Archive for the ‘Reading Note’ Category

Gotham Diary:
21 September 2011

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Although he approves of the way that the writing table has been arranged overall, Ray Soleil does not care for the side-by-side vases. “It looks like a shop,” says he.  I say that it’s a variation on urns. The yellow one was purchased in Key West for next to nothing; I’d have bought two if I’d thought I could pack them safely. Placed between yourself and the source of daylight, it becomes a second sun. The crystal number on the right is Steuben. I believe that it was presented to Kathleen’s father upon the achievement of some large project or other. Now Steuben itself s’achève. Only the other day, I was looking at their latest catalogue, all unaware that the famous producer of luxury goods was about to be shut down, but troubled nonetheless to see that their latest tchotchka was a crystal cupcake. A crystal apple I can see. Apples are naturally firm. Not so buttercream frosting. It was, evidently, a portent.


I saw Drive yesterday, and I really liked it! I don’t know why Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, finds it unnecessarily gory. Los Angeles is a terrible place! Beautiful in its way, perhaps, but all but overtly savage. I’m speaking, of course, of the mythical Los Angeles that has inspired filmmakers since the days of film noir. Drive feels like American Gigolo, as reconceived by David Lynch. Moments of violence are just that, compressed into short bursts that never last as long as a minute. And they are always backed up, as it were, by ghastly people, notably Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman. I can’t resist suggesting that Nino is the role that Mr Perlman was misbegotten to play; and, as for Albert Brooks, it’s as though the dark swarm of mayflies that consistently blotted all sunniness out of his many comedies were finally openly acknowledged as his company of familiars, so that, for once, the actor doesn’t come across as neurotic. He’s not fussy this time; he’s demanding. There’s a big difference.

Nicholas Winding Refn’s finest directorial decision was to leave the cops out of it altogether. (We see them in the opening getaway caper, mostly through windshields; but the protagonist’s appearance in costume as a stunt driver is the last time that we see a uniform in this study of Angeleno lawlessness.) In the absence of officers of the law, Nino and Bernie (Mr Brooks) roam the earth unchallenged — at least until they run into the Driver (Ryan Gosling). Refn’s most interesting decision is to film his action story as a sequence of visual panels: I regarded Drive as a graphic movie. Movement is contained within large, fixed frames, and close-ups are as still as Vermeer’s tronies. In the earlier part of the picture, the Driver and Irene (Carey Mulligan) gaze at each other with an impassioned, soon-to-burst self-containment that hasn’t been seen since the silents, and, believe me, they reinvent the look. They pause on the verge of embrace, savoring every imaginable aspect of what it will feel like to kiss. (And when they do, it’s not just a kiss, but also an adieu and a feint.) It’s quite as though the film has stuck in the sprockets and is about to burn (a feature of moviegoing that has gone the way of the silents).


Are we at war with the United Kingdom yet? Just saying. Have you read Janet Malcolm’s piece on large-format photographer Thomas Struth yet? It’s in the current issue of The New Yorker (dated Sept 26), and the last paragraph on page 95 is where you want to start reading. Turn the page to find out how far you get before the magazine falls from your grip. I’ll spare you Thomas Struth’s “coarse reference to the royal bosom” — but note Malcolm’s incredibly sneaky manner of telling us exactly how, in former times, she would have been constrained to refer to it — and proceed to the second most-offensive paragraph in the piece, which is, again, about Queen Elizabeth, who together with her husband the Duke of Edinburgh are the subjects of a photograph commissioned by Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.

My first impression was of a vaguely familiar elderly couple posing for a formal portrait in a corner of the palatial Minneapolis hotel ballroom where their fiftieth wedding anniversary is being celebrated. The pair were seated on an ornate settee, and my attention was drawn to the woman’s sturdy legs in beige stockings, the right knee uncovered where the skirt of her pale-blue silke dress had hitched up a bit as she settled her ample figure into the settee; and to her feet, in patent-leather pumps planted firmly on the fancy hotel carpet. Her white hair was carefully coifed, in a sort of pompadour in front and fluffy curls on the sides, and her lipsticked mouth was set in an expression of quiet determination. The man — a retired airline pilot? — was smaller, thinner, recessive. They were sitting a little apart, not touching, looking straight ahead. Gradually, the royal couple came into focus as such, and the photograph assumed its own identity as a work by Struth, the plethora of its details somehow tamed to serve a composition of satisfying serenity and readability.

“Fancy hotel carpet” practically doubled me over. Malcolm has a point: hotels in Minneapolis and elsewhere have appropriated the look of royalty. Question is, can royalty work on a new look? And it must be said that the Her Majesty’s shift, while evidently well made of and of good material, is a house dress.

I finished reading Andrew Thompson’s biography of Elizabeth’s venerable ancestor George II yesterday, and I hope to start writing it up this afternoon. I may have read more into Thompson’s book than is actually there, but I came away impressed by the portrait of a man who thoroughly understood how a world that has vanished worked. That it vanished — that, specifically, the Holy Roman Empire within which George figured not unimportantly for a long stretch of the Eighteenth Century, came to an end well before he had been dead for a hundred years — does not mean that George was a fool to play his cards very well, according to the rules then in force. We can look at his reign as a string of decades during which the cabinet system that currently governs Britain was given the unintended chance to germinate, largely during the king’s absences. That’s easy. Thompson makes us understand why the king was absent: while in England he was already constitutionally constrained to work with ministers who attained power within the Houses of Parliament, whether he liked them or not, George was, as Elector of Hanover, an absolute, if benevolent, monarch. Which would you rather be? I myself would find it much more agreeable to have my untrammeled way in a prosperous principality, with my principal subjects gathering in my palace every Sunday to honor me even when I was in distant London, than to deal with high-maintenance aristocrats of whose manners I could only find presumptuous. I might not be riding the wave of the future, but I’d be sitting pretty.

Gotham Diary:
10 September 2011

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

If I told you how I feel today — listless, achy, mildly anxious and even somewhat depressed — you might urge me to take either a quick nap or a long walk, depending upon your philosophy. Even I regard my low spirits as just that — low spirits, nothing somatic. But spirits are no less somatic than the rest of my anatomy, and the cure for what ails them awaits me on Wednesday, in the form of a Remicade infusion. I have to remind myself that the infusion will make me feel better, because I don’t feel sick at all, in the sense of needing medical attention. But I do need medical attention. It’s very odd, to have grown up in one medical environment, and then to be growing old in an entirely different one.

I did nothing yesterday but go to the movies and read. I saw Crazy Stupid Love, which, aside from its crazy stupid title, is a sweet if quirky films, one of those romantic comedies the shared fondness for which will lead some people to discover that they are soul mates. The plot, such as it is, is both abrupt and vague, a combination that certainly makes you pay attention, which you’re happy to do because the actors are so engaging. I am not a fan of the flamboyant strangeness of Steve Carrell’s impersonation of ordinary guys, but I thank him for reminding me that ordinariness is no more to be trusted, expected, or relied upon than is extraordinary behavior. It’s possible that Julianne Moore was miscast; it’s so much easier to see her as the smiling but unhappy wife of a John C Reilly or a Dennis Quaid than as the confused but happy wife of a Steve Carrell. (And better than either is seeing her as the assertively insecure drinking buddy of a Colin Firth.) But Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfect for this film, and they hang together, usually silently, in their scenes with other characters in the way the real couples do; perhaps they will make some more movies together. I couldn’t make up my mind about Jonah Bobo, but there’s no doubt that this kid will have a future if he plays his cards right. Analeigh Tipton is a lovely young lady who has the ability, exhibited best by Japanese actresses, to absorb what is happening around her and to register it for the viewer’s sake, as if privately. And don’t let me forget Marisa Tomei, whose role is something like a brick in a clothes drier — it’s the “crazy” part of the movie, structurally — but who makes the absolute mostest of what she’s been given to work with, as indeed she always does. Kevin Bacon’s role, as the man who cuckholds Steve Carrell’s character, is just about as thankless as a part can be, and it shows off the ageing of his lean good looks pretty gruesomely. I can’t say anything about the story, not only because it hinges on some well-contrived surprises, or because the loverboy spends what ought to be the big sex scene confessing an addiction to buying things that he doesn’t want or need on the Home Shopping Network. But when Steve Carrell gives Ryan Gosling’s cheek one of those friendly alpha-male slaps, and Emma Stone murmurs, “This is going to be fun,” you quite agree, and then Mr Carrell delivers another slap and it’s a wrap.

As for reading, I finished Anthony Flint’s Wrestling With Moses and began Rachel Brownstein’s Why Jane Austen. The Epilogue of Flint’s book cleared up a big puzzle for me, which was how it came to be that The Power Broker never mentioned Jane Jacobs. It seems that there was to be an entire chapter about her tango with Moses, along with chapters on the Port Authority and the City Planning Commission, but these, together with “detail on the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers,” were cut from Caro’s massive tome. I haven’t written about The Power Broker as a whole, but I did notice that the narrative becomes somewhat miscellaneous after 1940. I hope that a complete edition, the “directors cut,” including all of Caro’s work on Robert Moses, will be published at some point, and I’m quite shocked that it hasn’t been republished as a two-volume set, especially given the sprawl of the author’s ongoing work on Lyndon Johnson, with its fourth volume forthcoming.

Why did I buy Why Jane Austen?? It was recently reviewed somewhere along with William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Eduction, and I was drawn to a book by a professor who is no longer sure about regarding herself as “feminist critic.” Actually, a lot of things have changed since Brownstein “came to consciousness in the mid 1950’s, when students were enjoined to keep an author at arms length, until just before the beginning of this century, when “Jane” (aka “Austen”) became a symbol of her sex and close to a sex symbol, a “name” and a star and in the common phrase an icon.” In other words, Brownstein’s appreciation of Austen is an autobiographical matter, and thus flouts a principle that students were even more stringently enjoined to observe fifty years ago: the ban on personal references. There are still curmudgeonly readers out there — some of them, even, are women — who won’t fail to smack a critic with the remark, “I don’t care what you think of Jane Austen.” Most of them are deep into Social Security territory, though. We have by and large outgrown the childish dream of objective, impersonal criticism. (Smart people no longer believe that all intellectual activity ought to be patterend on the conduct of the physical sciences.)

Opening up Why Jane Austen?, I was immediately drawn to the last chapter, entitled “Why We Reread Jane Austen.” The simple answer is that we reread Jane Austen because she gets better with reacquaintance, but I wanted to hear what Rachel Brownstein had to say. The chapter turns out to be almost entirely about Emma, which I’ve just reread for the sixth time (seven readings in all), and about which I have a few things to say — namely, that I detect a four-movement structure beneath its somewhat languid narraive course. I may write about it here, but eventually my thoughts will form part of a suite of pages about Jane Austen’s fiction collected at Civil Pleasures. And while I’m writing up my notes, I ought to read what I’ve already written at Portico, which is where the collection is currently lodged. Brownstein said nothing of Emma‘s structure — “there’s not much of a plot” — but her unpacking of the novel’s concept of “information” is spellbinding. When I was through, I went back to begin at the beginning, and in the Introduction I encountered a truth that needs to be universally acknowledged, at least among people who love to read Jane Austen.

As Juliet McMasteer wisely observes, “We all want to write about Jane Austen, but we each of us want to be the only one doing it. We want everyone to admire Jane Austen, but we each suspect the others do it the wrong way.”

Because when you’ve overcome the urge to have the last word about Jane Auste, you can enjoy reading about her, secure in the knowledge that this is going to be fun.

Before going to bed, I watched Douglas McGrath’s 1996 adaptation of Emma, which Brownstein mentions several times in the final chapter, and I was astonished, having just read the book myself, by the extent of its fabricated upholstery of dialogue and scenes. (Archery, indeed! Jane driving about in a gig!) The finished product seems largely true to the novel, but it gets there by an alternative route.

2 September 2011

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

For some time, I’ve been hankering to re-read a favorite classic, and I suppose that my simply putting it that way assured that Emma would be my choice. I love no book more. And, familiar as it is, the novel still bristles with complicating mysteries. It seems to be more shapeless than Austen’s other novels, but the appearance must be deceptive, because comedy of such civilized intensity cannot possibly emerge from haphazard construction. Rather, it is my taste that is at fault, too gross to discern the pattern. On this reading, my seventh or eighth, I sense Austen’s slyness. She begins with an ending, the end of Emma’s happy enjoyment of Miss Taylor’s company. The entire first chapter is a novel in its own right. Where can the story go from there? The novel gets going in earnest — not that you’d sense this if you hadn’t read the novel several times — at the end of the third chapter, with the introduction of Harriet Smith. Chapter 5 shifts the point of view away from Emma, as Mr Knightley tells Mrs Weston (as Miss Taylor has become) that he doesn’t think that Emma’s association with Harriet will do either girl any good. For the first time, Emma’s defects are stated rather than implied. “I am much mistaken if Emma’s doctrines give any strength of mind, or tend at all to make a girl adapt herself rationally to the varieties of her situation in life. They only give a little polish.” This is not a declaration of war — that comes three chapters later, with Mr Knightley’s thundering tirade, “‘Not Harriet’s equal!'” — but it more than hints at hostilities to come. Knowing that the enemies (the heroine and her brother-in-law) will ultimately negotiate a peace that flourishes in true love only (and oddly) increases the suspense.

Was it the second or the third time that I read Emma that left me feeling slightly scorched?

She had always wanted to do everything, and had made more progress, both in drawing and music, than many might have done with so little labour as she would ever submit to. She played and sang, and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting; and in nothing had she approached the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of. She was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as an artist or a musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.

Ouch. This passage used to make me feel found out, as it would Emma itself. Now it just makes me sad, because, like Emma, I got used to doing things too surprisingly well without much effort to strive to do anything really well. My piano teacher warned me again and again not to play “by ear,” but it was so much easier for me to do so  than actually to learn to read music that I can follow a score only when I’m listening to the music. In a similar way, I dodged every occasion on which I might have been obliged to study Latin; victorious over Caesar, I never captured Horace. Above all — and out of vanity exactly like Emma’s — the thing that I worked hardest at was avoiding the appearance of working hard.

When did I read Emma for the first time? I don’t recall. The copy of the novel that I have with me, a leatherette-bound Collins edition of 1953 that was part of a boxed set, has a note on the endpapers indicating that I read the novel for the third time in 1970. That seems a little precocious — but I loved Emma from the start. And yet, like any true classic, it is always a different novel. This go-round, what I’m noticing is that Mr Knightley is indeed a bit rough, “knightly” or not depending on your ideas of men in medieval armor. He is no prince. He makes me just as uncomfortable as he does Emma; almost every complaint that he has against her, adjusting for gender, was made to me, many times, by teachers and other grown-ups; like Emma, I wouldn’t listen. It was only Jane Austen herself, the second or third time that I read her masterpiece, who could get my attention. By then, I had gotten in more scrapes and created more havoc than Emma ever dreamed of, but I was not beyond repair. Whatever else might have been better in my life, my marriage to Kathleen cannot have been improved; almost always a source of happiness, it has, as it approaches its thirtieth anniversary, become something more than that, something that I can’t quite (or daren’t quite) name. I can’t think of anyone who deserves more credit for my side of the business than Jane Austen.

Reading Note:
MacCulloch on Christianity
Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is one of those books that you read because, hey, come on, it’s required. Its thousand-page length makes you sigh, but you sit down and open it up and find that it’s really very readable. You notice that its twenty-five chapters are broken up into subheadings that are rarely more than fifteen pages long, and usually shorter than that. Some of it will be familiar. Much of it won’t be. (Ethiopian Christianity, for example — you’re probably not up on that.) Never before will you have come across the bits and pieces that you do know in a single, steady-voiced context, one that makes it easy to accommodate the things are new.

From time to time, you’ll have a faintly jarring sense that the context itself is odd. Saints and popes and theologians and the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets and of course Jesus and Peter and Paul crowd the pages, but although MacCulloch’s tone is superbly respectful, he is not at all ecclesiastical: we are not in church here. Christianity is onsidered as an institution, evolving, splintered, quarrelsome, and, like every other institution, very imperfect. Although the author frowns on burning heretics at the stake and other overzealous abuses of power (we always know that they’re wrong, afterward), he does not judge the faith or the convictions of the men (and very few women) whom his story brings before us. He is at least as ambivalent about Augustine of Hippo as Augustine was himself inconsistent.

There are a few points that I’d have like to see sharpened, for example the pre-emption of high clerical offices by the aristocratic families of Europe — and the Roman Catholic Church’s ossifying complacency with that arrangement. And I’m still convinced that the imperial subsidization of “cult” underlay a lot of the doctrinal divide that so vociferously emerged when Constantine established Christianity — not the response that he was expecting! But I am never  going to write a history of Christianity, and it’s just as well that MacCulloch’s genuinely ecumenical narrative claims the canonical spot for the time being. 

There have been church histories before, but they’ve been written either by churchmen or (less often) by anti-clerical polemicists. In other words, there really haven’t been any church histories. Even most educated people still see the Roman Catholic Church as it liked to be seen during the centuries in which it controlled the history-writing: a serene, unchanging magisterium beset from time to time by noxious disobedience, until the tragedy of the Reformation, to which the Church responded by making itself even more unchanging and serene. The course of true faith was a lot bumpier than that.

With the Reformation, many of those noxiously disobedient voices attained respectable and permanent platforms, and Protestants were very quickly divided among themselves on the answer to a question that the Church had managed to muffle: is our afterlife predestined? There were many other points of difference, too, but nothing could ever be settled for long in a body of religions that shared a common foundation in apocalyptic fervor and an ever-renewed coterie of believers in the imminence of End Times. Christianity has endowed the world with an extraordinary ethic of benevolence, but implementing this ethic has always been made difficult by Christianity’s refusal to honor earthly, material ends. The world is not good enough for Christianity — it’s really that simple.

How wonderful it would be if Christian impatience stopped at the self: we would all be kept busy working on our shortcomings, especially the ones that interfere with helping others. And helping others would be the final objective. What sullies the Christian mission in my eyes is the gross, greedy, and ill-considered longing for personal resurrection. That, unfortunately, is as central to Christian doctrine as anything in the Sermon on the Mount. 

But there I go, telling you what I think. I’m just as glad that  MacCulloch refrains, for the most part, from doing so. Although the book inspired a lot of spicy thinking, I read it with a level head, every now and then knocked dumb by one of the two or three odd terms that constitute key markers for MacCulloch. These would include “Chalcedonian” and “Miaphysite.” They’re not unrelated. Quarrels about the nature of the Trinity persisted long after the Council of Nicaea, which did not, despite what you were taught, wrap things up for good. The relations between the Three Persons might have been settled, but who, really was Jesus? The Miaphysites — formerly, disrepectfully called “monophysites” — believed that Christ had a single nature, an “indwelling by the Logos.” Their opponents, the Dyophysites, known to us as Nestorians, believed that Christ’s nature was dual, containing both the divine and “the new Adam.” At Chalcedon in 451, a council endorsed a compromise definition that “left bitter discontents on either side in the Eastern Churches.” The Ethiopians were Miaphysites, as were (and are) Armenians; the Nestorians, of which Syriac Christianity is an exponent, expanded into China.

But don’t take my word for any of this; I believe that my mind has lost the vestigial organ of thought that would enable it to consider such matters to be worthy of understanding. I was surprised to see phrases such as “Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian alike” popping up in much later contexts. The ongoing battle between Calvinists and Arminians is a little easier to grasp, but I had the damnest time telling the difference between Evangelicals and Pentecostals, whom I’ve always put in the same cubbyhole. Which is a Chalcedonian thing to do, I suppose: tossing the radicals at both extremes into the same bag of mortally opposed uncompromising hotheads.  

Christianity obviously has a long-lived subject that no purely secular institution can match. No nation — except for China, and that just barely, and with interruptions — has lasted anywhere near as long. Clovis, and, with him, France, appears on page 323. The Holy Roman Empire is almost an irrelevance. It’s unusual to read a book that talks about Homer and Abraham at the beginning and Great Awakenings and Abolition near the end, but the glory of Christianity is that the connection between then and now is always palpable and always strong, even if it’s not always entirely understandable. It turns out that American Evangelicals are hardly the first bunch of Christians to take an interest in the Holy Land that’s predicated on the (very unlikely) conversion of the Jews. An Evangelical Alliance of Britons and Germans were working on a plan to repatriate Jews (and then convert them) as early as 1846. Because how can the End Times take place before the conversion of the Jews? The one little factoid that I am never going to forget is that the idea of Pre-Tribulation Rapture was first popularized by a former Anglican priest from Ireland by the name of John Nelson Darby, in 1827. Sometimes, there’s something new under the sun.

Reading Note:
Day Tripper
Thursday, 21 July 2011

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Travel books don’t, as a rule, capture my fancy, and perhaps Ina Caro’s Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train, which did, shows why. The territory that it covers couldn’t be more familiar to me — unless I  actually visited all of them. I know a lot about the churches and castles that Caro visits on a series of day trips, especially about the personages who built and enjoyed them. I won’t say that I didn’t learn anything from Paris to the Past, but learning was not the point. Spending virtual time with Ina Caro was the point. It would sound snarky to say that this book is all about her, but it is very much her distinctive sharing of encounters with grand old piles and the tittle-tattle that still echoes in them that gives the book its substance. 

The wife of Robert Caro, eminent biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Ina Caro has already written a book about her earlier travels through France. For many years, the Caros spent their vacations driving around France, and Ina arranged their itinerary so that it corresponded to the chronology. Touring the Loire valley, they visited the famous chateaux in the order in which they were built. If there is a better way of instilling history in the human mind, I’d like to know what it is. 

Traveling chronologically worked not only historically but architecturally, since architecture not only reflects both the spirit and needs of its age, but also evolves over the years, one style developing from another. Each age or style incorporates certain aspects of its predecessor and eliminates those that have become obsolescent or undesirable. For example, arches change. The soaring rounded Roman arch found at Orange, Arles, and Nîmes, built to overwhelm with its magnificence, crumbles. Its stones litter the years of the Dark Ages before it begins to rise again. When it rises, it is first the squat, rounded arch of the early Christian Church. Over the centuries, it rises higher and higher, and is transformed from austerity and simplicity into the elaborate storytelling arch of the eleventh-century Romanesque arch. And then, when at the very pinnacle of this beauty, for example, at Vézelay in Burgundy, it is transformed again into the pointed Gothic arch of Saint-Denis. Over the next period of three hundred years, the Gothic arch evolves from simplicity to flamboyance and then, when simplicity is once again desired, it becomes the simple arch of the early Renaissance. 

To visit the relics of the past in this way animates the evolution of style in a way that easily accommodates all the facts and figures that you can stuff into your head — in their chronological order. 

At some point, the Caros rented an apartment on the Left Bank and liked it so much they gave up driving around and staying at provincial hotels. The author soon discovered, however, that this need not put an end to sightseeing. The French railways had improved over the years to such an extent that the bond between time and distance was broken: a TGV might get you to Orléans in the little more time that a regular train would take to get you to Fontainebleau. The RER commuter trains radiating from Paris made local trips more convenient as well. And there was always the Métro. Paris to the Past is the result. 

Saint-Denis is the first stop, and it sets the tone, because both the abbey itself and getting there are more pleasant than they were when Caro paid her first visits. It’s a happy beginning, because Abbé Suger, the extraordinary monk who advised his former classmate, Louis VII, while overseeing the construction of the first building that we recognized as Gothic (those pointed arches), is one of Caro’s favorite historical figures. She manages to make him sound like one of us, but without wallowing in cloying anachronism. “I should mention that most of what we know about Suger comes from his autobiography. … And, I should emphasize that, like most autobiographies, Suger’s should not be totally trusted.” 

Caro divides all of day-trippable France into five parts: the Medieval, the Renaissance, the Golden Age, the Enlightenment, and the Napoleons. That’s six cathedrals, three fortresses, two Renaissance châteaux, four palaces, three towns, one restoration, and Joan of Arc. And lots and lots of Paris. She goes to Blois; I wondered why she didn’t go to Chambord until I took a look at its location at Google Maps. It’s in the middle of nowhere! As you can tell, I haven’t been. I wish that she had visited Chinon, because that’s he hometown of my friend JR, but perhaps it’s just as well that she didn’t, because she might have had something for saying which loyalty would require me to hate her.

Caro’s favorite place is probably Vaux-le-Vicomte, and she devotes a few very readable pages to a very positive portrait of poor old Fouquet, making it clear that it was not the big party that did him in. Fouquet was already doomed. He had attempted to buy the influence of Louis’s first maîtresse en titre, the (otherwise) saintly Louise de La Vallière — that was a mistake! So was fortifying a private island off the Breton coast. “Fouquet seems not to have taken the measure of the man with whom he was dealing,” Caro writes, “while Louis understood Fouquet all too well.” Another favorite figure is François Premier, who does seem to have fallen into historiographical decline. “As hard as I have tried, I haven’t been able to get Bob, who remains fascinated by Napoleon, even slightly interested in Francis.” Now, there’s a marital discussion that would make for fun eavesdropping. As for Louis XIV, like most admirers of the Sun King, Caro has little good to say about the Widow Scarron, and one senses that her visit to the château at Maintenon is designed to provide an opportunity to say lots of bad. 

Paris appears in four of the  five parts, a reminder that, while Paris is full of old buildings, the really old buildings were not built all at once, but have survived, by the grace of whatever deity oversees cities. (Caro doesn’t mention that the Sainte Chapelle was subjected to the post-Revolutionary travail of being put to use as a granary; perhaps it wasn’t!) Her chapter on the Louvre reminds me how much France has changed in my lifetime. It was the excavations for I M Pei’s celebrated pyramid that uncovered remnants of the foundations of Charles V’s Fourteenth-Century fortress — proof that the artist of the nearly-contemporary Très Riches Heures wasn’t daydreaming when he drew the building. 

Caro closes with Mozart at Palais Garnier (she does not mention Opéra Bastille), where, at the last minute, Ina and Bob are able to pick up some fantastically expensive tickets for “the best seats in the house” — for a matinee. This must make it easier for Caro to imagine the opulent jewels and dresses that appear on the opera nights of our time only in severely anorexic form. Paris has changed so much that it’s perfectly all right to go to the opera in the middle of the day, wearing whatever nice street clothes you had on at lunch. The fact that the true theatre of Napoleon III’s empire took place on the grand stairways, not in the auditorium, is not lost on Caro, but she doesn’t mind that the present doesn’t get in the way. “When we entered the theatre, I looked at the ceiling, designed by Marc Chagall, which was definitely not nineteenth-century neo-baroque, but somehow worked.”

Sitting there in this glorious palace built in a city filled with palaces, my mind drifted back to the soaring cathedrals, the moated fortressees, and opulent castles I had visited, and I could think of no better way to end my magical journey through time. 

Now, that’s an ending!

Periodical Note:
John Lachester on Austerity, in the LRB
Monday, 18 July 2011

Monday, July 18th, 2011

In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester’s comment, “Once Greece goes…” (dated 30 June), approaches its conclusion (on the vexing differentness of the German ecomony) with an eloquent capture of the growing public mood that is pushing back at the consequences of generations of European political condescension. I have rendered the strongiest feelings bold.

The Greek people are furious to be told by their deputy prime minister that ‘we ate the money together’; they just don’t agree with that analysis. In the world of money, people are privately outraged by the general unwillingness of electorates to accept the blame for the state they are in. But the general public, it turns out, had very little understanding of the economic mechanisms which were, without their knowing it, ruling their lives. They didn’t vote for the system, and no one explained the system to them, and in any case the rule is that while things are on the way up, no one votes for Cassandra, so no one in public life plays the Cassandra role. Greece has 800,000 civil servants, of whom 150,000 are on course to lose their jobs. The very existence of those jobs may well be a symptom of the three c’s, ‘corruption, cronyism, clientelism’, but that’s not how it feels to the person in the job, who was supposed to do what? Turn down the job offer, in the absence of alternative employment, because it was somehow bad for Greece to have so many public sector workers earning an OK living? Where is the agency in that person’s life, the meaningful space for political-economic action? She is made the scapegoat, the victim, of decisions made at altitudes far above her daily life – and the same goes for all the people undergoing ‘austerity’, not just in Greece. The austerity is supposed to be a consequence of us all having had it a little bit too easy (this is an attitude which is only very gently implied in public, but it’s there, and in private it is sometimes spelled out). But the thing is, most of us don’t feel we did have it particularly easy. When you combine that with the fact that we have so little real agency in our economic lives, we tend to feel we don’t deserve much of the blame. This feeling, which is strong enough in Ireland and Iceland, and which will grow steadily stronger in the UK, is so strong in Greece that the country is heading for a default whose likeliest outcome, by far, is a decade of misery for ordinary Greeks.

As we ponder this divide between the general public and “money,” it seems that our navigational charts are severely out of date. Territories previously marked “Here Be Communists” are now otherwise occupied. Almost everyone wants a decent change to do better, which means that almost no one is interested social levelling. But we have learned the hard way that while financiers may know how to make money, that’s usually all they know. Allowing them to set public policy is what produced the the worldwide debt crisis.

Our old poles — communist/capitalist, liberal/conservative — are less and less magnetic; they don’t serve to organize our ideas effectively. Complicating the current world situation is the gradual withdrawal of a one-time outgoing tide of social conservatives who will never be replaced — not, at least, for a very long time. Which are the problems that will persist in the wake of that ebbing, and that therefore require serious consideration?

Our governments, for all their modern apparatus, date back to ancien régime foundations. The distinction between public and private sectors has its origins in Renaissance state formantion, and represents the breakdown of the feudal hegemony, in which the distinction made no sense. Prior to the Seventeenth Century, the state was looked to for little more than military defense and the odd festal monument. It was supposed to uphold the tangle of established rights that had grown up in the highly localized Middle Ages, but this was just another kind of military support; the state wasn’t supposed to take initiative with respect to these rights. That changed with the activist centralizers of early modern France, and the conflict between government and private interests was launched.

I think that we’re due for a new model.

Reading Note:
Michael Angier on Gilbert and Sullivan
Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

It is impossible to read Michael Ainger’s Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography without hearing the voice of Jim Broadbent intone the many, many letters and memoranda that are quoted in the text. It’s a testament to the spot-on casting of Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvey that not only do all the people in Ainger’s book seem weirdly familiar, as if you had known them, but even the photographs don’t do much to dent this effect. It’s uncanny that a film made by a proverbially vernacular writer-director should take on, over time, the patina of a Merchant-Ivory production. 

In any case, as I say, there are lots of letters. William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) was something of a terrier — unusual in someone tall and commanding. When he knew that he was right, he simply would not let go. And not only would he persist, but he would rail indignantly at anyone who complained about his persistence. He was only doing what was right! Surely no man should ever have to apologize for that! It’s amazing that he wasn’t put down by popular acclamation. Instead, as we know, he was hailed by popular acclamation, doubtless because the number of people who had to deal with him was a microscopic fraction of the number that enjoyed his writing for publication and for the stage. 

Sullivan is both more appealing and a greater disappointment. (Actually, there is really nothing disappointing about Gilbert at all, considered biographically; he was right!) Charming and easy-going, Sullivan liked pleasing people, so long as it pleased him to do so. He was also a weak man, as pleasure seekers often are when good things come easily. What was weak about Sullivan artistically wasn’t his yielding to financial temptation and writing the lucrative Savoy operas, it was rather his failure to recognize that this is what he was good at. He wasn’t strong enough to correct people who insisted that he was capable of “greater things” — that most Victorian of miasmas. Without equating Gilbert to Mozart, I would venture that Sullivan was very much like Lorenzo da Ponte, whose great work was summoned by a fertile collaboration. If Gilbert’s best work is also the fruit of that collaboration, it’s from a different kind of luck. Read the Bab Ballads, many of which are quite close to lyrics from the Savoy operas, and you’ll find that Gilbert was always Gilbert. (As was Mozart.) Sullivan wasn’t always Sullivan; perhaps it’s better to say that there were several Sullivans. Without Gilbert, away from topsy-turvydom, Sullivan could be fustian and turgid. 

But I am not here to assess the geniuses of Victorian musical theatre. Ainger tells us that his is the first joint biography in fifty years, and that he has made use of papers that were not available to his predecessor. He does not wear this scholarship lightly. This is partly the consequence of his narrative plan, which is chronologically straightforward. One damned thing, in other words, after another — and in the case of Gilbert’s touchy sense of honor and his inability to see the faults that others found so irritating (perhaps because he didn’t see them as faults), that means plenty beaucoup of damned things. The many short chapters are stuffed with minor details and incidents that are only slightly more interesting than shopping lists. A random example: 

Once again Sullivan put off working on the cantata or the opera. He went to the races for the opening of the spring season at Epsom on 6 April; two days later he was at the Grosvenor Gallery for a reception for Liszt organized by Walter Bache, and the next day, 9 April, Sullivan escorted Liszt to a smoking concert at St James Hall.

I leave it to you to find out what a smoking concert was (no great surprise); for my part, the bit about Sullivan’s two days at Epsom is so much noise. The chatter isn’t quite noisy enough, however, to conceal the most serious defect of Ainger’s book, its anemic grasp of Sullivan’s place in the history of serious European music. I don’t mean the evaluation of Sullivan’s compositions so much as his career as an all-round music man, from his student days at Leipzig to his connection with the Leeds Festival. There is no discussion of the qualities that led Nineteenth Century listeners to distinguish the serious popular success of Verdi from the frivolous popular success of Offenbach. This is important, because Sullivan’s froth was sophisticated (that’s why we still listen to it). Insofar as Sullivan was a gifted parodist, he was an enlightened critic of tastes and fashions. Ainger quotes a contemporary critic to the effect that Sullivan’s music would do nicely at least until the “English Beethoven” emerged. The composer who came closest to claiming that title, Edward Elgar, is mentioned only in passing, and his music, which infused the symphonic tradition with genuinely English sentiment (and not just tunes), is not discussed at all. Nor is there much background or context for Gilbert’s career as a playwright. Not unreasonably, perhaps, this dual biography is written from the perspective of the Savoy Theatre. But that’s the perspective of Richard D’Oyly Carte, whose biographical details are presented almost grudgingly, even though he is the unifying force throughout the book: Gilbert and Sullivan had almost no contact that Carte was unaware of. The limitation of this perspective is that everything that Gilbert or Sullivan does that doesn’t concern the Savoy seems flat and irrevelant. 

It would appear that I’m looking for a different book, a series of connected essays, perhaps, exploring the careers of each of these interesting men in a way that treats more comprehensively the matters that meant most to them and shrugs off Ainger’s almost extreme interest in his subjects’ appointment diaries and business correspondence. I’d like to have more in the way of thoughtful response to their output, and less — much less — of the commentary of newspapermen. Gilbert and Sullivan: A Dual Biography belongs on the shelf of anyone who loves the Savoy operas, but I hope that it inspires another writer or two to approach the lives of these two — three! — eminent Victorians from a different angle.

Reading Note:
Spanish Bull
Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

What was Guy Tremlett’s Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen doing in my Amazuke shopping cart? Well, I put it there, of course, but why? I should probably have taken it out if I hadn’t been in a big hurry to order A N Wilson’s Dante in Love last week. I couldn’t be bothered to delete the two books that were already there (Tremlett’s, and Clarke Hutton’s Picture History of Britain — not quite the mystery that Tremlett is), or to “save” them for later. The Wilson and the Hutton won’t ship until the middle of July, but Catherine arrived yesterday.

Arriving along with it were sentences such as the following (describing  the atmosphere in Alcalá de Henares, where Catherine was born in 1485): “In winter it freezes. A pales sun shines weakly from a clear pastel sky, losing its battle against the harshe, obstinate chill.” Well, we can infer that Tremlett, the Guardian‘s Madrid correspondent, knows what he’s talking about from personal experience. And that’s just the problem. What Guy Tremlett knows and doesn’t know about history often gets in the way of his story.

Pages earlier:

The man holding the mule’s reins was Archbishop Carillo of Toledo, primate of Spain — a formidable warrior priest and one of the wealthiest and most powerful political players in the land. He was also Isabel’s chief ally. The records do not say whether he was wearing the same scarlet cloak with a white cross that he was said to wear over his armour when leading his men into battle.

Oh dear oh dear. “Said to wear”? Wearing armour in battle in late-Fifteenth-Century battles? If the meeting of Isabel and her half-brother Enrique at Guisando was indeed the ritual reconciliation that Tremlett tells us it was, then the archbishop was almost certainlywearing his archiepiscopal kit. But, really, it doesn’t matter. It’s not important. The ritual is not important. A serious historian — and by this I mean a writer who wanted to tell the story of Catherine’s resistance to Henry’s demand for an annulment — might dispose of her mother’s encounter before “the four bulls of Guisando” in a sentence or two, or might not mention it at all.

The serious historian would instead concentrate on why Archbishop Carillo supported Isabel. We’re told that he hated Enrique, against whom he had rebelled (no details), and that he tried to talk Isabel out of the reconciliation. A miniseries might be equally informative without risking ennui.

That same serious historian, however, might well decide, after some preliminary research, that the tale of Catherine of Aragon can’t be told in a manner that modern readers will find satisfying. This isn’t just because she was a woman. In my view, it’s because the modern idea of personality had not fully developed — had barely begun to develop. According to the prevailing world view, men and women were all more or less fungible, distinguiable only in terms of accidents that, however consequential for history, had none of the densely personal roots that we call “psychological.” There was no psychology.

This isn’t to say that Catherine of Aragon didn’t have powerful feelings about her husband’s behavior. By and large, however, they appear to have been the feelings that she ought to have had, the feelings that went with her status as a Spanish princess who had conducted her side of the marriage in an entirely blameless manner. Neither she nor anyone who advised or opposed her — no one, in short — was equipped to suppose that her bull-headed insistence on her “rights” might result in the first magisterial rent in the fabric of Christendom. Had she yielded to Henry, and stepped aside — had it been easy for Clement VII to grant Henry’s request for an annulment — the history of the Reformation would have been unimaginably different.

That would have been a story — except that it could not have been. Only the realm of science fiction would support it. I don’t mean to say that Guy Tremlett’s book is not a good one. I’m sure that many readers will see a vivid past through its old-glass window panes. But it’s not my kind of book at all.

Library Note:
Back to Readerware
Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

When I was writing yesterday about John Armstrong’s civilization book, I wanted to follow up a reference to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. But where was it? It wasn’t where I thought it ought to be. Before giving up entirely, I checked a resource that I haven’t turned to in years, my Readerware database. And what do you know? Civilisation was right where Readerware said it would be. Which only goes to show — something. It shows that I haven’t been looking at Civilisation much, or it probably would have drifted to another shelf. Most of the locations given in the database are not current. Bringing Readerware up to date is going to be a big job. 

I gave up on Readerware because its interface was so kludgy. Well, that was part of it. The library was one of many, many things that were neglected when I began blogging in late 2004. It wasn’t until 2009, in fact, that I felt that I oughtn’t to have to spend quite so much time on the Web sites; I took up cooking again, for example. But the Readerware experience was rebarbative. It was so unlike Microsoft Access, which I’d used for about fifteen years until the files were lost in a malware crash in 2003. It had the look of something that wasn’t designed for a computer. But when Jason, my tech adviser, asked me to take a look at it a few weeks ago — I felt that I was ready to take up bookhandling again — I noticed that, unlike Version 2.0, Version 3.03 actually looks like a Windows database. I was not happy to hear Jason point out that Readerware is still the most popular private library-management application, but after a moue of regret, I thought, why not — I’ve already input information about thousands of books.

Then a month went by without my doing anything, so that no sooner was I fiddling with a get-reacquainted session the other day than the free-trial period expired, and I couldn’t access the files until the upgrade 3.03 was paid for and properly installed. The application needed to be loaded onto the laptop as well, and it made sense to store the database on the NAS server that enables me to work with Quicken and iTunes and all of my photographs from either of two computers. Jason took care of all of that. Just before he left today, I got out the bar-code scanner and swept Armstrong’s book into the database. Its location, tentatively, is “TBFP” — a pile, nearly four feet tall, of books that I’ve read in the past six months. I’m in no hurry to shelve them, because the pile compensates so nicely for the stacks of books that I haven’t read. Also, when people ask, “What have you been reading lately,” and I draw a deer-in-headlights blank, I can check out the TBFP. 

I’m in the mood to re-read Middlemarch, but I can’t find the Oxford Classics clothbound edition that Kathleen read not too long ago. What happened to it when she was done? Chissà. I almost popped into Barnes & Noble at lunchtime to pick up another copy, but was able to resist the impulse. There is plenty of other stuff to read right now. I got through another chapter of Wilhelm Genazino’s little novel, The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt. I’ve already mentioned my suspicion that this book reads much better in German, a hunch based on the original title, Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag — “an umbrella for this day.” Yesterday, I came across the line in the text. The narrator is at a dinner party. He has just been downsized in his shoe-testing work, so when another guest asks him what he does, he tells her that he runs an Institute for the Art of Memory and Experience. Frau Balkausen is intrigued, and asks “what kind of people I deal with at the Institute.” 

The people who come to us, I answer, a little hesitantly and at the same time as if it were routine, are people who sense that their lives !have become nothing more than one long drawn-out rainy day, and that their bodies are no more than the umbrella for this day.

Which certainly made me reconsider the novel’s many strange erotic encounters, many of which had triggered the “ew” reflex. More than ever convinced that Regenschirm (as I’ve taken to calling it) is one of those books that just doesn’t translate very well, I went to and bought a copy. My German isn’t really good enough to assess the quality of Genazino’s prose, but yesterday’s chapter transformed his novel from a chore into a charm. 

Meanwhile, I’m listening to my favorte Savoy operas round and round. As at the end of my last G & S jag, Patience is my favorite of the lot. There is something very pure and refined about the silliness in Patience — as befits a spoof of pre-Raphaelite aestheticism. The speedy concision with which Patience and Grosvenor fall in and out of romantic bliss takes my breath away. 

Patience: And it is possible that you condescend to love such a girl as I?
Grosvenor: Yes, Patience, is it not strange? I have loved you with a Florentine fourteenth-century frenzy for full fifteen years!
Patience: Oh, marvellous! I have hitherto been deaf to the voice of love. I seem now to know what love is! It has been revealed to me — it is Archibald Grosvenor!
Grosvenor: Yes, Patience, it is!
Patience: (as in a trance) We will never, never part!
Grosvenor: We will live and die together!
Patience: I swear it!
Grosvenor: We both swear it!
Patience: (recoiling from him) But — oh, horror!
Grosvenor: What’s the matter?
Patience: Why, you are perfection. A source of endless ecstasy to all who know you!
Grosvenor: I know am am. Well?
Patience: Then, bless my heart, there can be nothing unselfish in loving you!
Grosvenor: Merciful powers! I never thought of that!
Patience: To monopolize those features on which all women love to linger! It would be unpardonable!
Grosvenor: Why, so it would! Oh, fatal perfection, again you interpose between me and my happiness!

The rapdily-unfolding absurdity works the additional magic of preserving Grosvenor’s thoroughgoing fatuosness from becoming irritating. But there’s an underlying alchemy, and John Pemble describes it brilliantly in his review of Carolyn Williams’s new book, Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody (London Review of Books, 33/12, page 39). 

Gilbert communicated no real sense of chaos or panic because the instability of the world his characters inhabit is corrected by the stability of the language they speak. Lunatic logic and accelerating disorder are checked by metrical and elocutionary discipline. 

Which doesn’t mean that Gilbert’s lines are fussy. They’re just perfect. Consider the encounter of Phyllis, in Iolanthe, with the two nobleman to whom she offers herself when she discovers Strephon’s “infidelity” (and doesn’t believe, yet, that “the lady is his mother!”):

Lord Mountararat: Phyllis! My darling!
Lord Tolloller: Phyllis! My own!
Phyllis: Don’! How dare you? Oh, but perhaps you’re the two noblemen I’m engaged to?
Lord Mountararat: I am one of them.
Lord Tolloller: I am the other.
Phyllis: Oh, then, my darling! (to Lord Mountararat) My own! (to Lord Tolloller) Well, have you settled which it’s to be?
Lord Tolloller: Not altogether. It’s a difficult position. It would be hardly delicate to toss up. On the whole we would rather leave it to you.
Phyllis: How can it possibly concern me? You are both Earls, and you are both rich, and you are both plain.

“How can it possibly concern me,” asks the Arcadian shepherdess about her marital destiny. It doesn’t seem crazy so much as candid: a gallery of the coldly ambitious girls that Trollope described so much more convincingly than his heroines lines up behind her.

And then there’s the music. In his slightly fannish dual biography, Gilbert and Sullivan — this is one serious jag — Michael Ainger points to why Sullivan’s serious compositional projects were never as captivating as his Savoy work. Sullivan was basically a highly gifted playboy, a fun- and sun-seeker who could dash off engaging, even knowledgeable trifles in a series of all-nighters. A friend, John Goss, responded to his cantata, The Prodigal Son, with a caution. 

He praised his conducting, thought his orchestrations superb, and hoped Sullivan would try another oratorio, but he sounded a note of warning: “putting out all your strength — but not the strength of a few weeks or months, whatever your immidate friends may say.” Sullivan would never be capable of that long, sustained work. He preferred short, intensive bursts, followed by long periods of inactivity. 

Inactivity at the piano, that is.

Putting away Ian Bradley’s annotated edition of the G & S librettos, I see that I’ve acquired a new bookcase since I stopped updating Readerware. (I’ve acquired two, actually.) Putting the book back was a good occasion to update its location. Very easily done!

Reading Jennifer Egan (et alia):
Intense and Enigmatic Joy
Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Among the writers presentging their foundation  mythologies — how they became readers and writers — in the Summer Fiction issue of The New Yorker is Jennifer Egan. Egan offers up her brief career in “Archeology“; having realized that she was too squeamish for the pulse and flow of medicine, she was attracted by the dead humans of paleontology. Visions of foreign travel and exotic climes were splintered by the blinding heat of a field in Illinois. Her experience with a square meter of Native American remains started badly but improved, and when it improved to the point where Egan had learned what she needed to learn from it, she went back to San Francisco and saved up for a sojourn of non-invasive contact with living Europeans. “But my sojourn in Kampsville has stayed with me—the sensation I had of scraping away the layers between myself and a lost world, in search of its occupants.”

And I thought, is that it? I am still trying to put my hands on the qualities that make Egan’s fiction special. The best that I can do is to say that she captures in her prose — which is to say that she does more than merely describe — the temptations of the glamorously dodgy. Her characters are almost always doing something wrong, but it is rarely something very wrong: a matter of misdemeanors, not felonies. In A Visit from the Good Squad, Sasha not only steals things — little things, like cheap binoculars and pens and a child’s scarf — but she sets them out, as trophies, in her flat. Somehow the display seems as wrong as the kleptomania, and possibly worse. But it’s easy to miss what Egan’s characters avoid (for the simple reason that Egan is a mistress at leading the dance of fiction): the vicious and the disgusting. Their sins are sins of weakness, of giving in to the glittering trinket. And yet Egan invests these sins with all the desperate loss of Eve’s biting into the Apple, and then offering it to Adam. The first sin didn’t much look like one.

If it takes me a while to figure Egan out, I won’t mind. I’ve known her work for little more than a year (in which I’ve read everything, some of it twice), and that’s not very long for taking the measure of subtlety. It occurs to me that Egan belongs to the small company of great women writers because, unlike notable male novelists, she doesn’t trumpet her emotions or swish her toe in the nostalgia of lost youth; while, unlike the run of women writers, she takes an ironic (displaced) view not only of her characters but of the very art of fiction as well. (I maintain that the PowerPoint chapter of Goon Squad is a triumph of imaginative literature, and perhaps the degree zero of graphic fiction.) And while Egan assuredly wants to be read, I doubt that she wants to be grasped. (Men always do, and complain that they never are — why is that?) Much as I’d like to roll out a critical reading of Jennifer Egan that sparkles with insight, I’m going to distinguish between wanting to do it and wanting to have done it. I’m not going to let the latter impulse (which is of course the stronger) hurry me.

What a prolix old fool I am: this was meant to be an apology for not having finished John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization, a book that makes a number of highly sympathetic arguments about the linkage between virtue and prosperity (linkages, I say, not causalities). I completely share his horror of populism and its works; I also share his interest in popularization, which is the art of taking the trouble to strip away the non-essential accretions of sophistication from things that are beautiful and true. At one point, in connection with Abbé Suger of all people, Armstrong insists on the importance of charm. Can you think of a quality more deplored by modernism? Today’s cognitive revolution is demonstrating the many ways in which warmth and sympathy are vital to human fulfillment, and how deeply even the chilliest of us crave them, but our artists are taking their time about getting the message.

Realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to say anything solid about Armstrong’s book, I broke off at a keenly interesting place and went downstairs to collect the mail. Along the way, I read another foundation story, Salvatore Scibona’s “Where I learned to read.” The question has two answers. The first really answers a slightly different question: Where I learned that I wanted to learn how to read. That took place in an old shack outside his working-class home. The answer to the title question is “St John’s College at Taos.” Regular readers will know that nothing makes me happier than hearing about young people buckling down with the great books and loving it. “All things considered, every year since has been a more intense and enigmatic joy.” Exactly. 

Reading Note:
Back to Box Hill! (Further Words on A Jane Austen Education)
Monday, 6 June 2011

Monday, June 6th, 2011

“Being Good,” the fourth chapter of William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education, and the one that deals with Mansfield Park, is not particularly longer than the others, but it feels bigger. Not surprisingly, it is darker than the others. Mansfield Park is Austen’s one difficult novel, the difficulty being that we are never in love with nor wish for an instant to be Fanny Price. Fanny is very good, and she is not really so good that she is bad; when Deresiewicz strings together “prim, proper, priggish, prudish, puritanical” to describe her, the alliterative overkill suggests to a thoughtful ear that at least some of these words will be eaten before he is through with this novel. But Fanny is not enviable, and that’s something of a gyp for anyone accustomed, as who isn’t, to the pleasures of the other books. She is not inviting. Lots of readers, it seems, dislike her; and if you dislike Fanny Price, you are not going to enjoy Mansfield Park. At the end of the chapter, Deresiewicz confesses that he still doesn’t like her, but, perhaps because he is a student of literature, he makes this lack of affectionateness pay a handsome profit. 

What makes “Being Good” especially memoriable is the artfulness with which Deresiewicz parallels his account of the novel with his recollection of a post-graduate period in which he spent a lot of his free time with a friend from the past, college presumably, who was dating “a woman who’d been raised on the Upper East Side and gone to a fancy Manhattan private school.”

Her prep-school crowd was back in the city after college, dabbling in this or that and living the high life, and these were the people I started spending time around. It would have been hard not to. This was the upper crust, the world of Edith Wharton or F Scott Fitzgerald updated for the nineties: posh, polished young people who gave off a glow of glamour and sophistication that drew me like a moth. I was dazzled, I was seduced. It was an undreamed-of world of privilege, and I was grateful just to be able to watch. 

We can see where this is going, if not how long the gratitude will last. Just as he prefers Mary and Henry Crawford to the Bertrams and their poor relation, Fanny, so he dances witty attendance on people for whom being “high maintenance” is worse than being poor; gradually, he lets Jane Austen teach him that these preening birds of paradise are cold, calculaing wretches. He backs away from them even as he comes to an appreciation of Fanny’s moral beauty. He contrives to feel sorry for gilded youth. 

Being able to get whatever you want, Austen was showing me, leaves you awfully unhappy when you cannot get what you want.

At the highest levels of wealth, I heard, doing well meant no more than not having tried to kill yourself. 

If these nuggets taste of the sour lemon of resentment, dipped in the chocolate of Schadenfreude,  that does not invalidate Deresiewicz’s observations. The first time I read the chapter, I thought that he was being a bit hard on his old friends, but later I saw that what bothered him was passing so much time with people who weren’t his friends. This isn’t quite as explicit as it might be; “It would have been hard not to” is never refuted outright. The suggestion that there’s something wrong with this crowd because it is “privileged” hovers over the page. The simple truth, which Deresiewicz grasps, is that it’s wrong to pursue a social life as an act, which is of course what entering “the world of Edith Wharton … updated for the nineties” necessarily entails. The questionableness of mounting Lovers’ Vows without adult supervision — the drama in the middle of Mansfield Park — stands in for the dubiousness of the author’s dining upon upper crust. 

In the end, then, Deresiewicz learns how to “be good”: following Fanny’s example, he makes himself useful. (“Being Useful” would have been a much better title.)

Most of all, I practiced sitting still and listening — really listening. to friends, to students,even just to people I met, as their stories came stumbling out in the awkward, unpolished way that people have when you given them the freedom to speak from the heart. People’s stories are the most personal thing they have, and paying attention to those stories is just about the most important thing you can do for them. 

Indeed! Nothing could be more commendable, and as someone who finds talking much easier than listening, and listening to unshaped narratives almost penitentially hard, I certainly appreciate the effort. But the more I consider the truth of Deresiewicz’s conclusions, the more shocked I am by the cruelty of his portrait of that old friend of his, the one whose girlfriend provided entrée to the “magic kingdom.” It appears in the chapter’s pivotal paragraph.

But then, something happened to change my mind, not only about Mansfield Park but also about myself. A year or so after I’d begun to hang around the private-school crowd, my friend and his  irlfriend got married. It was more like a coronation than a wedding: a rehearsal dinenr the night before at an elegant restaurant overlooking the East River… [&c &c] And then as I was watching the dancing with some of the other single guys … one of them said, apropos of the groom, “Well, he got what he wanted.”

“What do you mean?” I said, looking over to where the newly married man, a big grin on his face, was shaking hands with some of his father-in-law’s friends — cool, confident men who looked like they knew where all the levers were. “He’s on the inside,” came the reply. “He’s been working on this for years.” My friend, it was true, was not of that world. He had grown up in the South, a professional’s son but the grandson of a state trooper, and his mother had been a stewardess. He had gradually worked his way up the chain of academic prestige, through college and graduate school, always traveling in a northeasterly direction, then came to the city, moving from job to job in the same fashion. But I had never imagined that the whole thing had been so calculated. 

The wife doesn’t come off too much better. Like Mary Crawford, she charms people because that’s what she does. It’s not who she is that matters. Unlike Lizzy Bennett, and even, in spite of herself, Emma Woodhouse, Mary Crawford is charming by design, and the friend’s wife shares her need for an appreciative audience. (“Apparently, no matter how poised and confident they seemed to be, they wren’t sufficiently convinced of it themselves.”) I expect that the day will come when William Deresiewicz hangs his head sadly and wishes that he could wipe this picture away from an otherwise sterling book. Of course it makes for arresting reading. But it is an insult. If his friend and his wife are not profoundly offended by this published assessment of their marriage, then they must be debased; we must in any case be offended on their behalf. 

I was about to say that it’s a pity that there is not a seventh novel in the Austen canon, to school the author in the inhumanity of wringing great copy out of the lives of others, But there’s no need; the very first one in Deresiewicz’s canon emblazons the lesson. Back to Box Hill, Bill!

Periodical Note:
Louis Menand on Higher Ed, in The New Yorker
Thursday, 2 June 2011

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

In his review of some of the depressing books about higher education that have been appearing right and left lately — among them, Professor X’s In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, which I think I’m going to have to read after all — Louis Menand advances three theories of education. They’re not essentially incompatible, and I don’t see why we can’t operate them concurrently. But most people, it seems, naturally favor one theory over the other two, and wonder why anyone would consider the others as viable alternatives. That’s almost as interesting as the theories themselves.  What everyone does agree about is that the Theory 1 approach is not for everyone.

Theory 1 holds that the purpose of higher education is to make the most of society’s most talented minds. This means not wasting energy on minds that display little or no academic talent. It means winnowing and culling, with high standards and tough grading. Theory 2, looking through the other end of the telescope, regards education as a socializing tool that, for that very reason, ought to be made available to everyone. Theory 3 is vocational: education enlarges your skill set by teaching you things that you need to know to get by and/or ahead in real-world situations. All three approaches are utilitarian, which is what makes them compatible in the end. Nobody is arguing that
education is an inherent good. I don’t have a problem with that, so long as we make it easy for people who feel that education is inherently good to educate themselves. 

What distinguishes the first theory from the second and third is not its apparent high-mindedness but its faith in abstraction and indirection. In other words, the liberal arts. Or maybe not. I’m not sure that “liberal arts” means anything anymore; Menand keeps coming back to “toughing it out with Henry James.” As synecdoche goes, it’s not inapt, because Henry James, at least in his late style, is so extraordinarily articulate that he is difficult to follow, and the ability to follow James’s sentences fluently enough actually to enjoy them is a good sign of the literate competence that we expect of so-called professional people — people who are effectively a law unto themselves, as doctors and lawyers quite often are. (The compact that we make with professional people is that the law that they implement will be sound.) There is an almost hieratic vagueness about the liberal arts that becomes palpable the minute you start looking for books about critical thinking. Everyone agrees that critical thinking is a key compenent of a liberal arts education. But you can’t buy books that will teach you how to do it, the way you can buy chemistry handbooks. Critical thinking turns out to be more of an experience than a skill. Those of us who have had the experience recognize it in others, like vacations in Paris. 

To some extent, in short, “the liberal arts” is simply a racket that the proponents of Theory 1 have settled on — did I say, “racket”? That was rude; I meant “convention” — as a “measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential,” as Menand puts it. It happens to be an academic convention, in that mastering the liberal arts entails a lot of reading and writing. Professor X, quoted by Menand, puts it very well: 

“I have come to think,” he says, “that the two most crucial ingredients in the mysterious mix that makes a good writer may be (1) having read enough throughout a lifetime to have internalized the rhythms of the written word, and (2) refining the ability to mimic those rhythms.”

It is impossible to demonstrate a mastery of the liberal arts without the ability to write clearly and effectively — which means, engagingly. “Mysterious mix” is putting it mildly. My point here, however, is not to talk about what makes good writers. It is rather to suggest that an education scheme bottomed on the liberal arts is going to serve Theory 2 and Theory 3 very poorly, because most people are not good writers. Why? Most of the bad writers are probably poor readers — of the kinds of liberal arts materials that are adumbrated throughout elementary school and that make high school so tedious for any student who is not in a frantic mood to read David Copperfield. That’s the part that Professor X leaves out. The writing from which he expects readers to internalize the rhythms of the written word is the kind of writing that he teaches from his liberal arts curriculum.

What the beneficiaries of Theory 2 and Theory 3 need (and this would seem to be everyone who doesn’t attend a liberal arts college) is a kind of reading material — let’s not call it “literature” yet — that is aimed away from the abstractions and the assumptions of liberal arts prose. I have no idea, really, what this writing would look like, or — most intriguingly — if liberal arts readers would like to read it with enthusiasm. Maybe it wouldn’t be reading at all — it might be visual (the dichotomy between “reading” and “seeing” never ceases to surprise me). The one thing I do know is that this new material would put an end to the twin complaints that Theory 1 people have about the alternatives, which are that Theory 2 and Theory 3 offer watered-down versions of Theory 1 education, and that they thereby threaten the integrity of Theory 1’s all-important standards. 

We need to know a lot more about why most people don’t enjoy reading. It may have a lot to do with what they have been offered.

Reading Note:
My Novels Problem
Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Before continuing yesterday’s discussion of William Deresiewicz’s gem of a Jane Austen book, I want to ask for your help with a problem that I’ve been having — and, let me tell you, just getting ready to ask for help has been helpful; so, thanks! My problem concerns novels that I’m stuck in, and making piles of the books in my fiction bin demonstrated right away that the problem is not so bad as I thought it was. It kills me not to finish a novel, and my dread of doing so has had the perverse effect of multiplying, in my imagination, the number of books that might be cast aside. By my preliminary count, there are only seven, and only four of those really count.

I was going to ask you to help me with this even before I went to Crawford Doyle and bought — another novel. I went on purpose to do so. This morning, I read about Alina Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (translated by Tim Mohr) in a blog that was new to me, and I gathered from the review that this is a book that I will actually like. I’m not reading it to be cool or to keep au courant. What did Jennifer Tyler say that sold me on it?

If you need to know anything at all about Rosalinda Achmetowna, just ask. She’ll be happy to tell you all about her grace and selflessness, her great beauty, and how exactly she manages to help her pathetic family muddle through life. Grossly and pathologically self-delusional, Rosa confidently sees herself as the savior of everyone else’s story.

I am someone who cannot help loving a character (even if I hate her) who’s pathologically self-delusional and whose name is Rosalinda Achmetowna. Traffic was so bad in the taxi coming home (it’s hot today, and I’m conserving my energy; what’s more, I was carrying a load of perishables from Eli’s) that I started to read Hottest Dishes, and it had me smiling right away.

As my daugher Sulfia was explaining to me that she was pregnant but that she didn’t know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture. I sat with my back perfectly straight and folded my hands elegantly in my lap.

I’m beginning to think that what has denatured Anglophone fiction is the patina of niceness worn by everyone, even psychopaths. We have internalized the prohibition on saying what we think that we don’t even think it anymore. That’s why characters from former Iron-Curtain countries are so refreshing. They have no manners! They’re incredibly rude and they get away with it.

That night I suddenly got worried that Sulfia might die on me. It had been years since I worried about her, and I didn’t like the feeling.

Well, I can tell already that I’m going to read The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar with simple pleasure. Now, what about these other books?

As I say, there are seven in the pile of books that I’ve begun but set aside. Three of them “don’t count.” First, there’s Portobello, by Ruth Rendell, which I bought together with The Birthday Present, one of the author’s most exciting tales, involving a feckless MP and an automobile accident. (I wish I could tell you more, but I didn’t write it up, and I stopped holding on to crime fiction.) Portobello is not so engaging. It involves one of those untalented but delusional young men from disadvantaged backgrounds who intrigue Rendell a great deal more than they do me. Eugene Wren, a furniture dealer in the eponymous road (I think), is almost equally unattractive. There’s no question that the book suffers (in my eyes) by comparison with The Birthday Present, which reads like Alan Hollinghurst in comparison. If I ever do read Portobello, I’ll have to go back to the beginning and start over. This time, at least, I won’t be poring over the A-Zed looking for Blagrove Road, which is marked by the simple numeral “1” and identified in the “List of Numbered Locations” for Map 91, Square B2. Finding that took forever.

Another book that doesn’t count is Edith Wharton’s Glimpses of the Moon. I had no reason to think that this novel, first published in 1922, would be one of Wharton’s better ones, but I fell for the Pushkin Press edition, which is adorable. By the second chapter, I had the queasy feeling that Wharton was imagining herself as a lovely young desirable woman who just happened not to have any money. The love talk between Nick Lansing and Suzy Branch, who have just gotten married for the sole purpose of enjoying a respectable honeymoon, after which they’ll have spent everything they have and be obliged to seek other partners, is oddly corseted, and reminiscent of Henry James real last novels, the ones nobody reads: The Other House, The Outcry.

His wife instantly challenged this belittling of her capacity. “It took a good deal of argument to convince you that we could face the ridicule of Como!”

But Wharton will keep. I hope before I die to go on a Wharton craze, and read Hudson River Bracketed a third time. The third book that doesn’t count is Edouard Levé’s Suicide. It ought to be easy to say whether or not one has begun to read a book, but I can’t manage it in this case. That’s because I read the last ten pages. This is the novel, in the form of a suicide note, by an author who hanged himself before his final work hit the bookstores. I don’t know why, if I’m going to read it at all, I’m going to read it in English. Someone with a rule ought to have rapped my knuckles when I picked this book up.

Now for the harder cases. I’ve actually read about half of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. I’ve also read the last couple of chapters. The part that I didn’t read takes place mostly in a prison — a topos that I strenuously avoid. Carpenter’s writing is very strong, but his subject matter — severely undereducated down-and-outs in California, way back in the Fifties — is unbearably sad. Not sad in the have-a-good-cry sense, but sad in the sad-sack sense; the waste of human potential is unpleasantly acrid. I am going to set this novel aside, which means shelving it with all the other NYRB editions. If I run into someone, in person or online, who raves about it and who persuades me to take another look, I’ll pick up where I was.

Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award last year. Like Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer earlier in the year, it turned out to be almost impossible for me to like. “Come to find out if you asked by powerful means for more than the animal had to give, you could not manage the results.” I can’t read sentences like that. It’s difficult and it’s hard: plain, unlovely, and, most of all, uninteresting. The last clause is terminally unmodulated. I got through the first race (the first of the book’s three sections) torn between incomprehension and uninterest. The moral of the story is that I will never trust prizes again. I’m not saying that prizes don’t count. But I need more — the recommendation of a trusted critic. As I recall, I read only one book on last year’s Man Booker list, and it wasn’t even truly adult fiction, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Not a bad book, really, but somehow a shameless one — a graphic novel without the pictures. In any case, I am going to give Lord of Misrule away.

The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard, is not a long book by any means, and I’ve read about a quarter of it. I was interested in it because it’s written in the first person plural, a voice that Joshua Ferris and Ed Park used to such great effect in their books about cubicular ennui. From time to time, individuals in the group step out from the narrators’ circle, as it were, and into the narrative spolight, so that, presumably, they can’t, at least for the moment, be part of “we.” And yet… The problem with The Fates Will Find Their Way is that the narrative group is not very interesting, and also it doesn’t know very much. It’s made up of a bunch of teenaged boys who are fixated by the disappearance of the lovely Norah Lindell. There’s an arresting passage not far from the beginning that — well it would be arresting if it weren’t a tissue of speculation, a hollow-sounding might-have-been spun by nameless boys — about what might have been Norah’s last hours, or maybe not. As I discovered reading Francine Prose’s lovely but to me unmoving Goldengrove, I find the conceit of beginning the book with the extinction of a lovely young life to be annoying. It’s a terrible thing in real life, and I don’t believe that reading about it makes it any more bearable.

Pittard might have held on to me if she hadn’t made what hits me as a tactical error: she never names the “leavy enclave” (I’m quoting the dust jacket) in which her suburban moon-o-drama takes place. Given her blurred narrative source, this is not the time to argue, fictionally, that all suburbs are the same. I think that Pittard ought to have taken pains to detail an actual American town, naming real streets and setting her pool parties in real houses. Her decision not to do so makes the novel weightless. Dreamy, perhaps; but not in a way that recommends the book to me. I wish that I were as determined to send this book to HousingWorks as I am to unload Lord of Misrule, but it’s difficult to imagine getting rid of a book that’s on my shelves at the moment in order to make room for this one.

The final hard choice is Wilhelm Genazino’s The Shoe Tester of Frankfurt. This was enthusiastically recommended to me by a member of the staff at Crawford Doyle to whom I have already apologized for having trouble with it. I’ve got about fifty pages to go — somewhat more than a third. I suspect that Genazino’s charms are untranslatable. His title, as distinct from New Directions’ choice for Philip Boehm’s translation, is Ein Regenschirm für diesen Tag, which even if you don’t know what it means scans beautifully and naturally. It happens to mean “An umbrella for this day,” which, together with the dactylic rhythm, invokes the Lord’s Prayer — an apt allusion for the story of man who seems to live on the most exiguous resources. “An umbrella for this day” isn’t much better than “shoe tester of Frankfurt”; I can see the publisher’s dilemma. What might very well be witty and genuinely droll in the original text comes off, in English, as quirky and even creepy, as a forty-something man caroms among the women in his life — given his unprepossessing character, it’s hard to believe that there are any — while, yes, testing luxury-brand shoes. This testing shoes business is either an occluded joke or a strange German manufacturing practice. I couldn’t tell which, and I don’t much care. Nevertheless, I have resolved, as of this writing, to soldier through the rest of the novel and to keep it. Even if I don’t much like it, I gave it a try because someone I talk to fairly regularly liked it.

There’s more; I haven’t even gotten to the books that I haven’t yet opened. But this is enough for today, and it was the hard part You’ve been a great help! Thanks!

Gotham Diary:
Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

It’s quite a bit warmer today, with intermittent sun poking through a threatening storm. The building’s air conditioning was turned on several days ago, before, for the first time in my memory, it was actually needed. I’ve got it on now, with the balcony door open, and it’s not unpleasant here in the corner, from which I can see everything even though, once I’m writing, I look at nothing. 

Shortly after she left for work, Kathleen called to tell me that José, the one doorman who has been here longer than we have, would be wanting to make an appointment with me when I eventually went downstairs. The building is changing the circuit breaker boxes in each apartment, and is scheduling two-hour blocks to do the work, during which time of course there will be no electricity in the rooms. No big deal for most people, really, but I want to be sure that all of the electronics are offline beforehand. This includes a lot of units that I don’t ordinarily touch, such as WiFi boosters and the NAS drive on which my iTunes and Quicken files are backed up. I’ve contacted Jay, the god of tech, and he has supplied me with what will make a useful checklist. So I ought to be all right. Unlike a real power outage, the replacement procedure won’t interrupt the water supply, so the inconvenience of sitting here while the box is changed won’t be too tedious. I say that now, now that I have scheduled an appointment for next week. My reaction to Kathleen’s news this morning was an urge to throw up. The idea of any sort of change was completely insupportable, and last year, when Ray Soleil installed the halogen ceiling fixture in what I now call the gallery, the on/off killed the modem. True, the modem dated back to Stonehenge — but no modem was an unthinkable predicament, even with my handy MiFi cards. 

Once I’d done a modicum of blogwork, I gathered up my housekeys and went to the Post Office. I had envelopes to mail to family members, containing sets of the postcards that I’d recently had made of photos from Will’s second trip to the Museum. I made up the envelopes last night, and addressed the remaining cards to a variety of friends, generally excluding Kathleen’s old friends, who will have to wait for the next set of postcards, ordered before I went to bed, which feature two images of Will and Kathleen looking at knightly armor. Moo, the outfit that makes the cards, has been amazing; I may have last night’s order early next week.

Of the six images in the last set of postcards, three are very dear to me and one is the standout favorite. I decided to hold on to an extra copy of this postcard, just in case. This morning, just-in-case donged in my brain. I realized that I wanted to send it to my friend JR in Paris — it was the very one that I wanted him to have. But where was his address? He had written it down in a notebook on his last visit. That sounds pretty hopeless, I know, but I had a fairly good idea of which notebook I’d had him use, and it turned out that I was right. So I printed up a label (thus entering the address into a Dymo file), pasted it on the card, and wrote “Greetings from Gotham” alongside. At the Post Office, I learned that the tarriff for sending postcards overseas is 98¢, so I bought a sheet of 98¢ stamps. As for the favorite image, I’m thinking of having Moo make it up into notecards. 

Like the Venetophiles in Judith Martin’s No Vulgar Hotel, anxious to distinguish themselves from “tourists” even though that’s precisely what they are, too, I’m uneasy about all this personalized stationery, which I love unreservedly but am not so sure that I would approve of on the receiving end. Moo, as I say, does a great job of producing a quality product at a reasonable price (and in no time at all). I, I like to think, take reasonably interesting photographs. And Will is of course the world’s first perfect grandchild, and an elf in front of the camera to boot. So I’m not crazy, am I? Oh, it’s no use; I know that Kant would not approve. 

My uneasiness is actually a highly refained sentiment that I owe to many attentive readings of Jane Austen’s Emma. In A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, William Deresiewicz recounts his mounting horror at discerning the similiarities between himself, if he must be absolutely honest, and Austen’s heroine. Good reader that he was, he recoiled from the novel’s thunderclap at Box Hill, where Emma airly and inexcusably insults Miss Bates, with a flinch of self-recognition. 

Emma’s cruelty , which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to ahve. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I wdould have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn’t deplore Emma’s disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.

I read the first chapter of Deresiewicz’s literary memoir, which alternates between appreciations of Austen’s life and work and recollections of his own, with the most complete interest possible; I could not have been a less disinterested reader. I, too, had — have — grown up in Jane Austen’s tutelage. When I was young and unwilling to understand the point of good manners, I chafed at what seemed to be her insistence upon respectability, but I always knew that she was fundamentally right about things. I read her at first for her wit. Unlike Deresiewicz, I didn’t dislike Emma at all; I thought that she was a role model. How I should have like tobe rich and in charge! When Emma’s schemes fell through, I held others accountable. I blamed Mr Knightley for being such a sourpuss. I blamed Harriet for letting Emma down. I didn’t even bother to blame Mr Elton for anything; he was too hopeless, and too richly deserved Mrs E. I agreed with Mr Woodhouse on the subject of Emma’s perfection. Until, of course, that picnic at Box Hill. When Miss Bates sighs that she will have no trouble saying three very dull things — one of the options offered by the naughty game that Frank Churchill has proposed to the party — Emma can’t resist making explicit a concern that she has no doubt is universally acknowledged in Highbury. Foreseeing three very dull paragraphs, she obliges Miss Bates to be brief, and serve up her dull items at once. This is very terrible, but the first time I read the novel, I agreed with Emma, when she tries to defend herself against Mr Knightley’s wrath. “It was not so very bad. I daresay she did not understand me.” But then Mr Knightley lowers the boom.

She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age must probably sink more. her situation should secure your compassion. it was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour — to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, hunble her — and before her niece, too — and before others, many of whom (certainly some) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. 

My cheeks fairly smarted. And they still do, every time I read the passage, because I was a lot more like Emma than William Deresiewicz.

More anon…

Reading Note:
Her Albanian Dream
My New American Life, by Francine Prose

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

The first unambiguous laugh comes on the second page of Francine Prose’s delicious satire, My New American Life. We’ve been introduced to the point of view of Lula, a young Albanian woman who, a day after learning that her residence in the United States is “legal,” espies a black SUV from a window in the suburban home of her employer, whom she calls “Mister Stanley.” 

Raindrops beaded the SUV as it trawled past the house where Lula lived and worked, taking care of Mister Stanley’s son Zeke, a high school senior who only needed minimal caretaking. In fact Zeke could do many things that Lula couldn’t, such as drive a car. But since Mister Stanley believed that teenagers shouldn’t be left on their own, and since he went off to Wall Street at dawn and didn’t return until late, he had hired Lula to make sure that Zeke ate and slept and did his homework. Mister Stanley was very safety-conscious, which Lula found very admirable, but also dangerously American. No Albanian father would do that to his son and risk turning him gay. 

The second laugh comes moments later, just a few lines down. “On the way, Zeke gave Lula driving tips: who went first at an intersection, how to speak the silent language that kept drivers from killing each other like they did constantly in Tirana.” The object of satire here is not suburban life in New Jersey but the sentimental attachment that Lula and her Albanian friends maintain for their murderous homeland, which is always described as a nightmare in terms too cartoonish to take quite seriously. Just considering Albania as a homeland takes on an oxymoronic quality. “No one in Albania went near a court unless they were in handcuffs or were suing to get back their land.” Lula herself has absolutely no desire to return, but when her quondam boyfriend is deported, his chums are happy for him, because he’ll have lots of girlfriends and, besides, his mother is a great cook. 

Lula went to the magazine rack and was soon engrossed in an article about a Texas dynasty literally and figuratively screwing each other for generations, when they weren’t crashing cars and jumping off the room. The story cheered Lula. It sounded like a family you might hear about at home, though the money would have been different, as would the trees and cars and roofs.

The writing is what’s funny: what the first sentence grants, the last appears to retract. It was the same but different. Marking a distinction in the types of roof that crazy relatives are jumping off us is absolutely funny prose. Exaggeration telescopes in both directions, from overstatement to understatement. The humor never lets up for more than a page or two as Lula plummets through a slow-motion adventure that’s set in reverse. 

For Lula has no idea what she’s going to do when she is no longer needed by Mister Stanley. She only knows that continuing to live in his house will snuff the life out of her; it already feels like a tomb. Nothing ever happens in Baywater, the close-in Jersey town where he lived with his wife and son until one fine Christmas Eve when his wife ran off. (This uneventfulness is just as stylized as the recklessness of Albania.) Ever since she started working for Mister Stanley, nothing has happened to Lula. She isn’t nostalgic about waitressing at La Changita, the Alphabet City bar where she worked illegally before reading Mister Stanley’s ad at Craigslist, but she does miss her best friend, Dunia, whom she hopes has gone back to Tirana. Dunia has dropped from sight and beyond email range, and in dark hours Lula fears that she may have fallen into worse hands than those of the INS. Until the black SUV drives up to Mister Stanley’s house, Lula’s only connection to the outside world is an amiable librarian a few blocks away, and Mister Stanley’s childhood chum, Don Settebello — the immigration lawyer who has arranged Lula’s wonderful “legal” status. 

This turns out to be what has attracted the guys in the SUV. Two of them are heavies, but the third one, Alvo, reminds her of an old boyfriend. He asks her to do a “teensy favor” for him — to hide a pistol. She doesn’t dare to refuse, but she doesn’t really want to refuse, either, because Alvo is cute, and Lula has been alone for a long time. (At 26, she considers herself to be “old.”) She will spend most of the book dreaming about Alvo, and thinking that it’s odd of him to break into Mister Stanley’s house from time to time, to take a shower, or perhaps to finish one of the stories that, encouraged by her boss and Don, she has taken to writing. The stories are old Balkan folktales that Lula repackages as personal history, appalled that life in America has made such a liar out of her but also tickled by her daring. As it turns out, of course, the mysterious burglar isn’t Alvo at all, but a foreseeable-in-retrospect surprise guest who pops out of hiding at the most inopportune time. 

But nothing really terrible (or frightening) ever happens.  Lula’s safe and secure life at Mister Stanley’s is such a successful American dream that it enables her to outgrow it. Where a more biting satirist such as Gary Shteyngart might interpose some gruesome or humiliating personal detail, Prose highlights Lula’s longing to live in a place where loving-kindness is a real possibility and not an absurd fantasy — her Albanian dream. Although the narrative pace never lags, the novel is not particularly plot-driven; what happens is not as interesting as what Lula thinks about what’s happening. (A longer title might well have been What My Old Albanian Mind Makes of My New American Life; formally, the book is a masterpiece of point-of-view discipline.) Whether or not she ever takes control of her destiny is not something that we care very much about; what we want is for Lula to go on thinking and talking like Lula. And she does not disappoint us. 

Reading Note:
Lords of the Dance
Apollo’s Angels, by Jennifer Homans

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

It would be interesting to know how many of us there are: men and women who picked up Jennifer Homans’s history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, not because of any great interest in the dance but because the author is the widow of Tony Judt, one of the age’s great historians. And how many of us found that the books shared this curious strength: an agreeably efficient power to organize miscellaneous motes  of information floating through readers’ brains? Postwar reminded us that, contrary to sense as this seemed at the time, both parties to the Cold War shared the same planet and the same sunlight during the same decades. Apollo’s Angels teaches something similar, if from an inverted perspective: what we call “classical ballet” has, through four centuries of change and more, has generally depended upon the patronage of the state. 

There is a danger of circularity: one could easily define ballet in terms of state support. That would rule out modern-dance experimentalists and idiosyncratic choreographers along the lines of Martha Graham and Paul Taylor. But the connection is not so much one that Homans is at pains to make as a link that surfaces again and again as she tells her story. It also explains the valedictory character of her conclusion: the last two chapters of Apollo’s Angels, covering ballet in America and, in particular, in New York City, concern two ballet companies that, although they are both still very much with us, have never enjoyed so much as the semi-official backing bestowed (for example) on Diaghelev’s Ballets Russes. They were kept going by dancers and choreographers — most heroically, George Balanchine — who knew how things were done in the ancien régime that came to an end with the Tsars, and who were able to inspire wealthy benefactors to open their purses. What they could not do, these Petersburg exiles, was to reproduce themselves; the dancers whom they trained never knew what it is like to bask in the favor of sovereigns. I’m not talking about money alone. “We have grown accustomed to living in multiple private dimensions, virtual worlds sealed in ether: myspace, mymusic, mylife.” It may be that classical ballet cannot survive without the atmosphere into which it was born: the authority of princely courts. 

To fasten on the luxury and the discipline of classical ballet is to risk missing the point that, wherever it has flourished, it has provided a clear cultural idea of how those who are close to power — courtiers, originally — ought to move. There we have an explanation for the drastic decline in French ballet after Napoleon. The ballet that developed from court dances during the latter part of Louis XIV’s reign inevitably yielded to something wilder and more bravura during the Revolution, but the virtuoso dancers of the early Nineteenth Century were unwilling to abandon opulence. The combination of splash and flash was too rich for the rising bourgeoisie. “By the 1830s male dancers were being reviled as disgraceful and effeminate creatures, and by the 1840s they had been all but banned from Parisian stages.” In France, ballet was unable to suggest an acceptable model for masculine demeanor, and, without this ballast, it quickly degenerated into wispy attitudinizing and Folies Bergères kick lines. But in royal Denmark, the half-French, Danish-born August Bournonville was able to keep the old discipline alive — as a discipline. Much later, in the lurid twilight of the Tsars, ballet would burn with a gilded transmutation of folk exoticism that would explode in the early masterpieces of Stravinsky. Throughout Apollo’s Angels we encounter examples of the alignment of patronage and artistic triumph. And there is even an entire chapter — “Italian Heresy: Pantomime, Virtuosity, and Italian Ballet” — that shows what happened in the absence of patronage. (Short answer: Busby Berkley-esque kitsch.)

It is not a thesis that Homans belabors, and I’m not sure that you couldn’t argue just the opposite, that state sanction was more oppressive than liberating. But there seems to me to be a firm connection between the interest taken by the elites in ballet and the willingness of dancers to suffer for their art. Suffering enters the picture in a serious way with the career of Marie Taglioni (another demi-Scandinavian), an artist who learned to make her stumpy body flit across the stage en pointe. It’s with Taglioni and Bournonville that the day ceases to be long enough to accommodate the ideal amount of rehearsal. Dancers glow in the prestige of bejewelled archduchesses and beribboned grand dukes even as, in an increasingly bourgeois age, they display an awe-inspiring, arguably regal control of their bodies.

The great thing about Apollo’s Angels is that it complete distinguishes the history of ballet from the history of ballets — from the list of famous works that have come down to us, as well as the dances that have been lost. The individual dances are discussed, certainly, but Homans disavows the choreographic chronology that would attribute any given dance to the influence of its forebears. The best dancing has always thrived on a high degree of tension between conservative rigor and inspired innnovation. We can see this in the example of Swan Lake, a ballet that, curiously, it may be said that Tchaikovsky never saw; for it was only after his death, after the successes of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, that the earlier work was re-conceived, and by two men, not one. “This division of labor, however, turned out to be fortuitous: the enduring success of the ballet owes much to the tension between Petipa and Ivanov’s constrasting choreographic styles.” Homans is particularly lucid in describing the entry of the swans. 

This scene is often held up as the greatest possible achievement for a corps de allet: properly performed, the dancers seem to move as one, and audiences today still marvel at how “together” they are. It is often assumed, moreover, that they are so together because each dancer has been trained meticulously to calibrate her movements to those of her neighbor. But this is not really how it works.  Ivanov’s swans are not an assembly line or human machine, nor even a closely integrated community: they are an ensemble created by music. His steps do not so much fit the music as allow a dancer to find the phrase and sustain it in movement, making her way into the sound rather than moving smoothly across its surface. The unity is not “out” to one’s neighbors, but paradoxically a turning “in” and away; it is a togetherness based on musical and physical introspection, the polar opposite of show or ceremony. 

Over the course of centuries, classical ballet has developed a repertoire of music and gesture that, perhaps because of its wordlessness, seems to reinvent the known world in terms that momentarily deny the existence of that world. Thus the power of the great ballets on stage; thus, also, the claustral airlessness that is the signature of stories about the offstage life of dancers. Jennifer Homans manages to keep this gravity from overwhelming her story, which is always set in the secular world of Europe’s social history. That alone is why the book must be read: it so handily takes every scrap of ballet-related information that you have accumulated and puts it in its proper place. Significantly, the only interesting detail that Homans appears to have omitted is Mozart’s collaboration with Jean-Georges Noverre, the Franco-Swiss innovator whose career takes up the bulk of her second chapter. It’s no big deal: the name of the little ballet in question is Les Petits Riens.

Big Ideas:
A Question of Timing
The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian
Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Is it age? Every book that I read these days seems to be utterly remarkable, unprecedented, world-changingly important. At my age, it ought, one would think, be the other way round. Nothing new under the sun and all that. But no: I appear to have lived just long enough to glimpse the sun for the first time.

The subtitle of Brian Christian’s The Most Human has a banal and fatuous ring, just like most other subtitles these days. “What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive.” That’s comprehensive! “Talking with computers”! “Being alive”! The only way to make it sound even more portentous would be to throw in something about changing the world forever. But that’s exactly what’s already implicit: the suggestion that we wouldn’t know much about being alive if we couldn’t talk to computers — something that almost everyone knows was impossible until quite recently. The world has been changed, probably forever. To demonstrate the point, you have only to turn Christian’s subtitle into a question, and interrogate the recent past. What, in 1960, say, did talking with computers have to tell us about what it meant to be alive?

Exactly nothing. For one thing, there was no talking with computers in those days. ELIZA, the first AI program capable of dialogue, was still a few years in the future. More to the point, nobody (beyond a tiny handful of visionaries like Claude Shannon) had any idea that a machine of any kind had anything to teach about being human (which, for our purposes, is what “being alive” means). Machines were tools, and they were also threats, just as they had been since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, when French workers invented sabotage by throwing their wooden sabots into looms, and Mary Shelley envisioned Dr Frankenstein’s monster. The computer was simply the latest in a string of inventions whose unanticipated powers might, many feared, bring down Promethean punishment on mankind. Computers were what made annihilation by ballistic missiles possible. They told us what it meant not to be alive.

So, if you were a bright young person in 1960, an interest in computers would probably carry you away from the pursuit of humanist wisdom that motivates the prodigious Brian Christian. (Can he really have been born in 1984?)  And if you didn’t choose cold blue steely science, you would make your mark in the wilds of the Peace Corps, then in the first flower of Rousseauvian idealism.

In 1960, computers were gigantesque, exorbitantly expensive, and not very powerful. As that changed, so did the world of business, which went from humdrum to hot in the same years that computers shrank to PC proportions. In 1985, asking a computer what it meant to be alive might very well take the form of a Lotus spreadsheet, splaying out competing mortgage options. Not very transcendent stuff, but something:  a computer might help you live a (marginally) better life. By the late Nineties, talking with a computer meant talking with the entire world. Email displayed a dark side of bad manners that the sheer clunkiness of snail mail had helped to conceal: not only did hitting “Send” prematurely expose one’s id in unflattering ways, but it also tempted your correspondent to “share” the spectacle of your bad behavior with, ultimately, everyone else with a computer. That something genuinely new was going on seems to be clearly indicated by the fact that the era’s countless flame wars, far from killing anyone, provided a global learning experience. Not only did we all learn something about self-restraint, but we learned it together.

If you want to know what a computer has to tell you about being alive today, you face the daunting threshhold problem of defining “computer.” Is your iPhone a computer? Your iPod? What about all the diagnostic tools, such as fMRI, that depend upon computational wizardry for their effectiveness? Physical gadgets will be with us for a long time, but “computers” seem to be dissolving into “computing,” something performed by many types of device. Unlike the computing of 1960, modern computing is ubiquitous and intimate; we wouldn’t want to live without it.

When I read the excerpt from The Most Human Human that appeared in The Atlantic a few months ago, I pegged Brian Christian for a forty-something journalist specializing in science and ethics, a field that ordinarily leaves me cold. I thought that, before his piece came to an end, Christian would be sounding hair-tearing alarms about the growing power of AI chatbots, which, he pointed out early on, nearly passed the Turing Test in 2008. All we need say about the Turing Test at this point is that it posits a point at which computers might be said to be capable of thought, by appearing, to a jury of human beings, to be capable of human conversation. The Turing Test became a bulwark of humanity, the breach of which by human-seeming computers would signify a Something Awful that I expected Christian to spell out in hectoring detail. What toppled instead, however, was my own expectation.

Christian turned out to be an extraordinarily well-educated young man — how right he is to dedicate his book to his teachers! — without a moping bone in his body. Far from being a passive journalist (or disgusted observer), Christian had the computer-science chops that would enable him to enter the contest himself. It’s at this point that we need to look back at his subtitle. What he does not say is that he beat the computers in the Turing Test. There are no computers, really, in The Most Human Human. There are only people “being themselves,” and other people trying to make machines simulate people being themselves.

“Being himself” is the very first thing that Christian decides not to do, and herein lies the glory of his undertaking. Like legions of high-school students facing aptitude tests, he is advised by the Test’s manager that there is no special training that will enhance his performance. Piffle, says Christian.

So, I must say, my intention from the start was to be as thoroughly disobedient to the organizers’ advice to “just show up at Brighton in September and ‘be myself'” as possible — spending the months leading up to the test gathering as much information, preparation, and experience aas possible ad coming to Brighton ready to give it everything I had.

Ordinarily, there wouldn’t be very much odd about this notion at all, of course — we train and prepare for tennis competitions, spelling bees, standardized tests, and the like. But given that the Turing teest is meant to evaluate how human I am, the implication seems to be that being human (and being oneself) is about more than simply showing up. I contend that it is.

Unlike Christian, I lived through the late Sixties, and I’ve been contending that just showing up is not enough for a long time now. It has been an unfashionable thing to say. But unlike Christian I came of age long before learning from AI (“computers”) was an option. It’s very hard not to be jealous of a bright young man whose timing appears to have been excellent. He can do much better than mouth plausible platitudes about contemplation and great books. He can “do the math,” and he does it in a way that any intelligent reader will grasp at once and with pleasure. If I weren’t so grateful, and if I didn’t so much admire Christian for making the most of his superlative opportunity, I’d be eaten alive by the green-eyed monster.

Reading Note:
A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, by Peter Mountford

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

In the middle of A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, a debut novel by Peter Mountford, at what might be the climax of a love affair — the moment of declaration and commitment — a young American journalist called Gabriel (who is not quite American and not really a journalist) sits with Lenka, his lady love, on her son’s neatly-made bed. Lenka happens to be the press secretary for the newly-elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and before he fell in love with her, Gabriel regarded her as a promising source of inside information. He still does. 

He … wondered how he could say what he thought he should say, that all the sweet norms of romance — the bashful presentation of flowers, the holding of hands in a dim cinema — did not seem appropriate for them. But their relationship was alive and passionate and it thrived especially in the absence of any of that pro forma schlock. Their place was up in his hotel room, with cake and wine, at a slight remove from the world below. Still, there was more — or there was potential for more. He loved her and she loved him and he was even falling for her family, and if they — he and Lenka — were an unconventional couple, so be it. Maybe it could be strange and wonderful. But he didn’t know how to say these things. Instead, he said, “I really like it here. I really do.” And he nodded earnestly as he said it, staring at the toys in Ernesto’s room.

“But he didn’t know how to say these things.” This inability, reflective of a pervasive lack of moral clarity, is as much a part of the novel’s atmosphere as  the thin air of La Paz. It is, even, an element of Peter Mountford’s style. We are told what Gabriel is thinking but also that he does not know how to put his thoughts into words. This can mean many things — Gabriel could be one of those men who is seized with doubt when called upon to make important speeches, or his thoughts might be nowhere near as clear as Mountford’s presentation of them — but it doesn’t really matter what the problem is, because the result is the same: Gabriel doesn’t tell Lenka how much he loves her, and he doesn’t tell her because he doesn’t know how. We might wonder, in the aftermath of Mountford’s very sad story, why someone as bright and clever as Gabriel should have trouble saying those three little words, but the specific explanation for that doesn’t much matter, either, because, ultimately, Gabriel’s incapacity traces back to a failure of the world in which he has been brought up to teach him what he needs to know. He’s already in Bolivia because of that larger failure, lying to everyone he talks to about what he’s doing there and trying to believe that his ends will justify his means. Gabriel’s brain is like a high-performance engine into which someone has poured a tankful of inadequately refined fuel. 

Peter Mountford has written his novel as a cautionary tale for intelligent young men who might be chafing the pressure to make more of themselves — or at any rate to make more money. Don’t do it, he urges. Don’t sell your soul to the devil because one too many of your classmates has gotten rich on Wall Street. Don’t think that you can do a bad thing for just long enough to build up a nest egg on which retire to a long life of blamelessness. Don’t try to persuade yourself that, because the victims of your crime are in pari delicto, you’re not  committing a crime. Mountford has ardently fleshed out these warnings with the story of Gabriel’s folly. And by sparing Gabriel the more melodramatic punishments — be sparing him, as might be said, any real punishment at all — the author intensifies his ultimate desolation, cut off from the two women who mean most to him. 

The artistic price of this appealing achievement is an indistinctness about Gabriel, who is callow, somewhat laddish, but likeable withal. It’s a combination that will make the novel easy to adapt for the screen, but it’s also one that diminishes the reader’s satisfaction. Gabriel is an average sensual man with a few spikes of talent. There is nothing evil about him, but his outlook is so perennially fogged by low-grade cynicism that he no longer notices the murk, and he is a largely complaisant user of other people. The confusion of his own origins, which might, in another character, inspire rigorous adherence to clear standards of conduct, makes Gabriel agile at the situational contortions of moral relativism. His Chilean mother fled her homeland under Pinochet, for Russia of all places; toward the end of her sojourn there, she became  pregnant by a Russian man whom she has never identified to the son subsequently born in the United States. Gabriel therefore has a number of ways of looking at himself at his disposal, and he has been taught by his liberal, ivy-league world to keep his options open. It is as though every vital moral inoculation has been withheld from his formation. 

This novel would have been stronger if Mountford had jumped to one side or the other of Gabriel’s fence. Making him more of a villain would have satisfied readers who believe that each of us is, in the end, responsible for his own behavior. Presenting Gabriel’s background at more generous length would, in contrast, have affirmed other readers’ belief that we are, in the end, responsible for one another. In this latter reading, the cautionary tale would have been aimed at teachers and bankers and everyone else who might have fought to stiffen Gabriel’s too-supple backbone. Making Gabriel a ruthless, stop-at-nothing industrial spy would have heightened the excitement and burnished the ending with a kind of black glee, but I don’t think that this approach was ever really available to the author. He likes Gabriel too much, and he wants us to like Gabriel, the better to enter into his miguided schemes. Most of all, he wants us to feel awful about Gabriel’s personal losses — and in this he succeeds with surpassing brilliance. In an epilogue of fewer than a dozen pages, Mountford gives us a portrait of his gentleman several years later that chills our sympathetic disposition almost to the point of tears. 

He’d given up cigarettes too when he’d quick smoking. He’d also quit coffee and other drugs. But he knew he didn’t look especially well either. Despite all the exercise and the mainly vegan diet, his complexion was sallow. His hair had thinned on top and was streaked with gray. He had lost even more weight. He had permanent dark bags under his eyes. All of this he blamed on a combination of circumstances, including perpetual jet lag, unpredictable diet, and the fact that he could never get accustomed to a bed; also the wages of aging, chronic stress, watching too much hotel television at night, and relentless loneliness.

In other words, Gabriel is aware that he is paying a high price for his promotions at the hedge fund where he now runs private equities, and for which he briefly thought, long ago and far away, that he had extracted a generous tip from his beautiful lady love. 

I can well understand an author’s shying away from trying to pin Gabriel’s misjudgments on a general social failure, but surely some of the extensive depiction of La Paz might have been traded in for more about Gabriel’s growing up. Did he pay attention in school? He seems to have worked hard on some game theory experiments as an undergraduate, but, once out in the world, his industriousness appears to have been dented — which is what made the hedge fund’s easy money so attractive. Gabriel is obviously a lost young man, and to grasp the extent of his disorientation we need more in the way of a map. Here’s hoping that our fine young writer’s next novel is somewhat less equivocal.

Reading Note:
A Highly Virtuous Cycle
The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth von Arnim

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Why is The Enchanted April not more highly regarded, or at least better known? I have loved Mike Newell’s film adaptation for years, and I’ve even seen the Broadway adaptation of the movie, but I’ve steered clear of the book precisely because the name of Elizabeth von Arnim, its author, was so unconnected. She was never mentioned in association with other writers, even in a social sort of way. The cloud of oblivion surrounding her name suggested the sort genteel lady novelist who supports herself with stories for ladies’ magazines. I’m thinking of another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, author of the twice-adapted thriller, The Blank Wall. Only not as interesting; Holding writes of blackmail and manslaughter; Arnim, for all I knew, wrote about wistaria  and moonlight. I bought a copy of The Enchanted April finally — I’ll be frank — because it bore the seal of approval bestowed ipso facto on every NYRB republication. Like the novel’s Mrs Fisher, I wanted references, and now I had one. 

I am going to assume that you know the story; if you don’t, I can’t imagine why you’d be interested in reading this. In case of blessed ignorance, by all means try to start out with the book, trusting that a very entertaining movie lies in wait; you will not like the movie less for its discrepancies and inventions, which in any case are subtle and slight. Very briefly, four English women, two of them unsatisfactorily married in middle-class Hampstead, one a widow with bracing literary associations (Meredith patted her head as a girl), and one a beautiful but disaffected aristocrat, share in the rental of an Italian castle by the sea in April, 1920 or thereabouts. Lotty, the married woman who wants most to get away from her husband is surprised by the almost immediate desire, upon tasting the pleasures of San Salvatore, to invite him to join her. This free-spirited incoherence is only one of the things about Lotty that sets off Mrs Fisher, the literary widow. Meanwhile Rose, the other Hampsteader, pines for the love of her husband, whom she bores but whom she has also taken to scolding; and Lady Caroline, scion of a great (but decadent) house, discovers the pastime of thinking, the subject on her mind being the inexplicable tawdriness of her life to date. Later on, there are men.

Getting round to reading the book was easy; I had only to wait until Kathleen wanted to see the movie again, which she did recently. I dipped into the second chapter, which introduces us to the unhappy married life of Rose Arbuthnot, and found that it was fairly consonant with the film. That was all that I wanted to know at the time; it would take a few days to move from asking how faithful the book was to the movie — and I put it wrong-way thus on purpose — to appreciating the book on its own terms. Or at any rate a few chapters; I needed, without knowing it, a point on which the book and the film diverged, or, in any case, in which the book opened up a view not presented in the film. I became aware of such an opening in the sixth chapter, when Lady Caroline Dester — altogether a different sort of girl from Polly Walker, more ethereal somehow (she’s often described as an angel, whereas the beautiful Ms Walker has the femme fatale‘s dark eyes) — reflects on her impatience with Mrs Fisher. 

Besides, there was Mrs Fisher. She too must be checked. Lady Caroline had started two days earlier than had been arranged for two reasons: first, because she wished to arrive before the others in order to pick out the room or rooms she preferred, and second, because she judged it likely that otherwise she would have to travel with Mrs fisher. She did not want to travel with Mrs Fisher. She did not want to arrive with Mrs Fisher. She saw no reason whatever why for a single moment she should have to have anything to do with Mrs Fisher. 

But unfortunately Mrs Fisher also was filled with a desire to get to San Salvatore first and pick out the room or rooms she preferred, and she and Lady Caroline had after all travelled together. As early as Calais they began to suspect it; in Paris they feared it; at Modane they knew it; at Mezzago they concealed it, driving out to Castagneto in two separate flys, the nose of the one almost touching the back of the other the whole way. But when the road suddenly left off at the church and the steps, further evasion was impossible; and faced by this abrupt and difficult finish to their journey there was nothing for it but to amalgamate. 

Because of Mrs Fisher’s stick, Lady Caroline had to see about everything. 

This is very fine. “As early as Calais they began to suspect it” — the tone is funny for us while true to the bitterness of the ladies’ discontent. To wrap up the whole business with the clownishly pomposity of “amalgamate” is something that only a very natural writer can do. I began to see that Arnim’s comedy is not so gentle after all. There is something asphyxiated beyond the laughter in the portrayal of Mrs Fisher’s smug but anxious self-satisfaction. 

Mrs Fisher was well off and had the desire to comforts proper to her age, but she disliked expenses. So well off was she that, had she so chosen, she could have lived in an opulent part of London and driven from it and too it in a Rolls-Royce. She had no such wish. It needed more vitality than went with true comfort to deal with a house in an opulent spot and a Rolls-Royce. Worries attended such possessions, worries of every kind, crowned by bills. In the sober gloom of Prince of Wales Terrace she could obscurely enjoy the inexpensive yet real comfort, without being snatched at by predatory men-servants or collectors for charities, and a taxi stand was at the end of the road. Her annual outlay was small. The house was inherited. Death had furnished it for her. She trod in the dining-room on the Turkey carpet of her fathers; she regulated her day by the excellent black marble clock on the mantelpiece which she remembered from childhood; her walls were entirely covered by the photographs her illustrious deceased friends had given either herself or her father, with their own handwriting across the lower parts of their bodies, and the windows shrouded by the maroon curtains of all her life, were decorated besides with the selfsame aquariums to which she owed her first lessons in sealore, and in which still swam slowly the goldfishes of her youth. 

Were they the same goldfish?

One cannot be surprised that Mr Fisher turned out not to be all that he was supposed to be. 

Almost all of the movie’s infidelities concern Lady Caroline, who in the novel is referred to, whenever she is alone, by her family nickname, Scrap. The scene toward the beginning of the movie in which she runs into “Gerald Arundel” — Frederick Arbuthnot’s nom de plume (in the movie; in the book, it’s “Ferdinand”) — at one of her mother’s routs is an invention, although Frederick does indeed travel to San Salvatore to see the beautiful young woman. Lady Caroline winds up with the same man at the end, but the getting there is quite different; but never mind how: the differences all show up Arnim’s gifts as an articulate storyteller. The Enchanted April turns out to be full of riches that could never make it onto film, such as this wonderfully glancing observation about Mrs Fisher: 

There were many things she disliked more than anything else, and one was when the elderly imagined they felt young and behaved accordingly.

But what really stands out in the book is the “highly virtuous circle,” which begins to go round when Lotty’s husband arrives. As with Mrs Fisher, Mellersh Wilkins is a much meaner creature on the page than any actor in a comedy would care to make him. 

He fitted in. He was determined to please, and he did please. he was most amiable to his wife — not only in public, which she was used to, but in private, when he certainly wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t wanted to. He did want to. he was so much obliged to her, so much pleased with her, for making him acquainted with Lady Caroline, that he felt really fond of her. Also proud; for there must be, he reflected, a good deal more in her than he had supposed, for Lady Caroline to have become so intimate with her and so affectionate. And the more he treated her as though she were really very nice, the more Lotty expanded and became really very nice, and the more he, affected in his turn, became really very nice himself; so that they went round and round, not in a vicious but in a highly virtuous cycle. 

It’s important to note that the atmosphere for San Salvatore, while blissful and pleasant, does not induce any personality changes. Mr Wilkins never stops calculating his professional advantage at any given moment; he is always on, always ready to be applied to as a counsellor. What unbends Mrs Fisher — like everything to do with Mr Briggs, the owner of the castle, this is overlooked in the movie — is the appeal of a clever young man who might well be the son she never had. It’s that, and not Lotty’s flaunting of the Victorian proprieties, that causes the grim cast of Mrs Fisher’s outlook to fade. This is all important because in the place of character change we have something more accessible, more voluntary: generosity. That’s what Lotty senses within minutes of waking up on the first morning at the castle; she is overtaken by a desire to share this paradise. 

“The great thing is to have lots of love about. I don’t see,” she went on, “at least I don’t see here, though I did at home, that it matters who loves as long as somebody does. I was a stingy beast at home, and used to measure and count. I had a queer obsession about justice. As though justice mattered. As though justice can really be distinguished from vengeance. It’s only love that’s any good. At home I wouldn’t love Mellersh unless he loved me back, exactly  as much, absolute fairness. Did you ever. And as he didn’t, neither did I, and the aridity of that house! The aridity…

The vicious cycle, in other words. What may have kept The Enchanted April off the last century’s more stylish reading lists is Lotty’s ideas about love, of which the entire novel becomes an endorsement. It is a profoundly unromantic idea of love. Romance is a matter of satisfied expectations; one must have a picture of it before one can enjoy it. Many readers might carelessly think of Elizabeth von Arnim’s book as a romance, but it is the very opposite of one. Romance is tricky; only certain would-be lovers need apply. But everyone can be generous, and generous to everyone, not just lovers. That’s what Mrs Fisher has learned when, at the very end, she welcomes the kiss of the objectionable Lotty. 

I could never quite believe that anyone in 1920 would have said, as Lotty does of San Salvatore, that a happy place was a “tub of love,” and I suspected that the
filmmakers made it up. They did not.

Reading Note:
Richard Jenkyns on Jane Austen

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Jane Austen has been much on my mind.  Every time I’ve run across her name, for the past couple of months, it has seemed that too much time has gone by since the last time I read one of her novels — Persuasion, I think it was. It’s harder now than it used to be to re-read things; despite my earnest attempts at pruning, my reading interests ramify, and I hear so much about so many more books than I used to do.

I bought the Penguin edition of Northanger Abbey and tucked it into my shoulder bag, as something to read if I ever got stuck somewhere without anything else. Needless to say, the book went unopened. Six or eight months went by, with Northanger Abbey going in and coming out of the shoulder bag at least once a week. Finally, it stayed out, along with the Everyman Library paperback of The Ambassadors, which I had actually dipped into. These two very different productions kept to a pile of their own, with late James lending an aura to early Austen that made it possible to think of Northanger Abbey as a classic, which it is not. 

What finally got me to open the book and re-read it for the first time since my teens was a sequence of nudges. The first was Colm Tóibín’s essay, “The Importance of Aunts,” which I wrote up two weeks ago. I picked up the second nudge as a result of the first: at the Museum, I came upon a little book on the sale table that I’d never have looked at ordinarily — for who needs “an appreciation of Jane Austen,” as the book is subtitled, by an Oxford don of whom one has never heard? The title, A Fine Brush on Ivory, seemed somewhat precious; and, in the event, it doesn’t really comport with the author’s robust grasp of Jane Austen’s vigor. There is nothing (or little) that is rough about Jane Austen, but there is also nothing that is mincing. Like any great comedian, Austen is very sure of her sense of humor, and if she laughs at her characters’ strained efforts, she makes few of her own.

The book’s dust jacket was irritating. Ladies simpering with parasols in a Regency garden; Cassandra Austen’s comparatively crude portrait of her sister in an oval below; and the title in the sort of typeface that Tiffany would sample with the words, “Mrs John Low Venable requests the pleasure of your company….” — this is all that one flies from in connection with Jane Austen. But I am not going to blame Richard Jenkyns for his book’s cover art. Among the many excellent points that he makes is one to the effect that Austen’s fictional world is generally less grand than the one into which she was born. Unlike almost everybody who toils in her shadow, Austen’s imagination works in a slightly downmarket direction, confined, with the exception of Persuasion, to the gentry. She has no intention of introducing her readers to scenes of social prominence, which, as Northanger Abbey richly suggests, she finds almost as silly as the “horrid” settings of The Mysteries of Udolpho. 

The third nudge was a comment that Ellen Moody made, at Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, to the effect that Andrew Davies’s 2007 adaptation of A Room With a View, which I’d never heard of, much less seen, highlights the novel’s imitation of Northanger Abbey. That did it. But by then, I’d read A Fine Brush on Ivory, and with the greatest pleasure. As books about books go, it’s one of the greatest. Jenkyns has a lot of good things to say about Austen, but what sets him apart from the many others who also have a lot to say about her is the pleasure that he takes in reading her and talking about her. The key to the book (not that it’s needed) lies in the Acknowledgments. 

For many years I have talked from time to time about Jane Austen’s novels, as about other books, with friends, without having the slightest idea that I would ever write anything about her, and I probably owe more to long forgotten conversations than I now realize. 

He goes on to thank a number of those friends, and a lucky crew I hope they felt themselves to be, because if his conversation were anything like his writing, they must have enjoyed some very fine evenings. 

Jenkyns, a classics scholar at Oxford, begins by apologizing for concentrating on three of Austen’s six completed novels. A long chapter on Austen’s  nderstanding of character, taking examples from all the novels but rooted in Pride and Prejudice, is followed by an ardent defense of Fanny Price. I don’t know that his arguments will win Fanny any new friends among that quarter of Austen’s fandom that regards Miss Price as a prig; the danger might be that he proves their point. Even if he does, though, he also makes the book even more interesting.

The subterraneous plot pattern in Mansfield Park is that of the successful adventuress, who rises from humble beginnings to social triumph, seeing off anyone who gets in her way. It is a splendid irony, both witty and touching, that this role is handed to so gentle and self-effacing a creature. Fanny is, as it were, the good stepsister to Becky Sharp and Undine Spragg, and in the end more fully successful than either. She becomes the cuckoo who kicks the other offspring out of the next. Edmund calls her “my only sister now” (not of course quite what she wants to hear). For Sir Thomas she becomes “the daughter that he wanted.” The weakliest of the heroines has become the most potent. 

This passage will have me re-reading Mansfield Park sooner rather than later. The final big chapter, “The Prisoner of Hartfield,” is one of the most delightful romps that I’ve ever encountered in the form of literary criticism. Jenkyns presents pathetic old Mr Woodhouse as the villain — nay, the monster! — of Emma. And what he has to say is perfectly plausible. 

He is an octopus whose tentacles draw others towards himself. His rank and wealth enable him to “command the visits of his own little circle.” He has succeededin making the world revolve around his person: everyone must spend time and trouble thinking about him. When the Westons, for example, want to give a dinner party, it is he who determines that the hours must be early and the numbers few, his “habits and inclination being consulted in every thing.” It is not enough for him to have his own comforts satisfied: his employment is to destroy the pleasure of others. in his own words, “the sooner every party breaks up, the better.” At the Donwell strawberry party, he is supplied with a comfortable room set up for his convenience. “Books of engravings, drawers of medals, cameos, corals, shells” and other curios are produced to entertain him, but it is not enough: to complete his pleasure he must damage that of others. Mrs Weston must sit with him, deprived of the enjjoyment of the sunny summer gardens, until Emma (a sign, incidentally, of her unobtrusive kindness) comes to relieve her. 

I don’t know when I’ve had so much fun, imagining Mr Woodhouse as a wicked Klingsor ensorcelling poor Emma in his Magic Shrubbery. An octopus, indeed!  I feel easy about agreeing with everything that Jenkyns says without having to give up an inch of my long-cherished picture of Mr Woodhouse as an ineffectual ninny who is gently teased behind his back and all but encouraged to cultivate his stupefying solipsism. (Mr Woodhouse is a tyrant in the way that a very large pet is a tyrant, and no more conscious of being one.) For all I know, Jenkyns is teasing me, daring me to agree with an outrageously contrarian reading. He has got hold of a plausible line of argument, and you almost want to thank Jane Austen for taking the trouble to provide him with the occasion for shining. 

 I have no intention of evaluating Jenkyns’s commentary, beyond insisting, that is, that his delivery is both delightful and (evidently!) provocative. There is no need to append further commentary reflecting what I think about Jane Austen. It’s enough that those thoughts will be somewhat more ample, thanks to the ones that I’ve borrowed from this book. What’s over and above — what makes reading Jenkyns sublime at times — is the reminder, made not so much by his remarks as by his brio, that books are there to be enjoyed, and that thinking about them can be a great deal of fun.  

About Northanger Abbey, I have only one thing to say: from start to finish, the book is a mother-lode of snark.