Archive for the ‘August’ Category

Gotham Diary:
14 August 2012

Friday, September 14th, 2012

We have a day of moderate bustle ahead of us, Kathleen and I. We’ve got to connect with the freight boat at noon, to despatch Will’s bicycle to the Bay Shore terminal, where we’ll pick it up tomorrow. (The rule against bicycles on the regular ferry is absolute.) We have another box to send from the post office. And we have to tidy up the house and pack our bags. Then, the last walk on the beach, and dinner at Magowan’s. I hope to be up and out early tomorrow. It’s not that I’m keen to leave, not at all. But I’m treating today as our last day here, and tomorrow as our first day home. My first day, that is.


After lunch, yesterday, we took a walk through Seaview, the community just beyond the other end of Ocean Beach, and Kathleen picked up a Times on the way. When we got back to the house, she read the first two sections and decided that she needed a nap. I had been reading the three back sections (Home, Styles, and Arts), and now I read the first two. Then I pulled over the extra-large tote bag full of newspapers that piled up during the month. During the month, I never bought a paper myself. Nor could I bear to read one. It was like television: coming back after a few days away, all you can see is the formula. So I would gather up the sections that drifted around the house over the weekends and stuff them into the tote bag. (Kathleen ususally went to buy a paper every morning that she was here, as well.) When I was finished with yesterday’s Times, I had a decision to make. Would I throw the old newspapers into the rubbish without reading them?

I glanced through the lot. I cut out an article on genetic swtiching, to read later. I read the piece about actor’s B D Wong’s new home, with the sad story, tucked into the chitchat about décor, of the death of a son and the fatal strain that it put on the relationship with his then partner. (Kathleen and I saw M Butterfly twice on Broadway.) The interenational and political news seemed a bit clueless, because it was, of course, unaware of recent events in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. (What’s appalling about the American response is that the violence of the reformation of Western Christianity has been entirely forgotten, as if we were not its heirs. But it is in the nature of heirs to obliviate the rude sources of their wealth.) The presidential campaign looked stranger than ever — it has lost the fundamental symmetry of traditional campaigns. Even when they attack the other’s positions, the candidates are not fighting the same kind of fight. Obama is appealing to reason, and Romney is appealing to something else — everything else, perhaps. Obama has to fight; Romney comes pre-sold, like a messiah-in-a-box, all shiny beneath the cellophane wrapping. Much more valuable if you don’t open it!  

Here’s something that I think has changed. Formerly, Americans could be whipped frantic by allegations of alien agents within our midst. This is ancient history, not just American, although in the Salem witch trials we see how little time was required to reproduce Old-World anxieties upon our own hopeful shores. Most recently, the Cold War was funded by a visceral (and very ignorant) fear of Communists, who could be anybody, when in fact the actual enemies were the Russians. But things are different now. Fear has been replaced by resentment. Americans aren’t afraid of infiltrators. They’re frankly willing to recognize that the people whom they resent and dislike are also Americans. They just don’t want to have anything to do with them. It’s not civil war, but the opposite: civil withdrawal. 

When it was over, the reading of the papers, I felt defeated. The smartest people in the country have no idea where we’re going, and no very clear notion of where we ought to be going. Jobs! Equality! Health care! But the nuts don’t fit the bolts. I saw a headline, which was not news to me, that most of the jobs that are being created these days are low-paying jobs. How do you tackle a problem like this? Training! is the answer. But training for what? How can there be growth in good jobs in a business climate that promotes productivity at the expense of employment? The answers aren’t there, because no one is asking the right questions.

That’s what I’d like to see: an election of questions. What do you think the right questions are?


I’ll be back on Monday. Bon weekend â tous!  

Gotham Diary:
Vacation, cont’d
13 September 2012

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

On Tuesday, I had so much fun doing nothing but reading Maria Semple that, like Will, I wanted “again.” After I’d taken the boxes to the post office (easy-peasy), I had really nothing to do, or, rather, nothing to feel guilty about not doing. But what to read? I knocked off Eric Evans’s Lancaster Pamphlet about Pitt the Younger; although richly informative, it left me even more mystified by the precocity of Pitt’s political mentality, which enabled him to become Britain’s youngest prime minister ever. I considered John Lewis Gaddis’s book about George Kennan, which I’ve been slogging through since it came out ages ago, but I’ve half resolved to put that book down, as a sweet-faced hatchet job. Kennan is always weeping or moaning or having a breakdown or in some other way exhibiting unmanly behavior. The emphasis seems tendentious. The writing is also very dull. By design, I quite suspect.

I consulted with Ms NOLA, who recommended a few titles that, while they didn’t make me jump, I really should have bought had they been available as ebooks. (Among them, Javier Marías’s All Souls, which takes place at Oxford.) In the end, here’s what I did: I went to Amazon and selected Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, which I’ve read twice. Then I scrolled down to the horizontal band of books bought by people who bought The Keep. The authors of these books fell into three groups: the ones I’ve read (Ishiguro), the ones I would never read (Roth), and the ones I didn’t know anything about (Megan Abbott). Swinging through the Amazon on these vines, I eventually settled on Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination, a book that I knew that I owned in paper, but somehow hadn’t read.

It was a great treat, and I look forward (already) to reading it again someday. I was about to remark on Cameron’s lapidary style, but I was attacked by a doubt that lapidary might not be quite the word. Weighing and considering the online dictionary definitions, I realized that I was drawn to the word by its reminder of “lapping.” Cameron’s understated prose is beautifully cadenced, something that F L Lucas’s Style has taught me to appreciate more overtly. Although it never openly scans (breaks down, that is, into a classical meter, such as iambic pentameter), the following passage pulses, beneath its quite ordinary words, with the gathering excitement of an unexpected encounter.

The second intermission found them leaning against the Dress Circle balustrade, looking down upon the crowded Grand Tier promenade, discussing the sexual politics of trouser roles. There was an area below them separated off with a row of potted trees, beyond which people sat on conspicuous display at little tables idiotically eating desserts. Deirdre was about to make a comment about the absurd ostentation of this, when she thought she recognized a woman seated at one of the tables.

“…looking down upon the crowded Grand Tier promenade..”; “…beyond which people sat on conspicuous display…” — oh, for Lucas’s markings, which I don’t know how to reproduce on this machine. But when Deirdre speaks, the rhythm evaporates.

“I think I know that woman down there,” she said. “I want to go and say hello. Will you excuse me?”

“Sure,” said her companion. “I’m going to the men’s room. I’ll meet you back at our seats.”

“Okay,” said Deirdre. 

The woman is, as the reader fully expects, Caroline Gund, the French-born widow of an author about whom Deirdre’s former boyfriend, Omar Razaghi, once hoped to write an authorized biography. Deirdre met Caroline at her then home, Ochos Rios, in rural Uruguay, a place that she shared with her late husband’s brother (and his boyfriend) and mistress (and her daughter). Most of the novel takes place at that house, and its charms (and delapidations) are winkingly described, giving the place a charming but dreamlike uncertainty. From the moment she arrives at the house, summoned by Omar’s catastrophic reaction to a bee sting, Deirdre is not just a character but also a verbal bloc of antipathy to not just the irregularities but also the poetic possibilities of life at Ochos Rios. Whether or not she raises her voice, she is the prototypical braying American, and you can’t wait for her to leave the room. By the time you catch up with her at the opera, you might be ready to forgive her. But then she says that word that Caroline, very much the mistress of her second language, would never use, “okay.” Ladies don’t say “okay” at the opera. They don’t even think it. 

“Razaghi” may be an actual Iranian surname, but I kept reading it as ragazzo, Italian for “boy,” which Omar completely is, 100%. Until he goes to Ochos Rios, that is.


Kathleen is in a black car (perhaps it is silver), speeding along the Grand Central Parkway I should think, on her way to 99 Maple Avenue, in Bay Shore, a destination that the drivers seem to have trouble finding. Kathleen is no help. I still recall the first time I drove her home from law school. To the house that she was sharing with four other classmates, not far from campus and technically a part of it. “Which way?” I asked her, at a turn. Kathleen had no idea. She would get in someone’s car and be taken to and from Douglas House, paying absolutely no attention to the route. But of course I already knew where she lived. You may be sure of that. In case of difficulty today, I’ll have Google Maps up and ready.  

Gotham Diary:
12 September 2012

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

It is now a week since anyone but Kathleen was here at our rented house on Fire Island (and even Kathleen herself is away at the moment), but it feels more like a month. The days pass quickly enough, but, having receded into the past, they double or triple in bulk, so that two or three fill up the memory-space of a week. The other odd thing is that what looked like an alarmingly bare larder as recently as Sunday now seems stuffed with food that we’ll never get through. What happened, I think, is that my everyday expectation of culinary quality and variety gave way to something much less demanding. Last night, I found a burger in the freezer and broiled it. It wasn’t beef, or just beef, but some sort of meat-loaf mix — very odd, when that’s what we had for dinner the Friday night of Labor Day weekend. I cooked a slice of bacon and found a remnant of cheddar cheese for the topper. What with macaroni salad from the Pantry on the side, I did without an English muffin. It was a bland dinner, but it filled me up, and that was that; also, one less thing to throw away. That’s what it’s come down to: a timeless, Magic Mountain zone in which I’m eating prospective refuse. Although I’m perfectly comfortable, I’m glad that I have only one more day of this.

I really did feel that I was resting at some old-timey sanatorium yesterday morning. It was so chilly that I sat in the sun the moment the light hit the deck. I sat with my back to it, wearing a hat and a heavy cardigan and a blanket over my legs. I sipped tea and watched the monarch butterflies. Without really trying, I must have seen more than a dozen yesterday. They are migrating through here, on their way to Mexico. We have learned some interesting things about monarch butterflies. The lifespan of those born at the beginning of summer is less than two months, but the “migratory generation” can live for up to seven. No butterfly lives to make a complete round trip, so the migratory pattern is entirely inborn — or at any rate it is not well understood. Until this week, spotting a monarch has always been something of an event (not that I would ever see one if attention were not called to it by someone else), but yesterday, I might look up from my book and see three or four fluttering in crazy assembly across the rushes. The traffic promises to be even heavier today.  

Whether I’ll be sitting out in the sun again remains to be seen. I have some boxes to take to the post office, one full of Will’s toys and the other packed with books. Also, I don’t have anything to read.


Of course, it hasn’t come to that. But I’m left with stuff that I won’t be reading in big doses. There’s Bendetta Craveri’s book about Mme du Deffand, the great hostess of Enlightenment Paris; rather than begin at the beginning (as usual), I’ve jumped to the chapter about Deffand’s strange romance with, of all people, Horace Walpole. Never have I read so satisfying a portrait of the English aristocrat; everything that Craveri writes confirms something or other that I’ve read about him over the years, and puts it in relation to the other bits. It would be wrong to say that the first prime minister’s second son has been a model to me, but I believe that we share a fastidious resistance to the mental deformities that accompany professionalism. (The serious professional cannot talk about what he or she does, because it is either abstruse or confidential or both.)

Les deux créations auxquelles il consacre pendant un demi-siècle ses soins les plus attentifs, son immense correspondance et sa demeure-musée de Strawberry Hill, sont, à cet égard, significatives, car ce sont deux activités  parfaitement compatible avec la condition de gentilhomme. Face  aux affaires publiques, l’attitude de Walpole est celle de quelqu’un qui a l’habitude de la politique et qui n’en a pas la passion.

That sounds familiar. A few pages of Creveri, however, are all that I can swallow, largely because of the excerpts from Deffand’s letters. They are models of lucidity and so forth, but that’s the problem: they’re models. In the Eighteenth Century, everyone with a brain strove to write model prose. You can’t tell writers apart in this, the most intimate of genres. The fault is mine, I’m sure; had I read more diligently in this literature, Mme du Deffand would not be reminding me (alarmingly!) of Mme de Merteuil.

Then there is a book on “Chinese” Morrison that I can’t bring myself to discuss; allow me a spell of mystification on that title. What’s distressing is this Timothy Mo book, An Insular Possession. I had never heard of Timothy Mo, before coming across his name in a list of authors recommended by Diana Athill. In my ignorance and lack of sympathy, I have to say that Mo reminds me of Patrick O’Brian, whose popular Jack Aubrey books I simply cannot read. Here is where I stopped last night (a group of American agents and sailors are shooting in the marshes near Whampoa Island):

A brisk walk of twenty inutes sees them back to their starting-point. The others cheer ironically. MacQuitty barks a welcome. He brings a soft, drooping mass of feathers and bill to them in his mouth and drops it at their feet. This is merely one of a brace; all told, the others have accounted for eight brace.

“A darnation fine morning’s sport,” one of the mates tells Eastman.

They have arranged their bag over the leaves on the upturned boat’s keel, the beautiful plumage set off to advantage against the brilliant green when glimpsed thorugh the latticed frame of the bamboos. A pair of guns lie crossed against the boat, completely the tastefully contrived tableau. Eastman’s fingers itch for what they manage best, neither gun not cue but … [sic] a pen or brush. Still life is actually what he realises most successfully, and, in this kind of accomplishment, does not suffer by comparison with O’Rourke, who regards it as a form of necrophilia, the objectionable object, nadir of artistic endeavour. (And has told Walter Eastman so.)

“You are doleful failures at either form of the ‘pot’,” says the odious Ridley.

If I cared anything at all for this, I would want to know what “pot” refers to, or what it is about Ridley that makes him odious, but I don’t. What has kept me going is the prospect of the Opium War, which looms somewhere over the novel’s remaining seven hundred pages. I can’t think how I’m going to get there.


I had saved Maria Semple’s new book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, for a day like yesterday, when I’d be all alone and tired of my usual occupations. I thought that I just might read it in a day, but was really surprised to find that it took only a few hours to get from start to finish. The dust jacket carries a blurb from Jonathan Franzen: “I tore through this book with heedless pleasure.” Exactly. And the problem with heedless is pleasure is that, once you’ve gulped down the happy ending, you’re calling for the next dish.

At the risk of presumptiousness, I will say that neither Jonathan Franzen nor I is a reader capable of taking heedless pleasure in heedless writing about heedless characters. No, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a very well-constructed entertainment, full of vivid and interesting characters who thrash about in a poopy stew of contemporary pieties. The plot is an infernal machine that strains plausibility just enough to impel the turning of pages. The comedy depends upon the characters’ inability or unwillingness to develop. It isn’t personal growth that’s wanted, but something rather the reverse, a sound simplification, a “getting back to basics.” The Seattleites in Semple’s slice of life have overdosed on improving concepts, a disorder for which the only known detox program is the reading of a novel such as this one. In an important sense, Semple has updated Cyra McFadden’s 1978 assessment of the emperor’s new clothes, The Serial.

The villain of the piece here is bad writing, examples of which Semple artfully parades in the series of emails and announcements that constitute the bulk of the narrative. Every now and then, little Bee Branch, a straight-A eighth-grader, takes the floor, and everything that she says makes plain good sense, even when she insists that she hates her Dad (she doesn’t); but most of what we read is, well, heedless self-display, in the form of ill-considered, cant-ridden missives. Semple establishes the key at the very beginning, with the mission statement of Bee’s school: “a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.” The gist would be better-served by something less glib, and certainly no reputable academy ought to dabble in “connectitude.”

The title character, Bee’s mom, reminds me of Amfortas, in Parsifal. In a youthful and heroic attempt to battle the forces of heedlessness, she was bested by an evil man, and she has been languishing with the wound ever since. You could say that she has been a great mom to Bee, but even there she might have been better, by providing her daughter with a more impervious roof overhead. Straight Gate, the hilltop former home for wayward girls that Bee calls home is nothing less than Bernadette’s wound made visible, and, in fact neither parent calls it home. Bernadette spends her days in an Airstream trailer behind the house, while Bee’s father, Elgin, heads a major development project at Microsoft and is usually on the Campus. (Elgin takes the company bus to work in order to save himself an hour of Bernadette’s morning rants about the impossibility of living in Seattle, something that, agoraphobe that she has become, she knows little about.) Bernadette, an architect with prestigious training and a MacArthur genius grant, meant to do something with the broken-down old house, but she has spent the entirety of Bee’s life, and then some, feeling sorry for herself and superior to everyone else — “everyone” consisting, in this case, of the mothers of the other children at Bee’s school. Bernadette dismisses these women as “gnats.” In the course of the novel, she is reminded that this is not a constructive view to take of fellow-creatures, but that’s precisely why you can’t speak of her finding wisdom in the ordinary sense. She knew it all along, but indulged in oversight. As for the two gnats with whom she clashes, they, too, have to recollect the sense they were born with.

My complaint is the best possible one: I wish that this book were longer, quite a bit longer. I’d like to have known a lot more about Elgin, whose background is fairly telegraphed, with a no-account brother making a surprising, disproportionate appearance (and quick disappearance). Bernadette’s Park Avenue background, too, come to think of it. To say that a lot of threads go untied at the end is an understatement; with its last-act shift to the waters off Antarctica (foreseen from the start), Where’d You Go, Bernadette casts off any concern for mundane tidiness. It seems to be a case of confusing the White Continent with “the basics.”

Ordinarily, of course, I’d tuck in a  slab of text, some more or less representative sample of Maria Semple’s prose style. But it’s not possible; Semple’s prose style (quite a lovely one, as you’ll recall from This One Is Mine) is completely effaced by her project, which is to capture a representative sample of the way we write badly today. No one specimen speaks for the whole. The sixth document in the collection, a mailing from a consultant who has been hired to help improve the prestige of Bee’s school, is a glorious monstrosity of dead cliché (cliché born dead, that is), but in its two pages, Semple says it all, and there’s no call for more. The best that I can do is to file a portion of Bee’s report on the Rockettes.

That night, I went to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular with Youth Group. The first part, with the Rockettes, was annoying. All it was, was piped-in music while the Rockettes kicked. I thought they would have at least sung, or done some other kind of dancing. But they just kicked in a line facing one direction. They kicked in a line facing the other direction. They kicked in a line with the whole line twirling, to songs like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The whole thing was junk. Kennedy and I both were like, Why?

I wouldn’t have asked for anything different. Just more of same. I hope that, next time, Maria Semple isn’t in a hurry to finish her novel.

Gotham Diary:
11 September August 2012

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Is there anything less nautically charming than the Fire Island ferries? They are boxes on barges, built for passengers who won’t be paying much attention to the boat.

I don’t go in for photographic actualités much, but as it happens Kathleen is on the boat in the picture, or was — she is at home and in bed as I write. For the first time, I found myself altogether alone on Fire Island. I walked back to the house, and quickly changed into my beach togs. The tide was high, and my walk was often interrupted by knee-high sweeps of water. Showered and dressed afterward, I sat down with the rest of A Dedicated Man. Dinner consisted of reheated asparagus soup — Kathleen had bought a bunch of the sorries looking spears (“and those were the best”) that were good for nothing else — and the half of a BLT that Kathleen didn’t even attempt to eat just before she left the island — and a few loads of laundry went through the necessary stages. I spoke to Kathleen three times, I think, the last to say good-night. By then, I had read all the Elizabeth Taylor stories and had shifted to Timothy Mo’s historical novel, An Insular Possession.

It got very cold in the night. I ought to have grabbed one of the fleece comforters on the sofa much sooner than I did. For the first time, the ceiling fan was motionless overhead.


A Dedicated Man is a short collection; there are only nine stories, half as many (give or take) as in the two previous collections. They are varied and assured, all top quality. The second story, “The Little Girl,” has a wicked ending that is funny precisely because it confirms a mother’s fears that her daughter is going to grow up to be like an obstinate aunt (who married a millionaire). There are hints throughout the stories of William Maxwell’s lapidary little book, The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales — perhaps the first piece of not-entirely-realistic contemporary fiction that I could appreciate — and I’m more than ever of the opinion that Maxwell, Taylor’s editor at The New Yorker, was inspired by her submissions — but in “Mice and Birds and Boy” the hints gather a certain heft, as characters are cloaked in the familiar costumes of fairy tale. The little boy’s mother, for example, takes on the cast of the stock wicked stepmother. Notwithstanding her Italian lessons and her Japanese cooking, she is thoughtlessly selfish, and it’s telling that she doesn’t have a name. Mrs May, the sometime grand lady who has been reduced to living in a gardener’s lodge that she doesn’t keep very clean, turns out not to be the witch whom little William expects to find in so strange (and, for a while, enchanting) a little house. But these foundations, unexpected but familiar, support the timelessness not of old fables but that of the best adult fiction. There is the melancholy (seen from any standpoint but his own) of William’s transitory interest in Mrs May; as children grow up, they leave things behind, even people. There is the mystery of Mrs May’s evidently mismanaged fortune, which glistens with bits of evidence that, if she is a sweet old lady, it is only William who sees her as such, and not because children see more clearly than adults do but very much because they don’t. The entire story is haunted by the second paragraph.

“I was thought to be beautiful,” she said, and she wondered: “How long ago was that?” Who had been the last person to comment upon her beauty, and how many years ago? She thought that it might have been her husband, from loyalty or from still seeing what was no longer there. He had been dead for over twenty years and her beauty had not, by any means, been the burden of his dying words.

What a twist of the knife! What was the burden of his dying words? Something unpleasant? Perhaps it was the death duties that Mrs May mentions when she tries to explain to William why she is living in a hut. “These death duties William thought of as moral obligations upon dying — some charitable undertakings, plainly not approved of by Mrs May.” William may not be so far wrong as his ignorance of taxation suggests. William’s family inhabits the stables once attached to Mrs May’s property, and when Mrs May discovers this, she is dumbfounded, because, reduced to penury as she is, she nonetheless lives in a building constructed for human habitation, not for that of horses. This makes her a bore, because she cannot stop asking William about details of his home life that don’t interest him at all. Presently, William decides to obey his mother’s ban on visits to Mrs May. And what of William’s kind father? Again, he wears the mask of thr browbeaten good man. He is not, as for an instant it seems that he might be, the hero to rescue Mrs May. We are left thinking that something about Mrs May makes her ineligible for heroic rescue. “Mice and Birds and Boy” is a puzzle for adults, and, as such, meant not to be solved.

“A Nice Little Actress” is impossible to think of without smiling, even if the young man does shoot himself at the end. Somehow, that is part of the dark comedy. I am almost certain that Taylor did not mean this story to be a burlesque of Puccini’s Il Tabarro, but that’s what came to mind. Iris is a bored housewife, stuck in a cluster of wartime bungalows and agonized by the sound of cinema organs emanating from all the other little houses. Instead of listening to a soap opera, Iris lives one. “She was always playing little tricks and this was the first which had ever come off.” You can see how pathetic she is right there. She redoes her hair for the man on whom she has played the trick (a poor young musician lured into her living room by a photograph recording of the Archduke Trio) and her husband notices. “All right for a change,” he says, but he thinks that it looks “absurd, snaky and greasy.” The high point in the comedy is not an event but a sentence that reminds us that what is really going on when you read a story is that you are reading a story: which means that you are a character yourself, and your laugh, when you read the following, is the climax: “He had arrived at the stage now, the neighbors notes, when he entered the back door without knocking.” Iris is heedless and reckless, but because she is not, after all, living on a barge in the Seine amidst Latin lovers but rather immured in an exurb surrounded by noticing neighbors, her bad behavior has no consequences for her. There is not a single genuinely funny detail  in “A Nice Little Actress,” but, thanks to Taylor’s writing, I cannot for the life of me wipe the smirk off my face. If only Trollope had written The Eustace Diamonds like this!

I have to read “The Voices” to Kathleen, because something like it happened to me once, and is one of my great stories. Because of its Moroccan setting and dodgy English folk, “In the Sun” may remind you of The Man Who Knew Too Much, but so much the better if it does, because you won’t see the ending coming. (You probably wouldn’t anyway.) “Vron and Willie,” the last story, brought Edward Gorey to mind; it was very like one of his gaily limned chapbooks about jovial psychopaths. “As If I Should Care” and “Mr Wharton” are both about the other end of the middle class, the one that Taylor escaped by virtue of brains and charm, but never forgot that she might have dropped into. “As If I Should Care” actually dips into the upper reaches of the working class. When Taylor turns her sights in this direction, her sense of humor is replaced by a furious empathy. It is only in a novel, Angel, her extraordinary portrait of an ambitious writer of trash, that she finds room for both.


The treat that I’ve been saving for these few days of solitude is Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It looks yummy.

Gotham Diary:
Serene and Oblivious
10 September 2012

Monday, September 10th, 2012

A picture of yesterday’s skies would interest no one. There was nothing to see but blue. At one point, a flotilla of small cumulus clouds, looking more like wallpaper for a nursery than anything else, crossed from north to south, but, for the most part, the sky was blank. It had completely forgotten the night before.

It would be all right with me if today were our last day out here. I’ve soaked up as much seaside peace as I can hold, and I’m beginning to feel the melancholy of autumn, which, in the city, is a burnished delight. Not so out here. The island is at its emptiest. Summer is absolutely over; the few hangers-on constitute an inverse of decimation. The winter life, in which about a hundred households participate with a frontier sociability, is not even imaginable at the moment.

For Kathleen, however, it is nothing less than heaven, and for all of these reasons, except for the melancholy, which touches her only in the form of a reminder that she will soon be going back to work. She will be going back to work, tomorrow; the combination of a conference and several unavoidable meetings will keep her busy for two days, and, because the ferry service has been cut back, she will have to leave this evening and wait until Thursday morning to return. Hell of a note! Why bother, I thought to myself; we have to be out of here first thing Saturday morning. But from Thursday morning to Saturday morning is the space of a slightfly curtailed weekend, which is generally thought to be worth the trip, and Kathleen hasn’t spend much more than a third of the time that I’ve had.. So I’ll stay here by myself. Anything is better (for me) than traveling. Being in other places is wonderful, but getting there is excruciating. (That’s why I’ve still never been to Williamsburgh.) I’ve made the most out of these restful weeks away from the city by staying put. I had the idea of ferrying across to Bay Shore for a haircut and a beard trim, but instead I’ve risked looking like the abominable snowman for the sake of ignoring logistics.


After washing up last night, I was casting about for something to read, and I thought that I would beguile a half hour with a story by Elizabeth Taylor. I opened up the fat omnibus to “The Dedicated Man,” the title story of her fourth collection. It is anything but beguiling. Closer to surrealism and alternative reality than anything by Taylor that I’ve read, it tells of an emotionally shut-down waiter who enlists a dependable coworker to pass as husband and wife in order to snag a position at a genteel restaurant in the Thames Valley. This odd deception works well enough until the waiter feels it necessary to allay suspicions by simulating the appearance of a genuinely marital chamber by putting out the photograph of a boy in a school blazer. Unfortunately, this photograph proves to be a portal, through which the waitress, his accomplice, travels into a better, if imaginary world.

A brilliant story, but unsettling, especially after dinner. For the first time, I did not hunger to read another story right away. I went to bed instead.

Gotham Diary:
9 September 2012

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

Yesterday — a Saturday, although there was nothing, in our otherwise happy solitude, to distinguish it from any other day — was a day of uncertainties. First, there was the uncertainty about food. Kathleen returned from the Pantry with two items out of six on the shopping list. It may be that the Pantry, although scheduled to be open for the remainder of our stay, has reverted to a sort of deli/convenience outlet, and won’t be stocking perishables. It’s not that we’re out of food here, but what food there is is too miscellaneous for the making of satisfying meals. I shall have to think. We shall probably go out.

Then, there was the uncertainty about the weather. Kathleen’s father and Fossil Darling both called with concern, having heard about the tornado that ripped through Breezy Point earlier in the day. That event was quite unrelated to the storm that was headed our way, expected to hit in the evening. The day was sultry but breezy; not too hot, but very humid. Or, should I say, low-pressured, since I felt it more in my joints than on my skin. As the evening gathered, so did the clouds. The wind picked up, and Kathleen decided to stow the lightweight deck chairs. I was in no mood for really bad weather — for the inconveniences of really bad weather, that is. There are very few tall trees out here to be blown through the power lines (that’s what knocks out service in the suburbs), but that’s small comfort when the weather sites on the Internet are blinking red.

I tried to read. Well, I did read. But I did not read from a treasured volume of my choice (to rough up a bit a line of Longellow, I think it was, that was engraved on some ghastly bronze bookends that were handed down to me when I was young). I have surprisingly, read most of the books that I brought out with me, and the ones remaining remain for a reason. No, I read newly-acquired books on my Kindle Fire. I’ve had the Kindle since it came out in December (January?), and I’ve used it now and then, but during this trip it has become a real tool. I’ve bought all sorts of old books for free. Did you know that Hume’s History of England is available? That’s amazing! And now I can get rid of six second-rate Victorian volumes in borderline poor condition. (I want to write an essay about Hume on Edward II.) I bought the Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Did you know — now, this I got from Wikipedia — that her father wanted her to marry someone by the name of Clotworthy Skeffington? Clotworthy Skeffington! This is a name that must be put to some excellent use! I bought a Lancaster Pamphlet on Pitt the Younger and read quite a bit of it. Did you know that Lancaster Pamphlets are aimed at British students studying for their A-Levels? I expect to build up a collection. All on my Kindle.

I had spent some of the afternoon reading Eleanor Cook’s book about Wallace Stevens’s poetry — another e-book, as was the collection of Stevens’s poetry itself that I’d finally had the wit to download. Eight months, it took me. It took me eight months to grasp that I can carry around my favorite poems without lugging around actual books. If someone had told me that I could do this when I got the Kindle, I’d have nodded, because I’d have understood the theory. But old beasts are slow to put theory into practice. When that finally happens, it is the brilliant mercy of a sure repose.  

Eventually, after dark, there was rain. I should say that, all in all, it rained off and on for a total of fifteen minutes, only half of that time tempestuously. By nine o’clock, the skies were unmistakably clearing. The pressure shot up, too. Suddenly, it was eleven o’clock, and I crept to bed.


The actual book that I read yesterday was George Snyder’s On Wings of Affection. George is one of the handful of very nice people whom I’ve met first on the Internet and then face-to-face. When he sent me a copy of his novel last winter, I resolved to read it straight away, but, to an extent never really revealed in these pages, last winter was difficult for a number of reasons (happily, the worst of these was Will’s expertise in germ warfare), and every time I opened Wings, I found it just a bit too light in tone for my frame of mind. It did not take too long for the novel to become a source of self-reproach, a development that makes any book twice as hard to read. In the end — for it did come to an end! — I packed the book for Fire Island and resolved to read it.

Once I got past the first couple of pages, I had no desire to stop. What’s my favorite book? The one that I’m in the middle of right now! So it was with On Wings of Affection. I was engrossed by George’s expert blend of inspiration: antics out of Patrick Dennis marinated in Hollywood noir and infused with with Christopher Isherwood’s metamorphosed regret. The novel is almost always funny, but it is also never not triste.

At his Web log, 1904: The Year Everything Important Happened, George had experimented with his three principal characters, Sam (the narrator), Pam, and Didier, but in the composition of the book he removed every trace of the tentative, and the sketches were replaced by firmly grounded people. (Reading 1904, hadn’t been quite sure that Didier was supposed to be real.) Sam Finch, nearing forty, grew up poor in Ohio, gave New York a try, and now finds himself as a script reader and researcher in West Hollywood. The sister of an old boyfriend, the fabulously wealthy Grace Van Loon, emerges out of the past to ask him to keep an eye on her headstrong daughter, sixteen year-old Agnes, who prefers to go by “Pam.” (It didn’t take long for me to sense that I had cast Rachel McAdams in the part.) But what gives new shape and meaning to Sam’s life is the appearance of the beautiful young Frenchman, Didier Rossingol.

Sam, Pam, and Didier constitute a kind of group lead. It is not what happens between them that keeps the story going, but their intersections with the craziness that is Southern California. Didier, when he makes his first appearance, is the boytoy of a loathsome, wealthy decorator whose death is foretold in the next breath. It turns out that Didier and Pam have some history: in his previous life, Didier was her father’s boytoy (Pam’s mother refers to her gay ex-husband as The Plaintiff), and there was a scandal in St Tropez. Pam’s attempt to defenestrate Didier from Sam’s apartment may forewarn some movie buffs of an impending romance, but never mind; the adventure begins when Didier discovers his protector’s corpse, panics, and runs.

Sam’s attempts to help Didier out are more than comically ineffectual; they take him to Chatsworth (the one on the other side of the hills) for the making of a porn flick. But if the plot keeps the wheels turning, it’s the rueful candor of the writing that makes the scenery interesting. Here is Sam, unexpectedly welcoming a very famous movie actor into his apartment.

I will say, however, that meeting someone you are quite sure you’ve met before but are distinctly aware of having seen more or less naked is a disconcerting experience. You cannot help wondering what you might have been doing when you did seem them naken, and in addition, if you have lived as full and rich a life as I have had, filled with many interesting experiences you can’t always recall afterward, you may have a nagging suspicion that this vivid memory of lack of clothes has to do with something for which you owe an apology, but for the life of you, you can’t remember for what (or when, or where), so all you can do is hope they don’t remember either.

Sam no longer leads this kind of life. The fun part of his life is behind him. At one point, he moons over the trio at the end of Der Rosenkavalier and prepares to give up Didier, but without ever having had him. Sam’s social life nowadays is made up of meetings of “our little social club,” the name of which seems to be the only thing anonymous here. Like one of Louis XIV’s cast-off mistresses, Sam has found religion, and, in his case, sobriety is just the start of it. Beneath the laughter, but never out of sight, lies Sam’s renunciation. The fun is all ours.  

Although I’m horribly embarrassed about having taken so long to read a friend’s book, I’m rather glad to have had On Wings of Affection as a holiday treat. I promise not to let so much time go by before reading the next “Sam, Pam and Didier adventure,” Down the Garden Path.

Gotham Diary:
No Problem
7 September 2012

Friday, September 7th, 2012

Have I already complained about “no problem” as a substitute for “you’re welcome”? Kathleen and I hate it. The otherwise very nice waiter at Magowan’s last night kept saying it. At first, I thought that it wasn’t so much the words as the intonation, which has a bit of Mighty Mouse about it, but that’s nonsense: it is the words. Why introduce the idea of difficulty (if only to deny it) into a response to gratitude? I hope that the vogue passes.


It was hard to get out of bed this morning, so I didn’t, not until nearly nine. Although still, the air was cool and pleasant, and the sky was a simple, lovely blue. Nothing was happening. Every now and then, a truck drove through the marsh on Burmah Road. (That’s the stretch of winding sand that we had to traverse, coming and going, when we stayed at Robbins Rest last summer. We can see that house from the deck of this one. It is very inconspicuous among the other rooftops.) There were birds, I suppose. The chirping of insects that might have been tinnitus. My resolve, to get up early and get to work, was utterly vitiated by the tranquillity of dozing next to Kathleen.

Insofar as I was bothered by actual thoughts, they mostly had to do with Orley Farm, which I finished last night. It seemed to me, this morning, that Trollope leaves most of his narratives up in the air. What sort of career does Felix Graham, so obviously not cut out to be a predatory cross-examiner, pursue? What becomes of Mrs Mason of Groby Park — does she die as meanly as she lived? Do the daughters marry well, or at all? Sophia Furnival, pursued by two suitors during the novel, is left high and dry, spurning one and spurned by the other. She is undoubtedly meant to be seen in the same light as the hunting Miss Tristrams: too something-or-other to be properly feminine. (Peregrine Orme says of Harriet Tristram, “I wouldn’t have her if she owned every fox-cover in the county.”) And what really happened to Dockwrath in the end? “What the attorney did to make it necessary that he should leave Hamworth, I do not know…” Piffle! The ending of this voluminous novel is so unfinished that I almost wish that it had ended with this (it is the end of Chapter LXXVII):

I am inclined to think, that upon the whole the company in Great St Helen’s became more happy as the conviction grew upon them that a great and mysterious crime had been committed, which had baffled two courts of law, and had ast last thrust itself forth into the open daylight through the workings of the criminal’s conscience. When Kantwise had completed his story, the time had come for Mrs Loulder to descend to the lower regions, and give some aid in preparation of the supper. During her absence the matter was discussed in every way, and on her return, when she was laden with good things, she found that all the party was contented except Moulder and her brother.

“It’s a very terrible thing,” said Mrs Smiley, later in the evening, as she sat with her steaming glass of rum and water before her. “Very terrible indeed; ain’t it, John? I do wish now I’d gone down and see’d her, I do indeed. Don’t you, Mrs Moulder?”

“If all this is true I should like to have had a peep at her.”

“At any rate we shall have pictures of her in all the papers.”

When I read Orley Farm the first time, I was in my late forties; this time, in my mid-sixties, I found myself in much greater sympathy with Sir Peregrine Orme. I could still see that his retired country life allowed him to persist in naive wishful thinking about his well-behaved neighbors, but I didn’t find him stuffy. No doubt I have become almost as stuffy myself.

It has been like spending the weekend at the country house of a beloved relative who happens to be a “character.” Frequent visits would be maddening, but, every once in a while, it’s very entertaining to drop in and watch the old man go on about things. Uncle Tony is droll (intentionally and otherwise); he is so opinionated that he seems to have opinions on matters about which he insists that no one ought to have an opinion; and he is a transcendant snob, an almost bigoted believer in the ennobling effects of gentle birth. He’s tremendously romantic about “Old England” — the hunt, Tudor architecture (rarely so labeled), the Inns of Court, and such rural inconveniences as make what is a very short walk from Orley Farm to The Cleeve a very long ride in a carriage. His ideas about nubile girls, while utterly consistent with the most rigorous moral precepts, seem almost pervertedly interested, and of course women have but one purpose in life, which is to take care of men. And he is always interrupting his stories with bald statements of his personal views. By Sunday afternoon, you’re packed and panting for a lift to the train back home. But you’ll be back.

I’d forgotten than stern, self-righteous Lucius Mason winds up in Australia. Perfect.

Gotham Diary:
Calming Down
6 September 2012

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

During the afternoon, yesterday, there were several points at which I wanted to go to bed. Going to bed in the middle of the day is unheard of for me, because nothing would wake me up faster, or less agreeably, than the attempt to take a proper nap. Made fretful by a slight domestic inconvenience (see below), I had the sense to take my walk on the beach despite my lassitude, and after that, if I had been alone, I’d have scrambled some eggs, taken a pill, and gone to bed by daylight. As it was, I could hardly think to make for dinner for the two of us, and so I resorted to short-order cookery that produced something quick and agreeable for Kathleen and then something quick but different for me, with her being quite finished before I sat down.

But when it came time to go to bed in earnest — no; it was two hours past bedtime — I could not go to sleep, because I had rallied, now excited by the book that I had been reading all afternoon. Worse, I had taken Lunesta too soon, so that when I finally turned out the light, I could tell that it was no longer active. (Lunesta is an unsual drug in that it makes its presence noticeable by extremely slight absences. So I dared to take another, which worked right away, it seems; I have no further memories of fretting.) By now it was nearly midnight. Nearly midnight! I’d been turning in by ten at the latest for most of my stay here, at least when there were only one or two other people in the house. I blamed the whole cockamamie day on Trollope. Well, on Orley Farm. When I finally put the book down (and this was before the second Lunesta), it was in the middle of one of the last of those clotted, Greek-tragic scenes between Lady Mason and Lucius, the son for whose benefit she perpetrated the terrible forgery, and the son whose headstrong mismanagement of his fraudulent inheritance has triggered, at the beginning of the novel, a renewed and more deadly interrogation of his claim. As it happens, I cannot remember what becomes of Lucius in the end; it is one of the many little details that I have forgotten in the fifteen years since I read Orley Farm for the first time — details that are turning out to be a delight to rediscover. Lucius Mason is a good man but not a likeable one, and, no doubt because of his education at a German university, not an English gentleman. I have a bit more than 150 pages to go, which means that I have read nearly 650, almost half of that number yesterday.

At the end of the afternoon, the clothes dryer gave out. It croaked in a whisper when we tried to turn it on, to dry the umpteenth load of sheets and towels from the weekend. We contacted the genial landlord. I hoped that (as indeed turned out to be the case) the machine was simply overheated, having been put to constant use on an extraordinarily humid day, but my heart did sink, remembering how the last week of last summer’s stay (in the little house that we can just make out across the marsh that separates Ocean Beach from Robbins Rest) was spoiled by an stove that didn’t work because the propane tank had been knocked over by the hurricane, and no one would come and fill it on the Labor Day weekend.


My grandson is in a phase of clinging to his mother, of needing to know where she is at all times. I don’t know how much longer this phase is going to last, but I hope that I’m not being merely optimistic when I say that I expect it to wind down soon. It’s my impression that Will grasps that his baby days are really coming to an end, and that he is about to become a “big boy,” which is to say the very littlest kind of boy but an embryo autonomous male all the same. Because he is so tall — and his head, his mother tells us, it too big to put through necks of T-shirts that otherwise fit him — it is easy to forget that he is just a bit older than two and a half. Still a toddler, but probably for not much longer. If it were not wildly fanciful to think so, I would almost say that he is reaching for his mother all the more needily because he senses that he is about to stop reaching for her at all.

This is especially interesting to watch for me because it was at Will’s age that I suddenly had a sister, and not an infant sister but a nine month-old sister. Not a baby that slept all day by any means, but a blue-eyed, curly-haired cutie who laughed in the bathtub. I have always known that I did not take her arrival very well. A few years ago, an aunt who has since passed away told me that because “my nose was so out of joint,” she and her sister took me, for a week, up to a cottage that they had rented in Bedford. I remember the cottage (possibly from a later visit, although I don’t think so); it was a simple wooden house, with little or no interior plaster, and a bathroom that was always, but not unpleasantly, damp, and the very sharp soap that stood by the sink. Most of all, I remember a collection of glass vessels of the deepest ruby and cobalt hues. They caught and glowed with the light that filtered in from a window that may have overlooked a lake, and they deposited a permanent impression of beauty, and of the hopefulness of beauty, as arguably my first distinct memory.

I do not claim to have been just like my grandson. But suppose that I, too, was going through his phase when, without the warning of a pregnancy (and possibly without any warning at all, since the adoption of my sister, unlike mine, was contested by her birth family), my mother became distracted and unavailable. I am far beyond feeling sorry for myself at this point, but I am stirred afresh by the naive wrongheadedness of the world in which I was brought up. How could they have done what they did? They did not attend to little things like human development as honestly as we do, or as rigorously as Will’s mother does. They were, like all Americans after World War II, wishful, and ready to try anything that would create the appearance of happy, God-blessed prosperity. This appearance required stable homes with children, and as for doing their part, my parents had the help of organizations founded on the belief that unwed motherhood was an evil that could be solved by abduction (an abduction that my sister’s grandparents appeared to have resisted, unsuccessfully). The abduction almost always had the nominal consent of the mother, but I do not think that we today would place much value in that consent. My mother got her daughter, already a genuine darling, at the very moment when her son was not quite ready to be a little boy. It was the best that could have been done.  

Gotham Diary:
5 September 2012

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

As I walked by the roaring sea last night, I wondered, what is the idea of order at Key West? What is that “blessed rage for order” of which Wallace Stevens speaks? The waves breaking alongside me were convulsive, unlike the Gulf Coast surf at Key West, where, unless a hurricane were raging, it is difficult to imagine

The grinding water and the gasping wind.

I remembered the line near the end,

Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles

It is an order that transcends human ideas of orderliness. The very word “order” assumes here an immense scope, as in the Linnaean sense of “the order of primates.” It is a kind of modernist, post-human order, but, in its gorgeousness — Stevens’s poetry — quite anti-modern.

Walking to the beach this morning, to take some photographs, I listened to the wind in the pines and considered a reflection that will go into Inventory: As a boy, I was aware that the lives of top corporate executives (of which my father was one) was strangely protected, as if by an impalpable bubble, from the general inconveniences of everyday life, and also that there was much more to the acquisition of power than the display of merit. What I did not have the intellectual equipment to realize at the time was that this world replicated in many respects that of the courts of the ancien régime. The men in the offices on the top floor submitted to an occasionally belittling competition for influence in exchange for accommodations of understated luxury. This extended from excellent secretarial services and cars and drivers to emergency repairs in their homes, not to mention flights on company planes that, among other things, obviated the need to check in at the airport and wait in a lounge. These men plugged into a network of executives at other companies — masquerading as golfing partners — in which arrangements could be made for the enhancement of their families’ lives: tickets to the symphony, interviews for children’s summer jobs. There was really only one unbreakable rule: this courtly system must never be spoken of. Best not even to think of it.

Well, I thought all of that in less time than it takes to say “courtly.” The wind gasped, and I had another thought: like most thinking people prior to the Nineteenth Century and the infection of Romanticism, I believe that mankind is the most interesting thing on earth. I went a little further than that, this morning, listening to the grinding water just beyond the dune that I was about to climb; I felt the deadly-cold senselessness of a planet as complex as ours, spinning through the millennia, without a conscious mind to appraise it. And I immediately felt the warm necessity, in the earlier days of our consciousness, of conceiving divinity. There must be gods, powers also endowed with consciousness. Eventually, there had to be a God who had created everything, several thousand years ago, a Supreme Being encompassing Creation from or within — the prepositions break down here — a zone of uncreated quintessence. I don’t feel such a need; it is enough for me to know that mankind is gradually learning how the world works, with, lately, an emphasis on how mankind works. I don’t ask for meaning beyond that. I don’t believe that I would be capable of understanding it. Nor anyone else alive today.



Gotham Diary:
4 September

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012


The house is emptying as I write. As I am emptying along with it (but only to the point to seeing people off at the ferry terminal), I can write no more at the moment. But I shall be back.


And now it is just Kathleen and I at the house. After a bleakly wet morning, the sky is patching blue, and the sun may appear before too long. More rain is promised for tomorrow, but Kathleen and I are not out here to get tan. We’re both thinking how different things are this year. Last year, after Megan, Ryan, and Will left on Labor Day, the joy went completely out of the house. (It didn’t help that we’d lost our propane — necessary at that house for cooking — in Hurricane Irene.) This year, the weather was just as melancholy, but we’re both huddled over our computers with quiet enthusiasm. On the whole, everything went better this summer. Partly, of course, we were lucky. There are thousands of ways in which a seaside holiday can be derailed. Partly, we knew what we were doing, and what to expect. I think that it’s also the case that Will has become familiar with saying goodbye to us — and by that very familiarity knowing that he will see us again soon, if not always in the same place.

Although the skies are clearing, the pressure remains low, and the humidity high. The air is far from breezy. I shan’t be very eloquent.


At dinner one night, someone who is not the clearest of thinkers insisted that everyone has the right to his own opinion. Regardless, that is, of the quality of that opinion. I meditated upon this, feeling that it must be wrong — that, indeed, there can be no hope for civil society if it be true, at least in the sense that the speaker intended. What is clear is that no one has the right to dictate anyone else’s opinion. No one and anyone are absolutes in that formula, to which no exceptions can be made. But it is no more true that anyone has the right to a stupid opinion than it is that anyone has the right to get drunk. It may be that no one has the right (in the ordinary course of things) to prevent a friend’s going on a bender, but to speak of a right to get drunk — it is, rather, a liberty. The quality of any modern, post-authoritarian society depends almost entirely upon the prudent exercise of liberties. We cannot all be getting drunk all the time. As Americans, we tend not to. But we also cannot all entertain stupid opinions — opinions that are self-serving in the short term rather than self-interested in the long. And that, unfortunately, we are indeed inclined to do. Every citizen has a hallowed right to vote, but no citizen has a right to exercise that right by electing demagogues who do not have the nation’s best interests at heart, or by throwing up his or her hands and failing to vote altogether.

As you can tell, I’ve been reading Trollope a lot.

I’m having no trouble keeping up with my daily allotment of Orley Farm chapters. The forgery case is handled with as much sensational trembling as Trollope’s good sense will allow. Samuel Dockwrath reminds me — I’d forgotten! — how central the question of being a gentleman is in Trollope’s fiction; Dockwrath is irredeemably not a gent, while the bashful, barely grown-up Peregrine Orme unmistakably is. Madeline Stavely is one of the most appealing (to me) of Trollope’s maidenly heroines, and that goes a long way toward mitigating the creepiness of his insistent philosophy about women, which, by the way, he sets forth in a concise paragraph while introducing Madeline.

Madeline Stavely was at this time about nineteen years of age. That she was perfect in her beauty I cannot ask the muses to say, but that she will some day become so, I think the goddesses may be requested to prophesy. At present she was very slight, and appeared to be almost too tall for her form. She was indeed above the average height of somen, and from her brother encountered some ridicule on this head; but not the less were all her movements soft, graceful, and fawnlike as should be those of a young girl. She was satill at this time a child in heart and spirit, and could have played as a child had not the instinct of a woman taught her the expediency of a staid demeanor. There is nothing among the wonders of womanhood more wonderful than this, that young mind and young heart — hearts and minds young as youth can make them, and in their natures as gay, — can assume the gravity and discretion of threescore years and maintain it successfully before all comers. And this is done, not as a lesson that has been taught, but as the result of an instinct implanted from the birth. Let us remember the mirth of our sisters in our homes, and their altered demeanors when those homes were opened to strangers, and remember also that this change had come from the inward working of their own feminine natures!

This is very romantic — at best. I cannot imagine Jane Austen saying anything so thick and general. It’s all there: the instinct, the automatic, almost unconscious surrender to propriety — and the very questionable notion that ladylike behavior is inborn. Trollope does not work through to reality; his theory can’t account for the numbers of very unpleasant young ladies who appear spontaneously in well-born homes. In Sophia Furnival, the clever barrister’s daughter whom that lady of ladies, Peregrine Orme’s widowed mother, regards as “not quite real,” we have everything that could be demanded of a lady, except heart, but this is no surprise, given her own mother’s background in the wild frontier between St Pancras and Bloomsbury! Trollope could be — is “snob” the word? Probably not. He shared a convinced belief, widespread among the genteel in Victorian England, in the virtue of birth and position. In Trollope’s cosmology, a Lady Diana Spencer — amiable but shallow — could not occur.

Gotham Diary:
31 August 2012

Friday, August 31st, 2012

From the time I left the house to pick up Kathleen at the ferry until the moment, almost two hours later, when we sat down to dinner, I was what we call a cranky-puss. I was angry at the air, for one thing. It seemed that the afternoon’s breezy cool and dry weather — so cool and dry that I had closed a few of the sliding-glass doors and turned off the ceiling fans — had been replaced by a warm, wet mat. Hauling the wagon back to the house made me quite sticky. Although I was delighted to be with Kathleen, I couldn’t stop myself from complaining. At the stove, preparing a nice, thick ham steak, with baked potatoes and asparagus, I was stupd, shutting off the burner that I needed while the other one blazed away. It didn’t help that, by the time we sat down, I had not been up so late in well over a week. When the dishes were washed and I could go to bed, it was past midnight. That fact alone was depressing. As a sort of bedtime present, the Internet connection failed. (Not to worry; I had my MiFi card — but, still.) 

Something about Bob Spitzs’ account of Julia Child’s last years hung over me: aches and pains. For a few weeks (all right, over a month), my right knee has been giving me a good deal of pain, and when I get back to town I am going to have to have it looked at. My two weeks on the beach have not restored me to the (imaginary only) energetic outlook that I was hoping for. Julia Child was 36 years older than I, and did most of her suffering in her late eighties and early nineties. I am a mere 64. But then, she took care of herself, and had a naturally robust constitution. (She played college basketball, remember.) I like to bloviate about the advantages of age and wisdom, but those very boons were unavailable to me last night.

So I’m doubly glad to be done with Dearie. First, it was not an agreeable read, not my sort of book at all. (“That was twice as much as what people were accustomed to paying for a cookbook, and there was competition up the wazoo. [!!] That season, cookbooks were ridiculously plentiful.” What’s ridiculously plentiful is Bob Spitz’s “carload upon carload” of bedizened cliché.) Second, it was a book about physical decline. Paul Child appears to have begun falling apart the moment Mastering the Art of French Cooking appeared, and it would take him thirty years more to disappear. Julia was a stout campaigner who clearly fed on audience response, as all entertainers do. Never a fan of her work in television (never a fan of anybody’s), I had taught myself to regard Julia Child as an important writer on the subject of food, and the dictator (if not the actual writer) of a delightful memoir about being an American in Paris. I didn’t know that she was a regular on David Letterman’s show, much less on Good Morning America. (Who watches such shows, and where on earth do they find the time?)

Through Norah Eprhon’s wonderful movie, Julie and Julia, there ran an important question, and it was wisely answered. The answer was, “It doesn’t matter.” The question was, “Would this strange but lovable woman love me back?” We naturally want the objects of our admiration to value their admirers as more than mere admirers, and we’re generally spared the discovery that they can’t be. Along comes a book like Dearie, and, instead of the portrait of an unquestionably remarkable woman whose life was exemplary in the most serious way, I was obliged to spend time backstage with a performer with whom I had nothing to talk about. Where is Plutarch? 



Gotham Diary:
30 August 2012

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

Two things about my walks on the beach:

Going to the beach, I head down the length of Schooner Walk, climb the boardwalk that humps the dune, and plod straight through the dry sand to shoreline. (It’s the shortest distance of dry sand.) Then I turn ninety degrees, facing west, and walk down to Lonelyville. On my return, I look for my own footprints in the dry sand. They’re always there to be found. The imprint of my size 14 Speedo beach slipper is a standout. I follow the footsteps back to the dune, half as a game, half because it’s easier than pausing to look where I’m going, which my immobile neck would oblige me to do.

Every day, at some point on the westward leg of the walk, a song bubbles into consciousness, and it is always the same song, the one at the end of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. I don’t know why this happens. I know the song very well, but it is not what I would call a favorite. Maybe it is becoming one. As music, it is deliberately, if superficially, naive. Much the same could be said of my walks on the beach. 


After dinner, I played some curiosities. The bricklayer segment of Gerard Hoffnung’s Oxford Union Speech. And two music-hall songs that Julie Andrews recorded back when I was in college, “Burlington Bertie From Bow” and “Waiting at the Church.” The first song has a tune, sort of, but it is not meant to be sung, except here and there — a job that Ms Andrews ironically makes the most of. (I really must see Star! one of these days.) The second is a confection of cockney cheek that I always have to listen to a second time.

There was I,
Waiting at the church
Waiting at the church
Waiting at the church
When I found
he’d left me in the lurch —
Lor’, how it did upset me!

All at once,
he sent me round a note —
Here’s the bloomin’ note —
This is what he wrote:
“I can’t
Get away
To marry you today;
My wife
Won’t let me”!


In the middle of the night, I woke up to find the room flooded with moonlight. (That can’t happen at the apartment in town, where we only get to see the moon rise.) Later, when I woke, the night was dark again. I went to the door leading to the deck. The moon had not quite disappeared; it was dallying at the horizon, looking more like the sun than I’ve ever seen it do.

Kathleen is coming out tonight — to stay until the end of our lease in two weeks — and tomorrow the rest of our Labor Day house party will arrive, beginning at lunchtime. I hope to have finished with Dearie by then. There is a much better book to be written about the surprising career of Julia Child. Among other things, launching it was Paul Child’s singular achievement; for, apart from Julia, his promise went unfulfilled. Madeleine Kamman, who was both, complained that Julia Child was neither French nor a chef, but the irony is that nobody would have watched a show starring an actual chef from actual France. (Nor would anyone have dreamed of making explicit reference to the program’s roots in la cuisine bourgeoise — “bourgeois” was a dirty word among progressive-minded people, and conservatives pretended that they’d never heard it.)

Between 1947 and 1961, Julia Child worked like a dynamo, first to transform herself from someone who couldn’t boil water into an accomplished home cook — a veritable cuisinière bourgeoise — and second to transform an unwieldy and imprecise bundle of recipes into Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It might be said that she could not have worked any harder. But she was also very lucky. First, of course, she had met her husband, a man on a budget who liked to eat well. Second, she met Simone Beck, one of the compilers of the bundle of recipes. Third, she met, via the post, Avis DeVoto, who championed her project and brought it not just to Knopf but to the right people at Knopf. Fourth, Mastering was published at a moment when the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, was broadcasting the message that Americans ought to be more attractive, and Julia Child was just the sort of educated but not particularly pretty or graceful woman to show how this could be done — whilst having a good time. The better you know the story, the less inevitable and more miraculous it gets.

Meanwhile, I’ll have to make do with Bob Spitz and his pop eloquence. I don’t think that I shall ever forget one of his epithets for Simca Beck — the “Norman nonpareil.” It’s so magnificently awful!   


I’ve just spent twenty minutes trying to find a particularly glitz-laden paragraph from Dearie, sadly or not, as the case may be, in vain. I wanted something to cushion an unpleasant observation: Bob Spitz almost made me dislike his subject. He admires Julia Child’s unabating drive, but his portrait presents a cranky attention-hound who tended to resolve conflicts between friendship and self-advancement in favor of the latter. She was, no doubt, more her father’s daughter than she might have liked to think, but I hope that she was not really so callous as she appears in these pages. The instances that I would cite are all fairly minor, but an impression develops of willed heartlessness. It’s tricky, of course, because Child was a pioneering woman, with all the inconsistencies of an effective pioneer, with strong if unconscious roots in the world that, for the most part, she left behind. These inconsistencies are like cards in a deck; they can be arranged or they can be scattered. Spitz’s strictly linear narrative tends to scatter them, making them obtrusive. For example — and I’m only going to mention it — Child’s unthinking homophobia, which se questioned only after the death, of AIDS, of her lawyer, whom she had always regarded as a “he-man.” As a woman, of course, Child was expected to be “nice,” which she wasn’t — she was, in many ways, much better than “nice.” One must make the effort at times to judge her insistent assertiveness as one would judge it in a man, and not as an unwomanly failing.


Gotham Diary:
29 August 2012

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

My walk on the beach yesterday was arduous enough: the tide was high, and the waves broke onto a slope. I had to walk along the ridge just above, where the sand was not quite so densely packed as makes for easy ambling. Then, nearing my turnaround point at the edge of Lonelyville, I encountered a swarm of small flies. They made a misery of much of the return home.

The smart thing would have been to drift into the surf for a while, and that’s what I’d have done if I’d been able. But I haven’t forgotten the terror of last year’s tumble. If I am knocked over, I cannot get up. Just last week, a wave of greater strength and volume than foreseen knocked me just enough to heighten my caution. So I was condemned to splash a bit in waves that barely covered my slippers, and to put my hat to tail’s use. This afternoon, I shall carry a small bottle of repellent.

When I got home, my brother-in-law informed me that ants had gotten into the doughnuts.  


Orley Farm is an old friend: that is how I am reading it, because I don’t know what kind of novel it is. Trollope seems to be, deliberately, an anti-novelist. It is not that he interrrupts every now and then with personal views, although of course he does that quite often. It is, rather, that he stage-manages the plot according to the principles of a rigorous morality that allows for very little actual development. Only his unformed young men — the rat-catching Peregrine Orme, in this case — are permitted to stumble into danger. But they are always rescued in the end, just as wickedness is always punished. There is a Biblical accounting going on at the back of the operation. What saves it from fustian is Trollope’s writing, which makes his characters interesting and amusing, an even tragic. Lady Mason is a good woman who has done a terrible thing — a very terrible thing in the eyes of all propertied Englishmen, no matter what the cause. We want her to “get away with it,” but the forgery of a codicil is a black sin that, if it can be forgiven, cannot be overlooked and not quashed.

(The difference between Trollope and Jane Austen, who also adheres to a rigorous morality, is that Austen’s novels are largely concerned with the personal discovery of right and wrong — the rights and wrongs of advanced civil intercourse. There is nothing in Trollope to compare with Emma’s sublimely humiliating recognition that she has played the part of an interfering old maid. There could be no Emma in Trollope; his heroines are all good girls, like Jane Bennett.)

Anyway, I have just passed the grand scene in which Mr Furnival reconsiders his old client’s virtue. Lady Mason has just been to see him (aware that it is irregular to visit barristers without the company of solicitors), and she has all but convinced him, simply by confessing her great uneasiness, that the trial twenty years past, at the end of which she was awarded Orley Farm, was a miscarriage of justice. “If there had been a fraud, if there had been a forgery, it had been so clever as to merit protection!” So muses Mr Furnival, with the sort of shocking impropriety that Gilbert and Sullivan could make funny. Mr Furnival, however, has already been marked as a dubious number himself. He has all but abandoned the wife who comforted him through the lean early years of his practice, and he has fathered a daughter who may — we wouldn’t be quite sure, if we hadn’t read so much Trollope — be too clever by half. The admiration of Mr Furnival for Lady Mason is therefore unwholesome even before the lady lifts her veil in his chambers.


I’ve just read Ryan van Meter’s lovely memoir, If You Knew Then What I Know Now. I don’t know how I missed it — it came out last year — but miss it I did, until I read something about it yesterday at The Rumpus. Two minutes later, it was on my Kindle. I was interested to read it because I, too, am working on a memoir that touches on growing up in a place of strong defaults, where the expectations that cascade from perceived identity are rigid and unspoken, not to be thought about.

Van Meter grew up in Missouri — “rural,” it says, but not too far from St Louis — and started being called “faggot” in the fourth grade. That would have been about 1986, a few years before growing up gay, at least in the more cosmopolitan parts of the country, would begin to be less problematic. By 1986, being gay was certainly not the big deal that it had been until recently, but growing up gay was still undesirable. His story captures a moment in time that, one can only hope, will pass completely. One of the reasons why The Family Stone has become my favorite Christmas movie is that I’m so roused by the backward confrontation at the dinner table in which Sarah Jessica Parker’s character asks, with genuine doubt, how anyone could wish her child to be gay, and the Family Stone gathers in storm clouds gathers round and expels her. I hope that everybody’s watching that triumph of family love. Being gay, growing up gay, whatever — it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Van Meter grew up marinated in shame, and sexuality was the least (or at least the last) of it. The older son of two athletes, he was scrawny and not good at sports. If anybody but his grandmother had known about his wearing a dress that his aunt had worn as a girl, he would have been seen to be a sissy. There are rare sissies who, with great courage, insist upon the right to be as flaunting as they want to be, but Ryan Van Meter belonged to self-hating norm. He tried to be like the regular boys whom he saw every day at school, only dimly aware that, because they were motivated by desires that he did not share, he would never be like them.

His tale of childhood wretchedness is a classic, but there’s another tale that seems, in retrospect, just as much a classic, except that I’ve never read anything like it. That is the account of the breakup, after eight years, of his life with his first boyfriend. “Account” is very much the word. “Things I Will Want to Tell you on Our First Date, but Won’t” is a string of relative clauses addressed to all the men who just might be his next date.

That I hate when I tell people we were together for eight years and now we’re not, and they put their hand on my shoulder and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” as if somebody died. That sometimes it feels like somebody died. That even my therapist said, “What you need to do is mourn the loss, to give yourself permission to grieve for the relationship.” That months later, I was teaching a poem about death and grief to a room full of nineteen-year-olds, and I asked, “So how to we bring an end to mourning?” and one of my students said, “Eat lunch.” That I think this kid should be my therapist. That I never say the word “dumped.” That I always say it was my ex’s decision.

That if he hadn’t broken up with me, I would have stayed with him forever.

God, that’s heartbreaking! Shattering, really. Is it the worst that can happen in life? It can be.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now is beautifully written, but one would expect no less from a writer with Van Meter’s credentials. What’s remarkable is the book’s kindness. Little Ryan’s character put him in a somewhat adversarial relationship with everyone around him, including his parents, but his parents, especially, come off as good people. Even Ryan’s younger brother, Garrett, who grows up to fill the expectations that his parents had for a manly first-born, emerges as a likeable chap. There is not a single bitter word about the ex. Is this Midwestern niceness to be credited? Van Meter persuades me that it is. That makes his book a true work of art. 

Gotham Diary:
28 August 2012

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

After days of sunny weather, clear and otherwise, low, wet clouds have spread over the sky. It makes for a change — a pleasant change from yesterday, certainly, which was hot and still. What seemed to be a dark grey mass over the city to the west has dissolved into torrents of rain, sheets of which drape the sliding-glass doors. Kevin and I had quite a time of it, yesterday, closing all the skylights. With my immobile neck, I could not stand close enough to hold the hook and still see the ring into which it fit; I was effectively blind. Kevin managed the job, but he couldn’t see very well, either. It took both of us to get one of the skylights closed. I knew, on Sunday, that I ought to ask Megan, who had opened them during the sunny weather, to cool the house, to close them, but I didn’t have the heart.

Out on the deck, the beach ball that I bought for Will at Dinosaur Hill, printed to be a globe, blows about, rolling in dejection.  


I got to bed early last night and was treated to richly transgressive dreams. Wouldn’t it be nice, every night, to be naughty in dreams and to awake in all innocence? The main thing about my dreams was that I was young in all of them. That was quite naughty enough.


I’m working my way through Bob Spitz’s biography of Julia Child, Dearie. I’m about a third of the way through, and Julia is in her late thirties. She has enrolled at the Cordon Bleu and is fighting her entertainingly recaptured battles with Mme Brassart. The connection with Simone Beck that would catalyze her career still lies in the future. As she is still very much an apprentice cook, the idea of writing any cookbook, much less the magisterial one that would make her justly famous, has not crossed her mind.

Julia Child was a late bloomer in part because she was not expected to bloom at all. She was expected to marry and to mother, and that’s what she expected for herself as well. Her great height interfered with this program, because it severely reduced the stock of interested men. One of the Los Angeles Chandlers proposed to her twice, before and after the War, but she did not love him and she had no intention of acting desperately. She would probably never have gotten to know Paul Child if it hadn’t been for the collegiate atmosphere of the Allied intelligence operation that brought them together in Kandy, Chongqing, and Kunming, where, over the course of two years, they discovered that they both liked to eat well. Paul already knew this about himself, of course; ten years older than Julia, he was a master of life’s higher pleasures (by which phrase I do not exclude sex). But it was teaching Julia how to appreciate the cuisine of Yunnan and Sichuan that drew him to her.

There is a wider lesson to be taken from this life. Julia Child was always a bright woman, but she was never academically eager. She did well enough to get “acceptable” grades, dipping below even that standard during one of her years at Smith. She loved interesting people, but it turned out that she didn’t really know any, because her privileged life in Pasadena (and in New York as well, during her sojourn in the mid-Thirties) more or less completely excluded them. It was the war effort, which scrambled brilliant people from different backgrounds together, that ushered her into real life. Now she was eager. Now she could not learn fast enough. Her eyes were opened even before she met Paul; while crossing the Pacific on the SS Mariposa, she got to know people who would never belong to a “country-club set.”

These people were a world apart — they were informed on the issues of the day, on the arts, on culture, on a far deeper level than the parochial planes of Julia’s usual acquaintances. Julia had never taken an interest in such business before, but everything they said, and the way they looked at things, fascinated her. These people stimulated something in her brain that none of the private schools or elite colleges had been able to do do. Julia had developed as someone who took an interest in the life of the mind, but in a social setting as opposed to an academic setting. Someone droning on about the indigenous sects of India in front of a blackboard set her to daydreaming; but around a table and over navy grub — that was an altogether different story! It was all in the presentation. There was no getting around the fact that Julia was a social animal.

If well-informed, intellectually-active Americans are almost as rare as hens’ teeth, it’s because our teachers and professors have, in their benighted way, seen to it.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child is not easy to read. Correction: it is not easy to put up with. There are solecisms that ought to trigger suicides among the staff at Knopf — the following phrase appears on page 6: As a young coed at Smith College… There are cake-and-eat-it passages that, for example, present Julia’s wartime life in China as both an exhausting grind and a round of cocktail parties. Sometimes these are compressed into phrases of nonsensical jocularity: “carloads upon carloads of the bare essentials.” And there is a lot of froth. Here are the Child twins, Paul and Charlie, in wartime Washington:

[Paul] and Charlie thrived in DC, where a community of intellectuals and artists drew strength from their common refugee status. It seemed the whole of academia was involved in some aspect of the war, along with the leading cultural luminaries: writers, journalists, filmmakers, painters, broadcasters, publishers, a melting pot of the clever and the articulate. These were people eager to talk, eager to rub shoulders and exchange ideas outside the confines of their war work. There wasn’t a night when the Child brothers weren’t engaged in some intense social interaction — a dinner party or embassy soirée, a mixer, a full-on intellectual conversation. And the conversation was meaty and well-cooked. One entry in Paul’s Washington journal provides an example of the nightly dialogue: “This highlights the ideas we were discussing the other night…[how] context and relationship are what create moral structure.” [sic] A bit highfalutin perhaps, but Paul feasted on this kind of chin fare.

Chin fare! Even if this were true, even if the Childs were out every single night, up to their eyeballs in meaty conversations and intense social interactions, the passage is still too obviously exaggerated to be informative. The pile-up of “luminaries” is pornographic, as is the catalogue of soirées and mixers. And, as for “highfalutin” — it wouldn’t be my word for that journal entry. There is a great deal of this sort of thing in Dearie.

There is also a somewhat wrong-headed inclination to sieze upon instances of gross behavior. Here is a sentence that I could have lived without, and one I’m sure that Mrs Child would not have been happy to see in print: “Mary Case encountered Julia, shitfaced, prowling the Hubbard Hall corridor on her hands and knees.” It is utter nonsense to claim that such tittle-tattle “casts light” on the biographer’s subject. It’s not that I wish to have Child’s earthiness expunged altogether. Peeking ahead, I came across a very wicked but also very funny anecdote about making “cock monsieur” on Good Morning America. (Go to a bookstore and turn to the top of page 429.)


The sky is clearing, but the ball is still rolling. What kind of a day are we in for?


But Julia keeps me going.

Gotham Diary:
New Ones
27 August 2012

Monday, August 27th, 2012

It is very quiet here, this morning. My brother-in-law, Kevin, is still asleep. Kathleen left about an hour ago, while Megan, Ryan, and Will made their way back to the city early last night. Kevin and I will have the place to ourselves until Friday, when our Labor Day crowd will begin to show up.

I don’t feel much like working. The air is still, and so am I. Yesterday, while his parents went for a swim on their own, Will fell asleep in my arms. That hadn’t happened in two years, and, two years ago, he was a considerably smaller child. I savored the ordeal as long as I could, and then laid him on the bed with a fresh bottle of milk. He did not protest. That bit of quiet time aside, he spent the day in whirling dervish mode. I expect that he is very happy to be back with his friends in day care, although we’re all a bit apprehensive about his realizing that his best friend has graduated to pre-school.


Over the weekend, I finished The Blush, Elizabeth Taylor’s second short-story collection (1958). As with her novels, I couldn’t stop; I was like Will, asking for “More.” The omnibus is never going to be out of reach; I look forward — again, as with her novels — to re-reading Taylor’s stories.

Almost everything in The Blush is beguiling, but one story stands out for a complexity that is more than simply narrative. “In a Different Light” builds up a dramatic heft as it covers its considerable length (eighteen pages in the Virago edition), but seems to take a furious pleasure in smashing the unities of time, place, and action. The central character is not immediately identifiable as such, and her translation from a Greek island to suburban London seems almost improper, as though Taylor were making a mistake by keeping the story going. She’s not, of course, for it is only in London that the Greek currents of tragedy and comedy can begin to flow. That’s where the characters come from; that is where they must experience their crises, however small-scaled.

Jane and Barbara are middle-aged sisters. For some time, Jane has been living on a Greek island with her husband, who has just died. That is why Barbara has come out to see her — to try to persuade her to come home to England. Jane, however, has gone native, and almost everything she says is colored with austere fatality. When they encounter an unattached Englishman at the post office, he is tipped into Jane’s critical maw.

Jane and Barbara, at lunch, discussed him — Jane, with an almost Greek sharpness of curiosity and detachment, her sister thought. It was very mcuh like the way she was eating her artichoke — the deft stripping away of leaves, the certainty of the hidden heart being there for the reaching. Licking oil from her fingers, Jane said, “So his wife writes to tell him about the rain. Complainingly, I dare say. He thinks he is glad to get her letters, but he is gladder to put them out of his mind.”

“This you know,” said Barbara.

“This I know. And he also thinks he is glad to be in Greece. He has to be. I expect he has waited twenty years or more to come here and how can he afford, now that he’s here, to dwell on his sunburn and his blistered feet and mosquito bites? I bet he gets frightful diarrhoea, too, poor old thing.”

Jane does know. It is the tragicomedy of everyday life, Taylor’s impalpably insistent theme. Roland, the Englishman, turns out to be an architect; his wife, Iris, prefers to spend her holidays in Buxton —Iris, Buxton: dramatic foreshadowing. Who can think of irises in Buxton while roasting in the Mediterranean sun? (“Iris,” remember, is the Greek for “dawn.”) The sisters spend a lot of time with Roland during the following days, and then one day Barbara and Roland climb the mountain to the convent, where they both take naps in the sun. There is nothing romantic about this episode. In the singular and poignant passage that takes us into Roland’s confidence, it is acknowledged that he “was not greatly drawn to either” sister. He leaves a day later, and “as they turned away,” Jane strikes another oracular note.

“You may be invited once to Hampstead, then you’ll have to ask them back, and you’ll wish you hadn’t to — and Leonard will, even more. ‘My friend I met in Greece’,” she said mockingly. “After that, you’ll send Christmas cards for a year or two — especially if you can find any with a Greek flavour, which I should think would be unlikely.”

What’s most interesting about this story is not the degree to which Jane’s prediction proves to be correct, but rather the weight in Barbara’s mind, after she has met Iris (who turns out to be as dreadful as anyone who prefers Buxton to Greece must be), of the mystery of our relations with each other. As I say, there is nothing overtly romantic about her time with Roland, but we are not told that she wasn’t drawn to him. Roland’s choice of helpmeet makes Barbara happier in her happy marriage, but there is no getting round the unsettling queerness of things. This is what Taylor underscores with her prettily ironic ending. Barbara and Leonard are laughing (about Iris), and their children, Robert and Serena, are made very happy by the sound.

Hearing it, they thought they would be good forever, so that it would never stop. The world then became a settled, a serence place to be in.

One can well imagine Jane’s riposte.

I’d like to go back to that singular paragraph about Roland, which is a bit too long to quote in full; and, in any case, I want to hold up a detail that I might have missed if I hadn’t just read F R Lucas’s book on style, in which the best part of a long chapter, “The Harmony of Prose,” is devoted to scannings of striking literary passages, ancient and modern. I don’t want to attempt a summary of Lucas’s highly cautionary remarks about the judicious introjection of meter into prose, but I can say that they have made me a somewhat more appreciative reader. When I came upon the following reflection of Roland’s, it stopped me dead and insisted upon being copied into my notebook.

Dreams had come true, but merely to give birth to others.

If you insert a break at the comma, you have two lines of verse, and sweet lines they are. The thought is certainly wise enough to merit the polish: giving birth to new dreams is what dreams’ coming true is all about, as we discover on those rare occasions of dreams’ actually coming true.  

Gotham Diary:
25 August 2012

Saturday, August 25th, 2012

Without ado, Megan and I were joined by our spouses last night as they stepped off the same ferry. Kathleen’s brother, Kevin, stepped off as well. We made our way back through the town, stopping here and there for this and that (croissants, ice cream, and, it goes without saying, milk). We did not stay up long, once we had returned to the house.

Waiting outside Whitney’s Pantry at some point, I overheard one young man say to another, “We introduced them a long time ago, back in twenty-ten.” The idea that 2010 could be described as distant raised a quiet smile, but the “twenty-ten” lodged in my forebrain like a pebble. I realized that I’ve been saying “two thousand ten, two thousand eleven, two thousand twelve” — when was this going to stop? After all, I don’t say “a thousand sixty-six.” 

In other developments, I’m enjoying have a phone again. Of course, it doesn’t do much, yet. I’ve got to set everything up again. Saturday afternoon is probably not the optimal time for such a project, but I’m not letting that stop me.


I picked up Elizabeth Taylor’s stories yeterday, and began reading the collection entitled The Blush. Good as the stories in the first collection are, those in the second are uniformly superior, if only by a perceptible hair. They are longer, as well. I can understand why some critics (such as biographer Nicola Beauman) prefer the stories to the novels, although for my part I shouldn’t want to do without either. Some stories, such “The Rose, the Mauve, the White — a lovely sketch of three young girls going to their first dance (“At last they opened the door and thundered along the passage to their bedroom where they began to make the kind of untidiness they had left behind them in the bathroom.”) — would fit quite well as an episode in one of the novels (although not in any of the novels that Taylor actually wrote). A story such as “Hare Park” — the adventures of a duke’s young son on the day that his ancestral home is first opened to the paying public — might be the beginning of a very droll novel. But then there are stories like “A Troubled State of Mind” — two school friends must sort out the mess that results when one of them marries the other’s widowed father — that could not possibly be extended; they play with being too long as it is. There is also, in the second collection, an experiment with ghosts (ghosts from the future, it turns out), “Poor Girl,” that suggests the influence of Henry James narratives and Ivy Compton-Burnett’s narrative style. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is drolly prefigured in “Perhaps a Family Failing.” I find that I can’t stop reading them. And I can’t stop thinking how completely they would have gone over my head if I’d read as a young man.

Will has just returned from the town with his parents, and is insisting that we all shush, lest we frighten the family of deer just beyond the back deck. If only that were likely. Every time I walk to the beach, a foraging best pauses to follow my progress, not the least alarmed. It is I who am alarmed (of deer ticks), I who dread being followed home. These animals are not shy.

Gotham Diary:
24 August 2012

Friday, August 24th, 2012

The air is heavy and still. It would be unpleasant if we were not so close to the ocean. I spent the morning reading in my bedroom, sitting on a rocker that I dragged in from the deck and planted as nearly beneath the ceiling fan as the bed allowed. I finished, finally, F R Lucas’s Style: The Art of Writing Well, a book that I am going to keep close by for frequent re-readings. It would be easy to dismiss Lucas as a mid-century don with dead white males on the brain (I was wrong about his not mentioning Jane Austen, but in fact he does not cite her for style), his grasp of the classical style is every bit as sure as such a grasp must be.

However, from the beginning of recorded time some temperaments seem born to prefer Dionysus, others Apollo. Men have never long agreed how drunk they liked art or literature to be. Most critical quarrel are about nothing else. For myself, I have come passionately to prefer sense to sensibility, and even cynics (if one must have either) to rhapsodiests and rapturists. To argue which gives more artistic pleasure is futile (though nothing seems able to stop men arguing about it). I can only suggest that humanity seems throughout its history to have suffered far worse from mental intoxications and fantaticisms that from any rare excess of sober reason. Both the Apolline and Dionysiac tribes have produced memorable writers; but the bad writer of the Apolline type can seldom become anything worse than a bore, whereas the bad writer in the Dionysiac style may prove a mere maniac, disseminating mania. In short, though the pleasure-values of literature are outside argument, its influence-values seem to me in favour of balance and restraint. One cannot destroy Dionysus (as Pentheus found to his cost). And Dionysus has his gifts. But there are other powers better to trust that he.

There you have it: lucid, supple, confident, and unobtrusively pleasant. And one other thing, that it would not have occurred to Lucas to strive for: unquestionably adult.

When I put Lucas down, I picked up Orley Farm, mindful that Lucas dismisses Trollope’s style as “undistinguished.” Can that be the right word for so distinct a voice? Lucas is certainly not above the views of Sir Peregrine Orme about genlemen, and Trollope’s prose betrays not just legal training but an interest in the legal view of things, which he often presents in with a dry jocularity that a connoisseur of style might find somewhat subfusc. It nevertheless appeals to me. I loved reading Trollope for years — until his peculiar ideas about a heroine’s love life became disagreeably insistent (indeed, I’m reading Orley Farm because Lady Mason, although “not intended to be the heroine,” is such a formidable central character) — and my own legal training made me even more appreciative. If you ask me, it’s Dickens whose writing is undistinguished: lurid, sentimental, and cheap.

Orley Farm comes as a great relief after Ivo Stourton’s mordant little masterpiece. The Book Lover’s Tale belongs on the shelf with Lolita, though perhaps not in the adjacent slot. The novel is narrated by a stylish and cultured man who steadily, one might almost say remorselessly, reveals himself to be a vacant narcissist of psychopathic heedlessness. His moral character would not be out of place in the darker novels of Ruth Rendell. But Stourton has risen to the unforgiving challenge of allowing an unattractive antihero to tell his own story in his own voice, while gripping the reader’s interest and, even, sympathy. Matt de Voy presents himself in stately periods that — drolly and hideously by turns — plausibly betray his second-rate mind as well as his ethical nullity. As he talks (and he’s a charmer), you look over his shoulder and see what his self-absorbtion prevents him from seeing. There is a strong recollection of the Eighteenth Century, of the ancien régime, in Matt’s impassioned determination to seduce a client’s wife; there were times when I wondered if I was reading Clarissa (a novel that I have not, in fact, read). The prose, very distinguished by Lucasian standards, is clear and varied; although never fussy, it steers clear of slang.

Claudia Swanson, the target of Matt’s amorous campaign is a lovely woman; I couldn’t help thinking of Michelle Williams’s portrayal of Marilyn Monroe: smart, but damaged by beauty. At the end, it is she who apologizes to him — for restoring to her the use of her first-rate mind. I cannot recommend the book too highly, and I hope that the American edition, when it appears, will be more effectively promoted than Stourton’s first novel, The Night Climbers, which really ought to have been a smash hit.   

Three chapters of Orley Farm a day: that’s my plan.

Gotham Diary:
23 August 2012

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Yesterday was a very good day. I worked in the morning, ran an errand after lunch, and read all afternoon. I took my walk on the beach. At least, I suppose that this was all to the good. In the evening, all it took was one glass of wine to send me into a Zone of Zonk. I was physically present, but something less than fully responsive. Megan made a pizza for Will that promised to be a big success, but the idea behind it was that it would be utterly normal, like a worm on a hook. “Let’s not make a big deal about it, okay?” she said in an aside to me, quite reasonably not wanting to heighten Will’s expectations. “Wow!” I exclaimed. “Doesn’t that look great!” I was on AutoStupid. Happily, the pizza was utterly normal, and Will ate quite a bit of it. Else the dog house for me.

It was true, as Megan charged, that my mind was elsewhere. I had written a passage or two for Inventory and made a few notes, nothing great but not bad for the second day. Then I had read Lucas on Style. What a formidable book! I wish that I had never used the word “formidable” before, so that I could use it now with force. It is really the only word for Style. Lucas’s tone is somewhere between gravely genial and unabashedly omniscient; you get glimpses of this manner in the nicer dons who show up (and have a way of dying) in Inspector Morse. The gentleman wouldn’t dream of making you uncomfortable, but everything about him highlights your puniness. The trenches in World War I, Bletchley Park in World War II, a Works of Webster (writer of The Duchess of Malfi), and an intimate familiarity with poets and writers ancient and modern, displayed throughout a long career at Cambridge. I am not sure that Lucas’s relations with women were all they might be — he married three times, and he never mentions (much less quotes) Jane Austen in Style — but even so I am a goth by comparison, a barbarian at the gate.

All I could think of on my walk by the sea — aside from “The unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea” (Arnold) — was the stupidity of not having learned Latin and Greek in school. (How clever I thought I was. Now I wonder if I will ever really understand poetry, or how to write at all.) And then all I could think of was the paltriness of my morning’s work. The walk left my body in an agreeably ruddy glow, but my mind was a sunk ship.


Just had my final paragraphs deleted by this idiotic program, which I should so like to replace, but there is nobody to advise me how. I’m talking about WordPress, which to my mind is little better than Gmail, which I should never use as a word processor. It’s almost enough (it quite often is, once a month or so) to make me think of giving up blogging — or, worse, of going back to MovableType.

I was going to say something about Ivo Stourton’s new novel, The Book Lover’s Tale, which was so exciting that I cut my walk on the beach a little short in order to finish it. But I’ll say nothing for the moment, because, gee, what I already wrote got deleted by the moronic software (and it is moronic, and I must leave it behind, no matter the cost). I also said something about how marvelous Will was after dinner. He watched a movie on his iPad and let me have a long talk with his mom about Stuff; to use a cant word, I almost felt that he was enabling us. But it was all good.

The first week of vacation is almost over, and I have sailed through so many stress tests that I’m beginning to think that I may just relax. Which would be terrible!

Gotham Diary:
22 August 2012

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Last night, Will was in no mood for dinner. Well, like anyone his age, he’s never in the mood for dinner, but last night he was in no mood for Megan’s dinner. He wanted his mom to leave the table and watch Finding Nemo with him.  (I worry, unreasonably, that Bruce the Shark is becoming a role model.) There was a moment of whimper and negotiation. Will agreed to wait until Megan finished her dinner. He pretended to graze on chocolate-covered raisins, but he was watching her dining progress like a hawk. When he decided that she had had enough to eat, he got down from his chair and walked into the kitchen, where we heard him rooting around among some pots on a shelf. Presently he reappeared, bearing an enameled cast iron pot that, while quite small, was heavy for him. It was the sort of vessel that I think of as European, probably because I never saw one as a child. With a lid, and a mildly conical cylinder for its handle, the pot is more decorative than useful; it says “casserole” and comfort, but you had better not believe it. This appeal may have been why Will singled it out. Having placed the pot on the table, he immediately slipped his hand into his mother’s and prepared to lead her away. “Thank you, Will,” I said. “Now that you’ve brought me this lovely pot, I won’t miss Mommy when you make her leave me all alone. This is the perfect substitute.” Megan couldn’t help laughing. “That may be the thinking,” she allowed.


On the beach yesterday, I thought about how much time I used to waste doing what other people said was interesting. This was largely a matter of pursuing la vie de Bohème, and of course it was in no small part a reaction to my proper bourgeois upbringing. (I may even have sensed that it was a time-honored reaction, taken, for hundreds of years, by men and women were brought up as I was but who also liked to read and write.) I indulged a lot of self-consciously louche behavior and endured uncountable hangovers. I sat up late because that was what you were supposed to do. (Also, I had a sleeping problem; but staying up late was not any kind of solution.) I was not what I would now call attractive. I did meet some lovely people, but the circumstances were often too embarrassing (in retrospect) to overlook. Good old days? I don’t think so.

On the plus side, my rebelliousness lead me to learn how to cook. By and large, though, rebellion took me nowhere very interesting. I hoped that taking drugs would make my casual lifestyle interesting, and by that I mean that I actually hoped for enlightenment from drugs, which was probably a belief to which only an early viewer of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color could have subscribed.

I was serious about my job at the radio station, although that was a form of rebellion in itself, because the pay was so low. I did learn that, whatever the genuine economic explanations for artistic impecuniousness might be, here’s one that isn’t: it is roaringly philistine to assert that artists are only paying the price of doing something that they love. There is no reason why doing something that you love ought to entail financial nonentity, and I’ve known plenty of business people over the years who have been handsomely remunerated for doing what they love. I was doing work, at the radio station, that ought to have allowed me to support a family, and not on a shoestring.

Rebellion can take a long time to undo. In law school, I tended to concentrate on the massive structural inequities of American jurisprudence. I didn’t get worked up about them. (I was still rebelling from the idea of getting worked up about anything.) But I learned to see how abstract notions of “democracy” can be made to support a society that is more unequal than its human constituents. (I may earn more than you do because I’m smarter than you are, but I’m not four hundred times smarter than you are.) I became convinced that the phrase about “adding to the whole number of free persons” “three fifths of all other persons,” in Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution is the Founders’ original sin — an open wound that has not yet healed, and that may never heal.

I am still pretty rebellious, but only where it matters: reading and writing.    

Gotham Diary:
21 August 2012

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Posting an entry at noon — what depravity! I’ve spent the entire morning in a shaded rocking chair, reading Galbraith on the Great Crash. It is one of the most compulsively readable books that I have ever had the pleasure to devour. In the introduction, Galbraith writes of the pleasure that it gave him to write it. “[W]hen I left it with the publisher, I felt that I was saying goodbye to a close and valued companion.” The mordant ironies and understatements that grace almost every page go a long way to dispersing the gloom of the matter at hand.

We are having a very lazy day, by design. Megan decided to try out the market’s online delivery service, so we won’t have to go into the town. Not that I’d mind — I was thinking of going in to fetch a pizza for dinner — but taking the day off is very pleasant. I will take my walk at four-thirty, of course, because that is why I am here: the sea is my spa. I set out yesterday with jangled spirits, and was at first disheartened by the failure of the surf to work its magic immediately. By the time I reached the edge of Lonelyville, though, I could feel my elements righting themselves, rocked gently into place by the monotonous but infinitely varied sound of breaking waves and sweeping water. I didn’t have a single interesting idea, but nor did I expect to; before my mind can turn to good purpose, I have to work off the static and smooth the circuits.

As often happens, I gave two books a chance yesterday, and ended up sticking with Galbraith. The other was Ivo Stourton’s new novel, The Book Lover’s Tale. Stourton’s The Night Climbers was a delightful read a few years ago (I ought to link to what I wrote about it, but I’m taking the day off), and its successor is no less chewy.

Cambridge is a terrible place to begin a romance of this sort, since it allows for the temporary suspension of material concerns and the corresponding elevation of the importance of character. It is supremely easy to sit with a rich and beautiful girl in a spacious thirteenth-century room on a medieval cloister, with the many bells of the city ringing out in the afternoon and a black-tie party to attend in the evening, to take her by the hands and to confess that you have no money, that you are not likely to have any money, at least not at first, and that therefore you can only offer her a life of relative privation. It is equally easy for her, looking at an honest and handsome boy in the golden light of the afternoon that penetrates the ancient stained glass of the lead-latticed windows, to believe the best of herself, to look him in the eye and to say in pure hope and truth that the privations will be as nothing so long as they face them together, before the two of them embrace, make love and head off to a heavily subsidized ball. This insulation from financial circumstances amplifies the hopefulness of youth to the point of distortion. It allows a woman to believe she has paid the price for her beloved, whilst really he is the great lie of our age, an article purchased on credit.

The novel begins with the narrator in a cell, speaking, it would seem, to his solicitor. “But is he a murderer?” asks the copy on the back of the book. You’ve more or less got to go on, just to find out who’s dead. Prose of Stourton’s calibre eliminates any and all resistance.