Archive for the ‘Reading Note’ Category

Gotham Diary:
“It would be a privilege to live here.”
8 February 2012

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

Here is a quick example of Edward St Aubyn’s magnificent prose style.

As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions.

As a piece of English-language architecture, it’s as magnifcent as any country house (a house in town would be more severely punctuated, with quotes around the expressions and a colon after “sorry”), but it is also a clarion call for attentive decency (our favorite subject). Emily Price is a lout, which is unusual in a woman and therefore remarkable. With a man as its subject, the statement wouldn’t be as funny — but the surge wouldn’t be as extreme, either.

It’s his decency that redeems Patrick Melrose, that makes his miserable lapses into drug and drink abuse easy to overlook, at least when Patrick is not actually falling down or, more likely, lighting the fuse on a highly volatile situation. It’s his decency that makes him an interesting man, and not just the victim of beastly parents. (You’d think that his father, what with raping him for three years, would win the worst-parent laurels, but his mother’s incompetence as a human being makes his father’s wickedness seem ornamental.)

I spent an hour or so yesterday reading up on St Aubyn, who indeed, as one feared from various reviews, has drawn the Melrose saga from his own personal history. I managed to order copies of the two novels that he wrote in between Some Hope and Mother’s Milk; by the time they arrive, I’ll have finished At Last, which is, currently at least, the final Melrose novel. I wouldn’t be so sure. St Aubyn thought that he was through with Melrose after Some Hope; indeed, that’s the title given to an omnibus edition of the three Melrose novels that St Aubyn wrote before writing On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit, his two non-Melrose books. He wrote Mother’s Milk about a man called Mark something, but eventually realized that he was simplty continuing Patrick’s story. (He has a funny story to tell about what happened when he instructed his word processor to make the global change in names; a moment’s thought — aided by rueful experience — will probably tell it to you.) Now we have At Last, which begins (and, for all I know, ends) with Patrick’s mother’s funeral.

The Melrose novels may be the world’s longest suicide note, as well as (so far) an unsuccessful one. They constitute a letter written by a man who intends to take his own life, but who falls under the spell of his own writing. Not that you should imagine an attractive enchantment; one interviewer elicited from St Aubyn the confession that he wrote most of the first three books bare-chested, with a towel around his waist to soak up the sweat that poured out of him as he confessed his ghastly family secrets. (I don’t think that I could write very well under such conditions, but there you are — I’m no artist.) St Aubyn did indeed want to kill himself, and try to kill himself, but was saved by a rapture with the myth of Sisyphus. (Camus’s tract is mentioned early on in Bad News.) He would deal with the only serious philosophical problem (whether to commit suicide) as a novelist, doing the two things that the best novelists do so well that it’s hard to tell them apart: animating vivid characters with assiduous writing. Stories are all very well, but they can’t be allowed to upstage or trip up the quadrille of personages and prose, and St Aubyn has a wonderfully ironic way of not telling stories by hoovering them into backflashes. (The bit about Emily Price, above, comes from such a passage; Mary Melrose, sitting in the crematorium, is remembering a disastrous vacation in Provence.)  

I can sit here all day writing about these books — if I didn’t have a lunch date, that is — but it’s no use: writing about suicide notes is hardly going to fill up the tent. The only thing to do is to quote. From page 6 of the first novel, Never Mind.

When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks. The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face.

 I really do believe that Jane Austen and Edward St Aubyn are in a class by themselves.

Update: “surge in THE demand”; corrected, after a painful Google search, on 16 February.

Gotham Diary:
3 February 2012

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

It’s wintry cold outside again today, but on Wednesday we had our first taste of spring. I was too old and experienced to take it seriously; I knew that it wouldn’t — and shouldn’t — last. But I wasn’t too old to be quickened. The coming of spring occasions so much bosh that I’m almost as frozen as today’s air by the determination not to spout nonsense, but it really did feel, walking my Wednesday rounds, as if I was appreciably more alive that I’d been. I suppose the balmy afternoon was simply reminding me that this would be true anyway: this week, I finally felt that I had emerged, once and for all, from the mineshaft of grief and rhinovirus in which I’d been immured since November.

Exultation didn’t last. Yesterday, there came a dreadful phone call from the bank. I referred the clerk to Kathleen at the office; Kathleen is our banker. I tried to get hold of her myself, but couldn’t; it was lunchtime, and no one answered. For nearly two hours, I simmered in a miserable anxiety that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Then came the call from Kathleen, back from lunch. She had sorted the whole business out in two strokes when she received the redirected call and then gone off to lunch. Unaware that the call was redirected — that I knew anything about what did indeed turn out to be 100% clerical error — she never thought to call me beforehand to say that all was well.

I was still pretty rattled at bedtime. You may be asking if Kathleen possesses a mobile phone. The answer is, Sometimes.

To beguile myself during this agony, I turned to a book, to a series of novels in fact, that I’ve been avoiding since I first heard about it a decade or so ago. Every few years, I would read an enthusiastic review of the latest installment in Edward St Aubyn’s sequence of novels about Patrick Melrose, who it seemed was an even more alter-egoish creation than most. I would read that St Aubyn is darkly funny but also just plain dark about his not-so-fictional world of rude and dissolute epigones of the English aristocracy. No reviewer failed to mention child- and drug-abuse. Not for me, I would think, and another few years would go around before the excitement would bubble up again in the otherwise quiet patch of literary life that’s devoted to beautiful English prose.

For some reason, I imagined the writer to be a weedy neurasthenic, a small and petulant person. Perhaps it was the author photograph that ran with the latest round of reviews — the fifth and final novel, At Last, has just been published, and the previous four have been bound up into a convenient omnibus — that changed my mind about these books. I think that the real Edward St Aubyn looks something like Orson Welles, and I’ve found that he writes with something like Welles’s heroic gusto. There is a wealth of polished detail, but no small-mindedness. Opening the book at random, I come upon this passage from Never Mind, the first of the Melrose books. Eleanor is Patrick’s disorganized and deeply unhappy mother, her mind drifting from her own dinner party.

Eleanor thought about her stepfather barking at her mother across the wastes of English silver, French furniture, and Chinese vases that helped to prevent him from becoming physically violent. This dwarfish and impotent French duke had dedicated his life to the idea that civilization had died in 1789. He nevertheless accepted a ten per cent cut from the dealers who sold pre-revolutionary antiques to his wife. He had forced Mary to seell her mother’s Monets and Bonnards on the ground that they were examples of a decadent art that would never really matter. To him, Mary was the least valuable object in the fastidious museums they inhabited, and when eventually he bullied her to death he felt that he had eliminated the last trace of modernity from his life, except, of course, for the enormous income that now came to him from the sales of a dry-cleaning fluid made in Ohio.

It’s almost as though Hemingway had taken up Waugh. Unthinkable, but there it is. Never Mind goes on in this breezy but infernal way right up to the end. By that point, I’d been put out of my ninety minutes of misery, but I was well-primed to flinch and quail at the frightening scenes of substance abuse that take up most of the first half (anyway) of Bad News, the second volume.

He was so tired, he really must get some sleep. Get some sleep. Fold his wings. But what if George and the others sent somebody to look and they found the sick-spattered basin and hammered on the door of the cubicle. Was there no peace, no resting place? Of course there wasn’t. What an absurd question. 

Gotham Diary:
Greene and Pleasant Land
1 February 2012

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

If I were younger, I’d let myself be annoyed by Pico Iyer’s stab at memoir, The Man Within My Head. But I’m older, and it is no longer necessary to couple a lack of sympathy with a show of impatience. I picked up the book because I wanted to know who Pico Iyer is. I’ve been reading his pieces in the NYRB for ages, and I’ve wondered about his name and where he comes from. I didn’t recognize “Iyer” as the Tamil Brahmin surname that it apparently is. Now I know. As to how somebody of such lineage came to be named after a Florentine humanist, that’s an unusual story but it is plausible enough. (Anyway, his real first name is “Siddhartha,” no?) Pinning down Iyer’s roots seemed all the more important to me as his topics were far-flung, a globe-trotter’s in fact. What I didn’t know, until I was well into The Man Within My Head, is that the author worked for a decade or so, in exalted positions, at Time Magazine. When I learned that, the lack of sympathy that I’d been feeling as one well-written page followed another became perfectly explicable.

I can’t say much about Time; only that, like New York and, lately, The Economist, it was a publication that I wouldn’t allow in the house. New York is openly trivial, but, like The Economist, Time is a magazine in which good writing is deployed with the aim of preventing the reader from doing any real thinking.

You could say that he gained from school not just his schoolboy’s sense of adventure, his love of mischief, his uncertainty about what to do with the most foreign country of all (the other sex), but his almost superstitious revulsion from success.

I would argue that this sentence, in which “he” is Graham Greene, the eponymous man within Iyer’s head — or at least one of them, the other, possibly, being his father (he waits forever to raise this question) — is the key to the book. To write of women as “the most foreign country of all” is almost as clever as it is thoughtless. The summing up of the things that Greene learned in school reminds me of that notorious remark of John Ashbery (in a conversation with Kenneth Koch):

I am assuming that from the moment that life cannot be one continual orgasm, real happiness is impossible and pleasant surprise is promoted to the front rank of the emotions.

It seems that some people are simply wired that way — how sorry one is for them. Not that Iyer is at all like Graham Greene. He appears to have led a level, satisfying interior life with lots of exterior excitement. He writes of Greene as perpetually escaping the past; Iyer is always looking for new possibilities. His restlessness is the consequence of rootlessness — it’s the kind of freedom that Marilynne Robinson has in mind when she talks about the advantages of being a “deracinated” Westerner.

That’s what would be annoying about The Man Within My Head, if I were immature enough to let annoyance cloud the real pleasure that I took in Pico Iyer’s exotic but wholesome company (a pleasure dependent upon my invisibility as his reader). Iyer is bewitched, if only to a manageable degree, by “Graham Greene.” A writer and a man who, despite many personal failings, seemed to strike everyone who knew him as remarkable. Iyer, who grew up — well, that’s just it: he grew up flying back and forth between Oxford and Santa Barbara. When he was nine years old, and newly transplanted to California, he not only got homesick for England but figured out in currency-exchange calculations that it would be cheaper for him to return to his prep school and fly home for vacations than to pack his lunchbox every day for the American public school. Whether his parents proved these numbers to their own satisfaction, they acceded to his request, and Iyer became one super-cool kid, always and everywhere an ambassador from a highly intriguing elsewhere. (After all, he could have shuttled between Tulsa and Athens, say — two places with little curiosity about the other.)

In short: if Graham Greene had taken up residence inside Pico Iyer’s head, then he must have found there the peace that he sought in vain throughout his life. I suspect that what inspired Iyer to write this book was the allure of borrowing a measure of Greene’s troubles, with a view to complicating his own worldliness. But the graft doesn’t take, and, despite the intensity of his engagement with The Quiet American, which he can appreciate deeply from both sides, Fowler’s and Pyle’s, Iyer cannot contain Greene, much less house him in his head. It would have been much better to approach Greene’s as the life that Iyer was, through luck and constitution, spared.

All right: here’s what’s unpardonably annoying about The Man Within My Head: the refusal to name “Eton College,” at least until the very end of the book, when we see that Iyer has saved it up for a joke — he has been holding it back so that it can be mentioned for the first time by the Bishop of Potosí, of all people, in the most unlikely circumstances. The joke is not very funny, and it does not dispel the annoyance piled up by a string of references — our distant patron Henry VI; the book that Cyril Connolly wrote about our school; between Slough and Windsor; New Buildings/oldest classroom in the world; eighteen prime ministers and the nineteenth taking office as I write — that act as shibboleths, designed to distinguish the sophisticated from the parochial. It seems almost rude. I was never for a moment mystified; I saw through each hint as it appeared. But I drew no satisfaction from this knowingness; quite the reverse. I was embarrassed; I felt like a know-it-all.

Grahame Greene, of course, did not attend Eton. His father was housemaster and eventually headmaster at Berkhamsted School, in an outer suburb of London. Greene took a second-class degree in history from Balliol and then jumped into journalism, from which the success of his fourth novel, Stamboul Train, delivered him for life. He married and had two children but did not live with his family. He had amazingly clear eyes. If you’re interested in his elusive charm, captured by a great writer who spent time with him over many years, by all means seek out Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri, a book that I think it’s slightly churlish of Pico Iyer not to mention.

Gotham Diary:
8 December 2011

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Directly beneath the photo and squib about Tom Perrotta, on the back of the box containing the 8 CDs of the audiobook edition of The Leftovers, it says, clearly and distinctly: Read by Dennis Boutsikaris. But I managed to miss this notice in my sudden eagerness to hear the author read his latest novel. I didn’t buy The Leftovers when it came out, even though I’m something of a Perrotta fan — that “something” is precisely what I’m trying to put my finger on” —because it’s about the aftermath of a Rapture=like event called the Sudden Departure. Oh, dear no; I didn’t want to read about that. But it was easy to persuade myself, in the hunt for a satisfying audio experience, that I’d enjoy the book if Tom Perrotta read it to me. When I found out that that wasn’t going to happen — I was walking out the door on my way to Saturday night’s Orpheus concert when the discovery was made, and it was too late to fiddle with alternative entertainment — I was bitterly disappointed. Mr Boutsikaris is, apparently, a veteran reader of audiobooks who sounds a little bit like Dennis Farina, if not quite so Midwestern. I am not going to enjoy listening to him read The Leftovers. But I will make the best of it; the $39.95 (gasp) purchase price will not have been a total loss.

You wouldn’t think that Tom Perrotta’s novels would be my cup of tea. The author’s being an American male, for example. I don’t read novels by American males, almost, I could say, as a rule. Brian Morton is an exception that comes swiftly to mind, as of course does Jonathan Franzen. The run of prestigious American male novelists makes me feel like Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Rachel Maddow all rolled into one: when is this kid’s mother coming to pick him up? The American male novelist generally assumes that (each) the story of a man who finds himself while rejecting or transcending everyday society is an interesting and useful story to tell. It is not, particularly as what the man usually finds out about himself is that sex is a gyp. American male novelists have little or no conception of the leading role that social life has in the formation of character. That’s probably why I make an exception for Tom Perrotta. Tom Perrotta has a complete conception of this fact of human nature.

But then, there’s his suburban subject matter. “Suburban” seems unduly marginalizing, because what Perrotta writes about is where most halfway comfortable people live, but I’m still very glad that I don’t live there. Perrotta doesn’t make it “interesting”; on the contrary, he seems determined, in the course of his career as a novelist, to get as close as he can to the default settings of American life. This is not to say that he wants to write about absolutely average, mediocre people. No, he’s writing about America, after all, and that means capturing the American Dream. What’s it like to live the American Dream, at least in its vernacular versions. What’s it like to be trying to live the American Dream? Ask me if I care.

Tom Perrotta seems to know — he seems reluctant, personally, to know what his work has taught him — that the American Dream is indeed a dream, something for sleepy-time. It is not an idea of being awake. It is not a plan for making the world a better place. On the contrary, it is a profoundly anti-social goal, and that’s what makes Perrotta a powerful writer — his knowing this. I think of Tom Perrotta as a man of George Carlin’s fierce intelligence but also of a Franciscan monk’s piety, respect for the world as it is. He neither rants nor preaches, but he limns good, decent people who have been sold a bill of goods.

He always makes me wonder what I’ve got to offer that’s any better.

Gotham Diary:
Expense and Enjoyment
28 November 2011

Monday, November 28th, 2011

When I saw that the editors of the Book Review had assigned John Lewis Gaddis’s new biography to Henry Kissinger for review, my brow furrowed. I don’t know much of anything about the personal politics of American diplomacy, but I have never thought that Kennan would approve (or even begin to approve) of Dr Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik. Indeed, when I read one of Kennan’s last statements, published in an interview in the New York Review of Books, in 1999 —

This whole tendency to see ourselves [Americans] as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable.

— I thought, not of Henry Kissinger certainly, but of his political masters and the pitch that they made to the American public. Dr Kissinger worked tirelessly (in the time remaining after self-promotion, it always seemed to me) to calculate ways of making America’s narcisissm practicable, and probably did a better job of it than anyone else might have done. But Kennan would have dismissed the entire undertaking as, ultimately, undesirable.

The Kissinger review was predictably suave, friendly and forgiving. What was there to forgive? “Kennan blighted his career in government through a tendency to recoil from the implications of his views.” So says Henry Kissinger. Of the book itself:

We can be grateful to John Lewis Gaddis for bringing Kennan back to us, throughtful, human, self-centered, contradictory, inspirational — a permanent spur as consciences are wont to be. Masterfully researched, exhaustively documented, Gaddis’s moving work gives us a figure with whom, however one might differ on details, it was a privilege to be a contemporary.

The fix was in. The first review of Gaddis’s book that I encountered was Louis Menand’s, in The New Yorker.

The one puzzle in John Lewis Gaddis’s first-rate biography of the diplomat George Kennan, which Gaddis began in 1982, when his subject was seventy-eight, and waited nearly thirty years to complete, since Kennan lived to be a hundred and one, is the subtitle. The book is called George F. Kennan: An American Life (Penguin; $39.95), and the most peculiar thing about Kennan, a man not short on peculiarities, is that he had little love for, or even curiosity about, the country whose fortunes he devoted his life to safeguarding.

That’s a way of looking at what Kennan himself said, quoted above, but looked at from the outside. Kennan was not interested in the cultural life of the United States; to some extent, he doubted that it had one. He was always more captivated by what used to be called the “Russian soul,” and he was a passionate advocate of the proposition that the Russians would eventually have done with Communist foolishness and Stalinist barbarity. This was, indeed, the wellspring of his notion of containment. Left to themselves — unprovoked by foreign aggression, military or otherwise — and kept to themselves — encircled by firm Western alliances, the inhabitants of the Soviet Union would sooner or later, but inevitably, replace it with something more humane and workable. As in fact they did.

In a very provocative and somewhat chilling piece in the current issue of the NYRB, Frank Costigliola, the editor of Kennan’s massive diaries, challenges the “authorized” claim of Gaddis’s work. There is no doubt that Kennan authorized the project. But his diraries, over the two decades and more that followed the green light, evidence a growing pessimism about the outcome.

By 2000, Kennan, now ninety-six years old, despaired in his diary that Gaddis “had no idea of what was really at stake” in the “long battle I was waging … against the almost total militarization of Western policy toward Russia.” Looking back at the nuclear holocaust narrowely averted during the Cuban missile crisis and the Berlin crisis of 1958 to 1961, and at the costly proxy wars waged in Vietnam and elsewhere, he believed that “had my efforts been successful,” they “could have obviated vast expense, dangers, and distortions of outlook of the ensuing Cold War.”

Gaddis, Costigliola charges,

sides largely with Kennan’s critics, such as former secretary of state Dean Acheson, in the heated debate over Kennan’s advocacy in 1957-1958 for US “disengagement” from the cold war in Europe.

What kind of a life — what kind of an authorized autobiography — is that? Well, it is the kind of life that will “save” Kennan for the American cause. Gaddis (and Henry Kissinger) praise the parts of Kennan’s thought that suit their understanding of the Cold War — in retrospect, a fatuous exercise of military expense and enjoyment (to borrow from Jane Austen; in Mansfield Park, she describes the heir, Tom Bertram, as “born for expense and enjoyment,” keenly nailing enjoyment to expense) — and they rap him on the knuckles for the rest, asking us to believe that Kennan was “inconsistent.” But the importance of George Kennan, for the people of the world, is precisely that he was a greater statesman than American; he knew which was more important. Costigliola writes,

Though he captures much of the man’s complexity, Gaddis’s depiction of Kennan is ultimately clipped and flattened. Perhaps the problem is trying to frame with “an American life,” as the subtitle has it, the  biography of someone who mused that even his friends did “not know the depth of my estrangement, the depth of my repugnance of the things [the American public] lives by.” As compared to the portrait in the biography, the personality revealed in Kennan’s diaries and letters — even the figure who emerges in the transcripts of Gaddis’s interviews — was more irreverent as a collegian, more deeply identified with Russian culture as a fledgling diplomat, more ambivalent about his marriage, more alienated from American life, more inclined to conceealment, and more tortured by the limitations of old age. The Kennan of the letters and the diaries is far less conventional and more complex and elusive than the person we encounter in Gaddis’s biography.

George F Kennan: An American Straitjacket. Let’s hope that John Lewis Gaddis’s attempt to bury his subjecct in it will not succeed.

Gotham Diary:
25 November 2011

Friday, November 25th, 2011

What was I thinking, bringing Madame Bovary on vacation? When I finished Part II, yesterday afternoon, I felt a chill that I haven’t yet been able to shake off. (I had forgotten all about Hippolyte’s club foot, and never before seen through the pharmacist Homais’s diabolical proposal that Charles attempt a “cure.”) I’m finding it impossible to laugh at Emma Bovary, for all her faults — impossible to keep her at a comic distance. The absence of any “good” characters is what reders the limitations of Flaubert’s figures so queasily all-too-human.

It is possible that the ebook experience is making Dangerous Ambition seem to be a worse book than it really is, and I’d rather not talk about it. All I can think of is bluestockings on fainting couches, wondering if “he’s the one” or if “life can go on,” or just “taffeta draperies!” The literary achievements of Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson are cursorily name-checked, explored only for evidence of states of mind customarily found in Harlequin romances. It’s hard to know which of Susan Hertog’s subjects would have hated the book more; then again, I’m not sure that either of them would have disapproved. Other times, other attitudes toward purple.

When the weather finally turned warmer, Rebecca carried her typewriter onto the broad balcony overlooking the communal garden. Moving in accord with the rhythms of nature, inspired by the push of slender shoots through the thawing soil, she worked like a demon to complete her work.

If you ask me, it’s a book written for Emma Bovary.


At the other end of the scale, there’s this — just let your eyes run over it, without trying to make any sense of it.

The centrality of judgment to aesthetic experience remains controversial. For Kant, Clement Greenberg, and others, it seems like there can be no such thing as an aesthetic experience without judgment, while Nietzsche and others suggest the contrary. I think the former camp is ultimately right on this, which is why I treat aesthetic categories as both discursive evaluations (“cute” as something we say, a very particular way of communicating a very particular kind of pleasure) and as objective styles (cuteness as a commodity aesthetic, as a sensuous/formal quality of objects), and try to pay close attention to the relation between them. At the same time, I don’t agree that aesthetic experience/judgment is necessarily synonymous with conviction. Or reverence, or idealization.

That’s Stanford English Professor Sianne Ngai, talking about “cute,” “zany,” and “interesting” — three “non-cathartic feelings that index situations of suspended agency.” The link at Brainiac looked promising, so I clicked through, only to land in a thicket of Theory. I have long since regarded the relationship between Kant and a certain type of intellectual disposition as analogous to that between alcohol and Native Americans; reading Ngai, I wonder if Theory isn’t the intellectual equivalent of a sexual preference, inexplicable (and possibly disgusting) to anyone otherwise orientated. At the same time, it’s a fashion for wordplay that comes and goes; in the middle ages, there was Scholasticism, a similarly ludic enterprise. When I was a child, I was entranced by the glamour of systems. (One of these days, I’ve got to see what I can recall of the Bureaucracy of Me — that’s what I’d call it now — that I spent hours devising as a teenager, in lieu of undergoing a normal puberty.) Then I realized that systems are attractive to people who have nothing left to learn. At the risk of sounding ad hominem, I remind you that Kant died insane, Nietzsche was crackers long before he died, and Greenberg was a thug. These guys are going to tell me something about the pleasure of beauty? What could anyone who never left the fine old town of Königsberg know about beauty? Only what he made up in his own head, is what. Thanks, but no thanks.

If you really want to learn something about what people mean when they call something cute, then devise a cognitive test or two. Or drag in a scanner and see what fMRI has to say. Do those parts of the brain that light up when presented with sadistic urges also fire, as Ngai suggests they will, at the sound of “cute”? Let’s not diddle in our armchairs about power and agency; let’s have a look, or at any rate the best look that we can have at the moment. Ngai’s system assumes as a matter of course that everyone is capable of making the same discursive evaluation expressive of a very particular kind of pleasure, an assumption that, to me, is utter nonsense.

(Notwithstanding my Google Reader, by the way, the Globe appears to have dumped the “Brainiac” moniker, which is a shame.)

Gotham Diary:
And Westward Flows the Thames
23 November 2011

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

From Susan Hertog’s Dangerous Ambition, a dual biography of Rebecca West (née Cicely Fairfield, it turns out) and Dorothy Thompson:

The family took pleasure in ascending the terrace overlooking the valley above the Thames, which flowed westward toward Windsor.

(The terrace is in Richmond.) At other points in the same chapter, two buildings, one of them a “stately home,” are decribed as “Georgian colonial.” Neither of these points, the flow of the Thames or the architectural style of Uppark, is really integral to the telling of Hertog’s braided tales. That’s precisely why the editorial staff at Ballantine ought to have done its job, if there is an editorial staff at Ballantine. It is very hard for me to imagine how any educated man or woman could be capable of covering the lives of foreign correspondents such as West and Thompson intelligenttly without knowing, in the way that one knows that the sun rises in the east, which way the Thames flows. As for “Georgian colonial,” the term betrays a firghtful provinciality as well as a lack of interest in architecture. Note to Ballantine: The Thames flows east, from the direction of Windsor, and there are no “Georgian colonials” in England.

Other than that, the book is breezily readable.

Gotham Diary:
Signature Malfunction
21 November 2011

Monday, November 21st, 2011

What an unpleasant surprise: there I was, reading along in Jeremy Black’s George III: America’s Last King, only to find that page 48 was followed by page 81. So, I discovered upon inspection, was page 112 — the first page 112. There I was, right in the middle of George III’s (apparently shambolic) coronation, when suddenly it became 1765, and Rockingham has just come upon the scene. I had no choice but to put the book down. Most of the political drama of the reign occurs on those missing pages! And George III was going to be my big read on this trip, my one-book-that-would-take-the-entire-vacation-to-get-through. Piffle!

So much for “the book will always be there.” As there is no ebook edition of Professor Black’s tome, I’ve downloaded John Lewis Gaddis’s biography of George Kennan onto the iPad, and Susan Hartog’s Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson onto the smartphone. These are books that I very nearly bought in paper, as I’m sure I shall do if either one of them is any good. I’ve admired Kennan all my life — a short book of his, the title of which I forget, appeared on a summer reading list at a very early age; and I’ve been curious about Thompson ever since reading Ethan Mordden’s The Guest List, which I did a year ago, in the very room I’m writing in now, come to think of it.


The book that I read on the flight down was Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. It’s a disgrace that I hadn’t read this book before, when it came out, about a hundred years ago (2010), but I got to it at last, and I don’t know when I’ve laughed so hard at 28,000 feet. From now on, I am going to read everything that Batuman publishes as it appears, no matter what I’m in the middle of. What’s most striking — and this says a lot more about literary convention c 2000 CE than it does about Batuman — is her candor about how come she’s so smart: she’s done a lot of hard work. She has gone to good schools, yes; but having put learning, not fun, at the center of her life, she has acquired a great deal of it, some of it from “adventures,” but most of it from books. That’s the other thing that’s striking, almost shocking, about Batuman: her claim that you can learn a lot from reading books! What a concept!

Regular readers will be aware of my low opinion of American education, higher and otherwise; The Possessed is something of an antidote. Take those “adventures.” It is very sporting of Batuman to apprise the reader of the grants that she put together in order to spend time in Moscow, Petersburg, Samarkand, Tashkent, and elsewhere. In the hands of almost any other writer I can think of, these travels would be passed off as escapades, rip-offs of the system, occasions for drinking and whoring, with any actual learning swept to the sidelines, no matter how much of it there might have been. The point would have been to entertain the reader with naughty extracurricular frolics and odes to shirking reading lists, because who on earth would want to read about the somewhat dreary and very strange “classes” that Batuman took in Uzbek literature?

Maybe — awful thought — it’s that Batuman is a girl, and girls can be serious about these things. That may indeed what we have come to. If so, at least Batuman is there to save us, to remind us that scholarship is not the exclusive preserve of deluded Casaubons.


After breakfast this morning, I wrote to my friend Eric:  At the bookshop the other day, I picked up yet another nyrb reprint that I’d never heard of before. As it happens, I’m reading Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary, now out in paper, and the last time that I read the novel it was in Francis Steegmuller’s translation, so Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait, which Steegmuller published in 1939, was clearly something that I ought to look into. There are three parts, the outer ones by Steegmuller, with ample extracts from Flaubert’s correspondence. They’re called “Romanticism” and “Realism,” respectively. In between: “The Purge,” which is nothing but a selection of extracts from Flaubert’s letters to his mother and to his friend Louis Bouilhet, and from Flaubert’s travel notes, as well as bits from Maxime Du Camp’s “literary souvenirs” of the two friends’ trip to the Middle East in 1850. Many of the extracts are quite racy; there is even a rather voluptuous account of some male belly dancers (so to speak) in Cairo. In 1939, the book must have seem ultra-sophisticated, if easy to read. If you have not encountered this material before (especially Flaubert’s notes), I urge you to do so. I think that you will be greatly amused — which is to say, entertained and edified all at once. Never has “orientalism” looked so charmingly naive, or naively charming, on the page. 

According to Mohammedan law, full and complete ablution is indispensable following certain bodily acts. When a husband leaves the women’s apartments, for example he must entirely submerge himself — in a pool, in a river, anywhere, so long as his head is momentarily under water. When he emerges, he raises his hands to heaven and says: “O Lord, I render thee thanks for the joys thou hast given me, and I pray thee to lead in holy ways the child dthat may be born, O my God, make me blind in the presence of unlawlful women!”

 Very often, standing on my boat at daybreak, I have seen fellahin run to the Nile, strip off their clothing, and plunge into the river. At such moments my sailors would laugh and call out to the bathers pleasantries which were, to put it mildly, indelicate.

That’s Du Camp, not Flaubert; Flaubert would not have shaped the anecdote so carefully.

Looking over this letter, I think that I would change the last word to “judiciously.” Du Camp’s account has a tidy, after-dinner character that makes me smile, reminding me, now that I think of it, of a funny note that Steegmuller extracts from Flaubert’s letter to Bouilhet of 5 June 1850 (you have to know that Pierre Corneille, the great playwright of the Seventeenth Century, is Rouen’s most celebrated son):

Tomorrow is the sixth — the birthday of Corneille! What a session at the Rouen Academy! What speeches! The fine costume of those gentlemen: white ties, pomp, sound traditions! A brief report on agriculture!



I’ve just had a note from Amazon. Another copy of George III is on the way, at no charge. No need to send back the defective copy. Which means that I’ve got to throw it away! Yes, throw a book away! I don’t think that I’ve ever done that. But I can’t see leaving the book lying around, either, to trap the unwary. I may just abandon it in the hotel room, with a small note tucked inside. The housemaids will decide….

Gotham Diary:
18 November 2011

Friday, November 18th, 2011

Here’s a view that changes only if I frame it differently.

Kathleen was so worn out by wondering if she’d get me here in one piece that we left a piece of luggage at the airport yesterday; retrieving it has not been an easy business, so far. It wasn’t that I was particularly difficult in transit, but rather the possibility that at any moment I might just melt down. On the flight from Miami to St Croix, which was a lot smoother than the flight from New York, Kathleen even played Sheherazade, quizzing me about the career of, of all people, Joan Crawford.

I’m puzzling over the remains of the past couple of days with forensic interest. We have the corpus delecti right here, in the entries that I wrote (and in a few letters as well). In some ways, my bitching and moaning about having to leave home, board a plane, disrupt my routines were same old same old. But it turned out that many aspects of the crisis were new, in positive ways.

Most noticeably, the crisis was extremely compressed. It was a matter of two and a half days. Until Monday morning, I simply blocked my anxiety center’s access to the coming trip. It had plenty of other things to worry about, and I concentrated on those. (And how did I manage that, for the first time ever? It occurs to me that, just as my arthritis and most of my other complaints are the result of my immune system’s not having enough in the way of genuine pathogens to fight, so my grandson is a magnificent magnet for all my free-floating anxiety, whenever he is not actually present. [And I believe that my anxiousness, like my immune system, must have been hard-wired by the time I went to school.])

Second, and even more interestingly, the more rational parts of my brain, if I may speak in what seems like such an antiquated way, were preparing for the trip in very sensible ways. I knew that on Monday, I would go to the storage unit to pick up my lightweight shirts. On Tuesday, I would get a haircut. On Wednesday, I would go to Crawford Doyle in search of fresh reading matter for the trip. (Also: when we came home from Fire Island, I put all of those adapters and cables and thingummies that you need when you travel in one drawer, knowing that I’d be needing them in nine weeks.)

The result of these two developments was that the shock of packing, once I acknowledged that it was time to get ready to go, devastated me on Monday, but that was all right, because, even if I felt terrible, I had set up a plan and didn’t have to think about what to do. I was miserable, almost seasick, for two days, but you wouldn’t have known it from my preparations. By the time I climbed into the car to go to LaGuardia, everything was in order, and I was at least completely neutral about what was going on.

The third thing that was new was the manner in which I got over my dread of taking a vacation. At Crawford Doyle, I bought Diane Keaton’s memoir, Then Again. I thought that it would be fun to read, and indeed it was, just a few hours later, when I ought to have been doing other things. Instead, I was Gchatting with Ms NOLA about bulimia, adoption, and how some people, beautiful as they are when you, get to be much better looking when they’re older. We didn’t chat for long, because I really did have to be doing other things, but it occurred to me that I could do most of those other things while watching Annie Hall.

Annie Hall is far from my favorite Woody Allen movie. I don’t dislike it, but it seems preliminary to me, which Manhattan, practically his next picture, most certainly does not. (Neither does Interiors, the intervening film; but Interiors turns out to be the first of a clutch of beautifully bleak movies that Allen has made over the years; Another Woman is my favorite, while Match Point is actually thrilling. While unmistakeably the work of Woody Allen, these titles seem to me to stand to one side of his typical output, which amounts to a response, not an homage, to the great European filmmakers of the mid-Twentieth Century. Manhattan is the first fully-formed mainstream Woody Allen movie.) The good thing about my watching other Allen films much more often is that Annie Hall is always fresh, which it really ought to be; it’s actually rather delicate — fragile. This is partly because Diane Keaton is, effectively, a child actress, younger in a way than Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver. Oh, she may have been biologically close to thirty, but she was barely halfway to the mature greatness, the all-American comic mastery of The Family Stone and Something’s Gotta Give. When Annie Hall was over, I had to watch Morning Glory (Keaton’s second film with Rachel McAdams, whom she mentions very favorably in her memoir). I couldn’t believe how much more than was to Diane Keaton in Morning Glory, even though it’s a supporting role, than there is in Annie Hall. That’s because Annie Hall is, of course, Woody Allen’s fantasy. Colleen Peck is a real bitch. (Albeit a real bitch with a heart of gold and a crackerjack sense of the absurd.)

By the time Morning Glory was over, I had not only packed, but done all the ironing as well. which meant that I had a supply of pressed handkerchiefs to take to St Croix.  I had organized all of the last minute (bathroom) packing on the dining table, along with books, electronics, and even the beach towel that I’ve been using as a blanket lately. (I used the beach towel to wrap up the Klipsch iPod player and the iPad keyboard deck.) When we finally went to be at 11:30, I was ready to go. We were up at 5:30, in the car at six, and at the airport by 6:30. We arrived here at about 4:30 yesterday afternoon (Atlantic Time), and Kathleen took a nap right away. It was only when she woke up, before dinner, that we missed her second suitcase, a small purple roller filled with craft items mostly. Wish us luck on that one.

Gotham Diary:
Do Not Disturb!
14 November 2011

Monday, November 14th, 2011

A few hours’ of imprudent hankie-sharing with runny-nosed Will, on Friday, obliged me to swallow a dose of NyQuil last night, enabling me to regret my lack of backbone this morning. Worse, aside from a few hours spent on housework, on Saturday, I did absolutely nothing this weekend but read Alan Hollinghurst’s very beautiful book, The Stranger’s Child; so, not only am I spineless but I find myself swaddled in a dream of that green and sceptered isle.  


I’ve read two frowning reviews of The Stranger’s Child, by James Wood and Daniel Mendelsohn. Both reviewers, it seems to me, want Alan Hollinghurst to do something that he’s clearly, on the evidence of the novel that he has actually written, not interested in doing. To be sure, they come to the book from opposite perspectives. To Wood, who is English but who works in the United States, the novel flirts with sentimental preciosity; it is too prettily English. To Mendelsohn, an American, the novel lacks a sympathetic core; what he doesn’t get is precisely what Wood’s afraid of: that The Stranger’s Child is about England. But the two critics unite is in a demand that the novel take a moral position on something, anything. Wood, complaining about what, to him, are stylistic curlicues:

These flecks of aspic are scarcely heinous, but cumulatively they suggest an overindulgent hospitality toward the material. Hollinghurst seems too ready to perpetuate a fond English elegy that he should, instead, be scrutinizing.

Among Mendelssohn’s numerous expressions of discontent, here’s the baldest:

You have to wonder what is being critiqued in the new book.

Do you? I thought that scrutiny and critique were critics’ tools, not novelists’. The critical habit of finding social criticism in novels is as easy to explain as the connection between the generosity of the Marshall Plan and trumped-up fears of communism in postwar America: it justifies the reading of fiction/the spending of millions. That’s to say that it appeases an anxiety about the “uselessness” of fiction — and of art generally.

But what Hollinghurst wants to do, it seems to me, is to tell a story, a particular kind of story, possibly a new kind of story — the only other example of such a story that I can think of is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. It is the kind of story in which a very great deal of material is omitted. One of the characters in The Stranger’s Child, Jennifer Ralph, has an interesting parentage; her father was the child of Daphne Sawle Valance Ralph (the central character if not — and she definitely is not — the novel’s protagonist). But who was his father? That’s a question that the book chews over for moments at a time. But the man himself, this child of dubious provenance, this father of a woman whom we meet as a girl and then as an Oxford don — this man never has a name. All we know about him is that he was “in rubber” in colonial Malaysia. I don’t regard Jenny’s father’s namelessness as a negligence. I think that Hollinghurst wants us to note it, and to take it as a reminder that every story involves the back ends of countless other stories. His story has lots of such holes.

The point of a novel such as The Stranger’s Child is to work a novel out of a story full of holes; to put it more “artistically,” we might speak of a narrative that weaves content with lacuna. I don’t want to carry this idea too far; the point is never that what’s left out is as or more important than what’s put in. In Egan’s book as well as Hollinghurst’s, though, the reader is unavoidably aware of making the calculations that impose coherence on the narrative. Egan’s calculations are a little more demanding than Hollinghurst’s, possibly because her book is frankly prospective, whereas The Stranger’s Child is “all about” the past. But the work is always pleasant and intriguing, never onerous. There is nothing new, of course, about readers’ completing stories in their minds; our minds flesh out the verbal content of every sentence that we hear. This new kind of novel that Egan and Hollinghurst have explored simply makes us aware of something that we do all the time. The very old-fashioned term for it is “leaving something to the imagination.” It’s what popular bad writers make their fortunes by avoiding.


It seems impossible — I must be mistaken — but I clearly remember a day, in the summer of 1977, when my father and I were driven from London to Stratford-on-Avon. This was a sentimental journey for my father; he had visited what he called “Shakespeare Country” several times with my mother, who had just died, and even though I never heard either of my parents so much as speak the name of any of Shakespeare’s works, they liked the countryside. (A similar fondness for “Sound of Music Country” remained stoutly disconnected from any interest in Mozart.) I know that you can make a day trip out of Stratford, but can you also see Blenheim, walk around Oxford, and have a leisurely lunch at a country hotel not too far from Birmingham? Yes, if you were traveling with my father, you could.

That drive is my total experience of the English countryside. It differs at no point from anything that I’ve seen in the movies. (Toss-up question: have more films been shot in Manhattan or the Home Counties?) And when I read about the English countryside, even though I can’t tell a spinney from a combe, I feel that I’m on very familiar ground. (The ground that I actually grew up on, which is the same here in Manhattan, especially at the north end of the island, as it is in Westchester County, is rather more exotic, a great deal rockier, beneath all the roads and buildings, and wilder.) This is not just because I know what England looks like, however; it’s because I’ve spent so much of my life in the heads of characters who’ve spent so much of their lives walking around in it. From Forster and Woolf to Ishiguro and McEwan, I’ve walked hundreds of English miles.

The Stranger’s Child is certainly a novel of the countryside. London is a grimmish offtstage anti-presence until very near the end of the book, by which time the city has swallowed up the village in which the story begins. London may be about pomp, but it’s the country that speaks of English power.

The High Ground was an immense lawn beyond the formal gardens, from which, though the climb to it seemed slight, you got “a remarkable view of nothing,” as Dudley put it: the house itself, of course, and the slowly dropping expense of farmland towards the villages of Bampton and Brize Norton. It was an easy uncalculating view, with no undue excitement, small woods of beech and poplar greening up across the pasture-land. Somewhere a few miles off flowed the Thames, already wideish and winding, though from here you would never have guessed it. Today the High Ground was being mown, the first time of the year, the donkey in its queer rubber overshoes pulling the clattering mower, steered from behind by one of the men [it’s 1926], who took off his cap to them as he approached. Really you didn’t mow at weekends, but Dudley had ordered it, doubtless so as to annoy his guests. George and Madeleine were strolling on the far side, avoiding the mowing, heads down in talk, perhaps enjoying themselves intheir own way.

This passage serves very well as a skeleton-key to Hollinghurst’s cabinet of wonders: England is very beautiful precisely because of ownership arrangements that, from time to time (if not more often) throw up monsters like Dudley. And on flows the Thames, unseen.  

Gotham Diary:
8 November 2011

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

For the sake of the mortification of my flesh, I am reading James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out. Ordinarily, the reviews, with their references to Norman Mailer and to New York’s sometime gritty downtown scene &c, would have put me off, having reminded me once again that, if I did have to spend a decade in exile, at least it was the 1970s — the city’s Buttcrack Decade. It was in the Seventies that James Wolcott became a journalist. I can’t say that I ever decided not to be a journalist, but a disinclination was already in place by the time I was graduated from Notre Dame in 1970. It came down to this: I didn’t like the kind of people who were journalists. (The feeling was mutual.)

Instead, the effect of the reviews of Lucking Out was to make me wonder if this was still the case. Lucking Out seemed to be a good test: turning its pages, would I be suffused with regret at paths not taken? Would I wish that I’d had a little more backbone, and followed my dreams? Would I have liked to be one of the cool kids? I’ll let Wolcott answer the question.

There was another home-brewed brand of criticism practiced at the Voice — informal, unsolicited feedback that was delivered like a body check in hockey and intended to put you on notice. It was not uncommon for a fellow writer, in a warrior spirit of collegiality, to let you know that the piece that ran in last week’s issue or the new one teed up in the galleys carried the risk of making you look like a fool. Not simply mistaken, not merely misguided, but a fool — a dupe who made everybody else look bad. One year at the Voice Christmas party, a columnist in ambush mode, having filled his tank to excess capacity with holiday cheer, intercepted me, even though I was standing still, to put me wise that a campaign piece I had done about a presidential candidate that was set to run proved that I didn’t know a thing about politics and if it were published I would look like a fool and the editors would look like fools, a diatribe/dire prediction he delivered so close up his face nearly went out of focus. He was telling me this for my own good, he said, but nobody at the Voice ever told you anything for your own good unless they were up to no good. Another Voice staffer, whom nobody dared call a fool for fear he’d do a calypso number on their heads with his fists, speculated that the weaponized use of the word was rooted in Old Left discourse, evidenced by how often Voice writers would quote August Beble’s pronouncement “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,” one of those thudnering dicta certainly inteded to stop an adversary dead in his rhino tracks. … Or perhaps “fool” simply caught on in the office because some alpha force began using it and everyone else added it to their repertoire, just as so many writers picked up on Ellen Willis’s use of “cranky” as a positive descriptive, indicating someone out of sorts with the prevailing political norms. Whatever its origin in the lingua franca, “fool” was a strangely shame-laced word, intended to make you feel like an object of ridicule based on the snickers and scowls of some invisible jury. … I resented being bullyragged for making a fool of myself because making a fool of yourself was one of the hard-earned liberties Norman Mailer had fought for in his boxing trunks. but I have to say, I don’t regret my days in gladiator school. Having your ego slapped around a bit helped the blood circulate and would prove a superb conditioning program for a future sub-career in blogging, where a tough hide would come in handy every time the Hellmouth opened. Every time I’m abused online with a battery of scurrilous remarks of a personal nature, I’m able to let them bounce off like rubber erasers, having been called an asshole by professionals, experts in the field.

In short: No. No, I do not wish that I had become a journalist in the Seventies. If for no other reason: weigh and consider the violence implicit in this passage! Quite aside from the danger of calypso numbers and other manifestations of actual physical aggression, Wolcott attests to a blood-soaked state of mind that conceives of journalism as a schoolyard scrimmage. A schoolyard scrimmage, I hasten to add, that’s of no interest to non-partipants with better things to attend to. (I excised a reference to Carrie.) Having been called an asshole by professionals is unfortunately no protection against actually being one, and those who celebrate the glories of the Buttcrack Decade are perhaps uniquely destined to live in it.


Having been going to the movies in my semi-professional way for a few years now, on almost every Friday morning, I have developed two handy precepts. First, I don’t go to movies that I would expect to dislike. (“No action figures” covers a lot of territory, if you include comic books.) By ruling out egregiously antipathetic experiences, the first rule makes it easy to follow the second, which is to try to enjoy each movie as it was intended to be enjoyed. What kind of movie did the filmmaker want to make? I ask myself that. It is rarely a difficult question to answer. Sometimes, it’s true, a movie tries to be two or more things at the same time, resulting in a degree of incoherence. But I don’t have a problem with a degree of incoherence.  I’ve also acquired a third insight, from thinking about the recent films of Woody Allen: a movie is a magic show, a display of wonders. Every good movie is both a spectacle and a joke. Well, almost every good movie.

I thought of these rules while watching Tower Heist last week. The movie itself did not inspire these thoughts, or any other thoughts; it was Anthony Lane’s unfavorable review that raised the issue. I understand that a film critic is expected to sit through movies that he or she doesn’t care for, although why this should be so is hard to figure. Who would be the poorer if The New Yorker took no notice of Tower Heist. We might all be the poorer for missing this dandy dismissal of Brett Ratner’s “style”: “The origins of his style are unclear, but the influence of, say, early Fellini is less easy to detect than that of Cuisinart.” Okay, that’s funny. Why not just say that, and then move on to something else?

Tower Heist aims to be a lot of fun, and it succeeds. It tries to do several things at the same time, and it would objectionably incoherent if coherence were an element of Brett Ratner’s style, but it isn’t; Tower Heist is a deeply untroubled motion picture. Tower Heist takes place in an alternative New York that New Yorkers will probably appreciate more than most. A good deal of the movie’s spectacle, and its biggest joke, concerns the staff at The Tower, a luxury residence on Columbus Circle. The movie uses the Trump Tower — built as the Gulf & Western Building in 1970 —as its location; one part of the joke is that its battalion of impeccable service providers would be more likely to be found next door, at the new Mayflower. Another part of the joke is that, while the highly-skilled maids and doormen marshalled by Josh Kovacs (Ben Stiller) do exist — flourish — in our fair city, the movie’s tenantry seems imported from Los Angeles. They’re much too nice. Fortunately, Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), the richest of all the residents, and the man entrusted with investing the staff’s pension fund, is nice only on the surface; scratch his enamel, and he’s a bastard. When Shaw turns out to have been running a Ponzi scheme, the director knows how to rouse the audience’s inner Astoria, and we rejoice when justice is done, as it is, very sweetly. The only thing that Tower Heist lacks is a bigger, a much bigger part for Téa Leoni, who plays the FBI Special Agent who’s in charge of nabbing Shaw. At the very least, Tower Heist ought to have ended as 16 Blocks did, “two years later.” Josh and Claire ought to have had that Saturday-night date after all.

As to Anthony Lane’s diatribe/dire prediction about the future of the movies in an age of VOD, I can only say that I go to the movies in the morning because the audiences are small; more than once, I’ve been the only member. I like going to the movies principally for the popcorn (no butter), and I always take an aisle seat because I can’t make it through a feature film without a visit to the men’s room. If I were conscious of an imperative to “surrender our will,” I’d stay away. Lane is arguably the funniest writer to to have been published by The New Yorker in my lifetime, but he does have his hobby-horses. I prefer to encounter them at home, which is where I also get to know the movies I love; the element of compulsion that kept me in my seat during his homage to Ava Gardner at a bygone New Yorker festival was disagreeable. But it was theatre, in its way, and I’m glad that rules in effect since the Athens of Aeschylus are in force during staged performances. But the movies? Forget about it.

Gotham Diary:
Way Out
4 November 2011

Friday, November 4th, 2011

In the end, as all the more astute reviewers have pointed out, Blue Nights is about the double-faced problem of outliving one’s friends and relations. You mourn, and you fall apart. Joan Didion captures the awfulness of it pretty well in just one (incomplete) sentence: “Sitting in frigid waiting rooms trying to think of the name and telephone number of the person I want notified in case of an amergency.” So far as remaining family is concerned, she can choose between a brother who lives in California and a nephew who makes movies and is frequently “on location.”

Kathleen is at a funeral, this morning, of a woman who died last weekend of a cerebral hemorrhage. She was in her late seventies, and until the massive stroke felled her, she enjoyed perfect health. She wasn’t taking so much as a single prescription drug. She’d had a very happy summer with her family, and was just now settling into the fall routine. Instead, she came to a swift end. That is one way to die — I can’t help thinking that it’s the best way to die, although it’s immediately shattering to the family. Last spring, the mother of another friend died of a cancer that was quick for cancer but certainly not swift. Was that less shattering? These things can’t be compared. In the Bronx, the mother of a third friend goes on and on, an invalid for decades now, complaining, ailing, still holding onto her spot in this vale of tears.

But I digress. Joan Didion isn’t talking about different ways of dying. She would insist that she knows nothing about dying, and suggest rather that what she is not talking about, in Blue Nights, is different ways of surviving, ways of surviving the different ways in which people die. Her husband died suddenly, like the woman whose funeral Kathleen is attending — although, in the case of John Gregory Dunne, there were plenty of warnings, plenty of cardiac interventions. His death had a conventional, almost admirably masculine quality about it. They knew it was coming, and, when it came, it was fast. The death of Joan Didion’s daughter, Quintana Roo, however, remains completely mysterious. It began with what seemed to a flu, passed quickly into deadly infection, and wound up with — what, brain death? We don’t spend anything like the time that The Year of Magical Thinking devoted to hospital-type situations. Didion had plenty of time to mourn her daughter before her daughter died. Then — this is another mystery; perhaps all these thoughts about adoption had gathered before — she thought about the motherhood that did not die when Quintana Roo died, and that is what Blue Nights is about. It was an odd motherhood in many ways, most of them touched only glancingly in the memoir. The one matter that Didion feels her way into is the unpleasant surprise of having trouble coming up with the name and telephone number of someone to call in case of emergency.

It’s a very sobering read, at least for someone my age. I’m only about fifteen years younger than Joan Didion, and, being a man, I will probably fall apart sooner. Heavens, I’ve been falling apart since my mid-thirties; that’s when the ankylosing spondylitis set in. (My reward for stopping smoking, come to think of it.)  I even enjoyed a stretch of Proustian invalidism while convalescing from a serious (long-neglected) bout of mononucleiosis in college.

In the kitchen, I stow the meat slicer on a high shelf. It is not a lightweight appliance. I have no trouble reaching it down, now. I wonder how long that will be the case; I wonder each time I reach it down. I keep my cellphone in my pocket at all times — except, of course, when it’s charging, and when, as right now, I forget to unplug it in the morning. I shall probably make it into the bedroom alive. But the thought of Joan Didion lying on the floor of her apartment, unable to reach any of the thirteen telephones in her house, has haunted me from the instant I read it. I know what that’s like. (My reward for giving up martinis.) And I hate to think, not of death and dying so much, but of the time when either Kathleen or I will have to find the name and telephone number of someone else to contact in case of emergency.

Gotham Diary:
“It’s going to be a big hit.”
3 November 2011

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

At dinner, after the play, it occurred to me that one explanation for the audience’s oddly tepid response to Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here, which we had just seen, toward the end of its run, at MTC, might be that the playwright forced the material for two rather different plays into a comedy-drama that runs for about two hours with intermission. Regular theatre-goers are all too familiar with the kind of show that begins with an awkward but funny family reunion, steadily leaks laugh lines, and bumps to a stop in soap-opera recriminations. Whatever the name for this dramatic form, Kazan has composed an excellent exemplar; We Live Here is an admirably well-made play, especially for a debut. The characters are intriguing and their secrets, strategically revealed, always turn out to be slightly different from their foreshadowing. But theatregoers have arguably had enough of this sort of thing, and, after all (sad to say), the extraordinary cast featured only one big name. There is much to like in We Live Here, but most of the members of last night’s audience wasn’t in the mood to look for it on their own.

They might have been more enticed, as I say, had Zoe Kazan cleared her work of one of her two stories and expanded the surviving one — and then, gone back and done the opposite. (We might even have had a double show, like Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden, performend simultaneously in adjacent theatres, with some but not all of the characters running back and forth between the two productions.) One play would be about the inability of two “happily married parents” to cope with their gifted children, at least one of whom is depressive. This play would expand on the Greek-myths angle that Kazan worked rather well into her textures; it would tell us more about a Harvard classics professor (Mark Blum) who is dumb enough to name his twin daughters Althea (Jessica Collins) and Andromeda, and about his wife (Amy Irving) who, deeply uninterested in scholarship of any kind, thinks the names are cute. This play would be about tempting fate, and fate’s taking up the challenge with a vengeance.

The other play would be about the fraught relations between the daughters, and this play would have more room for the men in their lives, two very different men who never had the chance, in We Live Here, to stand up to one another. Sandy (Jeremy Shamos), Althea’s fiancé, is such a good man that his prospective mother-in-law finds him “a bit gay.” Daniel (Oscar Isaac) is, in contrast, the sexy boy next door who is totally bad news; he comes equipped with that engine of destruction, a motorcycle. Stripped of the parents’ presence, the recognition scene in which Allie learns that Daniel has moved in on her younger sister, Dinah (Betty Gilpin), now “all grown up,” might have been incandescent, and not the occasion for a stagy blackout.

In the alternative (to splitting her play in two), Kazan might have insisted on a, shall we say, more Greek setting, and not the sprawling, many-chambered family home that bore the impress of a recent upgrade from television sitcom to legitimate theatre. Especially not a set so loaded with visual distractions. John Lee Beatty’s work, as usual, we eloquent, but that’s the problem: it constituted a mini-essay on the play, such that there was no need for any acting by people. Aspiration — books aplenty, the tail end of a grand piano, an easel painter’s kit — floated uneasily above middlebrow inattentiveness to detail; the boxes from Crate & Barrel served as more than ostensible wedding presents, and a marionette operation, in which they contrived to open themselves when the bride wasn’t present, would not have been ineffective at scoring the playwright’s main points. (I complained to Kathleen that there was not a single crave-worthy object on the stage; although I did fall into unwilling fascination with a Civil-War era armchair composed of tapestry and carved wood.) And the doors! Aside from the front door (nicely used), there were two sets of interior glass-paned doors and two ponderous pocket doors, one of which was briefly closed, the other of which was presented in half, thrust out toward the audience. I had no idea how six actors could fill such a space, and it turned out that they couldn’t. The best scene — the fiancé, trying to loosen up his sister-in-law-to-be, so that he can paint her portrait, asks Dinah about the things that she likes, and Betty Gilpin delivers a thrilling monologue of despair, desire, and barely-contained madness that howls for full-length dramatic treatment — the best scene takes place in a small corner of the domestic barn, the rest of which is momentarily consigned, by lighting director Ben Stanton, to darkness.  

I’d vote for the divided play, and the one with the parents could keep the complicated set. Amy Irving, reminding me at every turn of Dianne Wiest, was not the monster mom that might have tempted her with histrionic possibilities, but, more effectively, a parent who has come to terms, more or less, with her failures — and she has you wondering if that’s really a good thing. There isn’t time for Mark Blum to do more than deliver, very ably, some telling remarks on Aristotle and hamartia while looking chastened by the gods. There was a good story there, about how the plodding classics scholar caught the vibrant beauty, and how perhaps the relationship, like many Olympian ones, ought perhaps not to have produced offspring. Jerry Shamos did a great job with the thankless nice-guy role, while Oscar Isaac squirmed and jiggled as if sex itself were going to rip out of him, Aliens-style. It was the sisters, however, who owned the show. Where had I seen Jessica Collins before? This hugely distracting question bothered me throughout the first act; it wasn’t until the intermission that I could read that she starred in the ill-fated serial drama, Rubicon. Happily, I could give her second-act flashback into sullen, slutty adolescence, a master turn, my individed attention. Betty Gilpin I was well-prepared to admire; her performance in That Face is one of my most pungent theatrical memories. She did not disappoint, to say the least. At the end, after an eternity of wary circling and fake smiles, she and Ms Collins demonstrated that only the two sisters could put an end to the family curse.


For weeks, I’ve been asking the nice people at Crawford Doyle for a copy of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and, for weeks, they’ve been telling me that the book hasn’t come out yet. I finally joked that, by the time the book was actually published, I’d have read most of it in reviews. Blue Nights is a slim, somewhat gnomic volume, as you would expect, and I knew that my joke wasn’t the exaggeration that it might be. But it was the review that I read at lunch, yesterday, right before heading over to the bookshop for the now-available memoir, that surprised me with an almost unimaginable anecdote from Didion’s daughter’s childhood, extracted by Mary-Kay Wilmers in the LRB. Here’s the original:

I recall taking her, when she was four or five, up the coast to Oxnard to see Nicholas and Alexandra. On the drive home from Oxnard she referred to the czar and czarina as “Nicky and Sunny,” and said, when asked how she liked the picture, “I think it’s going to be a big hit.”

It turns out that there’s quite a lot of this vaguely Mommie Dearest material in Blue Nights, this time presented by Mommie, and I wonder how long it will be before a hailstorm of denunciation befalls Joan Didion. Premature viewing of a traumatically wound-up family saga cannot be causally linked to the fatal infection (or whatever it was) that killed Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, two years after her marriage, in 2005. But what about the disagnosis of “borderline personality disorder”? I doubt that anything in Blue Nights is going to dim my ardor for the rippling sinews and snapping tendons of Joan Didion’s art. But. “when she was four or five”? 

Gotham Diary:
Absoluely, cont’d
18 October 2011

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

When I sat down to write, yesterday morning, I did not intend to spend so much time in Tompkins Square Park; I wanted to say a few words about a new new book. That I hadn’t finished the book isn’t what kept from writing about it later; there was no later, so far as writing was concerned. The morning, afternoon, and evening all went to housekeeping and cooking and having an out-of-town friend to dinner. I did manage to finish the book, though, and I think that I can recall a few of the clever things that I meant to say about it.

I ask myself: what would I made of this book if I hadn’t had its dust jacket? There is no “about the author” page at the end of the bound text, so I wouldn’t have known that the author of Éminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, Jean-Vincent Blanchard, was born in Canada and raised in “Europe,” or that this “is his first book in English.” I learned all of that — plus the fact that Blanchard teaches at Swarthmore — from the paragraph beneath the author’s photograph, in which, I must say, he has the air of a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century gallant.

But I would have known from the text that Blanchard is francophone. My favorite solecism concerns the seditious antics of Louis de Bourbon, comte de Soissons, and the French verb ignorer.

Ever since the assassination plot at Amiens in 1636 and his subsequent flight from the court, the comte de Soissons had lived in Sedan, at the northeast border of France within the territories of the Holy Roman Empire. This town was a sovereign entity that belonged to Frédéric Maurice de la Tour-d’Auvergne, the Duc de Bouillon, and it protected its independence with some of the best fortifications in Europe. Because he ignored at the time the reason for Soissons’s flight, Richelieu had found it acceptable to allow the count to retire there for a period of four years. With this period coming to an end, Soissons worried that the cardinal harbored ill designs against him, in all likelihood because he had finally discovered the real reason for the count’s retreat from Amiens.

This passage makes complete sense only if you read “ignored” in its French sense, which is pretty much the opposite of ours. In English, you can’t ignore something until you’re aware of it. In French, being unaware of something is the only way to “ignore” it. What Richelieu was unaware of, at the time of Soissons’s flight, in 1636, was the count’s participation in a plot to assassinate him. When the plot came to nothing — predictably, you might almost say, because the feckless ringleader, the king’s brother Gaston d’Orléans, got cold feet at the last minute — Soissons and Gaston fled Amiens, for no very good reason. Richelieu didn’t discover the reason until 1640, in which year Soissons had another go at it, only to be shot himself (possibly by himself) before the attempt.

On the whole, Éminence is an extremely readable French book written in English. I don’t mean to pick on the slight infelicities that dot the text, which for the most part add more zest than confusion. Rather, this is the sort of history book that is written in French. There is a great deal of you-are-there staging, and formal declarations are quoted extensively, as if they actually meant something. Well, of course they did mean something, but it has long been the habit of English and German historians to discount the sentiments expressed in ceremonial exchanges. Our historians generally assume that evidence of anything, such as it is, is partial and misleading. Blanchard’s approach is critical in this way only when the evidence might be self-serving.

There is also what I’ll call an absence of background. Is it assumed that the reader knows about the twists and turns of the development of the modern sovereign state, a development in which Richelieu had as active a role as any man alive in the past 500 years? Or it is deemed irrelevant? Is, that’s to say, Professor Blanchard resisting the “Whig” way of writing history, with one eye on ultimate outcomes? Richelieu couldn’t know that he was putting an end to medieval France and founding the highly centralized organization, with its monopolies on death and taxes, that we expect the sovereign state to be. He was simply exerting the king’s power as effectively as he could, suppressing rival power sources along the way. Richelieu didn’t live to read, much less supervise, the treaties of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that had raged on and off throughout the extent of his career as France’s virtual prime minister. We tend to see Richelieu as a modern mastermind, but in Blanchard’s assessment, which I find astute, he appears to be an exemplar, if an unusually gifted one, of the French aristocracy: “sense of opportunity, amazing decisiveness, and courage were the cardinal’s most extraordinary political qualities; these were the heroic traits that allowed him succeed, often in spite of himself.” I would not for a moment suggest that Blanchard has rewritten The Three Musketeers from a point of view more sympathetic to the cardinal, but his history is much closer to Dumas’s narrative in character and eventfulness than a “serious” anglophone study would be.

I can readily imagine that Blanchard’s subject would have thanked him graciously for his attentive but engaging scholarship, but chided him, at the same time, for relying on bad influences (as Louis XIII was prone to do), in this case the editorial staff at Walker Books, who clearly do not have the best interests of publishing at heart; whereupon the cardinal would have packed off the lot of them to the dungeon at Vincennes, where prisoners tended to die of natural causes. People complain about the death of the book all the time, but it is the dearth of editorial responsibility that is actually undermining the authority of the codex.

And what d’you know — there is an author’s note, right after the index. The pages must have been stuck together. No mignon photo, though.

Gotham Diary:
14 October 2011

Friday, October 14th, 2011

We apologize for the outages these days; we’re assured that there won’t be any more. Not for a while, anyway.

Not that I have much to report this morning — or, rather, much time for reporting. I’ll have to fill in this entry later this afternoon. We were out late last night, Kathleen and I, and the evening was so exhilarating — Gil Shaham playing the Brahms Violin Concerto with Orpheus was an experience without parallel in the concert hall, although I was often reminded of extremely tight jazz sessions — that I had no desire to be a good boy and go to bed when I got home. So I sat up reading a preposterous but amusing article about The Quilted Giraffe, a restaurant that Kathleen and I never tried (thank heaven, I can say now) in the current issue of Town & Country. Even that was exhilarating. 


But before I get to last night, I want to say a few more words about Jennifer Egan’s novels, and the powerful sense that I have of understanding them, at long last. I should begin by saying that I knew along that the problem was with me. Egan’s books are subtle and sophisticated, but they are not hermetic puzzles that yield secret meanings only to those who know how to hold them upside down in just the right light and squint. Her fiction is as straightforward as it appears to be. The problem at my end was that I was picking up a strong signal that I didn’t know how to interpret. I only knew that I was receiving it. I was sure of that; I was sure that I wasn’t reading in a significance that wasn’t really there. The signifier was in plain sight. But then so was everything else in Egan’s rich fictions, with their occluded plots, layered timelines, salient recursions, and fertile lacunae. There was so much to see. And I understood most of it. But I was persistently aware of not understanding something that I was seeing.

And then, as I wrote yesterday, it came to me. Literally: the sentence drifted through my mind and into the paragraph of a letter. Only when I’d written it down did I grasp its significance — which turned out to be the significance that I’d been hunting ever since I was first beguiled by A Visit From the Goon Squad. Rather, I grasped that I had a handle on it. The handle was the term “American exceptionalism.” I’ve moved beyond that; I don’t believe that Egan’s characters could not behave as they do if they were not American. (We live in globalizing times.) If I’ve held on to “exceptionalism,” it’s because the term took me to the image that seemed to explain everything. Jennifer Egan presents her characters as they see themselves in the mirror after they’ve done their primping and are ready to go out the door — at their most self-confident, that is — but she is able, as if writing in some sort of stereophonic parallel text, to accompany this image with a morally grounded critique (a quiet demolition, really) of the rationalizations and petty dishonesties that underlie that self-confidence. Egan’s characters are glamorous because they’re all con men, and they’re sympathetic because they’re all their own greatest marks. Here, at the very beginning of Goon Squad, is one of the novel’s major characters, Sasha, roiling in the backwash of her bad little habit of stealing other people’s unconsidered trifles (sometimes not so trifling), which her analyst (whom she calls Coz) has just asked her about.

Sasha turned her face into the blue couch because her cheeks were heating up and she hated that. She didn’t want to explain to Coz the mix of feelings she’d had, standing there with Alex: the pride she took in these objects, a tenderneess that was only heightened by the shame of their acquisition. She’d risked everything, and here was the result: the raw, warped core of her life. Watching Alex move his eyes over the pile of objects stirred something in Sasha. She put her arms around him from behind, and he turned, surprised, but willing.

One of the elements of that “something” that stirred in Sasha is a feeling that everything is okay, or will be okay if she can change the subject, which she does by distracting Alex, the young man whom she has brought home from a bar, from the virtual shrine to kleptomania that has accreted in a corner of her Lower East Side flat — a place about which she has paralytically mixed emotions.

In fact the whole apartment, which six years ago had seemed like a way station to some better place, had ended up solidifying around Sasha, gathering mass and weight, until she felt both mired in it and lucky to have it — as if she not only couldn’t move on but didn’t want to.

Never once in this entire chapter (or elsewhere in the book that I can think of) are we invited to feel sorry for Sasha. She’s a big girl, and a clever girl; she can take care of herself. She can afford to “risk everything” with a little light-handed thievery. She is an exceptional girl: the ordinary rules manifestly don’t apply to her. Do they? That’s really whatA Visit From the Goon Squad is about. I’ve said that Egan weighs her characters with a morally-grounded critique, but she is no moralist. Some of her characters get away with murder. Others don’t.


About last night: Orpheus began its — what, 39th? season — at Carnegie Hall with what looked to be a very pleasant program; it turned out to be rather more. It opened with Mendelssohn’s Fair Melusine Overture, a trim tone-poem inspired by a legend that Goethe retold in Wilhelm Meister. I hadn’t heard it in years; I couldn’t remember a thing about it. But it turned out that every note was familiar, because works of its charm (considerable) and length (ten minutes or so) were invaluable to me in my radio days, when I had to schedule forty-eight minutes of varied music for every hour, with at least three breaks for commercials. What I really remembered, though, was the little old Jewish emigrant who did something mysterious at the Wall Street bank where I worked for a few summers in my teens. When she learned that I was developing an interest in Wagner, she heaped as much scorn and contumely on the wizard of Bayreuth as she could muster, and certainly one of her most considerable charges, quite aside from Wagner’s concededly posthumous popularity with certain Nazis, was his musical plagiarism, particularly his theft from a Jewish composer — Mendelssohn. I didn’t know what she had in mind at the time, but it came back and hit me when I heard Fair Melusine the first time. By then, I was an aficionado fo the Ring cycle, and it was obvious that Wagner had stolen the whole rolling Rhine motif from Mendelssohn’s overture. It still seemed obvious last night, although I know that musical creative lightning strikes twice a lot more often than you might think, meaning that it strikes two minds at the same time. From what I know of Wagner, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear him defend his theft as an improvement begging to be made upon the original.

I thought about that, and how different things were then; the War hadn’t been over for twenty years. I thought about how dingy Carnegie Hall was in those days; it was slated for demolition as soon as Lincoln Center, rising amidst slum clearance to the northwest, was completed. Looking at it today, with its gilt and its plush as opulent as can be, I can hardly believe that it was such a dreary old barn when I was a kid. Some things really do get better!

I can’t be sure whether it was in 1961 or 1962 that I was taken to Carnegie Hall for the first time, but it was about fifty years ago. Carnegie Hall was only seventy years old when I made my debut as a member of the audience. Seventy years seemed a much bigger number then than it does now, and fifty years — well, fifty years is about how long I’ve been doing everything that interests me.

The composer of the next piece on the program was sitting a few rows ahead of us, and on the other side of the aisle. Cynthia Wong was born in New York in 1982; she’s not even thirty. Her composition, Memoriam, commissioned by Orpheus, was given its first New York performance. The dedication, printed in the program booklet, began with an address to her father, dead of cancer, and the music that followed was at least as effective a tone poem (in this case about hospital corridors and chemotherapy) as Mendelssohn’s. I didn’t understand Memoriam in any formal way, but I was happy to listen to it, and my only objection, one of aesthetic economy, was that the score didn’t make enough use of the vibraphone or the tubular bells to warrant, so to speak, the rental. It was grand to see Laura Frautschi in the concertmaster’s seat; I missed her last season.

Then, Haydn’s 73rd Symphony, La Chasse. I wondered if I knew it. I know all of Haydn’s Paris and London symphonies, of course, and a sprinkling of earlier ones, but not in any systematic way; I seem to be saving the methodical comprehension of Haydn’s symphonic development for a rainy day. I misread the program note, which said something about La Fedeltà premiata, one of Haydn’s operas. I don’t know any of Haydn’s operas; I’ve never really given them a chance. I have enough trouble with Mozart’s early operas, and Mozart really knew what he was doing (eventually). But I know La Fedeltà premiata for precisely the same reason that I know Fair Melusine. An overture by Haydn! Aside from his symphonies, quartets, and sonatas, what Haydn wrote was for the most part much longer than twenty or twenty-five minutes a pop. As I say, I misread the program. It said something about how Haydn had later recycled the opera overture into the 73rd symphony. I assumed that this would be the first movement, which, as it played — very agreeably, of course — I didn’t recognize. It was only when the bumptious finale began that I realized my mistake. That was the overture. How like Haydn.

After the interval, Gil Shaham played the Brahms violin concerto. That’s why we went to the concert. The weather was damp and dreary, and Kathleen was exhausted; she could hardly keep her eyes open on the train. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall from Yorkville? Unless you’re an idiot, you take the 6 and then the N or the R.) But we’d been wholly wowed by Mr Shaham’s performance, a few seasons back, of Beethoven’s violin concerto. That was when Orpheus was beginning to play big-boy stuff that was considered beyond the reach of a conductorless “chamber orchestra.” Brahms’s concerto is about a million times more challenging than Beethoven’s in this regard, if you ask me, because Brahms is always playing rhythms off against one another, and who’s going to keep track of what’s going on if not an overall music director?

The Brahms violin concerto is one of the most beautiful in the world, perhaps the most beautiful, and I am always happy to sit back and enjoy it. But sitting back was not permitted last night. Here’s what happens when there’s no conductor to direct the traffic: the orchestra and the soloist morph into a gigantic jazz band and the familiar score becomes a series of astonishing riffs. Never has my little brain followed music in a concert hall with so little internal distraction. It’s very hard to write about how great performances “make it new,” but a homely image that comes to mind is that of an imaginary machine that rolls along ripping up old roadway at one end while laying down new pavement at the other. You know the music; but you don’t know this music. The musicians are tearing it apart in the very act of putting it together.

I’ve heard lovelier violin playing than Gil Shaham produced last night, and there were more than a few squeaks in his upper register, at least in the early part of the performance. But the beauty of the concerto, and the beauty of violin playing — these were exploded and reconstituted along with Brahms’s score. Certainly some of the most beautiful moments were the quietest ones. How softly can you play an instrument in Carnegie Hall, filled with a thousand odd people, and still be heard? Very softly. It was a curious miracle, how silent the room was, but for the gossamer silver threads of tone that spun from Mr Shaham’s violin. They were the only sounds in a zone of absolute quiet. (Even the subway was stilled.) Aside from that, all I can say was that soloist and orchestra exercised a collegiality that I’m quite sure would have amazed the composer. Certainly they threw the schoolbook notion of the concerto as a form of conflict right out the window. It clearly meant something that Mr Shaham was wearing what all the Orpheus men wore: a dark suit, a dark shirt, and a silver tie. He was One Of Them. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.

And the fans went wild: it was one of those ballpark evenings at Orpheus. Orpheus audiences can outshout and outwhistle the opera queens any old time.

Gotham Diary:
13 October 2011

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Last night, just before dinner, I figured out something that has been puzzling me for about a year and a half, and it came to me, as these things do, when I wasn’t looking for an answer. I figured out what is special about Jennifer Egan’s fiction.

What makes it special to me, that is. What explains the dark glamour of her leading characters. It’s this: she instills into each of them a venial version of American exceptionalism. Growing up American, they’re generally unaware of their strange self-entitlement, but they act on it constantly. They use it to justify doing bad things. Not very bad things, and (usually) not seriously illegal things. But murky things that nobody with a rigorous sense of right and wrong would ever get mixed up in. At the moment, I’m thinking of Danny, in The Keep. Danny King was “such a good boy” when he was growing up, which meant, it turned out that, he was too good for NYU, which he dropped out of (to his father’s disgust) on the strength of his faith in his specialness, aspect of which Egan grimly compiles in a glib catalogue of trivial masteries. (Note the “alto” — Danny’s word for feeling on top of the world.)

He used to think they’d be close again, but he’d stopped. Because of all the things Danny had achieved in his life — the alto, the connections, the access to power, the knowing how to get a cab in a rainstorm, and the mechanics of bribing  maître d’s, and where to find good shoes in the outer boroughs (it was the equivalent of a PhD, all the stuff Danny knew, on top of which he was known, widely known, so that when he walked on lower Broadway it wasn’t abnormal for him to recognize every single face — that’s what happened when you’d been a front man for clubs and restaurants as long as Danny had. At times it tired him out, having to nod or say hey all those times, and he’d decide he was only going to greet the people he actually knew, which was practically no one, but Danny couldn’t do that, shun people, the sight of a face turning his way was something he couldn’t refuse) — all that, so much! everything, it seemed to Danny on a good day, everything in the world you could ever want or need to know, added up to nothing — literally nothing — in his pop’s eyes. It didn’t exist. A blank page.

To be widely known, even when you know practically no one — it’s the American dream. Willy Loman dreamed it. We’re exceptional until — oops — we run into an exception.

Now I’m keen to re-read A Visit From the Goon Squad, which I haven’t revisited in its entirety since it came out last year. I feel that I have the key. For example: the electric guitar head on the dust jacket. I was mystified by the role of rock ‘n’ roll in Good Squad. Was Egan interested in music criticism? It seemed hardly likely to me that so disciplined and formally acute a writer would deign to pad her fiction with obiter dicta about pop music. Now, of course, I see — whether Egan intended this or not — that there could be no better emblem of American exceptionalism than rock music. Only Americans would have the cheek to believe that kids without much formal training entertain a crowd or record radio hits. We’re different, is what rock music had to tell the world from its earliest postwar beginnings. We don’t have to be polished. We can be rough and crude and noisy and even obnoxious, and you’ll still love us. I could be describing what most of Egan’s characters see when they look in the mirror. It has nothing to do with personal uniqueness. American exceptionalism is an environmental gift that’s bestowed upon anyone who grows up in this country — more particularly and most generously, upon anyone who grew up as a member of the Baby Boom generation. The important thing is to stop believing in it.

America ought to be exceptional in just the opposite way: as the land of people who can’t believe how lucky they’ve been, and who hope to live up to their good fortune. Instead of which — Jennifer Egan tells us what it’s like.


It’s possible, although not likely, I don’t think, that I read about Jennifer Egan and American exceptionalism somewhere. If I did, it made no immediate impression; it didn’t resonate with what I was feeling in her novels. If I did read it, I had to rediscover it, and I rediscovered it last night in the course of answering a letter. A friend had just finished reading A Visit From the Goon Squad for the first time, and she was glad to be done with it. “For one thing,” she wrote, “the David Foster Wallace chapter nearly sent me into conniptions…” She did not specify a chapter; being in the middle of other things, and a bit lazy, I wrote back to ask her which chapter she had in mind. The ninth, of course, the ironically annotated celebrity item by Jules Jones. I replied quickly to say that of course my friend was right; the chapter has the look of a Wallace parody. Then I continued, writing off the top of my head,

If I didn’t see it, it’s because the observation doesn’t get me very far in my inquiry, still pressing, into what it is about Jennifer Egan’s fiction generally (I’ve read all of it now, several times) that distinguishes it from everybody else’s. Perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree, but I see a terrible moral tangle in her work that other writers steer clear of, or are agnostic about. Her people do bad, but not very bad, and rarely illegal, things. They screw up, and they screw up pretty much with their eyes open. It suddenly hits me now, for the first time, that they’re afflicted by a venial version of American exceptionalism: it won’t matter if I do x, because I’m basically a special person.

Then I sat back in my chair and re-read what I’d just written. The “Eureka!” bubbled up quickly. After a year and a half of reading and thinking and taking notes and squinting — and then, more recently, not giving Egan much of a thought at all — I understood what she was saying to me. She may not be saying it to anyone else, but I don’t think that I’m ever not going to hear her saying it — singing it — to me.

Gotham Diary:
Very Stupid
5 October 2011

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

Now I must write a letter, something that I never do, to Professors Black and Thompson, current authorities, from what I can make out, on the history of England in the Eighteenth Century, to ask for their gloss on Professor Plumb’s retracted dismissal (you’ll see what I mean) of George I.

Very stupid and lacking interest in the arts, save music, he was nevertheless far from being a nonentity.

This assessment appears in a work intended for “popular” readers, The First Four Georges, a trim Penguin paperback of 188 pages overall that breezes over reigns stretching from 1714 to 1830. It was first published in 1956, when, as Professor Plumb himself points out in his Preface, it had been customary for generations to regard not only George but also his son, George II, as “stupid.” But I sense a shift in connotation between the “stupid” of Plumb’s Preface, which seems to mean “unintelligent,” and a somewhat waspier sense in the quoted passage, where Professor Plumb might be suggesting that George I was not cut out to be a clever Oxbridge don. As in: “not as smart as moi.”  “Stupid” is certainly not a word that comes up  in Ragnhild Hatton’s 1978 contribution to the Yale English Monarchs series, George I. On the contrary, Hatton’s George is a man almost preternaturally suited to deal with the peculiar challenges of his time and career.

As an American, I have a hard time reading Hatton without thinking of George as the son of a “man on the make,” Ernst August of Brünswick-Lüneburg. Also to think of England as a nation “on the make” during the same concluding decades of the Seventeenth Century. When George was born, his father had no territory to leave him; he ruled the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück, in a weird condominium with Catholic Wittelsbachs, the two families taking turns at running the smallish territory just to the west of what would, by the time George became king of England in 1714, be the very considerable (and wealthy) Electorate of Hanover. Ernst August married a granddaughter of James I, Sophia of the Palatinate, a lady who would, one fine day, head the line of Protestant Stuart heirs to the English throne, displacing 41 Catholics ahead of her, including Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, “Madame.”

Ernst August also put “Hanover” together, cobbling it together  from the duchies of Celle and Calenberg and other possessions, and garnishing it with an electoral cap granted by Emperor Leopold in 1692. (This would not be recognized by all of the otherImperial Electors until 1708, when everyone needed George’s armies to fight the French in the War of the Spanish Succession.) Ernst August’s family was “ancient,” prominent in local affairs since the Twelfth Century, but its prominence in Imperial affairs round about 1700 was quite unprecedented.

England, too, developed during this time from a fractious realm at the margins of Europe to the arbiter of the balance of power. Even before the Industrial Revolution, England was not only wealthy but handy with money. It would be grossly incorrect to say that the the monarch was a figurehead after 1688, but by 1714 it was clear that the king must deal, whether he wanted to do so or not, with the majority’s leaders in the Houses of Parliament. This was a constraint unknown in  Hanover, which was governed more “absolutely.” What emerges from Hatton’s pages — as from those of Professor Thompson’s George II — is not so much a question of the king’s having to implement laws and policies against his will, but rather one of his having to negotiate with men whom he didn’t, personally, like. Both of the first two Georges were impatient with this requirement, which they both regarded as unreasonable; but then they were cultivated European princes, brought up on Renaissance, early-Enlightenment ideas of the importance of harmony and balance. The English way of doing things must have seemed noisy and inefficient. The Georges’ failure to see the long-term effectiveness of “faction” does not mark them out as stupid, given that the same distaste haunted all of America’s Founding Fathers; indeed, it can be said with safety that almost nobody has ever liked “party politics” to this day. We’ve just learned to quote Churchill’s dismissal of democracy as the worst sort of government, except for all the others.

George of Brünswick-Lüneburg was born a landless princeling who was not without military gifts; he might have pursued a career along the lines of Prince Eugene or the Duke of Marlborough (both of whom made sure that his chances for glory during the Spanish Succession war were nipped in the bud). Instead, a whole lot of territory fell into his lap — and then, the English crown! It was an English crown that, as crowns go, was not so valuable as those of France and Spain; it was if nothing a crown that could not be put on and taken off, so to speak, without extensive consultations with leading men. An absolute ruler in Germany and a constitutional monarch in England, George muddled through in the best English fashion, by being a compleat gentleman. And gentlemen are never stupid.

Gotham Diary:
29 September 2011

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Bay scallops for dinner last night. Once again, I couldn’t get them to brown — could this be the overcrowding in the pan that Julia Child warns about? — but they were tender and delicious, and we gobbled up every one of them.

Whatever we do tonight, I won’t be cooking. This evening promises to be interesting, especially given the lousy weather that’s forecast. In the earlier part, I’ll babysit with Will as usual, so that his parents can have dinner by themselves. Then I’ll head to Kitano, a restaurant bar in Murray Hill, for Chip White’s second set. We know Chip through one of Kathleen’s Brearley classmates, who met him when she ran her own jazz CD label. It’s precisely because we do know Chip, who’s a very nice guy, that we don’t make more of an effort to show up for his gigs. I know exactly what he must feel, because I feel when friends ask me what’s new, and I’ve just written it all out here. So I’ve booked a table for two, and Kathleen will meet me there. Another late night, but well worth it. Such, in any case, is the plan.

Waiting for the dermatologist in her examining room yesterday morning, I glanced through Bookforum and came across Rhonda Lieberman’s rave review of Helen DeWitt’s new novel, Lightning Rods. Did you read The Last Samurai, DeWitt’s widely-praised novel of umpteen years ago (“a hundred years ago,” I said to Kathleen, and, taking me literally, she was very surprised to hear that there was a new book)? I did, and I remember some of it — in particular, the riding round the Underground with the prodigiously gifted kid — but I don’t think that I got it. But I was ready to give DeWitt another chance, especially after I stumbled upon her very occasionally updated Web log, paperpools. Lieberman’s enthusiasm was so infectious that I whipped out my cellphone and called Crawford Doyle. They had a copy, and I picked it up after lunch. I can tell you that Lightning Rods is very funny, but that is all that I can tell you right now,  as I am only on page 4. Also the plot is highly salacious. Go ask your father.


Actually, the plot of Lightning Rods is hardly salacious. There’s very little in the way of carnal congress, and almost all of it is cloaked in the zippy euphemisms of a golf tutorial.

And then he thought Well, since it’s there.

So he set aside his skepticism for the moment and availed himself of the facility. It was quite a strange experience in some ways. Still, it was enjoyable enough for what it was.

Anyway, almost straight away he noticed that he was experiencing an unusual sense of well-being. …

I’ll have to read this book several times, I’m afraid, to tease out the qualities of its prose that make Lightning Rods so funny. The idea is outrageous, but it’s the writing that keeps you going. The tone of voice is so capable, confident, and easygoing that you don’t actually sense its stunted depravity. Not for an instant does Helen DeWitt abandon the tone of a self-help guru admonishing a would-be salesman not to be too hard on himself, a writerly disicpline that makes reading the book as warm and cuddly as DeWitt’s satire is icy and bleak. When you read on the dust jacket that the novelist lives in Berlin, you wonder if that’s far enough from America for her comfort.

It’s the language that is her target. I don’t that DeWitt has anything against commerce per se; in fact, commerce doesn’t really figure much more than sex. Every now and then, somebody types a memo or sends a fax, but, for a novel spoofing office life, we spend very little time among the cubicles. It’s unclear what lines of business the companies are in — the companies other than the one that shares its name (officially?) with the title. Lightning Rods, the company, is in the business of preventing sexual harrassment litigation; let’s just put it that way, and its deployment of “bifunctional” temp workers and specially fitted lavatories would stale as quickly as an undergraduate prank did not DeWitt’s prop it up with an unrelenting command of the patois of motivational self-forgiveness. 

If you ask most people what’s the hardest thing about being a salesman, they will usually say the rejection. “People always trying to get rid of you,” they say, “that’s what I’d hate.” Or sometimes they say it’s the travel that would really get to them, all those hotel and motel rooms blurring into each other, it must get really lonely. Or sometimes they think it would bother them to be selling things to people that they don’t really need, pressuring people into buying things they were not really able to afford.

Well, at one time or another every salesman has probably felt all of those things. But the thing that’s hardest about the job is something you can’t leave behind you by getting another job. A salesman has to see people as they are.

Most people spend their lives trying to avoid doing that very thing. Most people see what they want to see. But a salesman can’t afford to see people the way he might like them to be. He has to see them the way they actually are. And he also has to see them the way they’d like to be.  Because no matter how badly people want something, if they don’t want to be the kind of people who want that kind of thing you’re going to have an uphill battle persuading them to buy it. He has to see what it is they don’t like about the way they are and convince them that the way they are is OK. Or he has to see what it is they don’t like and persuade them that he has just the product to fix it. That’s the hardest thing about the job.

It says a lot about the quality of information that’s passed along in Lightning Rods that, the first time we hear the hero’s name, he’s talking to himself.

He said, “Come on, Joe. You can do better than this.”

Gotham Diary:
26 September 2011

Monday, September 26th, 2011

By the time Kathleen walked in the door on Saturday afternoon, I had whipped the apartment into amazing shape. Everything — everything visible — was in order, and I Puritani had just come to its triumphant end. In the luxe, calme, et volupté that remained, Kathleen and I sat down to a pot of tea in the living room. Kathleen showed me her London photographs. It was the first time that I’d reviewed photographs on the back of a camera, and at first I balked, preferring to look at them in larger format, but Kathleen was eager to share, and, she does, after all, take great pictures, so I got into it. Most of the shots were of her room at The Rookery, a boutique hotel just up the road from Smithfield Market. The furnishings were plush to an almost Victorian degree, banishing the spare chill that must have hung about the rooms when they were new, sometime in the reign of George II or his grandson, and the tiny fireplaces could hardly keep up with the drafty windows, and there was no indoor plumbing. It was very cozy. But so, very frankly, was the room that we were sitting in. The apartment didn’t look at all shabby in comparison. Feeling very snappy about our living arrangements, I went over to Fairway to pick up a few things for the simple dinner that I guessed Kathleen would like best, and then, back in the kitchen, I let it all go to my head. I decided to make an omelette in a non-non-stick pan. I must have thought I was God.

Here’s how you save an omelette that, sticking to the pan, has degenerated into a dog’s breakfast: In a clean pan, melt some butter over moderately high heat and pour in two beaten eggs. When the eggs begin to set, spoon in as much as you dare of the revolting mess of Omelette #1 into what will be Omelette #2. Don’t expect this emergency procedure to deceive anyone; aim, rather, for something on the order of an egg taco. It will taste fine. There are people who make omelettes in non-non-stick pans all the time, but you are not (yet) one of them. Be happy with your cozy apartment.


Because Kathleen was tired after her trip, and Will was recovering from a mystery fever, we did not get together yesterday. While Kathleen read an napped, I read and read. I was determined to be done with The Submission. I can’t remember the last time a novel made me feel so bad about the world. Although smart and extremely well-crafted, The Submission is an aesthetically cynical portrait of a cynical society. No! I’ve got that exactly wrong. There is no society in The Submission. What’s aesthetically cynical about the book is that each and every one of the characters is stuck in his or her character. No one connects. Instead, the various ways in which different types of people fail to connect are paraded coolly along a fashion-week runway. Amy Waldman’s world is devoid of the two essentials that I’m dumb enough to find growing on trees in mine, humor and generosity.

As soon as I was done, I grabbed the latest issue of LRB, which I knew had a review of The Submission, and Christian Lorentzen, whose take on the book was no more positive than mine, soon restored my spirits.

Reading The Submission, I often had the feeling that the novel was written by the New York Times itself; that Waldman has so thoroughly internalised the paper’s worldview that she can’t see things any other way. The Times tends to flatter its readers in the way it writes about their educations, their ambitions and what they spend their money on, while gently stoking their anxieties – about surly Islamophobes from New Jersey, their children’s safety, or cancer. In newsprint these tropes tend to be submerged under the weight of actual events  Mebut they are all too conspicuous in the long march of a novel.

This wasn’t what I’d been thinking exactly, but it wasn’t at all inconsistent, and I remembered howling and scowling, just a few hours earlier, when Kathleen read aloud a disgraceful Styles piece by Bruce Feiler entitled “Snooping in the Age of Ebooks.” 

For his part, Dr. Gosling recommended seeking out three places in a home if the bookshelf was not revealing. First, any space where a person retreats to be alone. “That might be a potting shed, a home office or sewing corner,” he said. Second, bedrooms. He recommended paying particular attention to headboards, pillows and what people keep at their bedside. Finally, photographs. Dr. Gosling was struck, for instance, that my wife and I have no photos at all in our living room, suggesting we use the space for “down-regulating” or retreating from others. In my home office, meanwhile, I have numerous photos, all featuring people, from my children, to my family, to me with friends around the world. Alone in my office, he concluded, I seek contact with others in what he called “social snacking

Ew! This is why I don’t start the day with the Times anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t wish that the Times would go away. What’s wrong with the Times is the complete absence of competition for the “newspaper of record” title. They’ll print anything these days.

(I exaggerate, of course. Kathleen brought a copy of the Daily Mail back from London, leading me down unimagined avenues of “Svengeance.”)

Gotham Diary:
Uncle Spam
22 September 2011

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

A friend to whom I mentioned that I’d just seen Warrior told me that the trailer had made her think that it was just a retread of The Fighter. But the pictures are so dissimilar, in their excellent ways, that to rank them or to look for parallels is a complete waste of time. Only at their deepest roots do the two movies have anything in common, and Warrior makes so much more of this common matter, and yet does so so much more quietly, that the resulting shows are no more alike than Elizabeth II and Richard Nixon — who was said to be four-hundredth-and-something-th in line for the English throne.

What Warrior and The Fighter have in common (not even the boxing rings are the same) is Uncle Spam: a United States economy that has turned against its working classes. Not only does it no longer protect and support them, it exploits them. Garrett Keizer put it to his high-school students in Vermont (as he does to his readers at Harper’s) with stark eloquence:

I did on one or two occasions tell my students they were living in a society that valued people of their age, region, and class primarily as cannon fodder, cheap labor, and gullible consumers, and that education could give some of the weaponry necessary to fight back.

Warrior takes a somewhat darker view. One of the protagonists, Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton), actually teaches physics in high school — so “education” has given him just about everything that it has to offer without actually pushing him into the exploiting elite. (Would that count as “fighting back”?). But education hasn’t saved him from being a “gullible consumer”; he appears to have fallen for some toxic variant on the variable-rate mortgage. He will lose his home, the house where he and his wife, with three jobs between them, are raising their two little girls, if he doesn’t come up with some money fast. A former UFC fighter, he jumps into a parking-lot ring and makes a quick couple of hundred bucks. He also gets his face knocked up, which leads to his suspension without pay as a teacher — not anytime recent has America’s taste for mean respectability been so clearly deadpanned at the movies. No, I would say that education’s weaponry has been hardly more helpful to Brendan than the Army’s matériel has been to his brother Tommy (Tom Hardy). Tommy, a Marine who, while AWOL, has saved a tankful of soldiers with some single-handed superheroics, deserted after his entire platoon was extinguished by “friendly fire.”

You could blame Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte), the old man, a reformed but once-vicious drunk, for his boys’ misfortunes, but I don’t think it would stick. One way or another, he has made thoroughgoing stoics of the two of them, such that the only thing that they have in common is no use for their father. If he is beneath their blame, he can’t have been all bad.

Whatever you do, don’t stay away from Warrior because of my high-flown indignation about the American let-down. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to pin this kind of critical response to Warrior if Garrett Keizer’s bleak valediction hadn’t been ringing in my ears. Go to see the sterling performances given by the three actors whom I’ve mentioned, as well as by Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo, and Kevin Dunn. I went primarily to see the startlingly versatile Tom Hardy, and to say that he did not disappoint would be the understatement of the millennium.


Jenny Diski is one of my favorite journalists, and to meet her in the pages of The New Yorker is a real treat. The Diary entry at her regular venue, the London Review of Books, is, not surprisingly, somewhat more provocative — The New Yorker already has plenty of writers who do “provocative.” Consider Janet Malcolm! — but it’s no smarter. Writing about shoplifting in the glossier publication, Diski retails a story that I thought I must already have read in her brisk memoir, The Sixties (which I’ve shelved right next to Lynn Barber’s An Education), but that I can’t, this morning, find there. From “The Secret Shopper”:

“…If you act like it’s yours no one will ask you to pay for it.” I found this to be true. Running an alternative school with almost no money in the early seventies, I made trips to a large bookstore in London and piled up reference books and textbooks until the tower nestled under my raised chin. Then I confidently walked out of the shop. Several times. No one ever stopped me. I had no qualms. It was a corporate-owned shop, and the books I stole were for the educationally and socially deprived kids I was working with. Even better than acting like its yours is righteously believing that it’s yours, or, at any rate, that you are robbing capitalistic hoods to feed the minds of the poor.

Of course, this sort of uplift is quite aside the point of Diski’s review of a new book about shoplifting — inferior, she thinks, to an earlier one from which it borrows — the point being that, hey, what a surprise, shoplifting was regarded as a gendered crime from the get-go (from the early days of the department store, that is), and then a gendered disease (kleptomania or hysteria, take your pick). Readers of The Sixties know that Diski has a particular interest in the treatment of mental unrest, and her Diary entry at the LRB is a highly discomfiting consideration of the Three Christs experiment that Milton Rokeach conducted in Michigan in 1959. Rokeach wanted to see how well three men, each claiming to be God, would be able to hold on to their professed identity if they were obliged to meet on a daily basis. Diski does a fine job of hoisting the good doctor.

“Because it is not feasible to study such phenomena with normal people, it seemed reasonable to focus on delusional systems of belief in the hope that, in subjecting them to strain, there would be little to lose and, hopefully, a great deal to gain.” This is a very magisterial “non-deluded” view of who in the world has or has not little to lose. Evidently, the mad, having no lives worth speaking of, might benefit from interference, but if they didn’t, if indeed their lives were made worse, it hardly mattered, since such lives were already worthless non-lives. It also incorporated that bang-up-to-the-minute idea that if you want to know about normality you could do worse than watch and manipulate the mad. The three Christs themselves, however, were of the certain opinion that they had something valuable to lose and made truly heroic effors, each in his own way, to resist, as well as to explain to Rokeach and his team that their lives had considerable meaning for them. All of them … had a very clear understanding of what it was to be deluded, why it might be a useful option to choose over normality, and who did and didn’t have the right to interfere in their self-selected delusions. Over the course of the research, each man indicated how far he was prepared to go along with Rokeach, how much he valued what was on offer, and when his boundary had been reached. And they did it with more than ordinary grace and dignity.

I think that it’s Diski’s ability to appreciate that grace and dignity that keeps her anger from consuming her alive.


I went to bed quite early last night; I was asleep shortly after ten. I was leaning on Lunesta pretty hard — I wasn’t actually sleepy — and it took a while to do its thing. But I did what I could to help. I concentrated on being comfortable in bed, and I thought about what I would write here when I got up in the morning. When I did get up, it was still completely dark, and as I lay in bed for a bit I couldn’t help worrying that I ought to try to get back to sleep; I had to remind myself that, no, I had slept enough, and now it was time to get up. Which I thereupon did.