Archive for the ‘Commonplace’ Category

Friday Commonplace:
10 August 2012

Friday, August 10th, 2012

From just about the last page of The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker, by Janet Groth:

Did that make me a victim? Or a beneficiary? It seems to me a two-way street. When the Newspaper Guild reps looked up my salary record ($80 a week to start and $163 to finish), they were incensed, and much was said about the way the magazine was exploiting me. However, as I look back on the eight trips to Europe the magazine underwrote (by way of lengthy vacations in the summer, two of which stretched to eight weeks away or more, four of them with pay); my twelve years of graduate school; ten years of expensive psychoanalysis with a top Manhattan analyst (if the magazine chose to exploit my passive dependency, they paid handsomely to rid me of it); coverage of my desk to permit a Thursday-Friday trip up to Poughkeepsie to teach a course at Vassar; as well as the many intangibles that came to me in the way of invitations to share the cultural, social, and literary life of the city, and, by extension, the wider world, it is not clear to me who was exploiting whom.


From Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future, by Tom Scocca:

And with only a few exceptions, they were Chinese. High-minded Westerners tend to think of tourism — swarming, grasping tourism — as a vice we carry with us. It is a mobile gravitational force surrounding white people, warping the pure and genuine local culture into a caricature of itself.

But there was no place for Western anxiety or guilt at Badaling. All the available room, psychological and otherwise, was filled by Chinese people — Chinese vendors selling Chinese-made kitsch to Chinese sightseers, all bundled in their clear blue Chinese ponchos. The Great Wall undulated along the ridgeline, softly framed by the mists, and an unbroken mass of blue ponchos undulated right with it, along the top, up and down the wet stone course, and steeply up again, toward the clouds. It could have been a scroll paiting.


From “The Prodigal,” by Elizabeth Bishop:

The brown enormous odor he lived by
was too close, with its breathing and thick hair,
for him to judge. The floor was rotten, the sty
was plastered halfway up with glass-smooth dung.


From The Great Man: Sir Robert Walpole: Scoundrel, Genius and Britian’s First Prime Minister, by Edward Pearce:

Walpole’s best judgment would be directed to avoiding the futilities of war. But representing sense as cowardice is an easy tactic, most wars being popular before they happen.

Friday Commonplace:
Ma Donna
3 August 2012

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

All excerpts today come from The Anonymous Venetian, by Donna Leon.

Once he had discovered them, women had conquered Brunetti, and he could never understand the sexual appeal of any — well, there was really only one — other sex.


Francesco Crespo lived only four blocks from Feltrinelli, but it might as well have been a world away. The building was sleek, a tall glass-fronted rectangle which must have seemed, when it was built ten years ago, right on the cutting edge of urban design. But Italy is a country where new ideas in design are never prized for much longer than it takes to put them into effect, by which time the ever-forward-looking have abandoned them and gone off in pursuit of gaudy new banners, like those damned souls in the vestibule of Dante’s Inferno, who circle round for all eternity, seeking a banner they can neither identify nor name.


Ten minutes later, he walked out from the sottoportico of the Calle della Bissa and into Campo San Bartolomeo. His eyes went up to the bronze statue of Goldoni, perhaps not his favourite playwright, but certainly the one who could make him laugh the hardest, especially when the plays were presented in their original Veneziano dialect, as they always were here, in the city that swarmed to his plays and loved him enough to put up this statue. Goldoni was in flull stride, which made this campo the perfect place for him to be, for here, everyone rushed, always on their way somewhere: across the Rialto Bridge to go to the vegetable market; from Rialto to either the San Marco or the Cannaregio district. If people lived anywhere near the heart of the city, its geography would pull them through San Bartolomeo at least once a day.


“He’s a cretin, hopeless,” Lotto said, voice heavy, as though he had daily reminder of that fact.
“Then what’s he doing working for you? You still do have the reputation of being the best newspaper in the country.” Brunetti’s phrasing of this was masterful; his personal scepticism was evident, but it didn’t flaunt itself.
“He’s married to the daughter of that man who owns that furniture store, the one who puts in the double page ad every week. We had no choice. He used to be on the sports page, but then one day he mentioned how surprised he was to learn that American football was different from soccer. So I got him.” Lotto paused and both men reflected for a moment. Brunetti found himself strangely comforted to know that he was not the only man to be burdened with the likes of Riverre and Alvise. Lotto apparently found no comfort and said only, “I’m trying to get him transferred to the political desk.”
“Perfect choice, Guido. Good luck,” Brunetti said, thanked him for the information, and hung up.


Before he started on them, he went back inside and picked up his copy of Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome. Brunetti picked up where he had left off, with the account of the myriad horrors of the reign of Tiberius, an emperor for whom Tacitus seemed to have an especial distaste. These Romans murdered, betrayed, and did violence to honour and to one another. Ho like us there were, Brunetti reflected. He read on, learning nothing to change that conclusion, until the mosquitoes began to attack him, driving him inside. On the sofa, until well after midnight, he read on, not at all troubled by the knowledge that this catalogue of crimes and villanies committed almost two thousand years ago served to remove his mind from those that were being committed around him. His sleep was deep and dreamless, and he awoke refreshed, as if he believed that Tacitus’ fierce, uncompromising morality would somehow help him through the day.

Friday Commonplace:
27 July 2012

Friday, July 27th, 2012

From David Remnick’s Profile of Bruce Springsteen, two excerpts that are largely quotes from the subject:

Doug Springsteen died in 1998, at seventy-three, after years of illness, including a stroke and heart disease. “I was lucky that modern medicine gave him another ten years of life,” Springsteen said. “T-Bone Burnett said that rock and roll is all about ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s one embarrassing scream of ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s just fathers and sons, and you’re out there proving something to somebody in the most intense way possible. It’s, like, ‘Hey, I was worth a little more attention than I got! You blew that one, big guy!’ ”


As Springsteen sees it, the creative talent has always been nurtured by the darker currents of his psyche, and wealth is no guarantee of bliss. “I’m thirty years in analysis!” he said. “Look, you cannot underestimate the fine power of self-loathing in all of this. You think, I don’t like anything I’m seeing, I don’t like anything I’m doing, but I need to change myself, I need to transform myself. I do not know a single artist who does not run on that fuel. If you are extremely pleased with yourself, nobody would be fucking doing it! Brando would not have acted. Dylan wouldn’t have written ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ James Brown wouldn’t have gone ‘Unh!’ He wouldn’t have searched that one-beat down that was so hard. That’s a motivation, that element of ‘I need to remake myself, my town, my audience’—the desire for renewal.”


Elizabeth Taylor’s story, “An Oasis of Gaiety,” adumbrates a character, and even a relationship, from her later novel, The Sleeping Beauty, but the gathering of ageing bright young things playing roulette on the floor of an Edwardian, course-side villa is not a foreshadowing. “Auntie,” the hostess, has neither niece nor nephew, but her flighty daughter, Dosie, and her stolid, much younger son, Thomas (unaccountably devoted to his life in the Army — and this is what Taylor picks up for the novel), are both on hand.

In some of the less remote parts of Surrey, where the nineteen-twenties are perpetuated, such pockets of stale and elderly gaiety remain. They are blank as the surrounding landscape of fir trees and tarnished water.


But who was loved — in this room, for instance? Mrs Wilson often thought that her husband would not have dared to die if he had known she would drift into such company. “What you need, darling, is a nice, cosy woman friend,” Fergy had said years ago when she had reacted in bewilderment to his automatic embrace. He had relinquished her at once, in a weary, bored way, and ignored her coldly ever since. His heartless perception frightened her. Despite her acceptance of — even clinging to — their kind of life, and her acquiescence in every madness, every racket, she had not disguised from him that what she wanted was her dull, good husband back, and a nice evening with the wireless; perhaps, too, a middle-aged woman friend to go shopping with, to talk about slimming and recipes. Auntie never discussed those things. She was the kind of women men liked. She amused them with her scatter-brained chatter and innuendo and the fantasy she wove, the stories she told, about herself. When she was with women, she rested. Mrs Wilson could not imagine her feeling unsafe, or panicking when the house emptied. She seemed self-reliant and efficient. She and Dosie sometimes quarrelled, or appeared to be quarrelling, with lots of “But, darling!” and “Must you be such a fool, sweetie?” Yet only Thomas, the symbol of the post-war world, was really an affront. Him she could not assimilate. He was the grit that nothing turned into a pearl — neither gaiety nor champagne. He remained blank, impervious. He took his life quite seriously, made no jokes about the Army, was silent when his mother said, “Oh, why go? Catch the last train or wait until morning. In fact, why don’t you desert? Dosie and I could hide you in the attic. It would be the greatest fun. Or be ill. Get some awful soldier’s disease.”


From Francis Bacon, “Of Innovations”:

Surely every medicine is an innovation; and he that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils; for time is the greatest innovator….

Gotham Diary:
Pleyel 1890
20 July 2012

Friday, July 20th, 2012

Sorry to be late today, and not to have any Commonplace offerings for the week. I do have a treat, though. Feast your eyes on this exquisite piano, a Pleyel made in 1890 (and yours, I’m told, for a mere $175,000) — an instrument that Proust might have seen and heard. You’ll have to take my word for it that the piano sounds at least as good as it looks; in fact, it sounded perfect, yesterday, at an informal lunchtime recital of French chansons (Ravel, Fauré, Debussy). Plans to make a recording of these beautiful songs, using this very piano, are in the offing, and I shall pass on the details as they emerge. For the moment, let the piano upstage the artists.


Why nothing for the Commonplace?  Looking back over the week, I recall a lot of magazines, beginning on Sunday. Also, I read Jane Gardam’s 1985 novel, Crusoe’s Daughter — which has just been published by Europa. I’ve read four of Gardam’s novels now, Old Filth (“Filth,” by the way, is an acronym for “Failed in London: Try Hongkong”), The Queen of the Tambourine, God on the Rocks, and this new/old one. I have not read Faith Fox or The Man in the Wooden Hat, both of which I have here somewhere. Gardam is an interesting novelist partly because she still has very little presence in the United States; you will not be reading about her in the book reviews or in The New Yorker. You will not be reading her in The New Yorker; if there is still some sort of house style at that magazine, then Gardam still doesn’t fit it. Having read nothing but British fiction for well over six months now, I shocked by the first few pages of Crusoe’s Daughter; they’re so unlike what one would encounter at the beginning of Elizabeth Taylor or Tessa Hadley. After a while, I began to be aware that the novel was not just set in Yorkshire but set there, on the marshy coast of the “German Sea.” I remembered that the author was born in Yorkshire. And I thought of Shirley, Charlotte Brontë’s irregular but satisfying novel for adults. I haven’t been to Yorkshire myself, but it has a certain literary reputation as a place of some wildness. The wildness of Crusoe’s Daughter (Defoe’s hero hailed from Hull, also in Yorkshire) lies all in the writing. It is the beautiful wildness of a lithe, dangerous animal. There is nothing sad or defeating in Gardam’s heartbreaks. They are, on the contrary, truly awful.

Here shortly before World War I, Polly Flint, the title character, is brought by a family friend to his large estate near the banks of the Ouse. His sister, Lady Celia, is, we will learn, a fierce aesthete, playing the hostess to the likes of Virginia Woolf and detesting the local Jewish magnates not out of anti-Semitism but because they’re philistines. It is difficult to tell, in the following introduction, which is the bird of prey.

          On a yellow silk sofa someone was lying. There was a blaze in the grate of a wood fire that never goes out, and there was also the smell of something else, very sweet. Pot-pourri — there was a heap of it in a great dish — but it wasn’t that. All I could make out on the sofa was drapery and a movement of white hands and a sense of eyes watching me. 
          “‘lo Celia. Back home. Polly. Polly Flint.” Mr Thwaite did the great harumming of the throat and moved to the window. There was a valedictory atmosphere about him. I have done what I have done. I have gone through with it. He looked at the sky. “Splendid day,” he said. “Very poor at Oversands. Continuous rain. Very disappointing.”
          “Polly what?
          “Flint. Emma’s. Flint. Polly. Come for a little break.”
          “Flint,” said the voice. “Well — Arthur. On your own? Arthur ring the bell. Polly Flint. Come over here.”
          On the sofa lay a tiny woman dressed in silk. Pampas grasses in a tall jar bowed over her head like a regal awning. Her face was thickly painted — bright red mouth and cheeks. Her eyelids and brows were painted andher very black straight hair was pulled tight back across the skull like a Dutch doll, and looked painted, too. Her neck was not much thicker than a wrist and her ears glittering with round topazes were little and pretty like noisettes of lamb. 
          Her hands were very, very old and had veins standing on them but they were soft and unused, not as small as all that. Rather determined hands. She held one bravely out — it looked ready to drop with the weight of more topazes.
          “But do come nearer.”
          She examined my clothes one by one — hat to gaiters. She saw my pelisse, cut down from Aunt Frances’s and very special; I had worn it at the wedding. It was draped over my childish serge coat. She seemed to count the buttons down my calves and almost ate the big plate hat. She looked lower and I rememebered that there was an uncertainty about my left knicker elastic which I had meant to see to before I left.
          “Thought of cinnamon scones,” said Mr Thwaite. “About tea-time?” We arrive upon our hour.”
          “Polly Flint,” said (presumably) his sister. “How very interesting. How pretty Emma’s girl. Not at all like Emma. Very different — except perhaps for the cheek-bones. How very sensible of you Arthur. Has she come for a visit?”


Friday Commonplace:
Honeymoon Bridge
13 July 2012

Friday, July 13th, 2012

In Tessa Hadley’s new novel, The London Train, fortysomething Paul’s life unravels after his mother’s death. Adrift in London, he finds himself at Heathrow.

It occurred to him that he could go anywhere, right now. There were all those thousands sitting in his account, enough to buy himself a ticket; and his passport was — he checked — still in the back pocket of these trousers. On the way to Heathrow, he had had no thought other than returning with Marek into London after the meeting. But Marek could drive himself. Sooner or later, in the next week or so, Paul had meant to go back to Elise and the girls at Tre Rhiw: that was his real life. But what if he didn’t go back? What if his life continued somewhere else, and was real differently? The lettered shutters spelling out the names on the board flickered over with their soft susurration: Dubrovnik, Rome, Odessa, Cairo, Damascus. His idea wasn’t cerebral; the assault of his desire for it, dropping through him like a current, unhinged him momentarily. He had enough money, even if he gave half to Elise, for a ticket anywhere, and a room when he got there. A room while he sorted himself out. Enough money to get by for a while because he knew how to live frugally.

For ten or twenty minutes, while he dwelled inside this possibility, it was so real that he felt afterwards the unfinished gesture in his muscles, his clenched jaw; he had meant to walk over to the information desk, ask about last-minute tickets, find out where he could go, get out his card from his wallet, pay. He would have to take the van keys back to Marek. It was a door that stood open, through which he could walk lightly, carrying nothing. This was the sort of thing he used to do; something unfinished in him, which had been set aside and forgotten, stepped up to the adventure with fast-beating heart. He imaged himself walking out from a room somewhere, in a few hours, into a different light: to buy clothes, toothbrush, razor, which he would not know the names for. He could find a bar to eat in, or buy food on the street. The place might be dirty and paoor, it might have some ramparts where the population strolled to take the air in the evenings, it might overlook the sea, it might not. Paul felt himself at a pivot in his life, swinging dangerously loose: if he moved, he would go over to the information desk and everything would follow from there. He had only to keep still. If he went, he couldn’t be forgiven, or forgive himself — freedom would carve out an empty space in him forever. A message drifted through his cells, from his bones, that he must keep still. Eventually Marek came to find him.


At the end of Amor Towles’s The Rules of Civility, Kate looks back on youth.

It is a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time — by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?

In that sense, life is less like a journey than it is a game of honeymoon bridge. In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions — we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep the card or discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have jusst made will shape our lives for decades to come.

Friday Commonplace:
Abuse of Reason
6 July 2012

Friday, July 6th, 2012

Two excerpts from the Fourth Scene of No Name, by Wilkie Collins (1862). First, Captain Wragge cons Mrs Lecount into being flattered by his scientific chatter:

Never had Captain Wragge burnt his adulterated incense on the flimsy altar of human vanity to better purpose than he was burning it now.

Of course, it doesn’t take long for Mrs Lecount to wise up.

Mrs Lecount accepted the proposal. She was perfectly well aware that her escort had lost himself on purpose; but that discover exercised no disturbing influence on the smooth amiability of her manner. Her day of reckoning with the captain had not come yet — she merely added the new item to her list, and availed herself of the camp-stool. Captain Wragge stretched himself in a romantic attitude at her feet; and the two determined enemies (grouped like two lovers in a picture) fell into as easy and pleasant a converesation, as if they had been friends of twenty years’ standing.


From E H Carr, What Is History?, first published in 1961 and, with regard to the the problem posed by all advertising, as fresh as tomorrow:

Professional advertisers and campaign managers are not primarily concerned with existing facts. They are interested in what the consumer or elector now believes or wants only in so far as this enters into the end-product, ie what the consumer or elector can by skilful handling be induced to believe or want. Moreover, their study of mass pscychology has shown them that the most rapid way to secure acceptance of their views is through an appeal to the irrational element in the make-up of the consumer and elector, so that the picture which confronts us is one in which an élite of professional industrialists or party leaders, through rational processes more highly developed than ever before, strains its ends by understanding and trading on the irrationalism of the masses. The appeal is not primarily to reason; it proceeds in the main by the method which Oscar Wilde described as “hitting below the intellect.” I have somewhat overdrawn the picture lest I should be accused of underestimating the danger. But it is broadly correct, and could easily be applied to other spheres. In ever society, more or less coercive measures are applied by ruling groups to organize and control mass opinion. This method seems worse than some because it constitutes an abuse of reason.


Diana Athill, Instead of a Letter (1962): on having some money in one’s pocket after winning a prize.

To me, therefore, five hundred pounds tax-free seemed wealth. I could go to Greece during the coming spring without worrying — I could even travel first-class! I could by a fitted carpet, and new curtains which I really liked, and there would still be money over. During that winter I felt rich, and because I felt it I gave an impression of being it. A little while earlier I had been looking at dresses in a large, smart shop, and when I had pointed to a pretty one and said “I’ll try that,” the girl serving me had answered in a tired voice: “It’s expensive. Why try on something you can’t afford?” In the same shop, wearing the same clothes, soon after I had paid my five hundred pounds into the bank, I was served with such civil alacrity that I could have ordered two grand pianos to be sent home on approval and they would have offered a third. Courteous men spent hours unrolling bolts of material for me, urging me to consider another, and yet another. A pattern for matching? Why, yes! And instead of the strip two inches wide which I was expecting, lengths big enough to make a bedspread were procured for me. For about a month I believe I could have furnished a whole house on credit, not because I was looking different, not because I could, in fact, afford it; simply because, for the first time in my life and for no very solid reason, I was feeling carefree about money. I learnt a great deal about the power of mood during that month.


From the third and final part of Colm Tóibín’s second novel, The Heather Blazing (1994), which is in part a bildungsroman about a son of Fianna Fáil.

He could not wait to tell Carmel what he had seen. He thought about when he would see her next as he took a few steps down, and then he realized, as a slow pain went through him, that she was dead, that he would not have a chance to tell her about the scene he had witnessed. This made him understand, more than ever, that he could not face her not being with him, that he had spent the time since she died avoiding the fact of her death. He went down to the sand and sat in the shade. The wind was still strong and blew sand at him. He thought about it: the interval just now when he had blieved that she was alive, that she was back in the house, in the garden maybe, or in the proch, reading the paper, or a novel, and he would come back from his walk or his swim and he would tell her the news. Mike has taken to sitting in the shell of his house, with its walls open to the four winds reading the paper. But, slowly, painfully, it sank in thatthere would be nobody when he went back to the house.

Friday Commonplace:
29 June 2012

Friday, June 29th, 2012

The other day or so ago, Kathleen and I were laughing about PT Barnum’s famous bamboozlement, “This Way to the Egress.” Unsuspecting patrons would follow the arrow, only to find that they had left via the exits, and would have to pay anew to re-enter.  We were wondering just how obscure the word “egress” was at the time. I decided to have a look at the OED and, what d’you know, but “egress” must have been something of a shibboleth in the Nineteenth Century, when every educated Anglophone read Paradise Lost, at least far enough to encounter Satan’s great exhortation in Book II.

O Progeny of Heav’n, Empyreal Thrones,
With reason hath deep silence and demurr
Seis’d us, though undismaid: long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light;
Our prison strong, this huge convex of Fire,
Outrageous to devour, immures us round
Ninefold, and gates of burning Adamant
Barr’d over us prohibit all egress. (ii, 437)
This past, if any pass, the void profound
Of unessential Night receives him next
Wide gaping, and with utter loss of being…

The word, while never common, cannot have been unknown. The fact that Satan, hero of the epic, utters it is all I need to know to conclude that Barnum could expect to have legal opinion entirely on his side. Ignorance of Milton is no excuse!


From “Spry Old Character,” by Elizabeth Taylor (1953).

Later, the wind drove gusts of fair-music up the hill. Miss Arbuthnot complained; but Harry could not hear it. Missing so much that the others heard was an added worry to him lately, for to lose hearing as well would finish him as a person, and leave him at the mercy of his own thoughts, which had always bored him. His tongue did his thinking for hiim: other people’s talk struck words from him like a light from a match; his phrases were quick and ready-made and soon forgotten, but he feared a silence and they filled it.

I was struck by the idea of finding one’s own thoughts boring. And yet who am I to sniff, who carry something to read wherever I go?


From Colm Tóibín’s review of three books about Thomas Mann, collected in Love in a Dark Time (p 118).

Ronald Hayman and Donald Prater are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Anthony Heibut’s Hamlet. They are dull and worthy and useful perhaps, and they repeat the same facts and the same narrative. Their desire for Mann to be a better person is almost comic. Heilbut has clearly been to Wittenberg, he can be brilliantly perceptive about Mann’s books, he can put on an antic disposition, he can lose himself in long soliloquies about Mann’s sexuality and his work…

…Prater then adds in parenthesis: “The supreme egoism here is as remarkable as the blinkered application to his work.” Mann is sixty-four, his whole world has been destroyed. He has the reaction any normal writer might have during a crisis: he wants to get on with his work; and like everyone else, he is worried about what the war will mean for him. Prater seems to want him to join the Red Cross and spend his morning helping old ladies cross the street rather than working on Lotte in Weimar.