attempt to convince me that, with the installation of a little box, I should have all the convenience of Netflix — or was it the Internet as a whole — at my fingertips. I tried to point out that Kathleen and I endeavor, but often fail, to see one movie a week. Sometimes there are binges, but it is more common for us not to see anything. This weekend, for example, we meant to see Flirting With Disaster. But we didn’t, because by the time dinner was done, it was too late for movies. (Just as I have learned that I can no longer drink unlimited cocktails, so has it been made clear that I need about two hours to wind down from a movie, thus risking the postponement of bedtime into the small hours.) No matter how easy it is to watch this or that great show, Kathleen and I don’t have the time, because it is more important to do other things. I don’t have to say what I’m too busy with; Kathleen settles the stress of her career with the tonic of playing Diana at eBay. (Or is it Sisyphus? She so rarely finds anything to capture.) The organizing principle of not watching television is simply too bizarre for even our closest friends to imagine.

Manhattan can be very noisy. Sirens alone are a constant nuisance, and helicopters can be unbelievably annoying. The backup of cars entering the garage directly below our windows prompts a great deal of exasperated but useless horn-honking. But the apartment is often silent as a tomb. Music is increasingly special, meant to be listened to, not merely to provide an aural backwash. (Certainly not when we are reading.) I have come to treasure silence. And I know that most of my friends would treasure it, too. But first they would have to wean themselves from the racket of television. Which in turn would mean forswearing the notion that television spouts the authorized version of reality.

Reading and writing may look like solitary activities, but that is only because they require solitude. They are in fact social, intensely social, though at a remove in time and space. By this I mean, among other things, that the dead can speak to us in living voices, and that we can speak in living voices to future generations. It is customary, in this connection, to rattle off something about timeless truths, but I don’t believe in timeless truths. I believe in evolution. Change may be imperceptibly gradual, but it is change just the same. There is a constant danger that changes will render language incomprehensible. Can you read Chaucer “in the original”? For that matter, how fluent is your Shakespeare? Sir Thomas Browne? Ivy Compton-Burnett? Language actually changes very quickly, in evolutionary terms. The generally well-educated reader cannot be expected to read, unaided, writing more than three hundred years old. Three hundred years! We’ve been jotting things down for more than five thousand. Almost all of it has to be translated into one “modern language” or another. And yet the truth, as we know from poetry, can never be translated. That is why reading in another language, whether foreign or an earlier version of one’s own, is enlightening.


Tidying up on Saturday, I straightened up a pile of art books in a low étagère, exchanging a few with books in the tall case on the other side of the foyer. This bookcase has not been organized since we moved in, and it wasn’t really organized even then, as I unpacked boxes of art books and stuffed them in as best they would fit. There are exhibition catalogues — Fragonard, Degas, Turner and so on. There are also children’s books, which are often as tall as art books and which are, in their way, art books themselves. Then there are the shorter texts (shorter in height): Arnheim, Panofksy. Haskell somewhere in between. There are also a few outsize ringers, such as a Shakespeare encyclopedia and a Geography of the World. In the dead center there is a disgrace, a book with a spine torn so badly that the discolored binding is what you see instead of the title. The book has been in this condition for a very long time, and, eyeing the bookcase prior to giving it a once-over, I thought that I really ought to get rid of it. I knew what it was: Michael Levey’s Rococo to Revolution, a Praeger Art Book from 1966. I pulled it down, and, next thing you know, I read half of it. Also, the cover completely broke down, front and back no longer attached to the book nor to one another. I shall not be getting rid of the book. I had somehow lost sight of the fact that most of my favorite painters worked in the Eighteenth Century, from Watteau to Fragonard. Boucher, Tiepolo, Gainsborough, Chardin, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi. Even Longhi, sometimes. Levey does not discuss all of these, because some of them — Canaletto, obviously — do not fit on a line from rococo to revolution. But they all share an Apollonian devotion to clarifying daylight.

Rococo to Revolution, loaded with illustrations, some of them in color, was an expensive paperback in 1966: $5.95.


Tuesday 24th

Last night, I got through a second reading of Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace. One of my gloomy books, the others being The Idiot, Jonathan Sperber’s life of Karl Marx, and T G Otte’s The July Crisis. Crankshaw blunders in his final chapter: he writes that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated “in the middle of July.” The mistake makes me wonder if other assured-sounding details are also wrong. The book is tendentious around the edges — writing in the Seventies, the author clearly believed that the Soviet régime in Russia was simply illegitimate, But his sorrow seems to justify it. If the book is a prolonged lamentation, it is brisk and buttoned-up, martially tragic. Crankshaw doesn’t think much of any of the four Tsars who acted the autocrat during his period, but he is especially contemptuous of Nicholas II.

His shrinking from personal violence, one may believe, meant no more than his shrinking from telling the truth to his ministers and advisers. It is desirable to be clear about this. Nicholas was not fit to rule, and by 1903 he had finally demonstrated that his conduct after Khodynka Field was a fair example of what was to come. That he was a dear and loving father of his family is not in question. And very soon now he was to be faced with the tragic and desperately painful burden laid upon his shoulders by the discovery that the infant Tsarevich was a haemophiliac. For after ten years of married life, after bearing four daughters in succession, Alexandra Feodorovna, amid scenes of almost hysterical emotion, had given birth to a son and heir in July 1904. But although the stresses of the Tsar’s private life contributed much to what appeared to be the collapse of his authority and the delivery of Russia into the hands of the Tsaritsa’s favourites, venal or vile, towards the close of his reign, that authority in fact never existed. He had nothing to stand on but his inherited majesty. (337)

What made me decide to hold on to the book was this extremely felicitous passage a few pages later:

Our story may seem to have run ahead of itself again. But in fact it is the subject that is disintegrating, vanishing into thin air, leaving nothing but the terrible memory of the blood-stained cellar in Ekaterinburg and the haunting image of the last Tsar, deposted, and staring pas the camera into nothingness as he sits under guard on the tree stump. (389)

At one point, Crankshaw expresses surprise that nobody thought to shoot the Tsaritsa while the dynasty was still in power; she was certainly the worst single thing that happened to it. I have often wondered why Nicholas II himself was not removed in this way, as his great-great-grandfather Paul over a century earlier. But if I’ve stopped feeling sorry for Nicholas, my only feeling for his wife is one of execration.

At several points in his chapters about Nicholas II, Crankshaw faults the Tsar and his intimates for failing to realize that times had changed, that, for example, the peasantry no longer worshiped their “Little Father” with blind devotion. But even if you can sense that times have changed — so far, 2016 has been a year in which I can sense little else — it is difficult to assess the change, or to grasp its direction. What is changing into what? Only historians will know the half of it. I know that I ought to rustle up a go-bag, so that I’m prepared for that apparently inevitable emergency, but I can’t imagine enduring the physical stress of escaping an endangered Manhattan. My very sincere hope is to have died before the bad things happen. That has always been my hope. When I was younger, though, the bad things that might happen seemed remote and speculative. Now (if I may be allowed to mix ancient mythological catastrophes), the sacrifice of American government by a coven of male Lucretias puts me in mind of burning Troy. I also sense something deadly in the smartphone. Would it be correct, or even intelligent, to put any weight on these intimations of misfortune? I should prefer not to be a cranky bore.

Every time I step out of the building onto the street, I feel irrelevant. This is a new sensation. It’s not that I used to feel relevant: I didn’t feel anything one way or the other. But now I feel that I am no longer in the swim. It is a positive, oppressive thing. Kathleen often claims that she has become invisible: a little old lady. I’m not invisible, certainly, but I feel like a natural obstacle, not a human being, as I make my way among the other pedestrians. This isn’t because nobody looks at me. I can’t tell if anybody’s looking at me. When I walk, I can only see the sidewalk. But everyone who passes by is on the phone. Nobody is present.

I used to read when I walked. Books! I was very good at it. I, too, was not present. But I was the only one. Now it is everyone, and I have completely outgrown the feeling that walking down the street is a waste of time, dead minutes that ought to be put to some use. What change am I really sensing here? Is it merely the change of becoming an old person?

For me, being an old person is going to be somewhat different. I have no life of accomplishment to look back on; the accomplishing is happening now. It could not have happened sooner.


Reading Jonathan Sperber’s obscenely long — sixty-one pages! — chapter about Marx in the 1860s (“The Activist”), and feeling my eyes glaze over as yet another squabble is aired, it occurred to me that there were simply too many issues in the Nineteenth Century. Well, and no wonder. The ancien régime had been pulled down in France, but it flourished almost everywhere else in Europe right through to World War I. This was also the age of unimaginable industrial expansion, first in the form of large mills and other factories, then as railroads, and finally as a shower of domestic innovations that transformed intimate life. The economic consequences of this surge accelerated at their own velocity; it was madness to pretend that they could be made to stand still long enough for even summary analysis. Marx was very naive, I think, to believe that the deft use of traditional (if late-model) philosophical and rhetorical tools would enable him to predict what he thought to be inevitable, inherently necessary. He had this thing about “workers” — did it ever cross his mind that rising levels of prosperity would, without any help from revolutions, transform workers into his detested petits bourgeois? He blinded himself to the possibility not just of Archie Bunker, but of generations of Archie Bunkers.

Marx also had a strange faith in solidarity. Despite his own prickly narcissism as to small differences, he believed that these workers of his would band together, would unite, and would not only take the reins of power but govern themselves in peace. But people do not band together unless they have to, except when nothing is at stake except personal satisfaction. What makes it possible for people to cooperate in folk-dancing groups or battle re-enactments is precisely the fact that these activities are pointless, recreational. People do not band together to form banks, to be run as a cooperative enterprise of which no single person is in charge. Marx himself was never a worker. He was a journalist and a political organizer. What did he know about workers? What did workers know?

What bewilders me about Marx, and the Nineteenth Century behind him, is the eager confidence with which brainy people rushed about with explanations of immense changes which they could only partially see and with answers to the terrible problems that these changes engendered. A veritable chaos of confidence! There had never been so many steam engines, powering mills and railroads; there had never been telegraphy; there had never been mass-produced newspapers. And yet everyone seemed to be sure of the consequences of these novelties. There had never been universal franchise. There had never been an overt, political struggle for women’s rights. There had never been an acknowledged connection between language and patriotism. There had never been slavery, not as there was slavery in the South once the steam-powered mills of England developed their appetite for cotton. Democracy had never been attempted on anything like the scale of the United States. And yet everybody knew that it was all going to work out grandly. Everyone was going to be free and prosperous and literate and happy.

There were just a few little kinks to be worked out. As we all know, if you have a number of problems to solve, you must prioritize them, and work down your list. But what if the list is collective? Who decides which problem must be solved first? It turns out that the person who decides is the person supported by the most power. There is no guarantee that this person is right. For many passionate thinkers in the Nineteenth Century, nationalism was the most important problem. Looking back, we can see that these thinkers shared a weakness: they minimized the size and importance of groups within any area in which a language was generally spoken. They were willing to write off the clusters of Germans, for example, who could be found almost everywhere in Central Europe. Nationalist thinkers were inspired, and then deluded, by the idea that everyone in the nation spoke the national language. Later, nationalism developed its ugly racist force. You might speak the language perfectly but still not belong.

If we look at the invention of nationalism, there is good reason to view the concept with alarm. Nationalism was invented by French Revolutionaries. In 1789, France was still very much a patchwork of different languages and customs, held together by recognition of the monarchy. When the monarchy was removed, something called “the nation” was inserted in its place — but what did this mean? What was the nation? Saying that it was French didn’t get you very far, not until Napoleon, that savior of the Revolution, imposed standards of universal education. This highly coercive nationalism traveled with his conquering armies and was implemented more or less throughout Europe. It became a terrible problem for the Austrians, a minority in their own empire. Hungary fought for national independence in 1848. It lost, but subsequently accepted the institution of the Dual Monarchy, in 1867 (the year after Austria’s defeat by Prussia), as a substitute. The main thing now was that there were no Slavic nations, just Russia. Hungary could accept its partnership with Austria because there were no other partners. But then, as the Ottomans receded, the Balkans south of Hungary became dotted with Slavic states — Serbia, Bulgaria, Rumania. Oh, dear. Nationalism is still, to this day, a terrible idea. Nevertheless, everyone but a few old reactionaries was certain, as long as two hundred years ago, that only great things could come of it. Why? Because it was the new idea, and dynastic allegiance was the old idea. In fact, nationalism’s destructive powers were not fully revealed until the dynasties were swept away, one hundred years ago.

My point is not to critique the idea of nationalism, but to suggest that people are overly confident about dealing with new problems. There is now a great deal of certainty about environmental degradation. It is either catastrophic or non-existent, and if you believe that it is catastrophic, then there are certain steps that must be taken right now. That is to say that there is a list of actions that must be taken in a certain order, and it is imperative to recognize this list right now. The problem is that not everyone’s list is the same.

I am a great believer in deliberation. The ability to deliberate is a gift, like any other, that few people are given. Most of us are too impatient, too dominating, or both. I beg your indulgence; until quite recently, our common ideas about universal franchise were either unknown or abhorred. Then people began to dream of them. I dream of a deliberative body, one that, like the Académie Française, elects new members upon the death of old ones. The members, whatever their training, are not experts — except at deliberation. When faced with a cosmological problem — asteroid alert! — they consult astronomers. For more complex problems, they consult a wider range of experts. Then they deliberate. They argue; they write position papers. Eventually, they agree, or they agree to disagree. But they explain their judgment as lucidly as possible to the world at large. They cannot make anything happen; they can only persuade. Here my dream stops, with plenty of important details still to be worked out. Perhaps you can help.


Thursday 26th

My intention was to write about Nathan Heller’s Oberlin piece in The New Yorker, but this morning’s Times brought the breathtaking news that Daphne Guinness has released an album, which will come out this week. You know, songs — although Guinness’s vocals are described as sprechstimme, which basically means not singing. The problem for me, should I buy the album, which is called Optimist in Black, is to decide which collection it belongs to. Do I put it with the unlistenable CDs by Jane Birkin and Charlotte Rampling, or do I slip in among the Mitford books?

Where are those CDs? Birkin and Rampling are both English actresses who are domiciled in France. Their French is adorable. Since Birkin was married to the great Serge Gainsbourg, it’s not hard to see why she might have been tempted to sing. I don’t know the explanation behind Charlotte Rampling’s ventures, but it doesn’t really matter, given the particular aesthetic that her singing embodies. It is an anti-Wagnerian aesthetic. Singing is suggested by coy, hushed breaths. At least, that is what I recall of the thirty seconds in which I exposed myself to Rampling’s CD. I adore Charlotte Rampling, which is why I bought the CD, but the shame does burn. I bought the Birkin album (there are several) because Jane Birkin was going to appear in a New York venue, and I was thinking about buying a ticket. The CD was an inexpensive hedge: I did not buy a ticket. It was all I could do to suppress the imagination of disaster: how Kathleen would glare at me if she were to accompany me to such an event. I do not adore Jane Birkin, but I am very fond of her, which is perhaps even nicer. I think that she makes Merci, Docteur Rey, my most favorite train-wreck of a movie.

I have Jessica Mitford’s CD — Decca and the Dectones. To be fair, it was made as a fundraiser, and one can only hope that it was a success at that. The elderly writer and union activist tries very hard to sing “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.” There are passages of genuine song, if rarely in tune. I’m listening to it as I write. The CD is dated 1995; Mitford died the following year. If you can imagine Margaret Rutherford singing a Beatles song, you’re halfway there. Mitford’s accent is about ten times plummier, and curiously most pronounced when she “sings” that “oh – oh, oh, oh.” I can’t believe that I found it so quickly, in a CD case, about three feet tall, that stands just beneath my work table. The case is full of other curiosities – Karl Zéro and Bea Lillie, just to name two — that I really ought to listen to more than I do. That’s where Optimist in Black ought to go, if I take the plunge. The Birkin and Rampling albums, too, if and when I find them.

And Florence Foster Jenkins, to name another. (Who’d ‘a’ thunk that Meryl Streep would make a movie about her? Although the role really belongs to Broadway star Judy Kaye, who claimed to have wrecked her voice learning to sing like Jenkins, for that wonderful but short-lived show, Souvenir.)

And Mrs Miller. Don’t forget Mrs Miller! These boots are made for walkin’!


Nathan Heller’s Oberlin piece, “The Big Uneasy,” is clearly written by a young man. Someone more my age would have been less appalled by the evidence of illiberalism in today’s student bodies. I was there when the latest wave of it started, and it doesn’t seem to have changed much in fifty years. The personnel are different: almost all of the students interviewed by Heller are “of color.” In my day, the activists were just smart-ass white guys who had discovered an alternative to athletic prowess. Alternative excellence, however, still does seem to be the point.

I am very conservative about education, in case you hadn’t noticed. This does not mean that I espouse a “conservative” curriculum, although a list of books that I believe undergraduates ought to read would probably suggest that I do. I am certainly not a conservative in this regard: higher education is the duty that civilization owes to the future. If its élite is to function properly (and, repeat after me, there will always be an élite), then it must understand the world. It must be taught what civilization amounts to — how it rises and how it falls. In right-thinking countries, education is provided at no cost to qualified students, and nobody dreams of calling the student a “consumer.”

In exchange for this free education, students agree to learn what is taught. They accept on principle the assumption that, going in, they know nothing. Higher education makes no sense at all if you believe that students learn what’s academically important from some other source. Students who believe that colleges and universities do not know what’s important are wasting everybody’s time. They are not ready for/do not belong in college. That is really the end of it. Even though the activism of the Sixties made very small waves at Notre Dame, I saw enough to be terrified of the idea that students and teachers ought to switch roles. And I, as I have written elsewhere, was a terrible student myself.

Terrible as I might have been at following the curriculum, I never believed that nonsense about discovering myself. I was in school, very consciously, to learn the history of ideas: that is why I signed up for Great Books. (And I did read most of those that were prescribed.) I knew that I was young and unformed — I certainly hoped that I was unformed — but I did not expect school to turn me into an adult. I learned more about being an adult from the struggles of other students. It did not occur to me that what we were learning in class amounted to opportunities chosen or declined in the same way that our friendships and dating experiences closed some doors while opening others. There was nothing limiting about learning; only the time for learning was limited.

It also did not occur to me that I was being brainwashed. This is a delicate point, because brainwashing is very much the point of all education. In elementary school, kids are not encouraged to develop private writing systems or secret languages. No: they are taught to write as much like everyone else as possible and to add numbers in a way that arrives at the only correct answer. The coercive aspect of education diminishes as education progresses, but there is no denying that the debates about the correct way of thinking that flourish in universities take place on a settled platform of axioms and received ideas. Some students, in any time, are certain to suspect that this platform is creaky and in need of replacement; more than any other students, they need the guidance of gifted teachers to encourage them to postpone reformative projects until they have completed the course. Discourse occurs within agreed-upon parameters, without which there is no discourse but only shouting and babble.

Nathan Heller is concerned that a number of Oberlin students are pursuing parameter resetting rather than discourse. One student confesses that she no longer has much interest in hearing the thoughts of people who don’t think the way she does. That’s perfectly natural; it is the very inclination that, for the four years of undergraduate learning, a student is expected to submit to constant challenge. I have so far stressed learning as a matter of taking in information about the world, but the capstone of the undertaking is learning how to talk about it, and learning how to listen to others talk about it. The curriculum is a salient parameter of academic discourse. The reason for accepting it without argument is to foster the possibility that there will be a great deal of argument about what it all means. None of this has been brought home, on Heller’s evidence, to the Oberlin students he talks to.

Here are a few great lines from Heller’s piece.

At some point, it seemed, the American left on campus stopped being able to hear itself think.

“I’m actually still trying to reconcile how unhappy I’ve been here with how happy people were insisting I must be.” (Soon-to-be ex-student)

“Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” (Teacher)

“This is the generation of kids that grew up being told that the nation was basically over race.” (Teacher)

“One of the hypocrisies of the call for a globalized curriculum is that the people calling for it don’t give a flying fuck if a subject is being taught properly.” (Teacher)

Carey, like Bautista, went to élite schools on scholarships; she says that, for her, the past few years have been about “unlearning” most of what she had been taught.

American universities have always been able to boast of large populations of students who are the first members of their families to receive higher education. The diversity of American universities does something to cushion the shock of entering university culture from a disadvantaged background. Many first-time students (so to speak) go to schools with strong religious affiliations, for example. Many choose to stay close to home. Heller’s Oberlin students, in contrast, seem like the victims of a malignant experiment, yanked from socioeconomic deprivation into a zone of shimmering sophistication, one of the principle aspects of which is their mere presence in it. Cyrus Eosphoros, the trans man and projected dropout who expresses his unreconcilable unhappiness in the quotes above, complains of being “proof of concept for other people.” It couldn’t be clearer that Eosphoros was not ready for Oberlin, and that Oberlin did nothing to compensate. Possibly because I was so happy to get away from home, I have always believed that it is important for boys (especially) to attend boarding schools, which were called “prep schools” because they prepared students for the rigors of college life. Surely some kind of orientation is crucial to students’ success. Oberlin is an unusual school from almost any perspective; I’m sure that a lot of kids from affluent white families are shaken up there. The academic atmosphere of disruption and play must strike some scholarship students as pointless and/or frivolous.

Heller writes, “The historic bracket that opened in the the sixties is starting to close; the boomers’ memoirs of becoming no longer lead up to the present.” I’m not sure what this means, but I know that the era in which leftist boomers grew up to run academia is ending. Academia is now run by people who were given tenure by boomers. These replacements may be even more expert at teaching the boomer curriculum, but the very fact that they were students of the boomers — those boomers themselves were never really students at all; they came to “liberate” — signifies a falling-off in passion. Meanwhile, it has finally been acknowledged that boomers indulged in a lot of wishful thinking where race was concerned. Quite aside from dreaming that the nation’s sociopolitical problems were solved or on the way to being solved by the civil-rights activism of the Sixties, boomers cherished the old American dream of opportunity. Heller’s students seem unilaterally to reject the opportunities provided by Oberlin; perhaps it would be better to say that they reject the very idea of academic opportunity. They don’t jump at the chance to take a place in the white man’s world. They wish that the white man and his world did not exist. And who can blame them? Why, though, are they having their noses rubbed in it?

We boomers might have been told too often that we were special, but what really marked us apart was the way in which the world was made special for us. Unlike all previous epochs, it was a world of endless opportunity. This is usually seen as a side-effect of postwar affluence, but I see it now, as I’m coming to see many different things, as having roots in Cold War strategy. We were to be healthy and strong and bright — but not just for our own sakes. We were to flourish as individual Americans, but there was an ulterior motive: we were to show up the collectivized Russians. Everything that they did over there, except playing chess and musical instruments, we were supposed to do in the opposite way. We collaborated as members of a team, not as bees in a hive. Sure, there was a massive intensification of science education after Sputnik, but the generosity with which liberal arts studies were funded did not begin to slow down until it became clear that the Soviets were not going to prevail. It just about ended along with the Cold War. I don’t think that I’m being cynical here, but only realistic. Which is why I don’t regard my education as some sort of trick designed to make me fall into step with the march of the brave and the free. I was lucky to grow up, not as a boomer, but in the Cold War, and to have benefited from my side’s extensive, if self-interested, generosity.


Friday 27th

Perhaps it is a character defect, but I find myself maddeningly incapable of deriving any satisfaction from the disgrace of Kenneth Starr, who has been “stripped” (Times) of his title as President of Baylor University. And why? Because some of the school’s football players have been getting away with sexual assault. Predictably, the interests of boosting a winning football team have taken priority over more ethical concerns. Irony corkscrews through the story: Starr will retain his position as chancellor, because that job is, how shall I paraphrase it, more of a religious thing. (Baylor is a Baptist school.) I ought to be smirking at least. I always sensed that Starr was a great humbug, and that his very participation in the persecution of Bill Clinton trivialized it. Now I know.

But the ironic part of the story is but a small wave, followed by a much larger one: once again, it has been demonstrated that college football is incompatible with college life. There is not much to say about this; I ought just to let the wave knock me down, and try to remember that for lots of other American’s, it’s all great fun. It must be something like the taste for blood. Very bright people are more than keen on their favorite schools’ football games, especially the ones that their favorite teams win. I went to Notre Dame (twice), so I ought to know what it’s like, but I don’t know what it’s like; it’s sports, dammit, and what the hell is it doing on campus? I have to remember that for many people, college is primarily a social institution. This is especially true for professionals, who go on to pursue advanced degrees in extremely rigorous institutions. College, in contrast, is a time for fun, punctuated by occasional nightmares of cramming and exams. These bright people are deaf, absolutely deaf, to the idea that lucrative, pre-professional sports programs may be toxic to the schools that foster them, that the mere proximity of gigantic stadiums to libraries may deform young minds, may normalize extremely questionable behavior, and may dim moral objection to a game that does ruin young minds, literally. You can say all of this, and these very bright people will respond just like other addicts. They will not listen until catastrophe strips them of that option.

And television. If I wanted to be prosecutorial, I might point out that college football was a sideshow, of interest to no one but alumni (Notre Dame an interesting exception), and that professional football was a great deal less popular than baseball, until television made it easy to follow games without leaving home, and eventually transformed games into television shows, so that, if you did take the trouble to attend, you were, potentially, part of the cast. (Since Friday entries are supposed to be relatively lighthearted, perhaps I ought to ease up on the scolding for a sec to remind readers that my old pal Fossil Darling was caught snoozing at the US Open by a lingering cameraman — during the women’s games, of course. He was spectacularly identifiable to many of his friends.) I might try to make something of the connection between two encroaching aspects of American life that I fear are threatening our future. But it’s no longer a case of threatening the future. The damage has been done. Now that Donald Trump is the “presumed Republican candidate,” my worst fears have been realized: American voters have confused politics with entertainment. And why not? What do they see of politics that isn’t filtered through a medium that converts everything into entertainment? And what have established politicians done but transform themselves into characters out of a telenovela, prone to fibbing?

Television is not really addictive, but it is extremely habit-forming, with the habit pertaining not to following certain TV shows but to simply having the the thing on. I’m intrigued by the blurriness of the language that surrounds this subject: what does it mean “to watch television”? What is television? As I think of it, television is a system that integrates a range of components. Watching Laura on TMC is watching television, but watching a DVD of Laura is not. The latter experience lacks many of the components of watching television, and the component that strikes me most at the moment is television’s endlessness. If you watch Laura on a DVD, the show will come to an end. At a certain point, you will have seen everything that the DVD has to offer. You must either insert another DVD or turn off your television equipment. At the end of Laura on TMC, there will be something next, and if the TMC people are doing their job, you will want to watch whatever is next. Meanwhile, you will be treated to a gentle barrage of anchoring symbols that locate you in the realm of TMC’s brand. TMC’s brand is a significant component of watching Laura “on television.” It is much more than a label. It is a dual outlook, a split vision. Half of it is a “philosophy” that viewers can relate to; at TMC, the reigning philosophy holds that they don’t make movies the way they used to. The other half is an outlook upon the viewers, an inquiry into the viewers’ likes and dislikes that will help TMC to make its philosophy even more attractive. If you are watching TMC on a computer, your click will be added to the total. Watching television can be interactive in a surprising and unsettling way.

Ever since I woke up to the malignity of television, in the mid-Eighties, I have asked for only one thing of the medium: no news programs, no serious interviews, nothing but fluff. Seriousness is compromised by television because the medium cannot bear the hesitations of doubt. To shrug your shoulders on television is to annoy and terrify viewers, because they have become habituated to regarding the screen as the source of authority — its altar, as it were. If you are going to shrug, you must smile dopily, sending a message that viewers will read to mean, not that you are in fact a dope, but that whatever it is that you don’t know isn’t worth knowing.

I have also asked very bright people, the people who run things, not to watch television, and especially not to have it running in the background.


Last night, I began reading the fourth part of The Idiot, and I was immediately beguiled by Dostoevsky’s discussion of what Marx would call the petit bourgeois character. He begins by pretending that it is difficult to write about perfectly ordinary people in a way that makes them interesting. What does “ordinary” mean, if not “not interesting”? Then he shifts from the writer’s vantage to that of ordinary people, whom he immediately divides into two groups. The first is untroubled in its “impudence of naïvety,”

this stupid man’s unquestioningness of himself and his talent…

The second group, “more clever,” is not so sure. The urge to be singular, the belief that one is capable of doing great things but prevented from doing great things by the static interruptions of a nonsensical world, burns just as passionately in the breasts of both groups, but the “more clever” are at least sometimes aware that their capacity for greatness is imaginary. Dostoevsky pulls in to focus on the Ivolgin siblings, Ganya and Varya, who are both “more clever” ordinary people, as if to demonstrate his thesis that the “more clever” are the less happy. What he does instead is to show that ordinary people can be written about in a way that is very interesting indeed.

I’m still not sure what Ganya and Varya are talking about when they allude to something about their scapegrace father that they would prefer to keep secret — I haven’t got that far — but the dread and regret in their conversation made the mystery almost as hair-raising as the one that opens Act II of Lohengrin.

There is a great deal in The Idiot that I find it hard to grasp — impossible to grasp, really, as fully as I grasp whatever Jane Austen has to say. Aglaya Ivanovna is evidently the child of cultural forces that have gone with the wind. I don’t know quite what it means to call Prince Myshkin an “idiot,” although sometimes it seems almost clearly to mean that he is some kind of holy fool. At others, he appears to be a troubled Candide. The minor characters are often so surprising that they’re almost implausible — I’m thinking of the boxer, Keller, who is not altogether the brute that he appears to be at first. (But who — in life — is altogether the person he appears to be at first?) Almost everyone appears to be slightly insane — suffering from false consciousness, no doubt. Lizaveta Prokofyevna’s relation to respectability is wildly unsteady, not because she does anything at all improper but because she admits to doubts that her English counterparts would suppress. On top of everything, there is a wild-west character that suggests a society coming into being, a patina of manners that is not very thick, but yet thick enough to interfere with everyone’s sense of what it means to be Russian.

I am not trying to understand this world. I am trying to understand the story, yes, but instead of treating The Idiot as, how shall I put it, a window on the Russian soul, I’m seeing it as a gallery of strange people. Strange, but not exotic: I’m not romanticizing the differences. When I read Dostoevsky in college, I thought that my failure to understand his characters signaled my own lack of sophistication; when I grew up, I thought, I would know better. Actually, I know less, because there is more to see when you stop awarding yourself a high handicap and stop permitting inexplicable behavior to pass unconsidered. I consider it, but I do not press to decipher it.


The clock ticks, as it were; the minutes pass. I want to get back to The Idiot, but I have to decide what to make for lunch first. I’m stuck in the apartment, waiting for handymen to come and fiddle with the valve at the back of the stove. I don’t really mind being stuck at home today; I was out a lot this week, and there is no reason to be out in the warm weather, no errands that need doing today. There is plenty to do here, although waiting is always enervating. At the same time, it woke me up well before eight o’clock. I had heard grumbling on the elevator about waiting for handymen who didn’t show up, so I didn’t hasten to make an appointment.

I went for an annual physical checkup the other day. The doctor, who is very conscientious, asked me how I was doing, and he listened to me for a reasonable amount of time before cutting me off to quiz me on medications. I hadn’t quite got to the point of what I was trying to say, which is that how I am doing is elderly and out of it. A lot of the “out of it” owes to not watching television. I know that I am not missing anything important (the sound of Kardashians?), but I also know that I am missing more and more of what people are talking about. In other words, I have lived too long. Please do not misunderstand that for a suicide note. Living too long is a condition like any other — like my fused spine, for example. You live with it; you adjust.

During the next two weeks, I shall be taking a vacation break. I won’t say more about it, because I’ve found that things that I look forward to have a way of not happening if I mention them here. I shall return on Tuesday, 14 June — assuming, of course, that I survive the vacation, which, given that air travel will be involved, is by no means certain to me.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Ladies First
May 2016 (III)

16, 17, 19, 20 May

Monday 16th

If you had asked me yesterday who Julius La Rosa was, I should have recognized the name but been unable to place it. A gangster? A restaurateur? A mayor of Newark? Today, I know, thanks to an obituary in the Times, that Julius La Rosa was a singer. I don’t remember any of his songs, but I feel that I can place him comfortably simply by reciting the fact, gleaned from the obituary, that he married Perry Como’s secretary.

More intriguing is the fuss that Robert McFadden, the Times writer, makes about Arthur Godfrey. The obituary is even subtitled, “Singer Who Found Success After a Public Firing.” We go back to a day in 1953. On his national live radio show, Arthur Godfrey had La Rosa sing something. Then he told his audience that it had just heard “Julie’s swan song.” Right there on live radio, he fired the guy. And not because La Rosa couldn’t sing. What interests me about this episode is its disinterment of Arthur Godfrey. Who was Arthur Godfrey? I can tell you one or two things that I remember. Arthur Godfrey was plump, saturnine man with a gentle sense of humor. He had a TV show when I was a little boy. I had forgotten the ukelele. Arthur Godfrey was just there, along with Art Linkletter and George Gobel and Dorothy Kilgallen.

I remember the morning after Dorothy Kilgallen died, reportedly from an overdose of “barbiturates.” It came on the news as I was in the carpool, going to Iona Grammar School. Except not. Kilgallen died during my freshman year at Notre Dame. That I did look up. What I probably remembered just now was listening to Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick in the car. (Woody Allen spoofed it in Radio Days). Dorothy Kilgallen was also one of the panelists on What’s My Line, the TV show on which fancy people like Kilgallen had to guess what ordinary people did for a living. When the contestant was a “mystery guest” — a celebrity, as we should say — the panelists donned little black masks to cover their eyes. I’d love to say that I’m recollecting all of this, but I’m cribbing from Wikipedia, because my memory is so unreliable, especially about these figures in the early landscape. I knew about them at the time, saw them and heard them, but I didn’t think much about them, and when I went to boarding school and lost access to regular doses of television, I began to forget about them.

I have not looked up Arthur Godfrey. I am going to treat this as a version of the “Orson Welles” problem that I mentioned in January. In the case of Orson Welles, I could remember a great deal about him, but not his name. I could have looked it up in an instant, but I waited it out. It took “more than a day” to remember. I don’t think that I’m going to fare as well with Arthur Godfrey. I know his name, and have a picture of him in my mind, and suspect that he hosted a variety show. Was he the one with the talent show? Who was the one with the talent show? Do you remember The Gong Show? I saw it once, maybe twice, and was glued to it by horror. Before I could see it a third time, it featured in an episode of the Carol Burnett show. Carol was playing Eunice, one of her stable of characters. Eunice was going to sing “Feelings” on The Gong Show. Or was it “Memories”? Vicki Lawrence played a cantankerous grandma in these skits, the very woman I’d have liked to see get the “Good Man Is Hard to Find” treatment. It occurs to me now that Eunice and her family were Trump supporters ante lettera.

In the opinion section of the Sunday Times, Neil Gross wrote a piece that asked “Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?” The answer, in a word or two, is “critical discourse.” In the pursuit of almost any advanced degree, students must master critical thinking, an approach that tests every assertion and accepts nothing as given. Once critical thinking becomes second nature, the critical thinker has a very hard time remembering how unnatural it is. It is easier, I think, to remember what it’s like to see the world as a child than it is to see the world without critical habits of mind. This obliviousness is what drives the rest of the world crazy. It isn’t that highly educated people think differently. It’s that they can’t imagine how to think otherwise. They equate “thinking otherwise” with “not thinking.” And this is insulting to ordinary people. Educated people ought to think differently; otherwise, what’s the use of education? And for that very reason, highly educated people ought to bear in mind that ordinary people do think normally. Neil Gross is almost elementary:

But Dr. Gouldner’s new-class theory should alert Democrats to a lurking danger. It is probably right that something like a culture of critical discourse can be found in the workplaces and households and in the publications read by Americans who have attended graduate or professional school. The challenge for the Democrats moving forward will be to develop appeals to voters that resonate not just with this important constituency, but also with other crucial groups in the Democratic coalition. Some of the draw of Donald Trump for white working-class male voters, for example, is that he does not speak in a culture of critical discourse. Indeed, he mocks that culture, tapping into class resentments.

The twist is that normal thinking involves placing a good deal of reliance on authorities. Normal people — people without advanced degrees — haven’t got the time to evaluate policies, and they know it. Nor have they undergone the really rather painful drilling that inculcates the habits of critical thinking — so lack of time is not the only problem. Normal people expect authorities to have the answers. But today’s élites, including the lot of highly educated people, are markedly anti-authoritarian. They neither recognize authorities as such nor occupy positions of authority with any comfort. (They recognize credentials, which is not always a good idea.) The highly educated critical thinker has a nagging sense of her own ignorance, in fact. Tapped for the answer to a question, she will begin with a self-deprecating formula. This drives normal people almost as crazy as the obliviousness does. If you’re not an authority, who the hell is? Didn’t you go to school, like, forever?

It would be fun to go through today’s paper with a fat wax pencil and circle all the instances in which highly-educated Times writers and quoted pundits declare that Donald Trump’s oratory is nonsense — by the standards of critical discourse. Even now, the professionals don’t get it. They can’t believe it. If Donald Trump is willing to present himself as an authority, then a mass of normal people, starved for this very quality, will support him. It’s as simple as that.

What isn’t simple is claiming authority with a critical mind. It’s an uncomfortable fit, as I said. Playing the authority, highly-educated people come across as scolds or snobs, because they are annoyed by being asked to be authoritative. There is also the aristocratic angle. Like the earliest feudal aristocrats, round about the time of Charlemagne, critical thinkers are trained to fight. They do so with arguments, not weapons, but they can be just as ferociously single-minded. Unlike aristocrats, they don’t pay lip-service to loyalty, but while this dispenses with a lot of malodorous hypocrisy, it does not assist the struggle, which is to provide normal people with the authorities they crave. If you and I are both highly-educated critical thinkers, and I set myself up as an authority for normal people, you may take issue with my claim. This is where Donald Trump has the advantage on me. He will not respond to your arguments with arguments. He will sneer, and call you a loser and an idiot. He’d call me one, too, except in this example he is taking my place.

Kathleen used to work on deals with a Bay Area woman who could discuss her own Republican Party loyalties with candor. Presented with an unattractive Republican Party candidate, she told Kathleen, she would just “hold her nose” and vote the party line. It has been interesting to watch Republican stalwarts, from Paul Ryan to “social conservatives” decide to do the same. Unfortunately (for people with my point of view), this gift for olfactory occlusion is not common among Democratic Party supporters, especially the highly-educated critical thinkers with so much to lose.

This is why, I think, I’m so drawn to the wish that highly-educated critical thinkers would resolve to set a good example to society at large. As it is, they set such a poor example that disaster would ensue if it were followed.


Over the weekend, I finished reading Maeve Brennan’s Herbert’s Retreat stories for the second time. I read the seven of them in the order in which they appear in The Rose, a book that collects several groups of Brennan’s stories. Every other Retreat story features Leona Harkey and her pet critic, Charles Runyon. Two of the remaining three provide comic relief from this gruesome pair. The story in the middle, “The Joker,” is as cruel as the others but also quite sad. Isobel Bailey may be just as fatuous as the other residents of the Retreat, but there is something sincere about her desire to be Lady Bountiful. Unlike the other women in the sequence, she is neither a harpy nor a gold-digger. As a result, “The Joker” is pathetic rather than comic. It is also closer to the New Yorker norm.

If these stories aren’t better known, one reason might be the frequency with which Brennan sings sharp rather than true. There is an extravagance that invokes the discomforts of science fiction. Do people really talk like this? Did they ever? When Brennan writes that the thirty-nine houses in Herbert’s Retreat are two hundred years old, or even older (or, at least, that some of them are), is she simply mistaken, or is she quoting the Retreat’s misleading publicity, as it were? The houses were built to look “two hundred years old,” certainly, but this is merely to say that they are much newer, and designed in the Colonial Revival style that took hold toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. An American house dating from the Seven Years’ War would be almost uninhabitably rudimentary. So it is, too, with the claim that only the Best People own the houses. You’ll have to take their word for it.

In the story that I wrote about on Friday, “The Anachronism,” the housemaid is English, but all the other maids in Herbert’s Retreat are Irish. Brennan was Irish herself, but not the same kind of Irish. Brennan was a new kind of Irish; the housemaids would have disapproved of her, if only because she went out for drinks with the men she worked with. Her lady-writer gig wouldn’t have cut the mustard, either. Brennan’s Irish housemaids seem more authentic to me than their employers do, but I grew up among the employers, and never really knew an Irish housemaid. So I tend to take Brennan’s word for the latter. It is typical of Brennan to emphasize the asymmetry between masters and servants, with the masters delusive about the admiring good will of the servants, who in fact loathe them.

Bridie (Charles liked to refer to her as ‘that splendid Irishwoman of Leona’s) clumped in with the tray. The glare of pure hatred that was her characteristic expression descended in full on Charles silky gray head, but he was indifferent and she was silent, respectfully handing him his orange juice, pouring his coffee and his hot milk [...], and departing. (“The Servants’ Dance”)

That sounds right, but how should I know?

Even John Cheever’s famous story, “The Enormous Radio,” is more realistic than the pure farce of “The Divine Fireplace.” Here we have four members of the ruling class and one Irish housemaid, and when the Irish housemaid says to herself, at the beginning of the story that she will narrate to a busful of fellow servants on their way to Mass,

There will be murder here today [...]. No, no, I’m wrong [...] — not murder today; the murder was last night.

you know she’s right, if you’ve read the story before. Perhaps there are no actual corpses in the house, but it is difficult to imagine the survival of any of the relationships. In the living room, a young woman wearing a rather insubstantial party dress is passed out on the sofa, while a raw steak curdles juicily in the middle of the carpet. In the kitchen, the stove has been yanked away from the wall, shorting out the entire house’s electricity, and a debris of brick and blaster clouds the air. Who knows where all the car keys are — the lady of the house took them into “safe keeping” at the end of the evening. We never hear much about that. Stasia’s narrative is cut short by the arrival at church, as Mr and Mrs Tillbright, Mrs Lamb and Miss Carter bear the steak away to the living room, where they propose to grill it over the fire. They are all very drunk. They have all said terrible things. Anyone who has ever awakened after too much partying with not enough recollection of the party will cringe horribly as Brennan’s merciless dance of death gets going. Mr Tillbright comes home two hours late with that young woman in her party dress. The young woman, having made a lot of catty remarks about life in the country, announces that she has to be at another party at eleven, and Mr Tillbright implausibly insists that he will drive her to it after dinner. Instead of making allies out of Mrs Tillbright and Mrs Lamb, who are dressed in relatively shapeless country outfits, Phoebe Carter seems to provide the perfect occasion for them to launch mutual insults. When Mrs Tillbright learns from Mrs Lamb, who was a good friend of the first Mrs Tillbright, that there used to be a fireplace in the kitchen, and that her husband never told her, she throws a tantrum. “I want that fireplace, and I want it now.” Really, it’s as though Captain Smith decided that he just had to have the iceberg.


Tuesday 17th

Why am I so bewildered by discrimination against women, by the notion that, when it comes to the things that men do well, and that are worth doing, women are lesser mortals? Why do these diminishing ideas strike me as ridiculous? I’m assuming that my own good sense hasn’t got much to do with it, because I’m actually a bit of a lunatic, and may not be doing women any favors by sitting here talking about them. I’m also assuming that it may have been the women in my life.

I was thinking about Sister Suzanne Kelly yesterday. Sister Suzanne taught History of Science at Notre Dame, and also moderated the Great Books seminars that took up the bulk of our time and attention in what was then called the General Program of Liberal Studies (“GP”). Sister Suzanne was a remarkable woman, working in a remarkable moment. The moment proved to be transitory, or at least premature: Sister Suzanne was not the harbinger of gender equality (or normality) within the Roman Catholic Church. So far as that was concerned, she beat a path to a dead end. But we did not know that at the time.

Sister Suzanne was a nun, a “splinter Benedictine” I think we used to say. She was one of a handful of highly-educated nuns who left not so much the cloister as the habit. They did not cover their hair; Sister Suzanne’s was dressed in the common mid-Sixties style to which the Queen of England has hung on all these years. They did wear black and white, but their white blouses had short sleeves. They wore low pumps — well, Sister Suzanne did. I don’t know how to convey how amazing this was. Sister Suzanne could be mistaken for an ordinary woman! Until you entered into discussion with her, that is, and discovered that she was a lot smarter than you were, and not shy about it, either.

I ought to add, I suppose, that Sister Suzanne was rather pretty. Perhaps “handsome” is the word. The point is that she was good-looking, and not at all plain. You never suspected for a second that her vocation might be rooted in unattractiveness.

Sister Suzanne had a favorite word, “weasel.” She used it to describe tendentious, flimsy, or spurious arguments, and she directed it quite often at me. “That’s a weasel term,” she would say, as though it were her job to point out when people farted. It was certainly as clear to me as it was to her that the charge was deserved. At that stage, I was like a lawyer who will say anything on behalf of his client, and rely on the judge to assess its validity. Sister Suzanne’s impatience with weaseling may, I’ll concede, have been a tad womanly. Women have good reason to find wearisome the mere cleverness of male show-offs. Over time, I’ve come to feel the same way.

I knew that Sister Suzanne was exceptional. But then, I was exceptional, too. Most of us were, in those classrooms. The fact that Sister Suzanne was a woman was, I’m afraid to say, remarkable. But it was not distinctive. Those of us with ears to hear came away from our classes with her with the sense that there was no positive difference between the thinking of a man and the thinking of a woman. The sexes might have different weaknesses, but their strengths could be matched.

Mine was an extraordinary experience; most students at Notre Dame never came across anyone like Sister Suzanne.

Was Sister Suzanne Kelly a feminist? That’s a tough question at the best of times, but I think that I should have to say “no.” I say that because I believe that feminism has to accommodate motherhood. Regardless of her costume, Sister Suzanne led a celibate life, and did not have to juggle the balls of home, family, and career. All she had to worry about was her career, just like a man.


The Book Review this weekend seemed to be full of books about women, but the Table of Contents mentions only three. There are books about particular women (Teffi, Frances Stroh), and a book on sex in Shakespeare that seems to be about spanking, but I’m not thinking of them. I’m thinking of these:

  • Little Labors, by Rivka Galchen; reviewed by Sarah Ruhl.
  • How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices, by Therese Huston; reviewed by Sheela Kolhatkar.
  • We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler; reviewed by Laurie Penny.

Kolhatkar writes,

There’s an enormous double standard when it comes to how men and women are perceived as decision-makers, and those differences can hamper much more than a woman’s career. One obstacle is the perception that women are indecisive, encumbered by their need to build consensus, weighed down by a lack of self-confidence and an inability to handle stress. The fact that Huston’s book even exists reinforces this point. Imagine, for a moment, an alternative universe in which it was felt necessary to publish a book called “How Men Decide” that dissected the male decision-making process. The very idea is laughable. Everyone knows that men simply stride onto the battlefield, survey the landscape and charge. Even if they flame out, they usually get credit for trying.

Not too long ago, I read a book that provoked some thoughts about “dithering” that are highly germane to the issue of how women decide, and I refer the indulgent reader to them here. (Search the page for “Ridley.”) Having just read what I wrote about Elizabeth I in January, it seems even more pungent in the context of Sister Suzanne and the three books that I’ve mentioned. My idea is that the first thing necessary in an evaluation of decision-making by women is to clear away the encrusted crap of masculine weaseling.

My second idea is to consider how long it has been since the world of modern decision-making came into existence. Not very long — no longer, in fact, than the professional classes, mentioned yesterday in connection with Neil Gross’s piece in the Sunday Times, have been around.

As Gross writes, the modern professional classes were developed to handle the affairs of rich people, and to handle them with discretion. That is, the professional man combined expertise in a given field with the ability to put himself in the place of the man who hired him, and to make decisions that bound that man. Prior to this development, rich people had to make their own decisions. They did, mostly, what other rich people did. Since the number of rich people was almost as limited as the number of investment opportunities, wealth management was not very complicated. The Industrial Revolution changed all that, especially when it began to produce very wealthy heirs who, unlike warlike aristocrats and agrarian country squires, might very well have grown up without an inkling about the source of their wealth. The professional’s ability to put himself in the place of a rich person was held to warrant the professional’s high fees.

Let’s say, then, that professional groups as we know them date to the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Their roots run further back, but not by more than a few decades. By 1900, professionals were in place. Now let’s make something else perfectly clear: for the purposes of this discussion, a professional is someone who brings nothing but professional training to the table. Insofar as a professional is independently wealthy, he is outside the scope of the argument. This is a very important point, because it is intertwined with the history of ownership. As a general rule, married women (in the West) could not own property until the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Men owned almost everything. Ownership obviously conveys a very real power. The power of professional training is a good deal more tentative. Owners of some kind or another must be impressed by a professional’s skills and reputation before delegating responsibility to him. And if men are the owners, they will be inclined to favor male professionals. But this prejudice was contested almost from the beginning of the professional class. Women might have understood why they did not own things — that was the way things had always been. But this professional thing was new, and women proved unwilling to sit by while men claimed, in effect, to be more proficient at professional training. If there was one thing that smart women knew for a certainty circa 1900, it was that they were better students.

This sketch of historical developments is intended primarily to demolish any traditionalist defense of the superiority of male decision-making. Until 1900 (say), the right to make decisions at all was limited to property owners. Such tradition of decision-making as there was was carried forward by the tiny population of owners. Most men did not make decisions; on the contrary, they seemed prone to beating their wives. The fact is that we do not have a long record of professional decision-make to examine. Men have not, in fact, established themselves as default decision-makers. I don’t think that a book about how men decide would be laughable at all. As Kolhatkar states, “…the evidence shows that groups come to better conclusions when there are more women involved.” Does it? I hope that Huston’s book shows that it does. And let us not forget that the ability to make good decisions is not at all the same thing as appearing to be “decisive.” The very usage is ridiculous. Reducing decision-making to a habitual character trait makes it sound like a tic.

When my distant cousin, the late Alicia Gallagher, graduated from Columbia Law School and began looking for a job, she was rebuffed by all the prominent Wall Street firms. Why? At that time (the Forties), even the secretaries at those law firms were men, and the firms did not maintain toilets for women. Now that’s masculine decision-making!


Enough of all that. I want to say a word about Gambit, the 1966 Ronald Neame caper comedy starring Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, and Herbert Lom. Kathleen and I watched it on Friday night. I was reminded of it by something the Alan-Alda lookalike said at the cocktail party last Wednesday. He wondered aloud if he had ever re-read a book. Ever. Part of me was aghast, but I was able to keep that reaction to myself because I know that it is not uncommon among readers. (Which is another way of lamenting that most people don’t read books at all.) I thought of the related challenge, encountered occasionally at Facebook, to name films that you would consider watching again. In all fairness, the quality of the books and films that most people read and see is pretty low; it takes some education to read the kind of books that are worth re-reading. I don’t know what to say about Hitchcock, who pointedly made films to be seen the second time — I always think of Hitchcock as a popular film-maker. I usually mention his films when the subject of watching movies multiple times comes up. But Gambit is an even better example of the rewards of the second look.

There are good things to say about Gambit. It ought to be required viewing for all would-be entrepreneurs and prospective criminals. It is an object lesson in the fat-headedness of disparaging feminine decision-making. Most of all, though, it’s hilariously funny, and much funnier the second time. The story is divided into two parts, which might be called “dream” and “reality.” In the dream, a smooth customer called Harry Deane (Michael Caine) proposes a caper to a showgirl called Nicole Chang (Shirley MacLaine), the object of which is to distract an immensely wealthy sheikh (Herbert Lom). The dream also tells us something that Harry does not tell Nicole: the purpose of this distraction is to make it possible for Harry to steal a priceless portrait bust. Framed by shots of Harry and Nicole in a Hong Kong cabaret, in which Nicole says nothing, the dream also features a silent MacLaine. She is, all things considered, very good at shutting up. She snakes through the dream like a goddess, the perfect helpmeet. In the dream, everything ticks along perfectly, the obstacles to success little more than toy hurdles.

Reality takes over when Nicole opens her mouth in the Hong Kong cabaret. She is no goddess. She’s a working girl with an inquiring mind, and she wonders if Harry isn’t a crook. By the time they reach Dammuz, where the sheikh and his portrait bust are to be found, Harry is sick and tired of Nicole. At the same time, from the very moment of arrival, it is clear that things have changed since Harry — now “Sir Harold” — formulated his plans. There is no representative of the hotel to greet him. No Rolls-Royce to ferry him. No respect at all, title notwithstanding. When Nicole offers helpful suggestions (sometimes peppered with a dash of mockery), you can seem Harry straining to resist the urge to twist her head off. Because the dream was such smooth sailing, the discomfort of reality is very funny.

But what’s really funny is watching the dream the second time, knowing how things are going to work out in reality. The dream becomes astonishingly mendacious, like an advertisement for, say, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, to refer to another movie. Harry and Nicole seem to be campiing their way through a silly silent movie. The elegance that was so impressive the first time round is now clearly sham, mere tinsel. And the sheikh (in the dream), with his fez and his monocle and his dinner suit — pricelessly wrong. The second time round, the dream isn’t impressive, as it was the first, but dim-witted. And it, too, is very funny. This time, you’re laughing at Harry from the start.

Oh, the look that Shirley MacLaine puts on Nicole’s face when it dawns on her that Harry intends to try to steal the portrait bust! She looks fit to burst! Her explosion involves only the smallest muscles. She — cannot speak.

At the end, Nicole, no longer pretending to be Lady Dean, remains silent throughout an entire scene. Or nearly: at the end, she says, “Thank you.” It is quite elegant. You don’t have to be watching Gambit the second time to notice that.


Thursday 18th

For about twenty years, I’ve been arguing that the Democratic Party ought to have folded its tent and retired from the scene in the late Sixties, once it had completed its projected reversal of federally-sanctioned unequal citizenship for black Americans, largely in the South. I had the impression that the party had lost its way after that victory. But I hadn’t much of an argument. An image, nursed, for all I know, in my ignorance, came to stand in the place of argument. I had this notion that mother octopuses, having raised their brood to autonomy, simply perish of exhaustion, quietly ceasing to tax their environment. However misinformed the image, it was a terrible substitute for the clear answer to the question why? that my assertion prompted. Only yesterday, as the racket made by the chairs that Bernie Sanders’s supporters threw in protest echoed in my head, did what I ought always to have gone on to say become clear.

Throwing chairs — did that really happen? Rather timidly, I searched for a You Tube clip, but stopped almost immediately, satisfied with this snip from another Times story.

But the state convention, held at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel, deteriorated into chaos after nearly 60 of Mr. Sanders’s potential delegates were deemed ineligible amid a dispute over the rules. The convention concluded abruptly after security staff no longer felt it could ensure the safety of the participants, many of whom were yelling and throwing things.

That will do. Now, please don’t think that I’m refreshing my call for an end to the Democratic Party because of hooliganism. I’m not sure that the story itself has any direct bearing on what went on in my mind. It clearly served a catalytic function, though. When the racket stopped, I understood, for the first time, that the campaign for civil rights was, for the Democratic Party, a suicide mission. The suicide was at least partially successful: the party lost one of its two principal voting blocs, that of white Southerners. Almost immediately, the Nixonian “Southern Strategy” held out a net for voters who felt that their interests had been betrayed by the party to which they had been loyal for a century or more.

Now the suicide was completed by the emergence of genuinely left-wing policies in the Democratic Party program. To pick a relatively mild one, Eugene McCarthy proposed, in his 1972 presidential bid, to impose 100% estate taxes. You have to remember that there was a lot of chair-throwing in those days, or at least the expectation of it. Bombs went off; an armored car was held up, not by common criminals, but by political terrorists. This leftism repelled the other great Democratic-Party voting black, blue-collar labor. Labor was increasingly unprotected by union negotiation, and workers came to share the Southerners’ sense of betrayal.

When Bill Clinton won in 1992 — with a lot of inadvertent help from Ross Perot — he ran as a Third Way candidate. It is a pity that this Third Way never became a party, neither here nor in Britain. Roy Jenkins’s hopes for a third-way party were dashed by the trumpery of the Falklands War — very unfortunate timing. After that, liberal progressives like Clinton and Blair resolved to work within the frame of the established parties of the left, which necessarily made them look like connivers and hypocritices. They weren’t Democratic (much less Labour) so much as they were kinder, gentler exemplars of good old Rockefeller Republicanism. But their party machinery — and this is what truly ought to have come to an end in the Sixties — demanded ritual gestures that repelled moderate conservatives.

The Democratic Party has limped along, trying to present itself as benevolently egalitarian while staggering under the burden of association with “big government.” This has worked far better in presidential campaigns than it has in congressional races. People vote for presidents with their hopes, but for their legislators with their pocket books. Now the Republicans are in a position, as Jon Stewart pointed out the other day, to complain about an incapable government that they themselves have hobbled. Voters seem disinclined to force Republicans to “own” the conditions that they have brought about; incapable government still seems like a Democratic Party failing. With her mandarin backbone, Hillary Clinton seems fated to prefigure an inexorable bureaucracy that, if it were actually to function properly, would be monstrously effective. Talk about bad timing.


Last week, I wrote about the terrifying scenario behind the movie Kingsman, and I thought that I exhausted the usefulness of the reference when I suggested that the free Internet access offered in the film had the same pernicious effect upon social responsibility as the reduction of politics to a form of mass entertainment. But there remains something deeper to be mined, something even more disturbing. It has been noted since the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, but instead of being questioned and discussed since then, it has quietly come to be taken for granted. But it was a little thing, a matter of interest, in 1960. It is now unimaginably more.

Pundits are not the only ones to complain about the absence of traditional authority in “today’s world.” I’m not sure that I’ve ever complained about it, but I’ve expressed a good deal of anxiety about the nature of an inevitable replacement. What would take the place of the authority that was founded on the now hopelessly corroded foundation of religious patriarchy? All the time, it was right there in front of me. Except it wasn’t, because I so rarely turned it on. The TV screen is our authority, and the cameraman the god who makes sense of everything.

I wrote a paragraph or two about this two years ago, but I see that I was very discreet about sources, so much so that the inference might have been drawn that I had been inside Madison Square Garden, which I haven’t, ever. It was Kathleen. She attended, for business reasons, a Knicks game at the Garden. Her party occupied a skybox, so she was relatively comfortable. But she was a bit disconcerted to find that everyone, not just everyone in the box but everyone in the arena, was watching a screen. The game was proceeding on the court, but hardly anybody seemed to be looking in that direction. From the regular seats, eyes seemed to be fixed on the JumboTrons suspended over the players. In the skybox, all eyes were fixed on one of the many smaller screens mounted in every direction. Kathleen had the sense that they all might as well have been in a windowless basement room.

In that case, of course, they’d have missed the cheering, and the cheering is a vital part of the game. But watching the game appears not to be vital. Why? My theory is that we have developed a reflexive preference for the mediatized image. This is not because we’re boobies. It’s because the mediatized image is the work of expert cameramen. These professionals, as athletically deft as the players they follow, know where to look. They know where things are going to happen. They cut out the inconsequential action. They present clear and compelling images of the game.

It is the display of these images on a multitude of screens that converts what the cameraman sees into something as close as we’re likely to get to objective reality — what really happened. And not only that, but also the relative importance of everything that did happen. Fans in the seats are in constant view, but because the camera is following the players and not lingering on the fans, it is difficult to maintain a sense that every fan is a man or a woman with a private life — who in hell cares about the fans! (But let them keep cheering.) Referees are something else. They, too, tend toward fanlike immobility, or at least they move slowly. But the camera looks at them. The mere shift of the camera’s gaze from herds of running men to a figure standing still, but now up close and in focus, signals trouble. We have learned to interpret the work of the cameraman at lightning speed.

It is not that nothing is real until it has been seen. Rather, nothing is real until it has been registered and implicitly approved by a cameraman (and by the producer who cuts to his camera) and then fed to a world of screens. Nothing is real that cannot be seen by everyone at the same time.

Will it make a difference now that everyone can watch the same YouTube clip any old time? I wonder — I really do. Ought we to worry a tad less because our great common mediatized experience is a football game, larded with commercials, and not a political event? Against that, how worrisome is it that an entertainment heavyweight can send ratings soaring by participating in a presidential debate, even though he is a political clown? (In my view, any political event is subverted by mediatized presentation.)

A person comes upon a newsworthy disturbance that is already being captured by a cameraman. This person immediately pulls a smartphone from a pocket or a handbag and locates the broadcast in a browser. Following my argument, we can say that the person is now — only now — in touch with reality. Can it also be said that the person is protected from the disturbance by the mediatized image on the connected phone? Feels protected? If you watch something on TV, are you implying that this is not happening to you?

Television makes it possible for all of us to see things from the same point of view, something physically impossible in the real world. It is the cameraman’s point of view, infinitely distributed. But it comes at the cost of actually seeing things. Sometimes, it is not important to be there in person. Much of what appears on television is utterly trivial. Sometimes — in scientific contexts, I surmise — it might be very useful to share a single image. But I believe that it is harmful to homogenize our experience of importance, and I insist that it is mistaken to wait to be told what is important until it appears on a screen.


I have read the Gospel of Mark, in the translation of Richmond Lattimore. Lattimore, who died in 1984, was an eminent translator of Homer, but he began translating the New Testament (beginning with Revelation) in the course of teaching Beginning Greek. I am reading the Gospels (and perhaps the rest of the New Testament as well) as a simple matter of cultural literacy. Raised Roman Catholic, I had no direct experience of Scripture until I went off to a Presbyterian boarding school. Sporadic attempts to familiarize myself with it were blocked by the tediousness of translations. I read the Book of Esther in the Authorized Version, and notwithstanding the occasional lambent passage I had no idea what was going on. Ten or fifteen years ago, I came upon the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, in the Jewish Publication Society’s edition. My eyes were opened. The language of the translation was supple but grave, clear but not simple-minded. Looking for the same sort of thing in the Testament that we cannot expect from the JPS, I settled on Lattimore and J B Phillips. I read a page or two of Phillips, and liked it, but I turned to Lattimore because he begins with Mark, now understood to be the first evangelist.

I read Mark in two comfortable sittings. I’m inclined to say that it is a short, simple narrative, but many of the simplicities go unexplained. Why does Mark attend to Jesus’s missionary itinerary in such detail? The impression of constant recrossings of the Sea of Galilee is curious. I also hoped for some explanation of a recurring dual phenomenon: Jesus asks or warns those whom he has helped not to say anything about him, and yet they all do. Jesus is vexed by the size of the crowds that follow him about. Another recurring vexation is “this generation” — “this adulterous and sinful generation.” This is also curious.

At roughly the halfway point, Jesus announces that “the son of man,” meaning himself, “must suffer much.” He would also “rise up after three days.” Instead of a discussion, there is the Transfiguration. I had always wondered where that fit in. In the eleventh chapter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and visits the temple, upsetting the moneychangers. In the twelfth chapter, he has a confrontation of sorts with the religious authorities. The tonal shift is complete: what began as a sunny “road” narrative has become menacingly dark, with miraculous highlights. Instead of healing the sick, Jesus makes predictions about the End Times. But he never speaks of himself as God, or as the son of God. And when God calls Jesus the son in whom he is pleased (as after the baptism in the Jordan, for example), he is clearly using the word in its Mediterranean sense, where sons are anybody who will listen to an old man.

In the fourteenth chapter, the Last Supper is reported, and then the night in the Garden of Gethsemane; most of the Passion is contained in the following chapter. Everything seems to be there, from the cock crowing three times to the split in the Temple veil, but the pace is brisk, as if a student were struggling to make all the necessary points in a short space of time. In the sixteenth and final chapter, more than half of which (according to Lattimore) appears to be a later addition, the Resurrection is not witnessed; the tomb is already empty. And it is only the two Marys (neither of them Jesus’s mother) who visit. They are told by a young man in a white garment that Jesus has already gone. He then directs them to tell Peter and the others. And that is that.

Matthew and Luke, I understand, adapted Mark and enlarged upon it. Mark begins with Jesus’s baptism — there’s not a word about his birth or childhood. For those, we must look to the next two Gospels.


Friday 20th

Friday already! Once again, the week has zipped by. The most memorable event was a problem with the hot water on Tuesday night that had me worrying how long it would last. A couple of hours turned out to be the answer. I spent those hours in a puddle of anxiety, dwelling on decline and fall. Almost as memorable: the following night, Kathleen bought some airline tickets, so now we’re going to spend a long weekend in San Francisco next month. We can’t wait to see our grandson, who is now taller than an emperor penguin — I read Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker piece about Antarctica yesterday — and who therefore doesn’t seem very tall to me. I am hoping that he will say something outrageous. Grandparent-grandchild privilege prevents my giving examples, but I tell everyone that I get my personality from him. I almost believe this myself.

But when I look over the week’s entry, Monday and Arthur Godfrey seem very distant. Surely it cannot have been this past Tuesday that I wrote about Sister Suzanne Kelly! Even yesterday’s topics feel remote. Perhaps Antarctica had something to do with it. The piece will be of interest to anyone who was engrossed by The Corrections. Alongside his trademark sourpuss travelogue, Franzen tells us how he came to treat himself to an expensive Lindblad cruise. He came into some money when his godfather died. His godfather was his father’s sister’s husband, and Franzen came to be very fond of him. Uncle Walt’s is a lovely story, and I have no intention of spoiling it. But: Aunt Irma was a piece of work. The second time that Franzen mentioned Aunt Irma’s penchant for formal furniture, I registered a connection to Enid Lambert. I seem to recall that Franzen insisted, when his novel came out, that The Corrections was not “autobiographical,” and I came to agree, on the strength of his nonfiction autobiographical sketches. But the extremely vivid portraits of Enid and Alfred Lambert are written with a child’s mercilessness. I now suspect that Franzen harnessed that mercilessness to a novelist’s imagination and spun the figure of Enid from his Aunt Irma. He never suggests having done so in the Antarctica piece. It’s just a hunch. But I shall definitely clip the piece out of the magazine and tuck it into my copy of The Corrections.

Then there is The Idiot. I raced through Part I, thrilled by its Figaro-like massings of characters, all set in one very long day, but could hardly drag myself through the early chapters of Part II. The two big scenes, first on the terrace of Lebedev’s dacha in Pavlovsk, and then in the Epanchin’s dacha, bewildered me; I’m surely not the only reader to find that Prince Myshkin is the only one of Dostoevsky’s characters in this book who is not an idiot. Now that I’ve passed into Part III, and a duel may be in the offing, I’m beginning to feel like one of the inmates. Is Aglaya in love with the Prince? Is the Prince in love with Nastasya Filippovna? Is Nastasya Filippovna insane? By the way, I learned what a fool I’ve been making of myself, ever since I began reading Russian novels. I’ve been stressing the wrong syllable of feminine patronyms. Perhaps because of my recent frolics in Italian (see “sdrucciolo”), I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong when it occurred to me to compare how I said Ardolionovich with how I said Ardolionovna. That didn’t make sense, and, to be sure, I was wrong to say the latter. But Ardolionovna is hard to say; it pushes the ‘v’ and the ‘n’ too close for the comfort of my Anglophone tongue.

Because I was reading The Idiot, I pulled out Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift To Revolution 1825-1917, which I came across while reshelving some history books. Reading both at the same time might have been a good idea, but it certainly made for a depressing experience. I almost miss the Soviet days, for it was possible then to believe that Russia was growing in a new direction. I did not, in fact, believe this, but the possibility was comforting. Now we might as well be back to the days of Alexander II or Alexander III. The communist experiment has been set aside. Did I mention that Crankshaw’s Shadow prompted me to resume a book that I put down months and months ago, Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life? Sperber keeps saying that Marx is brilliant, but I see only a quarrelsome bookworm. I just had a look at the opening passage of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. I always wondered what this title could possibly mean, since 18 Brumaire VIII (9 November 1799) was the date of Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup. The solution to the puzzle is contained in Marx’s second sentence.

Hegel says somewhere that all great historic facts and personages recur twice. He forgot to add: “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.”

Ah. I considered buying the book, but I’m not sure that it is a book, since even the first page is littered with analphabetisms redolent of very cheap Kindle editions. Marx’s brilliance seems limited to sarcasm. He reminds me of Robert Moses, who built highways (some ruinous) without ever learning to drive.

As Chou En-lai said (and I like to put his name in Wade-Giles when I repeat this), It’s too early to tell. “Capitalism” remains an unknown quantity. It is the kind of poorly-defined term that everyone is sure of understanding. Today, it means “big corporations.” But it no longer conjures images of steel mills and automobile factories. For one thing, those factories that haven’t closed down altogether have gotten a lot smaller. And many big corporations, no matter how many “knowledge workers” are on their payrolls, don’t employ many workers. In this, capitalism has reverted to its pre-Industrial-Revolution profile, before the invention of “capitalism” as a term. In those days, it meant amassing enough money to buy low and sell high. Capitalists didn’t manufacture anything — they contracted out. Aristocrats didn’t grow their own food or shepherd their own flocks; they simply rented out their landholdings. The curious thing about the Industrial Revolution is not that it was made possible by capitalism, but that it transformed capitalism, by raising the amounts invested and the risks of failure to unimaginable levels. When people talk about the roller-coaster dynamics of capitalism, they are talking about the disasters of nineteenth-century experiments with credit. (I’ve always regarded what happened in 1929 as a crisis of consumerism.)

Has capitalism degraded the environment? I find it sloppy to think so. Mass consumption is the culprit: mass consumption has produced massive exhaust. I do not see a connection between commercial banking and the blight of plastic bags. You can work one out, but it will bypass the actual culprits: thoughtless ordinary individuals. Is capitalism responsible for income inequality? Certainly not. Today’s income inequality is the direct result of élitist amorality. You can see it in the upwardly-shooting multiple that ties rank-and-file pay to executive compensation. (“Compensation”! For what?) When I was a boy, the chairman of AT&T lived in a sober house around the corner, on a quarter acre just like everybody else. I’m not saying that he wasn’t “wealthy,” but wealth carried far fewer zeroes in those days. Tax laws and other regulations had nothing to do with the subsequent change in climate.

And yet I do believe that, in most sectors, capitalism has had its day. The only way to prevent the predations of private-equity firms is to eliminate the profit, the rente, the return on investment. I’m not saying that enterprises oughtn’t to “make money”; but the money left over, when all the bills have been paid and, yes, the managers handsomely paid, ought to be treated as capital, not profit. It belongs to the enterprise, not to investors. Obviously, you need investors to get things going. But when growth levels off, then it’s time to exchange equity for debt, and then to pay off the debt and be done with it. No large enterprise ought to be in the business of enriching investors. It doesn’t work.

That’s to say that it doesn’t work for anyone but the investors. It doesn’t work for workers, or for the towns that workers live in. It doesn’t do anything for customers, either. An enterprise ought to be in the business of providing goods and services that customers want while adapting these goods and services as needed with a view to stabilizing the lives of workers. Business enterprises know best how to train and retrain their workers, and they know best how to conduct research into product and service development. Investors’ demands for higher returns, at the expense of this training and research, is a horrible, even damnable distraction. When you get down to it, investors are business pollution.

So how is a rentier to make any money while eating bonbons on his chaise longue? There used to be something called “clipping coupons.” Bonds. Debt. When you buy a bond, you are guaranteed a return, in the form of an interest payment, for your investment, which is called a loan. That’s where your engagement with the issuer stops. So long as the interest is paid, you have nothing to say. It is not very exciting, and that is a very good thing. Rentiers who crave excitement can always invest with venture capitalists.


This evening, we are hoping to catch up with old friends whom I haven’t seen in ages. Originally, of course, I was going to serve a nice dinner. As recently as last week, I was still planning to cook, notwithstanding the lack of a proper stove. But in the course of fixing breakfast over the weekend, I learned that there is still much to learn about operating electric appliances in a kitchen not wired for the purpose. I didn’t throw any circuit breakers, I’m happy to say, but that may have been thanks to surge protectors, which did shut off when I tried to do two things at the same time. I may have four appliances — a kettle, a hotplate, a frypan, and a convection over — but as a rule I can use only one at a time. If the gas is out for a long time (as I expect it to be), I shall gradually develop an expertise of workarounds. But gradually, and certainly not by tonight. So we’ll go out.

Since I won’t be doing the ironing, we won’t be watching a movie. But we watched one the other night. Passing by the Video Room on Wednesday, I stopped in and rented Joy. David O Russell’s latest movie features some principal members of the little rep company that he has been building up since Silver Linings Playbook. In American Hustle, these actors, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert de Niro, were united with two of the stars of The Fighter, Christian Bale and Amy Adams, and it’s interesting to think of The Fighter, because, as in Joy, parents can be the source of the worst career advice. I wanted to smash de Niro’s head in for his shambling, Teflon apologies to his daughter, Lawrence, pretty much as I had wanted to shoot Melissa Leo.

Joy is an interesting blend of realism and kabuki. The performances — the ways in which the characters speak and move — is realistic, but the set-ups are very stylized, so that scenes that seem natural on the surface are inflected with ritual power. Characters encounter and confront each other. They brandish arguments instead of swords, but they are framed in a formal manner. A clear example is the graveyard scene. When Joy, flush with newfound success at QVC but devastated by her grandmother’s death, sits down next to her father, he mumbles about some business trouble that she’s facing, and how he has attempted to “help her out.” What he has done is to send Joy’s resentful half-sister, Peggy, to deal with the problem, something that Joy knows Peggy will screw up. And voilà, Peggy (Elisabeth Rohm, also a member of the rep company) arrives in a taxi, straight from the airport, dressed in black but carrying a wildly blue suitcase. Peggy takes a seat on the other side of the grave and stares at Joy with mindless defiance. Was Russell thinking of Kurosawa? The ensuing argument takes place in Joy’s living room, where it belongs, but its initiation in a scene of actual ritual fuels the rest of the film — the dénouement to which it directly grinds. If we didn’t know going in that things are going to work out for Joy — Joy Mangano, the true-life inventor whose story Joy adapts, was an executive producer of the film — we’d never make it to the end.

Watching Lawrence play the scene in which Joy introduces her fantastic mop to QVC viewers is an experience of great cinema. At first, Joy is abashed; as she was warned, the lights are very bright, and she can barely move. Her Pygmalion, played by Bradley Cooper, is losing it — he has given Joy’s mop a second chance and it is sinking! The situation is saved by “a call.” A viewer calls and is put on the air, to talk with the person selling the product (who might be Joan Rivers — played by her daughter!). This caller is in fact Joy’s oldest friend (Dascha Polanco); we’re not told if the maneuver was preconcerted by the two women or a desperate save by the friend. Anyhow, it works. Joy perks up, slowly at first. As she finds her rhythm and gets into the shtick (and the orders start pouring in), Lawrence shows us that some things are better than sex. She is mesmerizing. It’s like watching a horse nose its way to the front near the finish line. Russell is very good at getting you to root for his characters, but Joy isn’t fighting anyone but herself. She’s fighting her doubts and what she has internalized of her sister’s doubts and her father’s doubts and her father’s girlfriend’s doubts. (The girlfriend is played, with indie bravado, by Isabella Rossellini. She is all kabuki.) Joy is fighting the natural instinct to cut and run. You know just how she feels. You know as if it were you, standing on the stage. And you’re as thrilled as she is.

I must mention two other performances. Diane Ladd is superb as the grandmother, and I apologize to her for thinking that she was dead just because she wasn’t there at the Oscars last year to stand with Bruce and Laura on the red carpet. I guess it’s a case of old-fashioned divorce. There is nothing remarkable about a superb performance by Diane Ladd, except, of course, the performance. The other delight was Virginia Madsen, who was truly wonderful as Joy’s dotty, self-absorbed mother. She exemplifies the movie itself: the weird strangeness of banal people.

How can I buy one of those mops?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Fatal Addiction
May 2016 (II)

9, 10, 12, 13 May

Monday 9th

For a few months, my reading has been either serious (The Idiot, Wallace Stevens’s longer poems) or demanding (Natalia Ginzburg’s delightful Sagittario — but in Italian, and without a translation) or both. The other night, at the point of going to bed, I found that I had nothing to read, nothing that I could bear to read. Everything in the pile or on the Kindle was at the same time stimulating and exhausting. My mind churning, I would have to put down whatever I was reading because I couldn’t take any more. Thought provocation was killing me.

I’ve had a rough time getting to sleep lately. Sometimes, Lunesta doesn’t seem to work; either I’ve taken it soon, and the effect has worn off before I’ve climbed into bed, or I’ve ingested something incompatible, such as a chocolate or a cold remedy. Sometimes, I’ve forgotten to take the pill actually; I’ve set it out and then assumed that I’ve swallowed it, only to find it on the nightstand hours later. On Saturday night, I had taken the pill and wanted to go to bed, but I had nothing to read, and the idea of having nothing to read was terrifying. So I sat in my reading chair and let my mind wander. This is something that I have been doing too often, but only after an hour of bedridden sleeplessness. I thought, on Saturday night, that I would do my sitting-in-the-dark before I got into bed. It turned out to be a not-bad idea. I wondered, briefly, if more structured meditations might be helpful.

Meditation is the only thing that makes sense of my first idea of better bedtime reading material: I wondered if reading the Gospels would be good. I’ve been meaning to read the Gospels for some time, but only if I could find a literate translation. The Authorized Version is more about King James’s secretaries and the glories of the English language than it is about Jesus, and modern translations are pap. I wanted something that would bear comparison with the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament). I had asked one or two friends, but I’d drawn blanks. Last night, I had the brilliant (!) idea of scrolling through Amazon, where, indeed, I found not one but two candidates, and bought them both: renditions, in chapters but without verses, by J B Phillips and Richmond Lattimore. I was able to “look inside” both books, and was electrified to read, in the Phillips, which begins with Matthew, the exhortation of John the Baptist: “You must change your hearts and minds!” I was very sorry not to have a German New Testament, to see how close Luther’s translation was to Rilke’s “Du musst dein Leben ändern.”

But I wanted to read the Gospels in book form, not on the Kindle, and now that I had them (or should have them in a day or two), I realized that they would not make very good bedtime reading, not, in any case, night after night. A new idea appeared, rather blasphemously in juxtaposition: funny. I needed light reading. How about another Penelope Lively, I wondered, leaning over the chair in front of the small wire bookcase in the bedroom in which all of Lively’s novels are lined up. Hmm — Lively is sparkling, but not funny; and her stories certainly have their harrowing moments. My eye wandered a bit, and settled on a thick book, lying on its side: an omnibus volume, the compleat collection. Really, I thought, as if on a dare. I had to pull out four books that were lying atop it, and when I extracted it, I had to keep the row of upright Livelys from tumbling into its space before I could replace the others. I sat down in my chair and opened the book, leafing page by page to the start of — could this work? — E F Benson’s Queen Lucia.

I have not read the Lucia books — or, as they’re better known now that they have been dramatized a couple of times, the Mapp and Lucia books — since the tome in my lap was published, in 1977. I went on to read a lot of other Benson, and then a biography of the writer (and his seemingly all-gay family); then came Geraldine McEwan and Prunella Scales (and Nigel Hawthorne) to sing their way through Donald McWhinnie’s gorgeously costumed production. The idea of re-reading the Lucia books seemed merely laborious. My favorite line appeared very early, on the third page of the omnibus text. Here it is, at the end of a description of the “famous smoking parlor” in Lucia’s Riseholme cottage:

with rushes on the floor, and a dresser ranged with pewter tankards, and leaded lattice windows of glass so antique that it was practically impossible to see out of them. It had a huge open fireplace framed in oak beams with a seat on each side of the iron-backed hearth within the chimney, and a genuine spit hung over the middle of the fire. Here, though in the rest of the house she had for the sake of convenience allowed the installation of electric light, there was no such concession made, and sconces on the walls held dim iron lamps, so that only those of the most acute vision were able to read. Even then reading was difficult, for the bookstand on the table contained nothing but a few crabbed black-letter volumes dating from not later than the early seventeenth century, and you had to be in a frantically Elizabethan frame of mind to be at ease there.

My regard for the last clause is boundless; it encompasses everything from Shakespeare to Victoria (the queen of italics), and not excluding Pope. Trying to conjure a frantically Elizabethan frame of mind is easier, I’ve discovered, if you try to imagine someone else thus afflicted. The whole passage concludes:

But Mrs Lucas often spent some of her rare leisure moments in the smoking parlor, playing on the virginal that stood in the window, or kippering herself in the fumes of the wood fire as with streaming eyes she deciphered an Elzevir Horace rather too late for inclusion under the rule, but an undoubted bargain.

The first time I read this, I had no idea what an Elzevir Horace might be (okay, a very dim one), and I am still ignorant of the “rule,” but the funniness was plain and powerful, and it still knocks me over. Benson’s deployment of fussy phrasing is brilliant; for the most part, his sentences are straightforward and unadorned. It is clear that he does not identify with his heroine; he poses rather as a practical, ordinary man who thinks that windows are for seeing out of. You wouldn’t find him kippering himself with streaming eyes just to read about Postumus and his wine cellar. At the same time, he is alert to Lucia’s imposture, and able to register the hard-headed shrewdness of her apparent flights of fancy with grains of businesslike language, such as “no concession made,” or, in the following line, an almost burlesque interruption:

Though essentially autocratic [pardon the dangler], her subjects were allowed and even encouraged to develop their own minds on their own lines, provided always that those lines met at the junction where she was stationmaster.

There is even a nice touch of Foreign Office calculation:

With the memory of the Welsh attorney in her mind, it seemed clearly wiser to annex rather than to repudiate the Guru.

I hope that these excerpts do more than make you smile (or, better, laugh); I hope that you can see how completely impossible it would be to try to film them. This is humor that can be seen only with the special blindness of the reader. We could drag a camera into a room that met the smoking parlor’s description, but it would just be an old dim closet full of Jacobean tat, a period room in which no person born after 1900 could be expected to spend more than a few cursory minutes, dull minutes completely lacking in occasions for giggling. There is no way to show Lucia acting as a stationmaster, or annexing rather than repudiating. These images are lively on the page but dead to the point of nonentity beyond it. So it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve watched the serializations. Sure, they’re very funny, too; but it’s a different kind of funny, and, relative to Benson’s deft brushwork, incomparably coarse.

As for bedtime reading, the Lucia books might be ideal, precisely because they have been adapted for television. I can drift off to sleep long after my short-term memory has stopped working, but I won’t have to re-read anything when I pick up the book the next night. I know the story. Most of it, anyway; a lot gets left out. Lady Ambermere, for example, the local grandee who has witnessed Lucia’s transformation of a peasant village into an upper middle-class suburb without the slightest interest; to Lady Ambermere, there is not much to distinguish Lucia from her agrarian predecessors, save that none of the latter would dream of imitating Lucia’s “push.” Riseholme as a whole gets cut, because nobody seems to know where it is; while Tilling, as everybody is aware, is a town with Cinque Ports luster on the Sussex Coast; you can go there if you can find “Rye” on the map. (Ray Soleil and Fossil Darling paid a visit, and it is just possible that Ray’s frantically Lucian frame of mind threatened for a while to be permanent.) But even if I can’t remember arriving at the point where I left off, and have to go back a page or two, it’s no trouble, because the only serious thing about the Lucia books is the writing. And it is richly pleasurable, completely undemanding writing.

After a few pages of the omnibus edition, I realized that I must switch to the Kindle. My fear that only the one-volume abridgment of the stories would be available in Kindle format were allayed immediately. Although I figured that the cost of the omnibus had been amply amortized over nearly forty years, I was no less delighted than Lucia would have been to find that the Kindle edition could be had for a mere ninety-nine cents. In no time, I was tucked in with the lights out, already so sleepy that trying not to laugh out loud was no longer much of a problem. I was sure that I should soon be asleep, and soon indeed I was, with nary a twitch.


Kathleen and I watched The Big Short on Friday night — Kathleen had not seen it before — and, as the film came to an end, I found myself weighing how much wind the popular resentment of the bank bailout might have put in Donald Trump’s sails. Twenty-four hours later, I had moved completely beyond conventionally political estimations of Trump’s campaign. I had read Mark Danner’s piece in the current New York Review of Books, “The Magic of Donald Trump.” For the moment, I am going to quote only one early passage.

Observe the celebrity known as Donald Trump saunter onto the stage at Boca Raton, twenty minutes after his helicopter swoops in. The slow and ponderous walk, the extended chin, the pursed mouth, the slowly swiveling head, the exaggerated look of knowing authority: with the exception of the red “Make America Great Again” ball cap perched atop his interesting hair the entire passage is quoted from the patented boardroom entrance of The Apprentice, something that does not escape the delirious fans, even if it does most journalists. If when you see that outthrust chin you shiver with intimations of Mussolini, well, you were never a fan.

(“But what about me?” wails Silvio Berlusconi when this is translated for him.)

Danner’s piece made me sit up and recognize the extent of my self-censorship. I try very hard not to talk about “television.” That is, I put a lid on shrieking with alarm about its perniciousness. What would be the point? I should only alienate or bore readers. Every now and then, I say, as simply as I can, Turn It Off. Danner’s piece made me realize how this restraint had prevented my saying what I think, or even knowing what I think, about the Trump campaign, which is that it is proof positive of a mass addiction to the stress and depravity of popular network shows, particularly the ones that go by the modifier “reality.”

As I repeat every year, Kathleen and I watch television only once in any twelve months. We watch the Academy Awards show. Some years the show is more entertaining than others, but we always have a good time, and we always stick it out to the end. The cheesiness of the production, by which I mean not so much the antics on the stage as the camera work and the what-do-you-call-it, the animated doodles that are superimposed on the live images at the end of each segment, together with the voice-overs reminding you that you are watching the Academy Awards show and promising what’s up next, is no more wearying than the more self-indulgent expressions of thanks delivered by shocked, exultant winners. The show itself is relatively harmless.

What I mean by “television” is the stuff in between those doodles and voice-overs. This includes commercials, of course, but it also includes bigger, more complicated doodles and much louder voice-overs. These remind you what network you’re watching, and what shows are coming up. The tone of these reminders is fraught with a furious mental violence that suggests what it must be like to suffer schizophrenic attacks. It is a whirlwind, and it makes me extremely uncomfortable. I get up and leave the room, ostensibly on the usual errands to the bathroom and the kitchen, but mostly to escape the racket. It is not lost on me that this racket is the medium’s ligament. People who watch a lot of television, who sit while one show bleeds into another, are exposed to a lot of this pandemonium, which of course ceases with repetition to be at all disturbing. My hunch is that it also ceases to be negligible: viewers develop a dependency, and addiction.

I have never seen a reality show, but Kathleen has been told by many colleagues and fellow workers about the fun of watching Donald Trump scream at the other people on the show. Some people like it because they’re yelled at themselves, and, like the little girl in Mommie Dearest scolding her dolls, they find relief in passing it on, watching other chumps suffer belittlement. Some people like it because they dream of yelling at their bosses some day — the people who yell at them. The net is that people find a great deal of satisfaction in Trump’s behavior. There is no word for this other than “depraved.” I could not watch The Apprentice for a full minute, but I know that if I were to manage to watch it for several episodes, I’d begin to find it entertaining. So I am not going to watch it “just once,” to “see what it’s all about.” I have conducted that experiment. I was once very dependent on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a night-time soap opera in which almost everything that happened was either ridiculously implausible or profoundly unimportant. I hung on Louise Lasser’s every word, but I hung more on her dropped jaw.

There was a piece in the Times this morning in which data pundits like Nate Silver acknowledged that they’d wrong, again and again, about Trump. Perhaps there was something defective about their polling, such as the absence of young people, untethered by landlines. As I read the piece, I thought, You admit you were wrong but you are still wrong. They’re still wrong because they continue to approach Trump politically. And when they ask their questions of the general public, the general public is prompted to put on its voter gravitas, something that very well might not accompany them into the voting booth on Election Day. In the voting booth, they may be seized by an echo of the delirium that Danner mentions. Their voter’s selves may fall away like horror-film pods, revealing reality-show habitués. Hillary Clinton could well lose by a landslide, and never have seen it coming. But I see it coming.


Tuesday 10th

Now that I see Donald Trump’s bid for the Presidency as a “reality show” from the front of my mind, not the back, the spectacle makes sense. As a political figure, Trump is an authoritarian, bullying buffoon. Transcripts of his remarks betray a mind more concerned with sending a miscellany of surreptitious messages than with making consistent sense. The commentariat was right, then, when it began, last summer, to proclaim that he would not go far — as a political figure. In fact, he never went anywhere as a political figure. It wasn’t that he played the political game badly, but rather that he never played it at all, and this, this faithfulness to his bearing as a reality show’s Master of Ceremonies, has assured his supporters that This Time, It’s Different.

The difference ought to have been clear from the moment that the weekend press shows allowed Trump to phone in. I remember those long-ago early days, when Meet the Press was pretty much the only show of its kind, and Lawrence E Spivak was the host. It was the most boring TV show imaginable! That was its certificate of authenticity: it established that television could be serious and adult. But it couldn’t last, because television is a kind of entertainment.

Entertainment occurs when a handful of people do something while a larger and entirely passive audience watches. In a theatre, on or off Broadway, this audience is very much a living thing, breathing, coughing, signaling to the acute ears of actors that certain nuances are favored over others, a favor that may be completely negated by tomorrow night’s audience. Paying constant attention to the deep-forest sounds that rustle from the audience, actors retune their performances accordingly; this is what keeps a play fresh throughout its run. In the early days of television, shows were performed in front of live audiences, but it did not take long to see that the small “live” audience got in the way of the much larger one watching at home, and the laugh track was substituted. This was part of televised entertainment’s slow drift away from the criteria of performance to the absolute numbers of ratings. The complicated response of a live audience was reduced to a single unproblematic factor: on or off. Was the TV set tuned to this broadcast network or to that one? Otherwise, the television audience was passive to an extent never experienced, and I wonder if it hasn’t changed the nature of entertainment, at least within the context of television.

Mr Spivak would never have allowed phone-ins. He wouldn’t have understood why anyone would wish to decline the opportunity to sit in front of the camera and so become “known,” recognizable, to viewers. Donald Trump, however, is already known to viewers. He has no need for further publicity; on the contrary, he publicizes not himself but his fellow entertainers.

Since I have never seen a reality TV show, and am not about to watch one, I can’t pontificate at length. But the old idea, that entertainment is some kind of “pretend,” that men whose real names are Joe and Mary, and who really live in studio apartments with no views, pretend to be people called Marmaduke and Isadora, living in stately homes with vistas replete with hedges and fountains, has given way to something entirely different. Now entertainment is a view of the actual, edited and filtered perhaps, and by no means comprehensive, but a view that has nothing to do with assumed identities. Someone called Donald Trump, a man who lives in an ostentatious apartment on Fifth Avenue, appears on television as himself. In the old, theatrical, model, the audience provided the element of reality. Everyone sitting in the audience was aware of being surrounded by other similarly-situated “real people.” (This assumption could be fiddled with for dramatic surprise, but only very occasionally.) Sitting in the theatre, the audience was taking a break from reality, devoting its attention to a show that was no more real than a dream. Now, however, it is Donald Trump who constitutes the reality. He is really there, more substantially than we who are sitting at home. We can see him, but not the other people in the audience. We cannot be sure that there are other people in the audience. Looking across the street, we may see a television screen that is showing the same show that we are watching, but we cannot be sure that there is anybody in that room across the street. But there is no doubting Donald Trump. His voice will do perfectly well as a substitute for his presence. The voice of Donald Trump is an apotheosis, the voice of a god. He is not participating in a political process but observing it (and guiding it) from on high.

Like the pandemonium that I wrote about yesterday, this reconstitution of reality, this relocation of reality to the other side of the TV screen, is strongly addictive. The pandemonium indicates helplessness, as you, the viewer, endure it for however long it lasts. (And, the longer it lasts, the less desire you have to escape it.) The displacement of reality signifies that you are not as real as what you see on the screen. You already knew that, for you are only you, a nobody, while Donald Trump is a god, or at least a billionaire, or at least someone through whose fingers a great deal of money has passed in various directions. Watching Trump, you are in the presence of reality. How can withdrawal from that reality not be painful?

In politics, the audience is not passive. Members of the audience stand up when the speech — the performance — is over, and ask questions that the speaker is expected to answer. Reality is in the audience. The speaker sketches promises and possibilities; the members of the audiences bring him back down to earth with when and how much. They want to hear the details that were omitted in the speech, and only when they do does the speech become real. Until then, it is hot air.

Donald Trump could not possibly thrive in politics. He has only one answer: trust me. Trust him, because he knows how to get things done. Some day, perhaps some day soon, an exact accounting will be prepared, listing the projects that Trump, having assured us that he knew how to get them done, got done — and the projects that did not. In the meantime, we can only trust him, or not. Politically, we are probably disinclined to trust him. But what if he is not really asking us to trust him? What if he is saying is: watch me. What if he is saying, with his stupendous aplomb, I am who am. What if?


On several occasions on this Web site, I have mentioned a movie called Kingsman: The Secret Service. Among the few things that one can say for sure about this movie is that, despite a starring role (or possibly because of it, as those who have seen it will understand) for Colin Firth, it did not “do well.” I venture to suggest that Kingsman was a confusing film. It was not at all difficult to figure out what was going on at any particular moment; the confusion was in the packaging. What kind of film was the audience led to expect, and did the film satisfy that expectation? Whatever the answer to the first question, the answer to the second was “no.” As a result, the film’s varied and inventive scenes of extraordinary violence had a gratuitous air, and were easily dismissed as “gross.” Although I was massively haunted by Kingsman, I never even began to undertake to persuade Kathleen that it was worth watching. For her, it would never be. That is why I am going to write about the nightmare at the heart of Kingsman as best I can, so that nobody will have to watch the movie to understand why I keep coming back to it. To the extent that I succeed, I shall have contributed to the demonstration that it is not a very good movie. And yet I must acknowledge that the scenes of violence that I am not going to paraphrase cannot be paraphrased: they are as unspeakable as they are unforgettable. At such moments, Kingsman becomes an astonishingly powerful film. Please bear that in mind, while I talk about not so much scenes as a concept. Since this concept is my real subject, I am going to dispense with the names of characters and the actors who play them.

Some science fiction is required. Imagine a sociopathic billionaire — easy peasy. This billionaire believes that the human population of Planet Earth must be, at the very least, culled; and he has invented a kewl way to get the population to cull itself, without the use of outside force. Well, there is an outside force. But it is not an army or a bomb. It is a signal. When emitted by a smartphone, this signal blocks all human emotions except hostility and fear. Thus stripped down, people can be counted on to try to kill each other. All the billionaire has to do is press a few buttons.

He presses a few buttons from a mountain fastness, into which he has herded cooperative fellow billionaires and other members of the deserving élite. I am not going to talk about them, except to propose a rebus. (Take the mountain-fastness party scene, and the scene from Being John Malkovich in which everyone looks the same, and the head, complete with its interesting hair, of Donald Trump: the result would make many viewers wickedly happy.) All you need to know is that the Top People are preserved from the cull. (Fat lot of good &c.)

As I said, the fatal signal is delivered via smartphone. This is the key to the nightmare, even if it is not particularly essential to the concept. (The billionaire could just as easily have erected transmission towers, or even co-opted existing ones. The signal effects everyone, not just smartphone owners.) In order to place the necessary operating system in the maximum number of smartphones, the billionaire offers free Internet and phone access to anyone who signs up. So, of course, everyone does.

The corollary to that wise old maxim, You get what you pay for, is that, If you don’t pay for what you sign up for, you don’t know what it is.

Owing to glitches, the signal is never activated for very long. There are a few rather cartoonish scenes of random, insincere-looking violence, ostensibly occurring in major cities around the world. (They bear no resemblance to the blitzing orgy of malevolence that ensues when the signal is given its test run, on a sort of pilot audience as it were, from which only one man emerges alive.) The culling scenes are redolent of laddies half-heartedly throwing each other from rooftops. In a much more engaging parallel thread, a mother who has been warned ahead of time to lock her baby in the loo and slip the key under the door is overtaken by a pathological desire to break down the door and murder her child. (She gets far enough in this endeavor to remind us of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.) What’s going on in the mountain fastness while the signal is activated, or about to be activated, or hobbled by glitches, is far more engrossing than the crowd scenes.

But you do see enough. You see people having fun on the beach, and then turning feral. And you know that this however-awful thing is happening because everybody signed up for the free access.

And, Mr Keefe, this has exactly what to do with Donald Trump and the presidential campaign? Good Lord, do I have to spell it out?

Free access = entertaining politics. Donald Trump is not to be confused, however analogous his position in this argument, with Kingsman‘s sociopathic billionaire. The film’s evil genius depends, after all, on a science fiction trick currently unavailable to the Donald, who would hardly wish to cull his audiences anyway. But it would appear that Trump’s supporters have confused serious political consequences with rejuvenating entertainment. Unlike the movie’s suckers, the Trumpistas ought to have an inkling of the disasters to which their fearless leader’s proposals would almost certainly lead, and certainly, no “almost” about it, in concert.

You won’t get anywhere by dismissing Trumpistas as “stupid.” They are addicted.


Thursday 12th

With most books, I know where I stand. I am here, the author is there. We differ to thus and such a degree. Under the impression that I understand what I’m reading, I move along as briskly as possible, noting interesting passages (but never in the book itself; I do not write in books, not even to print my name), and getting through the dull parts as dutifully as possible. Without my paying very much attention, I judge the book page by page. I do not feel that this judgment encompasses myself as well.

Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture has been unusual in that regard. I don’t know where I stand with relation to the book at all. I agree, strongly, with this; I disagree just as strongly with the following sentence. The confusion owes to the meaning and use of the word “conservative.” I think that it’s fair to say that this word, at least in English, is undergoing a great deal of stress, as people with very different outlooks either lay claim to it or label others with it. I am not the only man to feel that the self-styled conservatives in American politics are anything but; at the same time, I know that my own conservative inclinations do not stretch so far as to cover a good deal of the traditional ground. I am somewhat conservative — and Roger Scruton is somewhat reactionary. Reading the Guide is often an awful muddle.

The difference between a conservative and a reactionary is implied by Tancredi’s famous remark, in The Leopard: everything must change in order for everything to stay the same. That is conservatism. The reactionary simply wants to go back to the way things were — no change! Tancredi’s paradox describes fairly well the course of human history, but for all the massacres and mayhem. But only historians and their students have access to the perspective from which to observe the way in which things really do remain the same by constantly changing.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, not a historian. He knows about a lot of things that have happened, but he does not see them as a historian does. The historian’s principal struggle is to understand remote events as they might have been understood at the time, by people who did not know what was going to happen next. This is the one universal truth about the history of humanity: the future is never known. Everything else about human history is a matter of local context, about which we can only guess the grosser outlines. People always need to eat, but their ideas about what foods are good to eat, and how they ought to be eaten, and when, and with whom, shift slowly but, over time, distinctively. That’s just one example.

Roger Scruton has an idea about art. He sees art as rooted in religion. I myself do not; I root art in play — play that is eventually ordered and controlled by social authorities. But we won’t go into all that. Scruton’s idea is undeniably familiar. If I disagree, I do so quietly; I can follow his use of this idea to see where it takes him.

Where it takes him is to this:

In no genuinely religious epoch is the high culture separate from the religious rite. Religious art, religious music, and religious literature form the central strand of all societies where a common religious culture hold sway. Moreover, when art and religion begin to diverge — as they have done in Europe since the Renaissance — it is usually because religion is in turmoil or declining. When art and religion are healthy, they are also inseparable. (18)

This familiar indeed — so familiar, in fact, that I discovered, when I read it again yesterday (for I am grappling with Roger Scruton), that I had outgrown vague resistance and developed some sharp objections. Here’s the sharpest: when was religion ever healthy in the European West? Beginning wherever you like — with the conversion of Constantine, say. The conversion of Constantine, you might have thought, ushered in a reign of peace. But that is not what happened. Emerging from persecution like fugitives from a sewer, Christians erupted into a mass of contention. Constantine was so vexed by the Christians’ inability and apparent unwillingness to agree on the basic principles of Christianity that he summoned a conclave of bishops to Nicaea, where, somewhat under imperial duress, a creed was hammered out. It took nearly a century for this creed — a minimal statement about the nature of God — to be generally accepted in the European West. Centuries later, a squabble over the placement of a particle, -que, would lead to a schism between the Roman Catholics of the West and the Orthodox Christians (including Russians and most Balkans, such as Serbians, but not Croatians or Slovenians; I hope that you’re getting the picture) that persists to this day.

Say, then, that the Nicene Creed was generally acknowledged at the beginning of the Fifth Century. Were peace and harmony ushered in then? No. As I see it, peace and harmony have never been ushered in. Christianity, both as to its doctrines and its administration, has always been contentious. Even during the period that Scruton hints at so clearly that he doesn’t see the need to name it.

He is thinking, let us imagine, of the Twelfth Century — the age of the first great cathedrals. It is true that very little remains from this time that does not have some ecclesiastical bearing. Nothing at all survives that could be called “nonreligious art.” Bishops and their agents controlled the production of art to the extent that kings and other secular potentates commissioned nothing lasting that did not belong to a religious context. This was the great Age of Faith, when song was chant and poetry was liturgical.

This was also the time of Abelard, the wildly brilliant but dangerously undisciplined philosopher who wrote a book called Sic et Non, an exercise book designed to teach students how to argue hot questions. For there were hot questions, and the hottest question of all concerned the role to be played by reason in religious matters. We may think that we see an Age of Faith, because the cathedrals are so grand. But the impression derives from extraordinarily widespread illiteracy: aside from the clergy, no one had the training or the platform required for the dissemination of ideas. And the clergy was at war with itself over the hot questions. So dubious is the very idea of an Age of Faith that at its climax, in 1277, there burned, at Oxford and Paris, bonfires of proscribed writings. The most famous author to go up in flames was Thomas Aquinas, who had died a few years before. His work survived destruction and was rehabilitated; he remains the semi-official theologian of the Roman Catholic Church. But the hot question itself was consumed; never again would faith be supported by reason, much less challenged by it, within the Church itself.

Now, you might argue that for a religion to be “healthy,” there must be robust debates about doctrines and practices. But the Church rarely stopped at debates. From the time of Augustine, bishops exploited their extensive temporal powers to enforce their rulings, with violence if necessary. You will recall that some people were burned at the stake. The Reformation of Christianity, largely but not exclusively an event of the Sixteenth Century, did nothing for the cause of peace and harmony. Perhaps Scruton regards the Reformation as a sign of religious decline, since it did take place during the later phases of the Renaissance (and was clearly fueled by Renaissance thought). But I am unable to find a sustained period of “healthy” religion — which, I insist, must be free of secular violence — in all the history of Europe until the rulers of the West imposed religious toleration upon their subjects, over the strenuous objections of churches everywhere. Even then, religious intolerance persisted in many of New England’s colonial settlements, where, as the Chinese might say, the king was far across the sea. I cannot call this “healthy.”


Roger Scruton, as I say, is not a historian, or even the follower of historians. This is clear at the beginning of his chapter on “Enlightenment.” He points out in the first paragraph that Kant defined the term in 1784; as in most cases, the movement was given its name as and when it came to an end. This means that most “thinkers of the Enlightenment” were unaware of being any such thing. To be sure, they were aware of advancing new and contrarian positions, often at personal risk. They were conscious of membership in something called “the Republic of Letters.” They knew that an old order was in a critical state of decay, and they called this order “feudal.” The United States, also defined at the end of the “Enlightenment,” was the European West’s first experiment in post-feudal possibilities. But you will have to look very hard and long through the writings of “Enlightenment thinkers” to find anyone who seriously advocated universal, or even majority, suffrage. Upon examination, most of these figures turn out to be no less élitist than the aristocrats whose secular (as distinct from social) power was slipping away.

When Scruton looks back upon the Enlightenment, he is mindful of the consequences of the movement’s philosophy. He knows what happened after 1789, which he regards, as so many people smart enough to know better do, as a culmination of the Enlightenment. Here he would agree with Marx: the bourgeoisie overcame the aristocrats so that a new order could prevail. Again, a very retrospective take on history. The bourgeoisie did not in fact overcome the aristocrats. It had no idea of doing any such thing. Instead, it watched, appalled, as the aristocratic props of the civil order collapsed faster and more violently than anyone had imagined. They collapsed in yet another peasant uprising, only this uprising was the one that could not be put down by royal authority. Royal authority collapsed with the aristocratic power. The habit of spending money that wasn’t there was brought to its inevitable end: just as we can thank the Bourbons for supporting the American cause, so French republicans must thank Americans for providing the occasion on which the Bourbon régime bankrupted itself. It will not, I hope, be argued that the Bourbon régime bankrupted itself to make it possible for the Enlightenment to prevail.

The Enlightenment, as it was lived, was a response to a problem that began no later than at the end of the Fourteenth Century, when the Last Crusade’s cavalry was mowed down by Turkish artillery, at the Battle of Nicopolis, in 1396. From this moment, the aristocracy made no functional — military — sense. More than a few aristocrats would dismount from their horses and direct their troops from the rear, as generals, but most of the actual fighting would be done by career soldiers, ordinary men who knew how to fight on their feet. For four hundred years, European monarchs (Britain aside) struggled with the increasing uselessness of the aristocratic order in which their thrones were inextricably bedded. Four hundred years! The Enlightenment was an aspect of the final stages of this struggle. Its success derived from its statement of the obvious.

What is too often overlooked is the very great feudatory role played by officials of the Roman Catholic Church. Bishops and abbots enjoyed extensive aristocratic powers. What’s more, unlike the secular aristocracy, churchmen acted in concert. Literally owning the schools, the French episcopacy was able to shut down higher education for nearly a century. It is no wonder that public intellectuals like Voltaire would attack the Church, not because it espoused what Voltaire chose to call “superstition,” but because its feudal powers, its secular force, gave these superstitions muscle. In short, the thinkers of the Enlightenment objected to religion because religious authorities interfered in affairs that ought to have been none of their business.

“History” that explains events in terms of their outcomes is not history. It is retrospection, looking back in hindsight, and a childish waste of time.


Friday 13th

It is something like a fever — a fever that I’ve read about, but never actually suffered. (Literature can be thicker than life chez moi.) When it rages, I read thirstily from three vaguely-related books: Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx, Edward Crankshaw’s The Shadow of the Winter Palace, and T G Otte’s July Crisis. These are all more or less about the fall of the old régimes that survived the ancien régime after 1789. They tell the end of the story that began in Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society.

When the fever subsides, I have nothing to read. Without the fever, I cannot bear Marx’s obsessions or the soul of Russia or anything to do with Serbia. It’s all just narcissism really. I shuffle through the book pile. The Idiot. I’m halfway through that. Prince Myshkin arouses my sympathies, but everyone else seems ill-mannered. Which reminds me. I was reading about someplace the other day, and it was pointed out that, wherever it was, formality and deference did not characterize social life. The comment suggested that, where you find formality, you will find deference, that there is something hierarchical about good manners. (Good manners and formality are hardly synonymous, but in this case that is what I took “formality” to mean.) I disagree! Good manners have one objective only: to make other people comfortable. To be easygoing, but not sloppy. To take an interest, but without prying. To listen sincerely. That has always been the hardest thing for me. I tried to be a good listener last night. I was talking with someone at a party. He could have been Alan Alda’s brother, and, in addition to this resemblance, he told me that he was a commercial real estate broker specializing in Queens properties. That’s another story. We were standing near the window, and he said what a fine day it had been. Yesterday, he went on, he had to go to a funeral in Newark, and it was nice there, too.

I let a few beats go by. I had to flush an instant response out of my mind: I don’t know anybody, so I never go to funerals. It is true that I have been to very few funerals in my life. Again, another story. When my mind was clear, I asked, “Was it a friend?”

“It was my aunt,” he replied brightly, “and she was 108 years old.” He spoke the number in a jocular manner, “one oh eight,” something like that, so that I was briefly confused. It was a great relief to everyone, he said. The aunt had been in a nursing home for three years, but she had all her marbles — a phrase that is never used except in connection with the lucidity of the very old. His own mother, my interlocutor continued, had suffered some kind of dementia. She would tell a story and then tell it again five minutes later. He mentioned a story about turnips. His mother would tell her story about turnips. Then (he said) the family would sit down to dinner and someone would say, “There are no turnips.” This would prompt his mother to tell her turnip story again. I was wondering if “turnips” actually happened or if “turnips” were something that he had snatched out of the air in order to make his point. Still slightly confused, I found it very easy to remark that I already repeat myself (implying that I was not very old nor yet demented). My companion by the window nodded. “It does get hard to remember things,” he said, with a rueful laugh. “Oh, that’s just a part of it,” I said. “I like my stories. I’m always in the mood to tell my stories.” He laughed more ruefully. I really wanted to ask him what he thought of the film, A Most Violent Year, which, in my mind, I could imagine him in. But the conversation turned to NPR podcasts. He said that he was a big fan. TED talks. Terry Gross. “Oh yes,” I said, non-committally. I mentioned that I used to listen to NPR all the time, but then “the towers fell,” meaning the World Trade Center towers, atop one of which rose a gigantic broadcasting antenna, “and we lost reception for a while.” I got out of the habit of listening to the radio. Actually, I got out of the habit of listening to the radio because I began writing on my Web sites. You cannot write and listen to talk radio at the same time.

At this point, a very old friend whom I hadn’t seen in some time walked up, and I spent the rest of the time at the cocktail party talking to her. Later, after dinner with Kathleen, I found myself in the subsidence phase of my fever. I thought about what to read. There emerged the desire to read a story about someone in New York, not now but a while ago. I thought of Dawn Powell, whom I haven’t read in a while. Then the desire took a sudden lurch, and I set out to find the book with Maeve Brennan’s “Herbert’s Retreat” stories. (I don’t want to spend the rest of the morning perusing old entries, but I did find this in the archive.) I read “The Anachronism” aloud to Kathleen.

“The Anachronism” is a strange construction, probably because the central figure, aside from being an awful person, is slightly difficult to bring into focus. Liza Frye is a thirty-nine year-old married woman, two years older than her husband. The Fryes have been married for seven years. Before that, Liza was “sick with lack of money.” The things that money can buy did not really interest her; it was “position” that she longed for. Having married Tom Frye, she insisted that they move to Herbert’s Retreat, because she had been there once, and all the established women had looked down on her (she felt). By the time the story gets going, Liza is consumed by status anxiety. Everything that her neighbors say or do is a potential slight. This dreadful immaturity is at odds with her age, and I kept slipping into seeing Liza as a young, inexperienced woman. In fact, she is not young, and she is beyond the reach of experience. Oh, and she has her mother living with her.

Liza and Mrs Conroy detested each other, but it suited them to live together — Liza because she enjoyed showing her power, and Mrs Conroy because she was waiting for her day of vengeance.

Then there’s Tom. We’re told early that Tom’s “real life was spent away from home anyway.” But this doesn’t mean what you think. He doesn’t have a great job; he doesn’t have a mistress; he doesn’t even have an eccentric hobby. Tom’s “real life” consists of spending the day at a snooty Fifth Avenue club to which he has belonged since he was twenty-one. His father belonged to the club before him. His grandfather, however, the man who made all the money, did not belong. Every morning, Tom sits in the chair by a window that was formerly occupied by the club member who personally saw to it that Tom’s grandfather was not admitted. Tom reads the papers. Every day, Tom has a two hour lunch by himself. Then he goes back to the chair and looks out the window. At five, he calls for his car and drives home to Liza. Brennan’s point seems to be that there are people whose lives are so dull that they are not worth writing about. Nor does Brennan bother to fold Tom into the story. He disappears after the description of his day at the club, only to be summoned to fetch a housemaid, whom Liza has imported from England, when her liner comes in.

This housemaid, Betty Trim, is supposed to be “the anachronism” — the very incarnation of old world deference. She has been spotted, working in a London hotel, by one of Liza’s neighbors, who then writes her up for the Herbert’s Retreat newsletter. Liza decides that she must have this maid in her otherwise all-modern house. The negotiations between Liza and Betty, concerning salary, length-of-contract, transatlantic passage, bonuses and so on, amount to a pile of “top this!” gestures. They reminded me of something else by Maeve Brennan, a spoof so stupendously funny that I can’t believe I didn’t quote it here last year. (I did summarize it.)

William Maxwell, Brennan’s editor, received a letter from a reader who wanted to know if any more Herbert’s Retreat stories would be appearing in The New Yorker. Brennan got hold of the letter, and Maxwell’s brief reply (“we hope to have something by Maeve Brennan in a forthcoming issue”); she added the following:

I am terribly sorry to have to be the first to tell you that our poor Miss Brennan died. We have her head here in the office, at the top of the stairs, where she was always to be found, smiling right and left and drinking water out of her own little paper cup. She shot herself in the back with the aid of a small handmirror at the foot of the main altar in St Patrick’s Cathedral one Shrove Tuesday. Frank O’Connor was where he usually is in the afternoons, sitting in a confession box pretending to be a priest and giving a penance to some old woman and he heard the shot and he ran out and saw our poor late author stretched out flat and he picked her up and slipped her in the poor box. She was very small. He said she went in easy. Imagine the feelings of the young curate who unlocked the box that same evening and found the deceased curled up in what appeared to be and later turned out truly to be her final slumber. It took six strong parish priests to get her out of the box and then they called us and we all went and got her and carried her back here on the door of her office.

There is a distinctly pickled fragrance to this flow of blarney. (“He said she went in easy.”) But there is a brilliance to its twists. Imagine the feelings of the poor reader who received this letter — which is all that can be done because the reader never received it. This was an “internal use only” document, a highly compressed satire of The New Yorker itself, where heads are mounted at the top of the stairs and writers spend the afternoons impersonating priests. (Well, the implication is, they might as well.) Imagine, too, the response of Maxwell’s and any other editorial eye to the egregious afterthought of “the door of her office.” (Did they take it with them when the priests called? Of course not. Brennan hadn’t thought of it yet.)

Anyway, in the story, Betty Trim and Mrs Conroy come to an understanding. Here’s the story’s end:

In the living room, sitting in sepulchral silence, Tom and Liza were first startled, then appalled, by the sudden screeches of laughter that came at them from the kitchen — screeches of laughter that was rude and unrestrained, and that renewed itself even as it struck and shattered against the walls of the kitchen.

Considered alongside the run of New Yorker stories, this and the other Herbert’s Retreat stories have a recklessly intentional gimcrack quality; there is an inconsequence, a one-thing-not-leading-to-another that I associate with inscrutable old myths. What holds “The Anachronism” together isn’t subtle. It’s the brutal fascination of dreadful Liza. What keeps you reading is the promise of an adroitly-placed banana peel.


Our gas crisis got written up in the Times, where the story differs from what we were told. (I didn’t know that our hot-water heater was gas-fired, and that we have Con Ed to thank, seriously, for relenting about that.) I can’t say that I did much cooking this week. I still haven’t used the electric oven — about an inch higher inside than the largest toaster ovens; big enough for roasting a medium-sized piece of meat — for anything but toasting. On Tuesday night, we had a chef’s salad for dinner, and then we went out the next two nights. Tonight, I am going to warm up a quiche. I should like to make a crumb cake. But I’m recovering from Wednesday’s burst of energy.

I went to the storage unit on Wednesday and bought fifteen book boxes in the lobby. Also, a tape gun. I went upstairs to the storage unit but had to go back downstairs to learn how to use the tape gun. The agent at the desk did not find this odd, and she even complimented me for not having gone through a lot of tape trying to figure it out myself. Back upstairs, I taped the bottom of a box. The first book to go in was an extravagantly large folio called The English Florilegium. I expect I bought it cheap at the Strand. It’s a lovely book, but somebody else will appreciate it more. My host last night reminded me of something that I’d completely forgotten, and still don’t remember, doing. At a Christmas party some years back, I piled up books under the tree and instructed guests to take them home. My host had taken the catalogue to the Artemesia Gentileschi show at the Museum. I do remember buying that big book, and the buyer’s remorse that ensued. Tiepolo and Canaletto aside, I am not keen enough on Italian painting to collect catalogues. (Oh, and Veronese.)

Finding a second book to put in the giveaway box was harder. I had made two piles on a shelf, one of keepers and one of discards. But they both had keeper books in them. Didn’t they? As my eyes narrowed, it became clear that there were discards in one of the piles, and then I sort of snapped into realizing that all of the books in that pile were discards. When I filled the first box, I taped a second box. I did not tape the first box shut. Nor, when I finished filling it, the second.

I know that there is a book in the second box that I may retrieve. It is called Darlinghissima, and it contains the correspondence between Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray. This is another book that I bought cheap at the Strand. When I bought it, I knew who Jannet Flanner was (of course), but nothing about the other woman. Only yesterday, a day after putting Darlinghissima in a giveaway box, I came across a very rosy mention of Murray in Sybille Bedford’s late memoir, Quicksands — which I find myself calling Graveyards, why? I adore correspondences, with the letters of both writers appearing in the same book; and Flanner and Murray must have known a lot of people about whom I know a thing or two, and they might teach me a third.

Nevertheless, the giveaway is underway. When I have packed all fifteen boxes, I’ll summon the handy service that already carried off the plus-sized items that were cluttering up the unit. I’ll have to call them, because fifteen boxes of books will be very much in the way.

I wrote a note to Ray Soleil, to tell him that I had finally gotten started with the boxes, and that I hoped to be out of the unit by the end of the year. He had the cheek to urge me to finish by the fall, “before the weather turns.” Easy for him to say.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Robert the Wet
May 2016 (I)

2, 3. 5, 6 May

Monday 2nd

In the Sunday Review section of the Times, there was this, by Gerald Marzorati:

Most of us got good early on at something that took time and devotion. For me it was reading. My mother, a blue-collar homemaker, saw that I liked looking through books and began teaching me how to read before I turned 4; I entered kindergarten reading at a second-grade level. I had a sixth-grade English teacher I wanted to please, which meant hours and hours of conjugation drills. I was placed in advanced-reading classes in high school, where I was forced to articulate what I comprehended; majored in English in college, where I learned the theoretical aspects of reading; and always had a book on my night stand. I went on to spend nearly 40 years as an editor, reading and reading. I loved it, still do. But I doubt I improved at it much after college. (I probably peaked trying to unravel “Finnegans Wake” in my James Joyce seminar.) I suspect you are not unlike me, whatever you’ve done with your life. The gradual, continuous improvement petered out before you reached midlife.

I know that this is what usually happens, but why? And how do we change it? (And what are the “theoretical aspects of reading”?) The bulk of Marzorati’s essay concerns the new life that he has discovered by making a commitment to improving his tennis game. He does not expect to become any kind of champion — he’s beyond proving himself to other people. He finds the challenge, the exercise, the whatnot rejuvenating. He hopes that the endeavor will prolong his life, not by months but by years. If nothing else, “Better Aging…” made me feel sublimely wise about never having tried to enter the world of publishing and journalism. I have yet to begin petering out.

I doubt I improved at it much after college. I shudder. I know that people thought I was pretty smart when I got out of college — that I’d read a lot, knew a lot — but I was just beginning. For me, college was a preparation for a life of the mind. That is what it is supposed to be but so rarely is in our ill-conceived economy. In fact, I knew next to nothing in 1970, and a lot of what I did know was wrong. I don’t want to consider the nullity of my grasp of anything at the age of twenty-two. But I had made a commitment to keeping my mind alive — no, that sounds too noble. My mind had made a commitment to staying alive, dammit, and somehow it survived the decades of carousing that followed.

The night before reading Marzorati’s piece, I had been shaken to my bones by Helen Vendler. I mentioned her book about Wallace Stevens, On Extended Wings, last week. I’ve since begun to read it. Oh, I did the usual thing when I bought it, ages ago. I wanted some insight into “Credences of Summer,” so I jumped into the chapter devoted to that poem — and jumped right out. It is a bad idea to pick up one of Vendler’s books in the middle. She builds her work carefully, and every page is prerequisite to the next. I set On Extended Wings aside. Until last week.

As I read the book now, a dismal through-bass sounds: On Extended Wings was published in 1969, when I was still an undergraduate. Vendler, about fifteen years older than I am, was not yet forty. And yet she writes as if she had been dipped into the marinade of Stevens’s poetry fifty years before he started writing it. She knows it better than he did. As I read Vendler’s discussion of “The Comedian as the Letter C,” I thought to myself, my life is nearly over, and yet I am only now learning this. By which I mean that what Vendler has to say strikes me as, literally, elementary: it’s stuff that you have to know if you’re going to get anywhere in thought. Her authority is immensely persuasive.

I had not read “The Comedian as the Letter C,” so I spent a half hour glancing through it. I didn’t not try to understand it, or even respond to it; I simply wanted the lay of the land. I noticed a curious onrushing quality in the blank verse, as line ran to line after line, narrating an account that, personally, I should prefer to have had in prose.

His western voyage ended and began.
The torment of fastidious thought grew slack,
Another, still more bellicose, came on.
He, therefore, wrote his prolegomena,
And, being full of the caprice, inscribed
Commingled souvenirs and prophecies.

I always hear Hiawatha in the background when poets go on in this way — Hiawatha in the counting-house, calculating meters. But I liked the canto about the four daughters; it reminded me, in a jolly way, of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting that is always fun when you don’t have to look at it. Then, when I had read the whole thing, I returned to Vendler. The jolly daughters soured and curdled. I’ve since recovered from the shock; now, two days later, what she has to say seems obvious and refreshing. But on Saturday night I had not conceived the possibility of giving Wallace Stevens a dressing down.

Stevens’ resolute attempts to make himself into a ribald poet of boisterous devotion to the gaudy, the gusty, and the burly are a direct consequence of a depressing irony in respect to the self he was born with and an equally depressing delusion about the extent to which this self could be changed. These ribaldries take two stylistic forms in Harmonium — the willed and artificial primitivism of poems like “Earthy Anecdote” and “Ploughing on Sunday,” and so on, and the verbal mimetic reproduction, persistent only in the Comedian, of the actual density of the physical world. Neither is destined to become Stevens’ persistent mode. Stevens as ironist never fades entirely … but the corrosive deflations of the Comedian are nowhere else so relentless. (52)

By “corrosive deflations,” Vendler means, I think, “mistakes.”

A page or two earlier, Vendler ascribes to Stevens

the vantage point of the man for whom the senses do not provide transcendent moments, who is repelled as the provocations of the senses reach excess, who is almost indifferent by temperament to any world except an arranged or speculative one — and who nevertheless “knows” that this world is all there is, that this is the unique item of ecstasy. (50)

This was an electrifying line, for I felt that Vendler was talking, somewhat, about me. Not me now, but the younger me who struggled to experience all sorts of things that he had read about. Real life, this younger me believed, was something that everyone else seemed to understand much better than he. He “needed to get out more.” But when he got out, he discovered only that his “comfort zone” — the thing that we’re all exhorted to leave in order to discover the richness of life — was not only not a plush fainting couch on which to daydream but the very portal to thought and understanding, a portal through which, on his best days, he passed quickly and surely, entering another zone that was too cosmic for comfort.

There is a moment in the film A Beautiful Mind in which John Nash is beguiled by the flashing of lighted panels, in which he detects, or thinks he detects, occult patterns. I am never deluded by the majesty of inexpressible harmonies; if I can’t write something down, it doesn’t exist, except as a phantasmic scrap of neuronal goo. But I often feel Nash’s thrill. My ecstasies are also interior.

I’ve just read “Ploughing on Sunday” for the first time.

Remus, blow your horn!
I’m ploughing on Sunday.
Ploughing North America.
Blow your horn!

For years, I was beset by the occasional urge to sing this kind of song, but it always came out as Stevens’s next lines,


I ought to say right now that I have yet to read most of Wallace Stevens’s poems for the first time. When I was young, instead of being roused by adolescent yearning, I preferred childish play with words, so I liked Pope and Sitwell best. I’ve been ashamed of that preference, but now I understand that I was only listening — listening, that is, for music, rhythm, pulse, antiphon and response. I didn’t care what poetry said, if anything; I wanted an armature for my prose. Once I had built one, I could read the real thing, but I was too old to be exhaustive. I have not yet got over the embarrassment that flushes through me whenever I read a great poem for the first time and think, oh dear, I ought to have known this a long time ago, and I wonder if I ever shall.


I mentioned “the life of the mind.” In most cases, this phrase is a richly-upholstered pipe-dream, signifying not much. The life of the mind is like any modern life: it has its beginning (ignorance), its education (training, or, in the much better French term, formation), and its career (thinking critically about the world). Its career, unlike Gerald Marzorati’s, apparently, is the real workout. I do not understand why or how Marzorati failed to apply the zeal that he is bringing gratuitously to tennis to the work that he did for a living. Is there, as many artists have believed, something dulling about negotiating — exchanging — one’s work for a salary? Does the figure on a check surreptitiously take the place of less liquid criteria? I don’t think so. The problem is collegiality. Anybody who is great at anything needs to spend a lot of time alone, and solitude is heavily discouraged by modern economy. Modern economy likes to have people show up in a certain place at a certain time; it wants them to produce a certain amount of something in a certain number of hours. Modern economy would prefer to gather a number of workers together for a perfectly pointless meeting — modern economy regards meetings as essentially productive — than allow individual to wander off into their own minds. Modern economy is preoccupied by common denominators. Participants in modern economy are at risk of being degraded by the infection of common ideas.

No two lives of the mind are the same. Each mind must create tools for evaluating its own performance. This is to say that everyone must develop a personal style of writing, for it is only in writing that thinking is manifest. The quality of writing reveals the quality of the life of the writer’s mind. Anything that the writer does not write down is almost a kind of madness, a private, unanchored wildness, the incoherence of which, if approached too closely, is terrifying. I’m thinking of what John Nash thought but could never express.

I wish I knew more people to talk to about the things on my mind, but after a lifetime of banging my head against a wall I see that this is like wanting to win the lottery. It is difficult to understand why one won’t win the lottery, because winning is so easily envisioned. Even though we know perfectly well that the numbers are stacked against us — massively against us — we think that we know just what it would be like to win. Such excitement! such pleasure! All we’re doing is enlarging small moments of good luck that we have actually experienced. So it is with important conversations. Their likelihood is very small. The interlocutors must be strangers, at least in the sense that friends are not, and yet they must share certain familiarities in order to be mutually comprehensible. They must have read much of the same sort of thing but each must have read certain unexpectedly important things that the other has not. And, at the risk of sounding new-agey, I’d venture that important conversations can occur only when two bodies are biorhythmically in some kind of synch.

That’s why writing is so much better — any kind of published writing. You send things out: that is your contribution to the conversation, a conversation which may not begin in earnest until after you are dead. The life of the mind has at its disposal everything ever written down by anyone, everything that survives to be read.

The world’s maladies can be remedied by two things only: acts of generosity and the expressions of lively minds.


Tuesday 3

I should like to write an entry about something without ever using the word that serves as its label.

After work and lunch yesterday, I hoped to spend some time with various kitchen papers, to make up a list of common weeknight and weekend dinners for two and divide the ingredients into “fresh” and “staple” categories, the better to organize my shopping. It’s the old problem: on any given day, I’ve got no idea what to make for dinner. What do I want for dinner is countered by what did we have last night and the night before that; less often, I’ve got to consider a dinner that’s coming up. How hard to I want to work at it is, in its turn, countered by what do you mean by ‘hard’? Pretty soon my mind a blank, with epicycles turning on epicycles, and the idea of lying down almost overpowers me. Yesterday, I thought, a bit of overview might help. What are the dishes in my current repertoire?

Well, that didn’t happen. I sat there with the LRB, which I’d been reading at lunch, and just continued to sit there. I read Jacqueline Rose’s very long piece, “Who do you think you are?” If I quote the article’s subtitle, I shall be obliged to use the word that I want to avoid.

Rose writes, with a comprehensiveness that outdoes even Andrew Solomon on the same subject (although his work is more penetrating), about confusion and clarity in matters of sex and gender. We can agree, for present purposed, that “sex” is an absolutely flesh-and-bone issue: your body presents your sex, which is almost always either male or female, at birth. For most people, the clarity of that presentation remains unproblematic. (I gather that some of the people about whom Rose writes — Susan Stryker, for example — might contest this assumption.) We can also agree that “gender” is less clear, more fluid. Gender, it is commonly thought in advanced circles, is socially constructed. Your sex may be male, but for your gender to be male as well there are things that you have to do. You must learn a body language — a way to stand, a manner with unoccupied arms, a tilt of the head — or at least exclude from your body language those gestures that are commonly associated with the female gender. You must walk and talk like a man. You must have at least a few of the skills that are strongly associated with men (even if there are plenty of strong women who demonstrate those skills as well or better). You must respect certain taboos; you must profess not to notice certain things. I remember finding it very funny, once, that a marriage announcement in the Times told readers the name of the fabric out of which the bride’s gown was constructed (peau de soie) before it revealed the name of the man whom the bride married. A woman standing nearby eyed me with anxious disapproval. A real man, I could tell she thought, simply wouldn’t have seen “peau de soie” on the page. And a clever man would have kept it to himself.

Gender does, of course, find sexual expression. Jacqueline Rose quotes Jennifer Finney Boylan: “it is not about who you want to go to bed with, it’s who you want to go to bed as.” In general, however, gender manifests itself in everyday behavior that everybody can see; it has little to do with caresses. Kathleen and I have been leading, for thirty-five years in October, lives that defy one of the key gender markers: Kathleen goes to the office, while I stay home and keep house. I do the cooking; Kathleen closes deals. But the confusion, if that’s what it is, is pretty confined to that one swap. In her free time, Kathleen knits and beads, while I read the classics and bloviate about social problems. But just as we are well-matched in opinions and outlook (and the ability to express them), we are, as a couple, really bad at wedding presents: each one thinks that the other ought to choose them. In short, there are matters in which we observe gender conventions, matters in which we defy them to the point of negation, and matters — our conversation, for example — in which we ignore difference altogether.

If people think that Kathleen and I are doing something wrong — something even remotely immoral — by spending our respective days where we do, she at the office and I at home, then we are utterly unaware of it. There must be people who do, but we don’t know them, or they don’t speak their complaints. I’m sure that my father-in-law has wondered what the hell is wrong with me, that I don’t earn a living, but he is more inclined to express gratitude that I take good care of his daughter. Kathleen and I grew up in an affluent, highly-educated world (which both of us nevertheless regarded as provincial, its “sophistication” but the merest of veneers), and we live in that world still. We have a great deal more personal freedom than do people at the other end of the socio-economic scale, freedom that we have done nothing to deserve. I believe that it is this freedom that has spared us the doubt that we might have been born with bodies of the wrong sex. Kathleen does not want to be a male, and she does not want me to be a female. And vice versa. Each of us is quite comfortable with the sex situation in our household. I can be a male and a good cook. My father-in-law, in his early nineties, fully approves — he used to be a good cook himself. For my mother, however, my culinary interests were always a worry. Her ideas about the alignment of sex and gender were rigid. The fact that I noticed the mention of peau de soie because I’m a reader and a writer would have meant nothing to her, either. But she died forty years ago next year. Things have changed a lot since 1977.

Reading Jacqueline Rose prodded me with an observation that I had also gleaned from Andrew Solomon’s chapter on this subject, in Far From the Tree: few of the witnesses come from backgrounds like the one that Kathleen and I share. Few of those who have undergone what I am going to call sex-alteration procedures of any kind (I include cross-dressing) seem to have enjoyed a great deal of personal freedom as children. A great many seem to have been physically abused, and a great many seem to have been bullied, a complementary form of abuse. Rose wonders if many young people who seek sex-alteration procedures do so under pressure from parents and other adult advisers who seek the arguable protections of clarity, as if a sissy’s problems will be solved by uncomplicated femininity. Most of all, sex-alteration procedures appear to be undertaken with a view to bringing sex into alignment with gender. As a complete reversal of the cruelties of the traditional priority, which has always rather brutally subordinated gender to sex, this sounds like a good thing, but the more I think about it, the more I doubt the wisdom of trying to solve a broad miscellany of gender problems, about which there is, by the way, no overarching consensus, by playing Frankenstein with the body. I take the reference to Victor Frankenstein from Susan Stryker, who loudly proclaims the unnatural state of her sex-altered, stitched-over body.

Jacqueline Rose winds up her long essay with a thought that chimes with my own judgment, but before quoting it I shall break my restraint in order to suggest that my “problem” with the “transsexual” is very largely an aesthetic rejection of the term itself. Almost all the words ending in “-sexual” are more or less revolting to me. They pretend to give a mere fact (genital endowment, “sexual” preference) as much weight as fully human possibilities, whereas humanity begins where the facts of the human body and its inborn or unconscious proclivities stop (by having expressed themselves as inexorable). I always stumble in the middle of sentences that begin, “I’ve been reading about transsexual —” Transsexual what? “Transsexualism”? If there is a word with a more retrograde redolence, then please don’t tell me what it is.

On the other hand, I would tentatively suggest that we are witnessing the first signs that the category of the transsexual might one day, as the ultimate act of emancipation, abolish itself. In “Woman’s Time” (1981), Julia Kristeva argued that feminism, and indeed the whole world, would enter a third stage in relation to sexual difference: after the demand for equal rights and then the celebration of femininity as other than the norm, a time will come when the distinction between woman and man will finally disappear, a metaphysical relic of a bygone age. In the second Transgender Reader, Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade call for a trans and queer movement which would set its sights above all on a neoliberal agenda that exacerbates inequality, consolidates state authority and increases the number of incarcerated people across the globe.

I’ll vote for that. It seems obvious to me that sex-alteration is, fundamentally, a form of political protest, even if — hell, especially if — the politics at stake are utterly local. (Those particular bullies are to stop abusing this particular child.) To the extent that a scalpel can enhance human happiness, I cannot object to the procedure. But to the extent that it is raised as a proxy for prison reform, I can only hope that our pursuit of clarity will advance beyond uncertainties about the sex and gender of individuals.


In the same issue of the LRB — the first to appear (here) since the death of Jenny Diski; perhaps not the first to carry an ad for a book by Jenny Diski but nothing by her name in the list of articles — there is a review, by Alice Sprawls, of a show, or installation, at London’s National Portrait Gallery, celebrating the centenary of “Brogue,” or British Vogue. More than a review, Sprawls’s piece is a capsule history of the magazine, which was inaugurated when U-boats interfered with transatlantic shipping. According to Sprawls, the NPG show attains nothing like the success of recent photography exhibitions about Lee Miller (at the Imperial War Museum) and Horst (at the V&A), but the catalogue is a must. Sprawls herself is full of fun stuff. For example, owing to paper shortages during World War II, Vogue’s subscription list had to be limited, so that the only way a new subscriber could get a copy was for an old subscriber to die. (I’m not sure that I really believe this, or that it was a policy in force for more than a fortnight, but it’s certainly fun.) Also fun: it was the robust market for Vogue patterns that kept Condé Nast financially afloat after the Crash wiped out his extensive speculations. I see that Vogue patterns still exist, but at a web page belong to McCall’s. During the past thirty years, has Anna Wintour been in the same room with one?

Sprawls does not mention Wintour, which must mean something. She glides from Beatrix Miller to Alexandra Schulman, overlooking the chance to deploy “Nuclear Wintour,” which is also fun, if pretty predictable, given The Devil Wears Prada. Coming home last night in a taxi, Kathleen, who has quite given up looking at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and wonders why they still appear on the coffee table, got stuck in the traffic created around the Museum by limousines ferrying guests to the Met Gala at the Anna Wintour Costume Center. In the Times online today, Sarah Jessica Parker talks about her “Hamilton look.” The theme of this year’s gala, as it has been for every season since Wintour took the gala under her wing, is “Commerce By Night.” I’d like to know what Anna Wintour thinks about Germaine Greer’s opinion of MTF transsexuals, which Jacqueline Rose cites at almost incredulous length. It appears that Greer does not recognize sex alteration, at least in cases involving a body born as male. To her, these former males are “pantomime dames,” imperialists for the masculine cause trying out a new gambit. My suspicion is that Wintour agrees, but doesn’t mind.

I don’t know what the alternative to Brogue is, but I prefer Harper’s Bazaar, which always seems to have been more literary than fashionable (and I’m talking about the staff, not the paid outsiders). Diana Vreeland was much cleverer at the Bazaar than she was at Vogue, or perhaps I mean much less; I am still waiting for someone to publish the compleat Why don’t you…” The only other point that needs to be made about the superiority of Bazaar to Vogue is that it is an issue of the former that Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) is really reading at the end of Rear Window. Paid product placement, perhaps, but still — Grace Kelly.


Thursday 5th

What is to be thought? About a week after proposing Carly Fiorina as his running mate, Ted Cruz has folded his tents and departed. So has John Kasich. The improbable Donald Trump alone remains, a genuinely popular candidate, at least among Republican Party voters. Already, the Times is helping us to imagine what Trump’s first hundred days in office will be like.

In a series of recent interviews, he sketched out plans that include showdowns with business leaders over jobs and key roles for military generals, executives and possibly even family members in advising him about running the country.

Shortly after the Nov. 8 election, President-elect Trump and his vice president — most likely a governor or member of Congress — would begin interviewing candidates for the open Supreme Court seat and quickly settle on a nominee in the mold of Justice Antonin Scalia.

It sounds like a movie. Which is why I repeat the question: what is to be thought? How much conviction are we to invest in this prospect? How earnestly ought we to prepare for change in the political culture of a magnitude not seen since Andrew Jackson’s day?

Many think that the White House now belongs to Hillary Clinton. I’m not so sure. Which is more reason to be thinking. Thinking — but not concluding. Conclusions are premature. What has ended is the scrimmage on the right. The horse race there is over. There may be an insurrection, forcing Trump to run as a third-party candidate. Now that the voters have spoken, how will the Party establishment settle its stomach? There are so many problems with Trump, problems on different levels. There is the burlesque aspect of his demeanor, which some people see and others don’t. He is a clown to many. He is also a tyro, incapable of speaking articulately about anything, but probably not because of stupidity. No, probably because articulateness means little to his supporters. If Trump wins the election in November, his mandate will be to tear down the house. Coherent policy statements will mean nothing in the smoke and dust. How eager are Republican mandarins, and the organized money behind them, to participate in the pillage?

Is it possible that there will be no pillage? If Trump has a truly “presidential” mien up his sleeve, he is probably not going to display it until after the election.

All this must be thought about. What must not be thought about is “how this ever happened.” We’ll leave that question to the historians; with their longer perspective, they’ll see things that we cannot. I myself have been mildly surprised by the extent of Trump’s success, but the success itself does not surprise me at all. What surprises me — and it oughtn’t — is the shock and awe that seems to have been dealt to political commentators. For too many of the men and women who tell us what to think, Trump’s advance has made Aleppos of their workspace. They cannot function without saying panicky things. A Times editorial yesterday castigated the Republican Party for allowing Trump to happen. Not so fast! I would bet that a big chunk of Trump’s supporters either used to be Democrats or are the children of people who were Democrats until the Civil Rights/Nixon disaster.

I hope that Hillary Clinton and her supporters will not embark on a wild vilification of Donald Trump. Without doing much to recognize Trump’s existence, the Democrats need to create a welcoming but realistic political atmosphere that will draw every conceivable voter to the polls, while conferring by implication the air of a sideshow monstrosity on Trump’s berserkers. I have my doubts about Clinton’s ability to oversee a project of this kind; her character is marred by a profound arrogance that seems to me to be pregnant with tragic possibilities.

Here’s what I think: if Donald Trump is able to present himself as the more generous candidate, more sincerely committed to the welfare of the American voters of today than his Democratic rival, then he will win in November. Other issues pale to insignificance beside this one.


It may be that generosity is much on my mind anyway. Thinking, late last night, about Mavis Gallant’s novel, A Fairly Good Time, I was tickled by the ease with which I could dissolve every scene, every confrontation, and every plot point in a colloid of understanding and generosity. “Understanding” is generally another word for “sympathy,” but not in Gallant’s world. Again and again, the heroine, a twenty-something called Shirley, runs up against generosity withheld by people who claim to understand her, while she herself is generous without understanding.

Because the novel is set in Paris, in the early Sixties — still the late Forties, in other words, in all but the most superficial appearances — the dissonance between understanding and generosity might easily be seen as a comic take on French cynicism. Gallant certainly plays this card. The two principal men in the story, Philippe, Shirley’s vanishing husband, and Papa Maurel, the unhappy patriarch of a discordant family, treat Shirley with a contempt bordering on sadism; they are virtuosos in turning her arguments of self-defense against her. As a disheveled North American of undeveloped habits, Shirley lacks the ideal personality profile for would-be Parisian expats. But she runs into much the same hard-heartedness in fellow North Americans, such as her quondam friend Renata and her touring godmother, Mrs Cat Castle. The only truly gentle people in the book, aside from the rackety heroine herself, are the Higginses, Mr and Mrs and their son, Pete. Shirley was married to Pete, briefly. Gallant makes you wonder about the “why” behind the “briefly,” but then discloses the history in the tumorously outsized, seventy-page twelfth chapter: Pete died in a stupid vehicular accident. The sweetness of the Higginses is a small cloud of dust in the bedlam of Shirley’s protracted apology. The Higgenses belong to the relatively distant past, and they are completely effaced by such supporting characters as Madame Roux, the inexplicably malignant shopkeeper on the ground floor of Shirley’s apartment house.

Speaking of “generosity,” I do not have money in mind. Shirley is not rich by any means, but she is not needy, either. Shirley is not turning to people for financial help. She is looking for friends, for people who will make sense of her life in Paris. Too often, she is told that bad things will happen to her, and the warnings are not meant in a friendly or generous way. Here are two passages, a page apart, taken from Shirley’s recollection of her first dinner with Philippe.

All these rude questions have a reason [says Philippe], and you are certainly as conscious of it as I am. Otherwise you would not have bothered to see me again. I have another question — I hope not the last. Between the time I met you and today, and I have been asking other questions about you. Your friends tell me that you give everything away. Why do you give everything away? It sounds like a kind of imbalance. Has anyone ever tried to stop you? (240)

He spooned two strawberries on to my plate and insisted I taste them. I wondered if he had been raised to think that women need to be coaxed. It seemed to me an extraordinary physical gesture, as if we were already lovers. I didn’t know then that we could not be friends. I don’t know why, but we never became friends. (241)

One is reminded of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal: a novel that begins with the disappearance of a husband climaxes with the insight of a first date observed. We never became friends. By page 241, the reader is well aware of this; the reader has known it from the start, when Shirley, alone in the apartment, goes through Philippe’s desk drawers and reads bits of the strange novel that a female friend, somehow not a mistress (she is perhaps not physically robust), hopes that Philippe will be able to publish. Philippe holds this woman in higher regard than he does his wife. Looking back from page 241, we may nod: Geneviève Deschranes and Philippe are friends, just as Philippe and Shirley are not. Shirley claims to love Philippe, but she never says anything about liking him. This may be the failure of her generosity: it is indiscriminate. She gives everything away, to anybody. And she does not understand that, for that and other reasons, she and Philippe could never be friends.

A tangential encounter that no one of ordinary discretion would allow to blow out of proportion thrusts Shirley into the bosom of the Maurel family. If Shirley fits in with the Maurels, that’s because the family is already running a substantial friendship deficit within itself. The force of bourgeois custom is all that holds the Maurels together. Papa, a thinnish man who closes his eyes in frequent exasperation and who forbids what he cannot ignore, was bought by Maman Maurel’s rich father. When the marriage didn’t work out, Papa moved in with his rich uncle. But Maman’s father was a friend of Papa’s uncle, and Papa was sent back to Maman, whereupon they actually became the parents of two girls, eight years apart. Marie-Thérèse, the elder, is stern and correct, the mother of four boys of her own. (Maman, a delicate eater, loathes the Alsatian in-laws with whom Marie-Thérèse’s husband, Gérald, has brought her into contact.) Claudie, the younger daughter, is something of a wild child. She has borne a child out of wedlock; Papa and Maman are raising little Alain as their own (they moved to a new neighborhood to avoid the disgrace). I never did decide what was wrong with Claudie, but something was. Something involving the imbalance of a strong will in a weak mind.

The Maurel’s live in Boulogne-Billancourt, far away from Shirley’s flat in the 6ième, but Shirley seems to spend every free minute with them, at least for a while.

The Maurel family were still trying to overtake their first failed invitation. Shirley had now sat down to four meals in their dining room, each a disaster. The Maurels quarreled so violently that no one save Gérald had time to swallow. Only Shirley seemed to be distressed by it; to the Maurels, normal conversation was either a whine or a scream. Except for Papa, who never looked at her, and Marie-Thérèse, who mistrusted Shirley with all her heart, Shirley had become everyone’s tutelary saint. (141)

Giving it all away yet again.

A Fairly Good Time is itself marked by the tension between understanding and generosity. A famous and highly-accomplished short-story writer, long published in The New Yorker, Gallant wrote only two novels; this one is the second. When short-story writers produce novels with odd shapes and strange focus, it is difficult to distinguish the experimental from the incompetent. A Fairly Good Time is certainly not an incompetent novel; its very irregularities (and these are considerable) are engrossing. They reproduce, without annoying insistence, the irregularities of twenty-something life, when overwhelming possibility engenders limitless procrastination. It is hard to tell who one’s friends are. What I mean by raising the idea of incompetence is the uncertainty, betrayed by the tale’s unexpected emphases, of affect attempted and achieved.

The title is taken from Edith Wharton: “If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.” I don’t think that I’ve ever read a more characteristic line: the bleak irony behind Wharton’s decision to let beauty stand in for joy infuses all her work. But I am not aware that Shirley has made up her mind about being happy, or about much of anything else. Shirley accepts that, as a plain woman, she is not entitled to top-drawer treatment, but her search for personal satisfaction does not suggest that happiness has been crossed off her list. Does she have a fairly good time, amidst all the disaster of a novel that, while set in Paris, is chilled by the frontier gusts of empty west Canada? Gallant is replete with understanding; like Diane Johnson after her, Gallant delights in showing us the French bourgeoisie at home, with its rabbity misgivings and its mindless disdain for Americans. (There are good reasons for looking down on Americans, but these little people are not in possession of them.) Gallant is not criticizing the French so much as warning Anglophones against trying to be chummy. She does this best by inflicting the Maurel’s chumminess on Shirley.

But, perhaps haunted by modernist fashions, Gallant doesn’t want to tell us too much about Shirley. In an almost slavish adherence to fictional modes of the Sixties, she allows Shirley to say goodbye to everything in the story that she has just lived, but tells us not a thing about what’s next for her heroine. Shirley leaves her old apartment for the last time; she posts a hastily-improvised letter to Philippe that could mean anything. “She supposed that they would see each other again in time, in dreams and recollections.” We are allowed to follow Shirley no further. This is an arguably stingy way to end a story about a woman who gives everything away.


Friday 6th

Yesterday’s entry was not one of the best; I wasn’t feeling altogether well. “What is to be thought?” I wrote, intending to bring Lenin (and Chernyshevsky) to mind. They wrote, What Is To Be Done? Well, aside from voting, there is not much for the citizen of today’s representative democracies to do; in fact, one factor contributing to the avalanche of support for Donald Trump is the monopolization of political activity by professional officials.

In today’s Times, I read a much better-expressed version of my own thoughts, in Paul Krugman’s column. In “Truth and Trumpism,” Krugman ticks off a few of the regrettable perspectives that journalism is likely to propose in the coming weeks. Indeed, I mentioned one of them yesterday, the Times article that sketched Trump’s first hundred days. In today’s paper, there’s a piece about the security briefing that Trump may receive now that he is alone on the field of Republican candidacy. There is no need for any of this now. Additionally, Krugman warns us against “centrification” and “false equivalence.” These are both symptoms of a decayed understanding of enlightened fair play. Both will tend to minimize Trump’s distance from the political center, by making him (and his supporters) look less radical than he is and more like Hillary Clinton. I do not mean by what follows to compare Trump and Hitler except in this regard, that both emerged from outside traditional political contexts; that was Hitler’s initial appeal and it is also Trump’s. We must fight the tendency to regard Trump as an insider simply because he has gotten this far in the process. He is bringing the outside in with him, instead of adapting to the inside.

In the course of this discussion, Krugman showed me something that we, you and I, can do during this election season. We can remind everyone we know of this:

Finally, I can almost guarantee that we’ll see attempts to sanitize the positions and motives of Trump supporters, to downplay the racism that is at the heart of the movement and pretend that what voters really care about are the priorities of D.C. insiders — a process I think of as “centrification.”

That is, after all, what happened after the rise of the Tea Party. I’ve seen claims that Tea Partiers were motivated by Wall Street bailouts, or even that the movement was largely about fiscal responsibility, driven by voters upset about budget deficits.

In fact, there was never a hint that any of these things mattered; if you followed the actual progress of the movement, it was always about white voters angry at the thought that their taxes might be used to help Those People, whether via mortgage relief for distressed minority homeowners or health care for low-income families.

Now I’m seeing suggestions that Trumpism is driven by concerns about political gridlock. No, it isn’t. It isn’t even mainly about “economic anxiety.”

Trump support in the primaries was strongly correlated with racial resentment: We’re looking at a movement of white men angry that they no longer dominate American society the way they used to. And to pretend otherwise is to give both the movement and the man who leads it a free pass.

Donald Trump seems to be silent on the subject of black Americans, but this can be seen as a way of giving his supporters a free hand to fill in the blanks. What we can do is argue that the omission of blacks from Trumpaganda is disingenuous. It’s all right, for some reason, to denigrate Latinos and Asians in the United States, but, after the Sixties, blacks must be treated with honor and respect. This party line has done no one any good, neither blacks, who have not benefited in any more material way from the lip service — indeed, it has tended to make them look unworthy, when in fact they’re only human — nor the vast bloc of Americans who, too young to remember the civil rights struggle itself, simply don’t see a problem. It seems a tall order to ask black leaders to draw the truth from the Trumpistas, but someone will have to make the angry white men acknowledge that their loathing is not limited to Latinos or Asians — no, indeed. The only people who have been served by false piety about black Americans are those who have quietly stoked racist bigotry.

In an adjacent Op-Ed piece, “A White Church No More,” evangelist Russell Moore writes, “This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.” One thing that we can do is to man those searchlights and turn up the wattage.


Friday is supposed to be the day for lighthearted entries, but I’m not really in the mood. Some knucklehead knicked the wrong pipe during the renovation of an apartment on the other side of the building, and as a result they had to turn off all the gas. Translation: the stove in the kitchen is a temporarily non-functioning appliance. Happily, I am not unprepared. Last year, poor Fossil Darling went without gas in his apartment for several months, because it took that long to locate a leak that a Con Ed worker investigator discovered in the wake of the dragnet that followed that big explosion on the Lower East Side. I was certain that a similar leak would be found in this badly-ageing pile, so, after a spell of freaking out, I bought three electric appliances: a hotplate, an electric water kettle, and a large rectangular frypan thing. I took everything out of the boxes, to save room, and stowed the three items in the cupboard over the refrigerator. If know anything about kitchens, you know that the cupboard over the refrigerator, being high, hard-to-reach, and small, is just about useless, but it was a dandy place for my new, unnecessary equipment. And there it was when I needed it. I had to lug all the cookbooks off the top of the fridge to get to them, but I did not have to use a ladder. The kettle and the hotplate have already shown themselves to be in working order.

I boiled water in the kettle just to make sure that it worked. I used the hotplate to finish boiling some eggs. I was going to make a Thousand Island dressing yesterday, so I had to boil at least one egg; I boiled three. I was fiddling around in that part of the apartment — reorganizing drawers in the pyramid, if you must know — and not paying much attention to the boiling eggs. Suddenly, though, I noticed that they were not boiling. The timer was still running. I thought at first that water might have splashed out of the pan and put out the fire. Odd, but possible. Not so, though. None of the burners lighted.

Someone in the management office told Kathleen that “they’re working on it, but they don’t tell us anything.” So I am looking into ovens. (Don’t call me Hansel.) I have never been a toaster-oven person. My mother adored hers, but it was the rattiest, dirtiest thing, out of place in our spic ‘n’ span home. I suppose that it didn’t bother her because the mess was confined to the inside of a small metal box. “Small” is another part of the problem. I bought a very large electric oven through the late, lamented Chef’s Catalog, but it still wasn’t really large enough, and although the copy explained that it was a “professional” unit, and that “professional” meant, “no insulation,” I didn’t take that very seriously. The thing turned out to be horribly dangerous to use; I was always risking serious burns. Nor did mounting it on an eye-level shelf help. I left it in the old apartment. I have a chicken in the refrigerator, prepped for roasting. It occurred to me about twenty minutes ago that I can brown and braise it in the frypan thingy. I will miss making pizzas.

Also, did I say that there is no hot water this morning, either.


In April, I started a new notebook: the triumph of optimism over experience. It was part of the series of Field Notes “memo books” devoted to great American crops. Cotton, in this case. I kept it on the Pembroke table next to my reading chair, along with a pen. The idea was that I would make notes of things that occurred to me during my evening reads, and also in conversation with Kathleen. I was tired of running into the bookroom to look things up, something that I never do on the smartphone — I. Just. Won’t. I do use Evernote on the phone, but it’s still easier to write things down, illegibly and incompletely, than it is to type on a tyny keyboard.

So I made notes, and even remembered to look things up in the morning. I discovered that the former Camilla Shand is an “HRH.” I discovered the meaning (and pronunciation) of “seneschal.” (You’d think I’d have done the latter long ago — and perhaps the problem is that I did, long ago.) The first note is dated 3/15-16. Sporadic notes follow, until 4/8/16. (“Memling — Memel?” I haven’t checked that one yet. Kathleen adores Memling, thanks to that show at the Frick a while back.) Then the inevitable happened: the notebook, cotton white thought it was, became part of the furniture.

It was rescued from this moribund state last Monday. I was reading A Fairly Good Time. I flagged a passage with a Post-it, but I worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure out why. So I made an accompanying note.

Rigobert: Gallant 96. AFGT — Rodibert — my feelings about Robert. A Friday thing.

On page 96 of the NYRB reprint of A Fairly Good Time, you will find Shirley on a “gray street.”

She saluted the marble bust of an entirely forgotten figure of the Third Republic. She and Philippe had given a name — Rigobert Arcadius — and acknowledged him their private high priest.

Rigobert is one of those Frankish names that has not come down to us in shorter form. (Rigbert?) Rodibert is one that has. That’s why you don’t see “Rodibert” very much; it is presented in its modern form, “Robert.” I don’t know where or how long ago I first came across the full spelling, but I can’t say that I’d have preferred it. (I’m overlooking its persistence in Spanish, because that’s not how I found it.) In any case, “Rigobert” started me thinking about “Robert,” and how much I hate it.

A Friday thing? Well, the hot water has come back on, so my mood has improved. I always knew that there was something fishy about “Robert,” because my parents so insistently called me “Rob.” The name was, my father later insisted, not their choice; I came from the Foundling Hospital with it. They added “John,” after my uncle, but it never occurred to them to call me “Robert John.” That started at Notre Dame, where a group of us, probably having read too much Dostoevsky, decided that there were too many Michaels and Johns, as indeed there were. Of course there were too many Bobs, too, so I became Robert John. I had never been a Bob. I don’t know how anybody stands it. I have met Robert Shiller, and he is a man of such quiet probity that you have to assume that he lacks the vanity to consider his own name. Of course, he may have been called “Bob” by the people who loved him when he was growing up; I suppose that might do it. Otherwise, I can see no difference between “Bob” and “Drip” or “Ooze.” It is a label of insignificance.

It was lucky that I went straight from Notre Dame to Houston, because they have a thing for double names in the South as well. Long before I left my Lone Star exile, however, I had shorted things to “RJ,” and that’s who I remain. I briefly toyed with changing it to “Archie,” because you wouldn’t believe how many secretaries and receptionists wrote that down on “While You Were Out” slips. Archie is not a very classy name, it’s true — that’s why they changed it to “Cary” — but it is also just too boyish for me. Besides, when I was young, I had the same red hair as the comic-book Romeo, and although I am a terrible flirt, my seductions are conducted along less naïve, fresh-faced lines.

Dynasty — I almost forgot. For ten years or more, I was JR to everyone who didn’t know me.

I hate “Robert” mostly because of “Bob,” but the name by itself is still pretty wet. No pope, tsar or Chinese emperor has ever been called “Robert.” There was a rash of Roberts between Charlemagne and William the Conqueror. The first King Robert of France was a usurper who was booted out within the year. The second and last royal Robert got himself excommunicated. To make amends he became “Robert the Pious.” Both of these men were descended from Robert the Strong, one of Charlemagne’s leading lieutenants. He came from the Rhineland, as did Charlemagne, who moved him around until he settled in Anjou. I’d like to know more about Robert the Strong, because he is an eminent example of the kind of local bigwig who punched through the mists of time and landed in history proper. But even Robert the Strong does not inspire me to like my name. Robert the Devil, by the way, was a forebear of the Conqueror. There’s an opera about him, but it’s never put on anymore. That’s how it’s getting to be with the name “Robert.”

I also thought (much earlier) about spelling it backward: amazingly, this works. “Trebor.” I can only imagine how different my life would have been as “Trevor.” Possibly, it wouldn’t have been different at all: I’m pretty Trevor-ish as it is, don’t you think? Or do you think I should be more like Bob Shiller?

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (IV)

25, 26, 28, 29 April

Monday 25th

In the final pages of In altre parole (In Other Words), Jhumpa Lahiri mentions her last book, Lowland. Except that, writing in Italian, she calls it La Moglie (The Wife). That is the title of the Italian translation by M F Oddera. Presumably, Lahiri was involved in the decision to give Lowland a different title for Italian readers. But it is nevertheless surprising to hear the unauthorized title from the writer’s mouth.

Does Jhumpa Lahiri still exist? As a woman of flesh and blood — or flesh and bone, as Lahiri has learned in Italian (carne ed ossa) — the answer is “yes”; but, existentially, as a writer, the answer is, possibly, “no.” Existentially, at least, there is another woman going by the same name. She is another woman because she thinks, reads, and writes in another language — if, that is, she still does, now that she is no longer living in Italy. Lahiri ends the book in a state of doubt. What will she do? She is honest enough to say that she doesn’t know. How quixotic will it be, in America, to go on avoiding English texts — newspapers and magazines along with books, not to mention panel discussions and whatnot — and to continue to write in a language that she is unwilling to translate?

Lahiri mentions a writer whom I’ve never heard of, Agota Kristóf, or Kristof as I shall refer to her, as that’s how her name appears on the cover of her books. Kristof’s books are written in French, not her native language. Her native language was Hungarian. Kristof, who died in 2011, escaped from Hungary in 1956, after the suppressed revolt against the Communist régime, and settled in Switzerland — in Neuchâtel, the Francophone town on the lake of the same name. There, she reinvented herself as a writer in French. According to Lahiri, Kristof never felt fluent in French; she could not write without a foreigner’s dependence upon dictionaries. The alternative would have been to write in Hungarian, a language hardly spoken outside the very country that would prohibit publication of her work. In effect, Kristof decided to become her own translator into French.

Existentially, Kristof never existed as a Hungarian writer. As a woman of flesh and blood, she was obliged to leave her native land in order to survive. Lahiri points out these differences from her own case. Everything about Lahiri’s foray into Italian has been voluntary. And, no doubt because of her gender, even Lahiri wonders if this foray might not be somewhat frivolous. Other writers, she tells us, often regard her decision to write in Italian with disapproval, wondering if such a project can ever be more than superficial. She is heartened by the example of Agota Kristof, but one must ask (as Lahiri begins to do) if Kristof’s example is genuinely available to her. My own opinion is that Lahiri has not quite earned the right.

I say this because In altre parole reads like a translation from the English, even though it was written by the author in Italian and translated into English by someone else (Ann Goldstein). I can’t guess how foreign Lahiri’s text might seem to native readers of Italian; I fear that they might find it brave but elementary. I don’t mean to fault Lahiri’s Italian, which seems sound enough. It is her thinking that I question. For example, I question her use of the word “approccio.” This word appears in my Cassell’s, but only in the Italian-to-English section, where it seems limited to use in diplomatic usage, not unlike the French “tentative.” “Approccio” does not appear in the English-to-Italian half of the dictionary. I sense that it is simply “not Italian” to think, as we do in English, of approaching a problem in a certain way. There is another way to put it, one that reflects a different way of thinking about it.

Perhaps In altre parole reads like a translation because it is, as Lahiri claims, her first genuinely autobiographical work. She is writing, throughout, about herself, and as a matter of fact she is an American writer. Who would think in English more pervasively than a writer in English? Moreover, Lahiri is writing about reading and writing. (Scrivo, scrivo, scrivo! One gets rather tired of that word.) In one amusing chapter, her husband comes into the picture. Her husband is the beguilingly-named former deputy editor of Time Latin America, Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush. Whatever his background, he speaks Spanish. He speaks Italian as if it were Spanish. And yet, everywhere they go, his Italian is hailed as perfect, unaccented, even; while Lahiri’s Italian, which really is much more correct than her husband’s, never makes the grade. Lahiri is exasperated by this: do Italians hear with their eyes? And yet I suspect that her husband’s Italian is closer to the real thing because his Spanish is so much closer to Italian. He already thinks the right way.

The way to learn a foreign language is to parrot a good native speaker. Don’t say anything that you haven’t heard that native speaker say. Don’t, in other words, even think of expressing yourself until you have mastered the parrotting and no longer have to think about it. Then you may express yourself — if you still have anything to say. I wonder just how well Lahiri has expressed herself in Italian. I’ll never really know, not unless some highly literate Italian who is also fluent in English writes a critical essay that addresses this very question. I expect that Lahiri has used Italian to show Italians how Anglophones think, just as Francesca Marciano does the opposite, in The Other Language — a work that, sadly, has not appeared in Italian. I suspect that Marciano has a more proficient approccio.

Scrivo, all’inizio, per occultarmi. “I wrote, in the beginning, to hide myself.” That’s my translation. Goldstein puts it thus: “In the beginning, I wrote in order to conceal myself.” I do give Lahiri points for not beginning the sentence with “In the beginning,” natural though it is in English. “To conceal” is indeed the first choice, in Cassell’s, as a translation of occultare, but I think that I should have gone with the third, “to keep secret.” In the beginning, I wrote as a way of keeping myself secret. No matter how you phrase it, this is an intriguing statement, because it raises the specter of the writer who is her only reader: the true diarist. In the beginning, Lahiri wrote what she could not say. Why couldn’t she say it? And how did her problem with saying things, and her intention to write in secret, propel her into this engagement with Italian?


These questions play in my mind as I consider this week’s new word, oikophobia. It looks like Greek, because it is composed of Greek elements, but to Plato and Aristotle it could only have connoted madness, for to be afraid, or seized with a violent dislike, of one’s home couldn’t be anything but crazy. Perhaps that is precisely what Roger Scruton thought when he coined the word, nearly fifteen years ago. But I think that he had something else on his mind. “Oik” sounds pretty much like what an English oikophobe would want to flee: the people who say “Oi!” for “Hey!”: common-law Brits.

For further enlightenment on the subject, I turn to James Taranto, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, who in 2010 was weighing in on the kerfuffle caused by plans to build an Islamic center, including a mosque, within a few blocks of Ground Zero, here in Manhattan. Needless to say, Taranto’s opinion was that the élitist proponents of the center, in their unwillingness to respect the widespread but vernacular opposition to such propinquity, manifested oikophobia, which he explained as follows:

The British philosopher Roger Scruton has coined a term to describe this attitude: oikophobia. Xenophobia is fear of the alien; oikophobia is fear of the familiar: “the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’ ” What a perfect description of the pro-mosque left.

In truth, oikophobia functions elegantly as a disapproving alternative to an already perfectly handy word, cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan people have long deplored the provinciality of hoi polloi. Thanks to Scruton, the people can just as easily deplore the sophistication of cosmopolitans. For it is indeed true that educated people tend to have more in common with educated people from anywhere than with their own uneducated neighbors. That is, among other things, the whole point of education. Scruton has turned up the heat a bit, or at least Taranto has done so: élitists (another word for “cosmopolitans”) take the other side and denigrate their own “customs, culture, and institutions.” In truth, cosmopolitans are rarely so strenuous.

As someone who likes to think of himself as cosmopolitan, I agreed with the opponents of the placement of the Islamic center. I didn’t share their feelings at all, but those feelings struck me as perfectly understandable. The discomfort of regular people from the boroughs would obviously — obviously — be real enough, and I do not believe in overlooking popular discomfort. There seemed no real need to place the center so close to Ground Zero, or in Lower Manhattan at all. Not far from where I live, the Islamic Cultural Center of New York stands on the corner of 96th Street and Third Avenue. That’s completely out of my small orbit, and I have no idea how lively it is; nor do I understand why a second cultural center was planned. (I may have forgotten.) The ICCNY is the oldest mosque in the city, although the current structure dates to the Eighties. Even then, the construction was controversial. I am not aware of any appreciable local Islamic population. Being a cosmopolitan, I’m not personally troubled by that. But I cock an eyebrow. Everybody knows that Islam flourishes in Queens.

Along with the mosque squabble, Taranto borrows from Charles Krauthammer another oikophobic issue, opposition to opposition to same-sex marriage. Here we must note that Taranto is writing in 2010, a long time ago so far as this question is concerned. If touristic and corporate responses to recent legislation in North Carolina and Alabama are any indication, same-sex marriage can no longer be claimed as an American bugaboo; its opponents do look more and more like bigots. Certainly same-sex marriage cannot be viewed as a pill that élitists are forcing an unwilling population to swallow.

Closer to Scruton’s area of concern, my cosmopolitan outlook leads me to conclude that the Eurocrats in Brussels must be stopped, or at least saved from themselves. They accent cooperation at the expense of respecting local differences. Local differences are not going to go away, certainly not as the result of Eurocrat wishful thinking, and there is no real reason to wish that they would do so.


My real quarrel with Roger Scruton is that he believes in “the tribe” as the basis of culture. From Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern culture:

The core of common culture is religion. Tribes survive and flourish because they have gods, who fuse the many wills into a single will, and demand and reward the sacrifices on which social life depends. (5)

As the statement of a late-twentieth-century onetime Oxbridge don, this is fantastical stuff. What on earth does Scruton know, what can he know, about gods forging many wills into one, demanding and rewarding sacrifices? Nothing that he didn’t read in a book is what. Nothing that hasn’t been filtered into his consciousness by the more or less biased observers of either the earth’s few remaining actual tribes or the more numerous surviving texts that require an indeterminate degree of interpretation. One thing that Scruton downplays is the involuntary nature of membership in tribes. I find no mention in Scruton’s discussion of the person who wants to leave the tribe. The person who wants to change it is charged with sacrilege, but the person who wants to leave, perhaps to join a distant tribe, is not imagined. Scruton makes an interesting but, to my mind dubious, claim for the importance of membership in a tribe.

Modern people long for membership; but membership exists only among people who long for it, who have no real conception of it, who are so utterly immersed in it that they find it inscribed on the fact of nature itself. Such people have immediate access, through common culture, to the ethical vision of man. (11)

It is quite easy to infer from this the existence of oikophobes. Imagine living, as one of them, among people immersed in a value structure that you deplore! It is not hard for me to do so; and, what is more, it is altogether too easy for me to feel proud of myself, according to one undoubtable aspect of the “ethical vision of man,” for resisting immersion. I grew up in a town that immersed itself in the idea of excluding Jews and blacks from its resident population. Jews and blacks could run the shops and clean the bathrooms, but they could not live within the Holy Square Mile.

And yet I am no oikophobe. I shouldn’t want to live in Bronxville, certainly, but I’m uncomfortable about calling attention to its sometime viciousness. It is not my problem; it is not really anybody’s problem. I cannot see Bronxville’s anti-Semitism as more than a foolishness: it harms only those who stew in it. As a cosmopolitan, I have no complaint. As a memoirist, I am forced to recognize it as a factor in my repudiation of the naive belief that community values are benign and worthy of being cherished. I knew the lesson of “The Lottery” long before I read Shirley Jackson’s story.

Up to now, in the novels that she claims are not autobiographical, Jhumpa Lahiri has written about the dislocation of leaving a tribe behind. In the new book, she addresses the much less familiar side of that dislocation. How do you join a tribe? How do you become a writer in Italian? Her tongue and her pen have mastered their part of the task. What’s left is for her mind to do the same. Is it even possible?


Tuesday 26th

When I find Roger Scruton’s remarks on oikophobia — I expect that his invention is well-cushioned in thoughtful verbiage — I may very well find him saying what everybody knows, which is that teenagers suffer severe bouts of the disease. Indeed, oikophobia is a healthy side-effect of adolescence. It’s part of the self-defining process that consists of differentiation from everything that’s familiar, too familiar to have been learned, so familiar that it has always been taken for granted.

On the basis of In altre parole, I should say that Jhumpa Lahiri suffered a variant of the stable child’s oikophobia. It started much earlier and went much deeper. The annoying superficial aspects of it were outgrown in the regular way, but a restlessness with language persisted, as if language were an overfamiliar nanny who overstayed her term of duty. Lahiri wasn’t entirely eager for the nanny to leave, because the nanny was her access to achievement in the country that remained strange to her parents.

The nanny was English.

It’s an interesting story, and I wish that Lahiri had lingered over it, or at any rate that she will do so in future, in English or Italian as she likes. She doesn’t tell us very much in In altre parole (although she does repeat more than a few things, as one does in successive pieces of journalism, and as one does when one is struggling to say things in a new language), but what she tells us, in the context of this Italian book out of the blue, suggests that the roots of her infatuation with the language of Dante and Ginzburg run all the way down to her beginnings.

Although born in London, she arrived in Rhode Island at the age of two; her father is a university librarian. Lahiri’s parents came to England and America from Kolkata. At home, her mother did everything possible to maintain a Bengali way of life. Bengali was spoken at home, never English. This is an almost universal immigrant experience, but for Lahiri it must have had an aspect of perversity, owing to her father’s profession. He was not a laborer. He and his wife were actually fluent in English, at least in understanding it. The choice to maintain Bengali customs was highly self-conscious.

I saw the consequences of not speaking English perfectly, of speaking with a foreign accent. I saw the wall that my parents faced in America almost every day. It was a persistent insecurity for them. Sometimes I had to explain the meaning of certain terms, as if I were the parent. Sometimes I spoke for them. In shops the salespeople tended to address me, simply because my English didn’t have a foreign accent. As if my father and mother, with their accent, couldn’t understand. I hated the attitude of those salespeople toward my parents. I wanted to defend them. I would have liked to protest: “They understand everything you say, while you don’t understand even a word of Bengali or any other language in the world.” And yet it annoyed me as well when my parents mispronounced an English word. I corrected them, impertinently. I didn’t want them to be vulnerable, I didn’t like my advantage, their disadvantage. I would have liked them to speak English as I did. (151-2)

Countless immigrant children have felt these conflicting resentments. But most of their parents did not understand English very well. Few were knowledge workers whose everyday office language was English. What did Lahiri’s parents think they were doing? Did they plan to raise children who would to return to Calcutta? This is only one of a dozen questions that come to mind. Lahiri has answered many of them fictionally, hypothetically, in her earlier books. But she has not given us, pure and simple, her parents’ answers. Her answers.

One consequence is that Lahiri’s English, while perfectly tuned, is at the same time muffled, because it served her in childhood as a utility. The real language, the language of hearth and home, was something else, something that inspired Lahiri to set much of her fiction in India, and in a fictional India that existed before she was born: the Bengal of her parents. At the end of In altre parole, she acknowledges a recent discovery:

Today, I no longer feel bound to restore a lost country to my parents. It took me a long time to realize that my writing have to assume that responsibility. (221)

To some extent, Lahiri’s writing has always been in translation. In altre parole is, indeed, her first book. There is something about English that she has not taken seriously, something that she assumed she knew. She is a born writer, and she certainly knows how to tell stories. But although her prose is recognizably American, it is not a particular kind of English. The French would say that elle vient de nulle part — her tongue/language/accent comes from nowhere. If she had grown up in India, her English might even have a more specific weight. Instead, she grew up in Suburbia, which IS nulle part. I strongly suspect that Lahiri believes that nothing worth writing about occurs entirely within the frame of the United States. When I consider the lengths to which a writer like George Saunders is obliged to exercise his imagination in order to bring Suburbia to life — how marvelous it is, and what an achievement on his part, that he isn’t regarded as a science fiction writer — I believe that she would be right.

I don’t mean to be oikophobic there. The failure of America to be interesting might well be its greatest achievement. Perhaps. The argument can certainly made that peace and stability are more nourishing than magic and drama. The Chinese curse about interesting times makes a good point. But much of American blandness owes to negative factors: to rootlessness (too much moving around), to projection (shopping malls and the fantasies that drive us to them), to vicariousness (the colossal but powdery edifice of celebrity). Multitasking makes people awake but not alert. And the ignorance, the sheer Dunning-Kruger ignorance. Only in America would “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” be considered a joke.


Speaking of jokes: Lady Elizabeth Anson, party-planner to HM the Queen, indulged a Times reporter with a bit of tittle-tattle, and we are holding our breath, hoping that Her Majesty is now just too old to do the wrath thing.

During a discussion about the lost art of conversation because of cellphones, she took her incessantly ringing land line off the hook, letting the receiver dangle at her stockinged feet, and leaned in, saying: “I think I can tell this. It’s a bit about the royal family.”

She described how the queen had had her grandchildren over for dinner. “And she said to me that she found it really difficult,” Lady Elizabeth said, “because they didn’t really know how to talk each other. And she said, ‘I suppose it’s because they’re always getting up and down and helping somebody and putting something in a dishwasher or whatever they’re doing, because they don’t have enough staff.’”

This is really horribly funny. There sits poor granny while her twenty- and thirty-something grandchildren peer surreptitiously at their phones under the table, decide to take this or that call, and pretend to take a plate into the kitchen. All right, it’s just horrible. One wants desperately to think that Elizabeth is pulling the other Elizabeth’s leg, with her explanation of all the “up and down.” One fears not. One suspects a nasty game that only spoiled brats would play. If they don’t know how to talk to each other, it’s probably because they all hate each other. It’s the Queen’s fault that they’re related! One blushes for shame: one oughtn’t even to know this story. Presently one feels better: it occurs to one that the late Queen Mum would have had her own mobile, and not bothered to get up and leave the table to use it, either. Anyway, would you tell her? And I don’t mean the Queen Mum.

And who doesn’t have enough staff?


Michael Kinsley’s new book about falling apart, Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide, was favorably reviewed by Philip Lopate in this weekend’s Book Review. I don’t intend to read it, because it would just make me more high-strung than I already am. Books like Old Age are warnings about the inevitable, and I have already had mine. I hope for a peaceful, moderately uncomfortable, and very inexpensive death, but I don’t fill in the details of that pretty picture. It will fill itself in without any help from me. I get through the day knowing that I may die at any time, and hoping that the specifics of the surprise aren’t too unpleasant. I worry more about the short-term future of civilization, which may be dying, too, but, unlike me, not necessarily.

Having already dealt with most of the material discussed in the review, I was free to be amazed by something I’d never heard put quite this way:

Still, the book refuses to wallow in self-pity or offer triumphalist narratives of overcoming victimhood. Rather, Kinsley is intent on being wryly realistic about coping with illness and the terminal prospects ahead. He makes fun of a fellow boomer, Larry Ellison, the C.E.O. of Oracle, who has spent millions in a quest for eternal life, and who was quoted as saying, “Death has never made any sense to me.” Kinsley quips: “Actually the question is not whether death makes sense to Larry Ellison but whether Larry Ellison makes sense to death. And I’m afraid he does.”

Chuckle, chuckle. It’s nice to know that Ellison is spending his money on worthwhile causes. Who knows what scientists will learn, while looking for something that can’t be found? “Death doesn’t make sense,” however, doesn’t make sense. Death is the secret of life. The death of the individual underpins the survival of the species.

We ought to want to die, just for the good health of it. Maybe someday, we shall. Maybe someday, all the resources currently being poured into cryogenics and reprints of Atlas Shrugged will make it routine for people to die because they’re tired of living. Healthy old people, in their nineties and later, begin to stop paying attention. They’ve heard everything already. They have no reason to learn anything new. They enjoy life but they prefer it to be peaceful and quiet. Eventually, they simply don’t wake up in the morning. There would still be idiots like Ellison demanding Permanent Ego Status, but if this pattern were generalized throughout the population, instead of being limited to a very lucky few, most people just might lose the fear of death. Knowing that death would be preceded by a relaxed stage of withdrawal, they would be happy to hand over the responsibilities and the headaches to their children and grandchildren.

It would be wrong to say that death makes evolution possible — I think. But death certainly makes evolution bearable. Imagine being condemned to live through a few centuries of recent history. Imagine having lived for the nearly two hundred thousand years of recognizably human experience. Death makes evolution bearable because evolution would be utterly unbearable otherwise.

As we grow up, somewhere between our late teens and our early thirties, we organize ourselves by putting faith in a certain arrangement of affairs. Today, for example, a young man with good business prospects plans, unasked, to buy a house with a mortgage. But wait: perhaps this commitment, so common when I was young, is on the way out now. Geezer moment! Young people may well be making commitments to new arrangements that I might find it difficult, after forty years of dealing with mine, to adapt to. We sensible elders may regret the overuse of mobile phones, but nothing we say is going to have any effect; young people will sort it out for themselves. That is how a healthy society functions: young people sort things out, and then they make their contributions of work and children. And then they die, to make room for new younger people, whom they welcome without quite being able to regard them as Hannah Arendt did: as invaders. The world — the natural world as well, but I’m thinking of the world of human beings — is in a state of constant invasion by newborns who know nothing about the world. Happily, most of them eventually learn more about it than Larry Ellison seems to have done.


Thursday 28th

Not gifted at dreaming up catchy names or slogans, I usually manage to stifle the impulse. But the impulse is strong today. I want to name the pixie who has taken to haunting the darker corners of the book room. She darts about like Tinkerbelle, but she has the face and long, straight hair of Marie Kondo (as she is known in the West). She does not advise me on the dispersal of old papers or the folding of socks, both of which could keep her busy in here. (The book room is also what might be called my dressing room.) Instead, she hides in the bookshelves, appearing only when I am looking for a book that just might be shelved behind another book. As I scan the spines in the rear, she whispers, That one. She taps a book with her magic wand. Are you ever going to re-read that one? The preliminary answer is almost always “no” — how did she know that? I take the book in my hand, look at it severely, try to remember reading it, and flip to the Table of Contents. I read a paragraph at random. Sometimes, the next thing that happens is that I slip the book into the discards pile. Just as often, however, I deposit the book upon the stack of books to read.

I’d like a name for this pixie so that I could blame her for unexpected turns in my reading. TinkerKon? Good grief, no. Konbelle? No — but there are possibilities there. Kondobella? Condobella looks nicer, and, besides, loosening the connection to the world-famous author of a treatise on how to get rid of stuff is probably in order, because I wouldn’t want to make the pixie’s namesake look incompetent. KonMari (as she is known in her book) would be very disappointed by my attachment to old books that I haven’t read or even looked at in forty years, books that are out of date in some way or other, books that I really haven’t got time to re-read. Condobella is more of a challenger. She’s not trying to make me get rid of books. She is simply daring me to justifying giving them house room.

Such a book is Edward Crankshaw’s In the Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia’s Drift to Revolution 1825-1917, which I believe I read when it came out, in 1976. It’s possible, I suppose, that all the John le Carré that I’ve been reading in the past six months has made Russia look interesting again, or at any rate less dismally nightmarish. To me, Russia has come to be an embodiment of hopelessness. The good things that people profess to find in its culture — the warm durability of the people, the forgiving majesty of the Church, the searing lyricism of the poets — are invisible to me, at least as advantages. All I see is brutality on a grand scale. I’m not saying that things are any better when I am, in the land of banality, frivolity, and thoughtlessness. But I’m used to those. American inhumanity is a rather negative affair — Americans are too distracted by other things to give humanism a thought. In Russia, where high human hopes seem to be talked about all the time, people get beaten up and thrown in jail rather a lot, and they used to be worked to death. There are too many beefy security types who would do almost anything rather than relate to you man-to-man. But what do I know?

In the Shadow of the Winter Palace begins with a study in futility. That is how I should characterize what I have read since the book was pointed out to me the other day. The first eight chapters, out of a total of twenty-two, cover the reign of Nicholas I. I knew that Nicholas I was a reactionary autocrat, but I didn’t realize — and here we must bear in mind that the statements, “I read this book forty years ago” and “I have never read this book” are often frighteningly equivalent — that Nicholas was politically impotent! I don’t mean that he was incapable or incompetent, although he was indeed both of these things. I mean that he spent his reign, as Crankshaw somewhat zealously reminds us, in a state of fear. His determination to brook no insubordination was couched in terms that betrayed the expectation of insubordination — or worse.

Why, if his power was absolute, if he was truly an autocrat, was he afraid? The answer, quite simply, was that he feared the fate of so many of his forebears, of his own father, the Emperor Paul, the fate that seemed about to claim him on the very day of his accession: death at the hands of his own Guards. (80)

The absolute power of the Tsar was a myth. Perhaps it had always been a myth, but now it was a myth that made no sense. A man of parts might have seen his way to introducing quiet innovations that might lead to more open social and economic conditions, but Nicholas was conspicuously lacking in parts. To the historian, that is, the lack has been conspicuous. Contemporaries saw a robust, handsome man who embodied autocracy, at least until he opened his mouth.

As he saw it, Nicholas had one job: he must make sure that everybody in Russia stayed on the same page. The chorale had been written, and it needed only to be sung — properly. Those who could not carry a tune, or who wished to sing something else, were removed from the choir. The mission of Russia was to go on being Russia. Crankshaw captures what he calls the “fatuity” of this mission in a statement that Nicholas made about the serfs.

There is no doubt that serfdom in its present form is a flagrant evil which everyone realises; yet to attempt to remedy it now would be, of course, an evil even more disastrous. (81)

Nothing could be changed without queering the pitch of the empire. But change could not be avoided; it could only be ignored. Count Kankrin, Nicholas’s minister of finance, opposed the construction of railroads. Nicholas overruled him, and a railroad was built connecting Petersburg with Moscow. But there was no money, and not much more will, to build a line to Ukraine; so that armies had to march all the way to Sevastopol to relieve Menshikov’s forces in the triumph of dunderheadedness that we call the Crimean War. Industrialization was mishandled in much the same way. A penchant for militarism encouraged the housing of workers in vast barracks, detached from their families. (This set-up has been adopted in crypto-capitalist China.) Had the authorities set out to create a deracinated, disaffected proletariat, they could not have done better. Given the circumstances to which the Russian worker was subjected, it is no surprise at all that Marxism met its first success in what was only numerically the least industrialized country in Europe.

The foundations of Soviet management, moreover, were laid by the Romanovs. It is always interesting to read a good history that has itself passed into history. In the Shadow of the Winter Palace was written in the latter days of the Cold War, and Crankshaw never shrinks from scolding the Russians for failing to grasp the inevitable virtue of the Western way of doing business — a failing that is shown to have its roots in the absolutism, itself quite doomed, that Peter the Great learned from the Bourbon example.

Thus there were no guilds of merchants, tradesmen and craftsmen to combine in pressure groups and build up middle-class power. Peter brought industry to Russia, but he did nothing to encourage the establishment of the relatively open society which was the pre-requisite for the organic growth of Western capitalism, operating through countless small enterprises in furious competition with one another. Peter’s mills and factories, and the mills and factories of favoured private entrepreneurs, were thus organised not as the materialization of the personal dreams, ambitions and greed of countless individuals seeking to better themselves, or seized with the love of power or riches, or the sheer delight in making things work, but rather as extensions of the central government, as sources of supply for the central power. (74)

It’s almost an effort to remember that, when this was written, it was much less fashionable than it has since become. Freedom was everything, in those days, and Business was beneath serious discussion. It’s easy, now, to spot Crankshaw’s propaganda as such, but I sense that Crankshaw was not only criticizing the ancien régime in Russia but articulating a new self-consciousness for the home team.


Denied conventional outlets, educated Russians took to the life of the mind, producing masterpieces of melancholy and despair from Lermontov to Chekhov. This is the aspect of tsarist Russia with which we are most familiar. At a certain point in Crankshaw’s text, I conceived the desire to read The Idiot. I read the second of Dostoevsky’s four great novels after I had read the other three, in college — all in the Penguin translation by David Magarshack — and I understood it least of all. The only thing I remembered was that things didn’t work out very well for Prince Myshkin (and what kind of a name is Aglaya?). I acquired the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation (2001) several years ago, and it was surprisingly easy to find, without any interference from Condobella. Worn out for the nonce by Nicholas I, I began the novel, and was presently swept up in the comic spirit that may or may not have been intentional. The scene in the Ivolgins’ sitting room reminds me of the second-act finale of Le Nozze di Figaro, and when the prince opened the door to Nastasya Filippovna, I burst out laughing — I couldn’t help it. Then Rogozhin and his entourage showed up! The melancholy and despair are certainly there, folded into the draperies, but the patina of commedia dell’arte is sparkling. I don’t expect it to last much longer.

The torture in Dostoevsky is a matter of never being able to decide whether the author is trying to tell us how hopeless Russia is (which would imply that things could be better) or how hopeless the human condition is (in which case not). There is a visionary quality, but there is also another quality, and this quality is visionary as well. Usually, “visionary” suggests an arrangement excitingly superior to the existing one; Dostoevsky’s other vision lacks not only excitement but all other emotions; it is a quiet, living death. Two or three characters will have a conversation about ultimate things, in a cold, dark room in the middle of the night. In the morning, someone will go off to get shot or arrested — c’est la vie. Like Henry James, Dostoevsky is gifted at composing elaborate, utterly novel dramas. His novels are encrusted in decades of Famous Reputation, but this gunk falls away as soon as a leading lady makes her appearance, if not sooner. I’m reading The Idiot as if it had just been published.


As I was walking home from the Hospital for Special Surgery yesterday, after a Remicade infusion, it occurred to me to have a look at The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, by James Billington. I’ve had this for a long time, but I suspect that my copy is a replacement, and not the one that I read in the early Seventies. In all ways but one, it’s in great condition, bearing none of the traces of my youthful attentions. (Tucked into an early page is the stub of an opera ticket dated 22 November 1985.) The problem is that even a thirty year-old Vintage paperback is bound to fall apart when read, because the paper is not acid-free. The pages are richly honeyed at the edges, and the binding is stiff. I’ve been reading some fascinating stuff about de Maistre — I didn’t know that he was a Savoyard — but I can’t quote it here because I dare not pin the book open. I am not sure what Condobella will advise, especially as the Kindle edition is more expensive than the paperback.

Not having walked by the river in some time, I saw for the first time that the great flight of steps running up from the embankment to the Finley Walk is under reconstruction. This is a good thing, for the old staircase was pretty crumbly. Everything seems to have been removed, except for a tall supporting slab that may actually be new. The mind boggles, though: what about replacing the Finley Walk? The Finley Walk is in fact the rooftop of a structure whose two lower floors are the uptown and downtown lanes of the FDR Drive. What a fracas rebuilding all of that will be!


Friday 29th

Jenny Diski died yesterday. Ever since she began her “cancer diary” in the London Review of Books, two years ago, I have been in denial. I have hung onto my crazy hopes in the teeth of her steadfast indicatives of dying. Misdiagnosis, miracle cures, remission — something would save her. I have been unwilling to accept the imminent mortality of a writer whose sensibility, despite everything, I have come to find profoundly sympathetic. I almost wrote “simpatico,” but that would have been dishonest: too cool, too jolly. I am not, in fact, given to feeling simpatico. On the contrary, I’m predisposed to the narcissism of small differences. Perhaps that was the secret of my romance with Jenny Diski’s writing: there was no way we would have been friends when we were younger. (Under fifty, anyway.) The differences were not small. I could cherish her work without feeling the need to alter my own.

Her honesty, her determination to get it right, was hugely encouraging. Honesty wasn’t a matter of making embarrassing confessions. Embarrassing confessions were a matter of course. Honesty was a matter of not accepting plausible explanations and just-so stories. She knew that we had been very naïve, and she wanted to know why and how — because we’d been so clever, right?

What the American and British baby boomers, who inhabited the Sixties as if they were building a new planet, have in common is that we watched the radicalism we thought we understood and embodied turn into a radicalism we (ignorantly and naively) never dreamed of. Perhaps all the hope and disappointment hung on a simple definition of a word or two. The big idea we had — though heaven knows it wasn’t new — was freedom, liberty, permission, a great enlarging of human possibilities beyond the old politenesses and restrictions. But it was an idea we failed to think through. It was a failure of thought essentially, rather than a failure of imagination. We were completely wrong-footed when the Sixties turned inexorably into the Eighties. With Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan presiding, our favourite words — freedom, liberty, permission — were bandied about anew and dressed in clothes that made them unrecognisable to us. But even back then, in the Sixties, while we used the word “liberty” there were others who also used it, sometimes varying it to “libertarian,” who meant something quite different from what we intended, and we nodded and smiled, taking them to our bosom, and completely failing to understand that they meant a world that was diametrically opposed to the one we intended to inhabit.

We really didn’t see it coming, the new world of rabid individualism and the sanctity of profit. But perhaps that is only to be expected. It’s possible after all that we were simply young, and now we are simply old and looking back as every generation does nostalgically to our best of times. Perphaps the Sixties are an idea that has had its day and lingers long after its time. Except, of course, for the music.

So ends the introduction to Diski’s memoir, The Sixties, a book that I shelve right next to Lynn Barber’s An Education, because both slim volumes are about the same small size and easily lost amid the larger ones. If they have more in common, beyond the obvious shared things (native city, gender, age), I’m unaware of it. For a good laugh, I imagine Jenny Diski working for (and almost idolizing, as Barbour does) Bob Guccione.

I’d have liked to ask Jenny Diski one thing. You’ve heard that movie-star mantra, Nothing tastes as good as thin feels. I understand it, but I would never believe it, no matter how great I looked. But forget about food; I’m thinking about money. Like everybody, I like having enough money. But I don’t feel the charm of making money — I don’t get that at all. My father might say, “There isn’t any charm,” but I don’t believe that, either. There seem to be people for whom making money is more fun than having or spending it. They will never feel rich — rich enough to be rich. They will simply go on intensifying their feeling of not being poor. Feeding this perverted hunger, they have infested everything with the bacterial kudzu of “financialization.” This was the disaster, these were the people, that we didn’t see coming. Was this really not a failure of the imagination?

I always expected to learn about Jenny Diski’s death (in my honest moments) in the pages of the LRB, but there she was, in the Times this morning. Very respectable notice, with a nice picture. Note to the inner narcissist: I’m not the only one who’s going to miss her.


There’s a new biography of Wallace Stevens out, by Paul Mariani. It’s called The Whole Harmonium. Paul Elie, in the Book Review, hated it; Peter Schjeldahl, at The New Yorker, loves it. But Elie’s complaints sound very much like ones that I should make.

Key parallels are left undrawn. When we learn, in reference to a 1943 lecture that Stevens gave at Mount Holyoke, that “for the past 40 years Coleridge as both poet and philosopher had been one of Stevens’s mainstays,” the comment comes 40 years too late. Introduced earlier, a comparison of the 20th century’s great poet of mind to the 19th century’s great poet of mind would have opened up a deep channel of insight into Stevens’s sense of himself.

So I can’t decide what to do. I shall have to see the book, certainly. In the meantime, I’ve got On Extended Wings, Helen Vendler’s 1969 study of Stevens’s longer poems. Ever since I acquired a cassette tape of Stevens reading “Credences of Summer,” that has been my favorite poem in the world, but it’s all because of Stevens’s voice, his intonation, accent, and all-round transcendent poohbahderie. He reads “The Idea of Order at Key West,” too, and I love it, but it’s so short. “Credences of Summer” rolls along like a book of prophecy.

Three times the concentred self takes hold, three times
The thrice concentred self, having possessed

The object, grips it in savage scrutiny,
Once to make captive, once to subjugate
Or yield to subjugation, once to proclaim
The meaning of the capture, this hard prize,
Fully made, fully apparent, fully found.

Don’t ask me what this means; at the same time, don’t think that meaning doesn’t matter. I suppose it means what it says. What is the object? Read the poem. Better, listen to it. Stevens’s way with “grips it in savage scrutiny” makes it easy to believe, as Mariani seems to be surprising everyone with the news, that the poet broke his hand in a fistfight with Ernest Hemingway in Key West. (Elie is upset, rightly in my view, that Mariani never tells us whether Stevens read Hemingway, or “any new fiction at all.”)

I copied those lines from On Extended Wings, in which Vendler describes them as “a procession of infinitives of purpose,” the point being that, while the self does actually grip the object, the making captive, the subjugation, and the proclamation don’t actually happen. Her opening chapter, “The Pensive Man: The Pensive Style,” demonstrates Stevens’s aversion to the present indicative. Things might be, they must be, they intend to be (“Once to make captive…”), but it is not established that they are. This is the sort of insight that one expects from Vendler, even if it always comes as a surprise that knocks you down a bit.

“Must” is not a word of faith but a word of doubt, implying as it does an unbearable alternative. (21)

It took a while for me to pick myself up after that one; I had to read the sentence to Kathleen. We realized, instantly, but without ever having thought about it before, that “must” is never used in legal writing; “shall” takes its place. I’ll be honest: I turn to books like On Extended Wings for skeleton keys. I get what I deserve. In her introduction, Vendler writes, “Stevens’ [sic] imagery is not particularly obscure once one knows the Collected Poems: it is a system of self-reference, and is its own explanation. I assume here a familiarity with its special meanings.” (9) Meaning: I taught you all of that last semester. So, instead of a cheat sheet, I’m given a way of reading Stevens’s verbs that seems meaningful. I do understand Stevens better for reading Vendler, but I can’t tell you what that better understanding amounts to, what comprises it. I’m fairly certain that it ought to remain unexpressed, except in Vendler’s terms. Vendler is not unapproachable, but she is a mandarin.


One of the saddest things in the world is that “mandarin” is not only not a Chinese word but also not even much of a Chinese concept. It appears to have come into English, via Portuguese, from a Malay term. In other words, it reflects a Malaysian attempt to make sense of Chinese culture, which has long been present in the peninsula. Foreignness, a sense of the exotic, is built into “mandarin.” Back at home, in the Central Country, there are other words, but they are neutral, without affect — none of the pantomime humbug. What we call “Mandarin Chinese” goes by just about the opposite in China: “Ordinary Speech.” Of course, it isn’t ordinary; it’s still the shibboleth of an educated man or woman. It used to be called “official speech,” which is certainly more accurate — but the distance between “mandarin” and “official,” in English, is too great for relation. “Mandarin” conjures up scholars in Chinese outfits (with special hats), distracted from their highly esoteric studies by problems of local civic administration.”Mandarin” conjures all the great Chinese poets who flunked the exam.

It has been a long time since I last thought about “China’s examination hell,” the ordeal, lasting three days or so, to which would-be mandarins were subjected. It was a sort of New York State Bar exam, but worse, because examinees were confined to a military encampment, where they slept in little huts and scribbled away all day out in the broiling sun or pouring rain. Something like that. What were the questions? Who were the graders? I’ve forgotten almost everything that I ever knew — just as the world has done, as regards the mandarin exam. I don’t mean that the world has forgotten the exams, but it is no longer interested in the knowledge that was tested by the exam. Likening it to the Scholastic philosophers’ question about angels dancing on the heads of pins is probably lazy.

The point is that China conducted a long and exhaustive experiment with meritocratic testing, and, in the end, it did not save the régime. Whatever it was the mandarins had to know, it wasn’t readily applicable to the business of running China. The experiment came to an end, along with its sponsoring empire, at just about the time that meritocratic testing fully took hold in the West. We, too, shall discover that there is no efficient way of evaluating people whom we don’t know.


This week’s culinary note must be about branzino filets. Agata & Valentina’s fish counter has taken to piling them up in a bin, ready to flour and sauté. Nothing simpler! I buy a couple, and toss the package into the freezer. When fish is what I want for dinner, I take the package out and thaw the filets in a dish of seasoned milk — don’t forget the pinch of cayenne. Having been floured, the filets go into the fridge for a spell, to set the coating. Then, they’re cooked in butter, over medium-high heat, three minutes per side. Maybe two extra minutes, if the filet seems thick. Keep adding bits of butter, so that there is a sauce, and during those final minutes, toss in a handful of slivered almonds. Serve with frenched green beans and rice. Splendid!

Cooked this way, branzino tastes a lot like trout. Trout was the first fish that I honestly liked, and I should cook it if I could find it. But I never see it in the shops. Branzino is a firm fish that does not fall apart in the skillet. It has a crisp, savory flavor that goes with its crisp, savory skin.

Of course, we wonder where it comes from. When branzino, which no one had ever heard of, began showing up, about fifteen years ago was it, we were told that it comes from the Tyrrhenian Sea. Really, we said. (We would ask an Italian-American.) But there’s no way that bins of trawled branzino are being flown to New York and sold at a very reasonable price. Is there? We wonder where the farms are. In Europe, apparently. Container ships? Oh, dear.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
At the PizzaPlex
April 2016 (III)

Monday 18th

Comes now Parag Khanna, a think-tanker from Singapore, with a better map of the United States — better, because the States disappear. One quibbles with the details. But the important thing is to come up with a plausible way of getting rid of the states. My own utterly shameless solution is to pension off the governors and the legislators. Throw money at them! At least extract a promise from each of the fifty statehouses that no opposition will be mounted to new arrangements. To the imposition of new taxes, or, better, the diversion of old ones, to fund, say, infrastructure projects undertaken by new regional authorities. Urban-centric planning, with high-speed rail phasing out the use of Interstate Highways. First-class public hospitals. That sort of thing.

As for Washington, part of the statehouse bribes ought to include a provision that each state will return, in addition to its two senators, only one representative. This sole representative would reflect the presumption that the states, as such, were henceforth unpopulated. These congressmen would assist the president in establishing foreign policy and military procurement. Taxes would be raised in the old states to fund these projects. There would be no other federal programs. Sorry: just one. Wildnerness Management.

This brings me back to the quibbles. Although the lines that I should draw are very close to Khanna’s, I think it better to prevent shared regional boundaries, by the establishment of wildnerness areas. The entire Appalachian range, for example, is a natural buffer between the Northeast and the near Midwest. Wildnernesses would serve a number of purposes. Military reservations would occupy large tracts of this land, alongside nature and water preserves. Civilian settlement would be neither encouraged nor prohibited by the federal government, but large-scale enterprises of any kind would be forbidden. In the wilderness, gun-control laws would be what they are in the United States today, or possibly even looser.

I could go on and on. Instead, I’ll simply urge readers to weigh and consider Parag Khanna’s argument for overhauling the nation’s political geography, which is, understandably, an economic one.

The problem is that while the economic reality goes one way, the 50-state model means that federal and state resources are concentrated in a state capital — often a small, isolated city itself — and allocated with little sense of the larger whole. Not only does this keep back our largest cities, but smaller American cities are increasingly cut off from the national agenda, destined to become low-cost immigrant and retirement colonies, or simply to be abandoned.

It is obviously easier for a region to prioritize its economic health than it is for a state. Khanna proposes an alliance, involving Kentucky and Tennessee primarily, to focus the prosperity of today’s automobile industry.

It is going to be a struggle between common sense and vested interests. How great it would be if human possessed the intellectual equipment to distinguish, at a glance, personal ownership from rent-seeking.


Yet another one of Kathleen’s school reunions left me home alone on Saturday night, so after a dish of spaghetti alla carbonara — about the best I’ve ever made — I set up the ironing board and watched Facing Windows (La finestra di fronte), which the Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Ozpetek released in 2003 (that long ago!). I wanted to test my comprehension of Italian, and perhaps the ironing helped — I’m a much better listener when my hands are occupied. I understood rather more than expected. I caught two words that I have learned once and for all, “mistake” (sbaglio) and “lost” (perso), the latter several times. I heard the word essere (“to be”) said, more than once, with a firm accent on the first syllable. It’s hard for me to believe that I’ve been fooling around with Italian, sometimes quite earnestly, for more than fifty years without any consciousness whatsoever of the sdrucciolo thing, but there you are.

And maybe my hearing was helped by a complete engagement in the film itself. I don’t know how I discovered it, but I’ve loved Facing Windows for years. From the first, it made me regard the star, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, as Marion Cotillard’s beautiful sister. There is a scene comprised of two-shots in which she plays opposite Massimo Girotti. Girotti, who died, I gather, before the film came out, looks like one of those powerful old ruins painted by Mantegna or Piero; his youthful good looks have been ravaged by the carbuncles of age. For her part, Mezzogiorno is pure Botticelli, as fresh and unlined (and beautiful) as the newborn Venus. I had the feeling of standing between two paintings in the Uffizi — easy to imagine, since I’ve never been.

Mezzogiorno’s character, also called Giovanna, is at the center of one story and on the edge of another. Her marriage to Filippo (Filippo Nigro) has hit a rough patch, and she is distracted by the handsome young man who lives in the apartment across the way. It turns out that he, Lorenzo (Raoul Bova), has been distracted by her as well, to the point of following her around. What brings them together is the other story, which centers on Girotto’s character. He’s an old man who has lost his memory. At first, he can’t remember his name, and the name that he subsequently does remember is not his own, but that of his lover, who was rounded up in the Nazi sweep of Rome in 1943. Davide — that’s who our old man really is — got wind of the roundup and managed to run to the ghetto to warn people, but he had to choose which street to follow, and instead of saving his lover, he saved a lot of children. In the scene that I just mentioned, Giovanna discovers a numerical tatoo on Davide’s arm. So he, too, went to the camps — but he survived. This isn’t gone into in the film.

After the war, Davide became the best pastry-cook in Rome, famous throughout Europe. In a fairy-tale touch, Giovanna dreams of becoming a pastry-cook herself; she is already pretty good at it. She is startled when Davide, who hasn’t said much of anything, advises her not to smoke when she bakes and, more important, to taste the water before using it as an ingredient. When she asks him how he comes by this knowledge, he demurs: maybe in the past he knew someone who knew such things. A sharp one, Giovanna applauds the return of his memory. She doesn’t like having him in the house; Filippo’s outburst of charity is something new for them to fight about. In due course, and with Lorenzo at her side, Giovanna will begin to learn Davide’s story.

Kathleen came home early. The film had about twenty minutes to go. Even though Kathleen wasn’t paying attention — she was poring over eBay screens — I felt a shift in my response to the film. I’ve mentioned this effect before: watching a film that I know well with someone who has never seen it before can be a bit of a shock. I see it through the other person’s eyes. And suddenly, much that was moving about Facing Windows seemed a bit sappy and even more contrived. When Davide opened the door on the table full of gorgeous cakes, in a scene near the end, I thought of the lamest Hollywood romances, although the association would never have occurred to me had I been alone. When it comes to movies, Kathleen’s sensibilities are robustly American. She has no time for the “foreign film” aesthetic of Bergman and Antonioni. She sniffs at more conventional dramas as if they were soap operas. I’m convinced by Facing Windows because the register of Italian emotional responses does not seem unnatural to me. It seems — Italian.

The last scene of Facing Windows, which may well have been shot after Girotti died, is a single take of Giovanna walking around a small park, a park where, decades earlier, Davide and his lover used to leave notes, in the base of the fountain. It was in this park that Giovanna kissed Lorenzo. As she strolls, her voice addresses a news update to Davide, who has “left us forever.” She’s doing well in her job as a pastry-cook; she and Filippo are getting along better. She says that can hardly remember Lorenzo’s face, but she still wonders whom he’s smiling at now. For the rest, she talks about how he, Davide, is still with her; she can feel him in her gestures. If it is true, she surmises, that people leave something of themselves behind, then she feels safer; she knows that she will never be alone. In other words, it will in the company of Davide, not that of her husband or children or best friend (the salty Serra Yilmaz), that Giovanna spends the rest of her life. With this strange observation, the actress turns toward the camera, which pulls up to her until her eyes fill the frame, and it stays there, running for what feels like hours.

I had to watch this again just now, because I remembered only the bits about the new career and Filippo. Did she mention Lorenzo? And what made this final scene feel so momentous? Eyewash — because that’s what Kathleen would probably have made of it. Watching it just now, alone once again, I was very moved by it. I felt that Giovanna was not looking at me, nor that Giovanna Mezzogiorno was seeing the camera. I felt that Davide had been brought back to life. Along with my unabashedly Italian self.


Over the weekend, I read a story by Natalia Ginzburg. It is a very famous story, I believe, because it is collected not only in the book of five novellas that just arrived from Italy but also in the first issue of Penguin’s Italian Short Stories, edited by Raleigh Trevelyan, which I’ve had for a thousand years. It has held aspirational status for all this time; I’ve never got round to reading it. But I thought that I should read “La Madre” in the Penguin, and take advantage of the facing translation when necessary.

The success of this story depends on its ironies, which are concealed not so much from the reader as from the schoolboy brothers from whose point of view everything is told. We not only see from their point of view but hear what they understand. Being adults ourselves, we can figure out what is going on beyond their observation and comprehension, but we stick with them, because Ginzburg makes their inner life quite real. They’re nothing special, just boys; but their concerns are insisted upon. In an early, shocking passage, they say that their mother is not important. Almost everyone else is important, because everyone else is good at permitting and forbidding. What’s important, to a ten-year-old, is the exercise of authority; knowing what to expect in this line makes life simpler. The mother does not exercise authority with any consistency; she’s moody, and she is not at all focused on them.

At the very outset, we’re told that the boys are stupefied by their classmates’ mothers, all of whom are old and fat. Their own mother is still young and thin. She dresses like a young woman, too. She makes up her face carefully, first thing every morning. After seeing the boys to school, she mounts her bicycle and whizzes off, presumably to the office where she works. We learn that she goes out at night, ostensibly with “a friend,” to see movies. Several times, she comes home so late that her father, prowling around the apartment in which she herself grew up, starts a fight with her the minute she walks in the door. (The boys, of course, are awakened by the ruckus.) By now, we’re beginning to see a picture that the boys cannot. Although they can understand, sort of, that she might be prostitute — without their meaning to do so, that is the impression that is conveyed to us — they cannot grasp that she is simply a woman who is holding on to her youth. She will not wear a widow’s black clothes and let her figure go. She wants another chance at romance.

One day, on a long walk with their priest, the boys spot their mother in a café, holding hands with a man and smiling. Later, when her parents are away and the housemaid has gone to her people as well, this man comes to dinner. The mother can’t cook, but she buys some appetizing prepared food and only burns the sauce a bit. For what seems like the first time, the boys have a good time in her company. The man has sojourned in Africa, where he owned a monkey. He left the monkey in Africa, because he didn’t think that it would do well on the steamship that brought him home. When they never see the man again, the boys wonder if he went back to Africa, to take care of his monkey. It is all perfectly told, and heartbreaking.

You see what utterly conventional Italian men the boys are going to grow up to be. It never once occurs to them to stand up for “the mother”; the only feeling that she inspires in them is embarrassed disgust. You understand that the tragedy of the mother’s life is a familiar one, but Ginzburg refreshes it by occluding it. The labor of inferring her feelings and her fate from what the boys say makes her plight far more harrowing than she herself could ever make it. There is no room in the world that Ginzburg creates for widows who cling to their youth, who don’t want to spend the rest of their lives without kisses or embraces. The men who are available for such pleasures come from Africa and return to Africa. The mother is living in the wrong place at the wrong time. She would have done better to take up prostitution.

The centrality of mothers in Italian life is legendary. Every man worships his mother. The terms and conditions of this worship are implicit; people don’t talk about them. Ginzburg writes a story about them, and it is shocking, because nobody wants to think of the sacrifices that the mother must make in order to earn that worship, without which she is simply a non-person, worse than an old maid. (In one of the most delicate ironies, one day, while she’s walking them to school, the mother tells her sons about a teacher she had, an old maid who tried to hold onto her youth. This teacher, in other words, was merely ridiculous. The mother herself is vulnerable to much worse than ridicule.) The mother in Ginzburg’s story does not want to be a mother. She wants to go to the office, where she types letters and translates foreign languages. There may be pockets of sophistication in Italy where this would be possible, but the mother does not inhabit one of them.

I’m suddenly reminded of Io sono l’amore, in which the mother, played by Tilda Swinton, carries things much further: she has an affair with the friend of her son. It is not her son’s worship that she wants. When the son finds out what’s going on — and how he finds out is a masterpiece of storytelling — he is so shocked that he falls down, hits his head, and dies. Just like that! It is beyond the unspeakable. But if you think that it is contrived…


Tuesday 19th

Today is Kathleen’s sixty-third birthday, and, by way of a present, the Wall Street Journal has published a profile-cum-update of her career so far. The paywall is abrupt, but you can see a nice photograph of Kathleen. Leslie Josephs’s article will appear in print tomorrow, I’m told.


So, now I have read Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society twice. I know Early Europe in much finer detail than I did in the mid-Nineties, when I read the book for the first time. Golly, to think that I was in my late forties before I knew much of anything about the period. I had avoided it because of its reputation as a Dark Age. So depressing! But somehow, a copy of Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change had come into my hands, and suddenly, where there had been dark, there was at least an early dawn. When did I get hold of Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals, a book that I am always trying to understand better? It’s because I was re-reading Reynolds that I picked up Bloch for another look. Now I’m going to try to figure out why Reynolds was so bothered by Bloch’s outlook.

Feudalism was discovered, and in many ways invented, by French lawyers in the Sixteenth Century. Never mind why; the point is that it was hundreds of years before anyone else took a closer look at anything but the old charters (so many of which, as Bloch would demonstrate, were fakes — and yet none the less legitimate for that). The Gothic Revival, as a picturesque state of mind, had pretty much run its course by the time academic historians applied their new and “more scientific” techniques to the records and other remains of the period, replacing venerable narratives. which had come down from generation to generation without much scrutiny, with accounts that valued accuracy over excitement. Thus the problem that the student of Early Europe faces is twofold: the records are scarce and fragmentary, and rarely reliable on their face. One thing that really distinguishes Early Europe, between the withdrawal of the Romans and the initiation of the Crusades, from the régimes that preceded and followed it is the relative absence of bureaucracy. For a number of reasons — especially professional literacy, and stationary institutions such as cathedrals and monasteries — only the ecclesiastics kept good records. Kings and other great men were almost always on the move, carrying their belongings in their train. It is no wonder that things got lost; but, like any nomads, authorities on the move strove not to accumulate things that weren’t liquid assets. So there is relatively little to work with. In some ways the more intimidating problem is the briary of legends and just-so stories in which Early Europe, a/k/a “the Middle Ages” (a term worthy of George RR Martin), is mythically embedded. The student has to chop her way through the thorns of Disney versions, only to find that there is little of any value at the center.

Even Bloch is occasionally susceptible to a regrettable essentialism. His chapter on the “Peace of God” movement of the late Tenth and early Eleventh Centuries blandly includes the following:

Finally, violence was an element in manners. Medieval men had little control over their immediate impulses; they were emotionally insensitive to the spectacle of pain, and they had small regard for human life, which they saw only as a transitory state before Eternity; moreover, they were very prone to make it a point of honour to display their physical strength in an almost animal way. (411)

When I read this, I bristled with questions. How did violence come to be an element in manners? Why the impulse issues? Is is true — and how do we know such a thing — that “they saw” life “only” as a tryout for Paradise? Finally, the comparison to animals is ambiguous, as most such comparisons usually are. I don’t mean to say that Bloch is wrong; but this kind of writing as better at dismissing phenomena than it is at explaining them.

It is never made quite clear enough, by Bloch or anyone else, that Early Europe was new. It was built on Roman foundations only where those foundations existed. Much of the territory was inhabited by human beings for the first time, or at least for the first time in centuries. Most of the farmland was of fairly recent clearance. Towns were small, and almost all structures were built of wood. Roads were terrible. This wasn’t because the Roman Empire had collapsed and left everything in ruins. It was because everything was improvised and roughed out, like a path across a field. And then there were the invaders.

The invaders who afflicted the Early Europeans were not very numerous, but their attacks persisted for years. Comparison with the settlement of the American West might be illuminating. In America, the Europeans invaders wanted only one thing that the natives possessed: land. In Early Europe, this was, at least initially, the last thing the invaders wanted. They were attracted by the prosperity of the new settlers: they wanted their jewels and they wanted their gold and silver. The Roman Empire had had to deal with the same sort of problem on its borders, but for a long time it was massively more powerful than the troublesome barbarians. The Early Europeans followed the opposite trajectory: they started out weak and got stronger. They did this, however, without the complex equipment carried by American settlers in the western territories. They had little in the way of the institutional arrangements that by the Nineteenth Century were taken, if anything, too much for granted. They had none of the technological backup — railroads, telegraphs — that cemented the pioneers’ achievements. The rough and tumble of early settlements in the American West was very quickly replaced by the lawfulness and conventionality that characterized the other parts of the country. In two generations, the offspring of gunmen became bankers and shopkeepers. The Early Europeans, in contrast could not import sturdy civil institutions from elsewhere. Elsewhere was too far away.

So they adapted arrangements that had been initiated by the Carolingians on the fly, transforming them sometimes out of all recognition. Charlemagne’s grants of “benefices” — rent or other money paid by monasteries to the king’s soldiers — were intended not to be permanent, and the counts whom he disposed over far-flung territories were supposed to be his agents, appointed at will, and they had no property rights whatsoever in their offices. These attributes were metamorphosed into their opposites by the pressures of the invasions. The idea of “freedom,” so central to Frankish self-regard, went through a degrading transformation; almost every man was free at the beginning of Early Europe; by the Thirteenth Century, most men were not, and they would continue in their servitude for another five hundred years.

As I see it, the lack of impulse control exhibited by Early Europeans was a straightforward result of trauma. Seemingly endless invasions reduced men already governed by a warlike ethos to hysterical fighters. The warlike ethos does not explain feudal violence by itself. Only the repeated invasions could break down the hierarchies that contained warfare during the Carolingian heyday. I am trying to develop an idea of humanism that begins with an awareness of genuine human limitations. Instead of regarding people as failed angels — that’s the kind of spurious human limitation that has governed so much thinking since antiquity — I accept their tendency to be damaged by violence and instability: you cannot expect human beings to behave very well if they are subjected to protracted, unpredictable attacks. That is why civil society, with its (one hopes) ever more accommodating conventions, is a sine qua non of human flourishing.

Feudalism, with its obsessive appeal to gratitude and loyalty on the smallest possible personal scale — between two men — is the measure of Early Europe’s instability. I think that Reynolds is right to argue that there never was a feudal period because the feudal project, so to speak, never actually worked according to plan. It was as though the personal, feudal bond could be entered into only under conditions of extreme inebriation, from which the parties subsequently awoke with something like buyers’ remorse. The weakness of the feudal bond was always a function of distance: one man swore to submit to another man who could not see what he was up to. What the lords and vassals quickly discovered, or would have discovered if they had not regarded faithlessness as aberrant, was that intimate relationships cannot be put to use unless they are so deep that there is no need to mention them.


The copy of Cassell’s Italian-English/English-Italian dictionary that I ordered arrived yesterday, and it passed the Ginzburg-Dante test. In one paragraph of the novella Sagittario, I found a word and a term that did not appear in the Webster’s New World Italian &c dictionary. The term was sbocco di sangue. I could figure out what it meant — spitting of blood — and I was intrigued to learn that sbocco is used to refer to commercial sales outlets. The word was tosone — il ragazzo dal tosone biondo. It might have hit me after a while that this was the Italian version of toison, as in toison d’or, the golden fleece that used to symbolize the chivalric order of the same name and that now adorns the Brooks Brothers trademark. But I found the word on the Internet. Then, in the first canto of Inferno, I came across grame, also omitted by Webster’s. I’m half of the opinion that every word in the Commedia Divina ought to be in the dictionary, but then, you know me. Even Cassell’s doesn’t list it. But Cassell’s does list gramaglia, “mourning,” and that meets the sense of Dante’s verse.

Natalia Ginzburg’s novella keeps making me laugh. How do I know it’s funny? My Italian isn’t that good, or at any rate I have no right to expect it to be. Sagittario is as funny as “La Madre” is grim. Once again, there is an unconventional mother, but this one has resources as well as independence. Let’s see what I can do: here’s the fourth paragraph of the story.

To pay for this house in town, my mother had sold some land that she owned, between Dronero and San Felice; she had argued with her relatives, all of whom were opposed to the division of the property. My mother had been cherishing the prospect of leaving Dronero for several years; she got the idea after my father died, and she told everyone she met about her plans, writing letter after letter to her sisters in town, asking them to help her to find a place to live. My mother’s sisters, who had lived in the town for a long time and who owned a little shop where they sold porcelain, were not very happy to hear about this project, because they feared that they would have to lend her money. Avaricious and timid, my mother’s sisters were caused bitter suffering by this thought, but they felt that they would not have the stamina to refuse the loan. As for a place to live, my mother found the house herself, in an afternoon, and as soon as she acquired it, she charged like a wild boar into the shop and asked her sisters for a loan, because the money that she got from the sale of the land was not enough. My mother, when she wanted to ask a favor, assumed a rough, distracted air. So the sisters were cowed into disbursing a sum of money that they knew they would never see again.

And I can’t resist the continuation.

My mother’s sisters were also troubled by another fear: that my mother, having moved herself into town, would get the idea of helping out in the shop. And this, too, happened right away.

For a while, I wondered what this year’s spring thing would be. I know that there are readers who have not recovered from my infatuation with Hannah Arendt — a sincere and profound engagement with her thinking that continues to my profit, but that I no longer have the urge to discuss as such. Last year, it was Penelope Fitzgerald, just as, a few years before, it was Elizabeth Taylor (both novelists). When was Albert O Hirschman? As I say, I was wondering. All the time, it was getting obviouser and obviouser that this year’s spring thing is going to be Italian, with a minor in Gilbert & Sullivan. I promise to keep actual Italian words and texts to a minimum, and instead to try to translate what appeals to me, with a view not to accuracy so much as to capturing the fun that I’ve gotten out of it.

Prendeva un fare ruvido e distratto: I can’t decide how to translate this. “Rough, distracted air” is a mere stab in the dark. Going by the dictionary, I could just as well say, “crude, absent-minded manner.” I haven’t encountered the word ruvido often enough to have any sense of its weight in Italian. I can just get a vague picture of how the mother behaves — she talks as though the money were by the way, an incidental thing that she shouldn’t have to bring up, while at the same time seeming to blame her sisters for making the discussion necessary. I suppose that, in English, this might be described as “bluff impatience.” “When she wanted to ask a favor, her attitude became bluff and impatient.”

I haven’t got very far in Sagittario. Maybe it won’t stay funny for long.


Thursday 21st

But maintaining discipline is more difficult than hiring new aides. Even some of Mr. Trump’s allies privately doubt that he can control his outbursts. And some Republicans believe that his adjustments are too late, that he is destined to lose at a convention because of a long litany of missteps and political trespasses earlier in the campaign.

Such is the state of play at this moment in Donald Trump’s career among the pundits. It hasn’t changed very much since Trump launched his campaign last summer; the dialectic has always been simple. At first, Trump would say something that the pundits would dismiss, along with Trump himself, as “outrageous.” As today’s observation, reported by Jonathan Martin in the Times, indicates, the scrimmage has moved to the institutional realities of running for president. Because Trump hasn’t done his political homework, the delegates who are bound to vote for him on the first ballot can vote for someone else on the second. Ted Cruz, who plays politics with the passion of a true gamer, has sewn up a lot of these delegates, resulting in a process that Trump calls “rigged.” (An allegation that he would never make if he thought that things were rigged in his favor.) The political tide, however, has tended to back Trump, bearing him ever closer to victory. Those outbursts, those missteps and trespasses — they don’t seem to do him any lasting harm. What is it that the pundits are missing?

Perhaps the pundits have forgotten that they are but a small sideshow on the media juggernaut. Pundits are charged with explaining political events to educated viewers who are aware that politics is a game with rules, but who fear that they don’t know the rules as well as they ought to do. Thus are the pundits identified with the rules. If the pundits were referees, they could enforce those rules. But pundits have no real authority. The most that they can do is get steamed up about outrages and outbursts. Pundits are useless in a revolution.

If you detach the pundits, if you drop a big black tablecloth over the lot of them, it’s much easier to see that the media juggernaut is not only enthusiastic about Trump but hopeful about using him to overthrow the rules of the political game as we know them, because the current rules, let’s face it, are boring. The media juggernaut prefers a president who swaggers from catastrophe to catastrophe, pointing fingers, and screaming like Don Rickles or mocking like Phyllis Diller. Such a playbook would make for great television. The media and Donald Trump have been playing nice together, mostly in New York, for more than thirty years, and both sides — well, why speak of “sides”? From the viewpoint of a cameraman or a news producer, Donald Trump is simply “content” of almost ideal purity. And he gives it away for free!

I wish that Neil Postman were still with us, not because I can’t imagine perfectly well what he would have to say about the nightmare of the Trump campaign, but because he might relish tasting the fulfillment of his prophecies. (Then again, maybe not.) Here is how his Wikipedia page summarizes Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking: 1985):

[The book] warns of a decline in the ability of our mass communications media to share serious ideas. Since television images replace the written word, Postman argues that television confounds serious issues by demeaning and undermining political discourse and by turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment. He also argues that television is not an effective way of providing education, as it provides only top-down information transfer, rather than the interaction that he believes is necessary to maximize learning.

Now, the Wikipedia page is flagged with many calls for cites and verifications, and, if I can find my copy, I’ll try to provide a few — some other time. But that these lines capture the gist of Postman’s argument is clear enough to anyone who has read the book. They also capture an anxiety that Donald Trump’s candidacy has borne out. The pundits themselves might not have accused Trump of “demeaning and undermining political discourse” &c in so many words, but that remains the burden of their outrage. Calling for the erection of a wall on our Mexican border, to be paid for by Mexico, is not “political discourse.” It is superficial imagery. Superficial imagery is exactly the drug to which television viewers are addicted. That is what plays on the screens that people turn on when they come home from work, what superimposes the illusion of connection upon isolated lives. Postman most remarkably noted that it is impossible to present the act of thinking on television. I wrote about this a few years ago, but the passage is well worth repeating.

When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impossible to say, “Let me think about that” or “I don’t know” or “What do you mean when you say…?” or “From what sources does your information come?” This type of discourse not only slows down the tempo of the show but creates the impression of uncertainty or lack of finish. It tends to reveal people in the act of thinking, which is as disconcerting and boring on television as it is on a Las Vegas stage. Thinking does not play well on television, a fact that television directors discovered long ago. There is not much to see in it. It is, in a phrase, not a performing art. But television demands a performing art, and so what the ABC network gave us was a picture of men of sophisticated verbal skills and political understanding being brought to heel by a medium that requires them to fashion performances rather than ideas. … At the end, one could only applaud those performances, which is what a good television program always aims to achieve; that is to say, applause, not reflection. (90-91)

(“Some other time” arrived sooner than expected. I found my copy, and the quote as well, which I’ve now more properly cited.)

So, if you are mystified by the rise of Trump in American politics, you will find that the mystery was explained in a thirty year-old book.

And remember: pundits were invented to give the new medium of television gravitas and legitimacy. They have become the ritual Foo dogs of what is more than ever the Boob Tube. The Donald has the good sense not to appear alongside them. He phones himself in.

When you try to “think” about this campaign season, try to guess how it will play out; when you try to answer the question, Who do you think’s gonna win?, the tendency is to go with the pundits, because that’s where “thinking” leads. The pundits know how the game is played, and they know that Ted Cruz knows how the game is played, and that he is playing it very well. But if you look back on the campaign so far, it seems that Trump is right: the game is “rigged.” That is: the rules of the game are irritating.

If people watched television seriously — if they cherished the medium — the rules of politics, as well as all other rules, would be part of the pleasure. On the arts, rules are there to be broken, but only in such a way as to reinforce them. The rules aren’t really broken at all; rather, exceptions to the rules are recognized as such, and, as such, add to the richness of the rules. But television gave up on being an art form almost immediately: there wasn’t enough money to support such a use of its expensive technology. By the Eighties, television had become an armature for unavoidable commercial announcements. To prevent ads from striking an obnoxious tone, everything else was retuned.

The problem with the rule of no rules is the drift toward shapeless repetition. Therefore everything shown on television must be, to whatever microscopic degree, a novelty. And what is Donald Trump if not a piñata of novelties? As an impresario of real-estate put-ons — literally! he puts his name on buildings that others have paid for — with new casinos, new golf-courses, new wives, and new apprentices, Trump is the compleat representative of the television viewer; for, as to all subjects but himself, Trump bores easily. You can just imagine how exciting his foreign policy would be! So many opportunities for doing new, undreamed of things! How’s this for a reality show: Trump and Putin agree to a list of enemies. Then they try to outdo one another, taking out these unfortunates — with nuclear submarines! Don’t worry about the bombs! They won’t explode! They’ll just humiliate, with tar and feathers — while simultaneously emptying bank accounts. Such fun! The spectacle will be so engrossing that productivity will drop to zero — justifying the maintenance of an impoverished worker class that wouldn’t have the free time to watch even if it could afford access.


In the current issue of Harper’s, Rebecca Solnit writes about what she calls “naive cynicism,” which she describes as “a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither.”

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

Solnit doesn’t link naive cynicism to macho self-puffery, but I couldn’t help seeing a very strong connection, at least to the phenomenon of the hipster. Women have so many more things to work with when it comes to projecting an image. All that distinguishes the men from the boys in our world is the man’s savvy: experience has taught him not to take the world at face value. Every actual man must ask whether this is true of himself. To avoid the possibility of being bamboozled — again, a favorite line from Radio Days: “Dana Andrews is a man.” “She is?” — a man might choose to adopt an all-purpose doubtfulness. Solnit’s point is that this habit precludes paying attention. Why pay attention if you “already know” that something is bogus?

Naïve cynicism loves itself more than the world: it defends itself in lieu of the world.

I couldn’t agree more, but I might tweak the judgment by substituting “fears for” for “loves.” Naive cynicism is, after all, as old as Europe’s peasant class; it is the uninquisitive conservatism that values staying out of trouble above all other satisfactions. It is also the outlook that generally operates behind the façade thought by others to be “cool.” J E Lighter, in his tragically incomplete Historical Dictionary of American Slang, says something very interesting about the use of “cool” to mean “under control.” In Standard English, he says (in words that I am not going to quote, because I already put the book away), “cool” has been used in this sense since Beowulf, but always in comparison to the hypothetical alternative of hot-headedness. Only after World War II did the black American use of the word to mean “good” instill cool with its absolute quality. To say that somebody is cool is to say that he couldn’t possibly be anything else, because cool is who he is.

That’s the kind of cool that the naive cynic has in mind: cool is who he is, and it doesn’t matter what happens. Pretending to be a man whose experience has taught him what’s what, he has in fact learned nothing from experience.

Another connection that Solnit doesn’t make — or, to put it more generously, one that she allows her readers to draw on their own — is between naive cynicism and journalism. Actually, her piece is infused by an implicit connection. The examples that she cites almost all have to do with media put-downs of the Occupy movement, of opposition to the Keystone pipeline, of the idea that revelations about Exxon’s duplicity, with regard to its awareness of the climate-changing consequences of burning fossil fuels, constituted news. Journalists who specialize in assessing the grist for their professional mill, as distinct from journalists who are plain old investigative reporters, are particularly prone to put amour-propre in front of information. And this lands them in a strange bind, doesn’t it? After all, their way of writing about the news involves a fundamental denial that there is any news to report. Nothing may be new under the sun sub specie aeternitatis, but we’re presumably not paying pundits to tell us that everything is still the same. Are we?


Friday 22nd

The other day, when I was out for lunch, my curiosity was drawn to a party of four men who were seated at a nearby table. I was instantly aware that they were not American, but the more I looked at them, the more they looked like solid citizens of the American heartland. But that was one bit of proof that they weren’t. You don’t see four such men together at a table, not in New York. They were substantial without being fat. With one exception, the men could have been dressed by L L Bean, and their clothes looked like personal default settings for everyday attire. They did not look like people who worked indoors. They seemed always to be smiling small smiles of self-satisfaction, but they did not strike me as unattractively smug. Had I been looking for the answer, I might have asked them what was the secret of the good life.

Instead, I asked them — one of them — what language they were speaking, for this was the more obvious indicator of their foreignness. I couldn’t make out a word: not only could I not understand the bits that I heard, but I couldn’t place them in any known language. I hear incomprehensible languages all the time on the elevators in our apartment building, and quite often, in addition to being incomprehensible, such as Hebrew, they are unrecognizable, which Hebrew is not. As someone whose interest in foreign languages is primarily literary, and whose mother tongue is arguably the world’s most widely-spoken second language, I’ve learned that there are many languages the knowledge of which is confined almost wholly to native speakers. (They don’t make a lot of movies in Tajikistan or Brunei.) It didn’t seem odd at all that I couldn’t tell what language the four men were speaking, but I was dying to find out.

The man whose attention I caught was very pleasant about it. “Finnish,” he said. “It sounds like Italian.” It had sounded to me, if anything, rather more like Spanish, although it very clearly wasn’t. But that’s a narcissism-of-small-differences thing. Although my knowledge of Italian (and French, to a lesser extent) permits me to bluff my way through Spanish texts, I can’t think of two languages that sound less alike — Italian, with its rolling sea-swells occasionally cresting in a whitecap; Spanish, with its impatiently curtailing staccato. In the end, what the men were speaking didn’t sound like either. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard. I’ve known Finnish-Americans, but their Finnish was all but completely lost. The language itself has no close relatives.

When I told this story to a friend who came to dinner, he said, “And to think that Finnish is a language that was not written down until the beginning of the Twentieth Century.” I nodded vaguely, then disagreed. How, if this were correct, could Longfellow have derived the rhythm of Hiawatha from the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala? My friend took out his phone and mused his beard. Like a game show host, he said, “The Kalevala was first written published in — .” I thought for a moment. I came up with a year for Longfellow, 1845; don’t ask me how. I took ten years off, to give someone the time to translate the epic. “1835,” I said. My friend almost got up and left the room. Never be afraid to bluff! But never be afraid to ask, either.


My friend lives in Geneva, with his lovely wife and new daughter. He had thought that it would be a good idea to visit New York, which he loves, before his daughter could walk. He and his wife were kind enough to come uptown to our apartment and brave enough trust me to feed them. I’m not sure that I did the right thing. I made three pizzas. It struck me that a regular dinner, sitting at table with several courses, would not be compatible with the presence of a child not yet five months old. We were friends, after all, not family. I thought that it would be simpler and more agreeable to sit on the love seats in the living room and eat with our hands. Our get-together was not intended to be, primarily, a culinary experience. This all seemed obvious in advance. Now, looking back, I’m not so sure. But my reservations owe less to the quality of the idea than to the quality of the execution.

I had never made more than one pizza at a time, and I had never made two of the pizzas that I planned to offer. Complicating everything was a crisis at the office. No sooner did Kathleen get home (late) than she had to call the lawyer who has been working with her on an unpleasant problem. Sitting in the living room, our friends and I could hear highly uncharacteristic outbursts from the bedroom. Eventually, Kathleen came out and joined us. By then, I had cooked the first pizza.

By then, I had assembled all the pizzas. This took longer than I thought it would. Oh, I had cut everything up that needed cutting up, long before the time for assembly; I had little bowls of things everywhere in the kitchen. But what with putting flowers in a vase, getting our visitors something to drink, putting a towel on the bed so that the baby’s diaper could be changed in complete safety, and just talking to friends whom I hadn’t seen in a year, I couldn’t quite focus on what went where. The pizza that I cooked first was not a problem; it was our default pizza — fennel sausage, mushrooms, my own tomato sauce (new!), and mozzarella. I made it not because it was familiar but because I wasn’t sure that Kathleen would like either of the other two.

Now that I have pretty much satisfied the pizza-parlor urge, I’ve moved on to recreating a pizza that I used to love at a pizzeria on Third Avenue called Loui Loui. It was a very gracious place, and the menu was not limited to pizza. Atmospherically, Loui Loui was a chic Italian bar. I forget the name of the pizza that I used to order, but it had basil and prosciutto, and I think that it was a pizza bianca — no tomato sauce. But there must have been more to it than prosciutto and basil, because my first attempt was nothing like it. I should have made it before, but Kathleen dislikes basil, and I was shamelessly taking advantage of having other mouths to feed.

Kathleen did like the third pizza, which it felt very daring to make. Which is why I made it. If you’re going to serve pizza to people who have crossed the Atlantic for dinner, you have to offer something a bit off the beaten track. So I followed a recipe (from Truly Madly Pizza) for a combination of fennel, sardines, and breadcrumbs, with mozzarella but without sauce. The recipe also called for fresh thyme, but I missed that when I was making my shopping list — just as I completely forgot to buy a dessert. (I blame Agata & Valentina for that. In order to stand at the pastry counter, you have to obstruct, at least partially, the checkout queue.) I also forgot to make my pizza dough with a blend of white flour and semolina. I forgot to set the timer for one of the pizzas — our friend gently reminded me. She, I have learned since my friend first introduced me to her, is someone who misses nothing. Somehow all the pizzas got made. Each was cut into four slices, and there was only one slice remaining when our friends left and Kathleen retired to the bedroom. It was a piece of the basil-and-prosciutto pizza, and to mark my great disappointment with it, I threw it away.

Going in, I had no sense of production time. This is something that you learn for every dish in your repertoire. If I’m going to make spaghetti alla carbonara, when do I have to start? Are there points along the way when I can pause, and, if so, can I pause indefinitely? How much of those dishes that are cooked at the last minute can be prepared in advance? I’ve always regarded production time as the key problem of cooking. Ours has not been a household in which meals are served at set times. Meals are served when Kathleen is ready to eat them, and there is often no knowing that in advance.

Pizza involves leavened bread — dough with yeast. It can’t just sit around. Except, I’m finding, it can. I don’t know why. My pizza dough recipe calls from a much higher proportion of yeast than any of my bread recipes. But then, it also calls for a higher proportion of salt, and salt retards the action of yeast. In any case, the three crusts were rolled out on pieces of parchment long before anybody arrived. The toppings were in their little bowls. I know now that I could have gone ahead and assembled the pizzas in advance. That would have made me a much more effective host.

In his kind thank-you note, my friend noted that he didn’t know when we’d see each other again — a perfectly reasonable remark. Trips to New York are thrown away on children who are not capable of walking, talking, and minding the gap. Our new little friend is going to spend a lot more time on ski slopes than on sidewalks, and her parents, I know, are not going to take pleasure trips without her. Nevertheless, even with all this sensible knowledge in my head, I felt that pizza in the love seats had perhaps been a tad too casual. My own provincial outlook still associates pizza, no matter how artisanal, with prepared food that comes out of a box or a can. The convenience of the host is inversely proportional to the welcome of the guests. (Not that making three pizzas from scratch was all that convenient!) There are times when I wish I were French. If I were French, it would never occur to me to do unusual things. And dinner would appear at seven, every day without fail.


David Bowie was almost exactly a year older than I am. Prince was nearly ten years younger, but, like Bowie, he made me feel much older. Like any rock musician. Nothing makes me feel older than rock ‘n’ roll, even though in was in first grade when Elvis was singing about hound dogs.

I clearly being being totally repelled by Elvis Presley. He sounded louche and unseemly, like someone who would never be welcome in my house. From the beginning, my reaction to rock ‘n’ roll and the kind of movements that it inspired was allergic. At best, I thought that it was ridiculous. Mostly, it seemed casually violent, and it made me feel unsafe. Not me personally, but us, the men and women and children in the street.

I had no idea of its black roots. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as black roots. My closest contact with black America was Ethel Waters’s Beulah, a very proper lady even if she was a housemaid. I didn’t know what “rhythm and blues,” that strange juke-box category meant until I was in college, and I think I found out from reading. To me, rock ‘n’ roll was a zit that erupted on lily-white skin. It was misbehavior.

There are some great artworks that demand complete attention, but most do not. The base line of the European or Western aesthetic has always been the atmosphere of the princely court, and our artists have developed an unsung knack for creating work that, even though it warrants the keenest analysis and appreciation, can be ignored by people who are having a conversation. I’m talking about the kind of people who can have a conversation without disturbing their neighbors, another Western art form not often encountered in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Outside Voice. What I mean is that, with a Vermeer print on the wall, and while playing a recording of a Mozart quartet, it is possible to marshal one’s thoughts well enough to contribute to a rich conversation. The freedom to shift registers of attention is one of the prizes of Western civilization. You can be bowled over by a sculpture one day, and on the next you can walk right by it on your way to dinner. There is very little ritual to the experience of art in the West.

And those great artworks that do demand complete attention — Mahler’s symphonies, for example — are conversations of a sort about the the things that cultured people in the West talk about, but raised to a higher pitch. We have developed a convention, unknown to the princely courts in which they were born, of observing silence in the presence of performing arts. Sometimes, it seems to me, the silence is carried to ritualistic extremes, and I’ve become a passionate clapper after roof-raising first movements. But the point of the experience of art, as Kathleen puts it, is to talk about it later. Art in the West, at least until the irruption of Modernism, has always been profoundly social.

Given this mindset, I won’t surprise anyone by saying that, if it has been a while since my last exposure to rock, my first thought upon hearing it involves The Lord of the Flies. I am never reminded of black culture.

I ought to confess, I suppose, that I never cared for being young as such, and rather hated being a child. I wasn’t born at forty; I was born at sixty. Which may be why my brain finally seems to be working.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (II)

Monday 11th

On the front page of the Times this morning, an article about Hamilton. I read over the weekend that you can’t get tickets for this show for a date earlier than January 2017. Kathleen and I have not seen it, and we have no intention of seeing it. Reason n+1 for my staying away appears at the end of this morning’s first paragraph: “… not to mention the way Mr. Miranda’s dazzling rap lyrics pull off rhymes like ‘line of credit’ and ‘financial diuretic.’” I might be able to sit through two or three examples of that sort of prosody. Then I should be on my feet, leaving the theatre. In the twenty-odd years since rap began to impinge, my loathing of it has become too upsetting to contemplate. Not all the cleverness in the world can conceal its degrading belligerence.

Jennifer Schuessler’s piece is about the complaints that some historians have registered about the historical accuracy of the show. On the whole, I don’t expect literary adaptations of historical events to get all the little details right. The idea of an improper relationship between Don Carlos and his stepmother, the Queen of Spain, might be laughable, but Schiller and Verdi make it a worthy fiction. Sometimes, the fiction is unworthy, as in, notoriously, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, but I have no reason — beyond the rap — to believe that Hamilton does a disservice to Hamilton. I daresay that few in the audience, even among those with Ivy League degrees, know much more about Hamilton than his death in a duel, his desire for a central bank, and, possibly, his Caribbean birth, which barred him from presidential aspirations.

I’ve thought about downloading the album and giving the songs a listen. As I said the other day, I don’t like disliking things. Especially very popular things. I’d like to be wrong about Hamilton. Ideally, I’d find it forgettable, somewhat amusing but disposable. But I don’t want to experiment badly enough to sit through what promises to be, for me, a grating unpleasantness. The fact that I couldn’t in any case is a relief. I’d have at least nine months to accumulate more indirect information about the show. Everyone Kathleen has talked to who has seen it has loved it. That seems to be all that Kathleen has heard: Loved it. Further particulars are not offered. I overheard a man of about my age praising it to the barber recently. Great show, he said — leaving it there. The message I got was that he had actually been to see it, no mean achievement, and that he was still young enough at heart to like it. Great show perhaps — but it was all about him.

Hamilton may be unusually successful, but I doubt that it is unusually bad. Those songs that I haven’t heard — I can easily imagine them, in all their songlessness. This has something to do with rap, but much more to do with the legacy of Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim is an immensely cultured, sophisticated writer. But I don’t think that he is genuinely musical. He seems to me to regard music as a self-important distraction from the beauty of well-wrought lyrics — much like the Poet in Strauss’s opera about opera, Capriccio. At his best, I grudgingly suppose, he can turn the music down so that the sentiment glows through. I never cared for it, but I appreciate its literary polish. Unfortunately, Sondheim opened the door to a turgidity that swamped and drowned real music.

I remember the night that we saw The Phantom of the Opera. Fortunately, not all of it. We weren’t in a theatre; we had just had dinner with twelve hundred other people, in a vast chain of brutalist ballrooms at a hotel disguised as a parking garage in Palm Desert. Our host was a major accounting firm. A partner of the firm was sitting at our table, so we felt that we could not leave. A chamber version of the show, which was still running on Broadway at the time, and not yet touring, had been fashioned for a handful of performers, and the run-time cut down to forty-five minutes. (I assume that the producers of the show were clients of the accountants.) The Phantom of the Opera was every bit as bad as we expected it be. Where there ought to have been music, there was sugary lamentation. The melodrama was triteness made up to look like camp. It wasn’t inadvertently funny; it was just awful. I have never been able to decide whether works of this ilk are incompetent or cynical. Kathleen and I were bored to sobs.

Yes, but how do you know the show is terrible if you’ve never seen it. The older you get, the more you know. You can tell a great deal about a show from a photograph, and even more from a lot of photographs. (Hamilton might have had a much better chance with me had its costumes actually reflected the sensibility of fusion that is implicit in its lyrics, but instead, they’re a mixture, a miscellany of then and now. Whatever it’s supposed to do, Hamilton oughtn’t to look like a third-rate provincial production of Figaro.) You hear a snatch of the singing on a passing screen. You ponder “financial diuretic.” You know.

Nevertheless, whatever my feelings about the show, I should normally feel constrained to keep them to myself, because they are indeed a matter of surmise, and not of experience; beyond that, I am on record as someone who doesn’t see the point of unfavorable criticism. Let silence be eloquent. Consider this passage as a response merely to the phenomenon of Hamilton‘s financial success.

I’m aware, by the way, that rap is political statement, and I am sure that it has been empowering. For this very reason, it can have no structural place in the arts, which consider human limitations in a grain too fine for political action. Magna Carta and our Declaration of Independence are not works of literature, either.


My reading pile has a wetlands feel to it. The same books are there every day; the bookmarks are just a little further along, if they’ve moved at all. I’ve been reading a good deal on the Kindle — two Brunetti novels by Donna Leon and, now, Dan Lyons’s Disrupted. Volume I of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society has given way to Volume II, and the French original has appeared. (Wondering what inspired L A Manyon to write “cosy” in his translation, I discovered Bloch’s “odeur de pain de ménage.”) Eyeless in Gaza promises to be eternal. The other night, I read a most stupefying chapter about “the proper use of the self.” I couldn’t tell if I had no idea what Huxley was talking about or if I wanted to keep it that way.

I am in no hurry whatsoever to finish Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole, but regard it as a box of very nice chocolates. Reading it is most gratifying. Of course, it’s not really Italian. Lahiri writes in idiomatic Italian, but she does not think in it. Her trains of thought are all perfectly Anglophone, and if there is a note of genuine Italian sensibility in her short story, “Lo Scambio,” it is only a note, a scent. I think that the story reads better in Italian, but the very fact that I have no difficulty reaching that conclusion makes it somewhat suspect.

Last week, I thought I had better get my hands on some recent Italian fiction. The obvious choice would be Elsa Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy (also granslated by Ann Goldstein), but a little voice warns me that either it’s not for me or I’m not ready for it. So I perused the pages of Amazon’s Italian site. Just reading about the books on offer called for a a greater command of Italian than In altre parole does. Every language, and especially the literary patois of every language, has its own manner of thinking, or façon de penser, which as a matter of course can never be translated. It can only be learned, as painstakingly and as tentatively as the Rosetta stone was deciphered. While one door opens on ways of looking at the world that are all but unknown to your native language, another door closes on other ways, very familiar to you, that are unknown to the language that you are learning. Whether it’s a tragedy or not, translation is fundamentally impossible. The consolation is that relatively few works are so important that their original idiosyncrasies really must be mastered. The real problem is that quite a few of those important works are among the earliest instances of European literature, and they’re also in Italian. Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio — I haven’t spent a lot of time with Petrach, but I can vouch that the other two become either freeze-dried or artificially sweetened in translation. In the end, the value of translations of Dante and Boccaccio is as meditations on originals, not as transmissions of those originals. The mind boggles: how many languages can a literate person expect to master?

Well, many more, if language were taught as literature, not as everyday conversation. The nonsense of the conversational approach is demonstrated by the tremendous difficulty, experienced by almost everybody, of rattling off utterly banal remarks in a foreign language. “Where do you come from?” “Would you like to see the Rubens or the Rembrandt?” “How much does this lamp cost?” Memorizing the lyrics of a Mozart aria by Lorenzo da Ponte would provide a great deal more personal satisfaction.

When the two books that I bought arrive from Italy, I’ll have more to say. My choice was somewhat limited by the flabbergasting expense of “literature” over there. A book of Calvino novellas: fifty-one Euros. That seemed to be the rule, not the exception. I can think of several explanations for these prices, but I can’t settle on any one of them. Meanwhile, In altre parole pleasantly lulls me into thinking that my grasp of Italian is much greater than it is.

I spent some time yesterday sorting through the book room. Ever since we moved into this apartment, the book room has served as something of an attic, and before I got to work yesterday, the floor was littered with small shopping bags containing things that had nothing to do with books. These turned out to be much easier to deal with than the stacks of books that were about to topple in all directions. I amassed quite a few of them in a pile that will go into shopping bags and then be toted to Housing Works.

The book at the bottom of my reading pile is Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust. I read, somewhere, a review of this novel, newly translated for the first time from the Irish into English, and decided immediately not to read it. What is it about? It is about dead people buried in a cemetery, dead people who never shut up. When I saw the book at Crawford Doyle, I was drawn to it as if to an irresistible sin. Once home, I read a few pages, then closed the book, as if it were radioactive. I still can’t tell if buying it was a mistake. Its view of the afterlife as a matter of lying in the dark while nursing old grudges is, as I hope this statement makes clear, horrifying. But Ó Cadhain draws you in nevertheless, and that is why I closed the book. I wasn’t quite ready. But I find that I look at the book not with a sigh of duty but with a wary curiosity.

Then there were those document boxes to deal with. One contained all the remaining personal reminders of my seven years in the law, first as a paralegal clerk at the Stock Exchange (even though I was a licensed attorney), and then as a proper attorney at E F Hutton. I glanced through the papers, and perused a spiral-bound log of sorts that I kept for nine months at Hutton. Calls, letters, updates: none of it even remotely refreshed my memory. But I was impressed by the appearance of diligence. Inclined to regard myself as a dreamer who never gets anything done, I am always surprised by evidence to the contrary — more surprised than pleased, even.

Or, if not a dreamer, then a rogue who gets away with things. If I think of myself as someone who gets away with things, might that not be because it takes more effort to get away with things than to simply buckle down and take care of what’s in front of you? Criminals work much harder than honest people — they have to; the world is not designed to make life easy for thieves. Even then, most people don’t get away with it. I don’t know why I think I get away with things; more abominable conceit, probably.


Tuesday 12th

After a spell of cold, wet weather, and then a sunny, rather springlike day, it is raining again, but not so cold. I read the Times and went straight back to bed. It took a while to fall asleep, but I was warm and comfortable. More than that, I felt safe. When I woke up from the murky dream that ensued, however, I did not feel safe. A strapping blonde wearing glasses was saying. “Howard. Susan Howard.” Ah — she was introducing herself. “Are you here, reorganized, too?” I already knew that I was in a house or an apartment where at least one tall guy felt that I didn’t belong, and by this point in the dream I had accrued a feeling of overstaying my welcome. Being asked whether I was or had been “reorganized” was so disconcerting that it woke me up. I did not feel safe, but I still felt very comfortable — too comfortable to move. I thought, as I always do now whenever I am in bed but not reading, about the next entry that I should write here, the entry that in fact I ought to have been writing instead of sleeping. (But I’ve learned it’s no use, if my forehead feels leaden.) The topics that came to mind were immediately swept aside, in view of a new editorial policy that calls for more lighthearted, ephemeral entries on Friday. On Friday, I shall write about Joyce-Wadler-meets-Marie-Kondo (a very funny piece in the Times over the weekend), and about how, after a year of making pizzas at home, I finally got it right by taking one simple step. But as for today?

The book that I was reading before I fell back to sleep, Dan Lyons’s Disrupted, is funny and horrifying at the same time. I can easily imagine how Lyons would rewrite Kafka: I had always been curious about insects, but not this curious. The scary thing is that Dan Lyons could probably make death camps funny. Where other people have a button labeled “Solemn,” he has one labeled “Wiseacre.” You can complain all you like, but he has you laughing. Dan Lyons is perhaps the writer for our time: deliciously inappropriate. Do you want to know just how inappropriate?

My heart sinks. I’m not angry. I’m disappointed. I realize that there probably is a legitimate business to be made from churning out crappy content. But that is not something you hire the former technology of Newsweek to write for you.

So — he thinks he’s better than everybody else, does he?

In their mind, HubSpot belongs to them, not to these interlopers and outsiders who are now storming into the place and writing memos and telling everybody how they should be doing their jobs. Many of these people have never worked anywhere else. A lot of them aren’t very good. But here, they’re in charge. And I’m stuck working under them.

This is my lifelong nightmare. I have never not been afraid of working for, or in any way dealing with, “them.” This is why I was terrified, throughout childhood, of military service. I knew how the sergeants would take to the likes of me. (Nobody told me that, if I just managed to survive basic training, I’d be whisked into a typing pool. Smart as I was, I wasn’t smart enough to see that the Army is loaded with opportunities for desk-bound bureaucrats.) I’m still afraid of stupid people — by which I mean, of course, the Dunning-Kruger types, who don’t know how incompetent they are. I admire Dan Lyons enormously, because, stuck in my nightmare, he stuck it out, long enough to gather material for his terrific book about the mind-killing impact of hierarchies. I don’t know what’s going to happen to HubSpot — according to Google, it’s still there, preaching “inbound marketing” — but while it would be very satisfying to watch the enterprise crash and burn, its founders in handcuffs, the story will be more sobering still if it carries on, providing jobs for people who aren’t very good at what they do, which itself isn’t any good at all. Because that is the world that we have to fix.

One passage caught my attention.

I wrack my brain trying to figure out how this has happened. Why did Halligan hire me, if they were just going to stick me over here, doing this? My theory is that Halligan wanted to hire me but he didn’t want to manage me, so he passed me off to Cranium, but Cranium wanted nothing to do with me, so he handed me off to Wingman, and Wingman realized that Craniun didn’t consider me important, so he stuck me in the content factory working under Zack and hoped I would just go away.

This is precisely how I came to analyse the situation behind the trouble that a friend was having getting a job at a major tech company. The company had a policy of promoting the candidacy of applicants who were recommended by employees. But this policy was not acted upon, because the people in charge of HR, I surmised, were too remote from the policy makers, and the policy makers, like Halligan, simply wanted to put something that sounded good out there. Once they had done that, they lost interest. The HR people continued to insist on the alums of the same old narrow band of schools and/or an equally narrow band of previous employers. Nobody ever returned the calls of my friend, despite the recommendation of a star executive. As Dan Lyons shows, the cogs of bureaucracy can become rigid in no time at all: HubSpot, during his term there, was only about five years old.

We’re familiar with the powerful man who won’t give up his power. But we ought not overlook the property interest that most quite powerless people take in their jobs. Most of them behave like property owners, too: they take care of their property. They get up in the morning and slog through the day, doing the best they can. That’s how the real world works, they tell themselves. And it does — if you consider inertia “work.”

I’d like to sign off now and return to Lyons’s book: the very next chapter is called “The Bozo Explosion” — a phrase that Lyons got from Steve Jobs.


Reading Disrupted, I wonder, perhaps a little too idly, if there is a nice way to scold people into turning off the TV and learning to read a foreign language. Surely I mean, not to scold, but to inspire? No, I mean to scold. Inspiration is not enough. We are all inspired to do good things. Sometimes we actually do them. But when it comes to the literacy of the élite, “sometimes” is not an option. All the time is the only hope.

In the third of last year’s October entries, I made light of calling myself, as I actually still do, a “scourge of the élites.” That was long before the primary season began. That was before Donald Trump shocked the American establishment by failing to collapse of his own ridiculousness. Whatever happens to Trump, he has certainly demonstrated that the American élite needs to reform itself, and for the most old-fashioned of reasons: to set a good example to the ordinary folk. (The folk who would never ever be the technology editor of Newsweek.) There was a time when I thought the world would be a better place — yes! even I! — if people in responsible positions were more thoughtful and broadly-read. Now I’m worried that the world just won’t make it otherwise, better place or not.

For example. Bono’s Op-Ed piece in today’s Times. It’s an example of what I’m talking about because, while the singer so eloquently makes the humanitarian case for helping refugees to maintain their personal dignity (which would include meaningful occupation), he fails to make the warranted case for reparations. The West ought to help out, sure, but it must help out because it created the problem. Almost all of today’s refugees in the Middle East and Africa are fleeing the consequences of incompetent Western imperialism. They are trying to escape the long-term effects of meaningless boundary lines and opportunistic political manipulation. (You get one guess as to why the long-dormant incompatibility of Shia and Sunni has flared up in recent times.) Only rarely do I get the impression that journalists covering the refugees and the wars from which they are running understand how shallow the roots of the crises are — or, how European.

And what, if anything, is being done to enlighten refugees, whether in camps or in urban slums, with a Muslim ethos that does not regard the West as inherently inimical? This may be the moment for saying that while the West must pay for the damage, it cannot make the actual repairs. That must be done by the Muslim élite — an élite fostered by the West to counteract the Wahhabism that the Saudi Arabians support. This would not be not the propaganda effort that it might seem, for there are already plenty of would-be Muslim reformers. These reformers ought to be enlisted not just in the project of reconciling Islam with the global human rights consensus but in even more urgent job of redrawing the map of the Middle East.

Please don’t suppose that I believe that I have really good answers for today’s problems. About that, I have no idea. What I do have, though, is questions, and for the most part the questions came from reading an assortment of history books. If you read enough history, you notice a few basic persistencies. Foreign occupation, for example, is always and everywhere resented, and in the modern world (given our techologies), it elicits terrorism. “Foreign occupation” might seem easy to define, but we see instances in the United States of local people regarding “Washington” as a foreign power. (If no other evidence of the cluelessness of the American élite were available, this alone would be convincing.) “Foreign occupation” extends to “foreign interference,” which is what makes it inadvisable for Westerners to try to fix what they have broken.


Over the weekend, I read yet another review of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. I have not read it, nor do I plan to, so long as I can argue its importance without doing so. The upsetting reviews alone have intensified my conviction that mixed housing is really the only answer. Not “affordable housing,” much less “low-income housing.” People who don’t make a lot of money ought not to be sequestered, if only for the sake of their children, who need exposure to affluence in order to grow. (By the same token, it is a terrible thing to allow affluent people to sequester their children.) I wish I were a billionaire, so that I could experiment with medium-density mixed housing, right here in New York.

My idea comes from Second-Empire Paris. You design a six- or seven-story apartment building to include shops on the ground floor, a large and comfortable but not necessarily luxurious apartment on the first floor, a somewhat more modest apartment on top of that, and, proceeding through further gradations on the remaining floors, a garret at the top. Some garrets might be what we call studio apartments, meant for one tenant, while others would house families. All the garrets would be decent, and might be reached by elevators. You line the sides of a city block with such buildings, and, treating them as a unit (which, structurally, they might very well be), provide both private gardens and a residential park in the center. Beneath the parks (on the ground floor, that is), there would be delivery facilities for the shops and, for the time being, parking lots. I’m saying just enough to give you a picture of this urban ideal, with all but the superrich and the absolutely destitute living together.

There would be lots of room, it’s clear, for small-scale intimidation and exploitation. The folks in the top floors would be expected to observe most of the domestic habits of the wealthier tenants beneath them. They would also provide a stock of nannies and baby-sitters. They would have first call on the cast-offs from downstairs. I’m not sure how oppressive this would be in the long run. I’d like to see someone on staff whose job it was to put a lid on snooty superiority, especially in the more pampered kids.

And did I say that this block of buildings would be owned by a not-for-profit corporation, staffed and maintained by credentialed managers?


Thursday 14th

Rereading that chapter — buried in that over-long, chronologically jumbled novel — I am struck by how much Aldous and Maria must have seen and interpreted at that time. (334)

This is Sybille Bedford, referring to Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, a chapter from which horrified her when it came out (she read it in 1937). Huxley had taken an anecdote — the word will serve — from the darker moments of Bedford’s mother’s addiction to morphine, at a time when the Huxley’s were not only neighbors but rescuers. Having read the chapter in question (the twenty-first), I understand Bedford’s shock, which must have caused her to re-experience some highly-spiced unpleasantness; but I don’t have the sense of violated confidences, because nothing else — nothing but the locked door with its lower panel knocked out, providing a sort of pet hatch through which an addicted women crawls in search of privacy in her filthy bedroom, and escapes from a housekeeper too stout to follow her — points in Bedford’s direction. It’s not only that “Mary Amberley is no more, or less, my mother than she is the other one or two women Aldous was supposed by critics, friends and gossips to have used as a model for her character and conduct.” Helen Amberley herself, Mary’s daughter, could never be mistaken for a character modeled on Sybille Bedford. Or so I thought: all I have is a couple of books to go on.

Now I have read all the chapters of Eyeless in Gaza, which I picked up only because of the quality of Bedford’s mention of it. I did not expect to like the novel, and, for the most part, I didn’t like it. It is certainly “over-long.” There is a great deal of twaddle in it, most of it appearing in the protagonist’s diary entries after an enlightening encounter with a Quaker physician in Mexico, but some of it in the form of regurgitated conversations about the Meaning of Life and Is This All There Is? — bright young questions that have staled very badly. It would easy, I think, to strike through all this sententiousness and produce a far more readable book. Even then, the pace is slow to quicken, and it takes even longer to see the point of the chronological manipulations. But the last two hundred pages (out of nearly five hundred) fairly gallop along, and I read them so intently that I did not have to stay up late to finish a book that I could not put down.

Even the twaddle has its moments. Chapter 35, for example, addresses several problems that I have posed here. My manner of thinking is very unlike Huxley’s, and I suppose you could read the chapter without seeing much in common with this Web site. But by the time I finished its four pages, I felt that Huxley had been reading over my shoulder. The essential problem is what I call the right to be stupid — a right that the men of the Enlightenment could not imagine anyone’s wishing to claim. The current electoral season has shown its pervasiveness in American society, and we have abundant evidence of its appeal in Europe as well.

There is no remedy except to become aware of one’s interests as a human being, and, having become aware, to learn to act on that awareness. Which means learning to use the self and learning to direct the mind. (343)

The problem, of course, is that this “becoming aware” is not easy, and not even appealing — it’s not a fun project. (And there’s that “use of the self” again!) Developing a conscious, authentic sense of self — not, who would you like to be, but who ARE you? — is arduous, unpleasant work, or at any rate much of it is, and it requires habits of thought that can only be acquired with genuine will. It’s not like a gym. Going to the gym, you can entrust the trainer to tell you what to do to build a buff body. The trainer will take your body as far as it can go; there is no need for you to learn how he does it. But to be truly self-aware, you have to become your own trainer. Or, in my parlance, a humanist: you have to learn what to expect of human nature (which you share), and then you have to learn your deviations from the norm. Nobody can help you unless you truly want to be helped — very much like saying the same thing to an addict with regard to staying clean. Like avoiding a relapse, humanism is a never-ending inquiry. The moment you let it slide, you revert to being a person who understands nothing.

It would all be much easier if most people were self-aware, if you found yourself living in a conducive atmosphere. But almost everything about the surface of American life is not conducive. Let me get right to one thing that is conducive: a default decency that you can usually count on if you’re in a scrape. It’s not much of a help, because we usually manage to lead our lives away from scrapes, and therefore have no need of that decency; but keeping it in mind even when you don’t need it is a thought to grow upon. One of the big differences between Huxley and myself is that he sees a binary conflict between systems and individuals. I am not particularly interested in individuals as such; I’m interested in human beings in all their engagements, as lovers, parents, children, friends, cousins, teachers, counselors, acquaintances, strangers, or, in other words — one other word — society. Society is the true opposite of the system, and decency, countless, mostly small, acts of decency are what hold it together — not laws or policemen.

I have not read Brave New World. I wonder if, in that book, Huxley observes that the basic problem with systems is that they are, for lack of anything better to work with, operated by individuals, mere men and women who flatter themselves that they are acting with more than human wisdom, and who believe that the systems that they embody (as it were) are proof against the caprices and vagaries of human nature. There is, however, no way of escaping those caprices and vagaries, except by maintaining a general watchfulness, they way our ancestral tribes watched for dangerous animals. You can’t count on the system to wake you up in case of emergency, because the system is nothing but other people like yourself. People have always wanted to be mechanical — you can see the desire burn brightly in Plato’s dialogues. After a lifetime of meditating on mechanization, I have concluded that our interest in machines, which reached such a climax in the Nineteenth Century, reflects a dream of expanding humanity’s powers by limiting its complications. The nightmares of the Twentieth Century were brought about by attempting to realize this objective in political terms.

In Chapter 35, Huxley connects systems to their underlying principles.

A principle is, by definition, right; a plan [or system], for the good of the people. Axioms from which it logically follows that those who disagree with you and won’t help to realize your plan are enemies of goodness and humanity, fiends incarnate. Killing men and women is wrong, but killing fiends is a duty. Hence the Holy Office, hence Robespierre and the Ogpu [a predecessor of the KGB]. Men with strong religious and revolutionary faith, men with well-thought-out plans for improving the lot of their fellows, whether in this world or the next, have been more systematically and cold-bloodedly cruel than any others. (342)

This is terribly true. But if, as Huxley believes, you can’t simply “higgle,” or muddle through, because modern economies can no longer be counted upon to regulate themselves, then either you have to have a plan, or you have to have a society of grown-ups. This is where the right to be stupid rears its monstrous head.

It’s true that you don’t see parades of people waving banners in support of stupidity. Stupidity tends to be a small-scale, even solitary affair. To express it more politely, it asserts the right to believe in dark and inscrutable conspiracies on the basis of vague, circumstantial evidence. To put it crudely, it insists on the axioms of peasant conservatism. Needless to say, it rejects the claims of liberal education out of hand. It regards reasonable analysis with suspicion; it has a dread, admittedly not entirely unwarranted, of cleverness.

The men of the Enlightenment were wrong when they assumed that intelligent men would jump at the chance to put the stupidities of the ancien régime behind them. It turned out that intelligent men were satisfied by nothing more profound than the application of new labels to old institutions. It takes my breath away to consider how rapidly the United States has reproduced the jurisdictional sclerosis of late-medieval Europe (a paradise of diversity, by the way, if there ever was one). Even worse, this sclerosis condemns us to depend on a failing infrastructure that can’t seem to be fixed.

Peasant axioms have been around for a long time. In the Muslim world, they are on the upswing. Even in the United States, extremely anti-peasant axioms, such as those concerning racial- and gender-neutral civil rights, are not secure, if only because they have not been in place for very long. Innovations are easily swept away. (Consider Prohibition.)

Huxley closes his chapter with a sigh:

It’s almost wearisome, the way one always comes back to the same point. Wouldn’t it be nice, for a change, if there were another way out of our difficulties! A short cut. A method requiring no greater personal effort than recording a vote or ordering some “enemy of society” to be shot. A salvation from outside, like a dose of calomel.

It is not entirely clear in whose voice Huxley is speaking here. Is it the voice of the man in the street? Or the voice of the man who would rather not plan for the benefit of the man in the street, the man who would like to go back to muddling through? In the latter case, I know what the American élite would sigh today. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to set an example. Meaning: wouldn’t it be nice to binge-watch, as Clive James advocates in the current issue of The New Yorker, Game of Thrones. With all due respect, James may be entitled to do as he likes: he is dying, if by degrees, of cancer. But he sets a terrible example.


If Eyeless in Gaza fails as a novel, it is not because it is too long or too hard to follow. It is that it allows a compounded moral crime to slip away unatoned and unforgiven. I don’t mean that Anthony Beavis “gets away” with the terrible thing that he does to his friend, Brian Foxe, or his destruction of the evidence of that crime after it destroys Brian, but rather that Huxley gives us little or no indication that Anthony sees the need for atonement.

By the same token, if Eyeless in Gaza succeeds as a novel, it is because Huxley has so acutely compassed the crime, embedding it in Anthony’s bad faith. I don’t want to say too much about this awfulness, because its slow-motion unfurling, which Anthony strains to present as a trifling thing that got out of hand and, among other regrettable consequences, embarrassed him into blacker bad faith, is a great part of its horror. Something like it happens in many lives. An ill-considered action sets off a chain of reactions for which the initial perpetrator is ever less directly responsible. In this case, what Anthony did did not by itself compel Joan and Brian to doing what they did; each of them could have responded, certainly, with greater self-control. The key word is “embarrassment.” Kissing Joan was not a bad thing. But Anthony yielded to the embarrassment of having done it, and of remembering why he had done it — what had made the carnal impulse so irresistible — such that avoiding even greater embarrassment became his true crime. There was nothing that he would not do, or would not refrain from doing, in order to minimize the possibility of being seen by his friends in an unflattering light — all the while blaming Joan and Brian and Mrs Foxe and anyone else he could think of for his predicament. It is a classic instance of small-mindedness, and it could not be better told. And yet, with time, Anthony gets over it.

As we all do — which is, I’m afraid, Huxley’s implicit message. Not for him the hero whose vitals are eaten away by decades of remorse! I recognize that it could be argued that Huxley does mean to attach Anthony’s approach to possible immolation, at the very end of the novel, to the idea of atoning for his sin against Brian and Joan, the dénouement of which, having taken place twenty years earlier, appears in roughly adjacent chapters. But it is not explicit enough for me, and I look back on the acreage of Anthony’s diary entries without finding any sprouts of shame. Regardless of Huxley’s use of these entries as a pulpit for expounding his own enlightenment, from the standpoint of the novel, Anthony’s silence discredits everything he says. But I have to admit that there’s an excitement even in that.


Friday 15th

About a year ago, I began to make pizza regularly. Ever since, we have had pizza for dinner at least once almost every week. For a long time, I focused on production — making a crust, and getting it into and out of the oven. I meant to tackle the sauce next, but it was so easy to use something out of a bottle that I procrastinated. It wasn’t until Agata & Valentina ran out of its own arrabbiata sauce that I resolved to find a good tomato sauce recipe and make it myself. That was nearly two months ago. I found a recipe — at Serious Eats — and made it, as mentioned here last week.

Meanwhile, we had been eating the same pizza over and over. A little bit of sauce spread over the dough. Then a sprinkling of cooked sausage and mushroomed, chopped up along with six or eight pitted oil-cured olives. Then a grating of fresh mozzarella. For a long time, the result was very tasty, much better than what Kathleen and I called “pizza parlor” pizza. Over time, however, that’s exactly what I hankered for — pizza parlor pizza. What had made my own pizza seem superior now became a defect. At bottom, you see, I believed that I couldn’t really make superior pizza unless I could make pizza parlor pizza.

My basics came from a pizza cookbook. The book was full of fancy variations; I tried exactly one. But I followed the book’s recipe for crust. I made the dough as instructed (and I still do), and I cooked the pizza, as directed, for twelve minutes in a 475º oven.

Now, here’s the crazy thing. The very first time that I made a pizza with my own sauce — last Friday — I knew that the pizza was seriously overcooked. Bingo! It was so clear, so obvious, that I couldn’t wait to make another pizza. I would cook it for ten minutes. In the event, I left it in the oven for nine minutes — and I’m thinking of cutting back to eight. I made a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and if it was still much better than a pizza parlor pizza, it had all the good qualities of one. The crust was not so rigid; if you picked up a slice, you had to fold it a bit to maintain the cantilever. (It also didn’t taste like a cracker.) The pizza was bubbling when it came out of the oven, another good sign. Finally, the pizza tasted cooked. It did not taste roasted. Roasted! I had been roasting pizzas for a year!

I still don’t understand why I woke up when I did, why using my own sauce (which — thanks, Serious Eats! — was indeed better than anything storebought) made such a difference that I could see in a flash what it was that I didn’t like about my pizzas. I have a dim idea of how this happened, but I can’t seem to write it down. Clearly, I had been drawing a false conclusion, blaming the “off” quality of my pizzas on the various sauces that I was using. This was doubly stupid, because the “off” quality never varied with the sauce. Why didn’t it occur to me six months ago that I was overcooking the pizzas?

The short answer may be that, for a long time, I was amazed to be able to turn out any kind of pizza at all. I assumed that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I thought in terms of ingredients, not technique. Twelve minutes didn’t seem so very long to be cooking dough. I did experiment with raw toppings, but while this produced an authentic amount of grease, it (obviously) didn’t do anything about the roasted taste, which I still didn’t recognize as such, of the crust and the sauce. Not to mention the mozzarella. I learned from Serious Eats not to use fresh mozzarella. What I needed, I was told, was “low-moisture” mozzarella. This is what comes in the plastic bags at the dairy section. Using low-moisture mozzarella made a big difference, too, although not one as big as the reduced cooking time. I wonder if you can grate fresh mozzarella and let it dry out a bit (wrapped in paper towels?) in the refrigerator. The packaged, pre-grated cheese is, after all, highly processed.

I haven’t named the book from which I learned the basics because, well, two reasons. First, ovens are notoriously different. Although Julia Child is absolutely reliable in most ways, I generally find that things don’t cook in the oven as quickly as she tells me to expect. And I’ve had to re-learn a lot of timings with the move from one apartment to another — I’m still not sure about broiling a good steak. Second, I haven’t looked at the pizza cookbook in nearly a year, and the chances are that I have misremembered something. In any case, I absolve the author of any responsibility for my long slog to a quality breakthrough.

I will say that it’s very nice that this particular breakthrough involves nothing more complicated than a small number. I have the rest of pizza-making down pat, so much so that I don’t even need the dough recipe anymore.

And I thank Kathleen for having said, week in and week out, that she liked my pizza.


I have just been distracted by the discovery of a marvelous old map, online (at Wikipedia, natch). It’s French, and it dates from the Nineteenth Century. It is entitled, “Empire de Charlemagne/et son démembrement/au Traité de Verdun/843.” Now, I always get the Treaty of Verdun mixed up with the Oaths of Strasbourg, probably because the Oaths are only a year older. The Oaths are famous primarily for providing the first written evidence of a distinctive French. (The texts also appear in Latin and in an early German.) It is also true that the whole point of the Oaths was upset by the Treaty.

The issue was the partition of Charlemagne’s empire after the reign of Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son. At his death in 840, Louis left three sons (a fourth having predeceased him), Louis the German, Lothar, and Charles the Bald. Lothar regarded himself as Louis’s sole successor; for a brief period in the 830s, he had replaced his father. Now, however, his brothers contested his claim, swearing their oath of mutual aid against him in 842. The following year, the civil unrest came to an end, with the Treaty. The empire was divided into three pieces, which might as well be regarded as three strips, for that is very much what the piece in the middle was. The western piece became France, and eastern piece became Germany, and the strip in the middle — Lotharingia, stretching from modern Nederland to deep into Italy — became a zone of contest, for Lotharingia did not long outlast Lothar. Its component parts, the Low Countries, Lorraine, Burgundy, much of Switzerland, Provence, Savoy, Lombardy and Tuscany, were shuffled back and forth, with most of them settling in the Empire that German kings revived in the Tenth Century, and some of them, such as Burgundy, holding on to a measure of autonomy. The great Valois Dukes of Burgundy (1361-1477) would launch the most plausible attempt to re-unite the northern part of Lotharingia; they were allied with the enemies of France, and they petitioned the Emperor to raise their patrimony to the status of a kingdom. The scheme fell apart when the last duke died without leaving a son. All the French parts of this expanded “Burgundy” were seized by Louis XI. The rest went into the Hapsburg pocket, when Maximilian married the last duke’s daughter.

The last duke, Charles the Rash, died in battle, attempting to subdue the Swiss. I don’t believe that his effort was repeated, and the Swiss Confederation was duly recognized as an independent country in 1648. Savoy, rather improbably, became the cradle of the dynasty that oversaw the Unification of Italy in 1871, but not before its territory on the far side of the Alps fell to the French.

And these are just the notable moves. To this day, the remnants of Lotharingia float between the French and the Germans, neither one nor other, whichever language is spoken. Thanks to a strategic decision by Charles V, upon the division of his vast possessions between his brother and his son, in 1556, the language that we call Dutch survives; all of the other low-German dialects were stamped out by progressive education within the territories of the old Empire, from which the Low Countries were detached in order to provide Philip II of Spain with a second front from which to attack England.

It’s all there in the map. France is pink, Germany is yellow, and Lotharingia is green. Towns that did not exist in 843 do not appear. (There are only two Nederlander cities, Utrecht and Deventer.) If you look at the map as long as I’ve been doing, you will get a headache, not just because of vanished Lotharingia but because substantial bits of the pink parts are no longer French, but Belgian or Spanish, while some of the yellow parts have become Switzerland and Austria. Brittany is not part of France, while Brandenburg and Saxony lie beyond the German frontier. If you are not already familiar with the political geography of Europe, this map may do bad things to your brain. It is doubtful, however, that anyone unfamiliar with Europe would give the map a second glance.

Did I mention, recently, my proposal that we stop talking about “the Middle Ages” and talk instead of “Early Europe”? (Searching the site would be cumbersome for a Friday.) Following my own advice, I’ve been pleased by the change of air. For one thing, “Early Europe” sounds so much younger. It doesn’t make me think of now-ancient cathedrals; it takes me back to long before those magnificent structures were dreamed of. For another, there was always the awkward “between what?” problem. By now, you have to be a moron to think of the ten centuries from Clovis to François Premier as an interlude between the Roman Empire and Modern Times. I’ve bracketed the period with the mention of two French kings, but the novelty of modern Europe was, of course, the Germans, also known as the Franks, because they believed that every able-bodied man was, somehow, free. The Germans were, like everybody else, impressed and even a little bit intimidated by the Romans, but — and I hesitate to attribute this to their being German — they were also stuck in their ways. It took a long time to sort out the Roman and the German contributions to European life; that is what the development of Early Europe is about.

From the beginning, then, Europe had a cosmopolitan nature, even if no one was very happy about the confusion. Into this mixup came a band of Scandinavian marauders, themselves only distantly related to the Germans (or Franks). No sooner did they settle down in Normandy than their French-speaking leader invaded England, and became its king. You get the picture: tradition becomes a desperate, always somewhat fake attempt to mask adulteration and compromise. And those mysterious Bavarians — they’re really Slavs, aren’t they?

It’s for this reason that I set the end-date of Early Europe not in the Renaissance, or in 1648, or even in 1789, but in 1945. Just in time for an age of refugees.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
April 2016 (I)

Monday 4th

There are words that I don’t know, of course. When I encounter one, I look it up in the dictionary. But there are also things of which I never knew, things for which there turn out to be words that I have never bumped into, so that the new word, instead of screwing in comfortably with all the others, continues to thrum with unfamiliarity. Such is the Italian word sdrucciolo, which I ran into yesterday.

Now, most Italian words correspond to English words that I know as well as you do. Sdrucciolare — sdroo-cho-LAR-ay — means “to slip.” Sdrucciolo, however, which is derived from this verb, does not mean “slippery.” The word for “slippery” is sdrucciolevole — sdroo-cho-LAY-vo-lay. According to my dictionary, sdrucciolo — SDROO-cho-lo — means two things, one of them a chemical, the other “trisyllabic verse.” Neither of these has anything to do with what I learned yesterday.

The default accent in any Italian word is on the penultimate syllable. Remember those adjectives from last week? ScorRETTo, ImbarraZANte? That’s normal. But there are some words that are accented on the antepenultimate syllable, and you just pick them up as you learn the language. BruTISSimo — again from last week. CAmera (room), FAcile (easy), PosSIbile (possible). Sometimes I’m not sure, and, when I’m reading aloud, I make lots of mistakes. I’m certain that I’ve said “FaCIle.” Another thing that I didn’t know until yesterday is that it is customary, when dubbing a foreign film into Italian, to indicate stupid characters — eg, The Three Stooges — by having them get their accents wrong. I’ve always been aware of a vague uncertainty about some words, though, mostly verbs, verbs in their infinitive and third-person plural forms. I know enough Italian to know that a lot of these particular forms are spoken with the accent on the antepenult. But I didn’t look into it until yesterday.

Yesterday, you see, I was reading on in Jhumpa Lahiri’s In altre parole (In Other Words), and the uncertainty that I just mentioned ceased to be vague, and became annoyingly insistent. Two words that appear with great frequency in Lahiri’s book are leggere (to read) and scrivere (to write). Although I was not reading aloud, my confusion about where to place the accent on these words was disruptive. I was pretty sure that the accent fell on the first syllable in both words, but LeGEre sounded right, too.

For a good reason. If you accent the second syllable of leggere, you say the word for “light,” as in “lightweight.” Leggerevole can mean “somewhat” or “slightly.” In the infinitive of the verb “to read,” however, the accent does indeed fall on the first syllable. Leggere and scrivere belong to a class of infinitives, all of them ending in -ere. They do not end in -are (parlare, amare) or -ire (partire, empire). The word for these -ere infinitives, and all the other words with an accent on the antepenult, is — yes! — sdrucciolo. These words have un accento sdrucciolo.

And you just have to learn them. It is a testament to my haphazard way of going about things, or of having gone about them in my wasted youth, that I have been fooling around with Italian for fifty years or more, and even taken a course or two, without ever having had the faintest suspicion of sdrucciolo. Yes, I was uncertain about accenting certain words, but it never occurred to me that they formed a class, with its own label. I never saw a list of sdrucciolo words.

Not until yesterday, that is. I found a very handy cheat sheet yesterday, in response to the last of about five Google searches. I thought about copying it into an Evernote and having it on my phone, but I decided to print it out, and to keep it handy while I’m reading In altre parole, and who-knows-what I’ll read in Italian next.

I suppose that this sdrucciolo thing is also testament to how surprisingly easy it is for me to read Italian, after years and years of practically no effort. Having the English on a facing page certainly makes things easier, but as I’ve gotten further into the book I’ve made a greater effort to work things out for myself. The result is that I’m bothered not by meanings but by accents. But I’m only talking about reading Italian. Not speaking or writing in it.

Lahiri tells of how, one day, in a library where she never felt comfortable, she suddenly had the idea for a story. She wrote half of it then and there, and then came back the next day and finished it. Then —

I don’t know how to read the story. [As in standard Italian, Lahiri writes about the ongoing past in the present tense. I'm not sure that Ann Goldstein was right to translate so literally.] I don’t know what to think about it. I don’t know if it works. I don’t have the critical skills to judge it. Although it came from me, it doesn’t seem completely mine. I’m sure of only one thing: I would never have written in English. (65)

So when, in the very next chapter, she gives us the story, “Lo scambio” — The Exchange — I read it with this in mind: not only how “Italian” it sounded (and what kind of judge am I of that?), but also how “not-English.” I decided to take Lahiri at her word: she wouldn’t have written it in English. It’s not that the story doesn’t work in English; it’s just not the sort of thing that you’d expect Lahiri to write, going on her work so far (all of it in English). It is hard to imagine her even dreaming of the story in English. But it is Italian to this extent: it reminds me of The Other Language, the collection of short stories in English by Francesca Marciano, stories that struck me as having been designed to capture an Italian sensibility in English.

Lo Scambio” reads, frankly, like the scenario for a film by Michelangelo Antonioni. A woman who is a professional translator is disturbed by the conviction that everything that she remembers about her life could have been better. (Ogni volta che aveva un qualsiasi ricordo della sua vita passata, era convinta che un’altra versione sarebbe stata migliora. —  66) She is too fond of life to consider suicide, so she decides to vacate her circumstances instead. She says good-bye to everybody and gives everything away, except for a little black sweater.

In the strange city where she knows no one, she walks everywhere. Her life is very simple, but it is the simplicity of an Armani suit. It is a very affluent simplicity, buying a nice piece of fruit and then enjoying it on a pleasant park bench. Nobody writes this way in English; in English, this sort of thing seems weightless and inconsequential. (Needless to say, the translator is unnamed.) It can even seem to be precious. And perhaps it’s no longer stylish in Italian. (Why, though, did I just now think of early Paul Auster?) Be that as it may, the central event in the story has a fairy tale quality that fits perfectly. Standing under a cornice in the rain, the translator notices that women are entering and leaving the palazzo across the street. She decides to follow them. She rings and is admitted. She walks through a courtyard and up a grand staircase. No, I made that up: it’s “dark stairway, the steps slightly uneven.” The translator climbs the stairs, leaves her purse along with the others’ on a table in the hallway, and enters a large living room.

The tone becomes even more dreamlike at this point, not because odd things happen — not at all — but because the fact that the translator has gatecrashed what is essentially a trunk show held at a designer’s home is never announced, as it certainly would be in English. Instead, we gather as much from an accumulation of details — the rack of clothes against the far wall, the three-screen mirror.

Some women were already undressed, and were trying on clothes, asking the others for their opinions. They were a collection of arms, legs, hips, waists. Unceasing variations. They all seemed to know each other. (73)

The translator undresses, too, and tries on a lot of outfits — “all the garments in her size.”

She studied her own image. But she was distracted by the presence of another woman behind the mirror, at the end of the hall. She was different from the others. She was working at a table, with an iron, a needle in her mouth. She had tired eyes, a sorrowful face.

The clothes were elegant, well made. Even though they suited her, the translator didn’t like them. After trying the last thing she decided to leave. She didn’t feel like herself in those clothes. She didn’t want to acquire or accumulate anything more. (73)

The crisis is that the translator cannot find her little black sweater. A search of the premises turns up something that looks rather like it, but isn’t — its material is rougher, and it doesn’t quite fit. The translator actually finds it revolting. By now, the translator is the only woman in the apartment, aside from the owner and the woman with the iron. In search of the sweater, the designer calls up each of her clients, but nobody took it home by mistake. (The idea that someone might have stolen it out of spite does not occur.) The translator, feeling defeated, leaves with the substitute sweater. Her certainty that it is not hers is overwhelmed by an uncertainty about everything.

In the morning, a transformation. The black sweater both is and is not the garment that the translator brought with her to this new city. The alien aspect of the sweater is no longer revolting. “In fact, when she put it on, she preferred it. [...] Now, when she put it on, she, too, was another.” (81)

The end. Now let’s go back to the end of the previous chapter, in which the story was written.

Odio analizzare ciò che scrivo. Ma qualche mese dopo, un mattino mentre corro in villa Doria Pamphilj, mi viene in mente, tutto a un tratto, il significato di questo strano racconto: il golfino è la lingua. (64)

I hate analyzing what I write. But one morning a few months later, when I’m running in the park of villa Doria Pamphili, the meaning of this strange story suddenly comes to me: the sweater is language. (65)

You might wonder if Lahiri had better kept that interpretative key to herself until the reader had a chance to read the story. But what I find telling is that the critical experience occurs in a context that is unfamiliar to Lahiri’s writing (so far as I recall it): fashion. Fashion, that is, at one of its pinnacles. Not the brand-name “couturiers” but rather designers like the one in the story, who have a little list of women who look good in her clothes and who can afford them. Every now and then, she opens her doors and sells what she has. It is very discreet. The clothes are designed for women who travel; they can be washed in cold water by hand. They don’t wrinkle. Lahiri could be describing the dresses that Kathleen hunted down in an out-of-the-way corner of Hong Kong, twenty-odd years ago. That such an event should occur, convincingly, at the heart of a Lahiri story is proof that she has at least left New York behind. Her New York, that is — we have trunk shows like that, too. But in New York, writers do not “do” fashion. They do not do “girly” things. (A great deal of Joan Didion’s enigmatic aura owes to the fact that, as a writer, she almost completely suppresses her lively interest in womanly things, such as buying clothes and shopping for dinner. The Joan Didion known to her women friends would not, at least until recently, have been respected by male writers.) In “Lo Scambio,” there is an utter lack of the irony with which an American writer would treat the designer and her clients.


When I sat down this morning, this Italian note was going to be short, and then I was going to write about Vladimir Putin as a gangster. Over the weekend, I read yet another review of the Owen Report, which is based on an investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned by a cup of tea laced with polonium in 2006, almost certainly at Putin’s behest. As it so happens, I was also getting into John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor, which I’m reading not in continuation of my Cornwell craze but because a filmed adaptation, starring Ewan McGregor, Damian Lewis, and Stellan Skarsgård, is going to appear in the not-too-distant future. And the novel gave me an idea. How do you go after a gangster? You hire a better gangster.

It’s not really much of an idea. The Litvinenko murder took forever to “clear up,” if that’s what the Owen Report means, because Litvinenko was more or less a nobody. If you took out Putin, you’d be killing the top public official in Russia. The Russians could hardly respond to such an assassination in gang-war terms. But maybe the better gangster could make life — gangster life — more difficult for Putin, perhaps not worth living. Putin’s henchmen could begin disappearing, instead of just his enemies.

The way things are going, defecting Russian millionaires and billionaires may indeed be investing in the development of such a gangsteer, one to rival not Putin’s thugs but Putin himself. One thing seems clear: you do not go after gangster heads of state in the United Nations, or by any other combination of conventional diplomacy followed by war. We learned that in the Thirties.

The problem with gangster heads of state is that they’re always appealing at the beginning, because they maintain a semblance of law and order. Order, anyway. Mussolini, Hitler, Erdoğan, Putin all seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. With Stalin, it was more the peace of the sepulcher, but even he had his gets-things-done fans. One has to wonder about Donald Trump in this line-up. Trump talks like a gangster, or rather he speaks with a gangland accent, but he talks too much to be mistaken for a gangster. Way too much.

And, say you got rid of Putin? Then what?


Tuesday 5th

On Saturday, I saw Paul Taylor’s Spindrift for the first time. The dance made a great and immediate impression. I recognized not only that it belongs to the grand tier of Taylor dances, but that this tier carries the label, “Sublime.” Other Sublime dances include Cloven Kingdom, Arden Court, and that old favorite, Esplanade. I’d be inclined to include Roses, if it weren’t for the relative monotony of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll; the other dances in this class draw their music from multi-movement compositions with their roots in the Baroque, meaning that fast and lively music alternates with grave and solemn music. There are tears and there are smiles. Every now and then, a laugh. If the dances are death-haunted, they are all about being alive, with a comprehensiveness that seems exhaustive. That comprehensiveness is an illusion, of course, but the power of the illusion is what makes the dances Sublime. The power is generated by the choreographer’s skill at forging an organic whole out of a miscellany.

I say this, and yet I remember nothing of the particular movements of Spindrift. I saw that Michael Trusnovec had the leading role (no surprise), but I can’t retail his interactions with the other members of the company, as I can with Beloved Renegade, which was presented a little later. Performances of Beloved Renegade, which was new when Kathleen and I discovered Paul Taylor, had always eluded us. It was always appearing on an adjacent bill, not the one for which we’d shown up. I was relieved finally to see it. I’m sure that there are many who would include it among Paul Taylor’s Sublime dances, if they were to recognize the category. But I wouldn’t. Having seen Beloved Renegade, I needn’t see it again. It is an elegy for the company’s senior dancer, now in his eighteenth year with Paul Taylor. It also seemed to be an elegy for Robert Kleinendorst and Sean Mahoney; like Michael Trusnovec, they’re fortyish. These men, magnificent as they are, cannot go on doing this much longer. I was annoyed with myself for noticing an AIDS connection, mediated no doubt by the program’s explicit references to Walt Whitman, who so famously nursed wounded soldiers in Washington, during the Civil War. In the dance itself, there was a passage in which Trusnovec appeared to be succoring wounded men; I remember thinking that it was full of grace.

But I remember nothing from Spindrift. Once I had recognized its greatness, it slipped through my fingers. So I hope to see it again.

We did our weekend thing. On Saturdays, during its three weeks at Lincoln Center, Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance presents afternoon and evening programs. Generally, each program features the performance of three dances. On Saturday, however, the first segment was given to two short works, separated by a brief pause. First, we had Snow White, which is no end of fun. I have never seen a British pantomime, and I have trouble even imagining what it might be like, but Paul Taylor’s Snow White can’t be so very different. It is, briefly, a burlesque of Walt Disney’s version: the title character (danced adorably by Parisa Khobdeh) wears the same little red bow in her hair. The mean old queen stomps about in her voluminous cloak, clacking her blood-red fingernails and panting for wickedness; I quickly discerned that Sean Mahoney was dancing the part. He was much more obviously also dancing the part of the Prince. “Dancing” is an exaggeration. The Prince paces solemnly, one arm raised in conciliation, the other placed across this breast. From time to time, he frowns, and, with placid gravity, switches hands. It is very witty.

There is a nonstop, vixenish Bad Apple (Heather McGinley), and of course a passel of dwarves — but only five. Robert Kleinendorst was one of them, and as he and the others crouched through their acrobatics, I was reminded of an interview that he gave last year (I think it was) in which he complained of not being able to get a full night’s sleep, such was his back pain. I tried not to dwell on this. I tried to remember what Snow White was reminding me of, but I didn’t figure that out until just now (the elaborate curtain call in Lend Me a Tenor, which recapitulates the entire comedy in less than a minute). The whole dance is very witty: look, it says, at how clever our romping can be. Paul Taylor can get away with this, probably because he resorts to it sparingly.

Nothing could have been less like fun than what followed the pause: Profiles, a dance to scratchy and dissonant string-quartet playing. If I had to categorize Profiles, I should call it Sixties Serious, but you could probably do better. Bodies in Space? The four dancers (Michael Trusnovec, Eran Bugge, Laura Halzack, and Michael Novak — to list them, as the company is scrupulous to do, in order of seniority) are costumed in skintight outfits that I gathered must be stepped into, as there was a conspicuous lack of zippers. The intention behind this aesthetic, once so ubiquitous, seems to be half salacious (nudies!) and half despoiling (stripping away our bogus disguises &c &c). It also makes possible a sort of architectural treatment of the body, as if anatomy could be bent into structure. I was reminded of the days of my youth, when art went out of its way to be anhedonic.

Just how far we’ve come from those days was measured by Offenbach Overtures, which closed the afternoon program. The music consists of bits and pieces taken from the title’s sources, and the tone is therefore somewhere between ooh-la-la and Swan Lake. The costumes are cherry red, with black accents. For the ladies, low heels, cloth hair ornaments, bloomers, and can-can skirts. For the gentlemen: tank tops, tights, and boots, with hats suggesting either army or navy. Oh, and moustaches, lovely waxed curlicue moustaches, rendering the men indistinguishable, at least at first. The note of burlesque was struck again, this time by Parisa Khobdeh as an intoxicated chorine, vaguely reminiscent of Rosalind Russell, and by Laura Halzack, as a vamp who is rattled by the missteps of her partner (George Smallwood). In the middle of the dance, there is a duel scene, with Michael Trusnovec and Sean Mahoney indulging in a dance-off instead of a shoot-out, and of course falling in love in the process, while their seconds, Robert Kleinendorst and Francisco Graciano, descend into partisan fisticuffs. You really don’t know where to look, because each couple is doing a perfect job of upstaging the other. Offenbach Overtures became an immediate favorite. I may have made it sound somewhat more jocular than it is, for the prevailing mood (the duel aside) is sweetly reminiscent of classical ballet. Glazounov on the sly.

In the middle third, we had Three Dubious Memories, which we’ve seen before. It, too, is recent, dating from 2010, when I suppose we saw it the first time.There is a man in green (Mr Kleinendorst), a man in blue (Mr Mahoney), a woman in a red dress (Eran Bugge), and a “choir,” led by a choirmaster (James Samson), in grey. In each of the first two of the dance’s four sections, the woman in red is coupled with one of the men, and the couple is interrupted by the other man, who tears the woman in red away. In the third section, the two men are the couple, and the woman in red is vexed. Then there is a “threnody,” which wraps things up. The choir, as Kathleen remarked afterward, has a much bigger role than you remember. Is it true that, whenever two people fall in love, they make a third person miserable? Not “whenever,” but often, and perhaps more often in New York than elsewhere. With the lightest possible hand, Three Dubious Memories highlights the selfishness of happy couples.

I’ve already described two of the ballet on the evening program. In between, we had Sullivaniana, which is new this year. The music consists of the overtures to Iolanthe, The Pirates of Penzance, and Patience, played back to back in that order. There is more fabric in each man’s outfit than is worn by the entire quartet of Profiles. Frock coats in a loud check, vests in a the same check, but on the bias, solid trousers, shoes, and bowler hats. The colors are very vivid; I’d wear them (especially the green and the mauve), but most men wouldn’t. The ladies wear plain tops and tartan skirts with seductive little bustles. The look, like the music, is pert. I’d have to see the dance again to say anything about the choreography, which was pleasant enough but not (as I recall) pointed in any direction. At one point, there was sort of a group-grope pile-up on the floor. I could imagine Sullivan peeking at it through his fingers, shocked but approving, while Gilbert, fuming, telephoned his solicitor. The bowler hats made the men even less distinguishable than the curlicued moustaches. It took me forever to recognize Michael Novak.

Michael Novak seemed to be guided by a single thought all day. He danced as beautifully as ever, but as if determined to avoid giving the impression that we don’t have to worry about what will happen when Michael Trusnovec retires, because he’ll be there to step into the shoes of Apollo. Now, that’s artistry.

I wish we’d seen more Paul Taylor; of course I do. But I didn’t get round to buying tickets until early last month, and I wanted to be safe, not sorry — not to miss anything on a weeknight because something kept Kathleen at the office or I was worn out for one reason or another. And there were no boffo programs; there are quite a few Paul Taylor dances that we don’t want to see, such as Promethean Fire. Aside from Esplanade, none of the other Sublime dances was given this season. I shall hope for more encounters next year. As for this season, I feel unusually obliged to mention the dancers whom I have passed over. The ones that I’ve mentioned are all superb. Parisa Khobdeh impressed me more than ever, and I finally had a sense of Eran Bugge’s artistry; she was no longer eclipsed, in Three Dubious Memories, by the three men. (I already knew all about them, as it were.) George Smallwood is a very important asset, if a still-undeveloped one. What I mean by this is that every great Paul Taylor dancer is a fine dancer from the start, but becomes great by growing not only better as a dancer but more peculiarly him- or herself. I have not yet seen this in Jamie Rae Walker, and her immediate junior in seniority, Michael Apuzzo, has left me with the impression of a grinning strongman; I am always waiting for a dropped dumbbell to wipe the Da-DA! off his face. I ought to have mentioned Christina Lynch Markham, for her fine work in Beloved Renegade. And Michelle Fleet appeared in a brief solo in Offenbach Overtures that reminded us, instantly, who she is. This year’s newbie, Madelyn Ho, made a particularly strong debut, and, I noticed, was given plenty of room in which to do so. Among other things, she was paired with Michael Trusnovec in Offenbach Overtures. For the moment, however, she is just another pretty and talented former Harvard Medical School student.


To return to Gilbert & Sullivan: Until just the other day, more or less, I regarded The Gondoliers as a sort of cuckoo in the Savoyard nest, grandiose, empty, and, most of all, bogus. The music I found flashy rather than beautiful, the book both perfunctory and unfunny. Then, quite recently, the four root notes of the repeated dominant seventh chords that begin the tarantella in the overture somehow pierced my skin, and I was infused by a work that got lovelier and laughtier every time I listened to it. At the same time, I was reading more about the Savoy operas, and what I was hearing about The Gondoliers was invariably a confirmation of my former views. Oh, everyone admitted that The Gondoliers is radiant and sunny, deliciously appealing; but beyond such generalities the tone became more critical. Sullivan’s music, however pleasing, is set at such a pace that most numbers come off as unintelligible patter songs. Gilbert’s text is certainly regarded as a disappointment. The prosody is not up to the almost Shakespearean standard of the earlier works (or at least the great four in the middle, Patience to Mikado), and everybody — everybody — hates Marco’s line (in the barcarole, “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes”) about the “tender little hand fringed with dainty fingerettes.” “Dainty fingerettes” is off-putting; it makes me think of lobsters. But I kind of like it anyway, just because it’s so awful. I’m in that giddy moment of discovery, when everything that’s good about Gondoliers is great, and everything that’s awful about it is great, too. It took a while for that nautically protracted “Ah” in the finale to stop causing horripilation, and for the sugar shock of “List and Learn” to wear off. I know that they’re both dreadful Italian clichés — but they’re kind of wonderful. I have clearly fallen off the gondola into one of the deeper stretches of the lagoon.

The music is much more than pleasing. It’s as though the other Savoy operas had been written by somebody else, somebody somewhat inferior to Sullivan, and now Sullivan were going to show us how it ought to be done. I don’t mean that The Gondoliers sounds better than the others, not at all. But it sounds different, as if it included a critique of the whole general idea of Topsy Turvy. It’s a matter of countless little moments, such as the low clarinets that now and then carry the Duke and the Duchess through “Small Titles and Orders.” Or the strange chords that lead into the reprise of the dance that follows “I Am a Courtier Grave and Serious.” Or the big, dumb “Oh!” in the refrain of “Rising Early in the Morning.”

I could go on and on. But it won’t, this infatuation. It will come to an end. It must. For an entire year, within the past ten, I went without listening to any opera other than Bellini’s I Puritani. For a year, it was not only the perfect opera, it was the only opera. I have not entirely recovered; if I listen to one thing from the opera, I have to listen to the next, and the next, and then start at the beginning. (I am devoted to the Riccardo Muti recording.) That’s how it is with the second act of The Gondoliers now. If possible.


Thursday 17th

The response to being named in the Panama Papers, which broke a few days ago, has been shame, denial, or silence — so far. We can be glad about that. We can take some comfort in the fact that members of the global élite do not want their names in the papers in connection with this story. How long they will continue to react in this way seems to me to be a function of the ongoing power of the state.

And, by “state” here, I mean the somewhat abstract institution that is believed to represent the will of most of its citizens. I mean, not Russia, which increasingly looks like the personal property of Vladimir Putin.

Now, Putin has rolled out the usual denials. That a few chums of his appear to have been clients of Mossack Fonseca, the “boutique” Panama City law firm (with a staff of five hundred) that specializes in shell companies, is, according to Putin, a lie concocted by the West (meaning the United States), out of sheer disappointment that he is making Russia so happy and prosperous. This tale is for domestic consumption only; no one else is expected to believe it. Perhaps even the Russians aren’t expected to believe it: Putin’s explanation is merely a facet of their happy prosperity. There is indeed something worrisome about the brazenness of the lie. It could be taken to mean, “So what?”

That’s what Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson might be saying when he insists that he has not stepped down, but only stepped aside, after it became impossible to ignore the clamor calling for his resignation. Gunnlaugsson was an investor in a fund that is currently suing Iceland’s banks for massive losses in that country’s notorious financial meltdown in 2008. As prime minister, he is participating in the negotiation of a settlement of the dispute. The complaint against him is one of conflict of interest; to me it looks more like loaded dice.

What does it mean for an elected leader to step aside — for reasons other than poor health and so on? For reasons like Gunnlaugsson’s? Has there been much stepping aside in the two centuries of liberal democracy? Even Putin didn’t step aside. When then-current term-limit laws prevented him from continuing as president of Russia, he switched jobs with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A few years later, they switched again, and things haven’t changed since. It now appears that Putin is not going to be stepping aside until he steps into his coffin. Those of us who haven’t been bitten by the power drug, and who wonder why people like Putin don’t retire when enough is enough, must remember that we haven’t been bitten.

If Gunnlaugsson’s bluff succeeds, I foresee an amendment to Iceland’s constitution. If, that is, anyone is still paying attention to such niceties.


In retrospect, it looks like a miracle of timing. Or a perfect storm. On Tuesday, I finished reading Our Kind of Traitor, and was very upset by it. The next day, I looked at the Panama Papers story with new eyes, and at the same time understood that what was so upsetting about Le Carré’s novel wasn’t the plight of the characters but the story in the background. It’s a story that frightens me a lot more than the Cold War ever did. The story in the background presents Great Britain with a new kind of enemy within: the City. The City, which in view of its status as the would-be global financial capital has taken to calling itself “London,” wants all the big money, from whatever source derived, and it wants the owners of that money to feel comfortable about entrusting it to City bankers. The City wants to be Panama. Or the US — Delaware, perhaps. (If the Panama Papers disclose few American names, that’s because Americans don’t have to go abroad to shelter their money.) It wants to be whatever will bring in that money.

Le Carré doesn’t go into it; he doesn’t belabor his belief that money is power — political power. He leaves that to the imagination. My imagination is receptive. I forget when it was, last year, that I began to worry about the ability of very rich people to buy their own armies. This has been a movie fantasy since the days of early James Bond, and it is given fantastic play in Kingsman: The Secret Service, where the minions of the sociopath played by Samuel L Jackson wear Star Wars-white armor. At some moment, however, it ceased to seem merely fantastic to me. What would stop a pharma king from defending his discoveries, and denying them to the rest of the world, with a conventional army? He would be safe from almost any kind of bombing. We might say, why go to so much trouble? But then, we haven’t been bitten by the power bug. For the moment, however, the pharma king would not need to go to so much trouble. He could buy the support of the state.

States are abstract, which is just another way of saying that they exist only in the minds of human beings. If we all believe in the state, and act as though it exists, then it does exist, embodied in countless personal interactions. It is embodied in countless acts that people decide not to commit. But this magic act lasts only as long as it is kept up by a determined plurality of citizens or subjects. We saw what happened in 1789, when masses of Frenchmen not only stopped believing in the power and authority of Louis XVI, but began regarding their king as their enemy. As Americans, we decided to have done with kings. We produced one of the most impersonal constitutions of all time, so full of its famous checks and balances that it has now become impossible to do anything, or at least anything that most people are aware of. But there is still no getting around it that our office-holders are men and women, just like us. The business corporation, for all the clout of its constitutive legal fictions, is still run by men and women, just like you and me. We expect these men and women to behave according to a very high standard of public interest. We have also depended upon a journalistic inclination to protect us from too much evidence to the contrary — it’s for our own good. Would Americans have made FDR a four-term president if they had known (as everyone in the upper socio-economic reaches, my late aunt once assured me, did know) that he was unable to walk from here to there? Our leaders have behaved pretty well, and our newspapers have shielded us from scurrilous gossip. But wait! It’s not 1970 anymore, is it?

What happens when and if Americans become so disgusted with the abuse of official institutions that they support a leader willing to bypass the state altogether, and to constitute power in himself?

We saw this happen, or should have done if it hadn’t happened so slowly, at the end of the Roman Empire in the West. The idea that Rome fell to a host of invading barbarians is the most arrant nonsense. The barbarians did everything they could think of to imitate Roman ways. It was the Romans who stopped believing in Rome — a loss made easier by the removal of “Rome” to Constantinople. Rome got too big not to fail. The barbarians simply stepped into a series of power vacuums.

(We really ought to pay more attention to our use of this “too big to fail” conceit. It means nothing unless it means “too big to be allowed to fail,” and that, of course, invokes a greater power, one capable of implementing the decision to prevent failure. There was, obviously, no such entity to prevent Rome’s decline and fall. We can only hope that we understand enough about money and commerce to warrant our faith in the government’s ability to forestall financial catastrophes. It’s by no means a sure thing.)

But the barbarians were — well, different. They were warlike. That is, they liked war. Rome had grown by enforcing peace behind its borders. Roman aristocrats were distinguished by their disdain for military swagger. The barbarians, in contrast, and notwithstanding their Roman-ish duds, gathered around chieftains and indulged in feuds. Bloodshed was a very personal business; nobody went to war on principle. The Church, child of Rome no less than of Christ (an understatement), cried out for peace, but it could never be established for long. From the fifth century until the tenth, European kingdoms were either short-lived or ineffective. Peace was broken everywhere and regularly — sending a virtual invitation to invaders (and these were barbarian invaders) from Scandinavia, the Hungarian Plain, and North Africa. This invitation, by the way, appeared after the forging of the vast Carolingian expansion and the establishment of the new Holy Roman Empire, so soon did Charlemagne’s glory follow him to the grave. It took well over a century to get back, as it were, to Charlemagne.

It helped that making war got more and more expensive, making it available to fewer and fewer players. The history of Europe until 1789 is the story of an ever more concentrated class of noblemen by inheritance, determined to keep the fight going despite all the obstacles, from gunpowder to inflation. The aristocrats kept insisting on the honor of warfare even after the Bourbon collapse; indeed, their finest (that is, blackest) moment may have been the outbreak of the Great War, which was incited by a rather gothic-looking assortment of officer-class war bands.

The question for us is not whether we, too, are warlike. It doesn’t seem that we are. The taste for war has been drummed out of us, at least for the time being. The question for us is whether we are freelike. Do we like to be free? The barbarians who succeeded to Rome in the West certainly liked to be free. The most successful bunch of them went by that name, and came to call their country “France” — “free.” We have followed them in declaring freedom to be vital.

Like everything else, though, freedom has gotten complicated. There’s freedom from and freedom to. Many Americans seem to believe that the freedom to bear arms will take care of the freedom-from problem. Few of these Americans live in cities. (The Carolingians, their Merovingian predecessors, and their Capetian successors, didn’t care much for cities, either.) Urban Americans, at least on the East Coast, tend to prioritize the freedom from other people bearing arms. In any case, as the title of the new Richard Linklater movie shouts, everybody wants some! Meaning, the peace and quiet in which to enjoy it.

We may be too unlike the warlike barbarians, much as I hate to say it.


The Panama Papers present a certain conundrum. Among the clients of Mossack Fonseca were several heads of state and even more near relations of heads of state. (Or chums.) Their reasons for sheltering their money from public view — the view of the public back home — were certainly various, and not necessarily illegal. Nevertheless, hiding the money was deceptive in intent, and it was subjects or citizens, as the case may be, who were intended to be deceived. In some cases, certainly, tax laws were violated in order to keep money out of the public account. In other cases, the money came from bribes, which are if anything worse than tax dodges, as China’s too-booming construction industry keeps demonstrating in terms of collapsed or blown-up buildings. (The world was sickened by the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, which seemed to target elementary schools for destruction.) In these cases, officials use their position to act against the public interest.

It is hard to see how they are not traitors. For it seems to get clearer every day that the global ring of Big Money is an enemy of the people with whom the leaders of the people ought not to be consorting. Big Money knows no nation; it owes no allegiance. Big Money does not unite or organize the people who own the big money; it controls them only with the view to expanding itself. And just how does it do this, you may ask? With opulence and exclusivity. With comfort and safety. An example:

Late one afternoon, I was having X-rays taken at the Hospital for Special Surgery. It was a slow time of day, or would have been had there not been a commotion of security agents opening every door and looking in every room. We would read in the papers, a few days later, that the dying king of Saudi Arabia was in New York, undergoing medical tests; some of them, it was later averred, at the HSS. The security agents were sweeping the joint. That’s what I mean by “safe.” I don’t have to mention that the king belonged to Very Big Money.

Compare this with the time, of which I never tire of telling, when I found myself in the office of a maxillofacial surgeon (impacted wisdom tooth) at the same time as the Nixons. Pat, it turned out, had rather bad teeth, but Dick tagged along and got as checkup, too. If you want to hear the rest of the story, not even two years have passed since I last told it, so I can’t tell it here. There may have been no one else in the waiting room, but I was still there, and nobody checked me out. Tricky Dick may have lived in the White House, but he was not Big Money. He probably would have been, though, by now.

Big Money provides entrée to the bubble of resorts, high-rises, and private islands that was consolidated, for edifying purposes, into a luxurious space station in the movie Elysium. You don’t have to worry about terrorists there. You don’t have to worry about political implications. You and the Big Money that owns you can leave those unpleasant things to ordinary people.


Friday 8th

On Wednesday, I did something partly new. I stretched out my arms on a stack of pillows in front of me and exposed them to the Blu U lights. I’ve had about half a dozen sessions sitting under the lights, exposing my scalp to the healing rays, but this was a first for my arms, and the results are certainly more visible to me. The backs of my hands are disfigured by preppie-pink blotches that itch like mad. (A moisturizer seems to help, but the dermatologist offered to prescribe an oral steroid.) More interesting is the difference between my forearms. The left arm is far more “afflicted,” with a rash of acne-like spots, only pink. There are a few spots on my right arm, too, but not nearly so many. Most interesting of all: the spots stop at just about the place where my skin is exposed when I roll up my shirtsleeves. I have always understood that the foundation of the precancerous cells that the Blu U lights deal with so effectively was laid in childhood. Perhaps not. When Kathleen looked me over, she said, “Ah, your driver’s arm.” Meaning my left arm, not the arm that I use to hold the wheel but the arm that I lean out the open window. Everything now points to Houston, where I drove a lot even when I didn’t own a car.

There’s a photograph that I ought to dig out for the dermatologist. It shows me in August 1977, and it is hard to describe my color. That year, which closed up my radio days and took me to law school (and Kathleen), I decided to see if I could build up a tan. My default response to sunlight is a quick burn, but I was told that, if I started early, and controlled my exposures, I would tan, and not burn. This turned out to be true. In Houston, it’s usually warm enough in March to sit out by the pool for an hour in bathing trunks. I would drive from the radio station to my father’s house, which I had moved back into when my mother got sick, and catch some rays. By June and July, I could spend all day in the sun and not get burned. But when I took a good look at myself in August, I saw that tanning was really not for me.

For I wasn’t really tan. My skin was too red — a very deep, mahogany red — to be mistaken for bronze, as the French describe a tan. There was the same uncanny effect that’s produced by Donatella Versace, a southern Italian if there ever was one, who likes to pretend that she is Scandinavian. Perhaps I’m mistaken about that, but in any case the color of her hair and her bone structure are an obvious mismatch. So it was with me. I had always wondered what the Mikado’s “permanent walnut juice” would look like. Now I had an idea.

Suntans are funny. In the days of peasant labor, they were eschewed by the fashionable: one didn’t want to look like a wizened old fisherman. Then work moved mostly indoors, and the lower quintiles went pale. Suddenly a tan was a conspicuous way to advertise one’s acres of free time. Golden brown skin became the look of health. My arduously tanned skin was not golden brown. I was not the picture of health. The picture of radiation poisoning, more like. However: I never burned, never peeled, never itched. Also: never again. From 1978 on, I kept myself well covered-up. And now this, the ghost of a very peculiar tan line, in ironic preppie-pink.

I don’t know how the Blu U lights work, and I have never seen the aftermath of treatment, because I have not got eyes on the top of my head, and, even if I did, they probably wouldn’t help. I don’t want to read about the lights until I’ve watched this reaction subside — I want to be surprised. And to marvel yet again, as the Blu U lights join fiberoptics and Remicade as techniques and medications that keep me alive. I think of myself as an old person, but not as a sick person, and yet without these medical advances I should have died five years ago at the latest. The marvel is not that these advances work. The marvel is that I’m surfing their introduction. If I had been born in 1938 instead of ten years later, they probably wouldn’t have been so effective. Orinoco!

Tanning salons were still new when I went to law school, and it took me longer than it did everyone else to realize that one of our classmates was paying regular visits to one. In the middle of winter, he looked as though he’d just returned from the Bahamas. There were reasons to suppose that he might very well have spent the weekend in the Bahamas, which I’ll leave it to you to work out, so I didn’t think anything of it. I was surprised only when I heard about the tanning salon. Suddenly, this guy’s tan looked as bogus as the one that had only recently faded from me. A tan that was developed in South Bend in the middle of an Indiana winter simply could not be real, however glowing. Come to think of it, the glow died out when I found out how it got there. When the lights went out beneath my classmate’s tan, he went from golden brown to grey. We see what we know.

It’s hard to believe that I was ever a guy in car, driving around Houston with my elbow sticking out the driver’s side window. To quote my favorite Woody Allen movie, Who do you think you are, an astronaut? (Hint: the line is delivered by Betty Boop.)


In the kitchen, on the stove, there is a pot of tomato sauce. The sauce cooked last night; now it must be strained. The onion, the sprigs of basil and oregano, and anything else that’s not smooth and silky must be filtered out. Tonight, I shall spread some of the sauce on a round of pizza dough. I shall sprinkle “low-moisture” mozzarella on the pizza, along with, perhaps, some sautéed mushrooms and some thin-sliced pepperoni. I hope that the pizza comes out tasting like a cliché.

I’ve been making pizza regularly for about a year, and I have mastered all the basic production issues. That was my first goal; only after I met it, I thought, would I tackle the sauce. But I’ve been procrastinating. It’s so easy to buy a bottle of sauce! I schmear a smidegeon of it on the dough, because I’m secretly dreaming of pizza bianca, and then sprinkle on the toppings: sausage, mushrooms, and oil-cured olives. (I cook the sausage and the mushrooms and then go after them with the mezzaluna, throwing in the olives.) The pizzas come out great and Kathleen loves them. But I am disappointed. These pizzas don’t taste like pizza. And the reason for that is, largely, the sauce.

I finally looked for a recipe, and I came across one for “New York Style Pizza,” at Serious Eats. The sauce is a relative of what I call butter sauce: tomato pulp, a peeled onion sliced in half, and lots of butter. When the sauce is has slowly bubbled for a while, you throw away the onion halves. How could something so basic be so complex? But then, what is simple about the flavor of tomatoes? The protean magic of onions? The richness of butter? For the pizza sauce, the “lots of butter” is replaced by a teaspoon each of butter and olive oil. Pinches of salt and red pepper flakes are added along with a teaspoon of sugar. Oh, and microplaned garlic cloves. I had never grated garlic with the microplane. Intense, but not overpowering: it’s as though garlic were revealing its quiet inner soul.

The night before, I used the same pot for cooking a lavish morel sauce. I picked up a package of dandy-looking morels at Agata & Valentina, and decided on the spot to make a pasta sauce out of them. Again, it was a matter of treating complicated elements simply. Having read the pizza sauce recipe, I microplaned a clove of garlic into melted butter, then a chopped shallot. When these were ready, I tossed in the sliced mushrooms. When the mushrooms were limp, I poured in a tub of Agata & Valentina’s lovely veal stock — about two cups. When the stock was reduced by half, I added some heavy cream. When the cream thickened, we ate. I tossed into the sauce some cooked cavatappi (I’ve also seen them called cellentani) — the grooved helical tube that I discovered in law school. The dish was earthy and meaty but neither heavy nor wintry.

The night before that, I cooked in the same pot a chicken and wild-rice soup. I made this up but wrote it down. You cook a handful of mirepoix, together with a quarter teaspoon of something called “red poultry seasoning” (I got it at Fairway), in a knob of butter. Then you stir in four tablespoons — a third of a cup? — of something called Royale Rice mix. It’s a blend of brown, red, and (very little) wild rice. Pour on a quart of boiling chicken stock, bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat to a bare simmer, put the lid on the pot, and cook the rice for forty minutes. You can do all of this ahead. When it’s time to eat, cut a skinned and boned half chicken breast into bite-sized pieces, and throw it into the soup, along with a slurry of one tablespoon of cornstarch dissolved in one tablespoon of water. Bring to the simmer, cook for a minute, and serve. (Cook a bit longer if your chicken pieces are bigger than you meant them to be.) With a nice piece of cheese — we’ve been crazy lately about a double-crème brie called Affinois — a hunk of liver mousse, and toasted baguette slices, the result is a very hearty meal for three.


From my last visit to the storage unit on 62nd Street, I brought back nine boxes of documents. They sat in the foyer, still in the big Bean tote bags that I use for these operations, for about a week. The other day, I began to tackle them. One box was empty — ideal! There were three others that didn’t seem particularly heavy. One was stuffed with newspaper clippings, mostly from the Times and most dating to the Eighties. All of them were quite yellow, and I expect that they’re friable as well. Another box held a few folders relating to the rent — the rent on other apartments that we have tenanted in this building. Also, floor plans. There was even a thank-you note from Rose Bialek! There are still some people in the building who remember jolly old Rose, the building’s long-time rental agent. We used to kid Rose about writing her memoirs. Impossible, she would always reply. She knew too many crazy stories about too many residents.

Rose told us a story that pertained to us, in a way. At the time, Kathleen had let Rose know that we were looking for a larger apartment. So, one day we had a call, and Rose said, there’s this guy on eighteen who just died — in the hospital, don’t worry! You won’t believe it, Rose said, but he isn’t even cold yet and three tenants have already called to ask for the apartment. Isn’t that disgusting? So I’m giving it to you. Whether that was the move that prompted Rose’s thank-you note, I can’t tell. Kathleen would always present Rose with a nice scarf, under which was tucked some valuable consideration. Rose did not identify the supplicant tenants, as was right and proper.

We heard a few more stories, not from Rose, about the late tenant who preceded us, but never you mind about those. It’s enough to repeat what we found. There was deep shag carpeting everywhere, and it was not new. Much less understandable was the closet situation. The sliding doors had been removed from the large closets in both bedrooms, and the interiors had been stripped down to the walls. Then they’d been painted pitch black. The building removed the carpet and restored the closets, but we were permanently curious about the late tenant’s décor.

The fourth lightweight box that I opened was full of crinkly onion-skin paper. This is not the time to dilate on my sometime passion for onion-skin paper, but I was very surprised to see that I had used for papers written for a history course that I took at Notre Dame. That this was what I had submitted, and not a copy, was proved by the grade on the last page. It was a very good grade, together with a note from the professor asking me to stop by after class. I remember that well. He was surprised by my grasp of history, already honed as a kind of obsessive hobby at Blair. He was pleased that I seemed to know so much. Well, everything has its down side, so that when we got to the English Civil War, and I found that I could not stomach the idea of going through that yet again — history was still very much a hobby, I remind you, and I took it all quite personally — I stopped going to class and ended up with that funny grade that you get for failing to show up for the final exam. It counts as an F, of course. I accumulated at least four of those over the years, all in electives. It never occurred to me that this failure of mine must have been very disappointing to the history professor.

I have not re-read the paper. I’m working up the nerve.

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Rumored But Not Verified
March 2016 (V)

Monday 28th

At dinner yesterday, Fossil Darling insisted that I read the Ian McEwan story in The New Yorker. When I told him that I don’t read New Yorker stories anymore, because too many of them have turned out to be the first chapters of novels that were therefore somewhat difficult to read upon publication, the opening’s having been spoiled, Fossil insisted that this really was a short story. I took a look at it and saw that it was short enough to read again, if and when. I also noticed that I had begun reading it, down to the middle of the second paragraph.

So I read the story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” this morning, after the Times — after, that is, the obituary of Jim Harrison. I once read a story, perhaps a novella, by Jim Harrison that I liked so much that I bought the book, The Woman Lit by Fireflies and Other Stories. Do I still have it? In storage, if at all. Because I didn’t like anything else by Jim Harrison. Which is to say that the one or two things that I read, after “The Woman Lit by Fireflies,” were so disagreeable that I drove a great strikethrough line across his name. Almost every detail in the obituary was at least somewhat off-putting, especially — the narcissism of small differences? — the bits about food and gastronomy. The name of Rabelais was cited, perhaps the most concise monument to the land where machismo brawling and roughhousing take the place of grace.

Two weeks ago, or, rather, in the next-to-the-latest issue of the New York Times Book Review (20 March), the “By the Book” feature was devoted to Harrison. This often begins with the question about nightstands. Who knows how long ago Harrison answered it. “Unfortunately, I can’t read novels while I’m writing one because of the imitative nature of the brain.” I’m well aware of the phenomenon, although I don’t write novels, but there is something so wrong about the way that this sentence ends that I can’t decide where to begin. With its impersonality, perhaps: I myself should say, “because I’m too easily influenced by the prose of novels that are good enough to read.” Or with its subhuman tone: “brain” instead of “mind”; the “nature” thereof. To move from “I can’t” and “when I’m writing” to a clause without verbs or personal pronouns is intellectually klutzy. And it sounds like an excuse. As if to say, Unfortunately, I can’t fly because of the wingless nature of the body.

I always read “By the Book” if the writer is halfway interesting to me, and Harrison is halfway interesting to me because he is (or was) a grand old man for whom I have no use. Who are his favorite writers? Never mind; they’re none of mine. When asked which author, living or dead, he would most like to meet, Harrison names García Márquez, “who has a jubilant nature. I would wonder what made his spirit so rambunctious.” I suppose that Harrison meant to say that García Márquez’s writing is jubilant. But, “rambunctious”: that signals something that I really dislike, seriously writing in your outside voice. I haven’t read García Márquez in Spanish, so I can’t comment; but I will say that his way with women bothers me. I wonder if he ever met one who was frank with him.

Now, what am I up to, you will ask. Am I not Mr Sunshine, saying nothing if I have nothing nice to say? Isn’t that my philosophy of book-reviewing? Indeed it is. But I don’t think that the preceding paragraphs are about books. They’re about me. I seized upon Jim Harrison’s obituary as an occasion for making an observation that the “By the Book” feature inspired. There is no such thing as an objective critic, no one who really likes and dislikes things for good reasons. I think that we’re objective, if we are at all, only after some highly personal criteria have sorted things out, preliminarily. From time to time, it’s important to review those criteria, which are of course nothing but prejudices, so that we know where we stand. The easiest way of doing this is to consider a writer whom we find uncongenial. Journalism comes in very handy. Obituaries and features such as “By the Book” allow us to consider writers whom we find uncongenial without actually having to read much of what they’ve written. After all, their books ought not to be cluttering up our shelves.

I have a strong prejudice against the landscapes of the “West” of the United States, and against the lonely lifestyles that seem to go with them. Let me be the first to fault myself for the incapability of my imagination to believe that Marilynne Robinson really did, really, grow up in Idaho. In my heart of hearts, I do not believe that it is possible to grow up in Idaho with the ambition to live a life of letters; and yet I have met, and even shaken hands with, the delightful Vestal McIntyre! He says he’s from Idaho; he has even written a novel about it. But I don’t really believe it. That is my prejudice. When a prejudice is confronted by an exception to its rule, it blinks. Denying that Robinson and McIntyre come from Idaho is an inevitable consequence of loving their work. (And, anyway, there is nothing very lonely about the Boise of Lake Overturn.)

I find that I have outgrown animals. I still have a weakness for patting the necks of horses, if they’re in the mood to let me. There’s something weirdly cuddly about horses, even though I’m standing on the other side of a fence. I like to outstare cats; anything that I can do to drive a cat crazy is worth trying. (Cats are unforgivably impertinent.) Dogs — the older I get, the sorrier I feel for dogs, given their terrible dependency problem with people. Like television, dogs get much more attention than we can really afford to be giving them. When Kathleen and I were married, I wanted to get a dog. I had grown up with dogs. Kathleen was very firm, however, about No Dogs. For a while, I resented this. Then I forgot about it. Now I’m nothing less than relieved. I had to babysit a dog one weekend, years ago, and the novelty wore off instantly. That, I think, is when I began to feel sorry for dogs. It was a more appealing solution to the babysitting problem than feeling sorry for myself.

Also: dogwalkers, or, rather, the ad hoc packs of leashed dogs that surround dogwalkers. Quite aside from the pedestrian nuisance that they present, these peculiar spectacles excite the most perplexed dismay. The attempt to imagine what a dog is thinking invariably leads to the mental equivalent of lower back pain. Trying to imagine what a pack of dogs is thinking, especially about being in a pack, makes me wonder if the End is sufficiently Nigh. I believe that mass dogwalking ought to be conducted in the dead of night, when I am never outdoors.

Anyway, I don’t like to read about animals. I don’t want to look at pictures of animals. I will tolerate animals only if they are appropriately subordinate to interesting human beings.

You might conclude from the foregoing that I don’t care for “nature.” This might well be true. In fact, “nature,” as a supposed thing in itself, does not exist for me. My understanding is that the term, “nature,” is used to refer to that which is untouched by human agency. As such, it follows that we cannot know it. Just walking around in the wilderness might upset any number of ecosystems. Think of all the ants you’ve stepped on! Not to mention the bacteria that go down the drain when you take a shower. Can’t you just look at something — the Grand Canyon, say — without hurting it? But how do you look at the Grand Canyon without driving up to it? And then what happens? After you’ve oohed and aahed at the pretty colors of the rocks, you try to get your mind around the stupendously prolonged erosion wrought by the Colorado River, that little dribbling creek down there. Talk about lower back pain!

I don’t care for bad — or gruff — manners. Now, I am no fussbudget when it comes to good manners. Good manners have nothing to do with empty, rote rituals; they’re all about making other people comfortable. This is particularly true of table manners, which have evolved to make it possible to conduct a conversation while eating, thus making a pleasure out of a necessity. Kathleen and I were talking just the other day about why genteel Americans shift their forks from left hand to right after cutting a piece of meat, and we agreed that it puts the fork into a decidedly different relation with the mouth, such that, among other things, the appearance of leaning downward to bite something impaled on a sharp implement, as if one were a fish snapping at a baited hook, is avoided.

Trying to make other people comfortable when you don’t really feel like taking the trouble is always an interesting predicament. Going ahead and not taking the trouble is never interesting in itself, but only when it leads to even greater offenses. Nothing offends me more deeply than the idea that “society” is the cause of everybody’s problems. It is precisely the other way round. The purpose of social conventions — and that’s all society is, conventions, ranging from family traditions to business practices, from language to walking in, or watching, a parade — is to make life better for everyone, by setting up a web of light expectations and freeing up time for more idiosyncratic matters. The fact that “everyone” doesn’t always include everyone is the fault of individuals, whether they’re acting alone or in packs. Social injustice is caused by bad actors, not by “society.”

The idea that “society” can be oppressive is another thing that I have outgrown. Whether reading Anna Karenina or a life of George Eliot, it is easy to conclude that “society” can be very cruel, especially in its rejection of “fallen women.” To us, it seems hypocritical, somehow, that all the great writers of the day could and did visit George Eliot at home, but that their wives never accompanied them on these outings. But the only people who were oppressed by such considerations were those who aspired to belong to a subgroup of society, the one best known as “respectable.” Respectable society could indeed be very harsh, but it makes more sense to regard it as a club than as a true society. Ah! I’ve just discovered another one of my prejudices: society is what takes the place of religion when people live together without observing the same religious practices. I’m very close, here, to claiming that there is no such thing as Islamic society. And precious little in some rural areas. That would certainly explain a great deal.

And yet, none of this bloviation about society explains the nasty little spring at the heart of Ian McEwan’s story, which is that literary merit is meaningless to the point of nonexistence in the absence of celebrity. McEwan is not writing about literary reputation, which really begins when an author dies and can no longer be encountered at book signings, publication launches, or literary festivals. Once a writer is dead, she can only be read, and her reputation depends entirely on the amalgamated opinions of readers (with an arguable boost from biopics). McEwan is writing about literary fame, something that has surprisingly little to do with reading. His story tells of two writers; it is the purported (but never disclosed?) confession of one of them, a sort of pocket Amsterdam. After university, the two writers enjoy bohemian poverty in Brixton. Then, one of them writes a successful script for television. One thing leads to another, which is plenty of free time in which to write good novels. Money and fame pile up together; the author and his wife live practically right on Hampstead Heath. The other writer marries, has children, struggles with teaching loads, and manages to write four novels. These are well-received by the critics, but it takes more than positive critical reception to make a writer famous; it requires, in short, a boost from somewhere else, whether a marriage, a job in publishing or creative writing, or a scandal. (Nobody read A Confederacy of Dunces until John Kennedy Toole killed himself.) Sadly, since the narrator hasn’t had his picture taken, kissing a movie star, by the time the story reaches its turning point, all four of his novels are out of print.

It turns out that the famous writer doesn’t read other people’s novels, or at least those of his old best friend. The narrator takes cunning advantage of this, and the resulting scandal propels him to dreamed-of eminence. Because that’s what it takes. Tell me how this is not an instance of social injustice.

Rather, it is a demonstration of the narrow range of the impact of social conventions. Society does not distinguish important writers from unimportant ones; only posterity can do that, and posterity and society are not to be confused. Society registers current events. Social conventions do everything possible to minimize the impact of events, because the whole point of social convention is to enable smooth sailing. (This is why adolescents and other immature types profess to hate society; it has no time for their profoundly stale traumas.) Social conventions can have nothing to do with literary achievement, because literary achievement is so often upsetting. But convention can take note of the fact that everybody is, or seems to be, reading Portnoy’s Complaint. Thus fame gathers around certain names.

Sometimes, in a certain light, I agree with Margaret Thatcher: there is no society. But of course I can’t leave it there, as she did. What there is, where lazy people think they see “society,” is a web of conventions, as vitally important but as morally neutral as the rules of the road, and sometimes, like the rules of the road, enforced by the state. This web is woven by everybody, give or take — everyone who has ever lived has had a hand in it.

Which means you.


Tuesday 29th

What did I write yesterday? I’m afraid to look. I remember that I was talking about prejudices — I suppose there’s some relief in that. In other words, I was saying, Now I’m going to share with you my nutty perspective on something called “society.” Only I didn’t ever say that the perspective was nutty, did I?

Of course I’ll blame it on Jim Harrison. There’s more about Jim Harrison in today’s Times. It’s pretty clear that what the newspaper’s literary contingent is hoping for is that rare reversal of the usual pattern, that Harrison’s death will occasion a regretful stock-taking: We didn’t fully appreciate him when he was alive. Our bad! Dwight Garner, responsible for today’s puffing, quotes a woman in Harrison’s fiction who complains that there is no nature in Manhattan; the closest that you can get to it (nature) is orgasm. This is the sort of nonsense that sets me dreaming of a science-fiction device that, when shot at people who say such things, strips them of all verbal skills. It’s nature you want? Fine: enjoy being limited to grunts and armwaving.

I’ll come back to Harrison, in connection with David Brooks’s column about “Trumps,” also in today’s Times. Right now, it seems essential to distance myself from yesterday’s implication that social conventions are essentially benign. This implication was unintentional. True, I did write, “The idea that ‘society’ can be oppressive is another thing that I have outgrown.” This statement is simply wrong, no matter how hard I try to bolster it with an explanatory context. I was thinking of “society” as it is represented in literature, where there is a lazy habit of blaming “the way things are” for the unhappiness that befalls fictional characters, especially stand-ins for disaffected young writers. It doesn’t matter what I meant: social conventions can cause a great deal of suffering and confusion. And if they don’t seem to be stridently damaging today, it’s not hard to remember times when they were — when, for example, homosexual men and women were condemned to vicious and pointless ostracism. Or when women were not allowed to work after marriage — something that is still the case in much of the world. My remark was fatuously provincial: social convention really does make life easier for educated, affluent, and inner-directed people like me. Good to know!

I was indeed thinking, not of everyday life (although I lazily included it), but of literature: how social convention is treated in fiction. The novel that usually comes to my mind when I consider this problem is Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I haven’t read it in about ten years, so I ought to keep my comments to the minimum. Let me not distract myself with lucubrations about Wharton’s venture into life on the other side of the tracks, about which she can’t really have known very much. Let me stick to the central problem of the book, which is that Ethan cannot leave his crabby old wife, Zeena, when he falls in love with Mattie and discovers that the drudgery of his New England agricultural life is redeemed by her presence. Ethan cannot leave Zeena for a simple reason, and it has little to do with social convention, although not the one you’re probably thinking of. If Ethan abandons Zeena, she will starve to death. There is no one else to take care of her. There is no safety net of state protections. So long as Ethan is alive, his obligation to care for his lawfully-married wife is non-negotiable.

This part of the story, Wharton certainly understood from the inside. She wrote Ethan Frome at about the same time as her marriage to Teddy Wharton fell apart. She had outgrown Teddy, to put it simplest; something of the same happens to Ethan vis-à-vis Zeena. But Wharton could put her husband behind her. She had the wealth, and she had the opportunity to escape to Europe, where, like her friend Henry James, she was genuinely happier. Teddy filched money from her accounts, but she put a stop to that, and Teddy never starved. What, Wharton may have asked, if neither she nor her husband had enjoyed such splendid resources?

Is Ethan Frome still as widely read as it was in my day? I can see that it occupied the place of an anti-Ayn Rand manifesto in the syllabus. (Not that anybody assigned Ayn Rand!) Once you read Ethan Frome, you understood how important Social Security, and, later, Medicare, were and are. As mid-century readers of Wharton’s sad tale, we were conscious of enjoying very different social conventions, enacted into law. Like so many French novels of the Nineteenth Century, Ethan Frome zeroed in on a “problem,” and eventually contributed to the inspiration for a “solution.” The last time I read Ethan Frome, I came away thinking that it had served its purpose and no longer needed to be read. I now think that that was wrong. So it does need to be read, again, by me. At least.


David Brooks has unearthed something mildly amusing in the history of the Civil War. There was a regiment from New Jersey, headed by someone called Atkinson. Atkinson was a gentleman, and he wanted his men to behave like gentlemen. Instead, the men rebelled. They set up something called the Independent Order of Trumps. “In sort of a mischievous, laddie way, the Trumps championed boozing and whoring, cursing and card-playing.” Trumps! Yet again: You can’t make this stuff up.

Here is Dwight Garner again, writing about Jim Harrison: “His books declared: If you aren’t taking big bites out of whatever life is on offer to you, you are doing it wrong.”

Now, I’m sure that Jim Harrison was a true gentleman in person, after his own fashion. He would probably have horsewhipped the Trumps. But the idea of taking big bites out of life is still gross, literally gross. Garner falls so completely under the spell of this excessiveness that he commits a grossness of his own:

Mr. Harrison was a more cerebral writer than he is often given credit for. In his memoir, “Off to the Side” (2002), he reads books as if he were shoveling coal into a blast furnace. He wore his erudition with enviable lightness.

This is obviously confused, or at least a case of fatally mixed metaphors. It is one thing to be cerebral but to wear your erudition lightly. It is, oh, so very much something else to “consume” books as if they were undifferentiated bits of fuel. And I’m afraid that it’s the laddie appeal of the Order of Trumps that sings to men when they’re taking big bites.

As David Brooks explains the difference between the good boys and the bad — the Good Scouts and the Trumps — it is very hard not to picture him seated on a plush Victorian armchair in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit.

So the ideal man, at least in polite society, gracefully achieves a series of balances. He is steady and strong, but also verbal and vulnerable. He is emotionally open and willing to cry, but also restrained and resilient. He is physical, and also intellectual.

Today’s ideal man honors the women in his life in whatever they want to do. He treats them with respect in the workplace and romance in the bedroom. He is successful in the competitive world of the marketplace but enthusiastic in the kitchen and gentle during kids’ bath time.

This new masculine ideal is an unalloyed improvement on all the earlier masculine ideals. It’s a great achievement of our culture. But it is demanding and involves reconciling a difficult series of tensions. And it has sparked a bad-boy protest movement and counterculture, currently led by a group we might once again call the Independent Order of Trumps.

Last night, Kathleen and I watched The Descendants, a movie in which George Clooney does a fine job of bringing Brooks’s ideal man to life. He has two things going for him, both trademark skills. He embodies the “tensions” that Brooks writes about with harrowed eyes that register a massive effort at self-restraint; and his eyes are never more harrowed than when he has to tell is cousins that they are not about to be made rich. He feels sorry, that is, about making them do the right thing. This the opposite of what most men in his character’s position would do. They would look buff and advise the others to get over it.

The other thing is Crazy George. Clooney has a gift for injecting minute but hilarious shots of lunacy into his performances, at just the right time. Generally, the problem is one of impulse control. Overcome by the need to do something, or at least to find out something, right now, Clooney’s characters lose the bland authority that Clooney’s stature emanates and become sheer goofballs. In The Descendants, the Crazy George moment occurs outside his cousin’s house on Kauai, which is currently occupied by his comatose wife’s lover. Matt King scampers about and peers over the hedges with a barely suppressed frenzy. It’s moments like this that make Matt believable as an ideal man: he’s not too ideal.

In short, if you saw George Clooney in a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, you would know that he was wearing it under duress. I should point to The Descendants rather than to Brooks’s column — endearing as it is to learn about the Trumps — for a portrait of the kind of man that Donald Trump’s supporters have given up trying to be.

This new Independent Order of Trumps, the one that is having such a fine old time kicking at political correctness and braying unwholesome sentiments has been not only enabled but instructed by hipsters in the media, men who think that it is funny to slum with the lads. I blame stubble. When men’s magazines began sporting covers on which chiseled faces sprouted stubble, that was the not-so-secret sign that American manhood had been ushered into the Age of Whatevs. It used to be that stubble was a sign of personal crisis: men without full beards did not appear unshaven unless something was very wrong. A three-day growth of stubble signified serious trouble. Soon, however, it signaled transgressiveness, or gratuitous misbehavior. In Trump’s supporters, we can see where transgressiveness leads when it is detached from collegiate irony.

It stops being transgressiveness; it is no longer gratuitous. It passes into plain wickedness. My ideas about free speech are rather more limited than those of the ACLU, and I don’t think that anyone ought to be allowed to state, in the public forum, that Mexicans are rapists. It is maddening to think that in this age of talk, talk, talk about humanitarian concerns, Donald Trump cannot be sued for racial defamation. Real men take threats to the civil order seriously.


And where are the women? Cindi Lauper claimed that girls just want to have fun, but it seems that Jane Austen still sees things more clearly: girls just want to have men. (And men just want to have sex.) In this week’s Book Review, Cindi Lieve writes about Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. The title speaks volumes: people no longer arrive at sexual encounters as men and women; they are boys and girls. Adolescence is a social structure for which no effective conventions have been developed. Not in America, anyway; in Nederland, it appears, they do things better, making sure that the boys and girls have a modicum of men-and-women training before they hook up. So they won’t.

What girls want, as best I can make out, is attention. Perhaps a little kissing, a little cuddling. But they don’t seem to be mad to have intercourse. So they do the other thing, because guys like it and girls don’t much mind. It is a terrible thing for boys to learn: that others will make them happy if they are careful not to inquire into the sincerity of their service providers. This is the germ of contempt that makes it possible — imaginable — to own slaves and to confine women to purdah. This is where enguytlement begins.

I keep hoping for the women who have done men to surprise me. I don’t mean, done with men, easy as it is to imagine wanting to. I mean the kind of woman whom Alison Janney so often plays. Someone willing to send jerks to their self-inflicted doom. Where is the woman who will speak trash truth to Trump?


Thursday 31st

The subject this week was supposed to be: my prejudices. It has turned out to be a hard one to get to. The moment I mentioned a prejudice, I would launch some sort of justification. Natural, perhaps, but not to the point. The original point was: I’m not a fan of Jim Harrison — but it’s not his fault. That is what I wanted to say, but couldn’t seem to utter.

The larger point was to acknowledge certain prejudices — preferences, likes and dislikes, habits of mind that shape perception before intelligent judgment comes into play. We all admit that we’ve got prejudices, but we don’t like to say what they are, and, when we do say, we find ourselves, as I’ve just done, arguing that they’re not prejudices at all, but rather — intelligent judgments. When I mentioned my response to the Grand Canyon, which I like to talk about partly because it is the one really top-flight American sight that I have never seen, I tried to present my resistance to its spectacle as reasonable. It was part of a larger objection to the idea of nature, which I held up as a paradox: human beings can never experience an environment that has never been sullied by human beings. But the simple, unreasonable truth behind these statements is that I not only find natural sightseeing a bore but have no affective memories of what I have seen. I don’t like the outdoors because it is insufficiently upholstered: there is nowhere to sit comfortably. I don’t relate to the exurban, and I have trouble relating to the people who do.

Why on earth do I want to talk about my prejudices? Because doing so seems to be the only honorable response to a certain kind of cultural event: the obituary for an artist or thinker or other cultural figure with whose work I have little or no rapport. Jim Harrison died — having just been featured in a Book Review interview — and as I read the obituary in the Times, I thought, disrespectfully, what is all this noise about Jim Harrison? It was the same with David Bowie. Thanks to my prejudices, I never got beyond the impression that David Bowie was creepy. Not him personally, but his work. I found Harrison’s writing to be rustic, rough, calloused; and I don’t like things that are rustic, rough, or calloused. There is no good reason to dislike these things — and that is the point that has to be made, at least every now and then. I should much rather talk about things that I do like. The world, it seems to me, is filled with things that I do like. But these obituaries remind me of things that I don’t, and I’m not comfortable with the appearance of pretending that those things aren’t there. I feel obliged to register their existence with honesty, by pointing out that, sadly, my personal limitations prevent me from sharing the obituaries’ enthusiasm.

Perhaps what’s really going on is that the obituaries of certain people remind me, vividly, of my prejudices, of my limitations, and it smarts. I should like to be a person who likes everything. The person who genuinely likes everything has always been the ideal. I settle for trying to like more — and quite often succeeding. I am engaged at the moment in an invisible skirmish with John Fowles, because I really don’t understand why I read his novel, Daniel Martin, with such a mixture of approval and disgust. And not only that: I was reading it for the third time. But sometimes, the attempt backfires. I used to like reading Trollope, and I read more than half of his many novels. I read so much that a certain prejudice of Trollope’s, not tremendously noticeable if you read Barchester books and the Palliser books and perhaps a half dozen more, but impossible to overlook once you have noticed it, nor any easier to endure than a very unpleasant smell. This was Trollope’s prejudice about virgins.

Which of course he never mentions as such — heaven forbid! No; what he writes about is girls on the verge of marriage. So much as to mention their virginity would be insulting, according to that interesting British logic according to which the mention of something — something “delicate” — not only implies but presents the possibility that things could be otherwise. (Thus the decoration of a house or the taste of a meal could not be discussed: both were presumably excellent, or at least correct. I even read somewhere that the reason for the table-manners ban on using a knife to cut salad is the implication that the greens have not been torn into properly bite-sized pieces.) Trollope has a thing about nubile females. They can fall in love only once; once they have “given their hearts,” they cannot take them back, not even to bestow on a more worthy lover. There can be no other lovers. When I read The Small House at Allington, a novel that is very much about this irrevocability, I chalked up Lily Dale’s steadfast devotion to Adolphus Crosbie to personal, peculiar obstinacy. I thought that it was “just her.” I had not read a great deal of Trollope at the time, and missed the blatancy of the theme. Once I noticed the theme, Trollope became as morally objectionable to me as are those pro-lifers who would punish women for seeking, much less obtaining, abortions. Or, in other words, a sex pervert.

A sad discovery. A few years ago, I read Orley Farm for the second time, and the sprawl of the story was great enough for me to overlook Madeline Staveley’s regrettable preference for Felix Graham. But I was reading the book for an extraneous reason; I wanted to see how it compared to Wilkie Collins’s “sensation” novels. (I wrote about reading Orley Farm in August and September 2012, beginning here.) My copies of Trollope’s other books have been in a box since the end of 2014; the box is in storage. I hold onto this voluminous library in hopes that my perceptions will shift again, restoring Trollope to the ranks of cherished writers, but I have no reason to expect that this shift will ever occur.

Is my current dislike of Trollope a prejudice? Absolutely. My prejudices about women are among the strongest. They may look like reasonable feminist principles, but they aren’t.


In today’s Times, someone mentioned something called the “Overton window.” I had never heard of it, but there is indeed a Wikipedia entry, and who do I find there but — Anthony Trollope. I’ll be damned. “An idea similar to the Overton window was expressed by Anthony Trollope in 1868 in his novel Phineas Finn:”

“Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.”

“It is no loss of time,” said Phineas, “to have taken the first great step in making it.”

“The first great step was taken long ago,” said Mr. Monk,–”taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.”

‘Tis a small world. I mentioned the Overton window to a friend who called a little while ago, as a way of explaining how consciousness of the prevalence of American racism has grown by leaps and bounds in recent months. In this connection, I’m reminded of an exchange in Spotlight. Ben Bradlee, I think it is, can’t believe that Bostonians have been unaware of the extent of priestly abuse, which the Spotlight journalists have shown to be much greater than anyone suspected. Didn’t people know? Mike Rezendes replies, “Maybe they did,” by which he means that almost every Catholic Bostonian knew about a pederast priest. But, at the same time, the assumption was generally made that the pederast priest whom anyone knew about was the only rotten apple in the diocese. It never occured to anyone that a penchant for pederasty is as distributed among the clerical population as it is among the male population. Similarly, white Americans have convinced themselves that instances of racism known to them were outlying events, freaks of bigotry.

If I’ve been an exception to that blindness, it’s because of where I grew up, where the undiscussable was discussed. Discreetly and in coded terms, to be sure, and certainly more taken for granted than talked about. But the fact that blacks and Jews did not own houses in Bronxville was known to everyone, children included. So was the knowledge that this discrimination was illegal. (I’d never thought of it this way before, but I see now that I grew up in a community of bootleggers.) So the racism that Donald Trump is tacitly treating as permissible comes as no surprise. I am glad that it is no longer outside the Overton window. I endeavor to resist feeling grateful to Trump.


Friday 1st

To celebrate April Fool’s Day, I had a bad dream this morning. A great leak was pouring through cracks in the ceiling of our bedroom. It was one of those classic nightmare maneuvers, how do we make this worse, that began with a spill of water from a vase. The next thing you know, the vase was a hanging basket, leaking a stream of water. But no: the water was running down the ropes from which the basket hung, and, my Lord, look at that yellow patch of plaster, seeping, now pouring water. Trying to make out the pattern of the carpet, dark under the water, I now noticed that the bedroom had been cleared out, even the bed that (in waking life) we fear will collapse any day now. Wondering how that happened — how all the furniture got moved (and by now the cascade was ebbing) — I woke up. Nevertheless, even with the bad dreams, there are times when my idea of the perfect life involves nothing but lying comfortably in bed, asleep. Tucked in and quiet and, requiring nothing but an occasional sip of icewater.

I’ve read two terrific books this week. I’m reluctant to write about one of them, lest I seem deranged by another crush on some dead old lady who was born in Germany — in this case, Sybille Bedford. I have decided to put my adoration of Bedford’s prose to the test: will she be able to engage and hold my attention throughout the nearly eight hundred closely-printed pages of her biography of Aldous Huxley? I have mentioned once or twice that I’m reading Huxley’s novel, Eyeless in Gaza, but mostly I haven’t been. The characters are both familiar and unattractive, and when the writing is really good, it makes me think of Virginia Woolf and wish that I were reading her. (She does not go on so.)

The Trial of Dr Adams appeared in 1958, as The Best We Can Do. John Bodkin Adams was an elderly physician, practicing in Eastbourne, a genteel seaside town. In 1956, Dr Adams was accused of having poisoned a Mrs Edith Morell, who had died, 81, in 1950. As he was also accused of poisoning somebody else, he was presented by the newspapers as a serial killer. He would, it was alleged, endear himself into his patient’s testamentary arrangements, and then overdose her with heroin and morphia. Sybille Bedford attended and wrote up his seventeen-day trial — then the longest in Britain’s criminal history.

Now, the first thing that I want to say about The Trial of Dr Adams is that the covers of my paperback edition, purchased through Amazon from a bookshop outside of Dayton, Ohio, that listed its condition as Used – Very Fine, fell, or rather, cracked off. The front cover came off almost immediately, the rear cover as I approached the end of the story. The book did appear to be in reasonable condition when I unwrapped it, but the covers seemed odd. They were very brittle and inflexible. And there was another thing. The publisher was Time Inc. Originally, Simon and Schuster had published the book in the United States, but Time had picked it up, several years later, for something called the Time Reading Program. The Wikipedia entry for this operation does not list The Trial of Dr Adams, but it does say that the books were chosen by Max Gissen, Time‘s book reviewer for many years, and notes that the covers were “constructed of very stiff plastic coated paper, for durability.” I can’t quarrel with that: the covers are intact. They’re just not attached to the book. There was much to be learned about the durability of plastic in the 1960s.

The point is, of course, that The Trial of Dr Adams was chosen by the TRP as representative of the edifying text that it went in for. It would be interesting to read all of the TRP titles, solid mid-century fare, much of still well-known, with one eye on Drew Middleton’s concept of “middlebrow” and the other on the Cold War. Two weeks ago, I was writing about Time in another connection, but I never got round to saying that Time was the most finely moderated voice of American anti-Communism. Its passions were covert, its surface wry and unenthusiastic. Why did a book about a serial killer register on its screen?

Because Dr Adams was the victim of a witch hunt. Or so it seems. The matter is not gone into at any length in either of the two prefaces to the TRP edition., and Bedford herself is brisk to the point of silence. The first preface, by the editors of Time itself — the TRP Introduction is the work of the then Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford — asks what seems to me to be the key question:

Could there be a fair trial in a case where every possible juror had been exposed to conjecture? Could the rules of evidence strain out from the jurors’ consciousness the irrelevancies that they had already heard and read? (vii)

The answer to both questions is “yes,” for Dr Adams was acquitted. The administration of morphia and heroin was never questioned; the question before the jury was whether such dosages as Dr Adams had prescribed could be said to have realized (and implied) his intent to murder the patient. Bedford’s account of the trial makes it very clear that Dr Adams’s innocence was established by the workings of the English legal system, with all of its ancient presumptions and its rules of order. She makes it clear, too, that the operation of this legal system was undertaken by two of the participants in the trial: the judge and the counsel for the defense. Geoffrey Lawrence, the counsel, mounts one of the most zealous defenses that I have ever heard of, by which I mean that he has mastered every fact of the matter, marshaled unexpected evidence, and measured to a pinpoint the implication of every scrap of testimony. His cross examination of the principal expert witness for the Crown is thrilling enough for film.

As for the judge, Patrick Devlin, Bedford is quite right to introduce him as the “supremely intelligent” possessor of “Mandarin” hands. (4) His summing-up at the end is what can only be recognized as a triumph of legal duplicity. Having dutifully noted and frowned over all the damaging evidence of overmedication, Mr Justice Devlin nevertheless manages to direct the jury to acquit the defendant.

Is he likely, it may be asked, to adopt a plan which does not even mean an instantaneous dose which kills her off, but involves a rather elaborate system of change in medication which takes thirteen days to dispose of her? (276)

In the context of the summing-up, this highly rhetorical question all but shouts its own answer in the negative. The judge is basically advising the jury that the Crown case is nonsense — which, upon the examination mandated by the English legal system, it was found to be.

There appears to have been a strategy, arrived at independently, no doubt, by the judge and Mr Lawrence, of denaturing the thrill of a serial murder case by rendering the quotidian details as monotonous as possible. If Dr Adams was up to something terrible, he was up to it day after day after day. As a murderer, indeed, he is all but shown to be incompetent. He completely fails as a diabolical character. The fact that two of the three attendant nurses don’t like him is brought out as a matter of their own nasty dispositions. The toxicity of the drugs is all but established, thanks to Mr Lawrence’s doggedness on cross, as being incapable of establishment. The Trial of Dr Adams would probably make a terrible movie. Suspense and horror are subverted at every turn. Which makes for a true page-turner.

Finally, it was decided that Dr Adams would not take the stand. The jury is reminded not only that this does not indicate a guilty conscience but that defendants were not permitted to testify in their own defense until fairly recent times. The prosecution, says the judge, must make its own case without any help from the defendant; that is, it has no right to benefit from the defendant’s behavior as a witness. The judge also addresses the evidentiary problem of the gaps in the narrative that the doctor could fill if he testified. “You are not obliged to think that if the Doctor had gone into the witness-box he might have given a convincing answer.” (253) In short (again), the jury must make up its mind on the Crown’s case. This is all very lucid, but it is sympathetic to the point of tendentiousness. What I think the good editors of Time wanted its reading-program participants to learn from the Adams case is that high-minded men of authority can be relied upon to steer society through the rocks of suspicion and confusion: they know best.

Bedford herself might not have altogether agreed. Her original title clearly implies that the system is capable of doing worse, and indeed, “The Worst We Can Do,” her chapter in The Faces of Justice that deals with regrettable magistrates, shows that, like any other institution, the law can be infiltrated by wrongheaded people. Let these paragraphs be a call for the republication of The Best We Can Do. It is a classic.


John Williams’s review of The Throwback Special, which I read over the weekend in the Book Review, convinced me that I had to read Chris Bachelder’s fourth novel right away, and, duly ordered, it arrived on Wednesday night. I swallowed the whole thing — it’s not very long — yesterday afternoon. I expected it to confirm a lot of my prejudices about men, and it did, but not precisely the prejudices that I had in mind. The Throwback Special made me feel achingly sorry for the middle-class heteronormative and acculturated white American male.

Something that I hadn’t expected at all, and that I had to force myself to bear in mind, is that the group of middle-aged men that Bachelder writes about is not my age or anywhere near it. These men are all in their mid-forties — my daughter’s age. Although they differed from each other in many ways, they reflected a far higher degree of what I should consider social enlightenment. It’s hard to imagine any of them — well, no more than one or two — supporting Donald Trump. But these general issues are kept in the background, just as they are in the daily lives of most healthy people. And, in the end, they seem only to add a layer to the familiar confusion: what does it take to be an American man?

It’s a curious question. For a long time now — since the late Nineteenth Century at the latest — the American male has been saddled with the explicit and very comprehensive dissatisfaction of the American female. Men are either excessive or deficient: crude oafs or spineless wimps. The response of American males has not been entirely constructive, for too many men have retreated to masculine enclaves, particular that of Sports. Here, they expect to be safe. But they are safe only from the complaints of women. More existential concerns pursue them, all the more pressing because so much time is taken up dealing with women. Please don’t think that I regard all women as wondrous special creatures who deserve to be liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. I simply believe that women can be as great, and on the same terms, as men. That’s all. Most people, men or women, are not wonderful. And I think that it’s time for people to take stock of themselves without reference to gender. If you’re concerned about your courage, don’t be worrying that your cowardice marks you as unmanly. (And don’t pretend that it’s okay or understandable because you’re a woman.)

For the most part, Bachelder’s men are not consciously worried about their manliness. They’re worried about the entropy that is dismantling the ease with which they were manly when they were younger. They are worried about their children. Some of them are wondering what went wrong with their marriages. Each one of them is a apparently the owner of a home that has been invaded by some sort of unwanted animal, such as a raccoon, or bats. And yet manliness is the elephant in the room, because, unlike the length of a penis, it cannot be measured. For some reason, it is typical of the American male, or at least typical of the type of American male who interests novelists, to assume that other men are more manly. It is also characteristic of them to have no clear idea of what manliness might really be.

There are twenty-two of them here, and there is only one aspect of their lives about which we know the details for each one of them: the T-shirt that every man wears to bed is described. As to the rest of life, Bachelder makes no attempt whatsoever to produce data for dossiers. We know that Robert worries about the high pitch of his voice. We learn that Wesley is a real-estate lawyer who works for a major department store. Randy used to be an optician, but he lost his business. Charles is a psychologist who specializes in adolescent girls with eating disorders. I don’t know how most of the men make a living. There is one thing I forgot: the other thing that we know about each of these men is that he has driven some distance to spend a weekend at a motel somewhere alongside Interstate Highway 95 (which runs from Florida to Maine). During the weekend, the group of twenty-two will celebrate, study, and, donning replica gear, re-enact the five-second play that ended the football career of quarterback Joe Theismann, on 18 November 1985.

We are told that these men, or most of them, have been meeting for more than ten years. We are not told one other thing about the formation of the group. Where do these men come from? How did they meet? It seems that they don’t know each other outside of the group. But, for the purpose of this weekend, they have well-established identities. There is Fat Michael, who is actually in unbelievably good shape, the “cephalic” vein on his upper arm a fixture of envy, and there is Bald Michael, who is really bald. There is Trent, who has put on about thirty pounds since last year. There is Adam, whose hair is streaked with grey. Adam shows up late, but won’t say why, beyond mentioning a domestic incident. It must have been a humdinger, because an elderly man, clearly Adam’s father, shows up later on the Friday night and escorts him to a car, never to be heard of again.”Is it true about Adam?” asks one of the other men, but we are never enlightened about what might be or not be “true.” At the very end, the point of view shifts to that of David, the young man — he is attending a business retreat that has booked the conference room that, for the first time, has not been rented for the group because dues money was used to replace Randy’s gear, which he claims was stolen but which everyone assumes was sold by Randy on eBay (indeed, Randy confesses to this) — who is drafted to take Adam’s place. The final page is covered with David’s plans to start up an even better (younger, richer) group to do the same thing.

I feel obliged to point out that almost every male encountered in The Throwback Special is perfectly familiar with what happened to Joe Theismann in November 1985. They all seem to have seen it happen, on Monday Night Football, where the gory damage was replayed with a warming that squeamish viewers ought to turn away. (Boys were sent out of the room.) The event is as well-known to normal American men as any major televised event, and somehow, thanks to the alchemy of media, mythologized into a kind of superfact. Bachelder’s re-enactors are not eccentrics. Needless to say, however, I wasn’t watching. I remember (dimly) that Theismann played for Notre Dame when I was an undergraduate there, but I didn’t go to football games then. (I would go to more than a few on my second round, as a law student, years later.) If I overheard talk about Theismann’s grisly injury — I was working on Wall Street at the time — I must have shrugged and wondered What do you expect, because I can’t get my mind around football; it’s simply lunatic to me.

But you don’t have to care for, or know much about football in order to fall under Chris Bachelder’s spell. I might almost argue that, the less you know, the more compelling The Throwback Special will be. The less you know, the more the book becomes the source of information. There’s a wonderful passage near the end that I copied out, not because the image is arresting — I’m as resistant to images as I am to football — but because the phrase with which it is wrapped up seems to capture everything notable about this novel:

Vince took a picture of Randy’s hand in the bucket, pink and blurry beneath the cubes like a creature whose existence has been rumored but not verified. (207)

Rumored but not verified — what boy’s head is not stuffed with rumors that have not been verified? The men in The Throwback Special are beset by rumors (“Is it true about Adam?”), and by things that they don’t know or can’t quite understand. Sometimes, it seems, they won’t understand. At one point, Nate consults Charles about a little problem he’s having with his wife. He has shared what he takes to be a sexual fantasy with her, and her response has been uncomprehending. Charles, who is always being consulted by members of the group, and who is almost used to the idea that they don’t know what they want to hear, tells Nate that his fantasy is not actually sexual at all.

Nate suddenly seemed despondent. He would rather, it occurred to Charles, have been diagnosed as an untreatable pervert than as someone who was just lonesome. Apparently, he had forgotten that he had sought out Charles for reassurance or explanation. Nate had finished talking, and it also appeared that he had finished listening. He seemed miserable. (68)

As I say, there’s a great deal in this novel that is not even rumored. John Williams considers it a shortcoming that the twenty-two men blend together. I don’t; I think that it has much the same magical affect as the use of the first-person plural in Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End. The result in that unforgettable novel was to make the reader deliciously and terrifyingly complicit in the narrating group’s obsession with gossip. If that didn’t happen here, to me, it’s probably because I can imagine myself belonging to a flock of office workers much more easily than I can see myself in a football jersey. But Bachelder’s blur does indeed create a first-person-plural feeling; after all, it’s important to every man in the group that he belongs to it. At the same time, the men in the group do not know each other equally. Some friendships have been made over the years, although they are sedulously boxed apart from regular life, but most of the men are strangers to most of the others. It may surprise the reader (of The Throwback Special or of this page), but most people are not curious about things that aren’t partially visible. Most of the time, a guy is just a guy.

Bachelder’s writing is superb. For all its unerring precision, it is never actually at odds with the nature of the reunion, as it might be if, say, the style of Henry James were deployed. It strives to be invisible, aware that these men would be embarrassed to written about in any truthful way. (They all seem to harbor terrible misgivings about themselves, even the supreme Fat Michael, an absolute control freak about his body.) Its concision, of course, is expert: there is nothing “natural” about a lean, transparent style. And every now and then the writer steps forward, as if to take a little bow. And one cannot fail to applaud, after reading this:

It could be said of Steven, as it could be said of each man, that he was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary. (80)

If I say that I don’t like images, it’s because they’re so rarely as good as this one, so apt and compatible — and also so precisely abstract. And vice versa, as necessary — what a raspberry!

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
After Egypt
March 2016 (IV)

Tuesday 22nd

It took longer than it ought to have done to figure out that taking a certain cold-remedy capsule shortly before bedtime was a bad idea. It didn’t occur to me until half an hour after I took one on Sunday night. What followed was not fun. I was still dozing, unaware of having had any sleep, the next morning. That wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was what I shall call an irritated bladder.

Between the cold and the insomnia, I got out of bed feeling that, behind my forehead, my skull contained nothing but low-grade concrete. I got through the day largely by foregoing any attempt at thought. I had to shop for a couple of dinners, and I had to prepare one of them. A very old friend who teaches law in Honolulu, and who doesn’t visit the East Coast as often as she used to do, was in town, and I wanted to try out my Tetrazzini on an important guest. Chicken Tetrazzini turns out to be a very good dish for the cook with diminished capacities: it is all about reduction, and the only halfway demanding part is the slicing of a lot of mushrooms. I never got round to mincing the fresh tarragon leaves, but perhaps they would have been de trop. Our friend very nicely asked for seconds.

We talked about many things, but there was one protracted conversation about writing that remained with me. We were talking about student writing, which is often surprisingly terrible, and always has been. Whenever this subject comes up, I’m reminded of Dr Johnson’s insistence that boys wouldn’t learn Latin unless it were flogged into them. Now, neither Kathleen nor I ever had problems writing. A Brearley teacher once wrote on a paper of Kathleen’s, “You write so well that it’s a pity that you have nothing to say.” My first paper at Blair — a bluff on The Iceman Cometh, which I hadn’t read — was dismissed as “a tissue of circumlocutions.” These are lessons that you need endure only once; perhaps it would be better to say they need to be taught only once. Students whose fluency is initially vacant will blush for shame but grasp the problem pretty quickly. Students for whom writing a three-page piece of expository prose is an exercise in pulling teeth without anaesthesia present a much more intractable problem.

When students who “can’t write” turn up in freshman college courses, or, worse, in law school, teachers tear their hair and wonder how such students have “gotten this far” without learning the rudiments of outlines and topic sentences earlier in their academic career. It has always seemed a deplorable mystery to me, a matter of high-school teachers inexplicably not doing their jobs. Last night as we talked, though, I saw things from the high-school teacher’s point of view. High-school teachers are overworked and underpaid. How realistic is it to expect them to make soup from stones?

Is it any wonder that a teacher confronted with twenty-five or more papers to grade will begin to overlook purely literary failings? If the teacher has assigned a certain theme, then the teacher will know what the student is trying to talk about. Has the student grappled with the theme? Is there evidence of learning in the contents of the paper? The fundamentally literary problem posed by the general reader, who needs to be agreeably introduced to the subject matter and persuaded to read what the writer has to say about it, might well begin to seem somewhat beyond the scope of the immediate assignment, or perhaps simply beyond the imaginative range of the student, who would not be writing (or reading) at all unless required to do so. What are you asking me to do? the student wails. The answer ought to give everyone pause: I am asking you to want to communicate in writing. Because effective writing does not occur without that desire. To what extent is wanting to write a skill that can be taught and mastered?

I still have a few of the letters that my father wrote to me, mostly during my teens. They are crisp and stern, but they are also scrupulously literate. To me, it seemed that he wrote easily, but he assured me that this was not so. No, he said; “You should be a lawyer, because you can write.” Oh for the days of the party of the third part.

It was bliss to wake up this morning, hours and hours and hours after last registering awareness of the time.


In my adult life, I have often feared political candidates whose policies were wrong-headed or worse, but now for the first time I am fearing not the politician, not the Donald, but my fellow citizens, his supporters. Whatever happens in this election cycle, Donald Trump has opened a putrefying abscess on the body politic. The growth of this abscess is of course none of his doing; ever since the Cold War persuaded the nation’s leaders that it was all right to lie to the voters and to misrepresent issues for the national good, Americans have been living in a sort of Disney World of fictions and unrealities. So long as we were prosperous, grateful Americans could afford the pretense of magnanimity, but, now that there is little to be grateful for, the sham is obvious to those who fell for it. They not unreasonably feel that they’ve been made fools of, and they’re mad as hell. What if these angry people coalesce into a political body capable of sweeping away the leaders who have lied to and taken advantage of them? What if the poisons of the abscess pass into the nation’s blood stream?

For that is how the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. Everybody thinks, Hitler this and Hitler that. But Hitler, like Donald Trump, was merely an enabler. Sure, he looked like a dictator, he ordered and commanded. But he was only ordering and commanding what many Germans already wanted, and that is the problem, their already wanting it. Without that, there would have been no calamity, no Holocaust. Being high-minded and liberal no longer seemed worth the effort to Germans whose fortunes had dwindled after the economic chaos of the 1920s. They did not have to be persuaded that the victors of 1918 were wrongly punishing them with massive indemnities. (After all: what victors? World War I ended with a truce.) They did not have to be cajoled into imagining a return of Germany’s imperial power. The persecution of the Jews aside, the Nazi program for Germany was a happiness project, and it’s no wonder that so many Western observers were positively impressed, at least at first.

It has become horribly easy to imagine that the United States is on the threshold of a repeat performance. When I began keeping a Web site, I believed that it was not altogether useless to consider the mistakes and failures of leaders, with a view to avoiding both in future. It arguably remains useful. But, for the first time, I wonder if it is not actually, definitely, too late for secular improvements.

It has been pointed out, by Ross Douthat and others, that Paul Ryan could put an immediate stop to Trump’s juggernaut if he could only bring himself to repudiate the fustian economic policies that, surely, he can no longer take seriously. If he would set aside the free-trade, tax-cut nostrums of the Republican Party establishment, if he would acknowledge that Trump is right about a lot of economic issues, then faith in the GOP might be restored sufficiently to permit Party leaders to nominate the next candidate. The point of this exercise would be that, having come clean about economic fiddle-faddle, the Republicans could call a halt to Trump’s social demagoguery, much as an Eisenhower would have wanted to do, however indirectly. But this seems to be beyond the imaginative powers of today’s leading Republicans. They are more committed to an ideological program (one that increasingly seems to make no real-world sense, except for plutocrats) than they are to leadership or power. They are determined to honor their parents, Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand.

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Martha Howell reviews a new book about Jacob Fugger, the Augsburg financier who flourished around the turn of the Sixteenth Century. Although Howell finds many faults in Greg Steinmetz’s mercantile biography, The Richest Man Who Ever Lived, she thanks the author for making one thing crystal clear: large-scale capitalism depends upon state support. In Fugger’s case, bad loans to European rulers might be offset by commodity monopolies that were in the gift of those rulers. One does not have to think very widely to enumerate examples of state support for American capitalism: consider the gift, to private investors in a very wide range of transport enterprises, of publicly built and maintained highways and airports. Nor should countless tiny but lucrative amendments to state and federal legislation be overlooked: ostensibly neutral in their wording, their application will benefit particular, if unnamed, businesses. Consider the Black Hole of “Defense spending.” And yet none of this stops right-wing politicians from demanding that the government get out of business’s way. Eventually, someone — we’ve had the bad luck to draw Donald Trump — will come along to tell the losers whom he promises to make winners that the Establishment is wearing no clothes: policy and actuality have canceled one another out.

The cover story in the current issue of Harper’s is Dan Baum’s call to stop the War on Drugs, and I urge everyone to read it, and not only because it begins with a cynical confession by John Ehrlichman that makes Nixon’s Southern Strategy look ingenuous. Baum rightly devotes his most urgent discussion to the problem of regulating drugs after the current prohibitions have come to an end. But this discussion is blinkered by a common binary prejudice: the production and sale of drugs will be overseen and operated by businesses or by the government (or by some combination of the two). He does not consider the third possibility, which is the not-for-profit entity. Not-for-profits aren’t given the thought they deserve, perhaps because they’re neither potential jackpots nor implements of public virtue. Indeed, that is their advantage: they steer between the Scylla of political patronage and the Charybdis of greedy disregard.

The not-for-profit asks us to be clear about what we mean by the word “capitalism.” Do we mean enterprises that support themselves and plow surpluses into the maintenance and expansion of enterprise assets, as well as paying truly decent wages and remunerating executives with significant salaries? If so, then not-for-profits are as capitalist as anything. If, however, we mean enterprises that create earning opportunities for passive investors, pouring money not necessarily earned by the company’s stated business into the pockets of those investors (who have done nothing but contribute money) instead of into the company’s coffers, then not-for-profits begin to look “socialist.” But they are not socialist, because they are not controlled by politicians or government officials, all of whom might also have interests that cannot be served if the company sticks to its business.

The more I think about it, the more apt the not-for-profit seems to be for most commercial enterprises, especially those that people do not regard as primarily commercial at all, such as housing and utilities. I have said this many times before, but I am always looking for a better and more effective way of saying it. I’m also looking for contexts that point up the attractions of the not-for-profit. Whenever I think of Donald Trump and his “deals,” I consider how different our economy would look if not-for-profits ran the bulk of American businesses. There would be little room for the Donald in it.

For-profit capitalism has an important role in the economy: it is, demonstrably, the most effective engine of innovation. The development of innovative businesses is, needless to say, highly speculative, and investors in successful innovations ought to be rewarded for running substantial risks. But no enterprise remains innovative, and that is not a bad thing at all. Innovation comes to a stop the moment it finds a stable place in the economy. Once that happens, “innovation” becomes “improvement,” in a business that is no longer fighting for its life. To pick an historical example, landline telephones ceased to be innovative when they were installed in a great number of American homes and businesses. (And, as if to prove my point, the mature AT&T was opposed to most innovations, as anyone who tried to get a new phone jack installed will recall.) Another test of the moment when innovation cedes to improvement is passed when it becomes plausible for an enterprise to raise capital by issuing debt.

It may be too late for any of these ideas to stop Donald Trump’s insurrection (for that is what it is), but even that nightmare will not last forever. Adolf Hitler was such an idiot that his régime burned itself to a crisp after only twelve years of power. Twelve years ago, George W Bush was finishing his first term. It is in everybody’s interest to hope that Donald Trump is as wild and crazy as he seems.


Wednesday 23rd

In the afternoons, I generally stay away from the computer. Sometimes, I’ll sit down and write a letter. But I’ve altogether broken the habit, if it ever was one, of looking online for something interesting. So I generally miss late-breaking news. I didn’t hear about the Brussels attacks until Kathleen told me, when she got home at about nine last night.

To me, these attacks — and the very existence of ISIS — are the fruit of the Western élite’s contempt for the people of Islam. The people of Islam are, after all, generally poor (when they’re not crooks), and they don’t share our ideas about education in the humanities. They’re as either overlooked or looked down upon as Donald Trump’s supporters were, as such, until Trump dispensed with dog whistles and began discussing his issues explicitly. That he found an enthusiastic audience for his bigotry marks a colossal failure for the American élite, just as the emergence of jihadists in Europe represents the failure of a long-term policy of allowing immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere in the Islamic world to fester in hopeless housing projects. The attacks in Brussels also represent the failure of Belgium as a nation. I call these developments failures because no liberal democracy can afford them. The fact that Republican electoral strategies were intentional, that middle-class short-sightedness was actively encouraged, does not make those strategies anything but a failure for the American body politic.

How did so many smart people screw up so badly? I attribute much of the half-baked quality of our social reforms since World War II to the masculine desire to get things done, which sometimes does actually get things done, but which more often seems hasty about announcing achievements prematurely. You pass a few bills — big success! You appoint a member of some minority to a top job — mission accomplished! The masculine way of getting things done is commendable where the results are material (new buildings and roadways) but almost regrettable when it comes to abstractions, such as civil rights. Putting an end to the egregious and visible signs of discrimination does not mean that the impulse to discriminate has been vanquished.

A major weakness of liberal democracy is that it is abstract. Or rather that it remains abstract, and somewhat unreal, for too many ordinary people. Now, there are some people without educations but with religious convictions who “get” liberal democracy without having to think much about it: more than any other form of government — perhaps it would be better to say, alone among forms of government — liberal democracy attempts to realize the Christian belief that all people, being equal in the sight of God, ought to be equal in the sight of men as well. A corollary of this equality, routinely dismissed by every kind of self-appointed authority, holds that no one is in a position to tell anyone else what to do. If these views are part of your spiritual anatomy, then you don’t need a four-year college to steep you in liberal values.

Unfortunately, this conviction is rare. Even worse, the liberal outlook, with is emphasis on freedom, is always somewhat more comfortable with laissez faire ideas than is healthy. Laissez faire would not be a problem in a population of highly-educated men and women. Highly-educated people know right away when their toes have been stepped on, and they can see who has done the stepping. They are in a position to lodge effective complaints. It’s the impact of laissez faire policies on the uneducated that’s the problem. Uneducated people are aware that they’ve been wronged, but they’re not sure about who has done the harm, and they are rather easily misled, at least for a time, by demagogues. Their often misdirected complaints go unredressed. With our dense network of federal and state regulatory agencies, we’re disinclined to see laissez faire as a likely problem, but in fact the concept of “free-market economics,” the juggernaut that has dragged behind it the financialization of markets and the globalization, not of trade, but of labor, is laissez faire in spades.

As I have said many times before, the failure of Western élites has been an unwillingness to communicate liberal values to the uneducated. Élites prefer to announce them, in rulings and legislation and campaign slogans. These are not forms of communication, and they feel like bullying. This is the big problem with Hillary Clinton. She will wonkily master the nuts and bolts of a problem, and then explain it in terms that make sense to people who may not have gone to a college as superior as Wellesley but who have been trained to imagine abstractions into reality. She has nothing to say to voters who lack this intellectual training, which is necessary if social problems are to be fully grasped. She has a hard time concealing her impatience with them. People like me may not like her very much, but we can agree that she’s the best of the bunch. Ordinary people lack the intelligence to judge her good qualities; they see only the bully.

How to deal with the lack of intelligence of ordinary people is a big problem that’s made even bigger by the persistent screw-ups of the élites. But they happen to be one and the same problem. The screw-ups are almost always failures to enlighten uneducated voters, to show people who have not been trained to deal with abstractions why the principles of liberal democracy are so important for us all. This would be a great job for our media, if our media were at all genuinely public-spirited. It is perhaps in our media, across the West, that we are screwing up most badly. It is not that our media tell lies. It’s rather that their way of presentation is a lie: media presenters affect a neutrality and even an innocence that they cannot feel. Television reporters pretend to be shocked by terrorism, for example; they behave as if they, too, were victims. They pretend to be as bewildered by the underlying causes of terrorism, which anyone with an education can see as clearly as the sun in the sky, as most of their viewers really are. Now, I do not mean to suggest that media people are any closer to a solution to those underlying causes — unemployment, first of all; cultural disaffection that is all but stoked by majoritarian contempt and official condescension; nostalgia and sentimentality that spoil in isolation; adolescent restlessness — but the harm is done by the appearance of cluelessness. If the media are clueless, then the causes of terrorism must be inexplicably evil. But the media are not clueless. There is just too much that they find it inconvenient — boring? — to say in front of the camera.

Worst of all, media people pretend that education is not really necessary. Anybody with good reflexes can bone up on a lot of facts and slam winning buttons.


I have entered the final, Egyptian phase of Daniel Martin. I ought to be speaking from experience, having read the book twice before, but in fact I had to skim the final pages to find out how close to the end the return to London was set. I can’t believe that I’ve come this far, over five hundred pages, without getting tired of the book’s obvious faults, which generally fall under one of two headings: endless stretches of dialogue that are often quite as deprived of literary interest as a tennis match; or authorial musings on gender issues that have gone rancid over the years. In this latter regard, it’s as though The Collector were John Fowles’s touchstone novel: his men do like women, a lot, but the question is whether women like being liked by his men? Well, of course they do; Fowles is writing the novels, after all. Except for that first case, where the woman tries to escape. For my part, I read Martin’s thoughts about women and so forth as historical curiosities, even though I know that most men still probably think that way. Martin’s bland self-assurance, at least, seems no longer sustainable.

In fact, I can’t say what is attractive about Daniel Martin. It owes a great deal to the novelist’s ability to present his hero as a creature who inhabits the world. I’d prefer to avoid talking of Daniel Martin as an animal, because he does so himself, always with respect to carnal desire. I find this idea, that it’s the animal in us that makes sex so compelling, slightly laughable, because for actual non-human animals sex is an endurance test that is undergone only very occasionally. Animals are more on the lookout for dinner, but you will not find Daniel Martin talking much about food. He does, however, inhabit the landscape of Devon, almost in spite of his descriptions. In his very green corner of England, Daniel goes shamanically green himself. (He does also make some curious remarks about Robin Hood.)

Egypt, of course, is not green. But it does have the Nile, which has already (by the point I’ve reached) been described as “pearly gray.” Cruising the Nile is like taking a train: you board a movable shelter that could be anywhere, and then travel through a peculiar landscape, only occasionally, however, setting foot in it. This is what the Nile means in literature (as opposed, say, to what it means in Egyptian agronomy). You steam up and down the river, and hope that the adventures will be manageable. You compare the slightly boring tranquility all around you with the hustle and bustle back home; you reflect that the Nile has been doing its thing for x long time. You study your companions, who bristle with far more points of interest than the riverbanks. You comment on the quality of the wining and dining. As an important part of the Nile trope, you’re involved in some complicated, problematic sort of romance.

I can’t remember a thing about how John Fowles plays this hand. Daniel and Jane are still in Cairo. They’ve just been to a good dinner party at which some very funny jokes have been told by a professional comedian. The jokes are still quite sharp and funny. Here’s the first:

They find a stone statue of a pharaoh at Luxor. The inscriptions are indecipherable, the archaeologists are at a loss as to who it is. The statue is brought to Cairo and cleaned, but still the experts are baffled. At last a secret policeman asks if he can see it. He is taken to the room, he goes in and locks the door. An hour later he comes out pulling his coat on and wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“It’s okay,” he says. “He confessed.” (523)

The sad thing about this is that what used to be an Egyptian joke is now a TSA joke.


The lobby just called to tell me that a “delivery” was on its way up. Delivery? Of what? I wasn’t expecting anything. It took a few minutes to remember the Easter ham. I ought to have had the ham delivered tomorrow, or even on Friday, but I wanted to be sure that I had it. So now I have to find somewhere to put it. It’s a whole ham, you see, from which the butcher has sliced three or four steaks, leaving a great big roast for Sunday and a small roast to send someone home with. The steaks are the best part, if you follow a recipe in Julia Child’s The Way to Cook. It’s an adaptation, for ham steak, of a roast ham recipe in Mastering the Art, and really much better. The steaks are obviously not all the same size, but they always seem to feed three diners generously.

Even though I’ve been clearing out the freezer and the refrigerator with unprecedented regularity, I have nowhere to put all this ham — not yet. I’ll figure out something for the big roast. The steaks are more of a headache, because one doesn’t want to look at ham in any form until Whitsun, so the steaks have to be frozen. And where is the room for that, may I ask, especially in light of the big mistake in my last order from Nueske’s. I meant to order one package of Canadian bacon, but I ordered two. As I don’t know anyone else with a meat slicer, I can’t give the extra package away.

I wish I could remember how to cook the roast ham. I know that part of the method is to slice a fresh pineapple and line the bottom of the roasting pan with the rings. The ham sits on them instead of in the juice, and the result is magical. There’s also brown sugar, of course; but was there some strange ingredient that you’d never guess in a million years? In other words, did I make this recipe up in a moment of unrecorded genius?

And dessert — what’s for dessert? It has to be something chocolate, to break Kathleen’s Lenten fast. As always, Ray Soleil offered to make his intense chocolate mousse, but I wanted to make something this year, or thought I did, and so I declined. But what am I going to make? Is it too late to call Ray?


Thursday 24th

As I was walking out of the theatre yesterday — Yes! I went to the movies! But first, the important part — as I was checking my phone, I found two messages from Kathleen. The first said, “:will call when I check in at. Hyatt.” Great! Kathleen was in Washington for the night, attending an annual confab involving dinner and then a long meeting the next day. The second message took a while to process. It was from Kathleen’s phone, but not from Kathleen.

Hi: I found this blackberry on the train after we reached DC. Please tell the owner when you talk to her that I gave it to lost and found inside union station!

Two curious details about this message are that the writer knew that the phone’s owner was a woman, and that the phone was recovered by the stranger so soon after Kathleen wrote her message about checking in that the phone had not locked; there was no need to open it with a passcode. But I didn’t think much about these things at the time, and, indeed, there is still no reason to attach much importance to them. As of this writing, the phone remains in Lost & Found at Union Station — a haven with which we became familiar a few years ago, when Kathleen left her wallet on the train.

A more important detail: the lost phone receives the constantly updated codes that allow Kathleen to log on to her law firm’s network. (Need I point out that she left the phone on the train because she was preoccupied by packing up her laptop, on which she had been working all the way from Penn Station?) Without access to “the system,” she could not determine the time and place for dinner in Washington. I found this out when one of Kathleen’s associates called me. She had been out of pocket when Kathleen called for help, but was now able to be of service. She had called Kathleen at the Hyatt and gotten no answer. Unaware that Kathleen had called another associate and found out what she needed to know, I was left with disturbing visions of a Lost Kathleen, wandering the streets of the capital before finally collapsing, exhausted, in an unsafe alley.

And then there was the Hyatt angle. Kathleen had told me that the dinner would not be late, so, between ten and eleven, I called her room several times. Calls to the hotel were automatically answered by a recording. If you knew “your party’s extension,” you could dial it at any time. I would punch in Kathleen’s room number — which I knew, because I had tracked her down when I got home from the movies, and was able to tell her where her phone was before she was entirely sure that she had mislaid it — and then nothing would happen; nobody would answer. I was frantic by the time our landline phone rang, just after eleven. (Kathleen can’t remember my cell phone number.) “I thought I’d wait until after eleven,” she said, matter-of-factly recurring to an ancient practice that reflected the sharply reduced long-distance rates that use to kick in at that hour, sometime during the Peace of Westphalia. When I said that I’d been calling her, we had a new mystery. She had been sitting “right there,” and there had been no ringing. It turned out that something was wrong with the hotel’s phones. To get Kathleen, I should have to go through the operator. This morning, placing a wake-up call, I found even that to be a challenge. I cycled through three welcomes from the recorded voice before I finally chose an option that would take me to an answered phone and a re-connection to Kathleen.

After all, just how important are hotel phones these days? Everybody knows that their use is laced with surcharges. Everybody else knows that you can always reach your chums on his or her mobile, the number of which is tucked nicely into yours.

The cherry on top: Kathleen was carrying an iPhone. She had not left that on the train. She had not used it in ages. It was not charged. She did not have an Apple charger, and the hotel could not provide her with one. (Big surprise.) The whole point of the iPhone is that Kathleen is supposed to use it to contact me, and, presumably, other non-business contacts. I don’t have time to tell you more about this, because I can hear the men with the big butterfly nets and the funny white suit out in the hallway.

Now that I have described this sundae of technological delight, permit me to suggest the ambient lighting: the film that I had just seen when this opera buffa began was Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky. Ah, here they are. They’re trying to decide whether to take me away to the “clinic” or settle for an injection. So I can’t tell you more about this nail-biting drama about a drone attack that alone will prevent a couple of suicide bombers from wreaking yet more havoc on Nairobi.


Just a few more deep breaths.


Not only did I go to the movies; I went to the Museum! For the first time since September, I’m ashamed to say. (It has been a difficult year. Longer than that, really.) But the weather was lovely, and I finished writing on the early side. So I dressed and ran outside and grabbed a taxi. The Museum is not far away, but I save my energy for walking around in it, not to it; and, in the event, I walked all the way home, too. On the way home, I stopped in at Crawford Doyle, not for the first time since September, but very nearly. I told the assistant manager that the store ought not to be selling the books of Marie Kondo, not, at least, to me; for I had taken the first one to heart and just about stopped buying books. But only just about. I did leave the shop with two new ones. There was Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, which I had intended to buy if they had it, and then a sort of surprise, Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s The Dirty Dust. (I managed not to buy the new Kondo.)

Only now do I see what these books have in common: neither was written in English. A few months ago, as it must be by now, Jhumpa Lahiri published a piece in The New Yorker, an extract from her new book, announcing that she had stopped writing in English, and that she had taken up writing in Italian, a language to which she had no connection beyond an infatuation that began in her youth. The excerpt was translated, like the book, by Ann Goldstein.

I read a good deal of In altre parole when I got home. The original Italian text is printed on the even-numbered, left-hand pages, facing Goldstein’s translation. I was surprised by how rarely I had to look to the right. I, too, have an infatuation with Italian. I am by no means as fluent in it as I am in French, but I understand it better, perhaps because it is further away from English, just as Italy is vastly more self-absorbed and uninterested in Anglophone antics than France is. For some reason, I don’t translate Italian into English as much as I do French. Italian is more likely to make immediate sense to me. Why? All those years of listening to opera? That seems both plausible and far-fetched. After all, I haven’t learned German from Wagner and Strauss. It has something to do with the rhythm of Italian, which is perhaps the most beautiful rhythm in the world of language.

But my knowledge of Italian is vague and confused. I cleared up quite a few confusions yesterday, perhaps forever, thanks to Lahiri’s beguiling memoir. The difference between dentro and dietro, for example (within, behind). Per quanto — however (much/many). Sciocchezza: a folly, not a shock. Lahiri writes a lot about wanting to learn Italian — what, exactly, that was like. This involves a vocabulary with which I am already familiar. Lahiri’s very thoughts are familiar. This is her first book in Italian: the writing is not very difficult. I daresay that one of the attractions of Italian, for Lahiri, is the beauty of its simplicities. I suspect that it is more difficult in Italian than it is in English to be trite, banal, and stale. (The danger is all the other way: pomposity, grandiosity, drama.) Now, literary Italian can be — well, Latinate, as Dante often is. I carry around in my head a favorite sentence from a story in New Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories in Italian, the Nick Roberts edition (1999). It comes from Silvia Petrignani’s “Donne in piscina.” The women of the title, sunning themselves beside, not in, a swimming pool, are talking, why not, about men, and one of them says,

Perché sono pochi gli uomini a cui le donne piacciono sul serio.

Because there are few men who really like women. Sad, but true. But I love all the bumps. “Pochi gli uomini” reminds me that what the sentence is really saying is that They are few, the men who like women really. And the inversion of piacere: Like the French, Italians don’t like things; they are pleased by them. That pleases me: Mi piace. Women please me: Le donne mi piace. Women please them: Le donne gli piacciono. Men to whom women are pleasing: Gli uomini a cui le donne piacciono. There aren’t many: Sono pochi. Really: sul serio. For me, the sentence is an Italian lesson all by itself. I have encountered nothing like it in Lahiri’s book, and I don’t expect to.

In altre parole is a handy Italian on more generous lines. It’s a pleasant book, tinged with loss and longing, that one can dip into anywhere. I was about to refer to an earlier entry here, but it doesn’t exist; I must be remembering a letter to a friend. When the excerpt appeared in The New Yorker, it obliged me to think about what it means to be a native speaker. Lahiri, accomplished in English as she certainly is, is not a native speaker. Bengali is her mother tongue: the language that she spoke with her mother. But that’s all it is. Growing up in London and Providence, she did not speak Bengali with anybody else. She does not speak it well, she says — she has a terrible accent, she says. And she can neither read nor write it. It would seem that Lahiri has known English almost all her life — but not quite.

So, when she fell in love with Italian, as one does, Lahiri did not feel altogether foolish, as indeed I should. When she stopped reading books in English, a few years ago, she closed the door on a world that, however familiar, had no real claim on her; it had not shaped her most fundamental thoughts about the world. She had enjoyed great success in English, obviously, and I hope that she will do so again, even if she is not so sure that she wants to. But English remains her second language. Why not make of Italian, not a third language, but another second?

It’s curious that one’s immediate objections are entirely “practical.” First, she is old to be learning a language. She has a lovely chapter about collecting words that she doesn’t know. She gathers them up every day and puts them in a basket. At the end of the day, the basket is almost empty, because of course it is her memory, and memory discards most of what comes before it. She is delighted when a word sticks. But is this a viable modus for a reasonably sophisticated writer? Presumably — this is at least my stumbling block with other languages — Lahiri would want to write an Italian that is as proficient as her English? In altre parole is an easy book for me to read, because it is the work of someone who learned to describe the world in English. Lahiri’s Italian is very good, but she says the things that an English-speaker would say.

Second, and perhaps the more massive caution, there is the numerical abyss between the languages’ readerships. Even without globalization, English is spoken by many times more readers than Italian is; and there is some evidence that Anglophones, for all their many faults, are bigger readers. Why write texts that will have to be translated, their born glories sheared off, in order to be widely read? As I say, I haven’t encountered a single sentence in Lahiri’s book that is anywhere near to the foreignness of Petrignani’s. But the language itself is indeed foreign.

Scrivo in un italiano brutissimo, scorretto, imbarrazzante.

Ann Goldstein’s translation is interesting.

I write in a terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes.

If you’re following me, you’ll see that there is nothing at all foreign about the thought that Lahiri seeks to express. Goldstein captures it very well, but the changes that she wrests in order to make the statement fluid and agreeable in English completely destroy the power of the original, which depends entirely on a build-up of somewhat onomatopoetic adjectives. Brutissimo! Not just “terrible,” but “ugly.” Scoretto! So many Italian words are made negative or even nasty by fastening an ‘s’ onto the beginning, short for “dis” but resulting in a premonitory hiss. Imbarrazzante! Eem-barratz-AHHNNN-tay. How can “embarrassing,” obviously the same word, only in English, compete? The rhythm of those three denunciations is a virtuoso pile-up that requires no italics or exclamation points. It can’t happen in good English, as Goldstein demonstrates by taking scorretto out of the sequence: incorrect just won’t do. “I write an Italian that is ugly, incorrect, and embarrassing.” The literal translation is a flop. Of course anything so ugly and embarrassing is going to be incorrect. More has to be made of this note: it has to be amplified to “full of mistakes.”

The vituosity is not Lahiri’s, as I expect she’d be the first to agree. It’s simply Italian.


Good Friday 25th

Which is why the sentence exhibits none of the defects that it enumerates.

All day, I’ve been trying to decide whether to tack the preceding sentence, which didn’t occur to me until later, onto the end of yesterday’s entry, and finish it off with good wishes for the weekend, or to add something else. Having chosen the latter option, I’m still not sure that it’s a very good idea, but I’ll plead helplessness: I’ve just finished Daniel Martin and can’t think of anything else to do with myself, at least for a little while, until it’s time to make dinner. For several days, I’d put off continuing with the novel, because I really wasn’t keen to follow it to Egypt — and I was right about all the superficialities, which may mean no more than that John Fowles introduced the Nile-cruise trope to me. But it was in the final two hundred pages that the following statement began to make at least a vague sort of sense.

[Daniel Martin is] intended as a defence and illustration of an unfashionable philosophy, humanism, and also as an exploration of what it is to be English.

Those are the author’s words, printed on the back cover. Humanism? Never have I read, or at least tolerably enjoyed, a novel so completely marinated in the whine of male adolescence. Here is a sentence from the high slopes of the final climax, which is set in Palmyra — the Temple of Baal, recently destroyed by Da’esh, is pointed out, but this was forty years ago.

They were now reduced to what, in their two sexes, had never forgiven and never understood the other. (678)

So gross an appeal to gender, as if Dan stood for all men and Jane for all women, is nothing more than the rankly hormonal cry of thwarted carnality: I especially cherish the authority with which the author and his protagonist speak for women as well. Indeed, there is a dismaying Così fan tutte quality about the novel’s resolution, as if Dan and Jane were only doing what men and women were put on the planet to do. This is not Fowles’s intention, I suspect, but it keeps blurting out from behind the pretense of mature, experienced adulthood. I thought that Dan was an idiot tout court for pursuing Jane so loudly within the very month of her husband’s death by suicide — give the girl some time, man! So I felt mildly disappointed by the success of his importunings.

The humanism of Daniel Martin did not, for me, abide in the romance. It emerged from, of all things, the trope of the Nile-cruise. I’d left an important element of this elegant conceit out of my catalogue: along with the repetitious riverbanks (which however Jane and Dan claim to find endlessly interesting), the peculiarities of the fellow tourists (observed in somewhat contemptuous detail), and the “timelessness” of the ancient river, there must also be a wise old man (or woman) who does not so much explain the riddle of the sphinx as sprinkle other gem-like mysteries on the tablecloth. I had forgotten the Herr Professor, an elderly archaeologist from Leipzig who now lives in Cairo, serving Eastern Europeans as a guide to the antiquities. It turns out that his late wife was English; she was the daughter of a doctor who had settled in Egypt, and a pediatrician herself. After the War, the Herr Professor accepted the invitation to return to his now East-German university; one of his sons remains there (another doctor), while the other has gone to America. All this in the middle of a Cold War that the Herr Professor’s sheer humanity seems to see beyond. The conversations that he has with Dan and Jane are as interesting as conversations can be (although Jane, always something of a geisha, says little), but there is a tidal pull underneath that bound me to the novel, and made it seem to be the most important thing that I could possibly be reading. An interesting illusion, that. But somehow the presence of the Herr Professor does substantiate Fowles’s claim: Daniel Martin is indeed a defense of then-unfashionable humanism.

What mysteries, you ask. Simply the mysteries of another person, another life, another generation, another background. For once, Daniel Martin forgets about himself. Or at least the novel forgets him, forgets, for a moment or two, Daniel’s amorous quandary — whether to continue a relationship with the young actress whom he has befriended in Los Angeles, or to succumb to the weakness of Be Here Now and rattle Jane with his attentions. And the odd thing is that this new element, the open and nonjudgmental appreciation of sheer otherness, seeps up and floods the rest of the novel, so much of it, necessarily by now, in retrospect. If Daniel cannot stop measuring the world by his desires, his ambitions, and his contempt for both of these things, John Fowles shows that he at least can step back. The Herr Professor makes us aware that, all along, Fowles has enabled us to look over Daniel’s shoulders, and to see the other people in his life, for ourselves. We can’t look to Fowles for a judgment of his principal character, because everything about the novel (including that other trope: the novel that you are reading is the one that the lead character is thinking about writing) points to an identity, with Daniel filling in as an alternative Fowles, waving from the other side of experience. But even if Daniel and his author are the same person, the author is writing about the other people in the book from the perspective, and perhaps with the insight and the wisdom, that follows the writing of a novel. I hope that I am not spinning too fine a thread when I suggest that Daniel Martin is about who Daniel used to be, and who his friends have been all along.

As with the Herr Professor, the sense of a humanist assessment of life arises from a grasp of time, the difference between now and then. This is really nothing but sheer history, a feeling for which is so palpable in the Herr Professor’s personal narrative. Daniel always is, even when he is remembering his youth in the combes and hangers of Devon. That’s why he is so maddening. But the book itself is not lodged in an eternal present — another mystery. My solution to this mystery is to conclude that the novel is the history of a man who has no very clear sense of history.

And there I must stop: it is time to make dinner. My copy of Daniel Martin is flagged with more than a dozen small Post-its; I wonder if I shall actually take the time to copy all the passages into Evernote and explain why they caught my eye (if I still can). I hope so. It would be a fine way of working out the confusion that I felt throughout this third reading: why? What makes this book worth the time? Because so much — so much about the title character — argues that it isn’t. I feel that, in these few paragraphs here, I have reduced the perplexity considerably, but I sense that there’s more to be learned. Meanwhile,

Bon week-end à tous!

Gotham Diary:
Avoiding Egypt
March 2016 (III)

Monday 14th

Running an hour late on everything — trying not to feel delinquent, panicked.

Time Magazine was mentioned in one of the Op-Ed columns this morning — Paul Krugman’s, I think. Time Magazine! How surprising — that it still exists! But of course it doesn’t, any more than today’s Vanity Fair is really anywhere near as old as The New Yorker. It’s true that Time has published without interruption, but not only has it changed out of recognition, but the world that it served in the heady American-Century days of the Fifties and Sixties has disappeared — extinguished, pretty much, by people like me.

Now, I’m making all of this up, of course. You’re to read it as a piece of fiction, a story that might or might not seem to hew to true facts, whether or not you yourself remember them. Try it on; see if it fits. But when I caught the mention of Time this morning, my entire life flashed before my eyes.

The story begins in the early Sixties. Kennedy is president, or perhaps Johnson has already taken his place. Where I come from, it is still the Fifties, and where I come from is Eisenhower country. Eisenhower is a Republican, of course, but he has spent a good deal of his presidency trying to outmaneuver the ardent, Red-fearing right. He may have seemed to be a boring old man, but he was sound. Somehow, Kennedy seemed to be more sound than Nixon, and, if he wasn’t, the assassination at Dallas took care of that. Johnson is definitely not sound.

I come from an affluent Coastal suburb. Everyone is a Republican, but only a few people are in any way ardent. Republican is the default setting for “normal.” Democrats are, by and large, less educated and poorer. They live in other suburbs, or in the city. Nobody really believes that Democrats are Communists, because — I left something out — almost every white voter in the South is a Democrat. Nobody pays much attention to Democrats, at least until Johnson comes along.

In this Coastal Establishment, Time Magazine has the last word on everything. Take the clout enjoyed, on today’s liberal/progressive front, by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Harpers, and even The Nation — all the periodicals on my library table — and put them into one very faintly right-wing publication, and you have Time. Smart teenagers read Time as a matter of course. (To be impressive, you have to read US News & World Report — the most boring prose in America.) Time tells you how things are.

And then there is the rift. From the very start, the rift is generational. Kids look at their parents and assume that they’re wrong — about everything. Why? Is it the music? Is it the pictures of self-immolating monks and nuns in Vietnam? Is it Johnson’s talk about civil rights? Is it — drugs?

It is all of these things, but it is something more, because the parents, if not exactly wrong, are somehow mindless. The grown-ups have stopped thinking. They sound just like the authority figures in Brave New World and 1984. They want to have a good time, and they want their kids to have the same good time, dammit. They do not like having the boat rocked just for the hell of it — they can’t imagine having a good reason to rock the boat. They don’t have much imagination at all, really, and no wonder, given their experience of the Depression and the War. They’re entitled to some peace and quiet, no?

The problem is — Communism. The Commies are out to put an end to the good life. They want to surround the United States with Commie dictatorships, so we fight back with our own Crony dictatorships. In the South, Democrats complain that Communist infiltrators are encouraging Negro activism. How seriously do comfortable Republicans in the Coastal suburbs take these complaints? Not very. But they equate Commies with boat-rockers, and boat-rockers belong behind bars. End of discussion!

But their children — people like me — see the Negro struggle in a very different light. We may not actually know any Negroes — in sad truth, this ignorance makes our virtue easy — but we think that it is wrong to forbid some people to sit down at a lunch counter. We are beginning to learn about the Holocaust, and the idea of separate drinking fountains has a terrible smell. We don’t know if the nuns and the monks in Vietnam are really Communist agitators, but we sense a lack of connection between what is going on in Vietnam — what the people there really want — and the government that the United States is increasingly seen to be propping up. By the time Johnson decides not to run for reëlection, most people like me will regard his Administration, at least its military parts, as a big fat liar. As wars go, there is something awfully wrong about the War in Vietnam. Something — stupid.

I always think of this as Time’s swan song: Now that flower children have gone to pot. That’s from the late Sixties, obviously. By then, the Coastal Establishment is broken beyond repair: people like me have seen to that. We have embraced all the social challenges, and as Nixon and Watergate and the Oil Embargo and Stagflation bring the United States to what looks like the end of the American Century, a bit ahead of time, we grow up and get advanced degrees and start running things. This is where people like me divide into two opposed camps, one of which supports Jimmy Carter while the other hates him. (The people who hate Jimmy Carter are gearing up to financialize the American economy, but Afro-Americans are welcome everywhere among us.) But that’s another story. Between us, we have trampled Eisenhower’s Republican Party — also Nelson Rockefeller’s — to death. And, whichever side of the aisle we’re on, people like me are convinced that we’ve won.

But we’ve missed something. We have taken no political account of white people who are not people like me. In a curious transvaluation of values (I don’t know what that really means), we have rendered these people politically invisible. The ones whom we see are “entertainers,” Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, just as our parents ignored Negroes who were not entertainers. We may no longer read Time Magazine, but the white people who are not people like me never could read Time. It was above their reading grade, way above. Those people were too hopped up on schnapps and NASCAR to follow politics. People like me are in fact tacitly bigoted about such people, whom we call “rednecks,” “yahoos,” and “crackers.” How nice it would be if they would all emigrate to Australia!

We hadn’t noticed — we were still a bit young at the time — that Nixon had activated a sequence of changes that would transform American politics in a way that made people like me almost irrelevant. We sort of understood why southern Democrats, feeling betrayed by Johnson, were becoming Republicans, but we didn’t know where that was going to lead. Or perhaps we simply couldn’t see where it would lead, because where it would lead was not a political possibility, in the minds of people like me. Surely racist bigotry was a thing of the past?

I don’t know where we got the idea, people like me, that we had put an end to racist bigotry. We had put an end to our parents’ short-sighted, go-along-to-get-along quietism, but our parents, with a few exceptions, were not racial bigots, or in any case were not prepared to make a fuss about their bigotry. They would retreat to their gracious country clubs and churches, places in which enthusiasm of any kind was firmly discouraged. That’s what we brought to a stop. We never had anything to do with genuine, pulsing bigotry.

So, now it’s our turn to retire. the oldest amongst us are pushing seventy. We support Hillary, not because we like her but because she has proven to be a capable executive, or we would like to support Jeb Bush. Donald Trump has grown up with us; he might have been one of us. But he was never one of us, whether because he was an insecure dreamer or a bully or both. We have laughed at Donald Trump almost all our adult lives, when we haven’t scorned him for vandalizing the Bonwit Teller signage. We have always seen Donald Trump as a rogue, and we should never let him run anything.

My mind goes back to Simon Winder’s Danubia, which I read at the end of last October. Writing of the failure of the various revolutions of 1848, Winder points out that nobody was prepared to agree on a second step: after the revolution, then what?

People like me never even saw that there was a second step. We may have stopped reading it, but we were still blinkered by the worldview of Time Magazine.


I wound up last week’s entry by asking a question that I never began to try to answer. Why, in The Heather Blazing, does Carmel Redmond complain, on two occasions, at the opposite ends of her married life, that her husband Éamon doesn’t tell her about himself?

You’ve always been so distant, so far away from everybody. It is so hard to know you, you let me see so little of you. I watch you sometimes and wonder if you will ever let any of us know you. (154)

What does this mean? What would be the disclosures that Carmel feels her husband has withheld? And how can she have lived with him for decades without developing a sense of who her husband really is that she can depend upon, regardless of what he says or doesn’t say?

In other words, is she “really asking,” or is she demanding some sort of ritual performance?

When I read The Heather Blazing for the first time, I took this passage, like so many others, as an evidence against Éamon, an “indictment,” so to speak; that he could not defend himself amounted to a sort of conviction. Now I wonder if, each time that I read this novel — and I certainly intend to read it again sometime — I shall find myself forgiving Éamon Redmond’s faults even more unreservedly than the last time. To me now, he seems to be an almost obstinately decent man, meaning not that he is a rebel who stands up for inconvenient principles but rather that he is determined to suffer every inconvenience — every tic of conscience — that’s required to repay the debt that he owes to those who have taken care of him, the men of Fianna Fáil. It may be clear that Éamon is a cog in a machine that has already done whatever good it could do for Ireland, and that is now doing things that are not so good. But it is not clear that this makes Éamon a bad man. And my ambivalence surprises me. I do not expect to like characters such as Éamon Redmond.

And who would be responsible for that, for my liking him? Who, now? Who would make his silences so understandable that I should like to take Carmel aside and beg her to stop demanding ritual performances? I understand that the sharing of intimacies is a fundamental aspect of human social grooming, but by Carmel’s own account it was Éamon’s resistance to such norms that made him attractive to her in the first place. And there is nothing inside Éamon that would allow him honestly to comply. There is no withheld information. Why do I believe this? Where did I get this idea?

Why do I find Éamon Redmond increasingly semblable? Is it me? Am I changing? Or is it the novel — am I reading it more clearly?

What if Colm Tóibín didn’t know what he was doing back then, twenty-odd years ago? What if he set out to paint a portrait in vitriol but didn’t have the heart for it? What if he set out, instead, to invest a character, whose outward circumstances were the opposite of his own, with his own confusions? To infuse a High Court judge with the spirit of a gay expat journalist? Or to imagine himself as a High Court judge? It is none of my business, but the question, What does Carmel want? has become something of a laugh line.


Tuesday 15th

The pile of books alongside my reading chair has taken one of those Jack’s-beanstalk jumps that happen every now and then when books come in all at once from several quarters. There are some new books, some books that had been in storage, a book that a neighbor lent to me on the understanding that I would (please) not give it back, and books from my own shelves. Every one, though, belongs in one train of thought or another.

Well, almost every one. George Sand’s Consuelo is there because, frankly, it is very fat. If I read it and then decided that I didn’t need to keep it, that would be a very happy outcome. I have never finished a novel by Sand, although I have begun more than a few; this is another source of pressure. Consuelo is about a Venetian singer in the Eighteenth Century; I suppose that I could attach it to the Gilbert & Sullivan train, by contrasting it, however grotesquely, with The Gondoliers, which is set in the same place and time (roughly). Both capture, or rather are captured by, that sugary cuteness that you used to be able to find in Little Italy, on horrible table lamps featuring shepherds and shepherdesses: that is how one century liked to see its predecessor. Both Consuelo and The Gondoliers rise above the level of schlock, but you have to ask what, exactly, the period setting brings to the finished artwork.

Another fat novel is John Fowles’s Daniel Martin. I am well into this somewhat hypertrophic roman à moi, in which Fowles reinvents himself as a successful writer of Hollywood screenplays. The conceit is that the book in your hand is the novel that Daniel conceives of writing about halfway through the narrative — his first. It was of course not the first for author Fowles. I ask myself, Why am I reading this for the third time? The answer seems to be that it haunts me, that I remember it as a deeply engaging book, even if I forgot lots of the details, or even the extended episode in Egypt that finishes it off. I am about to embark for the Nile, in fact, and I’m twitching with the resistance that made me put down The Adventures of Augie March when the action was on the verge of shifting to Mexico. That won’t happen here, I don’t think.

Daniel Martin haunts me for several reasons. First, it is tremendously readable, even though written by a man. Even when Fowles launches one of his aesthetic sermons, he holds your attention. His opinions are very strong, and — now, in 2016, nearly forty years after publication — sometimes thrillingly out of date. It’s hard to make sense of some of them: you have to worm your way back to that rackety decade and revisit its peculiar perspectives (anything but confident, but not very clear, either) on past and future. The dialogue is lively, too, although it is something of a joke that Fowles/Martin exhibits none of the discipline of a moviemaker. His conversations go on and on and on: you are there. If you weren’t convinced of the sincerity of Fowles’s urge to recreate life as it is lived and breathed, his garrulity would be unbearable. (There is one tic that I cannot bear. In the depths of his exchanges, which read pretty much like a script, with even less adverbial modification outside the quotation marks, Fowles will deploy someone’s name as an anchor, to remind you that someone else is the one speaking. “Oh, if only I could see it that way, Dan” — an invented example with emphasis supplied. In the thick of intimate conversations, people don’t call one another by name.) Then there are the long lyric passages, usually describing landscapes, especially the landscape of Devon. These passages are shot through with a love of Little England and the longing of the highly rational man (or of one who thinks he is) for the simple certitudes (as he imagines them to be) of peasant life. At the same time, Daniel Martin is marinated in English literature. I don’t mean that it’s full of allusions that must be caught (although it is), but rather that it seems of a piece with great books from the early days of Modern English onward. Like so many English writers of the Twentieth-Century, Fowles finds the Seventeenth expecially congenial. And you can see that he is just about willing to consider forgiving the Victorians for having — existed. In the end, I suppose you could say that Daniel Martin is the literary equivalent of a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, except of course that one was alive for part of it.

Another novel is Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, which I haven’t read before. I haven’t much to say about it yet, having penetrated no further than the first two chapters, and I don’t expect to think highly of it. Huxley, as a recent re-reading of The Devils of Loudun brought home, has not aged well. I’m reading it solely because Sybille Bedford, in Jigsaw, tells us that Huxley “borrowed” some unpleasant dramas from her own family life and recycled them here. She was horrified, when she found this out, in 1937, but by then she and the Huxleys were great chums, and Maria Huxley reminded her younger friend that her husband used everything in his novels. So the friendship was not damaged, and Bedford went on to write the authorized biography of the author of Brave New World, which book I must say that I have managed not actually to read. I’ve treated 1984 in the same way. It occurs to me that I should have seen them, if they were great movies.

Anyway, I decided to read Eyeless in Gaza, really, because it was a way of holding on to Sybille Bedford, who didn’t write enough if you ask me. I read her Jigsaw years and years ago and liked it, but I thought that it was rather queer, and I don’t mean sexually. What made it queer was the Bohemian freedom of its characters’ lives, a freedom nevertheless bound up in good manners. I was too young, I think, to hear the crystal purity of Bedford’s voice. Now that I’m old enough, I read her with avid hunger. Legacy, A Visit to Don Otavio, A Favourite of the Gods — all marvelous. And now I’ve just read The Faces of Justice: A Traveller’s Report. I quoted a passage from this the other day, but did not talk about the book. It ought to be read by every lawyer and, especially, every law student. Everywhere in Europe.

The Faces of Justice is something of a fragment. It might have been a much, much bigger book. I don’t mean that Bedford ought to have burrowed into the philosophical differences between Europe’s two great legal systems. The virtue of her writing is always that it sounds the depths from a calm surface. This is a knack that is easier to explain, in terms of Bedford’s very complicated personal background, than to describe; other writers who possess it would be Penelope Lively, though to a lesser degree, and Janet Malcolm, who seems to me to be following in Bedford’s footsteps. Both Bedford and Malcolm are fascinated by the funhouse-mirror distortions of legal procedure, and both appear to understand the whys and wherefores of everyday justice without having bothered with law school. Bedford, who became interested in trials as a very young woman in London, has a keen if unacademic awareness of, for example, the niceties of hearsay, and she is horrified by its admissibility as evidence in Continental jurisprudence. Provincially horrified, she is careful to note. If you grow up in the Anglophone legal tradition, then the courts of Germany and France (and all the rest) are going to seem frightfully inquisitorial; if you’re looking at Anglophone law from a foreign perspective, it can seem hideously infected by sporting notions that have nothing to do with right and wrong, but are instead wrapped up with that utterly untranslatable term, fairness. “Life isn’t fair,” we all console each other; but English law and it numerous offshoots all do try to correct that.

In The Faces of Justice, Bedford starts out with the way things are done in England. She attends an “ordinary” case, by which she means one in which there is no actual suspense. The dim truck driver who “converted” a shipment of apples and Gloucester cheese to his own use — that is, he stole it and sold it and used the proceeds to buy a flashy car — is obviously guilty. There is nothing to get to the bottom of. This makes the case a good teaching tool, because all the things that take place in an exciting case happen here, too, and, because there’s no mystery, it’s easier to pay attention to them. Bedford shows how the case against the driver is painstakingly made, by establishing, as if in some virtual, holographic recreation, the facts of the matter. We take this for granted; Bedford insists that we see exactly what it is that we take for granted.

Bedford also writes about “summary justice,” which is how the vast bulk of infractions are dealt with. Think of parking tickets; think “drunk and disorderly.” Think of stealing a quantity of matchbooks and a slice of cake from the back seat of a parked car, as one odd young man was caught in the middle of doing. So long as the money involved is below a certain threshold, and the penalties fall short of high fines and extensive prison terms, these cases can be handled by a magistrate, usually, in England (at least at the time of Bedford’s writing, 1960 or so), a retired barrister. Bedford runs through about two dozen matters: la comédie humaine. The salience of justice is oddly higher in magistrate’s court, perhaps because the magistrate is, within the scope of his jurisdiction, rather godlike: he is judge, jury, and counsel wrapped up in one person. And Bedford’s report demonstrates that magistrates usually, but not always, do dispense justice.

Then Bedford crosses the Channel, and visits the capital of the province in which she grew up, Karlsruhe. I didn’t know that Karlsruhe was the seat of West German justice prior to unification, a fact that is really neither here nor there in her report, which is primarily devoted to a somewhat sensational case (at the time) involving a stressed-out father who shot and killed an elderly exhibitionist who had been flashing his daughter. This is definitely not an ordinary case, but Bedford squeezes it for all that it can tell us about how things are done in Germany — how very, very differently. The jury, for example, sits alongside the judges, and together with the judges, one-man-one-vote, reaches the verdict. Nor are the members of the jury members of the public whose names are drawn out of a hat. They are what we might call stand-up citizens, people with good reputations in the town and solid balances in the bank. If there were one reform to be borrowed from Continental law, this would be my choice. I see the attraction of sporting chances as a way of leveling the field of justice, but I am not willing to extend it to a way of composing juries that permits uneducated men and women to grapple with complicated, unheard-of fact patterns. Nor do I buy the Anglophone fairy tale that juries are triers of fact but not of law.

There is a beautiful sequence of paragraphs about the Courts of Restitution. “Most of the plaintiffs are dead.” One gathers from today’s news that these courts must not have been doing a very good job, since the restoration of art (especially) to Jewish families dispossessed by the Nazis is as big a deal as ever, nearly sixty years after Bedford’s book. Her account, which is worldly and humane and as brief a can be, suggests otherwise. Grand pianos, furs, rings — it’s all being sorted out somehow. “Anyone who cares to may walk in and hear; this is the aftermath of what everybody knew, and here it is going on, in living memories. And it as grim and pitiful and unbearable as it ever was.”

The plaintiffs in such cases are represented more often than not by Jewish law firms. Once more, Jewish faces are seen in German courts; Jewish lawyers, move, speak, mix with apparent smoothness. “Morning, Herr Collegue — ” “Morning, dear sir — ” All as before? Better than before? Whatever lies behind — must lie behind — this is a daily reality. (108)

Bedford also goes to Switzerland and to France, providing a very interesting picture of the former and a more perfunctory portrait of the more-familiar French. Along the way, there is an “Austrian Interlude” that I have to read again, because it is so odd and so curiously funny: it’s as if Bedford were humming arias from an imaginary Mozart opera set to the usual Italian libretto by da Ponte, only this time starring Don Basilio.

I’ll wind up by quoting a passage or two from the Swiss section of The Faces of Justice that gave me a good laugh.

Bâle is a very rich canton. There are no poor. Private and public money is spent freely. Taxes are just and not too high. The young are well brought up. God is feared and the family is loved. Crimes against property are committed mainly by psychopaths and foreign workers. Nevertheless the summary courts do not stand idle. The Swiss appear to have a passion, almost equal to the Germans’, for dragging their private rows before the courts. Charges of slander, vilification, back-biting and evil-speaking are forever poured — not reticently — into the patient judge’s ear by waitresses, landlords, van drivers, neighbours and meddling passers-by. (153-4)

And, on the next page:

Then there came a whole group who complained of a messenger boy who would whistle at them when they went out to hang their washing in the yard. The boy said that it was his luncheon hour, and by no means at all of them.

The judge said, “That amounts to an admission, you know.” The boy laughed.

How I hated to finish this book! To make things worse, it’s a very slim reprint (by Quid Pro books, of New Orleans), so its removal from the reading pile didn’t amount to anything.

Other books: The Bad Popes, which you can be sure I’ll be telling you about; an early, and rather short, novel by Fontane that I’m never able to get quite into, whenever I pick it up — its time will come; Tom Sharpe’s Indecent Exposure, with its very indecent jacket art a book that cannot be read in public places; the first volume of Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, which I thought might make a nice bedtime read; Colm Tóibín’s Mothers and Sons, which I must return to or replace on the shelf; Francis Bacon’s Henry VII, a surprisingly legal history of the reign and every bit as demanding as it is interesting (and so not for bedtime); and the latest Granta. Oh — and a real threat to the stability of the book pile unless it’s at the very bottom, Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night. Soon to come, Tom Bartlett’s history of Ireland. What’s that book by Nicholson Baker? Fermata? I need that, but not for sex.


Thursday 17th

As I mentioned the other day, I’m reading Eyeless in Gaza, by Aldous Huxley. Discovering it, I ought to say. Discovering it in the now-official sense of reading it for the first time. But also discovering something, by means of rediscovery, something that once seemed familiar but is now amazingly ancient. That would be Huxley’s “novel of ideas” gambit. When I first read Huxley, in the early Seventies, he seemed adult and authoritative; the struggle that he had with reconciling passion with reason, the beast with the angel, was genuinely agonized, and informed by an Arnoldian study of all the best that has been thought and written. (Matthew Arnold was a collateral forebear.) Not only was Huxley not bound by European prejudices, moreoever, but he was keen to propose a third way, that of mysticism. He was greatly attracted to the dream of merging the self in the cosmos, as his two “psychedlic” books, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, attest. But for all the big ideas, Huxley now comes across as just another twentieth-century Brit dogged by irritated impatience with the limitations of his physical and psychosocial frame.

And who would not have been irritated and impatient? As I read the non-idea passages of Eyeless in Gaza, I’m reminded of Ivy Compton-Burnett. Huxley’s style is differerent (it’s not so hierophantic), but his picture of the late Victorian world of his (and Compton-Burnett’s) childhood shares a certain heavy deadliness, as if every cup of tea were laced with soul-killing toxins. Stiff and stuffy, it is a time of frowns, of discomforts (those clothes!) and dissatisfactions. I rather enjoy these bits, because it is by no means disagreeable to be reminded of Ivy Compton-Burnett if you do not actually have to read her. But one must also bear in mind that it was the experience of these buttoned-up atmospheres that made all the young men so thrilled to rush off to fight in 1914.

Owing to a childhood illness, Huxley’s eyesight was severely limited; he could not drive a car. But even had he been completely able-bodied, I doubt that, for all his loving-kindness for humanity, he should ever have been much help around the house. His clever but devoted wife, née Maria Nys, managed everything for him. I have to wonder, though, if she proof-read Eyeless in Gaza. I am certain that, had she had a look at it, Sybille Bedford would have complained about the following:

One isn’t lazy about what one loves. The problem is: how to love? (Once more the word is suspect — greasy from being fingered by generations of Stigginses. There ought to be some way of dry-cleaning and disinfecting words. Love, purity, goodness, spirit — a pile of dirty linen waiting for the laundress. How, then, to — not “love,” since it’s an unwashed handkerchief — feel, say, persistent affectionate interest in people? How to make the anthropogical approach to them…? Not easy to answer. (11)

You will be wondering who the Stigginses are. So was I. A light search revealed a learned-looking text in which the Stigginses were grouped with those oleaginous religious pooh-bahs, Austen’s Mr Collins and Trollope’s Obadiah Slope. I think that we can leave it there for the moment.

My concern for the Stigginses evaporated the moment I came across “dry-cleaning” and then “disinfecting.” What was wrong with “laundering,” I objected? Why introduce all those chemicals to the problem of eliminating adulterants? And then came the “dirty linen,” followed quickly by the “laundress.” My jaw fell; I didn’t know where to begin. With “laundress,” of course, Huxley inadvertently acknowledged my objection, but was he aware that laundresses do not oversee the dry-cleaning process? Most of all, did Huxley know that linen is not usually dry-cleaned? Laundering does not degrade linen, as it does, say, wool. All textiles wear out eventually, and cleaning processes of any kind hasten deterioration, but laundering makes linen soft and supple long before it frays it.

Aside from this domestic incongruity, there is the sheerly literary awkwardness of bringing together a snazzy new technology — the replacement of chlorinated for petroleum-based solvents made dry-cleaning much safer in the 1930s — and a venerable (if “unmentionable”) conceit, used by Voltaire if not earlier.

Finally, there is the confusion of following the mention of the laundress and the “pile of dirty linen” with the suggestion that laundry isn’t possible: love, that “unwashed handkerchief,” must be discarded. For Huxley is indeed assuming that there is no way to dry-clean, disinfect, or even launder words that have been soiled by overuse. I make no such assumption. I believe that you can nurse weakened words back to health by using them sparingly and deliberately, and exhorting others to do the same.

I reject, furthermore, the notion that human beings constitute a jumble of paradoxes and design flaws. They are not fallen angels. (There are no angels.) Nor is it intelligent to regard them as highly-gifted animals, because those differentiating gifts are so extraordinary that to overlook them in the search for a common nature is to commit a category mistake. We are what we are, and if we’re confused so much of the time, that is because we can create things that we don’t really understand. (Consider the smartphone.) We are perhaps too fond of keeping our options open, but then, having any options at all is a rather recent development in human history. Why should we be good at it?

“One isn’t lazy about what one loves.” What is that pearl of wisdom supposed to mean? Also: says who? “The problem is: how to love?” Is Huxley looking for a manual? I throw up my hands: men! Dry-cleaning the linen, indeed. Maria Huxley, we’re assured by Sybille Bedford, was a very busy woman.


The strangest feeling overcame me as I typed out Huxley’s words: the awful recognition that it was with this sort of twaddle that I filled volume after volume of my youthful journals. Anthony Beavis, the Eyeless in Gaza character whose diary the passage comes from, writes better and more coherently than I did, but the emptiness of the activity is the same. The problem with asking how to love? within the confines of a page in a book at a desk in a room that hardly anyone will ever see — nay, that one will almost certainly never revisit — is that talk of love makes no sense in solitude. Talk of love in general terms is never more than decorative. Love is a state that exists, with highly varying qualia, only between actual human beings. You cannot talk about love without having at least one other specific person in mind. How to love my wife after ten years of marriage? How to love someone from the other side of the tracks? How to love my parents? How to love this beautiful woman who has nothing to say? How not to love the guy who beats me up?

Like Aldous Huxley, I grew up in an affluent world of superficially similar people. Experience was both narrow and universal. It’s no wonder that, when we took up our journals, we assumed that we knew everything that there was to know about the world, except how to bear it. Being intelligent above the common run (the common run of this affluent world, that is), we set out to imitate the philosophers: we would work out the big problems by writing about them. Eventually, I realized that I was treading water in a limitless sea of verbiage. Huxley, more bold perhaps, polished his ratiocinations into books. His answer to the question of love was to be the devoted recipient of Maria’s care, while indulging in affairs with other women. I’ll bet that there were times when Maria Huxley wanted to send Aldous to the dry-cleaner’s.


My persistent cold, which seems to be a vast subterranean network of roots that now and then puts up mushrooms of congestion and misery, brought me low on Tuesday, but relief was at hand. 15 March was the release date for the videos of Brooklyn and The Big Short, and Amazon contrived to put the DVDs in my hands just after lunch. So I watched one and then the other. Brooklyn first, of course — and a good choice it was, too, to reserve The Big Short for second, because I lost about five pounds in salty tears watching Brooklyn and might well gone on weeping without something acerbic to change my tune. Both films are remarkable, but I don’t want to say much more than that right now, because yesterday —

Yesterday, I walked by the Video Room on my way home from the dermatologist. Or rather, I walked in, and then walked out with a copy of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, which I watched as soon as I got home. During the years when I went to the movies almost every Friday, I should probably have seen Steve Jobs in the theatre, because if you go every week you have to sit through more than a few good films that are nevertheless not, at least in advance, compelling. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m trying to determine whether Steve Jobs is compelling — compelling enough to add to my library. Will I watch it again? Well, yes; I’d like to. But after the third time, would I be done with it? I can’t tell. The film has all the morbid attraction of a highway accident. You look for bodies. And you think, this man will die in 2011. But you also wonder: what is this movie about?

Steve Jobs asks you to look forward and backward. It moves forward, jumping from product presentations in 1984, 1988, and 1998, while jumping back to a few earlier moments in time. The formula is a Hollywood ancient, a sort of triple-play backstager: the moment Jobs (Michael Fassbender) walks onstage to pitch the latest marvel, the screen garbles or fades to black and we move on, for another twenty or thirty minutes of pre-game drama. Each time, Jobs has to confront three antagonists: Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), the computer engineer who actually designed the first Apple products; Lisa, the daughter whom he is so reluctant to recognize (played by three actresses over time, with Katherine Waterston appearing as her mother in 1984 and 1988); and John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), the professional executive whom Jobs hired and who fired Jobs. At Jobs’s side throughout is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). It is unclear what her job is, but she is clearly the only person who can make Steve Jobs do things that he doesn’t want to do. With good-hearted opportunism, Hoffman will play whatever role the situation requires, from dutiful personal assistant to stern grandmother. Kate Winslet must have had a ball, and at least she won at the Golden Globes.

With Wozniak and Lisa, Jobs is challenged by the demand that he settle old scores. It is with Scully that Jobs himself is the subject of the discussion. Scully, evidently a father figure of sorts at the beginning of his relationship with Jobs, is particularly interested in Jobs’s way of dealing with his adoption — by far the richest story line unspooled in this film, and I think that I can say that even though I had every reason, as an adopted person, to find it the most interesting part of Steve Jobs. Scully asks, “Why did you feel rejected? Why didn’t you feel selected?” Ha. I might say that I could write a book about that question, but it will probably be nothing longer than a chapter. The answer in Jobs’s case turns out to have been chilling: he was selected and rejected. Because his birth mother contested his placement with the Jobs family, his adoptive mother withheld her unqualified love, lest the child be taken away and her heart broken. That certainly explains a lot.

It explains a lot of Steve Jobs’s legendary indifference to the feelings of others. But why, really, do we care? By the time he died, Steve Jobs was famous for inventions that are only hinted at, and only once, in Danny Boyle’s movie. The Mac, NeXT, and the iMac have been consigned to the museum of technology. The Power Books and the portable devices that are so much with us are yet to come when the movie ends. I suspect that keeping these familiar products offscreen is part of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s strategy for likening Steve Jobs to a rock star, a man who got onstage and killed the people. The movie leaves us all aware that the best is yet to come. And the final episode, set in 1998, seems to wrap up the squabbles. Scully is at peace, Lisa realizes that her father really does love her (a Rosebud moment), and Wozniak walks away, disappointed, presumably forever. Clear sailing ahead for Steve! Aside from the liver problem, that is.

“I play the orchestra,” Jobs tells Wozniak at the second encounter. They are standing in the pit at the San Francisco Opera, and Jobs credits the remark to Seiji Ozawa, who conducted in San Francisco for years but also appeared regularly at Tanglewood, which is where Jobs says Ozawa explained the conductor’s job — what, to be precise, distinguishes a conductor from a metronome. I should like to see a movie that explores this conceit, for it seems to be the one really interesting thing about Steve Jobs, more interesting by far than the innovations that he oversaw. As Wozniak sneeringly implies, Jobs was not really a “computer person.” He never learned how to make computers, or to make them do any particular thing. But he knew how to talk to the people who could do these things. He was, in a sense, the ideal customer, ideal not from the fabricator’s point of view (hardly that) but as a customer. He could have anything that he wanted, anything that he could dream up. As I see it, this virtually godlike power would play a much greater role in setting up the “reality distortion field” that Jobs was said (by Hoffman?) to inhabit than any adoption traumas.

What made Steve Jobs so interesting? It can’t have been bad behavior merely. Everyone knows who Bill Gates is, but I suspect that far fewer people know about his privileged background than know about Jobs’s more troubled one. Gates is gifted and clever, more knowledgeable than Jobs about the tech side and far cannier about business. But this extraordinary superstructure seems to rest upon the foundation of an ordinary guy. Steve Jobs’s foundation was daemonic: he vibrated, or so it seems, at superhuman frequencies.

If I am not a computer person myself, I am especially not an Apple person. I have an iPhone for one reason only: it facilitates FaceTime visits with my family in San Francisco. (My family is, decidedly, Apple people.) I no longer have in iPad; indeed, I have two tablets but rarely use either. And I do use the phone almost exclusively as a phone. The odd text; checking the weather — that’s it for me. I spend a lot of time at a computer with three screens. That is “work.” The rest of the time, I’m not connected. Perhaps I’m too old. I gave it a try, the new, seamless way of living, and decided that it was not a good thing for me. I treasure my traditional private life, a life that is spent apart, with family and friends, or alone. I don’t want, in the words of an infamous ad campaign, to make the world my living room. I think that it’s a mistake to conduct your private life in public, to text absent friends while dining with present ones. There is a terrible confusion here that I expect future generations will sort out. Since I probably won’t live that long, the experiment doesn’t interest me.

Although Steve Jobs isn’t the movie that I’d like to see about this remarkable man, it shows, with a lurid fascination, a way of being private at all times. Horrifying!


Friday 18th

As I was reading along in Eyeless in Gaza, I came across a line of German poetry that, without thinking, I rattled off with passable fluency. Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichniss [sic]. I could even sing it. (Mahler’s version; I can never recall the Liszt, although it is very beautiful.) I knew that the verse was Goethe, from the second part of Faust. But what did it mean? I really hadn’t the foggiest. Something about illusion. I looked up the words in the dictionary, but that got me nowhere. In a Wikipedia page on Liszt’s Faust Symphony (Mahler used the same chunk of sublimity at the end of his Eighth Symphony, the “Symphony of a Thousand”), the line is translated thus: “Everything transitory is only an allegory.” I don’t know; you tell me. The stanza ends with the equally inexplicable bit about how the Eternal Feminine draws us upward. It’s all very beautiful in German; it might be beautiful in any foreign language. But never, oh never, in English.

I had to set Eyeless in Gaza aside; its pretentiousness was keeping me awake. I turned to Marc Bloch’s Feudal Society, which is far more readable than Huxley’s novel. I keep waiting for it to become dry in the French manner, but it never does. I believe that I can actually date the purchase of this two-volume history to 1995, and even to a particular bookstore: the Quill, in Northampton, Massachusetts. I was there with Kathleen, apparently the only husband that an alumna of the a capella group, the Smithereens, thought to bring along to its first reunion (marking its fiftieth). I loved the Quill and bought quite a few books there.

I was also, at the time, getting serious about understanding “the Middle Ages.” Somewhere around that time, I acquired Susan Reynolds’s Fiefs and Vassals, a book which argues that there never really was a feudal period, strictly speaking; feudal concepts, in Reynolds’s view, were elaborated by lawyers in Northern Italy just as the need for feudal arrangements — knight service and all that — was beginning to die down. If this sounds strange to you, or somewhat perverse, the reason for the lawyers’ interest was their clients’ desire to nail down property rights that, owing to very poor record-keeping in earlier centuries, were not very clear. I believe that Reynolds is quite right. The lawyers were only doing what historians have done ever since: they were imposing a retrospective coherency.

Does this mean that Marc Bloch was wrong to take “the feudal society” seriously enough to investigate its workings in five hundred pages of small print? I’ll see, won’t I. Meanwhile, I was struck by something that Bloch points out on page 75 of the Chicago paperback. Alone in Europe, England governed itself in its own language, Anglo-Saxon or Old English. It is true that this came to an end with the Conquest, after which everything was in Latin for a while; what Bloch neglects to mention is that Latin, the official language on the Continent until well into the Renaissance, did not take hold in England for very long. A hundred years after the Conquest, a good deal of legal business was being done in Norman French. Consider the names of two of Henry II’s most notable possessory writs (real-estate claims), Mortdancestor and Novel Disseisin. Two centuries later, “law French” was firmly established as the language of English courts. I’ve never been able to figure out quite when it was abandoned, but I suspect that the use of law French (aside from references, quips, and quotes) did not survive the tumult of the Wars of the Roses. I have always loved the transitional judgment, concerning the law of nuisance (of all things): “Le noisomeness de le stench est plus que l’utilite de la use.”

Norman French transformed Anglo Saxon from a harsh Teutonic dialect into something vastly more sophisticated, a language, in my view, without a counterpart anywhere else. The French is not a dressing; it goes much deeper than that. It pervades English so extensively that there are rhythmic safeguards that prevent its taking over. In Chaucer, you can still see the French bits, which stick out plentifully. By Shakespeare’s time, French elements are so naturalized that many of them don’t seem foreign even to us, reading centuries later. We have two words in English for many ordinary things, and a great part of any writer’s style is his or her peculiar weave of Teutonic and Latinate words and phrases. English remains a Teutonic language, but only because it isn’t anything else; to describe its difference from other European languages, I should borrow an image from geology and call it metamorphic rather than sedimentary.

Geography is destiny: England owes its peculiarities to its isola-tion. Its language and its institutions have evolved without serious interruption for nearly a thousand years. This cannot be said of any other European country. At the very least, almost all the nations of the Continent were overhauled by Napoleon’s conquests; no matter how reactionary the government of any country might be thereafter, its leaders were afflicted by the need to reform and to streamline. The threat of revolution was always at hand, and often realized. England reformed, too, of course, but never dramatically. In 1832, the franchise was extended, and Parliamentary seats were more genuinely representative of populations; further reforms continued this trend. But Parliament remained Parliament, and the Prime Minister continued to be the head of the leading Parliamentary party. Nobody tinkered with the idea of installing a popularly-elected president. Nobody has. In the 1920s, the legal system was overhauled, but in a backstage manner; the leading players in a trial still wear wigs. England has a knack for changing the foundations while leaving appearances intact; on the Continent, it is just the other way round.

From these cloudy ruminations I draw an explanation for a curious phenomenon: the English are much better at narrative history than anybody else, and English history has a wider, general readership. It is not entirely a scholarly enterprise, and it is not aimed altogether at students. Why? Because English history is so pleasingly continuous, or at least it seemed to be in the Nineteenth Century, when modern traditions of writing history were germinated. It is only recently, with the depressive “realization” that Britain is no longer a superpower, and not a genuine partner of the United States in some “special relationship,” that the glum view of John Le Carré has taken hold. I don’t mean to complain, or to advocate waving flags, but only to say that English historiography was born in a climate of extreme self-satisfaction. Since the overarching story was so magnificent — a monarchy that knew how to relinquish control (as if), an empire upon which the sun never set (and whose books might be regarded as having been cooked by said sun), and a political system that was as free and open to all as Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club — there could be no harm in chuckling now and then at the nation’s dependence on muddling through. Indeed, the moral of English history seems to be, Whatever you do, don’t use your head. Just tell us what really happened.

After all, everything transitory is only an allegory. <?>


While Huxley resorts to German, his admirer Sybille Bedford turns to French. Understandably: she spent most of her young life (if not her childhood) in France. Specifically, however, she turns to Racine, to a line from Phèdre to be precise. I have a distinct recollection of her doing so in Jigsaw but did not make a note of it. In The Faces of Justice, it occurs on page 157 of the Quid Pro edition. This is the beginning of a short but intriguing chapter about the daughter of a great French industrial fortune, a woman denied her inheritance by her brothers because she has neither married nor remained at home (“feudal society” still at work, circa 1960). This lady, whom Bedford calls Mlle Z, has come to Switzerland to try to recoup some bonds held there in her late father’s account. Bedford adapts Racine to describe this would-be heiress as “la province française entière à son but attachée.” I won’t translate this, because I’d just have to translate the translation, but the inspiration for the quip is Phèdre’s statement of the fatal nature of her attachment to Hyppolite.

Ce n’est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée:
C’est Vénus tout entière à sa proie attachée.
(I, iii)

The image of Venus as a raptor, gripping her prey (Phèdre), is something that I have not encountered anywhere else in art — which may be proof that I don’t get around enough. Without being graphic, the line conjures flesh punctured by talons: it’s all in the sytax, which puts the prey before the “attachment.” Bedford’s borrowed plumes don’t quite sit atop Mlle Z’s head, however; far from French Provincial, Mlle Z appears to be somewhat bohemian. What seems to fuel the jest is Mlle Z’s inability to afford Parisian chic.


I am in the middle of watching a Nederlander film, Oorlogsgeheimen (Secrets of War, 2014). I picked it up at the Video Room the other day, thinking that it might be good to listen to some Nederlands. Actually, I am near the climax of the film. I had to turn it off last night, because Kathleen was still out, having dinner with a client, and I hadn’t heard from her. I was very worked up. Imagine a Mark Twain boy’s-own-adventure story, but with Nazis. Nazis rounding people up and putting them in cattle cars — that sort of thing. The movie is set in a Catholic village near Maastricht. Two boys, Lambert and Tuur, are best friends. But Lambert’s father is a collaborator, and Tuur’s father is in the Resistance. Tuur has a demented old auntie who speaks her incontinent mind, which is not full of warm thoughts about “Krauts.” Tuur himself has trouble keeping his voice down. He’s somewhere between ten and twelve, I’d say, and the War is very exciting for him. He likes having to run to the bomb shelter — he actually smiles when the ground shakes. That’s at the beginning of the film. One day, a new girl is introduced to the class, and unless your brain is a turnip you see at once that she is Jewish. Inevitably, she sets up a rivalry between the two friends, and at the moment when I had to stop watching, it seemed that Lambert’s jealousy might well bring ruin and worse to the girl and to Tuur and his family. I shall find out presently. The movie is exciting because it keeps the tempo of boy’s life, with slack longueurs punctuated by attacks of frenzy. It is very clear to the adult viewer that Tuur has no idea how dangerous the Nazi officers really are; his parents have tried to protect him from their terror. To no avail, of course. The comic-book pace of the action is horribly ironic: this is no action story.

Bon week-end à tous!